SA lessons on economic impact of protests

Last week, I travelled to Cape Town to speak at a conference held at the Arabella Resort on the Atlantic Ocean on the southern tip of Africa.

Travel from Cape Town Airport to the resort was interrupted by a week-long protest over land invasion. There were other protests in South Africa as people expressed grievances, ranging from demand for legalisation of cannabis to Municipal Demarcation Board decisions changing municipality boundaries.

Violence greeted all the protests through burning of schools and stoning motorists. Sadly, this hooliganism is wrongly misconstrued as an expression of democratic rights.

In the streets of Cape Town, News 24 reported some 3,000 protesters took part in the cannabis march, some smoking cannabis, also known as marijuana, with others carrying placards or cannabis plants in portable containers.

Cannabis is not just like any plant. It has caused untold damage to young people globally. The plant’s side effects may include feelings of paranoia or anxiety, a decrease in short-term memory, and impaired motor skills.


Although in recent years it has been used as a psychoactive medicine, it needs regulation since its use has consistently resulted in negative economic outcomes. Protest or no protest, it is a plant that must be soberly looked at.

In Cape Town, there were more protests that inconvenienced thousands of tourists travelling to resort cities along the coastline. Innocent visitors were injured as a result of this random violence.

Unknown to protesters is the fact that the cost of protesting would invariably be borne by themselves. Many of the protesters’ relatives work in these resort cities and in some cases they are the only bread winners in the family.

I took time out of the conference to talk to some South Africans and asked them a simple question: how is it possible that a protest can take more than two weeks with continued destruction of property and effectively undermining economic progress?

Their canned response was that people have a right to protest. It is called democracy, they reminded me. I agreed with them. That is the name of it. What didn’t come out is that democracy in Africa may not be working as envisaged.

Moses, one of the South Africans I talked to was quiet most of the time, perhaps reflecting on what was going on in his country.

He finally said this: “Look around us, it is beautiful and I hear that your country is beautiful too. Africa is perhaps the most beautiful continent. God gave us everything, but he also gave us many idiots.”

For a moment, I thought Moses was a self-hating idiot, but I got his drift when he further explained that most of the protests were politically motivated. I too concluded that it was idiotic to advance a political agenda at the expense of the masses and the economy in general.

This, to a large extent, is self-defeating ourselves when the rest of the world is moving forward. Leaders who encourage endless protests and something like the burning down of schools are simply the most thoughtless of the human species.

In civilised nations, citizens respect institutions. Where a protest is necessary, it is respectful of other citizens and gives room to deal with the issues of contention.

Protests are also heavily regulated in terms of terms when they can happen, the place where they can take place, and the manner in which they can be conducted.

In Africa, protests are taken to the most productive part of the economy. The aim it appears is to disrupt economic activity as much as possible.

The whole thing actually borders on economic sabotage, considering that violence is never far away. How do we forget so quickly that a few years ago Africa yearned for constitutional institutions that would bring sanity in our thought processes? The institutions we sought required nurturing to grow and become what we desired.

Devolution, the justice system and all other independent institutions may not be effective today, but as time goes by we shall indeed get what we desired.

But majority of Africa thinks the institutions, independent or otherwise, become as efficient as the ones in advanced countries within a short period.

Indeed institutions set up by Kenya’s 2010 Constitution will function as envisaged some 10 to 20 years to come, maybe even longer.

This is a reality that we must accept as we continue to nurture them towards the right direction. In essence we did this for generations to come, and the same constitution admonishes us to think about future generations.

Protesting is a legitimate right, but respect of others’ space too is a right too. In the enjoyment of our rights, we must not be destructive.

The writer is an associate professor at the University of Nairobi’s School of Business.