“Outside, the music pumped. But no one looked like they were in the mood for a party. The late winter crescent moon hung in the sky like a scythe. Five pieces of paper had worked like a car bomb, blowing the night apart.” The Daily Maverick’s Richard Poplak on the silent anti-rape protest #rememberkhwezi during Jacob Zuma’s speech at the announcement of the election results.
It was like a scene from a Hollywood thriller, though were it fiction you would have battled to believe it. 4 brave young women took on the State President, the Independent Electoral Commission and the nation’s top security – and triumphed. You could see it etched on their faces; bewilderment. Mere seconds after they began their protest, hand written signs held aloft (“I am 1 in 3”, “# 10 years later”, “khanga” and “Remember Khwezi”), they stole a brief glance at one another and almost sheepishly let their signs drop a little. They simply could not believe that they had managed to steal the show for that long. It was never part of the plan surely that the nation – the world – would get the full length of the President’s speech to read their signs and process the magnitude of what was happening. They had expected to be thrown out in a matter of seconds. But incredibly, no one moved to get rid of them. The President babbled away like some wind-up children’s toy and everyone else assumed that he must know what was going on – otherwise he surely would not have continued. Timing is everything and their’s was immaculate. They left the President’s – and by extension the party’s – integrity and even dignity in tatters on the floor or that building.
The impact of Poplak’s quote above is that he likens the impact of this silent protest to a car bomb. What he is saying is that silence – peace if you will – is as powerful a weapon as the worst forms of public violence. Done properly and timed correctly, it impacts in similar ways to car, human or aircraft bombs by wresting attention away from the main event and making itself the main event. The difference is that with high impact peaceful protest – and it does not get higher impact than this – the only death is to people’s egos and heaven knows that is no bad thing. There is no down side. The irony of peaceful, silent protest is that its reverberations can be louder, longer and more powerful than any act of carnage. The vibrations of this protest will be felt for years – decades I would think. How this must have incensed the powers that be. But peace does that – it incenses those with any form of tyranny in their heart.
It is quite possible that the seeds of this protest were sown on Friday 22nd July when SABC staff coordinated a “blackout” protest by all wearing black from the first to the last broadcast of the day. They were protesting against the unfair firing of their 8 colleagues and against the national broadcaster’s decision to censor scenes of violent protest in the build up to the 2016 local government elections. SABC management including COO Hlaudi Motsoeneng knew absolutely nothing about this; it was coordinated without a paper trail and as brilliantly timed and executed as the #rememberkhwezi protest. And like that protest, it hurt no one; it contained no violence and it resonated with the nation. Again, the only casualties were inflated egos. Shame. The real victor? Democracy.
It is surely no coincidence that these incidents of silent and very powerful peaceful protest coincide with a change in direction of the political winds of our nation. Silent protest at this level of audacity, impunity and bravery is a hallmark of deepening democracy and the results of the 2016 Local Government Elections demonstrate a similar trend towards maturity.
These clever and well-coordinated silent protests – along with more balanced election results – reaffirm that our democracy is in better shape than even the most positive amongst us could have imagined. And the large-scale impact of the protests will surely begin to recalibrate how many perceive and enact protest in the future. Also, bear in mind that #rememberkhwezi was coordinated from within the EFF, the same party that walked out of the IEC Elections Centre when Jacob Zuma rose to speak. This is their ongoing form of silent protest as they refuse to legitimise the President by listening to him.
As activists and politicians begin to understand and experiment with its power, we can all look forward to a lot more silence in the future.
This column is dedicated to the memory of 17-year-old Anene Booysens: gang raped, mutilated and murdered, and our Mozambican brother Emmanuel Josias Sithole: beaten and stabbed to death.