The elite didn’t listen

2013-09-20 00:00

BE it the French Revolution in the 18th century, the Russian Revolution in the 20th century, or the Rwanda genocide in 1994, they all teach us one lesson: that revolutions are continuous attempts to provide civil liberties and, more importantly, a political system that assures the masses of inclusive social and economic improvements.

Why is this important for us? Revolutions provide a basis for developing and promoting equitable political, economic and social institutions. If a revolution is not an incident, but a series of connected events, and if revolutions extend from one generation to the next, they are of common interest to South Africans. Let us analyse this by visiting some historical events.

Our source of knowledge is historical records. They contain some interesting and illuminating stories. They depict revolutions as strategies for correcting political decisions that subject citizens to oppression and poverty. They see revolutions as sparked by a series of events that failed the people. In other words, they reveal social dissatisfaction, social responses and consequences associated with social responses. Most important is the innovative capacity of slaves, peasants and the poor in the economy and revolutionary wars.

“Let them eat cake.” These were the words uttered by the French queen Marie Antoinette, when peasants had no bread to eat. This is one event that contributed to the collapse of the French monarchy, which reigned over France for centuries. The feudal, aristocratic and religious privileges crumbled under a sustained assault from liberal political formations and mass civil disobedience. There are two important points here. First was the role that was played by the liberals and the thinkers of the time. The wealthy, the privileged and the powerful never listened. Second, the total assault on the political system was launched by the peasants who were in the majority. The Russian Revolution of 1917 has one or two things to teach us. Besides the Russian Civil War, it created the Soviet Union in 1922.

The recent Rwandan genocide has something to teach us. Mahmood Mamdani, an African academic and writer, disputes that the genocide was caused by evil spirits. Instead, he argues for the emergence of political identities as the real cause of the genocide. He believes that the colonial political, legal and administrative instruments subverted African cultural identities and unfortunately created a fertile ground for the growth of racially dominated governance authorities in the post-colonial area. The results were unstable governments in Africa, black-on-black violence and catastrophe, such as the 1994 Rwanda genocide. There are two lessons that we can glean from the Rwandan experience. First was the creation of an elite group that dominated all political and economic sectors of the country. This led to exploitation of the oppressed social classes. Second, the divide between the rich and poor had unintended consequences. A small group of dissatisfied elite was able to mobilise the majority poor to resist and revolt against oppressive practices. Hatred was used to rally young vigilantes and armies that started to challenge the political system.

What are the implications for us? This boils down to failing the children and future generations. The decisions and behaviour of many trusted institutions and leaders leave much to be desired. They risk disorientating and corrupting the thinking capacity of future citizens. In most cases, revolutions and civil wars use children from poor families as soldiers. These children are corrupted, and things get worse when some of these soldiers make it into positions of political power. The reintegration of soldiers into society remains a nightmare for many governments around the world. In many cases, soldiers live a violent life and believe in the use of force to resolve the many challenges they are faced with. These soldiers are transformed easily into mercenaries who are used to fight economic wars and topple opposition groups.

What does this mean for us? There is a strong bond between leadership and education. Remember, education can be formal and informal. However, democratic systems, economic reforms, human development and innovation require critical minds and the ability to apply literature and history to solve contemporary challenges. We have an opportunity to prevent political failures and weakened social institutions. We can change the course of history by focusing on one mission: making the world the best place for our children. We have the power to make the right decisions. We can starve our country of scandals and political collateral damage.

• Nqe Dlamini is a rural development consultant.

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