A Day at Occupy Cape Town
I can’t figure out how the crazies make it to all the protests. I’ve been thinking about this for a few days now.
They wear no uniform, but the crazies are easily recognizable: the guy in the cowboy hat/thong combo; the mysterious couple, both of them rocking dreads, trying to score a tab of acid; the guy who loudly voices his support for assassinating a mid-level, strategically insignificant public official. That one guy with the Molotov cocktail and Che Guevara t-shirt.
How do these people, who make up maybe 1% of all protestors, end up at every demonstration, rally, march or sit-in? Is there a club, with regular meetings and an agenda? Is there a Facebook group? A list-serve that sends out daily emails and a quote of the day (Bush is a Nazi! Obama IS the first Kenyan President….of the Illuminati!!)? Maybe they all go to the same dentist.
I wondered how many crazies attended Occupy Cape Town’s (OCT) general assembly meeting last Saturday. OCT meets every Saturday morning in Thibault Square, an open area about the size of a basketball court designed for the employees of surrounding banks to eat their lunches, take a cigarette break and quietly talk shit about their bosses. There are a few trees planted around the square, I assume to make the area feel less like a prison courtyard. From the center of the square, the somber buildings of FNB, Standard Bank, and Absa seemed to rise higher than Table Mountain. The sun reflected harshly off of their windows; the buildings looked like they were sparkling. Picture perfect symbolism.
About 15 people had arrived by 11AM. I had to guess that they were part of Occupy Cape Town as I walked towards them: no one brought the “Occupy Cape Town” banners (oops!). They looked like a bunch of friends hanging out on a nice day. Except for the Occupiers, Thibault Square was mostly empty. There were more pigeons than people. Maybe the pigeon community also has their Occupy Cape Town meetings there.
They’d wrapped up their general assembly meeting by the time I entered their circle. Everyone was friendly and inviting and normal. I was disappointed by the lack of crazies. About 100 liars had RSVP’d on the Occupy Cape Town Facebook Page and not shown up. No doubt some of the more slothful crazies had slept in and missed the meeting.
We started talking about recent world events. And then I saw her, yes her, over there, the one with the paranoid eyes and encouraging smile. We talked about the Occupy protests in the US (Crazy woman: “You know, most Nazis moved to the US after World War 2, and now they’re controlling the country.”). We analyzed and deconstructed all of the traditional enemies of progressivism: racism, sexism, homophobia, unfettered greed (Crazy woman: “We’re still living under apartheid!!! This right now, this here,” she said pointing to the unimaginative buildings and pigeons and quiet restaurants, “is apartheid.”).
I’ve been surprised by the dismantling of the Occupy encampments across the US. Not because I expected local governments to act with more empathy, but because of the amount of momentum and support the protesters have gained over the past few weeks.  I assumed most Americans were like me: sliding into a comfortable nook between political apathy and hopelessness. But people are pissed and genuinely want to do something about it. It’s inspiring (and no, the reports of violence/vandalism at a few of the protests haven’t discouraged me because a) it’s the crazies and b) the story’s always bigger than the crazies).
As I sat in the small circle at Occupy Cape Town, I wondered about their future. Before the Occupy movement, and its very distant cousin the Arab Spring, South Africa was the most recent model of successful, mostly nonviolent, large scale, political transformation. Protesting, striking, and marching are deeply rooted in South Africa’s national identity. When I watch the news, I get the sense that someone’s always protesting something somewhere in the country. 
Ask any person of color over 40 about apartheid and you’ll get a dramatic, probably exaggerated story about a time they, or someone they knew, contributed to the struggle. I started talking to a guy sitting next to me when the group’s conversation died down; he was in his early 40’s, had deep set eyes, a few too many wrinkles for his age and wore a worn leather jacket. Maybe he wore that jacket when he fire-bombed an apartheid office in the early 90’s. Maybe he was a crazy.
Yes, of course, he’d been involved in the struggle against apartheid, he said. He was kicked out of school for his part in the movement. He organized students at schools from Cape Town to Johannesburg. The police were brutal then. Rubber bullets and real bullets and canisters bursting with wispy, searching tear gas. He said that with a slight laugh and a shake of his head, as though he hadn’t told this story in a while and just remembered all of the small, surreal details.
I wondered if he thought this form of protest, people sitting around, more picnic than protest, could work.
Peacefully occupying public space seems like an unusually tame tactic here. A couple of examples: last week, residents of an informal settlement in Gugulethu protested the demolition of several shacks by placing burning tires on the highway and blocking another freeway with stones (no doubt the crazies played a key role here). Police responded with rubber bullets. A few weeks ago, thousands of youth marched almost 40 miles from Johannesburg to Pretoria. In contrast, about ten Occupiers attempted to camp out in Thibault Square on Friday night and were ordered to leave at 3:30 AM Saturday morning. They gathered their tents and left.
At about 2:30, after three and a half hours of inspired, rambling conversation, and a few hapless attempts at protest chants, we left. I caught a ride home with one of the older organizers, a bearded white South African who lives in the suburbs. As we passed through a quiet neighborhood near the University of Cape Town, we discussed the potential of OCT. He believed the political potential of Occupy Cape Town was limited, but thought it could do something just as important: break down some of the nasty, persistent social barriers in Cape Town.
South African social commentators often talk about the deep cultural divide across the country, one of the many scars of apartheid. Cape Town’s the perfect example: black and “colored” people live in separate townships, and white people remain barricaded behind the high fences and barbed wire of the suburbs. Outside of the tourist mecca Long Street and the neighborhoods immediately surrounding the University of Cape Town, you won’t find people of different ethnicities regularly hanging out together. Cape Town is extremely diverse, yet extremely segregated.
The group on Saturday represented what could become the ultimate result of Occupy Cape Town: young and old, black, white and “colored”, upper middle class and homeless, experienced protesters and expectant newbies, national and international, hanging out together. I’d never seen that before in Cape Town. So maybe Occupy Cape Town does nothing more than create a forum for South Africans of different ethnicities and classes to genuinely get to know each other. Maybe they can begin to wash away the residue of racial distrust left by apartheid.
That doesn’t seem like such a crazy idea.
1 They’ve benefited from some amazingly inclusive messaging. When your movement has no concrete platform or demands, I guess you can be everything to everybody. But still, kudos to the protesters for cultivating that ethos of inclusiveness. The fact that most Americans support the protestors (or at least did at some point) is a testament to that. Brilliant.
2 The right to strike and protest is guaranteed by the Constitution.