Words are not necessarily mightier than marches in influencing opinion - Business Day, 20 April 2017

The view that marches are pointless overlooks that they are a source of solidarity and ameliorate a sense of isolation from the government,


By Sara Gon 

The firing of the minister and deputy minister of finance and the inevitable ratings downgrades to junk status have resulted in a strange response from some in civil society. The view is that the marches to protest against President Jacob Zuma are pointless; that they will have no effect on the ANC in general, or Zuma in particular.

Much the same is said about the no-confidence vote in the National Assembly. People point to the fact that these votes have not succeeded in the past and this one won’t succeed either.

Generally the view is that only the ballot box can really result in change. The ballot box is the definitive point at which the populace can ensure change. But people cannot sit on their hands waiting until they’re allowed to vote. They will do things that are aimed at persuading other people to vote in a certain way when they finally get to vote. One of those actions, and by no stretch the only one, is marching in protest.

Notwithstanding the tendency to condescension in the expression of these views, including by the editorial in Business Day, Friday April 7 2017 (To march or not to march), citizens need mechanisms between the five-yearly elections to express their anger, frustrations, and hopes, even if they cannot, per se, achieve the over-arching goal of unseating the president.

Marches and demonstrations are a source of solidarity when citizens feel powerless and besieged. At what is the most serious moment in 22 years for all South Africans, people can be among other people of all races and classes. They can share and thereby ameliorate their sense of isolation from a government that doesn’t care.

Marches do offer an opportunity for opposition politicians to grandstand. And why not? Who wouldn’t? But such gatherings and opinions may have an effect on changing what people think and how they ultimately vote. Of course, it is not going to be the actual event that results in change, but it is part of a much greater and gradual whole.

Demonstrations are also, as the editorial says, about demonstrating how intensely people feel about an issue. The piece points out that large demonstrations contributed to the impeachments of the presidents of South Korea and Brazil. Why should demonstrations be any less valid an expression of feelings than writing a letter to a newspaper, or commenting on a blog, or tweeting a view?

The dark side of marching was exposed during the march in Johannesburg on Friday April 7. Despite the DA steering clear of Luthuli House to avoid confrontation with ANC members who threatened the DA’s right to march past the building, members of the ANC Youth League and the so-called veterans tried to cross town to get to the DA. Their intent was less than democratic and peaceful. They had to be stopped with rubber bullets. A sign, perhaps, of how leadership is going to deal with the moment when Zuma does actually go.

Civil society organisations try to influence and inform change through various mechanisms. They may well be successful, but their reach is generally fairly narrow in scope and slow in achieving results. Their role is largely to keep democratic traditions and institutions alive in an increasingly autocratic political space.

Civil society organisations have provided much research and many opinions, but have they been any more successful than any marches in preventing the downgrades or unseating the president?

Even those in civil society who have been successful in using the judiciary and the resultant publicity to attack the government have not had the effect they hoped for. Judicial decisions are mostly ignored or cannily subverted to protect those in power.

South Africans have always exercised their right to march and gather. They are generally associated with the alliance parties. But they do not have the exclusive right to employ these modalities.

The Business Day editorial says the middle class can afford to march, the working class less so. But there is another class that can "afford" to march — the unemployed. In the current circumstances, however, all classes have the same fears.

Marches are symbolic. They are also a sign to the country and the world, through the media, that ordinary people are disgusted. And the more the governing party, which perfected the art of marching, denounces the marches as amounting to a "coup" and threatening violence against marchers, the more the marchers prove their point. It seems that the constitutional right that supports marching is fine in some circumstances but not in others.

Likewise, no-confidence votes are largely symbolic, but they give a more structured way for opponents of the ANC to express their views and denounce the ANC for its actions. It may be considered expedient for them to use this platform, but it is available and many believe the cause is justified, even if it is doomed.

The event is televised and recorded. Opposition parties are mandated to denounce the behaviour of the government, particularly when it is as ruinous to our country as state capture and ratings downgrades. Hansard (the parliamentary proceedings report) will record, in perpetuity, what was said, even if the result is unsuccessful. History will judge them badly if they do not even try.

In fact, we spend little time marching but a huge amount of time using words and ideas to explain and persuade. Which has a better "effort to return" ratio?

*Sara Gon is a policy fellow at the Institute of Race Relations, a think-tank that promotes political and economic freedom. 

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