|Tunisia‘s national assembly approved the final articles of Tunisia’s constitution Thursday, and will likely vote to approve the charter on Saturday. “Finally, we have reached this moment,” Assembly President Mustapha Ben Jaafar said on Thursday, Al Jazeera reports. The country’s new constitution is set for approval three years after an uprising against its former leader Zine El Abidine Ben Ali sparked off the Arab Spring. The passage of the constitution was stalled over disagreements between Islamists and secular leaders, but tensions have eased since Tunisia’s prime minister Ali Laraydeh stepped down on Jan 9. Laraydeh was of the ruling Islamist party Ennahda and left office in an effort to end the deadlock. New prime minister Mehdi Jomaa has pledged to appoint a non-partisan cabinet once the constitution is approved. [Al Jazeera]|
By Imraan Buccus
People’s power has arrived in Africa and, as some have recently argued, it’s not just Africa north of the Sahara in which the democratic spirit is stirring. The thrilling political earthquake that began in Tunisia, exploded into Egypt and then rippled out to Libya is set to leave lasting changes in its wake. Its too early to say exactly what those changes will be but one thing is for sure – this is the greatest moment in the global struggle for human freedom since 1989 when the Soviet Union and its dominions across Eastern Europe fell.
When the protest spread from Tunis to Cairo they began as a carnival of freedom. Men and women, Muslims, Christians and secular people, old and young and rich and poor were all united in their excited opposition to dictatorships. It was a beautiful moment which the philosopher Nigel Gibson has likened to the Paris Commune of 1871.
In Tripoli the North African revolution is taking the form of pitched battles against a ruthless and psychopathic dictator. Here there is courage aplenty but no carnival. Irrespective of the ultimate fate of the Libyan Revolution a loud and clear message has been sent to dictators around the world. That message is that while it is possible to oppress a people for a long time, even generations, the people will reach a point at which they decide to rise.
The time will come when the will of the people will be expressed. In our own neighbourhood Mugabe and Mswati must be watching the revolutions raging across the North of the continent with considerable anxiety. Neither ZANU-PF nor the Swazi monarchy will run their brutal dictatorships for ever and while the rest of us thrill to the winds of change blowing down from North Africa that wind must be chilling to the tyrants in Harare and Mbabane.
Mugabe seems to be especially anxious. Gadaffi has been one of his biggest backers and has used his oil money to turn the African Union (AU) into a new version of the old Organisation for African Unity (OAU), which was rightly disparaged as a dictator’s club. Zimbabwean state television has, liked Chinese state television, steadfastly ignored the revolutions in North Africa. And when the International Socialist Organisation, a courageous but tiny Trotskyite organisation, arranged a meeting at which people could watch some footage of the protests in Cairo Mugabe promptly had all 46 people arrested and charged with treason. This has been followed up by axe wielding mobs attacking MDC meetings. Paranoia is a sign of weakness and this paranoia is even ridiculous by Mugabe’s own standards. He must know that the thread by which his authority hangs could snap at any minute.
Mugabe successfully stole elections in Zimbabwe in 2000, 2002 and 2005. Each time he was assisted with the complicity of various forces in and outside of his country. In South Africa there are factions who remain solidly pro-Mugabe but generally political parties, trade unions, poor people’s movements and civil society are united in their opposition to the Mugabe dictatorship.
When we think of Zimbabwe, in the context of the North African revolutions, we are confronted by three urgent questions.
The first is how we offer solidarity to the Zimbabwean refugees in our country. The periodic attacks on Zimbabweans by ordinary people and the ongoing and harassment of Zimbabwean refugees by our police needs to be urgently opposed. We need to recall the solidarity shown to South African exiles in other African countries and demonstrate basic human decency. Change can come to Zimbabwe soon, and in the potentially uneasy days of a difficult transition from dictatorship, SA will need to offer immense support to Zimbabwean refugees.
The second question that we need to consider is the nature of the flaw in some of our leaders that has allowed them to become complicit with tyranny. The struggle against apartheid was supported by governments, ordinary people and civil society around the world. One would have thought that we would have taken a similarly activist position towards tyranny in other countries. But instead some in SA some have taken the same position towards tyranny in Zimbabwe that Ronald Regan and Margaret Thatcher took towards apartheid – “constructive engagement” or, in Mbeki’s outdated spin, “quiet diplomacy.”
The third question we must ponder is the question of what went wrong in Zimbabwe. The argument that Mugabe was a good leader who went rotten holds no water. Revisionist Zimbabwean historians have pointed to ruthless abuses during the liberation struggle. And of course we cannot forget Operation Gukurahundi, the ethnic cleansing of the Ndebele in Matabeleland in the early 1980s which cost more than 20 000 lives. This crime against humanity is enough, on its own, to ensure that Mugabe should be called to account for his crimes before the International Criminal Court in The Hague. It is clear that the political culture of Zanu-PF was authoritarian and rapacious long before the fiasco of recent years. Zimbabwe has been governed by ruthless and predatory elite from the beginning. The seeds of the later crimes, the plunder of the Congo, the attacks on shack dwellers and street traders and the ruthless suppression of internal opposition, were planted early on.
What this means is that it is essential to think holistically. Just because a man and a movement opposed one form of tyranny does not mean that they are opposed to tyranny. There is a tremendous difference between using democracy to come to power and being democratic. A democrat is not defined as a person who came to power by democracy. A democrat is defined as a person who, when in power, welcomes debate and dissent. By this definition it is clear that Zimbabwe has never been a democracy.
We should be proud that our Constitution commits our government to welcome dissent and to be aware that in a democracy we need to always protect this. Any signs of Zanufication in any part of our society are a challenge we must all take up. So, as South Africans, when we think of Zimbabwe in the context of what is happening in North Africa, we need to also reflect on the important role that South Africa needs to play in promoting democratic transformation in Zimbabwe.
We are, no doubt, appropriately reminded by the Zimbabwean media entrepreneur, Trevor Ngube, that Tunisia, Egypt and Libya have restored the collective faith in peoples’ power. The clear signs that Zanu PF has been shaken by the North African revolutions show up that the regime in Harare is not all powerful and that it will go the same way as the dictatorships in North Africa. It is a question of ‘when’ and not ‘if’.
Buccus is attached to the School of Politics at UKZN and the Democracy Development Program.
Source of the article: The South African Civil Society Information Service (www.sacsis.org.za)
Revolution Comes Like a Thief in the Night
Life, ordinary life, is meant to follow certain rhythms. We grow, seasons change and we assume new positions in the world. When you have finished being a child you put away childish things and move on to the next stage of life. But there is a multitude of people in this world who cannot build a home, marry and care for their children and aging parents. There is a multitude of people who are growing older as they remain stuck in an exhausting limbo, perhaps just managing to scrape together the rent for a backyard shack by selling tomatoes or cell phone chargers on some street.
Mohamed Bouazizi was one person amongst that multitude. He was born in 1984 in the Tunisian city of Sidi Bouzid. His father died on a Libyan construction site when Mohamed was three. He went to a one roomed village school but had to start working from the age of ten and abandoned school altogether in his late teens. In a city with an unemployment rate of 30% he couldn’t find work and began, like so many others, selling fruit and vegetables in the street. With the thousand rand that he made each month he looked after his mother, his uncle and his younger siblings. He was, incredibly, managing to pay for his sister, Samia, to study at university.
Since he was a child he had been harassed by the police who regularly confiscated his wheelbarrow and his wares. On the 17th of December last year he had just laid out one thousand and five hundred Rand to buy stock when a municipal official asked him for a bribe to keep his place on the street. He couldn’t pay it and so they turned his cart over, confiscated his scales, spat at him and slapped him. He went to the municipal offices to complain but no one would see him. He went outside, bought some petrol, poured it all over his body and set himself alight outside the municipal offices. Mohammed’s mother told a journalist that he didn’t kill himself because he was poor but because he had been humiliated. “It got to him deep inside, it hurt his pride.”
In 1961 Frantz Fanon wrote, from Tunisia, “The colonial world is a world cut into two….The town belonging to the colonized people, or at least the native town, the Negro village, the medina, the reservation, is a place of ill fame, peopled by men of evil repute. They are born there, it matters little where or how; they die there, it matters not how or where.”
Fifty years later cities are still divided into separate zones for those who count and those who don’t count. These days what distinguishes those who count from those who don’t is usually the possession of wealth. But the people spurned by society continue to be taken as a threat to society. Jacques Depelchin, the Congolese historian, writes, “the poor in Africa have replaced the Dark Continent as the symbolic conceptual definition of the obstacle to civilization.”
But of course Mohamed Bouzazi didn’t die the invisible death of the average poor person. When he set his own body alight he ignited the uprising that drove Zine El Abidine Ben Ali from power in Tunisia, toppled Hosni Mubarak in Egypt and then spread like a prairie fire to Algeria, Yemen, Iran and beyond. Revolt is leaping across the borders that are supposed to contain people while money is moved, dissidents rendered and intelligence exchanged.
These revolts may, like the European Revolutions of 1848 or the revolts against Stalinism in 1989, remake the world order in ways that we cannot yet predict.
Popular anger can be mobilised against innocent scapegoats like gay people in Uganda, Muslims in parts of India or migrants in South Africa. Revolutions are often rolled back, co-opted or even used to strengthen oppression by modernising it. The future of Tunisia, Egypt and all the other countries where people are now taking to the streets against the police and party thugs has yet to be written. Local elites and imperialism will certainly aim to do more of that writing than the ordinary people that have already brought down two dictatorships.
But whatever the eventual fate of the struggles in North Africa and the Middle East something has been done that cannot be undone. That something is the fact that the refusal of a street vendor to continue to tolerate indignity and the sheer sadism of so much bureaucratic power was heard and acted on in a way that eventually brought down a brutal dictator and ally of imperialism and, for a moment at least, seized the initiative from the dictators, the officials, the experts, the police and the NGOs and put it, firmly and gloriously, in the hands of the people.
This is not the first time that the agency of people that don’t count has, like the proverbial thief in the night, suddenly appeared at the centre of the world stage without warning.
The Christian story is just one of many in which a poor man from some village in the provinces assumes a tremendous historical consequence that far outweighs that of his tormentors. And from the Haitian Revolution of 1804 to the Paris Commune of 1871 to the anti-colonial movements of the 50s and 60s that ignited a global rebellion in 1968 the modern world has periodically been remade by the intelligence and courage of the women and men it has most denigrated.
There are many lessons to be drawn from the drama unfolding in North Africa and the Middle East. One of them is that we should not assume that South Africans will continue to trudge through life without work, without homes and without dignity forever.
If we carry on as we are, the day will come when a fire will be lit in Grahamstown or Harrismith or Ermelo, or on some farm or in some school or shack settlement whose name we don’t yet know, and neither the rubber bullets, party thugs, offers of jobs and money to leaders or senior politicians arriving in helicopters with smiles and big promises will put it out.
Pithouse teaches politics at Rhodes University.
Published by The South African Civil Society Information Service (www.sacsis.org.za)