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.