Final Word

Protest marches: we started it all

Protest.jpg

Small wonder our Minister of Higher Education, Blade Nzimande, thinks that the countrywide student protests are not a national crisis. Since we started it all, more than a century ago, we should be used to it. (Read more)

According to the academic website My School of Information at Berkeley University, the phrase ‘protest march’ was first used in 1913 to describe the march that Gandhi organised to protest against the restrictions that had been imposed on the Indian population of South Africa. It was also the world’s first mass civil disobedience campaign.

The word ‘protest’ is now generally, or most often, understood to imply an expression or declaration of objection, disapproval, or dissent, often in opposition to something a person is powerless to prevent or avoid, like an increase in tuition fees.

However, the word ‘protest’ started off as something much more positive: a ‘solemn declaration’ – most often of one’s belief or conviction in the truth of something.

The word made its appearance in the English language in the mid-15th century to mean ‘avowal, pledge, solemn declaration’, roughly the same as its Latin root, protestari.

The additional meaning a ‘statement of disapproval’ was first recorded in 1751 and according to some sources (America) in the adjectival sense of ‘expressing of dissent from, or rejection of, prevailing mores’, in 1953. These sources claim it was used in reference to the American civil rights movement. They also claim that the first record of protest march dates from 1959.

But South Africans have the full right to protest against this attempt by the Americans to steal a heritage that we can claim as part of our own list of ‘world firsts’, like the world’s first heart transplant.

In his 2002 article under the heading The Syntax of Resistance on the My School of Information, Geoff Nunberg wrote: “I had always assumed that the phrase (protest march) originated with the ban-the-bomb movement of the 1950s. But actually it was first used in 1913 to describe the march that Gandhi organized …”

The Protestants

‘Protest’ also occupies a prominent place in the history of the Christian religion, although there is some debate about whether it is in the sense of ‘strongly testifying’ or as a ‘statement of disapproval’.

 On the discussion forum of the website Wordorigins.org we found this interesting debate: “Another LL commenter noted that this sense of ‘protest’ (vow, promise, declaration) also likely was the basis for ‘Protestant’: the point of the term was that the Protestants were affirming their belief in the validity of Luther’s theses, rather than objecting to or denouncing the teachings or authority of the Catholic Church.

“The latter claim, I think, is not entirely right.  At least per dictionary.com, ‘Protestant’ arose (in English, anyway) in 1539, and it originally referred to the German princes and free cities who declared their dissent from the Diet of Speyer, which, itself, denounced Luther.”

Protest and the lady

And then there is the often used phrase “the lady doth protest too much, methinks”, which is mostly understood to mean that an objection is made overly strongly to hide the fact that the truth is indeed likely the opposite of what is being said.

It turns out that the original meaning of the phrase was rather that more is being promised than can be delivered. It gives an indication of how the general understanding of the word ‘protest’ over time has moved from the positive sense of bearing testimony, to the negative sense of objecting.

The expression itself originates from act 3, scene 2 in Shakespeare’s play Hamlet, where the Player Queen (here in more modern language than in the original) declares: “May the earth refuse me food and the heavens go dark, may I have no rest day and night, may my trust and hope turn to despair—may the gloom of a prison overtake me, and may my every joy be turned to sorrow.

“May I know no peace either in this life or the next one, if I become a wife again after I am a widow.”

It is from the character Gertrude that the opinion then comes that “the lady protests too much”.

Be that as it may, it was in South Africa, courtesy of Gandhi, that ‘protest’ started its conquering march in the world of politics. Nunberg writes: “Over the following decades (after Gandhi’s 1913 campaign of passive resistance), ‘protest’ would be intimately linked with those new techniques of political resistance. By the 1930s, people were using phrases like ‘the literature of protest’ and ‘social protest’ to suggest the whole range of progressive agitation.”

And as the students on campuses across the country and broad-based protest marches against corruption are proving right now, South Africans are not likely to give up this element of their heritage any time soon.

by Piet Coetzer

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Final Word

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