Diehard ideologues of the Left would almost certainly not have been overjoyed by the show of support outside the Bloemfontein magistrate’s court on Friday for the city’s disgraced former executive mayor, and their black, green and yellow posters declaring that ‘RET [Radical Economic Transformation] forces are 100% behind Cde Olly Mlamleli’.
Nobody doubts that they are – even if it’s a little murky just who the ‘RET forces’ are.
Opposite them – with no singing of Struggle songs and less expensive though no less expressive posters (‘Orange overalls for Olly & the gang’ and ‘Jail the corruptees’) – were what you might judge as ‘the people’.
One of them, Tebogo Koetle, put the case plainly: ‘These people (the accused) are stealing money from the poorest of the poorest. These people, instead of focusing on service delivery … they do not care about that, they care about themselves, their families and their girlfriends and their boyfriends … whereas the community, there, is suffering. So we believe, now, enough is enough. There has never been any accountability in the Free State … but at least things are moving.’
With multiple court appearances in three centres, the week ended on what seemed a corruption-busting high. The cases are doubtless significant – though much will now depend on the stamina and will of the corruption-busters in pressing on upward through the ranks of ‘Accused No 1’, as Cyril Ramaphosa recently described his own party.
Another court case earned less attention on Friday. If it had nothing whatever to do with the struggle against venality and fraud at the centre of the court appearances in Bloemfontein and elsewhere, it had everything to do with a possibly more important, and further-reaching, challenge in South Africa: the defence of reason. For a change, some of the signs are encouraging.
This Western Cape high court case ended with an order that will bring to a close the nearly two-week occupation of a luxury Camps Bay Airbnb by a seven-strong group calling itself the Queer Radical Feminist Activist Collective (#WeSeeYou).
With the help of friends and supporters, they had raised enough money to book into the R15 000-a-night property for a few days last month. When the rental expired, the ‘artivists’, as they have referred to themselves, announced that they were staying put to draw attention to inequality of access to land and housing, and to the vulnerability of the LGBTQI community.
‘Occupying a mansion’
Their statement said: ‘We are an art collective of queer black and coloured activists from the working middle class occupying a mansion in Camps Bay. We are in solidarity with all occupations around the country, while centring the lives and wellbeing of queer people and women.’
Property management company Turnkey365 took them to court, and, on Friday, a judge ordered that the occupiers vacate the house by noon on Thursday 8 October.
Sarah Summers, described as being part of the collective, was quoted as saying: ‘We live to fight another day. We are a strong team and more people are recognising that this isn’t a performance of activism – this is transgressive, peaceful, and thoughtful.’
The collective has its uncritical supporters, but the response suggests that – as with corruption – unquestioning toleration can’t be taken for granted.
In his piece on the Camps Bay saga on Friday, colleague Terence Corrigan observes that ‘(probably) because of the flamboyancy of this action and the mink-and-manure setting, it has attracted widespread attention, with perhaps a tinge of amusement and a dose of sympathy from observers’.
Yet, ‘in its elements, it is a familiar story’, with land occupations or land invasions being ‘frequently an urban phenomenon’, and not a surprising one in a rapidly urbanising society.
Corrigan makes the point that ‘while courts of law may play an important role in defending [the actions of property owners or the authorities against land occupations or invasions], arguably more important is an appeal to the court of public opinion’.
‘Elements of truth’
‘For this reason,’ he goes on, ‘the narrative is crucial – to emphasise the injustices and desperation that have brought things to this point. This is effective because it typically involves elements of truth.’
That a testing of the ‘elements of truth’ and of the narrative itself was occurring beyond the confines of the liberal fraternity became evident in a series of tweets in late September, triggered by journalist Haji Mohamed Dawjee.
It is impossible to say whether Dawjee might have come to different conclusions had the Queer Radical Feminist Activist Collective opened ‘their’ house and their hearts to her, but her critique in the Daily Maverick on Friday, ‘#WeSeeYou: A visionary occupation of Camps Bay, or activism that reeks of performance, publicity and influencer syndrome?’ leaves no doubt about the tenor of the questions she’d have put to them.
Framing the objective of ‘true activism’ as meaning ‘to change society in a way that actively serves people and changes things for the better’, she writes of her interest in trying to figure what exactly the collective hoped to achieve: ‘I can’t ask the collective any of these questions because they refused to speak to me – a decision I found ironic since I literally AM everything they’re claiming to represent.
‘I am a black woman who is queer and part of the working middle class; and in many instances have been vulnerable because of my sexuality and identity. Like them, I have faced cultural castigation. Not only do I mirror their image, but I also believe in every point they make in their “manifesto”.’
‘Only ends up hurting societies’
But, Dawjee writes, ‘(without) a willingness to engage, the activism reeks only of performance, publicity and influencer syndrome, which only ends up hurting societies – the very ones the movement is trying to fight for’.
As for taking over an Airbnb property, ‘(reckless) behaviour like this will only hurt the economy; an economy by the way which is already gasping for air’.
‘If you kill the economy, you kill jobs, you displace more people – ultimately, nothing good can come from it and from a racial identity perspective – as a Twitter user so eloquently put it – “you make it harder for people with surnames like ours to make these bookings”.’
Were Airbnb to pull out of South Africa ‘because seven young artists wanted to prove something’, the economic impact would be an estimated loss of ‘R8.7-billion for a year, and a corresponding loss of over 22,000 jobs from the broader South African economy’.
‘Most of those jobs are held by locals who use their additional income to pay off debts, pay their rent or bond, or simply put food on the table.’
Dawjee concludes: ‘Unfortunately, radical vision requires radical and critical conversation, and change doesn’t happen in a silo with a Jacuzzi and a sea view and a threat to the economy and many women’s jobs.’
This points to the bald context of the argument about what it means to occupy a swanky seaside property as a gesture of resistance to what is cast as an unjust status quo.
I am indebted to my colleagues at the Centre for Risk Analysis for calculations based on second quarter unemployment data, which reflect the harsh reality.
South Africa’s labour absorption rate (the proportion of the working-age population with a job) declined 5.8% from 42.1% in the first quarter to 36.3% in the second, and the labour participation rate (a measure of an economy’s active workforce) dropped 13% from 60.3% in the first quarter to 47.3% in the second.
The question, for activists as much as for policy-makers, is: do we see them?