And the Band Played On…

This country marched on Friday.  From North to South and East to West, thousands of ordinary South Africans joined forces to show their dissatisfaction with the state of the nation. Although certain media reports and several government spokesmen, including our President, have tried to suggest that the huge majority of peaceful protesters were white, everyone who showed up and anyone who has actually looked at the photographs, knows this to be blatantly untrue.  Every colour, culture and creed was out there in a show of unprecedented solidarity.

My personal experience was limited.  Not being one for masses that can turn into mobs, I restricted myself to one fairly small protest group and even that was representative of our much-maligned Rainbow Nation.  Sceptical though I am as to what marches and protests can actually change in this country, I needed to be part of something on Friday, if only to take my own ‘barometer reading,’ and I’m sorry for those who could not or would not participate in any way.  It may be that opportunities to experience that sort of palpable goodwill will be few and far between in our uncertain future.

As happens in times like these, there was the usual dissemination of unsettling scare tactics ahead of the event.  No-one  could possibly have predicted that, with one or two exceptions, the day would unfold peacefully and ordinary South Africans would prove that we are capable of demonstrating concern without violence, looting and destruction.

Despite all the positive aspects of the marches, the government’s response has been predictably negative and it is almost certain that nothing concrete will change. And since Friday, I have found myself uncomfortably plagued by recurring images of the band on the Titanic, stoically ‘playing on’ as that great ship sank and I can’t help seeing distressing parallels here.  We can march, sing and chant for all we’re worth but our chances of keeping afloat remain slim.  But it seems that joining in mass action is good for the soul and in some ways I regret not having been part of either the march to Parliament in Cape Town, or to the Union Buildings in Pretoria.  If there is a ‘next time’ perhaps I’ll be better organised but in the meantime, I am going to share here the experience of a friend who, despite considerable anxiety, made the ‘journey’ to Pretoria.

How Joining a March Renewed My Faith in the Rainbow Nation

Sue Jackson

I hardly slept on Thursday night.  Endlessly, I debated with myself as to whether or not to join the march to the Union Buildings the following day, to protest against Zuma and his puppet government. My mind was filled with relentless scenes of hatred and violence, sjamboks and intimidation and I tossed and turned, unable to ‘switch off’ the kaleidoscope of scary pictures. I realised that my insomnia was being fuelled by fear and anxiety, caused by the ominous threats of the pro-Zuma, anti-march brigade, but that didn’t help me in the cold, dark hours. Ultimately I knew that if I gave in to my fear, I would find it impossible to live with my self-disgust and cowardice.  I needed to do something!

The days leading up to the march had plunged me into a pit of dark hopelessness and despair. The staggering turnaround by Zuma’s critics, on whom so many of us had pinned our hopes, was literally a kick in the guts. It seemed that – despite the voiced disgust and outrage at the firing of the Finance Minister and the ludicrous cabinet shuffle – in the end, blind political loyalty and vested interest in the continuation of the status quo would allow Zuma to survive.

I was also horrified by the apathy and helplessness displayed by so many South Africans on social media and even more worryingly, a number of my friends and family.  “What good will it do?” was the most common refrain and I realised that, for many, inertia and complacency is the easy way out.  My sons, who’ve been raised in the ‘new’ South Africa felt ‘uncomfortable’ about joining what they felt was perceived to be a ‘whitey march’ and also felt that a protest march would make no difference to Zuma and his cronies.  I cajoled, argued and reasoned but they were adamant in their reluctance to join in.  To my relief, at the eleventh hour, a handful or friends had expressed their determination to attend one or other protest, but nonetheless, I felt very vulnerable and isolated on Thursday night. None of us had any idea of what to expect on Friday.

I began to feel the first stirrings of hope as we (my sister, my brother and I) entered the foyer of the Gautrain Station and we observed the crowds gathering there.  We streamed onto the train and my elation grew as I witnessed the crowds at each station and the high spirits of my fellow passengers. Banners, t-shirts emblazoned with slogans and the beautiful South African flag were everywhere as we headed to Pretoria determined to make a difference.

And what can I say about the march that hasn’t been said, so eloquently, by others? It was outstanding. It made me feel alive again.  The exhilaration that buoyed and uplifted us in 1994, the elation of the Rugby World Cup and the all-encompassing pride and joy of the Soccer World Cup was back.  It seemed so right that the Rainbow Nation was emerging again.

Many of us commented, as we assembled at Church Square and then began the slow but determined march towards the Union Buildings, that we felt united, that the spirit of the everyday South African had not been extinguished – will NEVER – be extinguished. ‘Zuma must fall. Zuma must fall’ – the chant was taken up by the crowd and this refrain merged into the haunting ‘Senzani na’ (What Have We Done/). All along the way, the singing and dancing was uplifting and contagious.

And as I marched with my fellow South Africans, I felt great pride and I was filled with blossoming joy.  I saw, once again, the determination and the spirit that makes us such a special nation.  There should be no divide; we have a common purpose and, whether we are black or white, rich or poor, DA or EFF supporters, despite what we all know will be a rough road ahead, we have hope again.  I now believe that we can, unified, do the right thing. We must refuse to let one man defeat a nation or destroy this beloved country.

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Reading Sue’s account of her experiences on Friday, I can appreciate the sense of hope garnered by being part of a huge crowd, moving with common purpose and there is no doubt that by the end of Friday, the atmosphere in Johannesburg had changed from one of quiet suspense in the morning to one of almost celebratory relief.  But already most of the ‘sparkle’ has gone. Reality is reasserting itself and much of the ‘post-march’ journalism makes for sobering reading.  I keep going back to an article by Prince Mashela in the Sowetan Times on April the 6th, the day before the marches. With searing honesty he writes “What makes most people restless abut the future of South Africa is that they have western models in mind, forgetting that ours in an African country.”  It would be well for us all to remember that.

Over the last three days my mind has been in ‘word-search’ mode and what has finally emerged is ‘palliative’ – a ‘temporary measure; a stopgap.’  The word brings to mind an advertising slogan from my childhood; ‘Kiss it better with a Bandaid Strip.’ Friday’s marches allowed a huge, disenchanted public a passing opportunity to voice their disappointment and for just one day, apply a bandaid to the surface of a deep-seated malaise.  How long that plaster will stay in place and what it’ll reveal when removed, remains anyone’s guess. But for that one day at least, hope flared again and gave us renewed energy to face the future.