South Africans march in different directions

Rudi Buys

Rudi Buys

Published Mar 24, 2024


The last mass march by whites in South Africa took place in 1990. More than 20 000 marched against the release of former President Nelson Mandela and FW de Klerk’s political interventions.

Since then, the marches with the largest number of whites, either as a majority or in smaller numbers as part of a larger gathering, were against farm murders and against former President Jacob Zuma.

It was only in 2017 that whites again joined a march that reached numbers of more than 20 000 in what must have been one of the most prominent marches across racial lines since 1994 – the march for Zuma to resign.

In the same year white protesters also headlined the news for protesting farm murders – the one issue that since 1994 has consistently drawn whites as the majority in a protesting group, with protesters on foot, with tractors, bakkies and even on horseback – the most recent of these in 2020.

Sadly, while many at these events fly the national flag, among the protesters there always are some who fly the apartheid flag or don apartheid-styled combat uniforms, even when organisers strictly forbid it.

As an exception, past marches by a white worker union have not included campaigners flying the apartheid flag or other such symbols. The most prominent of these in recent times was a union strike in 2018 against a share scheme offered exclusively to black staff by one of the largest public chemical and energy companies.

Whites who join marches with protesters from across racial groups in contrast always wear the colours of and fly the South African flag. In emotionally charged scenes they grab their chests, hands over hearts, when the national anthem is sung. They stand shoulder to shoulder to black protesters and attempt to join Struggle songs.

Yet the general view remains that white South Africans do not and will not join public protest marches. Commentators put this down to their position of privilege in society relative to other racial groups, or otherwise due to whites’ sense of distance and disconnect in the current political climate. Still others explain the absence of whites by naming it an expression of latent colonial-type attitudes.

They argue it is a terrible reality that public protest in South Africa is in actual fact a black thing - a citizenship activity that whites for inherent reasons of white identity and history are unable to join. Whites-only marches are associated with some form of longing for the past, rooted in some form of racism, and only in service of white interests. These perspectives are repeated in formal academics with research almost exclusively focusing on protests taking place in black communities.

White protests are mostly researched as evidence of white racial attitude trends. There is however another picture of white protesting emerging. Out of the public eye and prominent news, whites are increasingly joining local marches and protest gatherings. They among others for example join protests against public service failures, for student funding, and for racial togetherness on Reconciliation Day.

This was the case yesterday when on Human Rights Day we saw whites join other South Africans in marches. In Muizenberg women from different racial communities marched to build unity between communities; in the centre of Cape Town a march protesting the intersecting injustices of energy, water, food, land, housing and gender-based violence; and from Simon’s Town a march for a ceasefire in Gaza.

Are marches a black thing? Sure. A white thing? Maybe. A South African thing? Undoubtedly.

* Rudi Buys, NetEd Group Chief Academic Officer and Executive Dean, DaVinci Business Institute.

** The views expressed here are not necessarily those of Independent Media.

Cape Argus

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