Charlotte's Web

Blogging my world since 2006

When in Doubt, March


Anyone ever noticed how much the Germans love to march? The days when the Germans would march into another country of an afternoon have long passed, but we now have Berlin’s Love Parade, the many Fasching parades, the Laternefest parades, parades in every little town to welcome the seasons, parades because we’re happy, parades because it’s the third Friday after Whitsun, and many others so that we don’t have to sublimate the urge to march. Today, as I was pulling out of the petrol station, I saw a group of identically-dressed people marching to some pop music being blasted from a truck. It was the school-leavers, parading through town decorously, if noisily.

(Now, when I was a school-leaver, we made straight for the beach, cuddled up with some tequila slammers and some boys and had our party there. But that’s a story I don’t intend tell – yet.)

For a moment, the German paraders reminded me of my brief marching days at university. Back then, we were allowed to march against the apartheid government on campus, but as soon as we set foot off campus, the police would arrive and start shooting teargas or rubber bullets at us. It was terrifying. The campus radicals, in full knowledge that off-campus was illegal, would agitate the crowd until we were worked up enough to think that marching onto the De Waal Drive verge to be shot at was a really excellent idea.

The marching style de jour was the toyi-toyi, which is still used in South Africa today as a form of protest. It can be thrilling or intimidating, depending on which side you are on. Apparently apartheid-era riot police now admit that facing an unarmed toyi-toying crowd, despite being armed to the teeth themselves, was extremely alarming. And the toyi-toyi has got Robert Mugabe so alarmed that he banned it in 2004.

I was a very impressionable young first-year the day I marched. I had almost no idea that off-campus was illegal but I caught the whiff of danger in the air, and my adrenaline was trying to burst out of my ear-drums. Having no idea what that day held, I had dressed in a tight white pencil skirt. If I had been a more experienced radical I would have known that trousers were essential, along with a scarf to breathe through. My commitment to the cause was sincere but not enough to want to be shot, because with the first teargas canister, I lifted my tight white skirt up above my waist and ran for my life back to my res room where I waited out the rest of the march in safety. Other, braver friends of mine stayed and had their backs and buttocks peppered with buckshot, or were arrested. I, on the other hand, was cowed and never did anything illegal again. I was not built for bravery. They became radicals; I stayed on the sidelines.

Now, when I take part in a German parade, holding the hand of a daffodil or frog, or watch well-behaved German teenagers take to the streets, my brief attempt at being a radical comes back to me. I wish I could have been a better one.

Author: charlotteotter

Novelist, feminist, crime writer

13 thoughts on “When in Doubt, March

  1. I’ve just discovered your blog. I’ve only scan-read so far but I’m interested in your take on German life and culture. I’ll be sure to pop back and read more thoroughly, if you don’t mind me dropping by.

  2. The toyi-toyi IS scary. It always frightened me because of the emotions that ran so openly and so wildly.

    You were brave….I’d never have thought of doing that.

  3. You are a terrible tease, Charlotte–we must hear more about tequila slammers! (And did you ever notice that all the best stories have tequila in them?) In my first year at the university, I, too, got caught up in an anti-apartheid protest (it was at Cal in 1985, and Apartheid was the big issue on campus). I actually ended up getting accidentally locked in Bancroft Library until the protest was over.

  4. I did my first year at UNISA and emigrated mid way through so I never got into the University activist scene in the 80s. And I do feel some guilt/ambivalence about that.

    It sounded pretty terrifying though. I know when Winnie Mandela visited Wits one friend of mine was tear gassed even though she was not protesting at the time but was in fact in the gym doing aerobics. Another friend of mine went on one march where they tried to necklace an informer.

    I don’t participate in political marches now. I went on one anti gulf war one here in New Zealand in 1991 which ended with people burning effigies and getting excited about burning down the American Consul- my cue to exit. I was with another South African that day and she found the whole experience profoundly upsetting too. That day I decided I won’t be part of a mob. If I ever contribute in a substantial way to social justice it will be as a lawyer and academic.

    Looking forward to the tequila story. I have a couple of my own from long ago. None of them ended well!

  5. Hi trousers! You certainly are welcome to spend more time here.

    Wendz, I wasn’t remotely brave. After being teargassed once, I never marched off campus again. I was a featherweight.

    Hobgoblin, that getting locked in the library during a protest march is hilarious. You really really wanted to protest, but there was a compelling book you had to read first … or not?

    Hi Ms Tea. I think that the protest marches in SA in the Eighties had a role to play, and they were often well-organised and effective, but there were other protests that escalated and terrible things happened. I’m sure the current environmental and other protests are similar – some good, some bad.

  6. When I was living in Umtata, I had a Xhosa friend who attended the University of Transkei. During exam week the police were expecting a riot on the one-year-anniversary of a popular student being shot and killed by police during a protest. When they found that all the students wanted to do was study, they marched into the dorms and harassed them for the entire night. They made my friend do push-ups and cracked him on the head with a billy-club whenever he stopped. He showed me the bumps on his head the next day.

    In the US right now their are more and more reasons to protest, but I agree with Make Tea; research, study and legal means seem more effective to me than anything right now.

    Tequila on the beach…sounds wicked!

  7. Ian, that story made me go cold. For many people, that level of harassment went on constantly in the apartheid years and we did not always hear about it because of media restrictions. You can only understand why people took to the streets.

  8. I’m sorry I told that disturbing story on your blog. The good news is that my friend, he has the great name of Googoo Mampufu, graduated with a law degree and is doing well in Umtata. And the really good news is that apartheid is gone.

  9. I “protested” the first Gulf War in college by participating in a “die-in”, which consisted of a bunch of students lying down on the ground with toe tags. Not a very impressive form of protest, but it suited my phlegmatic temperament. Definitely no teargas or toyi-toyi there (thank you, Wikipedia, now I know what that is!)

  10. (Back from wikipedia like Henitsirk) About the only protest march we’ve been on recently has been against the war in the Lebanon, which we felt very personally as parents we wanted to make a point about. Long ago , I’d go on various demos but lost interest after a big anit-racism demo which ended in a big fight with police at the front of the march which seemed equally orchestrated by and elements within the march who arrived tooled up for trouble. Most of the fault lay with the police though – low profile policing wasn’t in vogue at the time and enormous quantities of riot police and armoured vans lined the route. The route was so blocked in, we and others had to scale a seven foot wall and escape across a graveyard to get away from the fighting.

    People in the UK have forgotten just how different a view the Conservative government had of civil liberties to even late-period Blair.

    Sorry – got political there.

  11. Pingback: Psychogeographies « Tales from the Reading Room

  12. I’ve just discovered your blog, but like your style. Keep going.

  13. Pingback: The State of the Blog « Charlotte's Web

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