#occupysouthafrica – for who and by who?

By Jen Thorpe

Last night I attended a planning meeting for #occupysandton the Johannesburg branch of the occupy movement that is spreading around the world. It began on Wall Street with a focus on the greed that has begun to characterise the economic order, and the inequality between the 99% and the 1%. They call themselves “a horizontally organized resistance movement employing the revolutionary Arab Spring tactic to restore democracy in America.” The movement has been incredibly successful and longlasting – YouTube and other forms of social media like Twitter have sustained the interest in the movement online, and the media has begun to take interest in it offline. Academics and community leaders have lent credence to the movement, and it seems to grow every day. The success of this particular movement has sparked similar protests around the USA, and it has begun to spread worldwide.

When I noticed a call for #occupysouthafrica online I was immediately interested. I wanted to know who the people were who were organising it and what they represented. I wanted to know what their plans were for sustainability and what they were demanding. After all, South Africa is not the same as the United States. Sure, we have a shared history of civil disobedience, and an economic condition that can at best be described as unequal and at worst as clearly exploitative. But what else? How does something like this fit into our political consciousness and who does it represent?

#Occupysouthafrica is also being termed the cringe-worthy “operation ubuntu”, which immediately marked the campaign as a white driven initiative. This sparked immediate criticism on social media from activists and tweeters.One user noted “white people, occupying south africa since 1652” and others sarcastically asking users to occupy their favourite expensive sushi restaurants. It’s clear that twitter users feel distinctly uncomfortable with the privileged acknowledging that something is wrong, and that they are not the right representatives for a movement like this which demands social justice.

So with this in mind I attended the planning meeting for #occupysandton, the branch that had the initial aim of occupying the JSE property starting this Saturday. The group was mostly white, and mostly male, and I chance to say mostly a bit hippy. I tried to hold myself back and not judge and just to see what happened. The meeting was incredibly interesting and it was great to sit and actually talk through social justice, and the various positions that all of us came from. There was much disagreement, and only a little bit of shouting which was quite positive.

I think that this movement has potential in SA, and that of course we have a terrible gini coefficient and our govt budget is misspent. I found myself asking questions to myself about why the people were here, and if perhaps a lot of middle class’ frustration with the economic situation is because they remain the pawns driving the economy forward without themselves becoming rich. I wondered whether the people at the meeting would have been there if they knew that arguing for an equal system would probably mean that all of us would be worse off than we were now, not better. After all, equal in a vastly unequal society means poor, not rich.

I also had concerns about the gender norms that were inherent within the group. The conversation was particularly male dominated, and when women made statements these were ignored, only to be repeated later by male speakers and affirmed by the group. The separation and unequal power distribution between genders is also something that is inherent to the system, and I thing that in order to be successful anyone who becomes part of this movement will need to become aware of our subtle perpetuation of hierarchy and gender norms, and listen equally to all speakers. This also means that the division of labour for the longer occupation must be carefully considered – women should not become the cooks, minute takers and secretaries but should occupy an equal status to the men in the group.

If this is to become a real representative movement, I think that Saturday is a bit soon to start. More discussion groups need to be held, and people are going to need to relinquish their desire to be in control. The questions we will have to ask ourselves in the coming days are existential – our very existence is based on a system to which we know no alternative.  Reaching deep into ourselves to grapple with the ways that we support the system we are opposed to will be painful, difficult, and will take great strength.

We do need to ask ourselves what is wrong with the system, and why? We will need to ask ourselves if we are feeling the way we do because we haven’t become the super-rich, and if that is the root of our frustration. We will need to consider whether equality will mean that we end up worse off than we are now, and to grapple with the effects of that on our lives, our families and our beliefs.

I think that #occupysouthafrica will need to be driven by those who are suffering worst under the cleptocracy we are governed by, but I do think that I’d like to be there and involved to see what’s going on.


7 thoughts on “#occupysouthafrica – for who and by who?”

  1. Thanks for saying this…
    The OWS movement has also sparked an Occupy the Hood movement for people of colour in the US since they’ve been heavily under-represented in these protests and all the videos of the general assemblies are of white men leading the discussion. And there are those who say it should be called De-colonise Wallstreet.


  2. Thanks Jen, this is one of very few balanced pieces on the whole #occupy thing.

    So: I am the “occupying South Africa since 1652” tweeter…

    I want to be clear – I have some sympathy with the #occupy movement. I think that in the States particularly – where government has bailed out failing companies, and where those companies have used those bailouts to pay ever-growing bonuses – there is a clear need for systematic reform.

    But as a South African I have some reservations. Firstly, we don’t have that same problem with our government bailing out companies. In fact, some would argue that government regulation actually saved these institutions from the worst of the recession. So simply transposing #occupywallstreet to SA seems a bit simplistic.

    Secondly, the tone of the protest, judging by the homepage and comments on the facebook events pages, strikes me as a bunch of bored middle class kids who seem to think it is more important that you simply protest than that you protest *against* something. I am uncomfortable with these people claiming to represent the 99% when they don’t yet have 100 people signed up to their facebook event.

    Thirdly, and on a related point, how does this movement intend mobilising grassroots support? If they are serious about ending inequality, why aren’t they talking to organisations like Abahlali baseMjondolo? I wonder how many #occupiers have heard of them. Do they not run the risk of drowning out the voices of people who are actually live in poverty? Would their energy not be better spent trying to amplify these voices?

    Finally, the bit about “restoring democracy” annoys me. Is democracy gone in SA? When did this happen? This could be interpreted as an attack on the black government – which is of course the only democratic one we have ever had.

    None of this is to say that there is no room for the privileged to be angry at a system that creates so much inequality. Only that I don’t think the way to act on that anger is to say “Gee, capitalism is terrible. I know, let’s go camp outside the Grahamstown Magistrate’s Court like those guys on Wall Street!”

    Yikes, sorry, didn’t mean to ramble. I’m better in 140 character pieces.


    1. It clearly seems that you are a privileged,well-earning,well-housed, full tummy South African.
      In your conception of the state of the country,the politics and the people therein, you have only rhetoric to offer.
      This is a new revolution that does not follow the pattern of those which have passed. Why do you(an outsider) want to know what is planned? To be able to prepare your side to quell the efforts of people who know that their happiness depends on the happiness of those around them so that you can continue your privileged lifestyle while millions who were supposed to have better lives pro-apartheid still live in misery.
      Is it not true that a high crime rate ,unemployment ,lack of essential services including healthcare,housing and public security are the norm for many South Africans?
      So if you can’t do something to make those around you happier, …. who knows one day when the poor and hungry have nothing to eat, you will be their next meal


  3. Dylan before you glibly dismiss our attempts in Grahamstown to show solidarity with the Occupy movement, we are both in contact with Abhali Base Mjondo and have organized our occupation in conjunction with the Unemployed People’s Movement. We understand the difference between the US and South Africa, thus we hope to during the course of our occupation come up with a set of principles from discussion relating to South Africa. Secondly I don’t like the 99% slogan, but we are using is it as so far it is working, thirdly our goal is to create spaces from democratic praxis. I would suggest you rather attempt to raise your concerns through getting involved rather than the internet.


  4. I attended the same meeting and I feel that Jen, you do bring a very grounded angle on things, and many of your points are true and not the main stream considerations – so perfect for stimulating response and activating an appropriate mindful one. However, I would like to say that the meeting was male dominated, but I thought there was a distinct lack of hippie, in fact, i might have appeared vaguely hippie in a pair of jeans and a jersey, and i think, there were a few casually dressed people, but for me a remarkable not hippy – can you expand on what hippy means for you? I feel hippy is a scape goat term for anyone who doesn’t want to participate in anything consciously and use hippy to blow people off. I am a woman, and pretty unwillingly to be told to stand down from a gender point of view, i felt heard and thought you were to. Out of the 6 or 7 people who were really vocal, 2 vocal woman is not the majority, but i think it’s a reach to say it was gender biased. I felt the passion expressed was personal for everyone, but I didn’t get a sense of what you describe.

    Dylan, I am not a bored middle class white kid looking for something to protest about.

    I think trying to hard to focus on the tired human conditioning of finding a race or gender issue in this is not the point. If the white rich kids stand up for the poor, is this bad… or should they just sit back and enjoy their position because it’s not their problem. If i can stand for what I believe in for anyone’s benefit, regardless of how good my life has been, am I being offensive?
    It is easy to get caught up in human condition and personal pity. I am an individual who knows things are not right and that they can be better for everyone.

    I think the group as a whole came humbly and contributed passionately with a very clear and enthusiastic willingness to co-operate and learn through this process. Let’s not lose that.


  5. Thank you again for your sober report. When it comes to equality one should link the word abundance to it to elevate it to it’s true frequency. One of the reasons I am here is because existing resources are deliberately being miss-managed. I am not for replacing one failing system with another. In the discussion and co-education starting Saturday we’ll work on co-creating what we want, turning the ‘something is not right’ into ‘what can we do about it’. We just want all to live comfortably and want everybody to be able to have equal access to what makes us free human beings. Being fare and humane will create a much more idealistic society. I say idealistic but read a society where all take action for the highest good of all here. I am excited to continue in this venture and think people should speak as people. In this equality and unity we move beyond labels like hippie, female, male, gay, feminist, race – we are simply people speaking. I also don’t take it personally that this article and some of the other media interviews have labelled the initial instigators of the social media action to spread the word a bored middle-class kids. For instance, I am, when labelled, a 39 year old gay South African male managing student accommodation for board and lodging/ artist/ healer – but in Truth I just AM – as simple as that.


  6. Oh yes and why does the sub-name “Operation Ubuntu” mark the campaign as a white driven initiative? Ubuntu: a person is a person through other persons. We’re just people with laptops doing our part, what we can do. Each person has to take responsibility for the part they can play in the whole as the explanation of ubuntu states:
    Ubuntu is a Nguni word which has no direct translation into English, but is used to describe a particular African worldview in which people can only find fulfilment through interacting with other people. Thus is represents a spirit of kinship across both race and creed which united mankind to a common purpose. Archbishop Emeritus Desmond Tutu has said “Ubuntu is very difficult to render into a Western language…It is to say. ‘My humanity is caught up, is inextricably bound up, in what is yours’…”
    If an internet campaign gets labelled as the starting point it is just because it is then published and visible in internet world. This conversation has started looong ago among all the people not just people with laptops.


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