The horse-racing protests at Fairview and how we think about protest.

I recently wrote about the Clicks protests and how the EFF was disturbing the ‘peace’ and revealing and confronting the folly of the idea of and insistence on ‘law and order’ in a deeply unjust society.

I also wrote about the potential for restorative justice to have a hand in bringing about racial justice. This would require bringing together the warrior energies of activists and protesters and the healer energies of restorative justice advocates.

As a matter of perspective, following my Clicks article referred to above, I was confronted (most disrespectfully) by a handful of white men. Two in particular accused me of ‘aligning’ with what they called the ‘most racist organisation in the world’. Fania Davis writes that the common view that a black individual anti-white sentiment can be just as racist as a white individual expressing anti-black animus is mistaken. Because it is backed up by nearly four hundred years of structural and institutional power, anti-black racism is more potent and virulent by several orders of magnitude: there is no comparison.

One of these men adjudicated a bold (and vacuous) statement that there was nothing racist about the Clicks advertisement pointing to the ‘all black marketing team’. Whilst it is verifiable that the marketing director was black, I can find no data on who ideated the advert and/or how and by whom it was approved it for publishing. He also lamented that Clicks employs around 80% black individuals, 65% of whom are females. He stated. If this is the case, it should give us an idea of just how insidious, hardened and emboldened systemic and institutional racism in South Africa really is. A system that still provides cover for ‘white hair is normal’ and ‘black hair is dry and damaged’ should insult us all. And this is a company that employs so many black females. In the same way that most of us partake in and prop up patriarchy, even though it hurts and injures women, most of us partake in and prop up anti-black racism even though it hurts and injures black people. That is because it is systemic and institutional apart from being individual. Racism is hard-wired into almost every part of South African Society and it is a system that has been four centuries in the making. Do we want to heal? Because if we do we ought to do better. And if we do, we need to actively dismantle every part of our systems and institutions that inadvertently partake in and advance racism. The same goes for patriarchy and all other forms of oppression which, by the way, are all inter-connected.

This week’s treat for racists, though, was the racehorse protests at Fairview. The media provided a rise reporting initially that a horse had been hacked to death and others had been maimed in protests. This, the media reported, amidst protests this week originated in a pay dispute after a groom had stabbed a horse earlier this year. As further information became available it started to emerge that there were reports of a groom who had accidentally cut a horse whilst cutting its hair when it reared up. Reports are that the employer wanted to dismiss the groom and deduct the vets’ fees from his pay (an estimated between R 13 000 and R 15 000 depending on which report one reads).

The other grooms has requested that he not be dismissed and had committed to pay the bill from their collective wages. Their employer refused this offer and the grooms stayed away and were then dismissed in a way that left them unable to access their UIF for several months.

This lead to protests in which it has now been reported that race-horses were let out of their stables and some of the horses were injured (one lost its life) in the mayhem of horses and protesters running in all directions. The way in which this story was reported is an example of reporting the presenting injury or the symptom whilst not properly ventilating the previous or originating injury or injuries or the cause which in this cause may have been a violation or violations of labour law by the employer.

Just as in the Clicks protests, any particularly disruptive or destructive aspects of protests were well ventilated. With a reported 37 out of 400 stores suffering some sort of damage although there is little to no data on context or extent ie did protests become violent due to outside agitation and what was the extent of any damage? In some quarters the protests were characterised as largely violent and destructive rather than largely peaceful (over 90% had been peaceful if one does the maths on available figures) and having achieved a restorative outcome – acknowledgment of harm, apology, withdrawal of the product, expansion of local products and various reparative measures and of course, an end to the protests.

During the horse-racing protests, protestors were characterised as brutal and cruel which lead to the usual rise from readers and social media commentators condemning the protests and the protestors and writing them off as cruel, vicious and barbaric. Not surprisingly, many harbouring individual racist sentiment, vented their racist ideas out loud and with abandon. Readers were given little room for or encouragement to reflect on:

  1. What lead to the protests? If it was labour action that was unfair and/or unlawful and had left around 120 grooms in a desperate situation for months (remembering that each groom could easily be responsible for between 4 and 8 family members meaning that this action may have left a large portion of a community in a desperate position, then who is the actual guilty party or who are the guilty parties. What is worse, violence or incitement to violence? Where does incitement to violence start? With regard to the Clicks advert do we call incitement to violence on the EFF or do we call incitement to violence on Clicks? In the Fairview case, could it be possible that keeping a large number of people in a desperate and humiliated position was inevitably going to lead to protest and that protest carried the potential for injury and further harm? In a system bent on ultimate responsibility for wrongdoers, I think, all too often we hone in on the presenting injury and hardly ever or insufficiently on the originating harm or injury.
  2. Horse-racing where horses are kept as assets for the entertainment of the wealthy and in perpetually fearful (skittish) states to the extent (at the least) that they have to be blinkered and whipped to perform in circumstances that they are meant to perform, many fall in the process and are put to death then and there. Race-horse owners are insured for this as these beings are income-earning assets for them. Indications are that they were victims of exploitation before these protests (if we consider their position as assets for human entertainment as well as horse-racing as a part of a gambling industry which inordinately affects those vulnerable to addiction and can and does destroy lives), and so were their grooms who, as this case may point to, are vulnerable to possibly unfair and/or unlawful labour practices that leave them desperate enough to protest in this way.
  3. Even if the reports of horses being hacked and assaulted were true, and indications that they were not, what legitimate voice would the vast majority of us have to condemn the cruelty when our bacon or our steak, who was once a sensitive, intuitive being that felt pain in the same way as those horses do, and as we do, was stabbed in the throat, electrocuted, burnt with fire while still conscious to remove its fur. This is after being raped for milk, being kept alive in squalor and confinement, on antibiotics and enduring a terrifying trip on the back of a truck to a slaughterhouse. And the vast majority of us do this to innocent animals completely and completely unprovoked all the time.

How dare we judge those living in desperation with their backs against the wall. How dare we condemn some cruelty and not all of it.

By Sheena St Clair Jonker