Property damage in protests is counterproductive

Ryland Fisher says that he has always had problems with people who wanted to destroy property in pursuit of their demands.

It has not been a good week for public transport in Cape Town, with trains the most affected.

It was not pleasant to hear every morning trains had been delayed by two hours or had been cancelled.

I have not taken a train in a long time but I can sympathise with people who have no alternative other than to travel by rail, including hundreds of thousands of workers. It seems not too long ago I had to do the same. For many years it was my preferred form of transport, although one could argue I had no choice.

I remember working at the Cape Herald newspaper until about 5pm, then going to work as a volunteer at Grassroots community newspaper in the city centre until after 10pm and then rushing to catch the last train home to Mitchells Plain.

It was often difficult because my companion was Mike Norton, a veteran journalist who worked fulltime at Grassroots and who was not the fastest person around. Often we would just about make it in time for the last train. Fortunately we never missed the train, because I have no idea what we would have done.

I saw familiar faces on trains all the time. It often seemed as though the same people travelled at the same time and got into the same carriage every night. It was always a figurative Smarties box of people: from church brothers and sisters to gangsters looking for someone easy to rob.

But after 10pm at night, most of the passengers seemed relaxed. And tired.

But I digress.

In most countries, rail transport is the most popular and reliable mode of transport. It is the only method of transport that can carry thousands of people in one vehicle and in reasonable time.

South Africa should be no different.

Yet the ongoing problems we seem to have with rail transport are making it one of the most unreliable modes of transport. It is not a good feeling to wake up in the morning and worry about whether the trains are going to be late, as they’ve been the whole week.

I would not be surprised to read stories in the media in the next few days about people who lost their jobs because they were late for work due to delayed trains.

This week was, of course exceptional. It is not every day there is a strike on the railways and it is not every day trains are burnt and railway property damaged, apparently in support of the strikers.

I have often wondered about people who destroy their employers’ property when they have a dispute. What happens when they go back to work and no longer have some of the equipment they used to use?

Or the students who apparently recently burnt a university administration building up north when they were protesting for lower or no university fees. Such a building forms an important part of the service the university delivers, just like trains form an important part of the service the railway authorities deliver.

I have always had problems with people who wanted to destroy property in pursuit of their demands. It does not make sense. Protest action – whether it is in the form of a strike or student boycotts – should be seen as a means to an end and not as the end itself.

You should always think about what happens after the protest, when things are supposed to return to normal. It is difficult to return to normal if a building has been burnt down or a few trains have been destroyed.

You should never destroy property that could benefit others and, in the case of trains, thousands of others.

Our country celebrates 22 years of democracy next Wednesday. We are now firmly in adulthood and part of being an adult is accepting responsibility for one’s actions.

One of the freedoms we fought for is the right to protest. In the dark days of apartheid, protesters were often arrested or even shot at. In fact, this was the norm and not the exception, unlike Marikana which appears to have been an exception in post-apartheid South Africa. Marikana is, of course, something that should never have been allowed to happen and will forever be a blight on our democracy.

As we ponder the meaning of freedom, we should consider that, while workers have the right to strike, there are others who have the right not to strike. And there are people who need to continue to get to work despite the turmoil happening around them.

People who burn trains only help to make people antagonistic to the cause in whose name they purport to be doing it.

Freedom of choice means not always making the most popular choices or even those perceived to be politically correct.

(First published as a Thinking Allowed column in the Weekend Argus on Saturday 23 April 2016)