bolekaja

‘Walk to work’ and lessons of Soweto and Tahrir Square

In Revolt, The Politics of Politics on May 6, 2011 at 4:57 am

Mahmood Mamdani, Pambazuka

In this presentation at the Rotary International District Conference in Munyonyo, Mahmood Mamdani links events in Tahrir Square to the 1976 Soweto uprisings in South Africa. Unity in struggle is one of the common factors. This is a the full text of the speech.Those of you who come from outside may have heard of a novel form of political protest in Uganda called ‘Walk to Work’. Both the opposition that has taken to walking and government that is determined to get them to stop walking are driven by the memory of a single event.

The memory of Tahrir Square feeds opposition hopes and fuels government fears. For many in the opposition, Egypt has come to signify the promised land around the proverbial corner. For many in government, Egypt spells a fundamental challenge to power, one that must be resisted, whatever the cost.

Matters have reached a point where even the hint of protest evokes maximum reaction from government. So much so that a government, which only a few weeks ago came to power with an overwhelming majority, today appears to lack not only flexibility, but also an exit strategy.

For civilians, supporters and skeptics alike, the sight of military resources deployed to maintain civil order in the streets has come to blur the line between civil police and military forces as those in power insist on treating even the simplest of civil protest as if it were an armed rebellion.

If government is losing the coherence and unity that it displayed during the elections, the opposition is beginning to find at least a semblance of unity and vision that had evaded it during election season. If you keep in mind that many in this opposition, many of those who had been in the last Parliament, were complicit in every major turn for the worse when it comes to governance, then you marvel at the nature of this shift.

How can it be that some of the same opposition that only yesterday saw Parliament as a passport to patronage and licence to pillage, are discovering resolve and moral courage even though there is no election in sight and the times are, if anything, hard? This single thought is the source of contradictory popular notions, both skepticism and optimism, when it comes to politics.

My purpose today is neither to celebrate the opposition nor to demonise the government. I want to talk about the memory that seems to be driving many in the opposition and haunting many in government. That is the memory of Tahrir Square. It is not too much of an exaggeration to say that the great Egyptian revolution began in Tunis. Where will it end? A decade from now, will we think of it as a local, a continental or a global event? How should we understand its significance today?

Historians admit that there is no single objective account of any event. The account depends, in part, on the location of the observer. For many in Europe, the events in Tunis and Cairo were evidence that the colour revolutions that began in East Europe with the fall of the Soviet Union are finally spreading beyond the region.

In East Africa, there was a flurry of discussion after Tahrir Square, mainly in the press. Many asked whether the Egyptian revolution will spread South of the Sahara. And they responded, without a second thought: No! Why not? Because, media pundits said, sub-Saharan societies are so divided by ethnicity, so torn apart by tribalism, that none can achieve the degree of unity necessary to confront political power successfully.

This response makes little sense to me. For this answer resembles a caricature. Nowhere in the history of successful struggles will you find a people united in advance of the movement. For the simple reason that one of the achievements of a successful movement is unity. Unity is forged through struggle.

To make this point, and a few others, I want to look at the democratic revolution in Egypt in the context of a longer history, a history of democratic struggle on this continent. I want to begin with an event that occurred more than three decades ago in South Africa. I am thinking of the Soweto uprising of 1976, which followed the formation of independent trade unions in Durban in 1973. Together these two developments inaugurated a new era in the anti-apartheid struggle in South Africa. Soweto was a youthful uprising. In an era when adults had come to believe that meaningful change could only come through armed struggle, Soweto pioneered an alternative mode of struggle.

This new mode of struggle substituted the notion of armed struggle with that of popular struggle. It stopped thinking of struggle as something waged by professional fighters, guerrillas, with the people cheering from the stands, but as a movement with ordinary people as its key participants. The potential of popular struggle lay in sheer numbers, guided by a new imagination and new methods of struggle.

The significance of Soweto was two-fold. First, as I have already said, it replaced belief in power of arms with the discovery of a greater power, that of a people organised in the face of oppression.
Second, Soweto forged a new unity – a wider unity. Apartheid rule had split South African society into so many races (whites, Indians, Coloureds) and so many tribes (Zulu, Xhosa, Pedi, Venda and so on) by putting each under a separate set of laws, so that even when they organised to reform or remove the law in question, they did so separately. In this context came a new person, Steve Biko, a visionary leader at the helm of a new movement, the Black Consciousness Movement.

Biko’s message undermined apartheid statecraft. Black is not a colour, said Biko. Black is an experience. If you are oppressed, you are Black. This was a revolutionary message – why? The ANC had spoken of non-racialism as early as the Freedom Charter in the mid-50s. But the ANC’s non-racialism only touched the political elite. Individual White and Indian and Coloured leaders had joined the ANC as individuals. But ordinary people remained confined and trapped by a political perspective hemmed in narrow racial or tribal boundaries. Biko forged a vision with the potential to cut through these boundaries.

Around that same time, another event occurred. It too signaled a fresh opening. This was the Palestinian Intifada. What is known as the First Intifada had a Soweto-like potential. Like the children of Soweto, Palestinian children too dared to face bullets with no more than stones. Faced with feuding liberation movements, each claiming to be a sole representative of the oppressed, the youth of the Intifada called for a wider unity.

Even though the Egyptian Revolution has come more than three decades after Soweto, it evokes the memory of Soweto in a powerful way. This is for at least two reasons.

Embracing violence?
 First, like Soweto in 1976, Tahrir Square in 2011 too shed a generation’s romance with violence. The generation of Nasser and after had embraced violence as key to fundamental change in politics and society. This tendency was secular at the outset. The more Nasser turned to suppressing the opposition and justifying it in the language of secular nationalism, the more the opposition began to speak in a religious idiom. The most important political tendency calling for a surgical break with the past now spoke the language of radical Islam. Its main representative in Egypt was Said Qutb. I became interested in radical Islam after 9/11, which is when I read Sayyid Qutb’s most important book, ‘Signposts’. It reminded me of the grammar of radical politics at the University of Dar es Salaam where I was a lecturer in the 1970s.

Sayyid Qutb says in the introduction to ‘Signposts’ that he wrote the book for an Islamist vanguard; I thought I was reading a version of Lenin’s ‘What is to be Done’. Sayyid Qutb’s main argument in the text is that you must make a distinction between friends and enemies, because with friends you use persuasion and with enemies you use force. I thought I was reading Mao Zedong ‘On the Correct Handling of Contradictions Amongst the People’.

I asked myself: how should I understand Sayyid Qutb? As part of a linear tradition called political Islam? Is the history of thought best understood inside containers labelled civilisations; one Islamic, another Hindu, another Confucian, another Christian, or, alternately, one European, another Asian, yet another African?

Was not Sayyid Qutb’s embrace of political violence in line with a growing embrace of armed struggle in movements of national liberation in the ‘50s and ‘60s? Was not the key assumption that armed struggle is not only the most effective form of struggle but also the only genuine mode of struggle?
The more I read of Sayyid Qutb’s distinction between Friend and Enemy, that you use violence to deal with an enemy and reason to persuade a friend, the more I realised that I had to understand Sayyid Qutb as part of his times.

No doubt, like the rest of us, Sayyid Qutb was involved in multiple conversations: he was involved in multiple debates, not only with Islamic intellectuals, whether contemporary or of previous generations, but also with contending intellectuals inspired by other modes of political thought.

And the main competition then was Marxism-Leninism, a militantly secular ideology which influenced both Qutb’s language and his methods of organisation and struggle. The first significance of Tahrir Square was that it shed the mark of Syed Qutb and the romance with revolutionary violence.
The second resemblance between Soweto and Tahrir Square was on the question of unity. Just as the anti-apartheid struggle in South Africa had uncritically reproduced the division between races and tribes institutionalised in state practices, so too had the division between religions become a part of the convention of mainstream politics in Egypt.

Tahrir Square innovated a new politics. It shed the language of religion in politics, but it did so without embracing a militant secularism that would totally outlaw religion in the public sphere. It thus called for a broader tolerance of cultural identities in the public sphere, one that would include both secular and religious tendencies. The new contract was that to participate in the public sphere, you must practice an inclusive politics with respect to others.

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