Back to Forum

The Moral Implication of Protest

THE MORAL IMPLICATION OF PROTEST                                                                              Anthony Egan SJ

The annual disruption of South Africa’s presidential State of the Nation Address (SONA), is an occasion to reflect on the purpose and practice of protest. What is the purpose of protest? When does it work? And what might be its cost?

Protest in various forms (including marches, sit-ins, civil disobedience, etc.) is the disruption of normality to highlight an injustice, express disapproval of a policy, or demand change. Unlike a riot it is usually carefully coordinated, and based on ground-rules, the latter including at very least pragmatic commitment to non-violence. I say pragmatic because I recognise that within moral traditions, including the Christian tradition, there is an ethical space for the use of force entailing violence: the just war tradition (within which one must add just revolution). Though many are committed to non-violent force or protest as a matter of principle, far more activists who use such methods may themselves be either ambivalent or sympathetic to the just war tradition, but choose to adopt non-violence.

The latter strategy is particularly important in a society where democracy is functioning, however dysfunctionally. Such dysfunctionality may be either real or apparent. It may be real where a ruling party actively subverts part of the process, or uses the system for its partisan gain. Or it may be a sign that the electorate (or part of it) feels that it has no power beyond casting their vote in a representative democracy.  

Normally the intention of protest in a democracy is reform of the system rather than the system’s destruction.

For protest to work it needs sustained, widespread popular support. Though protesters are almost always a minority they need at least the silent support of the majority. Or, in the process, they need to convince a majority that they have a valid point worthy of consideration.

The latter is important both for protest to succeed and to avoid the temptation to protest simply for the sake of disruption. Disruption for its own sake may in the long term be counterproductive, alienating protesters from potential supporters. At worst it can create conditions for a government crackdown (often backed by the now alienated majority), undermining in the process the democratic process itself.

This year’s SONA on February 9th accentuated this. The Economic Freedom Fighters’ grounds for protest may have been reasonable and just. Their objections to the undermining of our democracy are commendable: even among party faithful within the ruling African National Congress there is the belief that President Zuma and his colleagues are corrupt.  Three years ago when they first disrupted SONA I suspect many South Africans were both surprised and impressed by the EFF: they challenged us to think about the gap between form and practice of our democracy. I doubt if as many were impressed in 2017. If anything I suspect most people were bored.

SONA 2017 also demonstrates the counterproductive side of unconsidered protest. What we saw in Cape Town with police and army on the streets was in effect a localised state of emergency. For those old enough to remember, it certainly looked and felt like the kind of thing we saw during the turbulent 1980s. While the EFF may argue with some justification that it reflected the moral bankruptcy of the state and government’s lack of commitment to actual democracy, indeed an edging towards dictatorship, whether such a situation is helpful to democracy is questionable.

It echoes the twisted logic of some Vietnam War-era US generals, summed up in the brutal paradox: “We had to destroy the village to save it.” History teaches that when democracies, however flawed they may be, are destroyed, they take a long and painful time to be repaired. It took a quarter century for Brazil after the 1964 coup, sixteen years for Argentina after 1976, to cite two examples. 

Add to this the fact that a movement that deliberately flaunts constitutional processes (however flawed they may be) may not in popular imagination be seen to be the poster children of the democracy they advocate.

This is not to say that protest or some other form of symbolic action is either illegitimate or futile. Just that before one acts for the sake of acting (which may itself seem to be an expression of impotence by the actor) it needs careful prior thinking and building up a base of support. Indeed, part of that process needs careful moral reasoning – including careful considerations of both intended and unintended consequences.