Max du Preez

Is SA headed for revolution?

2016-10-25 07:37

Max du Preez

South Africa is experiencing political turbulence verging on instability. But what are the chances that this could lead to some kind of revolution or a collapse of the present order?

I write this column from Tunis, where the Arab Spring of 2011 started and then spread to other Arab states. The geopolitics of North Africa is very different from that of the southern tip of the continent, but I could not avoid drawing some parallels.

One huge difference is immediately apparent.

When the vegetable vendor Mohamed Bouazizi set himself alight on 17 December 2010 after he was slapped by the police and had his cart confiscated – the trigger of the “Jasmine Revolution” – Tunisia wasn’t a democracy and an open society.

It was a corrupt dictatorship with little personal freedom and a compromised judiciary.

In this sense one could say South Africa had its Arab Spring moment in the late 1980s, when growing resistance to apartheid was met with brutal repression.

Fortunately we had leaders like Nelson Mandela and FW de Klerk who opted for a negotiated settlement rather than go down the road of destruction and civil war.

We just had our tenth peaceful election since 1994 and the results were accepted by all.

We are one of the most open societies in the world.

We are a constitutional democracy and our progressive constitution with its ironclad guarantees for human rights and freedoms is being protected effectively by the Constitutional Court.

Our judiciary is independent and functioning well. Our media are diverse and vibrant.

SA has a lot in common with Tunisia

But the more I talk to political analysts and civil society activists here, the clearer my impression is that the Tunisian revolution was probably caused as much or more by poverty, corruption, unemployment and inequality than by the lack of political freedoms.

And suddenly one realises that South Africa has a lot in common with Tunisia.

These four factors, more so than political rights and freedoms, are at the base of the simmering anger and resentment South Africa is experiencing right now.

The other observation is that the main actors in the Tunisian revolution were not the poorest of the poor, but the middle class, the aspiring middle class, young unemployed graduates and the trade unions.

The threat to stability in South Africa also doesn’t come from the poor, the people who live in squatter camps and slums. So-called delivery protests in these areas have been raging for years, almost on a daily basis.

It was only when trade unions launched radical actions (like at Marikana) and the students became militant that the rest of us started taking notice.

The poor are too occupied with trying to simply survive to organise a revolution and don’t have the capacity to mobilise on a big scale.

In Tunisia the revolutionaries boasted that they had toppled the government “with a stone in the one hand and a cellphone in the other”, referring to the important role that Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and YouTube had played in the uprising.

Revolutionary potential high

Against this background one has to state that the revolutionary potential in South Africa is fairly high.

The counterargument is of course that unhappy South Africans can express their anger at the ballot box and see their dissent reflected in the mass media. This was not true in Tunisia in 2011 – mercifully it is now.

Why then didn’t South Africans do this if the resentments ran so deep? They didn’t express their anger during the recent local elections, because the only “revolutionary” party, the EFF, only increased their share of the vote by 2% to some 8%.

If the argument is that the millions of especially young people that didn’t vote would have supported a radical change in government and society, then one has to ask whether they have the potential to stage a mass uprising if they couldn’t even be moblised to vote.

But all this could change in the months and years ahead.

The South African economy is likely to weaken considerably, especially if the rating agencies downgrade it to junk status in December, which would substantially increase unemployment and poverty.

What is more, the legitimacy of the South African state is being undermined severely by the barrage of revelations about state capture and corruption, the implosion of the governing party and the tendencies of police brutality.

We won't go over the cliff

My reading is that instability will probably increase for a while, but in the end South Africa will self-correct, as is in fact happening inside the ANC right now.

The very structure of our society and the many remaining strong institutions are guarantees that we won’t go over the cliff.

It is true that there are many citizens who feel alienated and marginalised.

But there are many more who feel that they have too much to lose if South Africa entered into a Zimbabwe-type situation. Or, to return to the region I’m writing this from, a Libyan, Egyptian or Syrian type situation.

It is in all our interests that we engage in a radical programme to rapidly increase the number of people in this grouping.

- Follow Max on Twitter.

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