A few months after the quadranscentennial anniversary of protests animatedly launched for Segametsi’s murder, the nation is still clueless on who the perpetrators of the heinous crime are. Meanwhile, some of the public servants who were heavily punished for participating in the 2011 countrywide protests might still be languishing in a sorry state a tad short of a decade after losing their jobs. Would you subscribe to the narrative that dismisses protests as nothing but theatrical public displays? KEVIN MOKENTO* writes
For some people, one example that illustrates the efficacy of protests is that of Mandela. Away from the limelight, his voice completely censored from reaching the world and for part of the time languishing in solitary confinement, he managed to protest incommunicado from the depth of the dungeons in a way that forced the whole world to pay attention.
He led a decisive campaign of defiance within prison walls. Relating how Mandela earned the respect of his fellow inmates and prison warders, his fellow inmate at the notorious Robben Island maximum security penitentiary Dr. Neville Alexander once said: “He always made the point, if they say you must run, you must insist on walking. If they say you must walk fast, insist on walking slowly.”
These protests, coupled with mounting locally and internationally generated pressure resulted in Mandela’s transfer from Robben Island to Pollsmoor and ultimately to what some people would argue was an ‘upgrade’ to a cosy cottage under his sole occupation at the Victor Verster prison near Cape Town.
This is the place where he spent the last 14 months of his confinement. Imagine that! From undignified penal servitude in the most humiliating of environs to the ‘luxurious’ but of course bugged bungalow with an exclusive swimming pool, a decently sized garden and a dedicated chef.
At this time, one would think he would have forgotten the first phrase apparently uttered to him and his ‘partners in crime’ by a prison warder upon arrival at Robben Island in 1963: “This is the Island. This is where you will die!” Most people wouldn’t quibble with the fact that his protest worked.
His inclination to protest was often readily discernible even in interviews. I remember watching a clip of Edward Koppel, an American journalist then working for ABC News New York, interviewing Nelson Mandela in 1990.
This ballyhooed interview took place not so long after his release from prison. Koppel wanted Mandela to comment on internal affairs of Cuba and Libya. Mandela refused to be drawn into that, in the process querying why Koppel didn’t challenge him when he had earlier avoided involving himself in the internal affairs of the US.
This was immediately followed by an unexpected brief pause. With his hands clasped and flashing his trademark smile Mandela gave Koppel a good gaze and followed that through with his humorous famed statement, “I don’t know if I have paralysed you.”
This evoked sustained applause and whistles from the overly excited audience who were not only impressed by Mandela’s eloquence but also by the ease with which he calmly handled Koppel’s ‘tough’ questions. They were also clearly overwhelmed by Mandela’s iconic status and bound to burst out with laughter at any spark of humour from him, no matter how dry it could have been.
But it was all too clear to the audience in the City College Hall of New York in Harlem that Mandela had made mincemeat of the confrontational hard hitting interviewer reputedly famed for intimidating his guests with a condescending attitude. Some would argue that Mandela had effectively reduced Koppel to nothing more than a rookie reporter.
We have not really seen many protests in Botswana. Amongst the most notable ones are frequent labour union protests, the February 1995 riots following the murder of the 14-year-old Segametsi Mogomotsi, the April 2011 nationwide strike by public servants and the September 2017 protest by women clad in all sorts of attire in a bid to fight gender-based violence following the stripping and humiliation of a young woman at the Gaborone bus rank.
Were these protests effective? The answer to that question would probably depend on which side of the fence you are sitting. The truth is, a few months after the quadranscentennial anniversary of protests animatedly launched for Segametsi’s murder, the nation is still clueless as to who the perpetrators of the heinous crime are. Some of the public servants who were heavily punished for participating in the countrywide protests might still be languishing in a sorry state a tad short of a decade after losing their jobs. And just two months away from the triennial anniversary of the women’s protest, some of our womenfolk still bear the brunt of gender-based violence and many of its domestic abuse offshoots.
In view of the foregoing outcomes, would you subscribe to the narrative that dismisses protests as nothing but theatrical public displays? A notion that suggests with an astronomical degree of certitude that they are an unnecessary waste of time? Some people would vociferously argue that the sentiment of underplaying the importance of protests as nothing but showy displays undermine the value of massive awareness raising endeavours that precede and follow protests.
Experience demonstrates that the effectiveness or otherwise of any protest largely hinges on the weakness or strength of its opposing party. Where the opposing force is disproportionately stronger than the protesting one, and the protesting force is somewhat deficient in earnestness, resilience and endurance, the mission of the protest is likely to fall flat on its knees.
Of course, in some cases, even where protesters satisfy all the relevant conditions, the mission does not get achieved purely because of the unreasonableness of the opposing force.
All this raises the following questions. Should the effectiveness of protests be evaluated solely on the strength of the parties? Shouldn’t there be a more overriding consideration associated with a vigorous and objective assessment of moral perspectives and persuasions as opposed to the willy-nilly herculean flexing of physical or financial muscle? If protests are reduced to tests of strength, isn’t it highly likely that the rights of the marginalised, the downtrodden and the minority would always be wantonly trampled on? More akin to repression and its villainous soulmate suppression!
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Sometimes authorities allow protests to take place without applying their mind to the cost thereof. Often times, authorities fail to appreciate that protests and controversies are bosom companions. Demonstrations are not your normal run-off the mill sponsored walks. And their effectiveness is normally measured post the event, probably by invitation of key organisers to a meeting convened by relevant authorities with a view to reaching a common understanding on key issues.
Or at the very least through the shifting of strongly entrenched views and adoption of a give-and-take disposition by both parties, which would ostensibly narrow the gap between their positions. This calls on organisers to select broadminded astute people who would be able to clearly articulate the mission of the protest in a way that would not only win public sympathy and support, but also hit at the core of the hearts of the targeted decision makers or opposing force with a view to generating constructive and beneficial change.
Selected representatives would do well to avoid getting too close, at a personal level, with members of the opposing force. Perhaps currying favours with them or obsequiously ingratiating themselves to them.
This reminds me of the words of a French philosopher and renowned cultural critic named Julien Benda: “We can serve privilege and power or we can serve justice and truth. And those of us who commit to serving justice and truth, the more we make concessions to those who serve privilege and power, the more we dilute the possibilities of justice and truth.”
In the case of protests, this throws a moral nuance into the mix. Simply put, individuals endowed with the massive responsibility of driving the social justice agenda may not have the best of both worlds. For them to be effective, they would probably need to set clear boundaries and willingly bridle themselves to selflessly toe the self-disciplined route.
Where a protest is only limited to an awareness mission, with no inclination to accommodating some if not all views held by protesters, such a protest might be reduced to just another casual nugatory tick in the box.
However, history has revealed that in some cases it would take several protests to open the ears and eyes of relevant authorities. A case in point is the protests that took place over a prolonged period in South Africa.
All of them targeting the collapse of the apartheid regime. International pressure as well as sustained local protests were effective in causing a disruption that ultimately resulted in rendering governance of the country impossible. This does not necessarily suggest that throwing state governance into disarray is an effective means of driving social change! In some cases, this has contributed to compounding matters.
With governance totally dysfunctional, the government of South Africa had no option but to start engaging protesters and finding a way of accommodating them. This is what led to the government of ‘national unity’ with Nelson Mandela ascending to the presidency and Frederik Willem de Klerk stripped of presidential gravitas and relegated to a lame duck deputy.
Some people would argue that the said government was not necessarily given birth to by a change of heart and the willingness to accept change by the Afrikaner-led government.
That was clearly demonstrated by the remarks made by the octogenarian politician in February 2020, almost 26 years after the first democratic government was established.
Interviewed by the SABC, F.W. de Klerk, the man who to international acclaim ‘deservedly’ scooped the 1993 Nobel Peace Prize, of course sharing it with Mandela, refused to accept that apartheid was a crime against humanity, arguing that it would be disingenuous for Verwoerd’s euphemistic policy of ‘separate development’ to be placed at the same level with genocides.
Although he eventually retracted following immense socio-political backlash and pressure, what he said is quite instructive. That protesters can achieve their mission without necessarily winning the hearts of individuals charged with the authority to sanction change. Authorities may be forced to take positive action purely as a consequence of the heavy burden of relentless and sustained pressure.
One can argue that protests should not be grand public displays only meant to impress some people or catapult a few individuals to a position of prominence. Neither should they be a form of half-hearted meaningless cajolery launched by indecisive and indolent individuals.
For them to be impactful, it would be essential to lace protests with a clearly articulated objective. And the underlying mission should be to achieve that objective through targeted engagement and dialogue. Seasoned debaters and negotiators should be carefully selected to engage the opposing party.
Owing to man’s imperfection, there will always be something to protest about. Protesters themselves might be involved in some acts of injustice. Some might hold the view that protesters should develop an irrepressible thirst for justice and should not give in too quickly to despair even where achievement of the desired outcome might take much longer than envisaged. After all, pursuit of social justice has never been a walk in the park, and given systemic and structural issues, probably never will, at least this side of Armageddon.
*Kevin Mokento is the pseudonym of a Mmegi contributor who has asked for anonymity