By Na'eem Jeenah
The revolutionary fervor that swept across North Africa and the Middle East is leaving discernible imprints on the political and social landscape of South Africa. For many South Africans, the Tunisian and Egyptian uprisings gave new hope for the possibilities of what could be achieved through mass action.
For a people who had engaged in a long struggle for justice and freedom , but who had subsequently become largely demobilised, the idea of a despotic government being toppled through people's power had become a distant idea tinged with the kind of romanticism that suggests it could not be replicated. That changed when other peoples on our continent,took to the streets, faced down the might of brutal security services and armed forces, and succeeded in forcing out their dictators. In South Africa, activist organizations, think tanks, and even businesses hosted events to discuss the events, and a protest was held outside the Egyptian embassy, with protesters shouting 'irhal' (Leave) as Husni Mubarak was still trying to cling to power.
As happened in other parts of the world, protesters in the small South African town of Ermelo, demonstrating at the same time as their Egyptian counterparts, began referring to the site of their protests as 'Tahrir Square'. The Ermelo protests represented one of a plethora of 'service delivery' actions throughout the country. Thousands of such protests take place every year in South Africa, with people from poor, deprived communities demonstrating against their lack of or inadequate housing, electricity, water, jobs, and so forth. At the beginning of 2011, calls for global solidarity grew in light of the universality of the complaint against service delivery- joined especially by people in the north of our continent - of people demanding more equitable socio-economic conditions, opposing corruption, and insisting that the government fulfilled its responsibilities to those who had been, and remain, the most marginalised in our society. These were people who had believed the ruling African National Congress' (ANC) promise of a 'better life for all' but became disillusioned when the ANC failed to deliver on its promises. That failure had resulted in a lack and weakness in the delivery of services such as electricity, water, and housing, as well as jobs to poor people, resulting in daily 'service delivery protests' taking place all over the country. In Ermelo, these service delivery protesters, who often face the force of the South African police, took heart and courage from those they now viewed as their fellow travelers in Egypt and Tunisia. It was as if a certain energy had begun flowing from north to south across Africa, spreading and hoping to awaken the masses of oppressed and exploited people on the continent. The uprisings also began a debate in South Africa - not yet exhausted - about whether South Africa was moving towards its 'Tunisia moment', if it did not properly address the huge challenges of poverty, inequality and lack of service delivery.
In what many in southern Africa are referring to contagion from North Africa, normally calm Malawi erupted in protests at the end of July, leaving 18 people dead, and much destruction of property. Analysts and observers in the region, and Malawian activists themselves, have been referring to these events as being part of the wave of the wave of uprisings in the north. The protests came in the wake of attempts by the ruling Democratic Progressive Party to have President Mutharika's brother succeed him when his term ends in 2014, rising unemployment, and a host of other socio-economic grievances.
When civil strife broke out in Libya a few months ago, the debates took a new turn. South Africa, a non-permanent member of the United Nations Security Council, supported Resolution 1973, which called on member states to implement a no-fly zone over Libya - ostensibly to protect civilians. However, within three days, the South African government explained that it did not support the manner in which the resolution was being implemented. After NATO began providing one side in the war with air cover, bombed the country, and even tried to assassinate Gaddafi, public opinion turned against the South African government's position, and even the ruling party's youth league publicly attacked the president for the UN vote. 'South Africa voted in favour of imperialists,' said Julius Malema, president of the ANC Youth League, calling NAT action 'killing of fellow Africans imposed by our former masters.' The NATO mission had become an imperialist war whose prize was the country's oil and natural gas, and was viewed in a different category to Tunisia and Egypt.
The situation in Libya was also of concern to many South Africans. Unlike Ben Ali's Tunisia and Mubarak's Egypt, Gaddafi's Libya had made its commitment to Africa and the African Union clear - in rhetoric, involvement, and financial support. When the International Criminal Court issued its warrant of arrest for Gaddafi, not only did it undermine the possibility of a political settlement, but it also confirmed the suspicions of many Africans that Africans are particular targets for international justice.
Whatever the outcome in Libya - and there are many indications that it will result in an entrenchment of imperial, especially European, power - the effects of Tunisia and Egypt will be long-lasting in the southern part of Africa. Not only people demanding better services in South Africa, but also those demanding an end to the absolute (and brutal) monarchy in Swaziland, and those demanding an end to Mugabe's tyranny in Zimbabwe have been inspired by our comrades in the north. And while the immediate effects of the courage and determination from the north might seem somewhat muted here, the long-term effects could very well bring down one or two dictatorships down south as well.
* Na'eem Jeenah is the executive director of the Johannesburg based, Afro Middle East Centre