Politics, protest and politics in protest

Unless you were only following SABC, visuals of protests in Tshwane recently filled a lot of our news. Barricaded township roads; burning buses and tyres; shops being looted and bystanders unable to get to work.

The spark which triggered the protest action was the announcement of the ANC’s mayoral candidate, in the lead up to what is expected to be the most contested local government election ever. Contrary to some opinions though, the current internal party tensions in Tshwane are not new. They have been a prominent feature in many municipalities across the country. In this instance however, they were more visible because it took place in a metro, one that’s in Gauteng.

A lot of the opining and coverage of the protests, exclusively focused on the mayoral candidate as the sole reason for the protests. This is understandable as often political infighting is assumed to only about access to resources or what some call, “the politics of the stomach”. It is however a very limited explanation as it doesn’t answer questions about why those who wouldn’t directly benefit from the looting of a municipality would participate, which happened.

Not all who had been protesting stand to directly benefit from any single candidate being in charge of the city, yet they took to the streets. The presentation of the protest was done in a way that created a false dichotomy that it’s either people are entirely protesting about internal ANC politics or that there’s something else going on. But in our ‘post-apartheid’ social order, these reasons are not quite opposed.

To understand this, one must also appreciate the ANC’s position in our country. Irrespective of one’s feelings about the party, it is important to remember that it has for a very long time been at the centre of holding together the different threads of society. It has been the only political formation in the country where people of competing and even contradictory interests were able to find a home, no matter how imperfect.

In a society of many divisions, the once mighty ANC was able to overcome the walls and provide a home for both rich and poor; man and woman; Black and white, and many other groups. Because of this the internal politics of the ANC often do spill over to broader society.

An analysis of the case studies in a report titled The Smoke That Calls, “indicate[s] that the ANC itself, as the locus of many of these struggles and contestations, has become a profoundly unstable organisation. This has ramifications across state and society. These very dislocations, instabilities and contestations in social relations, and in the meanings of these relations, tend to give rise to the practices of violence in struggles over social order and hierarchy”.

It’s worth noting that in-fighting within the ANC is not just expressed in the streets. It also plays itself out in Branch General Meetings (BGMs); in municipal councils, among other spaces. It also often gets intertwined with societal issues whether improved conditions, both real and perceived under a particular individual’s term, or unemployment. These are but a few of the ways in which politics have become so deeply entangled with people’s lives.

So something that starts as issue about a candidate list, can easily morph into others joining to express very different things in same action. Or still be about the same issue, but for different reasons such as displaying political allegiance; questioning the fairness of process and these cannot be entirely separated from societal issues because the intertwining of the political and socioeconomic are such a prominent feature of our current social order.

I think the role of party politics in protest is often lost or distorted because there’s an assumption that naming it could be seen as affirming the ANC’s “third force” claims, when in fact in many ways the ANC that is its own “third force”.

But even within that are genuine issues which should not be lost just because the internal politics and other forms of contestation for power, are playing themselves out. It’s often not an either/or situation, these things can and do happen at the same time.

This also means that the involvement of ANC members in protest should not lead to assumptions that the issues are solely about the party, as they are also members of communities and society outside of the party. So even when a party issue becomes an expression of something else, their involvement shouldn’t be used to delegitimise or blur those issues as they are also affected by them.

In the opining and general perceptions about protests, I don’t see much interrogation or grappling with these different threads that form this same fabric. Yet this would help us better understand why stakes are so high in some situations, even those that are not as visible as Tshwane. Instead there is an abundance of moralising, which is expressed through endless condemnation and fails to both explain and address the issues at hand.

There’s a lot going on in moments like this, a lot at stake for some; expressions of having nothing to lose for others and an opportunity for those higher up in the social hierarchy to flex their power. The centre is no longer holding and its instability and conflicts are fuelling a deeper questioning and dissatisfaction with the current social order.

I was really hoping that the Tshwane protest would lead us to recognising the urgency with which we need to step away from endless condemnation to a much more structural transformation of our society, which includes re-imagining the role of politics in our society.

This hasn’t happened, meaning the inequality, unemployment and general situation in the country, coupled with serious political failure, will continue to create the conditions for many more such protests.

– Featured image: Residents from Atteridgeville, west of Pretoria,  set a truck alight due to their dissatisfaction with the South African ruling party African National Congress (ANC) nominations on the candidates list for the upcoming municipal elections, on June 21, 2016 in Pretoria. Image by: MUJAHID SAFODIEN / AFP

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About Koketso Moeti

Mother. Campaigner. Political orphan. Blogger. Activator. Part time professional black. Liker of things. Lover of people. No sense of humour.