“Julle is ’n klomp liegbekke – you’re a bunch of liars,” read one of the placards in a picture of a group of angry employees who were protesting at the head office of their company this week.
Drawn in awkward, bold letters on a flattened old cardboard box, the placard looks like a poster prepared by co-workers, furiously, hastily, with what pens they could find in the street where the live. It seems an honest attempt, even if crude, to show disgust and challenge an employer to address an injustice.
Held up by a protester dressed in a worn-out blue-collar jacket, the crude placard portrays this protest as one called by workers. It is not an artistic attempt to illustrate a cause.
These are protest images that are different from the printed placards and branded outfits of the mass rallies of political parties, and the dramatic performances of activist organisations – all of which are valid and legitimate expressions of citizen agency in a vibrant democracy.
However, crude placards and worn safety jackets of workers are not unique to any particular type of protest, just as printed posters and themed protest clothes aren’t either.
Still, arguably, the associations of distinct protest gear with diverse collectives and communities reveal hidden nuances of protest politics in our country, as much as of societies in general.
At the centre of the subtleties that underlie different protests is the struggle for legitimacy – achieving the agreement and active support of decision-makers, organisations and other citizens.
The struggle for legitimacy is often defined as the struggle for “resonance” – the sense that observers will gain that the cause or issue the protesters advance resonates with their lived experiences of society, and therefore deserves support.
To earn such recognition implies access to more resources to broaden the protest and its impact, to grow from one instance of protest to a movement for change with a sustained programme of action.
However, as illustrated in the images of the placards and worker-wear of protesters, resonance is not the only consideration with which observers assess the legitimacy of a protest. The crudeness of some of the posters and worn clothing of some of the protesters appear to show that these citizens are genuine, and therefore their cause can be trusted – genuine, because these images do not resemble the well-established gear of an organisation with enough resources to properly kit out its members.
This is the struggle for “authenticity”, where who the protesters seem to be matches with what society understands the legitimate reasons are for democratic action – the rights and freedoms of citizens and their collectives to live a dignified life.
Those protesters who observers perceive as coming from local communities, who, with what little resources they have, take on issues that affect their daily lives, and do so with courage and tenacity, are considered authentic.
The struggle for resonance with and authenticity in the eyes of other citizens and their collectives cause diverse types of protests to relate on what may be termed a “continuum of citizen protest”.
On the one end, grassroots protests with high levels of authenticity, and on the other, the calculated protests of political parties that pursue resonance for a manifesto.
Social movement protests lie at the centre, where instances and programmes in subtle ways merge to achieve authenticity and resonance.
What struggle remains is for the placards and workers at the grassroots to rally the allegiance of a society, even if only for one particular issue that will change their life for the better.
* The Rev Dr BR Rudi Buys is Executive Dean and Dean of Humanities of the non-profit higher education institution, Cornerstone Institute, and editor: African Journal of Non-Profit Higher Education, ISSN 2706-669X.