Practising empathy through protest and debunking the myth that issues ‘don’t affect us’

April 7 was a day of national protest in South Africa. After President Jacob Zuma fired the finance minister, along with nine others, and triggered a downgrade by two credit rating agencies, protesters took to the streets calling on Zuma to resign. Caroline Vakil, a visiting student from the US, reflects on her experience covering it.

Covering the #PeoplesMarch in Pretoria that day, I found that some of the individuals I spoke to were protesting for their first time. “Everyone’s just so fed up. It’s not about race, it’s not about anything else. It’s about saving our country,” said one protester to me.

Another said, “I’m a student. I decided that nothing is going to get done unless I get up and come here myself.” The common theme I heard from students about why they came out to protest was, “This affects all of us.”

Listening to the young protesters, I started to cringe. Aside from the Women’s March that I attended in Chicago earlier this year, I had not previously been a part of any other protests. Growing up, I felt sceptical of the act of protesting. I shied away from politics and felt like I would be wasting my time. I felt that journalism was the best way for me to support different issues, allowing me to make people’s voices heard and communicate the issues at present.

I only recently started protesting when I went to the Women’s March, the day after the inauguration of President Donald Trump, a man known for making sexist and misogynistic comments, his tolerance of sexual harassment and his denial of women’s reproductive rights.

And of course, I went because women’s issues and rights directly affect me.

But this narrative is incredibly problematic because it allows people like me to acknowledge only the issues that directly affect us, ignoring the fact that rights issues affect us all in one way or another. It’s funny how I forgot the phrase we chanted during the Women’s March protest – “Women’s rights are human rights and human rights are women’s rights.”

Even before the anti-Zuma marches, protesting had become a contentious issue in South Africa. (See here and here, for example.) More recently, many have argued that the economic implications of Zuma’s cabinet reshuffle affect everyone and that these protests have brought people together. But there is also valid criticism that some are only banding together now that they feel personally affected by the state’s foibles.

University of Cape Town sociology professor Ari Sitas however argues that our identities naturally dictate which issues we will support and care about.

“If you are somebody who has children at a community that go to the university, then they might listen to the FeesMustFall message and be supportive. In terms of students, we’re about 700 000 people in a country of 55 million. There’s big noise when students do things. Therefore, a lot of people are conscious of what is going on.

“But in terms of toilets in Khayelitsha, Khayelitsha knows and the rest of the country doesn’t. And when a community in Khayelitsha goes on a service delivery protest, the country’s indifferent,” Sitas added. He argued it’s easy to point fingers at one another, asking, “Where were you?” and yet ignore the fact that we forget about other people’s issues despite this.

Rather than blaming first-time protesters for not involving themselves in these movements sooner, Sitas argues that the media plays a bigger role in how our perception of these situations is constructed. “What appears on people’s Twitter feeds – or Facebook or whatever social media they engage in – becomes the world, an immediate world of mostly crisis. I haven’t read in the last two to three months comforting news anywhere. So I click on into my sites and all I see is crisis, crisis, crisis, crisis.” The effect can be numbing.

A field researcher from rights NGO, Section27, Patrick Mdletshe agrees: “We are failing to project issues as societal issues that are actually affecting everyone, rich and poor. We need to look at our strategies and tactics of how we are actually projecting these issues.”

People may be supportive of different issues, like justice for the Marikana miners and Life Esidimeni patients, Mdletshe said, but they may show their support in different ways – financially, through the media, or by physically attending protests.

This begs the question, what is the best way to support a cause? And what should be the role of those who may not be most affected by the issues being protested, but who still feel connected to them?

Through covering the protest last Friday, I found that one of the best ways to support a protest is by first listening and trying to understand the issues at stake.

This is not as obvious as it may at first seem. We often divide ourselves over issues because we lack the understanding of why people grieve or protest in the first place. Empathy is the path to understanding. Interviewing people last week offered me a platform to understand those who had and had not protested before.

It’s also important to allow those who are most marginalised to lead the movements. You cannot lead a group who understands an issue better than you do. If you are not marginalised by an issue, it would be better to ally yourself with the needs of the group and work to understand what they need, so that you can be better equipped to help the cause.

Remembering the Women’s March I attended earlier this year, I appreciated the fact that the marchers then were not just women, but people of all genders – all races, all classes. As I listened to the first-time protesters last Friday, however, I recognised my ignorance of their concerns and their grievances.

It was a wake-up call that I needed to do better and be better. If I want to recreate that same inclusive atmosphere I had first marched in, I must first understand how I can be part of the solution.

If anything, it reminded me why covering protests like these are so important – because my role as a journalist is also to be an advocate and voice for those who feel marginalised. It’s why attending them myself as a human is important, too.