14 June 2020
Protests must make it easy for us to breathe
Since time immemorial, people have always clubbed together to unleash what hitherto was unseen challenge to authority through mass protests or a myriad epoch-defining campaigns against despots or institutions that embody their oppression.
The slaves in Haiti, led by Toussaint Louverture, Jean-Jacques Dessalines, and Henry Christophe mounted a major, historic battle against French colonisers, supported by Napoleon – and won. The declaration of independence in 1804 was the first in history by former slaves.
Elsewhere, many came in numbers to storm the Bastille in 1789, marking the demise of French aristocracy. In the US, the abolishment of slavery did not come out of the benevolence of oppressors. Apartheid, here at home, did not fall because FW de Klerk had a light-bulb moment.
These were outcomes of concerted, unrelenting application of pressure on repressive regimes, which came with great pain and sacrifice. So the anti-racism anger, palpable in societies across the globe today, must not be wasted – it necessarily must be directed to predetermined outcomes. As any manager may know, such outcomes must not be couched in vague and nebulous concepts that are hard to measure.
What seems to be trending for the last two weeks is BlackLivesMatter. Expressions of anger aside, what, in my view, must trend is what Black Lives Matter must achieve. We must start with the outcome in mind.
Let me rephrase. It’s perfectly okay to be angry, to write poems, to eulogise, to paint countless images of George Floyd, or even to go about trashing property in Minneapolis, United States. It matters not, as they say in Seshego, if Donald Trump calls you a thug because he is, after all, an even more dangerous thug with the might of the state behind him. He shouldn’t digress us though.
It’s a great feat to see BlackLivesMatter trend around the globe. It is commendable that the black people of Bristol, United Kingdom, toppled and dumped the statue of 17th century slave trader Edward Colston into the local harbour. This spawned the use of a crane to lift the statue of another slave trader Robert Milligan from its plinth in front of the Museum of London Docklands, for “safe keeping” elsewhere.
It is significant to note that this victory led to a promise to review and remove all statues and street names with links to slave traders in the UK. It’s small pickings, but progress nonetheless.
It is great, too, that we respond with the necessary dose of anger every now and again as racism raises, as they say, its ugly head. As a consequence, the creatives at Ponds Institute will never, I use this without counsel, depict black women morphing into white women as an indicator of the transformative power of their soaps. H&M too, hopefully, learned that referring to black kids in hoodies as monkeys is not cool, even as their adverts captioned the kid as the “coolest monkey”.
So, in the intermittent rages against racist brands and governments, some progress was realised. Even though, sadly, a walk past H&M in Sandton will reveal that some black people are either unaware or don’t give a flat foot.
In the end though, we must remember that the slaves in charge of the Haitian Revolution were clear – they wanted the demolition of slavery, an end to the brutality of slave owners, something that would accord them fundamental human rights, as we sort of achieved in 1994.
The Chimurenga, the Mau Mau and our own struggles for freedom were clear. That type of freedom, the general paper rights with vague promises of improvement in the human condition, has been achieved.
Granted, the struggles for national independence, on the one hand, and for individual intangible freedoms on the other, are manifestly different. The means to achieve them are different.
While Africans in America, for example, have been voting and enjoyed rights that, theoretically, could improve their conditions long before 1994, such rights don’t necessarily translate into a better life for all. In African terms, the legislated freedoms and quasi-independence we enjoy ought necessarily to find meaningful expression in the daily freedoms on the continent. But alas.
That said, the question, again, must be asked: what do we need to do to
ensure our current anger against racists who killed Floyd and everyone else who make it hard for us to breath is not wasted?
I believe in the same way the Jews have done with respect to anti-semitism, the response ought to be that countries where hate crimes against black people are rife should be listed, and pressured into enacting legislation that punishes people like the killers of Floyd harshly. It isn’t enough to condemn, though condemn we must. The stores that are insensitive to racism must be listed and openly embarrassed. Further, consciousness ought to be raised among black people who continue to support anti-black brands.
And I must return to an initial point I made a few weeks ago – the mineral resources of our continent are not used for the advancement of African children.
This is the greatest betrayal of future generations. The best way to give Floyd a proper send-off is by ensuring we hold African governments accountable, consistently, to ensure no black child can die in foreign lands without an option to return to a properly run, transformed, world-class Africa. We dare not fail.
- Sefara is editor of Sunday World. Engage him on Twitter @Sefara_Mak