A classy revolution: Why we cared
- Ivo Vegter
- 14 Feb 2011 10:12 (South Africa)
Why, when millions turned their social-media avatars green for the Iranian democracy movement last year, and we all followed events in Egypt and Tunisia avidly over the past few weeks, are some other popular movements for freedom completely ignored?
Zuckerberg cites Gabon as an example, and it's a great one. Few media have covered this ongoing story. A notable exception – the one that proves the rule – is the Christian Science Monitor. (A brief conversation with its indefatiguable Africa editor, Scott Baldauf, contributed to the thoughts explored in this column.)
I don't pretend to have a complete answer, but I'd like to make a few observations.
For one, the media has a lot to answer for. It has been abjectly following where the amateurs of Twitter and Facebook are leading. With the exception of Al Jazeera, who owned this story, many "real" journalists only arrived in Cairo a week after the revolution was tweeted around the world.
Granted, out-tweeting the heroes of a major revolution is hard. So is being everywhere at the same time. But that surely suggests that the professional media ought to lead in the coverage of democracy movements that, for whatever reason, do not get as much social media buzz?
The media's failure does not answer, however, why people seem to care less about some places than others. Now that we know there are protests in Gabon, do we care? Are we following Algeria, Bahrain, Yemen, Jordan and Morocco as closely as we followed Egypt and Iran? No? What about Cameroon, Uganda, Nigeria, Eritrea or Senegal? Thought not.
In attempting to answer this question, one hears many superficial explanations.
The most glib is simple racism. Only light-skinned peoples garner the support of the rich world, this argument goes. There may be some truth to this, but it is also contradicted by the world-wide support for South Africa's own liberation. Moreover, it fails to explain why the West's reputation for Islamophobia does not appear to have the same effect. If racism does play a role, it is probably not dominant. More likely, simplistic racism rhetoric masks an underlying reason.
A more likely explanation is that the strategic significance of some countries in geo-political affairs make them bigger news. Combine the sense that it's important, with a local population that is highly visible via social media, add the irresistible revolutionary-chic romanticism of an oppressed people overthrowing despotic rulers to seek freedom, and it stands to reason that a major uprising in an important country is a recipe for profound global news appeal.
There may be a deeper problem, however, which surfaces in some analyses of the Egyptian uprising. A common view among both the guilt-tripping elites of the rich world, and many intellectuals in the poor world who would like to externalise their problems, is that Western exploitation is to blame for all the ills against which the oppressed masses rise.
Pankaj Misrah's column for the Guardian gives us a classic example. He talks of Egypt being subjected to the "vagaries of international capitalism", and decries the sovereign debt piled up by autocratic rulers (as if lenders alone carry responsibility for the financial straits of borrowers).
He writes: "Egypt's nascent manufacturing industry stood no chance in an international economic regime whose rules were rigged in favour of free-trading Britain. At the same time, early modernisation in Egypt had also unleashed new classes with social and political aspirations that could not be fulfilled by a despotic regime beholden to foreigners."
After a few more broadsides against British imperialism and distinctly unfree misrepresentations of "free trade", Misrah quotes Jawaharlal Nehru: "Democracy for an Eastern country seems to mean only one thing: to carry out the behests of the imperialist ruling power."
The facile self-contradiction between these two paragraphs – that both autocracies and democracies do the bidding of foreign imperialists – goes unnoticed and unremarked. Yet it undermines the entire premise of the piece: that the foundations of despotism lie in the exploitative relationship with colonial powers.
The narrative that the West is to blame for the economic ills of poor countries is a powerful one. It has sufficient basis in truth to resonate with the people. Examples like Leopold II's rape of the Congo, the Spanish exploitation of Latin America, or the racist oppression of South Africa, are all too frequent.
But the narrative also meshes neatly with the despot's propaganda, that he should be respected as a paternal protector who liberated his people from the oppression of greedy foreigners.
This may be why many uprisings merely substitute one despot for another. The sense that the overthrow of a strong-man is unlikely to lead to real freedom is particularly strong in Africa, and has made the outside world jaded about news of pro-democracy protests. Recasting this cynicism as Afro-pessimism or racism masks the sad fact that it is rooted in bitter experience.
Moreover, the analysis that seeks to blame external factors for a country's ills avoids the uncomfortable fact that in most modern cases, the full burden of responsibility for a free and prosperous future now lies with the people themselves. Even if past grievances are justified, indulging them does not improve prospects for the future.
A common factor in the uprisings that have engaged the world's attention has been a bold – often brave – use of social media to circumvent the restrictions on free speech that every autocrat requires to keep organised revolution at bay.
South Africa's own liberation predated such instant communication, but after the demise of the Rand Daily Mail, media outlets such as the Weekly Mail, New Nation, South, and Vrye Weekblad bravely kept the flame of free expression and self-belief burning in ordinary South Africans.
There was a strong sense during the transition years that we were all in this together, and that nobody was going to fight the freedom fight for us. The protest media gave South Africans confidence and strength. The international visibility it offered consisted of an image of a united front opposing the authoritarian police state to make South Africa a better place. This is a key reason South Africa's fight for liberation resonated so deeply around the world.
Likewise, one gets a sense that the boldness of social media protestors today is the result of a powerful feeling that shaping the future is up to each individual, and that failing to exercise that power amounts to abject surrender to kleptocrats, theocrats and warlords.
As we watched Egyptians show their long-time autocrat the door, the power they demonstrated was awesome. What caused goose-bumps, however, was the pure class with which they wielded their power.
Besides patriotism and bravery, the reports from demonstrations around Egypt were peppered with anecdotes of touching demonstrations of unity across religious lines, and of volunteer cleaning crews tidying up after each day's protests. A profound self-respect gilded the glorious battle for liberty that played itself out on the streets of Egypt.
Freedom marches on through the pages of modern history. As it does so, the self-respect, self-reliance and self-belief that marked Egypt's demonstrations lie at the core of successful uprisings. These form the basis for any serious claim to individual liberty, and at the same time command the outside world's attention and admiration.
People who are unable to speak out, or to take the responsibility for their conditions, will be led. Their periodic complaints will largely be ignored, and enough potential autocrats exist to exploit their submission. They merely reinforce jaundiced cynicism and disinterest.
But when people declare proudly that they can and will shape their own future, they garner the support and solidarity of the world. They lay the social foundation for economic prosperity. Successful uprisings are about standing up and denying the despot the ability to blame anyone else for the misery he inflicts on his people. DM
PS. The answer is Andry Rajoelina, a popular DJ who in 2009, at the tender age of 34 and with the help of the army, grabbed power in Madagascar from Marc Ravalomanana. An attempted military coup against him failed late last year. Although there's a roadmap to peace involving yet another hackneyed proposal for power-sharing, Rajoelina is still happily imprisoning opposition members for attending illegal protests, and the ousted party headed by Ravalomanana remains in exile.
- Miserere mei, the Ebocalypse is here!
- Advanced technology or magic?
- Tourism: Still doing okay? Let’s fix that!
- Green-left messiah desperately seeking spin-doctor
- The gun genie and its bottle
- On energy, environment, and regulatory independence
- South Africa’s schools of witchcraft and wizardry
- Grab shale gas opportunity, but avoid opportunism
- It’s about who you don’t vote for
- Free markets as a moderate position
- Voting: there’s still time to change your mind
- Green tech is cool, but not because it’s green
- How Mmusi Maimane swindled a vote out of me
- The case to elect Malema to Parliament
- The intellectual gnome, Chomsky
- If Malema isn’t Pol Pot, is he still dangerous?
- Do Malema's followers understand ‘agrarian reform’?
- Look ma, I'm defending Shell's record in Nigeria!
- Any weather is evidence for global warming
- U-turn prof finds his fracking fears are avoidable
- Ramphele et al: The world according to angry feminists
- On HIV/Aids and scary-big numbers
- Cherry-picking ‘grey literature’ on rhino horn
- 350,000 reasons to kill a black rhino
- Eight myths about libertarians
- New Year’s resolutions for other people
- All I want for Christmas is a fire pool
- In defence of Donald Trump
- My old South African flag
- Fearful Fukushima fiction fatigue
- Do we tolerate private sector corruption?
- In defence of a lion killer
- Save the rare wine and endangered craft beer
- Forever blowing bubbles: shale gas economics
- Promotion and Protection of Investment Bill: When “certainty” means “wait and see”
- This land is my land: a revolution
- The launch of SA's Libertarian Party: herding cats in time for 2014
- The African case against the ICC
- The fossil fuel subsidy myth
- Think of the little fishies!
- The hilariously misunderstood libertarian
- The sickly history of sweeteners
- Pants on fire, but they’re not mine
- The obstructionism of shale gas activists
- How mind-numbing numbers whip up fear
- Why pick on Khanyi Dhlomo?
- Half-measures will fail the rhino
- Malema’s righteous anger... and naïve confusion
- Lottery licence to go to one lucky winner
- Vaccinations: when the state stabs the people
- Do reusable shopping bags kill people?
- The long walk to serfdom
- The Karoo desperately needs development
- The trials of Samson Shuttleworth
- The girl who kicked the hornet’s nest
- Raping the discourse about rape
- Who is the reasonable man?
- Fracking: Debating a big deal
- Who needs the Queen’s English?
- Electric cars: Taking from the poor to give to the rich
- Business Licensing Bill: An indefensible defence
- Red-tape tourism
- The Big Business Bribery Bill
- On Thatcher and society, Vavi and the market
- Extinction: Let’s make up numbers and panic!
- Feeding the world is getting easier
- Stop talking shit: Build your own toilet
- Climate change is pseudo-science
- Anti-competitive competition law
- The Department of Less Government
- An open letter to President Zuma
- In defence of Kim Kardashian
- The world’s weirdest wildlife sanctuary
- Boycott calls are simple-minded
- In defence of vegans
- The population explosion implodes
- Environmental backpedalling picks up pace
- How Mangaung can help and hinder entrepreneurs
- The elusive libertarian enclave
- The Gathering: Ivo Vegter
- The hidden overemployment crisis
- The case for constructive environmentalism
- Privatise the Western Cape's shacks
- Tenders: Not open to employees or their families
- Hurricanes fuel climate sensationalism
- Next: Gross-out warnings on food
- No new deal: The failure of Zumanomics
- Benoni has a bright idea
- Was I wrong about acid rain?
- Public food gardens: Where dumb ideas thrive
- Rethinking the costly food label madness
- Give hunting a chance
- Fracking gets green light, but here's the risk
- Socialists, bless 'em, visit Cape Town
- Buy a 1Time ticket now
- Give the ANC credit where credit is due
- The myth of the competent apartheid government
- It's a disaster that 'peak oil' is not a disaster
- No Gravy: a label for sustainable business
- This lightbulb's going to blow
- Smokers? Get 'em up against the wall!
- Inflating the obesity scare
- Bring a Shotgun to School Day
- GMOs: Hacking genes to feed the world
- The hidden dangers of charity
- Fracking: the unread paper debated
- Fracking: The “U-turn” paper nobody has read
- Eco-cronyism is as dangerous as any other
- SKA: Be grateful Karoo residents didn't object
- Energy: Get cracking on fracking
- Fair trade, unfair trade-off
- Casual labour is only bad for Vavi's unions
- 'Externalities', the catch-all justification for regulation
- 'Externalities', the catch-all justification for regulation
- How do we fix our dismal education?
- Barter: the rebirth of sound money
- Rights are not entitlements
- Debunking 'limits to growth' inanities
- Tax: Why align with "most other countries"?
- Newspaper sensationalism doesn't help rhinos
- Rolling Stone reprises Gasland's fracking fantasies
- Cosatu's manipulative march move
- Why do 16 million people not constitute an economy?
- The age of smear politics
- Does fracking cause earthquakes?
- The Chinese model is morbidly obese
- Green tech: doubling down on a losing bet
- Rape, pornography, and hell's grannies
- Petrol taxes won't hurt the poor
- Jailtime mooted for bad weather warnings
- Let's ban bans, and start with CITES
- In defence of overpaid sport stars
- On the death of Kim Jong-Il
- COP17: Let's ban fire
- Cancer gets you when nothing else can
- COP17: The 'party on' agenda
- COP17: The Blue Line of Death
- New seven natural inanities
- Occupiers' anger is all that makes sense
- The Luddites and Technocrats live on
- Malema marches for economic slavery
- Profitable purveyors of pudendal prettiness
- Sense? Us?
- If they want rhino horn, let's sell them some
- "Stimulate" economy by ending telco abuses
- Executive pay makes nobody poorer
- Malema's real persecution
- Mogoeng: Lock up your daughters
- Don't mandate insurance, deregulate healthcare
- I sympathise with Malema's persecution complex
- Short selling: panicked pols ban proof of failure
- Don't blame those who saw it coming
- What's obscene about profit?
- In defence of Bombela
- Dear president Zuma, you are not above the law
- The economics of love
- Treasure the Karoo? Ban the SKA!
- Malema is right, you know
- Gautrain's PPP: political patronage profiteering
- Kumi Naidoo is no hero
- LeadSA fails to lead when it matters
- No logo means carte blanche
- The drug war: dopey but dangerous
- A response to fracking critics
- Don't vote. It's your right.
- Welcome Walmart
- If you're happy and you know it clap your hands
- Buy local, support poverty
- Ubuntu, the free-market way
- Karoo fracking scandal exposed!
- I'm ashamed for my profession
- The bill of bunkum
- Being gay: a brand new concept!
- Who's afraid of the nuclear wolf?
- The nationalisation canard
- Ogilvy should grow a spine
- The new robber barons
- A classy revolution: Why we cared
- Bombastic Bombela balks
- Liberty is more than mere democracy
- Gautrain has a law unto itself
- The irony of 'services for all'
- How to hire a hitman in SA
- Arrive alive and neurotic
- The oppression of taxis
- Protection of Information Bill and why WikiLeaks is so dangerous
- Fifa, Russia and Qatar deserve each other
- One day, we'll all hate WikiLeaks
- The cycling mafia strikes again
- What Julius got for Christmas
- Let's return the beads
- Away with fascist seat belt laws
- Tintin Mbeki in the Sudan
- How the ANC can make everyone happy
- Currency: the race to the bottom.
- Hurrah for national healthcare!
- Give Zimbabweans citizenship
- Carte Blanche has no carte blanche
- That finger-licking, lip-smacking taste
- Bomb the barbaric lot already
- Green tax: another raid is coming
- Do strikers deserve anything?
- The media will lose this battle
- Global warmism needs a fisking
- A glass half-full
- Go ahead, have a baby
- Stop the handouts - end xenophobia
- The right to fire
- FIFA's heart of darkness
- Have some self-respect
- I ordered an orange skirt
- Secretly, Match blames South Africa
- The stupendous Gautrain: a rare marvel!
- The Fifa conquistadors are coming!
- What's wrong with everyone?
- Leave poor BP alone
- The destructive power of government
- The bonsai economy
- The darkness of Africa
- Who is ripping off whom?
- Anatomy of a whitewash
- While FIFA takes over, we fight
- The pointless pretence of Earth Hour
- Ten reasons to reject climate alarmism
- Really, boycott the FIFA farce
- The climate dominoes fall
- Lessons in ethics from Dick Cheney
- Screw the consumer
- In defence of bankers
- Break the banking cartel
- Julius Malema, the walking contradiction
- Boycott FIFA
- Climate clarity
- In defence of Boney M
- Pray Copenhagen fails
- Capitalism is not unkind
- Climate fraud kills people
- Pop goes the hot air balloon
- Peace, love and schadenfreude
- The irony of the left
- Too late to cool it?
- Going cold turkey