Candice: I read about the 8 United Behind (UA) activists arrested on November 1st when they held a sit-in at the offices of the National Prosecuting Authority (NPA) in Cape Town. There are a few links below to articles about it. They were calling for a warrant of arrest to be issued for Jacob Zuma who has avoided hundreds of criminal charges against him through political manipulation of state security machinery. One of the UA activists arrested, Alan, is an old friend of Greg from Crossings Travel. When I asked Greg about the sit-in he shared a story with me about a similar experience he had with Alan many years ago.
Greg: When Alan and I were at university, he got me involved with a bunch of students who were angry about the administration’s miss-use of scholarship funds intended for black students. After repeated failures to get the university to the negotiation table, the students decided to stage a sit-in. Up till the last minute, only a few of the student leaders knew where exactly the sit-in would happen. We were given time to arrive at the admin block, wondering around, trying to look nonchalant, then on a signal, we followed the ringleaders to a designated office.
As we were walking to the offices, it suddenly dawned on me that the person’s office they had chosen belonged to the Vice Principal who was a good friend of my Dad. So, as we were walking into the office, the VP looked up, saw trouble coming with all the students walking into his office quite clearly not intending to have a cup of tea, and the first person he recognised was me. He looked straight at me with the look that said ‘’you are dead’’.
Anyway, we spent the rest of the day sitting in the office and Alan and others were called out to go and negotiate with the administration. It was all quite exciting for me as a naïve youngster during the volatile early 90’s. University security even came in with a video camera to try and film us to use later in prosecution. We were threatened with having our degrees revoked.
Over the next few hours, the situation was resolved favourably for the students, but the two things that were really interesting for me was that Dad, who had raised me with a fairly liberal upbringing had apparently disowned me after the VP put a call through. Dad threw all my belongings out and a friend had to talk Dad down. I only found this out years later. That’s a story for another time…
The other thing that was really funny for me in retrospect was how hard I was trying to get arrested. I badly wanted to wear it like a badge – I’m so cool, I got arrested.
When they didn’t arrest us I was really disappointed. Only years later did I learn that Nelson Mandela had forced the Apartheid government to stop arresting political activists and on that day of the sit-in, the police were instructed by higher-ups not to arrest us.
You see, in the 80’s the Apartheid government wanted to release Mandela from jail in the hope of gaining some international credibility and bringing the domestic political temperature down a bit. Mandela refused to be released the last seven or eight years of his prison sentence because he had stated: ‘You can release me only when you commit to releasing all political prisoners and arresting no more activists.’
So this is a weird thing for me looking back. For most people who say ‘’We owe our freedom to Mandela,’’ it’s a celebration of what he won for all of us, but there’s a small sulky-kid part of me that thinks it kinda sucked. I wanted so bad to be arrested. Mandela screwed that up.
When I heard that these eight United Behind protesters had been arrested, I sent Alan a text with: ‘’Hey, hear you in jail.’’ And he replied, ‘’Ja, sorry boet, would’ve loved to include you but didn’t think it would be cool to put you in jail’,’ with that smirk emoji like he knew I was sulking again. Thanks, Al…
Funny as my own silliness is, it’s also important to say that as a white person political struggle was never really a costly thing for me. The black students back then in the 90’s sit-in were playing a life and death game. 25 years later the stakes are just as high for those not protected by privilege and white skin. For them, this is not about a cool story to tell your mates at the braai or your admiring grandkids one day. No, this is still as much a life and death struggle as it always has been.
It’s crazy to think that 25 years later activists are still being arrested for sitting in places, demanding justice!
I’m glad that our South African history of non-violence is not consigned to history and this gives me hope. I mean, here are eight people that, without arms, without threats of violence, were able to bring a major government institution to a standstill for a day, because of that institution’s failure to do its job. It was a good thing. Strength to their cause.
Candice: Hearing this story from Greg has really brought out my thinking cap. At first, I was a bit disappointed that after 25 years, not much had changed in my beautiful country but as Greg mentioned, people like United Behind truly do bring hope to us average South Africans.
I am also happy to report that the eight were released from prison. After being arrested late in the afternoon and taken to the police station they where put in a cell on their own. Even the processing officer knew it was B.S. and it was obvious that most of the cops weren’t really keen on making the arrest. The cops knew they were the cogs in the machine but they also knew that the higher-ups, the people calling the shots, are dirty.
This is also what makes United Behind so different. They weren’t pushy and disrespectful towards the people on the ground, they were just saying: ‘Look, we are calling into question the institution’s failure to arrest Zuma just because he’s the president. We know you are in a difficult position as the people who work here.’
So yes the cops were not keen to push through the charge, but United Behind was insistent because what they were doing was not just for show, it was to force the point even at the cost of facing criminal charges.
They were arrested for trespassing. They were placed in a cell. They had to spend the night in jail. The next day they were placed in front of the magistrate who eventually released them without bail on their own recognisance, indicating that even the magistrate thought the state charging these people for trespassing was silly. The case was postponed to the 5th of December.
Here are some of Alan’s reflections on the night they spent in jail:
“We were well taken care of until about 7 pm with the cops very reluctant to deal with us. We were informed we would be released last night but then things changed. It was bad-cops’ turn. The good thing was that we were kept in a separate holding cell and allowed to keep cell phones which were comforting until they died.
“This morning we were taken to court with others outside of our group and left altogether in a cell for about 30min before they separated us again. But in that half hour, each of us was robbed of our cash by two members of the 26s gang. They very seriously told us we must understand that they are just doing their job. It wasn’t pleasant and made us all the more grateful for the separate cell of last night. Then we witnessed a member of the 27s who came into our cell later be checked out for his rank and legitimacy by the same two 26s. Both fascinating and scary.
“I have learnt much in the last 24 hours not least that foreigners and the homeless get treated horrifically in the early hours of the morning for petty dope “crimes” etc. The place was filthy with too many things broken to list.”
We found some interesting articles on the arrest of the 8 activists, you can see them here: