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.