Lessons from Egypt for South Africa

Mphuthumi Ntabeni on a seismic shift in African politics

As I watched the historical protests on the TV news about the Arabic African states like Tunisia and Egypt I was reminded of how thin the nature of political authority really is, and how simple to arrive at the democratic dispensation when the will of the people asserts itself. It also became clear to me that this sclerotic state of affairs in African politics is pervasive, not limited by party, region, ethnicity, or other demographic factors, and reminded me of the poet-prophet who walked the imperial city of London about two hundred years ago wondering about the fettering chains of self-imprisonment. This led him to write the poem, London.

I wonder what William Blake would say now as he watched the people of Tunisia and Egypt throw away their chains. Would he be stunned by what he sees and feels - human misery everywhere: " ... mark in every face I meet / Marks of weakness, marks of woe." I often get the same feeling as I walk the teeming and sewerage drenched streets of Phillipi, or Enkanini (one of the shack areas of Khayelitsha).

People Blake saw as miserable were in large part because their minds were radically restricted by oppressive ways of thinking; victims of "mind-forg'd manacles," imprisoned by their own mental limits and the limits imposed upon them by others. In essence this is what the people of Tunisia and Egypt are throwing away. It even looks ridiculously simple; rising up all of a sudden after a docile period to concerted efforts to gain their political and individual freedom. And the right to exercise real democratic control over their future, rejecting all delaying tactics of leaders whose mandates has run out. It tells a story of emancipation as old as mankind of people - people who had accepted inhumane conditions from their rulers for so long, suddenly taking extraordinary risks to say enough is enough.

In our country things are slightly different. We saw the Sharpville massacre lead to June 16 - people rising up to take the responsibility of their own liberation into their own hands. Even then, despite popular lies now, it was the handful, the rest wanted and continued with their mundane lives under the oppressive regime.

We also saw the second wave of in post liberation struggle, during the formation of the Congress of the People (Cope) - people coming into grief with the failures of the new government trying to find a frame work to structure their grievances. We are seeing it now in the nascent agitations of political parties like Inkatha Freedom Party (IFP) and Cope, where the majority of the supporters reel against the expired leadership that wants to hold on to power by hook and by crook beyond their allocated mandate, and in the process creating conditions of chaos so long as they extend their tenure illegitimately.

The contemporary struggle, seen here and in places like Tunasia and Egypt, is diffusing the imprisonment of the majority by the elite few, be they of the ruling or capitalist class. As such we may be subjected to "the troubled air that rages" because the elites never surrender willingly power unless it is taken from them through a revolution. Modern revolutions, as we are witnessing, take different forms: the so called Facebook revolution in Tunasia; Virgil revolution in Egypt, Internal implosion in our political parties. What they have in common is giving ability to the people to effectively raise their voices against the suppressive elites.

What Africa is slowly realising is that the liberation we believed to be our political redemption has become little more than a veneer for the same forces which we decried. The oppressive "kings and nobles of the land" have simply exchanged clothes with our liberators. Hence the "perfect storm" the US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton was talking about when she urged Middle East leaders to embrace democratic reforms. She told an international security conference in Munich that there was a "perfect storm" which made democratic change a "strategic necessity".

The "perfect storm" can be interpreted as a self designed constitutional crisis in Ivory Coast and a political party like Cope. Where the ruling parties usually rely on state security power to promote their tenures, the political parties like Cope rely on their official structures to manipulate for the antics of expired leadership to hold on to power indefinitely, and to disorientate the general public by promoting an agenda of revitalising the expired authority. But, as we are now seeing, in the end it all works out to incentivise protests that expose the sheer hollowness and illegitimacy of these leaders.

Those who look for ideological rhetoric to underpin the current agitations in our continent are misled and misinformed. The overriding ideology here is the will of the people and their dissatisfaction with the status quo of their respective leaders. The agitations themselves are a people's vote of no confidence in the ability of the given leaders to guide, or even make a meaningfully impact in the lives of their countries or parties.

When you read Blake's passage: How the Chimney-sweepers cry / Every black'ning Church appalls; / And the hapless Soldier's sigh / Runs in blood down Palace walls... you understand that these are portraits of unlanguaged people. The unlanguaged people are tired of sighing or cursing as the language of requisite to characterise their condition, and are throwing everything on the table to petition for redress of grievances. After, in the end, the numbers is all the lower class and oppressed have, and when things come to the crunch it is their only weapon.

It is no coincidence that leaders who do not have the backing of the numbers try to delay the inevitable through violence, chaos, endless postponements of elections, or refusing to accept their outcomes by relying on security forces or even running to the courts of laws to seek the authority they lack in the political democratic process. It is a sign of panic and impotence before the voice of democracy. But all this fear of democracy ever achieves is to tear and exposes the wisp veil of their illegitimacy.

It is a sign of lack agency when a leader resorts to violence or courts of law as arbiter for political power.

Political leaders in Africa are largely isolated from the social spirit of their people. Hence they have to buy it through violence, chaos or material means. But what is becoming clear is that African politics are entering a maturing age where neither violence, chaos, manipulations, nor nostalgia for the past, etc, can be used to hold people down who want to be masters of their own fate. African politics are emerging out of the grammar of colonialism / tradition / nationalism / religion through which people interpret their experiences. Values, not these things, will soon be the only means to capture the political imagination even of the dispossessed. May countries like Zimbabwe take heed of the new African pragmatist politics.

Mphuthumi Ntabeni is a COPE researcher in the Western Cape provincial parliament. This article is written in his personal capacity

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