In the early spring of 1930, Mohandas Gandhi set off on a 380-kilometre march from his ashram near Ahmedabad in the Indian state of Gujarat to the coastal town of Dandi. He began his journey accompanied by several dozen followers but by the time he reached the coast, thousands more had joined him.
Gandhi’s mission was to collect salt where it dried and crystallised in the intertidal zone of the Arabian Sea.
Britain’s Salt Act of 1882 forbid Indians from collecting or selling salt – a vital component of any human’s diet – thus forcing Indians to buy the commodity from their colonial rulers, who, in addition to exercising a monopoly over the manufacture and sale of salt, also levied a heavy salt tax.
Those first footsteps to Dandi signalled the beginning of the biggest and most far-reaching act of civil disobedience in human history. Gandhi’s famous Salt March resulted in the arrest of nearly 60 000 people, including Gandhi himself as well as many beatings and quite a few shootings. All across India people followed his example and within days, millions of Indians were involved. In an attempt to quell the protest, British authorities kept Gandhi in prison but his particular brand of passive resistance, satyagraha, had by then had transmogrified into an unbottled genie and continued without him.
The Salt March launched the trajectory to India’s independence in 1947. Not only had the territory been the biggest jewel in Britain’s colonial crown but it was also the goose that laid egg after golden egg, so fulfilling a major function in financing Britain to become most of the globe’s military, industrial and commercial overlord for nearly 200 years.
To claim that the British ruled India kindly with fine feelings mixed with equal measures of compassion and wisdom would be a lie. Indeed Britain’s sojourn on the sub-continent was marked by cruelty, greed, callous indifference and arrogant entitlement. The 1770 Bengal famine, which accounted for more than 10 million lives was caused primarily by heavy colonial taxes; The Great Rebellion of 1857 which across the land saw Indian sepoy soldiers being blown from the mouths of cannons – these were but two events in the Raj period and the time that preceded it, that might be regarded as a glorious era by some and shameful by others – depending on where you’re standing and what criteria you’re using to make such judgments.
For instance, British authorities had spitefully crushed Dandi’s salt deposits deep into the sand to prevent the marchers from harvesting the mineral. But Gandhi thwarted them by recovering a small crystal solid – which symbolically was all that he needed. On a later occasion in 1943, when asked about yet another Bengal famine in which more than three million people had perished, British World War 2 supremo Winston Churchill is reported to have blamed the starving Indians for ‘breeding like rabbits’, and asked how, if food shortages were so dire, then why was Gandhi still alive?
The Oxford Dictionary defines Civil Disobedience as ‘action taken by a large group of people in which they refuse to obey particular laws or pay taxes, usually as a form of peaceful political protest’.
It comes in many forms and expresses itself in countless ways. When African-American Rosa Parks refused to give up her bus seat to a white commuter in Alabama in 1955, she became the symbol that inspired the Montgomery bus boycott, a pivotal event in America’s civil rights history. More recently Native-American protesters’ efforts at Standing Rock in North Dakota to prevent an oil pipeline going through sacred Sioux ground were met with heavy-handed response by American authorities. In the first part of the last century, British women who believed in the right for women to vote – the suffragettes – chained themselves to railings around Buckingham Palace in protest. It was only in 1928 that women over the age of 21 were granted the same voting rights as men. China’s notorious 1989 Tiananmen Square Massacre, symbolised by the iconic image of ‘Tank Man’ blocking the movement of army tanks, goes down in history as a watershed in Chinese politics where peaceful protest and the 300 dead remain to this day, taboo topics in China.
Civil disobedience – it’s happening right now all over the world – In Spain, France, the US, Brazil, Indonesia and Ireland. The events and circumstances are all different but inevitably there’s a common denominator that’s always the same: some sort of injustice that is sufficiently compelling to drive people to push the edges of their societal envelopes. It’s precipitated by social injustice, legal injustice, class injustice, racial injustice or any other category of injustice. It happens when the members of a particular society demand change.
Having said all that, do I sniff the whiff of civil disobedience fermenting in the air, here in South Africa?
Yes folks, I believe that we have a situation on our hands. For starters read this statement clearly laid out for all to see. It’s on the web site of heritage vegetable seed company Livingseeds who are based in Henley-on-Klip in Gauteng.
Livingseeds has taken a stance that we will not provide seed on any Government tender.
The tender system is broken, and is fraught with corrupt officials, tenderpreneurs, processes and a general decay of morals and ethics.
Until we as ordinary citizens are comfortable that our tax Rands are being spent correctly, and with due consideration to the people and companies that actually produce those taxes, we will be withholding our product and services from unnecessary ‘tenderflation’.
Please Note: We do not care if you are paying cash or even if it’s guaranteed business. It’s not the kind of business that we want.
Before I go any further let me be clear that Livingseeds are one of the good guys. They’re in the food growing business at basement level. They sell a vast variety of heritage vegetable seeds online. This means that if you buy some of their seeds; plant, harvest and eat the vegetables then retain their seeds – you’ll in all probability be able to plant those retained seeds for the following growing season to benefit from another harvest. Livingseeds caters for a market that shuns the milk-the-customer-every-year approach adopted by the greater part of the commercial seed supply sector who by sheer market and historical presence has been able to coerce the customer into buying seeds that have been genetically modified to fruit but not propagate. In other words, the ensuing generation of seeds is sterile… requiring the farmer, market gardener or home grower to purchase again to plant for the following season.
We plant Livingseeds’ offerings here on this farm. We find the company to be cheerful, efficient, optimistic, honest, innovative and above all… ethical. They are not crazy archetypal anarchists running around with bombs hidden behind long coats spouting Mikhail Bakunin slogans. Livingseeds is a modern, progressive organisation which incidentally, is run according to Christian values.
So why would a company like Livingseeds make such a public statement and possibly throw away the chance of doing potentially lucrative business with its own government? After all it appears that there is no shortage of ANC comrades out there who would kill (figuratively and also perhaps literally) for the chance of a juicy contract that could result in the acquisition of a Land-Rover Discovery, or at the very least, a case of Jameson whiskey.
Because Livingseeds, like hundreds of other businesses and tens of thousands of citizens, black and white, across length and breadth of the land have had enough of shockingly bad governance and endemic corruption. Its stance reflects the mood that’s currently hanging heavy in the air: time seems to be ripe for change.
The easiest change would be for the ANC to announce that it’s reforming itself and then do so by walking the walk after talking its talk. That’s what everyone, with the exception of certain cadres, comrades and tenderpreneurs, would like to hear and observe. I should imagine that after seeing that progress was being made, Livingseeds would withdraw its trading policy statement and everyone else would be going about the business of repairing a shattered economy and healing a fractured society.
But this is South Africa. We can dream but we’re also realists. Our hair shirt is that we’re saddled up to a primitive creature – a dinosaur called the ANC. It’s one of those with a miniscule brain embedded in a smallish head connected to a massive body. It has a prodigious appetite for flesh of any description, huge strength, mind-boggling greed and an astounding capacity for destruction. We know that these qualities along with others will inevitably conspire to cause its own demise and possibly that of its habitat as well. But in the meantime while this monster crashes around the landscape called South Africa; other residents have no option but to respond to its senseless, illogical and destructive behavior.
Let’s for a minute invade the breakfast nook of the Magashule household. Ace is on diet so he’s limiting himself to a soft-boiled egg with one slice of wholewheat toast and only a scraping of Vrede farm butter, while Gift and Thato are going the whole hog with a full Free State farm breakfast each of eggs, Estina bacon, boerewors, grilled tomato, baked beans and vetkoek.
‘So what are you lads planning today to keep the wolf from the door?’ enquires Ace, wondering if he might risk a third spoon of sugar in his coffee.
‘We thought you might help us with some pointers towards snaffling a soft touch,’ answered Thato through a mouthful of vetkoek and beans.
‘You must learn not to talk with your mouth full,’ snapped Ace. ‘It makes you appear greedy.’
‘He is greedy,’ interjected Gift. ‘He ate all of my KFC when I was in the Gents at the Parys 1-Stop yesterday.’
‘What were you two doing in Parys?’ asked Ace suspiciously. ‘I thought that I told you to leave that Vaal River tender for Thoko.’
‘But Thoko gets all the nice ones Dad,’ said Thato querulously. ‘She got that nice filling station at Witsieshoek. We haven’t had anything nice since the Guptas took Gift and me to Dubai.’
‘Yes, and don’t tell us that those PPE contracts were nice,’ added Gift. ‘We have to wear those Chinese masks whenever the press is around and my Beemer’s boot is overflowing with plastic shields that have cracked and ultra-small nitrile gloves that don’t fit anyone.’
‘You boys have become very spoilt,’ growled Ace, draining the last of his coffee. ‘I’m off now. I’ve got to swing by Luthuli House to have a word with Nkosazana about Cyril. He could become a little too big for his boots now that people are thanking him for letting them phuze and bhema again. So I suggest you forget about Parys and go off today to find some councillors to network with for township opportunities. I hear that there’s another sports stadium coming up somewhere.’
Nodding to his driver who was waiting outside the kitchen door, Ace told himself that meat was meat and a man had to eat.
In the real world such scenes are the stuff of Saturday Night Live parodying the Trump or Royal families. But in South Africa real has always been difficult to distinguish from surreal. Although Magashule breakfast conversations might not quite take this form; probably they are somewhat terser, more urgent and definitely quite cryptic with acquisitive greed and fundamental ruthlessness prevailing. Their world is a place of Dingane politics, amoral maneuvering and cynical deceit. And it’s become our world because Ace, his family and close buddies are our not-so-benevolent dictators.
It’s gone on for so long: Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma telling porkies to Parliament about Sarafina 2 way back in 1996; the Arms Deal; HIV-Aids, garlic, beetroot , lemon juice and that old but now late alkie Manto Tshabalala-Msimang; Jacob Zuma and his extraordinary presidency, not forgetting Nkandla and its fire pool; the incredible tale of how a clan of dodgy Indians from Saharapur in Uttar Pradesh managed to hijack an entire nation along with its government – the list is unbelievably long, and it goes on and on. Even right here on my doorstep where I live in a district controlled by an insignificant and rather doltish Metsimaholo Municipality, a fence stands forlornly around an empty space because some municipal officials managed to purloin the R24-million that was intended to fund a sports stadium that would have filled that space.
As South Africans reeled amidst the chaos caused by a global epidemic while at the same time were treated like naughty children by an ANC-contrived ‘Command Council’ that was clearly at war with itself, a fresh slew of Covid-inspired corruption cases surfaced. But ANC Secretary-General Ace Magashule told us shamelessly that it was okay for his two sons to win government tenders for supplying Covid-19 personal protection equipment.
‘Show me one leader of the ANC who hasn’t done business with the state,’ explained Ace.
This after Minister of Cooperative Governance and Traditional Affairs Nokosazana Dlamini-Zuma elucidated that one of the reasons why the government (meaning her?) banned the sale of cigarettes was because ‘when people zol, they put saliva on the paper, and then they share that zol…’, clearly getting her dagga roll-ups and factory-made cigarettes confused. This statement would have been a lot funnier if she didn’t have a vehement anti-tobacco track record while at the same time a son with complex and dubious links to the tobacco industry.
An outright liquor ban resulted in the closure of thousands of businesses and its domino effect put many thousands more out of work – permanently. Meanwhile the ANC monster plodded ponderously on, intent on eating as much as its prodigious appetite demanded, destroying most things that it touched.
Do you remember when Phil Collins sang ‘Can you feel it coming tonight? Oh in the air Lord, oh Lord’?
It’s like that now. The hour may well be upon us when we feel that we must do something otherwise we might go a little insane. And if we aren’t inclined to lob a bomb or assassinate an ANC official (which I’m sure nobody really is), then we might just feel less helpless by making a statement by not doing anything or perform one small illegal act and so defy the ANC establishment. Or like Livingseeds, publically refuse to do business with the government.
Many people defiantly contravened the liquor ban in its final stages. I know that when I went to buy takeaway pizzas at a certain establishment, people were having drinks, playing pool, discussing the merits of various Land-Rover engines, admiring a young Border Collie lying on the floor, smoking tobacco cigarettes outside on the terrace… in other words having a normal social pub evening with a distinct Fuck-You-Command-Council flavour. It may well be true that this type of expansive behaviour was unwise and that the epidemic should be taken more seriously. But the sad thing is that the ANC and its Command Council have lost so much credibility that whatever noises it makes are treated with disbelief and derision.
With every revelation of another corruption case; with yet another devious act not held to account; one more fat-cat scandal; more lies to the public and Parliament; further disregard for the poor… we become increasingly inured to the reality of the South Africa of today. The law matters little now because anyone can break it – it’s a lottery if you’re really guilty. The glue that once bound our social contract has been clumsily dissolved by a gang of egotisical but primitive clowns.
Perhaps in the not too distant future we’ll be embarking in our own Salt March. In the meantime, we protest in our own little silent and often pathetic ways. Because protest gets the spirits up and is good for the soul.
We’d included three Red Squares with our takeaway order so when we got home that night to settle down to our pizzas, we each raised a glass filled with cherry-flavoured vodka-infused cooler and toasted Nokosazana Clarice Dlamini-Zuma.
God bless her cotton socks!