by Anthony Egan SJ

The annual disruption of the State of the Nation Address (SONA) has concluded for the year. Is it perhaps worth reflecting on the purpose and practice of protest? What is the purpose of protest? When does it work? And what might be its cost?

Protest in various forms (including marches, sit-ins, civil disobedience etc.) is the disruption of normality to highlight an injustice, express disapproval of a policy or demand change. Unlike a riot it is usually carefully coordinated, and based on ground rules, the latter including at very least pragmatic commitment to non-violence. In democratic societies its intention is reform of the system rather than the system’s destruction.

For protest to work it needs sustained, widespread popular support. Though protesters are almost always a minority they need at least the silent support of the majority. Or, in the process, they need to convince a majority that they have a valid point worthy of consideration.

The latter is important both for protest to succeed and to avoid the temptation to protest simply for the sake of disruption. Disruption for its own sake may in the long term be counterproductive, alienating protesters from potential supporters. At worst it can create conditions for a government crackdown (often backed by the now alienated majority), undermining in the process the democratic process itself.

This year’s SONA accentuated this. The Economic Freedom Fighters’ (EFF) grounds for protest may have been reasonable and just. Their objections to the undermining of our democracy are commendable. Three years ago when they disrupted SONA I suspect many South Africans were both surprised and impressed: they challenged us to think about the gap between form and practice of our democracy. I doubt if as many were impressed in 2017. If anything I suspect most people were bored.

SONA 2017 also demonstrates the counterproductive side of unconsidered protest. What we saw in Cape Town with police and army on the streets was, in effect, a localised state of emergency. While the EFF may argue with some justification that it represented the moral bankruptcy of the state and government’s lack of commitment to actual democracy, an edging towards dictatorship, whether such a situation is helpful to democracy is questionable.

It echoes the twisted logic of some Vietnam War–era US generals, summed up in the brutal paradox: “We had to destroy the village to save it.” History teaches that when democracies are destroyed they take a long and painful time to be repaired. Add to this the fact that a movement that deliberately flaunts constitutional processes (however flawed they may be) may not in popular imagination be seen to be the poster children of the democracy they advocate.

This is not to say that protest or some other form of symbolic action is either illegitimate or futile. Just that before one acts for the sake of acting (which may itself seem to be an expression of impotence by the actor) it needs careful prior thinking and building up a base of support.