Ubuntu in Germany Column

South African protests show a healthy democracy well worth investing in

(Editor: Alex Smit-Stachowski is a South African journalist and speaking in her column about the country of her birth. She had lived in Krefeld, in North Rhine-Westphalia/ Germany).

Germans have watched the South African recent public marches with interest and wondered, “What is going on? Is South Africa falling apart? Should I worry about investing there?” Being in the centre of the action, as a South African who recently returned from life in Germany, I can say that all the protest is a healthy sign of a thriving democracy growing in a barren global landscape.

EFFSmitStachowski

© Picture by Alexandra Smit-Stachowski: Recent protests in South Africa are healthy and show a thriving democracy. I took this picture balancing on a rubbish-bin while facing the EFF marchers, numbered at 40,000 who had just approached Sandton. The South African police kept a close watch.

University students took to the streets all over the country to protest fee hikes. After 21 years of democracy, the ‘born-frees’ (children born after 1994) united to protest the suggested increases – all races stood side by side to be teargassed, chased by the police and slept on the steps of their universities to ensure that authorities got the message. It was the first time in South Africa’s history that a multiracial protest took place. “It’s the language ‘they’ understand”, student leaders told TV cameras.

They were right. Debates in parliament and in the press were heated and President Jacob Zuma held a press conference to confirm that the #feesmustfall campaign had won – for 2016 at least, there will be no fee hikes for the universities.

Germans are no strangers to marching for what they believe in – while in Germany, I joined concerned citizens marching to protest the rise of neo-Nazi parties and in official Greenpeace marches showing a unified front against Shell in the Arctic or outside nuclear plants to make nuclear stations reconsider their actions. The numbers are low compared to those in South Africa but the spirit of unity is one of kindred brotherhood.

Recently the Economic Freedom Front (EFF), a political party fronted by former ANC hopeful Julius Malema told his supporters, clad in red overalls with berets to join him in Johannesburg and march from the centre of town to the financial headquarters in Sandton. The eight-kilometre march took hours and hardgoing in the sweltering sun, but the marchers were determined. Shortly before month-end, many had no money for cool-drinks or snacks but Malema tweeted that many non-marchers gave the people water and oranges – a sign of solidarity unseen in the past.

They were marching to raise awareness about the inequalities still present in South Africa – many feel that the poor remain poor and the country’s wealth is firmly held by a small elite. After the promises in 1994 of a home for all, a job for all – a segment of the poor is still overlooked. It will take time to achieve a more balanced economic situation for all in the country but protests raise awareness at home and politicians are listening. The next election is around the corner and it is important to be seen to take action.

The message is loud and clear – these protests are signs of a democracy using its constitutional rights and there are visible and constructive results. South Africans want a better life for all and have a determined commitment to this – it is therefore well worth investing here as South Africa has a hopeful future with many possibilities.

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