South Africa

Africa, Politics, South Africa

TRAINSPOTTER: Sound of Silence – the dark art of quieting a country

TRAINSPOTTER: Sound of Silence – the dark art of quieting a country

In October of this year, the Ethiopian authorities declared a nationwide state of emergency. They have subsequently blocked a number of social media platforms, including Twitter, Facebook, and WhatsApp, while mobile phone carriers have ceased offering data packages – all to quell an uprising that has existential implications for the federation. As Zuma tightens his grip on the Security Cluster, we have to ask: are you listening to the deadly silence coming out of the north, David Mahlobo? By RICHARD POPLAK.

At night, Addis Ababa moans. Along the main drag that leads from the airport to the CBD, the giant concrete ribs of par-built structures serve as an orchestra pit, whining through the night as the wind tears through their dusty cavities.

This strange music, which sounds ancient but could not be more modern, is the city’s expression of its growing pains. If it comes across as a lament, that could just be the beholder’s ear: few places in the world can claim an economic rise more vertiginous than Ethiopia’s. And yet, the dread philosopher king who presided over much of this expansion, the late Prime Minister Meles Zenawi, insisted that Addis wasn’t growing: there was no urbanisation in Ethiopia, he claimed, because Ethiopia was an agricultural economy. He would drive from the airport along Bole Road in his screaming motorcade and see: fields of teff.

On January 29, 2012, I observed the Prime Minister roar through this imagined sylvan expanse towards the Future. He was on his way to the inauguration of the African Union’s new headquarters, a $200-million compound gifted by the Chinese to their African brothers for services previously rendered. The AU is dominated by a 20-storey skyscraper that dwarfs the German-funded outhouse opened only nine years earlier to precisely zero fanfare; the steel-clad building serves as the largest architectural bauble in a city increasingly full of them.

The Chinese vs. the West – this was Meles’s Great Game. He had his reasons: in 2005, following the country’s first “free” elections, Addis fell to the opposition. Meles and the ruling Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) could not understand why the capital’s ungrateful inhabitants had opted to vote for a grab-bag of opposition groups, when so much had been done to nudge one of the poorest countries on Earth forward into the 21th century. But while the constitution of 1994 described Ethiopia as a federal republic in which various ethnic cohorts had the right to a measure of self-governance, this proved to be a con job: Ethiopia is tightly, often brutally controlled by a small Tigrayan elite, of whom Meles was very much the boss man.

He did not appreciate the demotion.

And so the military swept into the city and cracked heads, killing at least 190. Ethiopia’s Western allies watched in horror: after all, the country had successfully marketed itself as a basket case, and hundreds of millions of dollars a year poured in from the Industrial Aid Complex. The truth, however, was that Meles was bankrolled by those who required him to serve as East Africa’s bad cop. He kept the region’s Islamists in check, and ensured that his own Muslim subjects were on their best behaviour. These tasks he performed with enthusiasm – wherever he looked, he saw terrorists.

But now what?

The West turned off the funding taps, which, of course, left a vacuum. In came the Chinese. Spooked, the West restructured its funding, funneling cash into acronyms and associations that they swore – swore! – had no association with authoritarian government programmes. Meanwhile, Meles promised development – of a sort. Because the EPRDF were committed socialists, the economy remained unliberated, but speculation was nonetheless rampant in the property market. A country of almost 100-million inhabitants, 90% of them without bank accounts, watched as billions of dollars was hosed into cities unprepared for the influx.

Addis exhaled, and popped its belt. Due to the terrifyingly named “Addis Ababa Master Plan”, the city spilled into areas traditionally held by the Oromo, the ethnic group that comprises about 35% of Ethiopia’s population. Such tensions date back to the imperial conquests of Emperor Menelik II, the king who famously kicked the ass of the Italians in the Battle of Adwa in 1896, and who gulped up Oromia and other ethnic areas for the benefit of the Amhara elite. The Oromo remained second-class citizens throughout the reign of Haile Selassie, and were never invited to join the Habesha ethnic overclass that traced its lineage back to King Solomon and the Israelites. Following Megistu’s fall in 1991, which vaulted Meles and the Tigrayan elite to power, the Oromo were further disenfranchised, as were the Amhara.

The Tigrayans form only about 6% of Ethiopia’s population, so you probably know how this story plays out. But this state of affairs should not bring to mind apartheid so much as it should minority Alawite rule in Syria: everything was great until it wasn’t; the country fell to pieces with shocking rapidity; a proxy regional war pulled in a handful of global players; crazed death cultists spilled out into the world in order to behead infidels and shoot up gay nightclubs. Now, in nightmarescapes such as Homs and Aleppo, one of the greatest tragedies in the history of our species unfolds, all to the tune of No One Giving a Fuck.

This is a possible, if not a probable, Ethiopian scenario.

That said, the regime has always understood the untenable nature of the Federal Democratic Republic of Ethiopia, and long before his untimely death in 2012, Meles believed that the internet was itself a bug in the so-called revolutionary mainframe. A Luddite socialist with a deep distrust for innovation, but with an equally deep attraction to Davos-style technocracy – in other words, the ultimate intellectual paradox – Meles knew that the web was a requirement for 21st century-style development. But it could simultaneously contribute to the unraveling of the state. So, in 2009, he signed the Anti-Terrorism Proclamation, an insanely draconian piece of legislation that allowed the government to perform an end-run around both criminal and constitutional law. Journalists and activists were jailed as terrorists, alongside actual terrorists and hardcore criminals. Opposition parties were outlawed. Online activity was rabidly policed. As one Ethiopian propaganda hack recently put it: “Government should arrest people who press the ‘like’ button.”

Indeed, Meles was the first, but not the last, African leader to go after the interwebs, and his government has refused to liberalise the cellular communications space in order to maintain the chokehold. In the process, they have sacrificed millions of dollars in rents and tax revenue in the process – this current shutdown is said to have cost the economy at least $8.5-million so far.

None of it has done much good. Following the Oromo uprisings that started in April 2014, at least 500 have been killed. In the Oromia region, the internet has been shut down four times so far this year, following the circulation of videos depicting classic Ethiopian-style police brutality. Although less than 4% of the country has access to the net at the best of times, the rebellion has spread, deepened, and gone prime time. Students across Oromia demonstrated with their hands crossed above their heads, a pose famously struck by silver medalist Feyisa Lilesa on the Rio Summer Olympics marathon podium. The conflict has subsequently kicked up a notch: in October, a police-incited stampede at an Oromo thanksgiving festival in Bishoftu, 25km southeast of Addis, resulted in the deaths of between 52 and 100 people, depending on whom you ask.

Since then, a six-month state of emergency has been imposed, which means turning up the volume on the repression that caused the protests in the first place. According to a government-affiliated website, the subsequent dragnet has resulted in 1,683 being detained.

And so, right now, except for the musical building carcasses, Addis is quiet.

There are distinct pleasures to blackouts of Facebook and Twitter: no bloviating billionaires chastising theatre troupes; no fake news promising that the US will send a Klansman to the American embassy in Pretoria in order to sort out this white genocide business. But the repression begins in your pocket, and it spreads insidiously into every facet of life. Everyone watches everyone. Communities splinter. As the digital eye darkens, the freedoms most South Africans take for granted – the freedom to do and say and think dumb shit online – evaporates.

If the university protests in South Africa weren’t live-Tweeted, how many Marikana-style atrocities would have unfolded? In Ethiopia, over the course of these protests, there have been several. With the press essentially criminalised, the government and its forces get to act with impunity. Indeed, as ever, any regime maintaining a policy of internet and/or media suppression does very bad things when the lights are turned off. Egypt. Syria. Russia. Morocco. The Democratic Republic of the Congo. Dozens more. Soon to join the club: the United States of America?

Indeed, all of this does make one wonder whether South Africa’s Security Cluster considers the Ethiopian situation not as an aberration, but as a blueprint.

This isn’t as far-fetched as one might imagine. There are many who believe that the state’s security apparatus had a hand in elements of the student protest, and Security Minister David Mahlobo stoked such theories when he claimed to have met student leader Mcebo Dlamini in his house on two occasions. What if the student protests in this country were fanned until something went horribly wrong? What if that led to the declaration of a state of emergency – one of those ye olde apartheid-era stopgaps the government is so fond of dusting off? What if our democratic rights were suspended until the situation “quieted down”? What if the situation never quiets down?

This is how it works—the slow creep, and then the rapid descent, into a police state. We are well into the slow creep part of the procedure. Our current president, an ex-intelligence hack himself, has surrounded himself with spies and baton-wielders. The secrecy bill and the antagonism against whistleblowers put South Africans on notice that the Zumocracy had no interest in a free press, and the fact that the president doesn’t give interviews or press conferences has only confirmed that fact. If Zuma were jettisoned over the weekend, we have to ask ourselves whether the precedents he’s set can meaningfully be rolled back. Would Cyril Ramaphosa, he of the Marikana Massacre, allow a good crisis like #FeesMustFall go to waste? Would anyone else in the ANC? Julius Malema? And if you’re thinking the Obama-channeling Mmusi Maimane will be your saviour, keep in mind that his hero was massively addicted to spying, subterfuge and the odd extra-judicial killing of an American citizen.

And here’s an interesting question: Would South Africa trade a rapid economic rise for the suspension of freedoms, a la China or Ethiopia? Sadly, that isn’t a choice we get to make: this country has no growth potential under its current system, and nor will the Boss Men ask when/if they start shutting the ‘net down. The president and his wet squads do not want us to press the “like” button. They want a quiet state. And so do the pretenders to his throne.

When Meles roared through his fake fields of grain, he may have mused over Galatians 6:9: “Let us not become weary in doing good, for at the proper time we will reap a harvest if we do not give up.” Now, his countrymen have taken up a similar battle cry in the very streets he refused to admit were changing. Let us not become weary. It’s a mantra South Africans should pick up, as well. DM

Photo: Sunset on the rising city, Addis Ababa, by Jean Rebiffé via Flickr


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