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Automatic for the people: how protest became the way we roll


Automatic for the people: how protest became the way we roll

This is not a sign of a vibrant democracy, but of a government with a tin ear


Shortly after he became president in 1994, Nelson Mandela spoke off the cuff about expectations raised by the transition to democracy, and the little matter of meeting those high hopes. In essence, he said people had the right to protest but should understand they wouldn’t necessarily get what they wanted. He couldn’t have guessed the degree to which protest would become a necessity and a way of life in a democratic era.

Mandela was stating the obvious in the sense that the right to protest was protected by implication in the constitution, by clauses guaranteeing freedom of speech and assembly and political organisation. Yet, there was a glaring anomaly in what he was saying: if government was to become all-caring and accountable, why would there be any need for protest? Roll on nearly 30 years, and protest in the form of demonstrations, blockades, strikes and occupations has become the defining feature of democratic SA. It’s how we roll.

To an extent, Mandela’s approach, in a context within which expectations could not easily be met, suggests a leader in this instance surprisingly out of touch with those he called “the masses of our people”, with whom he and his comrades in the ANC claimed or presumed a close connection...

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