This follows on from ‘South Africa – the week that followed: Where to from here?’ so if you didn’t read that maybe start there.


For all those of you who marched or live protested for the first time on Friday, i think it might be helpful to share one possible reason or different perspective that may help you see why some people took issue to the idea of the march.

To achieve this, i want to share three pictures of a march.

[1] The first one arrived in my inbox sent by a black friend of mine who went down to take a look at the march [having decided not to march] and this was her experience:

Most protesters were flashing their expensive phones recording the event, some of them holding on and sharing their coffee from Vida Cafe and NU, there was also bottled water from Woolies that was also been shared. After a while the leader announced that now they can decide to go join the other group about 5km ahead or return back, then overhearing people ordering Uber to take them to their different destinations, I felt better about not joining this protest because I knew that the junk status is quite relative and affects races differently. #Just an ordinary day in SA.

[2] A few months ago i volunteered as a PJW [Peace and Justice Witness] to help out as an observer at one of the #FeeMustFall marches in town which went from the CPUT campus to parliament. There was an impressive group of thousands of people representing a number of different campuses and they marched in an orderly fashion and presented a letter to someone at parliament.

i was standing at the back of the crowd and so couldn’t see what was going on right at the front, but something happened and the crowds just broke and started running and we joined them as we heard shots being fired. Tear gas and explosive pop grenades [producing a deafening sound to disorientate and confuse] were being set off and we ended up a side street. Three of us were wearing the official white vests with ‘Peace Justice Witness’ displayed in bold letters and a few of the students had joined us as we made our way up the street. There was what felt like chaos all over town and people were running in different groups and police were advancing with vehicles and on foot and so all just kept moving and waiting and trying to figure out where would be safe. 

Eventually i saw two cars in the corner of one road so i called our little group [about seven or eight of us] to hide behind the cars and that’s when we saw across the field we were next to, a police vehicle driving up that road spraying rubber bullets at various people. Everyone in our group was pretty terrified. The car made its way to the top of the road and then turned right and started heading towards our road. We decided to stay put cos there was no way we would be able to get away on foot. Then it stopped at the end of the road a few hundred meters away from us and the side door opened and that was the moment when i thought we were going to get shot…

But we didn’t. They closed the door, but then they started driving down our road towards us. We were completely trapped. i was stuck in the corner and in front of me were Bron and Leanne, who were on my team, also with white vests. As the car pulled up right next to us, a car distance away from us, the door opened again and there was a cop with his gun pointed right at us. Leanne in a moment of absolute bravery – or stupidity – stood up with her hands in the air and holding up her vest saying “PJW! PJW!” and there was a pause… and then the man closed the door and they drove away.

Did we get off because we were white or because we had the PJW vests? Hard to say. My money is on the fact that we were white but there was definitely some kind of privilege working for us that day. A day when many other people were being shot at and tear gassed and almost driven over with one of the tank vehicles. 

But best way i can describe it is that it felt like a post-apocalyptic encounter where we were running around the streets hiding out from those shooting us.

However, and this is important, i never felt like for one second i was going to die or get arrested. i did think i was possibly going to get shot by a rubber bullet and how that might hurt a lot, but that was honestly my biggest fear.

[3] Then, to really start to get the understanding of the kind of marches some people have embarked on in this country you must get hold of the documentary ‘Miners Shot Down’ which is a brutal live-footage telling of the story of the 50 plus miners who were killed during that fateful week in 2012. Or hear the stories and see the pictures from the 1960 Sharpeville massacre. Watch the chilling video of students being shot at and dragged across roads at the Rhodes #FeesMustFall demonstrations. Being shot, tear gassed, manhandled, arrested, sexually attacked and more.

Sharpeville 1960

This is a very simplistic breakdown of the differences, but i think there is enough here to help you get the picture of why some people who took part in a number three type march might not be super excited or appreciative that you embarked on a number 1 type march.

When i joined the #FeesMustFall march, i left at 5.30 in the morning to get there on time and made it home sometime around 4.30. So when i hear about the 30 minutes someone gave to the Friday march, it just doesn’t seem like the same thing.

Commitment to a cause vs Comfort and enjoyment.

The notion of ‘We are going to do whatever it takes’ compared to ‘Let’s do this for a bit, get some pics and then catch an uber to grab some cocktails at Camps Bay’. March selfie everybody!

Do you get why some people might have had some questions? Or strong feelings? Or frustrations?

i think this picture below sums it up to some extent. It is the same picture, but the artist has made ten small changes between picture one and picture two. Give yourself points out of ten for how many of them you can find.

March pics

Again, this is not me saying to everyone who chose to march on Friday that you got it wrong. But i am saying i hope this helps you in some small way to understand that this march was not the same as those marches. As a white person at a march you are already less likely to be shot at or tear gassed or imprisoned [especially if you’re not just one person in a sea of black faces] because that is an aspect of unearned white privilege that we tend to carry. That’s just the way it is [which is why back at the #FeesMustFall march in Newlands a group of white people were able to link arms and make a chain to protect a group of black people.]

Are we going to be as quick to respond to the fire that happens in Khayelitsha as we are to the one that happens in Tokai [quick google brought up an article that said R4 million was spent on combatting the Tokai fire]?

Are we going to be as responsive to the next township sanitation march as we are to the one that more closely affects our interests?

We can’t be at all the marches – i’m not saying that. i’m encouraging us to keep listening and spotting discrepancies when they occur and try putting our feet in other people’s shoes and sitting down with people who have attended these other marches and letting them share their stories with us. I’m talking about intentionally deepening our friendships with people who don’t look like us so that we can move away from an US vs THEM mentality [that says things like “those people” or is okay with the fact that only C’s and B’s can be suspicious looking in neighbourhood watch groups] and start building communities. So that issues are not removed from us but are affecting people we know and love, because THEN we will be far more likely to be mobilised to demonstrate and protest and get involved in ways that will be experienced as more significant and helpful.

Lastly, after posting this on Facebook, my friend Graeme Codrington jumped on and summed it up in a comment which i found superhelpful:

To add to your point: you’re not saying that white people who are new to mass protest should not get involved, and you’re not saying that last Friday’s march was not valuable. What you are saying is that white people new to mass protest should be less self-congratulatory and act a little more humbly. We are newbies to this, and we didn’t put much skin in the game last Friday. That doesn’t mean it wasn’t worth doing. It was a good start. Hopefully it was just a warm up for sometime in the future when your country might demand something from you that will actually cost you something.

[To return to Part I of this post, click here]

[For some post march reflections, click here]

[For a focus and some ideas of what to do now after last week, click here]