Cries of the desperate must be heard, not ignored

Violent protests are not new in South Africa.

While it has the potential to make many people - especially those in the middle class - feel uncomfortable, it is often the only resort of people whose voices are continuously overlooked. Most of these people are not fortunate to be part of the middle class.

No one likes violence, including the people who resort to it, often in desperation. Try to place yourself in the situation of someone who lives in an area that has never known what proper service delivery is.

An area with low employment, bad housing, bad sanitation, bad schools, bad roads, bad everything.

An area where appeals to the authorities always appear to fall on deaf ears.

It is only when the victims of everything bad decide to do something bad about their plight - by burning tyres, cars or buildings - that the authorities start to pay attention.

I have never condoned violence, not even when we were trying to overthrow the apartheid regime.

But I have always tried to understand what drove normally non-violent people to engage in violent behaviour, especially during protests.

Why is it that marginalised people are only taken seriously when they resort to violence?

There is something wrong with a society that allows people’s frustrations to build up to such an extent that they see no alternative but to react violently in order to attract the attention of the authorities who have the power to intervene in their situation.

At any given time there are many protests throughout South Africa.

Not all of them turn violent, but the violent ones seem to attract the most attention.

President Cyril Ramaphosa even cut short his trip to the UK a few weeks ago, to attend to violent protests against the Premier of the North West province.

Last week, trucks were burnt down near Mooi River on the N3 by drivers who protested against losing their jobs to foreigners.

This week, we have seen violent protests in Macassar and outside Mitchells Plain by residents of Siqalo informal settlement who have been desperately trying to draw the attention of the authorities to their plight.

I might not agree with the reasons for the protests or the methods employed but I am trying hard to understand how the violence came about and how it escalated out of control.

My family were among those affected by the Mitchells Plain protests on Wednesday night and we were delayed on the N2 on Tuesday because of the Macassar protests.

At some point it became pure racial warfare between the protesters from the Siqalo informal settlement and residents of Woodlands and Colorado, the Mitchells Plain suburbs closest to the area who wanted to stop them.

It is easy to say that people should not resort to violence, and that would be possible under normal circumstances, but we still have abnormal circumstances throughout our country.

Often, the people involved in violent protests are ordinary mothers and fathers who just want to give their children the best, like everyone else in society.

They do not wake up with the intention of committing violent crimes and do not set out to act violently. But when your voice is ignored time after time, then something else happens to your psyche. Something tells you that, unless you use violence, no one is going to listen.

The only way to deal with the unhappiness that is prevalent in many parts of our society, is for the authorities to show that they are really prepared to listen to grievances, even if they are not able to deal with these immediately.

People must know that their voices are being heard. They must know that when they raise issues peacefully, they are not ignored.

We cannot afford to encourage a situation where the concerns of ordinary people are only heard and dealt with after they turn violent.

That is too late, because by that time the damage has already been done. The TV cameras have already shown the world the pictures of a people who know no other way of protesting but through violence.

There has been much talk of a ‘New Dawn’, since the election of President Cyril Ramaphosa. But the New Dawn will mean nothing if it is not accompanied by a willingness to really listen and act on the concerns of people who are normally ignored by authorities.

In my experience, most South Africans are peace loving. None of us should ever be placed in a situation where we feel that the only way to achieve what we want is through violence.

This rule should apply as much to the residents of Siqalo as to the residents of Woodlands and Colorado.

(First published as a Thinking Allowed column in the Weekend Argus on Saturday, 5 May 2018)