THE BLOG

A White Man At A Multiracial Protest

It is awkward because most of us don't really know how to toyi-toyi. We have very little protesting experience, and don't know any protest songs.

08/04/2017 03:57 SAST | Updated 08/04/2017 03:57 SAST
Siphiwe Sibeko / Reuters
Protesters carry placards outside of the offices of South Africa's outgoing Finance Minister Pravin Gordhan in Pretoria, South Africa, March 31,2017. REUTERS/Siphiwe Sibeko

South Africa is an awkward country. And if you haven't experienced this awkwardness for yourself, you should attend a 'multi-racial' protest. After much consideration, and keeping my finger on the social media pulse, I decided to attend the anti-Zuma Tshwane march on Friday, not really knowing what to expect. Criticised for being a white led initiative, supporting the public interest on a very selective basis, I didn't have very high hopes going into the protest. However, it turned out to be quite an interesting experience.

As I approached Church Square, I got the dreading feeling that Sunette Bridges might have chained herself to Oom Paul's statue again. White people. Everywhere. Complete with some Dire Straits songs blasting from the speakers erected on Church Square. Then, as I follow the sound of singing and chanting, I notice that there are actually quite a good number of black people in attendance, mainly donning red EFF caps and green SaveSA t-shirts. Phew, I think to myself. The last thing I would want is to be seen at a protest exclusively for white people. And as I stand there, amongst a crowd that is still disproportionately white, I get a very awkward feeling from the crowd.

It is awkward because most of us don't really know how to toyi-toyi. We have very little protesting experience, and don't know any protest songs. As a result, we stand there looking at each other with big eyes, and a strange expression somewhere between excited, giddy, and serious. As we wait for some experienced black protester to show us the way, I take a moment to scan through the crowd. The white people that are present can mainly be divided into four groups – anti-apartheid veterans, millennial do-gooders, suburbanites, and pseudo-revolutionaries.

The anti-apartheid veterans are the real deal. They wear washed out political t-shirts, many with holes in them. They know all the steps, and even most of the struggle songs. If you go look in the Apartheid Museum, you might even spot one or two of them in an old black and white photograph. They have books by Breyten Breytenbach, and look up to people like Derek Hanekom. And that is one of the reasons they attend the march today – to protest the fact that South African struggle heroes have lost their principles, things they fought for all those years ago, and they won't stand for that.

The millennial do-gooders is probably my favourite group of people. Since many of them form part of the hipster sub-culture, and obviously very 'liberal', they arrive at the protest with their like-minded black friends. They are dressed for the occasion, and will have the Instagram posts to prove it. It's a cheery bunch, genuinely trying to be part of a new South Africa, a 'non-racial' one at that. These social eager beavers will do anything it takes to blend in, even if it means getting a tattoo in the shape of Africa somewhere everyone can see it. Everybody loves everybody, or at least everybody they hang out with.

The suburbanites heard of the march on Jacaranda FM. They don't like to travel West of Beckett Street, but when Moosy (Maimane) tells them to be the change that they want to see, they are willing to risk their lives on the journey from Pretoria East. Pragmatism wins the day, with sunvisors and Valpré bottles in hand. They are here because the credit downgrading will severely affect their pension funds and unit trust investments, and after all, Zuma is driving the economy into the ground. If they don't do something now, they are not sure who will, and our beloved country will be doomed.

The pseudo-revolutionaries have long dirty hair and beards. They wear red berets, and are usually in their second year of a Masters degree in political science at one of the top universities in South Africa.

The pseudo-revolutionaries have long dirty hair and beards. They wear red berets, and are usually in their second year of a Master's degree in political science at one of the top universities in South Africa. Anger is what drives them, and since they are currently researching critical race theory for their theses, they understand the plight of the poor and racial oppression better than the rest of the white people attending the march. In fact, probably better than the very black people that are poor and oppressed, they would have you believe. It doesn't really matter what is driving them to be there, because they have a right to do so. And don't you dare tell them otherwise.

Suddenly the crowd starts moving, filtering out of Church Square in the direction of the Union Buildings. Sporadic groups of black protesters start singing struggle songs, while the white people tagging along try their best to chime in. It reminds me of when we try to sing along to parts of Bohemian Rhapsody, mainly mumbling the words and then bellowing at full volume during the parts we actually know. Somebody shouts 'amandla!' to which we eagerly respond 'awethu' – we saw this in the Long Walk to Freedom movie. You know, the one where Idris Elba plays Mandela.

As we make our way down Madiba Street, I start to notice something very interesting. The tannie from Equestria is sharing a cigarette with a guy from the EFF. 'Dubula dubula Zuma', she shouts, holding the cigarette high in the air. 'What does it even mean?', I hear her asking. 'It means we're shooting at Zuma!', the EFF guy shouts over the noise. 'Oh how delightful', she laughs, enjoying the little clap gesture that goes along with the song. To the left of me, one of the millennials is learning how to shuffle along with the crowd from someone in a green SaveSA t-shirt, even changing direction when the enthusiastic cheerleader points left or right.

The white people start learning more words to different songs, and at one point people from all races even take hands and dance to the rhythm of one particularly catchy song.

And then, as I stand there, the awkwardness begins to fade. What started out as a Dire Straits vibe, slowly transitions to more of a Mango Groove vibe (one that I've always secretly associated with a better South Africa). Racial and social barriers start melting away. The white people start learning more words to different songs, and at one point people from all races even take hands and dance to the rhythm of one particularly catchy song. For a moment, I thought everything was good, getting a glimpse of what South Africa could be if we manage to address some fundamental issues. This is what happens when different groups come together, and manage to put aside their differences for a second to focus on a common problem.

The question in the back of my mind though, is whether any of these groups have more of a right to be there than any other? Do any of the groups have more of a right to protest on this particular day, than any other? And in my mind, the answer is no. The impression I got, is that everyone attended the march because they are seriously concerned about the state of our politics. Some white people attended their first march, which is not necessarily a good thing. But I can attest from past experiences that this was perhaps a good introduction to public protesting. Chances are that you'll be less inclined to do it again if you face rubber bullets and teargas.

And that is where the lesson in all this lies. It was a very good march, organized very well, and very peaceful. It brought together many different people, from different backgrounds, political affiliations, and socio-economic classes. But it was never REALLY going to remove Zuma. Because the kinds of marches that remove Presidents are much more messy, with fewer niceties and a slightly less festive atmosphere. Yet they are equally important to support (if not more so). It is when you attend one of those kind of protests, that your relationship with your fellow South Africans deepen to a whole different level, showing that you're willing to stand together even if you're unsure of the outcome.

I don't doubt the intention or sincerity of any of the white groups mentioned in this piece, or any other white protester for that matter. But I do hope we have learned a few lessons from this protest. I hope we've realized that protesting is not always as 'barbaric' and dangerous as some would have you believe – in fact, once you know some of the moves and some words, it could even be fun. I also hope we realise that, even if a protest is potentially dangerous, it is still worth supporting. I hope we've noted how many of our fellow black South Africans await us with open arms if you shout in solidarity against some of the challenges they (and sometimes we all) face, and that they would even be prepared to do the same if the tides should turn. And most of all, I hope we can muster this same level of support from the white community for future protests, even if it doesn't affect us personally. I believe it would go a very long way in healing this country.