Shit Slinging, the Media and Occupy#South Africaby Chris McMichael / Images by Timothy Gabb / 01.11.2011
The local versions of occupywallstreet# were treated by the mainstream SA media as having no bearing on our social context. As if protesting against political and economic elites, who are privatising the future, has no relevance to South Africa. The admittedly small occupations were treated as incomprehensible: lacking a program and painted as the meaningless boutique protests of a spoiled, confused middle class.
In Grahamstown, the call to occupy was issued by Rhodes-based Students for Social Justice (SSJ) and the Unemployed Peoples Movement (UPM). Niren Tolsoi, who did his research, wrote in the Mail & Guardian, that this was not just the project of hipsters jumping on the political bandwagon. But the product of months of serious engagement and consultation with the poor and a range of indignant members of the middle classes. An innovative combination, in fact, which marks a potentially epochal new solidarity in South African politics. Last seen in the glory days of the UDF.
Shit proceeded to get real when protesters expressed their displeasure with Grahamstown’s notorious bucket system by delivering actual shit samples into the foyer of the city hall. A country that can afford to host the World Cup can’t seem to scrape together the cash needed for basic sanitation in many rural areas. Even the Romans managed to combine huge stadium projects with decent toilets!
Rather than focusing on the amorality of a social set up forcing people to live in these debased conditions, Steven Lang from Grocott’s Mail was having none of the shit slinging. In a breathless piece, that used the same severe tone normally reserved for war reporters bunkered down in fucking Gaza, Lang detailed how he wandered into the “mayhem”. And wondered whether the municipality needed to improve its security? To his credit, Lang did allude to all of this being part of an international campaign, part of a wave of protest gathering steam since the Arab Spring. The inter-connectedness of all this, the historic importance of people assembling and making history for themselves, has been lost or downplayed by the mainstream media. They seem to think this is business as usual, rather than the end of the neoliberal era.
The meaning of the protests was certainly lost on SABC news anchor Mike Procter–Sims, beamed down from broadcast HQ to cover the event. “Cover” here is a euphemism since it implies actual physical exertion. Procter-Sims prefered chilling by his rental car while his camera-woman did all the work. He did suggest that “service delivery protests” need a leader to deliver a convenient soundbite-sized list of demands. Confronted with the fact that non-hierarchical public gatherings of this nature don’t have a vanguard leadership, Procter-Sims gave the nation a lesson in realpolitik along the lines of: “in future you need to have demands and a programme, because it makes our job easier”. Really grabbing the investigative bull by the horns there, Mike.
One of the strengths of the Occupy movement is, of course, the principled refusal of programmatic, packaged demands. Politicians love demands so they can pretend to be solving them. Protest via General Assembly breaks the distancing circuit of representitive democracy by taking power rather than giving it away to “leaders”.
Over at The Daily Maverick, Chris Vick suggested that Occupy# is just the latest frivolous youth protest. In “Waging Class Struggle, the Playstation way” – he notes the apparent irony of using the internet, the fruit of consumer capitalism, to organise the protests. Vick sounds so disaffected by the whole thing, as if he has far better things to do. He specialises in the supercilious tone of a career journalist who doesn’t like the boat rocked too much.
“On Saturday morning, once I’ve walked the dogs, had a double espresso at Vovotello, checked out the new suits at Paul Smith, and hosed down my Mini, I think I’ll idle over to to Sandton and check out the occupation… but I’ll take my Playstation with me. Just in case.”
Vick pretends this is an isolated incident. That the wasteful system of consumption and inequality is forever. He refuses to entertain the possibility that capitalism is no longer the best way to ensure a decent life for us all. That it is quite clearly, spectacularly failing. As the bank bail outs show, the system is a vampire, feeding on the commons and in continual crisis. How much more public resources and wealth must pass into private hands before Vick yells enough?
The criminal actions which lead to the financial crisis, the catalyst for the occupations, were not the work of a few coked up sociopaths in the banking industry but the result of decades of corporate led malfeasance and plunder without oversight, regulation or control.
Conglomerates like Sony, who make the Playstation namechecked by Vick, outsource production to modern slave factories. They use paid for political power to threaten countries with disinvestment when held to international labour standards and basic social rights. Anything that makes cheap labour more expensive. Even the most ardent of libertarians has to acknowledge that this has nothing to do with a free market. In genuine democracies elected officials ought to expose, not shield, corporate power to public accountability. Instead, corporate values rule. Why should the lion’s share of the world’s wealth be in the hands of a small pool of transnational oligarchs and their hangers-on?
New forms of politics are resistant to easy definition. They don’t slot into the available formats. Media hacks hate having to think too hard. Hate having to get their heads around the fact that millions believe that the only way to create a future worth living is to confront and reject the profit system. The mainstream media is threatened by a fifth estate: a democratic public making the daily news their own.
*All images © Timothy Gabb.