Silence: The Brave New Loud

“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.

Enjoy that voting queue!

I learnt a great deal during my half dozen or so years living and working in the UK: I learnt to enjoy warm beer; I learnt that the Cornish Pasty is not only something you eat when you are either drink or hungover; I learnt that a Kebab is not always a stick with meat that you put on a braai, but what we would call a Shawarma. I learnt that the human being’s capacity for carrying things extends way beyond what we would ever imagine. (I once carried a laptop, 3 large bags of groceries and a new TV from the centre of town to my North London apartment using a combination of buses, trains and my feet) and I learnt the great British art of queuing. Now we do not queue well in South Africa. We are just not wired for it. This is because queuing well involves patience (not one of the great South African virtues) and an unfailing faith in the fact that the system – whatever that may mean in terms of the type of queue you are standing in – will work when you finally get to the front. Now, our history does not provide us with sufficient evidence of the system working for us to have such faith. So, even when systems do work – and they work more often than we are willing to admit – we still protest vehemently. We also have a curious belief that we are above queuing. So if there is a “priority” queue or an “express” queue or any way – legitimate or otherwise – to cut a queue, it would not be out of order to sell an aging member of our family to avail ourselves of such. Now based on time spent in bank queues, I have calculated that 2.5 minutes is about our average breaking point in terms of length of time spent queueing. At this point someone will invariably pipe up and say words to the effect of: “Ridiculous! Why are there only two tellers? Two tellers and eight empty cubicles. What are we paying for? No wonder this country is going to the dogs!” Then all the rest of us nod and tut tut in agreement. Some of us – on arrival at the front of the queue – even berate the poor teller, as if they have any say over how many tellers are employed at their branch. On a particularly glorious summers day in London, I learnt that queuing is not so much a necessity in Britain as an actual pastime; even a hobby to some. I was standing in the queue outside Wimbledon chancing my luck for one of those rare day passes that they issue to a few eager fans. The atmosphere is festive and the time spent together with other fans is always great fun. However, one lady had taken this experience to a whole new level. She was not a tennis fan per se, but went to Wimbledon each year simply so that she could stand in this queue. She so loved the atmosphere, camaraderie and laughter that she would go year after year and just, you know, queue. She didn’t ever actually go in to watch the tennis. Now of course this does rather epitomise stereotypical British eccentricity and whilst Brits do love a good queue, this lady may be a bit extreme or to use a good British expression “potty”. But that said, there are many benefits to learning the art of queuing well, amongst them maintaining healthy blood pressure. Casting our minds forward to Wednesday and our Local Government Elections, we will have a great opportunity to practise our queuing skills. Here are a couple of tips to help you make the most of the election queue. You can of course apply the thinking behind these tips after election day too:
  • The day is a public holiday given to us to vote. Take your time; soak up the atmosphere. Remember what it took for us all to be here together. The process of voting (not just casting your ballot) should be a rich experience for all citizens of a vibrant democracy;
  • A voting queue places us in a position to meet and interact with other citizens who may not look and sound like we do. Don’t miss this opportunity to expand your boundaries. Greet people; shake hands; strike up conversation. A queue can always be a bridge.
  • You think the queue is long? Try manning a polling station for a day to see what long feels like. Express gratitude to those assisting us to exercise our right to vote.
We have a long way to go until we can call our democracy mature; it will take us citizens doing democracy with respect and dignity. Let us embrace this is as we go to the polls on Wednesday. Enjoy the queue! Justin Foxton is founder of The Peace Agency. 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.