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Terrified? That’s an understatement


OPINION: Already the decision to protest has been made, and sadly there are anarchists and vandals drooling over the prospect of what havoc the National Shutdown on March 20 will bring, writes Lance Fredericks.

A group of Nehawu members protest. File picture: Itumeleng English, African News Agency (ANA)

HOW IS it that old people are so scared of (seemingly) everything? It’s something that I have often wondered about.

From what I have learned, it appears as if anxiety becomes more common with older age. Experts suggest that rising anxiety levels is most common among middle-aged adults.

Wait a second … that’s me! But the good news is that it’s highly unlikely that my anxiety will increase with old age. You see, I was never really that brave to begin with – just ask most of my friends, all of my family and everyone that has crossed paths with me.

American comedian George Burns who lived to the ripe old age of 100 once said, “At my age flowers scare me.”

Woody Allen was also a bit of a ‘scaredy cat’. He once said, “It’s not that I’m afraid to die, I just don’t want to be there when it happens.”

Anyway, rising levels of fear, according to researchers, “may be due to a number of factors, including changes in the brain and nervous system as we age, and being more likely to experience stressful life events that can trigger anxiety”.

I also think it could have to do with observing the world and seeing how things can go spectacularly wrong in a heartbeat.

Having said that, I must admit that I am feeling a bit – make that a lot – of trepidation about the national shutdown planned for next week. You see, in my experience, South African protests have never been models of order and discipline.

The right to protest is enshrined in our Constitution. According to the Regulations of Gatherings Act 205 of 1993, “Everyone has the right to assembly, to demonstrate, to picket, and to present petitions.”

That sounds pretty orderly, but just this past week I read a story where tensions ran high as a group of students protested outside the Thekwini TVET College Centec Campus in KwaZulu-Natal.

According to the report, students blocked off the busy road and there were allegations that they flung bottles at passing motor vehicles before police and the local Community Policing Forum intervened.

The students were demonstrating because they were demanding working computers and financial aid from the National Student Financial Aid Scheme (NSFAS).

Here is the question I asked myself, would the passing motorists whose cars were vandalised feel more positive and supportive about the cause of the students, or less so? Putting myself in the shoes of the motorists, I would not be impressed.

After all, why were the students lashing out at motorists? Did the drivers have working computers or stolen NSFAS funds in their cars? Highly unlikely.

But that’s something to which we have become accustomed. Protests will – it’s no longer a possibility, but practically a certainty – degenerate into violence and vandalism. And that scares me.

Do we need to break down amenities and infrastructure in order for our voices to be heard? And for that matter, do we have to put other citizens – who are also struggling, but who may need to work to put food on their table – at risk? Are they the enemy because they did not join the protest? And if so, why do they need to be attacked? That does not make sense.

The mayor of Cape Town, Geordin Hill-Lewis spoke out against the shutdown in a short video clip saying, “Don’t be stupid, don’t organise a national shutdown and don’t try that nonsense in Cape Town. Here we’re building for the future. We’re moving forward, we’re getting people into work and out of poverty. We don’t have time for a national shutdown and we’ll make sure it doesn’t happen here.”

Of course, it’s worrying that trying to use reason to appeal to a crowd whipped into a frenzy will generally fall on deaf ears – I get the sense that the voice of reason could very well be drowned out by jeering.

It’s as if you are not entitled to an opinion if your opinion goes against the majority.

I keep wondering, what will remain of our already fragile economy, country, cities, people on March 21? Because already the decision to protest has been made.

And sadly there are anarchists and vandals – who have no interest in building up the country, but rather have an interest in hurling projectiles or igniting fires – drooling over the prospect of what havoc the 20th will bring.

Wait a minute. By what I have written, does that mean that I am supportive of the government’s seeming indifference to the state of the country? By no means! I personally believe that it’s shocking how the wheels have come off South Africa in less than three decades.

However, I am one of those people who are not in favour of destroying the little that is left just to demonstrate to a government that people are frustrated.

After all, are mass protests and mayhem the recipe of choice? Is that the only way we know of getting our way? Tantrums and bullying tactics?

I mean, with the ongoing strike by the National Education, Health and Allied Workers’ Union (Nehawu), I was left asking the question, How does barring access to a hospital help an argument? Have strikers never considered whether their actions do harm?

In an opinion piece in The Star this week, Morgan Phaahla speaks about watching visuals of Nehawu members blockading roads and entry points to inhibit essential services staff access into the hospital premises.

“They couldn’t care less of the consequence of denying children, pregnant women and people with chronic conditions their right to health care,” he writes, and adds, “In the end, an injured bunch of those demonstrators sought medical attention from the very facilities which they disrupted from serving vulnerable patients.”

The mind boggles.

So, to those who will be marching and expressing your frustrations on Monday, as a fellow citizen of, and resident in, this country I would like to urge restraint – after all, a show of solidarity and protest does not have to be synonymous with vandalism and chaos.

And for those who will not be part of the protests, be very, very careful. One never knows when tensions will erupt. It’s important that, while you claim the right to follow your conscience, you consider that there are those who may disagree with you – possibly violently.

I pray that March 21, Human Rights Day, finds us all content, safe and appreciative of the democracy that so many sacrificed so much for.

Fingers crossed.

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