TWO radically different responses have been witnessed recently in South Africa from citizens determined to denounce corrupt politicians abusing their power or filling their pockets with taxpayers’ money: Violence on the one hand, non-violent and silent protest on the other. On Monday we saw an unforgettable example of the latter, when four brave young women rose to stand silently with handwritten posters decrying rape in front of President Jacob Zuma as he addressed a gathering of dignitaries in Pretoria at the announcement of last week’s local election results. The nation owes these women a resounding “thank you”.
Their action took place just two days prior to the country’s official Women’s Day, which commemorates the 20 000 women who marched peacefully to the Union Buildings in Pretoria on August 9, 1956, objecting to the pass-laws for blacks which required them to always carry a pass-book when in white areas, showing that they were legally entitled to be there. It was part of the apartheid regime’s grand plan to separate the races.
The two events are in the same spirit. Monday’s four women protestors were highlighting South Africa’s rape culture – a pandemic ranked as one of the highest in the world. One of the placards suggested that one in three women will be victims of sexual violence. Their action took the gathering so totally by surprise that no-one stopped them – even Zuma’s bodyguards – until his speech was over. The senior official of the electoral commission who apologised to the audience after Zuma had finished talking and security personnel had hustled the women away sounded extremely embarrassed.
But their protest had already had its effect, and it was profound. In a different political reality some people from the audience might have actually stood up and applauded them for truth-telling. But Zuma’s tentacles of power run too deep in South African politics for that to happen spontaneously.
Their action took place ten years after Zuma’s own rape trial, in which he was ultimately found not guilty, but which left very negative feelings about his approach to women’s rights and his problematic sexual attitudes. The protestors were not only drawing attention to his own case, but the prevalence of gender-based violence in this country.
Their action was similar in impact to the white women of the non-violent Black Sash organisation, who for many years during apartheid stood silently with placards at the sides of the roads and in other public places, protesting apartheid laws and embarrassing the government at every opportunity. The striking black sashes they wore were a mark of mourning and signalled their protest against unjust racist legislation the government continued to enact.
They broke no laws by their demonstration, and their “privileged” status as whites protected them. The government fumed but could do little to stop them. White women from a diverse range of ethnic and faith groups participated.
Internationally, one of the most famous historical examples of such “passive” action in the face of immoral laws is Rosa Parks, the black woman in the United States who in 1955 in Montgomery, Alabama, defied a bus driver’s order to give up her seat in the coloured section to a white passenger, after the white section of the bus was filled. Her non-violent resistance and the bus boycott which followed became symbols of the Civil Rights Movement.
We have seen many abhorrent examples recently of South Africans resorting to violence to make their voices heard about government corruption and ineptitude – burning buildings, buses and schools, and killing people who objected or happened to be in the way.
The action of the four women who stood silently in front of Zuma with their placards fits into the grand tradition worldwide of non-violent civil action. This president’s legacy will forever be symbolised by Monday’s dramatic visual image of a disgraced male politician mouthing tiresome platitudes, framed by four bright young women standing still and silent with their placards, giving a very different message. He was oblivious to the potent words on their posters.
The Black Sash’s role as a resistance movement ended in 1994 at the end of apartheid and the dawn of democracy. It was reformed in 1995 as a non-racial humanitarian organisation. Perhaps the Black Sash needs to be revived now in a new, post-apartheid form: A non-racial, non-violent people’s movement which will say “no” to the shenanigans of this country’s current leaders.
(Geoff Sifrin is a journalist based in Johannesburg, South Africa, and former Editor of the SA Jewish Report. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org)