It’s Not a Strike, it’s a Toi Toi

I’m reminded that we’ve lived in South Africa for just over a year, because the garbage workers are on strike again. Remember my trash odyssey last year? First the disappearing trash can, then my trek to the police to get a document to affirm that it was stolen so that I could get a new one delivered? And, at precisely the moment I finally got the new trash bin, the strike started. We were drowning in trash for weeks.

toi toi in south africa
Photo: The Epoch Times

Well, it’s that time of year again and garbage bins are overflowing everywhere. Nothing has really changed, except my attitude. Whereas last year I was on the phone trying to get to the bottom of such a disruption of life as I knew it, this year I just glance at the trash can in the driveway, take note that it has still not been emptied, and shrug my shoulders. I honestly can’t summon that feeling of stress from last year. It did get emptied eventually, didn’t it?

garbage piling up in South Africa during garbage collectors strike
Garbage collectors on strike in Johannesburg

That’s what a year in South Africa will do to you. Maybe we’re in danger of becoming too relaxed if we stay here much longer and won’t be able to cope with US-style efficiency and workaholism when we return?

toi toi in south africa
Photo: BBC News

But talking about strikes makes me want to share what I’ve learned about this art form – and it is indeed an art here – in South Africa, which is rich in its history of striking workers. After all, strikes were one of the main (and often only) conduits for Africans in this country to try and effect change during the apartheid years, and they’ve got it down to a science. Unfortunately for the current government, a population used to striking doesn’t just stop overnight, even if many of the injustices are gone. Strikes are a regular occurrence around here and can be very disruptive. Last year, striking teachers and hospital workers caused schools to close for weeks and patients to be turned away at hospitals, all because the 7% wage increase offered by the government (and way above inflation during a time of recession) wasn’t satisfactory to the unions. But students themselves are just as prone to strike, or regular people demanding a bigger housing allowance, pretty much anyone with any kind of grievance.

toi toi in south africa
Photo: Protest in Cape Town, South Africa, Thursday, July 9, 2009 during construction for the Soccer World Cup in 2010 (AP Photo/Schalk van Zuydam)

If you see a strike in South Africa, however, you can’t but admire the strikers. That’s because they are not just on strike, they Toi Toi. One day I was shopping at Pick ‘n Pay and heard beautiful singing drifting towards me, and when I went to investigate I saw a crowd of about 30 people ambling through the store, everyone clad in red t-shirts and clapping and swaying while singing the most inspiring song (South Africa’s National Anthem arose from one such battle hymn sung regularly by ANC members). It almost had a religious feel to it, and when I asked an employee what was going on, I was very startled to hear that these were just striking workers. This is so typical South Africa to me: Taking something that is rather nasty and dull, like a strike, and turning it into something beautiful.

It’s hard to explain a Toi Toi until you’ve seen one. Watch this video to get an idea. It’s a bit lengthy, but the interview with the one guy is pretty hilarious too.

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