The long walk to nowhere
The cheap sound system crackles to life, a shrill, distorted voice piercing the Saturday morning air.
“Comrades, we must not march yet. There are five more buses coming.”
We wait, like untold thousands have waited before us at this square, for another hour, but the buses do not arrive. They never do. Then we march, a thin, mostly red-shirted trail of 500-odd people (although the media will later report us as 2 000 strong), through the streets of Cape Town and towards parliament. The path is lined with riot police whose listlessness matches that of more than a few of the protestors. There’s a sense of dull resignation to the proceedings. A troubling tokenism. The most enthusiastic participants are the white academics – mostly European and American – who run up and down along the sidelines of the march, tirelessly photographing the proceedings and stopping now and then to make important calls.
When we arrive at parliament the gates are closed, as they always are on a Saturday. Undeterred, one of the leaders reads aloud our memorandum, with its modest demands and rousing conclusion, and then passes it through the closed gates to a minor official who promises to leave it on the desk of the appropriate member of staff for perusal on Monday morning. Most of us will never see the contents of the memorandum; fewer still will have had a say in them.
The symbolic task now accomplished, we gather around the self-appointed vanguard of professional socialists for more speeches. A man dressed like Trotsky – with a beard to match – talks about material conditions and the means of production. Whenever the audience grows restless or an awkward silence descends, a cry and response of “Amandla! Awethu!” is delivered to lift our flagging spirits. More speeches follow, including an angry screed (mostly inaudible through the megaphone) and a message of solidarity from a union leader who drives a BMW.
By mid-afternoon, it’s time to head back home. The weather-worn banners and cardboard signs are packed away and, after a couple of final aluta continua‘s, the buses begin their long drive down the highway while the sunburned Europeans and Americans dissipate into the city to seek out open bars and restaurants.
Interlude: a leisurely stroll in no specific direction
A few months later, a group of largely white middle-class activists will march a similar route to protest against Monsanto. Their banners and costumes will be more colourful and the speeches will sound less like The Communist Manifesto and more like an Alex Jones radio show about secret cabals and Jacque Fresco and the Freeman Movement. Have you seen Zeitgeist? The gathering has the atmosphere of a Waldorf School reunion or an Afrika Burn fundraiser; some reminisce fondly about Occupy Chapman’s Peak. Words like ‘peace’, ‘pacifism’ and ‘we are all one’ are liberally employed. Here there are no academics along the sidelines, although there are a lot more photographers.
Pacing in circles
With a few exceptions (most notably the recent Marikana settlement), this is the tone of activism and ‘radical’ politics in Cape Town in 2013.
On the one hand, there are the unimaginative protests led by the usual Leftist suspects: a small gaggle of aging Trotskyist, Marxist-Leninist or, more often, vaguely socially democratic organizations. Donor money is used to bus in the poors and to pay for t-shirts and sound system rental. A tedious, obedient march towards closed gates, peppered with rhetorical and oftentimes grandiose speeches. The specialist organizing clique behind these marches, who write all the memorandums, also analyze the underlying issues in their publications, spilling copious ink on discussions of how many radical possibilities can dance on the head of a tripartite alliance in-between reviews of the latest Žižek book on Hegel and odes to the Bolivarian Revolution (did you know that Chavez once quoted Kropotkin?) These professionals are also the arbiters of legitimacy: for the most part they determine whose voice is to be heard and which issues are worth focusing on. Everything else is at best petit-bourgeois irrelevance, at worst counter-revolutionary.
In some sense, this democratic left is a kind of historical reenactment club, a chance for old struggle comrades to wax mythical about the noble working class and a brief respite from their NGO jobs and comfortable senior positions in local unions. There are few people under the age of forty at their talks and workshops, apart from the usual members of the white savior industrial complex who, fresh from overseas, are here to participate in the struggle through the lenses of Tiqqun, or Negri and Hardt, or Alain Badiou (or to lecture other white saviors on how they should be uncritical allies of the fetishised mass of huddled poors).
And then, on the other hand, there is the Occupy-inspired concerned citizens group – blindingly white and often disturbingly politically ignorant given that they live in the most unequal society on the planet. Most often their pacifist (some might say pacified) form of activist participation involves sharing Avaaz protests with each other or liking Facebook pages. They are seldom aware of the struggles of the poor, beyond deriding their protests as violent and counter-productive.
…and never the two do meet.
If there are grounds for deep cynicism in this admittedly contrived dichotomy, then there is also at least some reason for cautious optimism. Experiments with new creative forms of contestation – like the Marikana settlement occupation and the recent intervention at Open Streets (where members of Abahlali baseMjondolo Western Cape built a shack in the middle of the festivities to draw attention to their plight) – suggest that people are tiring of stale repetition of the same spent forms and the creativity and festive spirit of the March Against Monsanto, however non-representative its class and race composition, is perhaps a tiny reminder of Deleuze and Guattari’s provocative suggestion that true revolutions have the atmospheres of fetes.
While not explicit, there’s also an emerging anti-authoritarianism and grassroots spontaneity evident in these actions. Perhaps we’re finally recognising what the anarchist Mikhail Bakunin meant when he observed that “when the people are being beaten with a stick, they are not much happier if it is called ‘the People’s Stick’.” While Bakunin was referring specifically to authoritarian communist states, we anarchists and autonomists have long known that our means need to reflect our ends: if we don’t want to be beaten with the people’s stick then, we shouldn’t beat each other with it now.
Perhaps most encouragingly, there’s also a growing engagement from younger people, along with a renewed enthusiasm for fresh ideas. A generation after The Struggle, perhaps we’re finally ready to begin looking at more sophisticated forms of radical praxis that aim beyond the old Leftist tropes.
However cynical, optimistic or wildly unrealistic we are though, it is clear that the time has come to explore new possibilities. As people passionate about creating grassroots radical social change, we need to admit to ourselves that what we have been doing has not been working and that whatever answers we think we have are the result of posing the wrong questions. In asking new questions, it is vital that we ask them together and that they emerge from practice: we need to experiment with new forms and new content.
And what would happen if, turning a corner, our two marches met and merged into one? What would happen if middle class organic food enthusiasts joined forces with the people of Marikana settlement to help grow food on their occupied land, or even just acknowledged solidarity with them, in whatever token way? How could our marches against corporate hegemony be strengthened by the radicalism and bravery of those who are used to being on the receiving end of capitalism and the state every day of their lives? What could be achieved if we were willing to listen, for once, to stories of each others’ struggles and the lessons learned from these? What could the radically egalitarian politics of anarchism and anti-authoritarian leftism, slowly but surely spreading across South Africa in their own modest way, contribute to all this, beyond a bunch of dry tomes by dead white European males and hamfisted class analyses from a century ago?
Walking, as the Zapatistas say, we ask questions.