[News] All occupiers are equal, but some occupiers are more equal than others

Anti-Imperialist News news at freedomarchives.org
Mon Nov 7 12:04:03 EST 2011

All occupiers are equal, but some occupiers are more equal than others

Critical reflections on #OccupyCapeTown

Jared Sacks

2011-11-03, Issue <http://www.pambazuka.org/en/issue/556>556

Approximately 200 Cape Town residents 
participated in the call for a World Revolution 
Day on 15 October, inspired by the growing 
worldwide Occupy Movement. We arrived at Company 
Gardens next to parliament in typical Capetonian 
fashion: mostly late, disjointed, and with a huge 
array of goals and personal agendas to complete on the first day.

In fact, the majority of 'occupiers' arrived so 
late for the revolution that the clean-shaven 
undercover security operative (sporting an 
earpiece and touristy camera) had already deemed 
the protest to be non-threatening and was long 
gone. The police barely noticed the relaxed 
picnic atmosphere that was apparent once the crowd grew to more than 70.

Yet despite the beginnings of #OccupyCapeTown, 
the day did have #OccupyWallSt potential. Cape 
Town being one of the most unequal, segregated, 
and racist cities in the world has hundreds of 
thousands of angry (though demoralised) youth 
waiting for real change. The townships are a 
ticking time bomb anticipating the intersection 
between screams of Sekwanele! and sparks of hope 
that a mass-based social movement can provide. 
Would the 99 per cent actually show up? In the 
end, those that arrived, with the exception of an 
entourage from Communities for Social Change, 
were predominantly in the top 19 percentile of 
the 99. And yet, there was still potential in 
this space of mostly white privileged activists. 
Some were acutely aware how their privilege posed 
problems for the bottom 80 per cent. Seeking to 
engage directly with issues of white supremacy, 
class and patriarchy within the 99 per cent, they 
tried to create a space of solidarity with poor 
communities without speaking for them or 
co-opting their struggles. To these few 
activists, Occupy Cape Town was an exciting 
experiment in building radical equality that is 
actively asserted, not merely assumed.

As the day progressed however, many of us were 
disheartened by the most vocal of the 19 per 
cent. Our four general assemblies seemed to be 
dominated by well-read internet activists who 
came with all the answers. Paraphrased crudely:

- The solution is for the poor to buy solar panels for their houses.
- We must all just stop buying things so the system falls apart.
- We should start an internet café for the poor 
to participate in our internet revolution.
- We must recycle!
- There's another way to occupy, its by our 
actions...eat baked beans on toast and close bank accounts.
- Machines should take the place of human labour to end wage slavery.

Yet when people critically reflected on the 
racial make-up of the meeting, there were demands 
from a barrage of 'colour-blind' activists to 
stop ‘making this about race’. When class was 
brought up in the assembly, it was countered with 
calls not to divide the movement. ‘We are the 
99%,’ they cheered. When women spoke (and few did 
speak in this male-dominated space), it seemed 
that their points were often ignored. So how did 
the ideals of an occupation for the immediate 
assertion of equality get perverted so quickly?

The US radical Malcolm X once said: ‘If you stick 
a knife nine inches into my back and pull it out 
three inches, that is not progress.’ Many say 
that the post-1994 era was just that: the knife 
of white supremacy is still present while 
oppression is now couched in terms of ideals of a 
liberal non-racial democracy. Radical groups like 
Blackwash use much more direct language when they 
say: ‘Fuck the rainbow nation. Coz 1994 changed 
fokol!’ Groups like Blackwash and Abahlali 
baseMjondolo are saying that, while there are no 
more pass laws nor legal racism, poor and black 
people (especially black women) are still 
oppressed by essentially the same system that gave birth to Apartheid.

And if ‘oppression’, as John Holloway puts it, 
‘always implies the invisibility of the 
oppressed’, one can begin to understand that a 
huge theoretical gulf exists between the lived 
experience of those whose voices are invisible 
and the liberal white activists who proclaim that 
we are all, in fact, the same.

Yet, the most telling experience of the day was 
the debate that took place before Occupy Cape 
Town marched up Long Street to the offices of 
ETV. During the general assembly that preceded 
the march, someone expressed their concern that a 
placard proclaiming ‘FUCK the Rich’ would be used 
against us when filmed by ETV. Others agreed 
saying that it was a violent statement, released 
negative energy, and was not in line of the 
peaceful purpose of the occupation. Attempting to 
use the democratic procedure of the general 
assembly, a number of white liberal activists 
agreed, saying that there should be consensus 
with regards to the slogans we use on our 
placards and banners. Nothing seemingly violent 
or racist was acceptable. While the group of poor 
black protesters from Mannenberg who had written 
the placard reluctantly agreed to leave it 
behind, this decision was resisted by an 
independently-minded person within the group and 
that same placard eventually did find its way onto the news.

If its true as radical feminist bell hooks 
explains that ‘patriarchy rewards men for being 
out of touch with their feelings’, then a 
relevant corollary could be that, in a white 
supremacist patriarchal capitalist society, white 
men are not only out of touch with their own 
feelings and that of others, they are also out of 
touch with the modes by which they belittle and 
oppress others. This is not any less true during 
a radically democratic occupation than within the 
oppressive institutions of society itself. Thus, 
it was only logical that the dominance of liberal 
whites who mostly desired the tweaking of 
capitalism or the creation of idealistic utopias 
by withdrawing from the system (rather than 
overthrowing it), would attempt to build some 
sort of ideological hegemony based on their own 
privileged Western orientation.

If some occupiers are more equal than others, it 
is about time that white male activists who 
sincerely want to dismantle oppression, begin to 
take seriously the voices of the oppressed from 
within the 99 per cent. Some places to start 
might be the writings of well-known radical 
theorists like Franz Fanon, bell hooks and Bantu 
Biko. Yet, we may also want to grapple with the 
self-written works of shackdwellers like the 
Symphony Way Pavement Dwellers and Abahlali baseMjondolo.


* Jared Sacks is a Cape Town-based activist 
working with community-based social movements and 
the Occupy Cape Town movement.
* Please send comments to 
<mailto:editor at pambazuka.org>editor[at]pambazuka[dot]org 
or comment online at <http://www.pambazuka.org/>Pambazuka News

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