Marches and protests… There’ve been quite a few in the 14 years I have been living here and that I participated in.
Today’s was called upon by the Right2Know Campaign, to oppose the secrecy bill, which will be voted on in Parliament on Tuesday, 20 September.
Donning my keffiyyah, I made my way to the horseman in front of Parliament (Louis Botha) to support-for better or worse-Palestine being recognised as the 194th member state of the UN a day before, on 16 September.
My resolute pace slowed down once I approached a small group of 30 people, all men, none of them my Palestinian friend. The flag they were waving included a crescent the PA’s does not… They were Libyans!
Waiting for my friend, leaning against the Horseman, gazing at his spur I tried to recall some of the marches I have attended and covered over the years… Some were about health, others about expressing solidarity with various countries (Zim, Palestine, Iraq), minorities, foreigners, for peace, against war, for justice, equality, ARVs… None ended up being as momentous as the one I’d have love to be part of in the 80s when a protester jumped on a police truck that sprayed activists with a purple dye in Burg Street. It gave birth to the slogan: The Purple Shall Govern.
My mom took my brother Pierre and me to our very first march (“Demo” as we refer to it in colloquial German), when I was 12. It was a march against nuclear power, prompted by Chernobyl. I remember all children were given postcards addressed to then Chancellor Kohl to fill out with demands but I can’t recall what I wrote on mine…
After so many years in Cape Town, there are always familiar faces in the crowd, the songs have changed only in the slightest, the posters and banners, however, are always sharp-tongued and infused with wit, word games and the odd Afrikaans word. No march without singing the national anthem and Shosholoza, activists and protesters at some stage scanting: Down or Phambili, Forward or Viva! and of course Amandla! followed by the crowd belching out: Awethu! These slogans and songs carry an ethos and are of such emotional and persuasive power that even the opposition chooses to embrace them and use them to their own ends rather than coining and spreading their own, new ones. Yesterday, I marveled at a group of (young) DA t-shirt clad individuals, led by a (white) marcher, who belted out a whole set of struggle exhortations, met with enthusiastic and well rehearsed response…
What moved me, was the address of a woman, whose voice carried and seemed to distill the plight of the Cape Flats, echoed a life of hardship and lack of opportunities but who in simple, clear terms, shared with the audience what effect the secrecy bill would have, once passed. While I deeply value Ronnie Kasril’s decision to choose conscience above blind solidarity, Zackie’s fiery-as-ever speech and a strong woman leader’s words, the words of the backyard-dweller activist inspired me most.
How did I get here?
A little over 18 years ago, in July 1994, barely three months after the first democratic elections were held in South Africa, I got off a plane in Johannesburg. The plane was white and still bore the old SAA design with the springbok in blue and orange, in line with the old flag’s colours. The airport then was called Jan Smuts Airport and was just a little larger than the small regional Basel-Mulhouse airport near my home village. There were no tunnels to swallow passengers and spill into the belly of the airport then. We walked down the stairs onto the tarmac and I couldn’t believe the icy morning air (did I just touch down in Afrika?) and I was convinced I could make out thudding noises below me, imagining the world beneath my feet, the Witwatersrand’s labyrinthine underworld of precious metals, dangerous, sweaty and miserable paid labour, bodies from all nations of Southern Africa, toiling under my white soles… To the very day, I feel my heart beating deeper when in Joburg….
Elzeth de Villiers (now Strydom) picked me up, a cockadoo on her shoulder and we hit the N1 north to Pretoria, in her turquoise blue beetle (Volksie).