Why no African Spring?

In the Arab world, what is being now referred to as the Arab Spring made 2011 a tough year for the dictatorial regimes of Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali in Tunisia, Hosni Mubarak in Egypt and of course Gaddafi, who was killed in Libya.

In the Western world, a movement that started as Occupy Wall Street in New York stirred up similar protests across major cities in the US, Britain, Italy, Germany, France, Spain, Portugal and Asian countries as citizens fought back against growing greed and inequality.

Public anger over the debt crisis brought down prime ministers George Papandreou and Silvio Berlusconi in Greece and Italy respectively.

Yet, despite southern Africa’s high levels of poverty, unemployment and inequality, we did not see a wave of public anger similar to what we have seen across the globe.

In a case study of five southern African countries, the Open Society Initiative for Southern Africa has found that poverty and inequality is tearing apart Zimbabwe, Swaziland, Malawi, Namibia, South Africa and Angola, with many citizens living on a $1 per day. The irony here is that some of those countries are resource-rich with some of the highest GDP in the world.

Amidst this global backlash against greed and inequality, what happened to the militant spirit that sent many young people to the streets of Namibia, Zimbabwe and South Africa against colonialism, poverty and social injustice in the 1960s and 1980s?

One answer given for this widespread citizenry indifference in southern African has been explained in terms of the belief that some of the governments in the region would not hesitate to use harsh measures if confronted by Arab Spring-like mass action.

True to this, in Zimbabwe some 45 activists were rounded up and charged with treason for watching a Mid-East uprising video. In Malawi, the security force launched a violent crackdown on the protestors, leaving at least 18 of them dead. In Swaziland, pro-democracy activists were banned, arrested, tear-gassed and sprayed with water cannons.

But here is another explanation: Southern African citizens’ indifference can be explained as a ‘been there and done that’ syndrome.

This is because in some ways Southern Africa is a little bit ahead of north Africa in terms of democratisation. But not only do we have a democracy without democrats but also a democracy without citizens. Southern Africa’s democracies did not and do not produce citizens but subjects controlled by governments due to the hierarchical nature of the region’s politics, which demands obedience and loyalty from citizens. Why?

Although they claim to have fought for democracy most ruling parties in southern Africa don’t operate as democrats. Their politics and decision-making are highly centralised – as are those of most opposition political parties.

It is against the backlog of this unquestioning and uncritical citizenry, that we understand why Mugabe is still in power today and why most ruling parties in the region have won elections with a landslide victory.

To make matters worse events in north Africa made the world forget about southern Africa, especially with regard to what’s going on in Zimbabwe and Malawi. – First published by Pambazuka News.

Post published in: Opinions & Analysis

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *