Levi Kabwato
Levi Kabwato

Have we forgotten Mohamed Bouazizi?

Two years ago last Friday, a young man from Tunisia named Mohamed Bouazizi died of burn wounds after literally igniting what the world has come to know as the Arab Spring.

Bouazizi, a fruit and vegetable vendor immolated himself after suffering humiliation at the hands of a police officer who confiscated his goods, ostensibly because he was operating without a trading licence. Attempts to seek recourse had been ignored and the young man had been further humiliated by higher authorities — for the umpteenth time — leaving him with little option but to protest.

By the time the regime of former Tunisia president Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali woke up to the gravity of Bouazizi’s brave action — widespread protests across the country — it was too late. Last-ditch attempts by the regime to show sympathy and begin to address the concerns of the young man and those like him proved futile. Not even Ben Ali’s hospital visit to the young man could alter the course of history. Inevitably, the regime collapsed and the president and has family fled to Saudi Arabia.

Bouazizi’s death anniversary passed without much hype on January 4. It is a rather ironic occurrence for a man who inspired the Arab revolution and the consequent fall of Ben Ali, Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak, Libya’s Muammar Gaddafi (in a civil war) and the rattling of regimes in Yemen, Bahrain and Syria, among others.

Has the story of the Arab Spring become much bigger than the man largely credited to have started it all? Indeed, is Bouazizi’s place in history and memory no longer as secure as it was two years ago?

In asking these questions, perhaps one should also ask if Bouazizi means anything to sub-Saharan Africa, southern Africa in particular. If you go back to 2011, you will find that he does. Talk that Africa was “one country” dominated the political discourse and many people had their eyes firmly set on the so-called trouble hotspots in the region at the time – Zimbabwe, Swaziland, Angola and Malawi.

It is the kind of talk that gave birth to phrases such as “Mubarak Mugabe”, nudging Zimbabwe to do to President Robert Mugabe what Egypt had done to Mubarak. Massive demonstrations and strikes in the other three countries that year did not help matters. Could these countries, seen as anti-democratic and problematic follow suit in ensuring their leaders suffered the same fate suffered by the likes of Ben Ali, Mubarak or even Gaddafi?

They did not.

Mugabe appears to be ruling the roost in Harare. King Mswati III is flexing his muscles so much that he has banned — of all things — “provocative” dressing by women in his kingdom. The Angolan president, Jose Eduardo dos Santos, is secure in his position. In Malawi, well, Bingu wa Mutharika is no more, not because of a revolution but sudden death and despite new leadership, the problems of 2011 have persisted and some sections of society have called for nationwide protests this month.

Africa is not one country after all.

This does not mean, however, there are no lessons to be drawn from the actions of young people like Bouazizi. Yet, to be able to appreciate such lessons fully, there has to be some kind of allegiance or solidarity that is pledged towards people like them and their spirit of sacrifice and character of selflessness.

This is not to suggest, in any way, that the young Mohamed had envisioned the consequences of his actions to reach the extent they did. But that’s just the point! Far too often we waste time and energy drawing up ”perfect” plans that, we hope, can deliver the change we seek in society without actually investing our lives, our being into processes that can effect change. The moment we are supposed to act, it suddenly becomes too risky, too costly or too ghastly to contemplate, for instance, confronting the state or any other source of repression and demand justice or change.

Hence, we would rather take to Twitter, in fits of rage, and complain, for example, about the outcome of Mangaung without seeking to engage the ANC, let alone participate in its internal political processes so that we can influence our preferred outcomes. We would rather wax lyrical about ”Mubaraking Mugabe” without paying attention to the fact that the man is busy putting together an election strategy so what we ought to be doing, instead, is encourage young Zimbabweans and others to register to vote.

Perhaps we have convinced ourselves there is safety in being with the numbers that speak the language of freedom and express a desire to consolidate the gains of the struggles that birthed those freedoms. The only pitfall is that we seem reluctant to incur significant personal cost for greater national good in our respective countries although we would be quite happy to benefit if others were to put themselves in the firing line.

Unfortunately, merely playing to the Twitter gallery or liking Facebook pages as a form of activism is not going to shake the earth. Would there be an Arab Spring to talk of if Bouazizi had tweeted his frustrations on December 17 2010: “Just had my wares confiscated AGAIN by the police. Really hating this now. Sigh. #badfriday”

Yes, social media tools have a role to play in political mobilisation but given a choice between the number of re-tweets and the number of people on the streets, I would not hesitate to choose the latter.

I hope Bouazizi’s memory will remain as secure as it was two years ago, if not for its deeply instructive and inspiring power, then for the simple fact of how the young man reminded the world it takes only one person to change the course of history and shape entirely new destinies. We are the change we seek.

The last word belongs to slain revolutionary Che Guevara:

“We cannot foresee the future but we should never give in to the defeatist temptation of being the vanguard of a nation which yearns for freedom but abhors the struggle it entails and awaits its freedom as a crumb of victory.”

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    • GrahamJ

      Che also said, …”Blind hate against the enemy creates a forceful impulse that cracks the boundaries of natural human limitations, transforming the soldier in an effective, selective and cold killing machine. A people without hate cannot triumph against the adversary…”

      Sounds much like some of our politicians.

      Anyway, I wouldn’t quote Che if I was trying to impress someone about my humanity.

    • michael

      No Arab spring in the rest of africa, africans worship their leaders.

    • Tofolux

      @Levi, it is quite obvious that you have fallen hook, line and sinker for the analysis that was portrayed by those who had a major interest in creating unrest in those democratically elected govts and states. I am also quite shocked at the lack of strategic analysis on the so called “Arab Spring” by et al. Have you asked yourself the most basic and fundamental questions as to who actually benefitted from this Arab Spring? In fact, where has this Arab Spring left any of these countries? Who is the face of these struggles and who funded and provided arms and soldiers who remain nameless or faceless persons to overthrow these govts. It is quite ironic that those who now ”rule” have absolutely no activist credentials or background. So who are these people who are currently leading those countries. Furthermore, if you care to remember, Libya and all these countries were convinced by the AU, EU, World Bank, IMF etc not to spend too much on their arms budget. All these countries were convinced by these institutions that a lack of arms in their country would pose NO risk to their govts. If you look at the images on social media, you will note that those who fought to overthrow the govt, were armed to the hilt with the most sophisticated armery. If you understood Che, Castro or Cuba as a whole, you would respectfully have refrained from using his name in this context. As to the rest of Africa, we are correct to raise issues in Security Council and AU must be strengthened.

    • Tunisia watcher

      The death of Bouazizi was not celebrated yet because it is on January 14. Not january 4.

      There is an interesting oped, today, by Tunisian former official, Oussama Romdhani, in Al Arabiya English, about why the Arab Spring spring did not cross into Subsaharan Africa.

    • Tunisia watcher


      HomeLast Updated: Fri Jan 11, 2013 09:34 am (KSA) 06:34 am (GMT)
      Why the ‘Arab Spring’ stopped at the Sahara’s edge

      Friday, 11 January 2013

      Two years ago, when “Arab Spring” uprisings started toppling regimes of North Africa, many wondered if populations in Sub-Saharan Africa would rise up, too, to challenge the status quo in their respective countries. 

      There were demonstrations in quite a number of sub-Saharan nations, including Uganda, Kenya, Rwanda, Ethiopia, Senegal, Mauritania, the Sudan, Burkina Faso, Nigeria, Gabon, South Africa and others. Some of the protests were inspired by North African revolutions, as illustrated by the battle cries of the crowds and the self-immolations copying the act of despair of Tunisia’s Mohamed Bouazizi.

      African Spring
        The fate of the North African regimes was sealed by socio-economic factors, amongst them the role of the middle classes and the elites as they eventually sided with the protest movement  
      Oussama Romdhani
      Expectations of an “African Spring” were based on the assumption that countries of Sub-Saharan Africa shared many of the problems, which had led to revolts in North Africa, including youth unemployment, economic hardship, corruption, inefficient governance, restrictions on freedoms, and unhappiness over the long tenure of many of the rulers. There were in fact leaders, like President Eduardo Dos Santos of Angola and…

    • http://facebook.com/levisnotebook Levi

      @Tofolux – It’s quite obvious that you miss the point i’m making here. I write not in support of the Arab Spring but rather, about the fate of one young man who provided some kind of impetus for political change.

      The matter of the Arab Spring – as far as political consequences are concerned – has already been dealt with in an entry i made here: http://www.thoughtleader.co.za/levikabwato/2011/11/23/will-the-real-pharaoh-please-stand-up/

      As for Che, i can’t see why you’re faulting me here. But perhaps it’s because you’ve missed the point i’m making to begin with.

      So too does @GrahamJ.

      @Tunisia Watcher – Thanks for sharing. On the death date, why have most mainstream media put it on January 4? I thought January 14 is when Ben Ali fled the country? No?

    • sfiso

      It takes a certain level of courage, insularity and naivette to forment armed civil uprising. Its a very costly enterprise in terms of wanton destruction, mindless murder and mayhem. I am sort of happy it did not happen in Malawi, Swaziland, Angola and Zim,. Those who sponsor it are very scrupulous that it does not happen in their own backyard. No one has really asked the Arab Spring proponents to tell us why they did it in the manner they did.

    • sfiso

      Tofolux you have said amouthful, I support your views.

    • cyrine

      Exactly two years have passed since the self-immolation of a fruit-seller in Tunisia but nothing has changed and the goals that animated the revolution no longer seem within reach. however we should be optimistic and i”m trying to be Regardless of Circumstances. i really want to go out and celebrate the revolution but not tomorrow because we didn”t see any change .

    • Richard

      The African malaise is that it never challenges its leaders. They are the fathers, and the people are their children. The chiefs of old were in that mould, and the current leaders are too. During the colonial period, which in most African countries did not even last a century, colonial governors filled the same role. The real opportunity came with independence, and multi-party democracy, but that inevitably led to the end of democracy. Yet, at a grass-roots level, African do seem to do things by general consensus, but this is not carried through to the national level. Perhaps this is because at its root, African society is factional and tribal, not really able to operate at the level of “country”? The idea of working with people with whom we have little in common is a difficult one. During apartheid days, blacks had their race in common, but with that common identifier disappearing, older differences come into play. Think of India: during colonial times, Indians identified themselves as “Indians”; when independence seemed reachable, that common identifier became meaningless. Muslim Indians separated out, jobs went to caste-comrades, family members, etc. However, having said that, they have worked together better than Africans, by-and-large, though are no more challenging about their corrupt and inefficient leadership. It may be cynical of me, but could this simply be the “African way”?

    • Tofolux

      @Levi, thank you for your reply, however I need to appeal that you remember the Palestinian/Israeli conflict before concluding the analysis on the Arab Spring. To my mind, Bouazizi was invented to give a face and a name to an invented struggle. Also, who informs and dissects information on the social media. There must be a sensible word of caution on the dissemation ,the validity and sources of information on social media.

    • http://facebook.com/levisnotebook Levi

      @Tofolux – Many thanks. I get where you’re going with this and i’m not dismissing the possibility that this could have happened. My own analysis, which i’m comfortable with, is that the revolutions have been hijacked by certain interests and i make this point in the article that i referred you to. On social media, i’m very clear as well in the article above what my take is – it’s not a form of activism.

      Supposing Mohamed Bouazizi is an invention, as you allege, does that mean there is nothing to learn still from the act of sacrifice which he did? Unless you’re suggesting that the whole self-immolation did not happen, to begin with – it was staged?

      @Richard – our problem is de-mobilisation. We have been de-mobilised as a citizenry and therefore we can’t see how some governance decisions affect us in the longer run. As someone said to me recently, we have to take full responsibility as citizens for allowing governments to get away with the excesses they have.

      @Cyrine – i fully understand you. I wrote not to celebrate the revolution but to recognise the citizenship of Mohamed Bouazizi and its meaning for those of us living under oppression.

    • Tofolux

      @Levi. the overthrowing of a democratically elected govt in Tunisia had nothing to do with Bouazizi. In fact all the country’s in the “arab spring” countries were democratically elected. So,Tunisia & others did not have oppresive govts. Tunisia gained independence somewhere in 1950 and this through a fight for independence by progressive groups. If this country was oppressive and had gross human rights violations, then the actions of Bouazizi cud be understood. The conditions on the ground does not give any validity to the actions of Bouazizi and the “dots are just not adding up”. Vendors all over the world trade under abysmal conditions. My point is, if Middle East remains the primary source of oil that powers the growth engine of the worlds most industrialised economies then what is the importance of Libya, Algeria, Tunisia, oil-rich Sudan to geopolitics? You will note that France has now resurfaced in Mali(that is no co-incidence) & you will also note the importance of Algeria and Tunisia to France. The location of Tunisia is not only vitally important but the predominance of Islam must be critical factor in any conclusion. The only reason why we are not aware of the real issues is simply becos we are mis-informed by eg CNN and the like. All our information gathering, stems from these riduculous sources. Evry other source is either dismissed or ignored. We need to spread information gathering wider and insist on gathering facts from all quarters.

    • The Creator

      Given that the Arab Spring has led to a) same old neoliberal scumbags in charge in Tunisia, b) same old military scumbags in charge in Egypt, c) loony Islamists and gangsters in charge in Libya, plus foreign-sponsored genocidal violence by looony Islamists and gangsters in Syria, shouldn’t we all go down on our knees in gratitude that nobody elsewhere in Africa imitated it?

      Evidently black Africans are less gullible than Arabs. (After all, it’s not as if the ANC’s membership voted for Zuma at Mangaung.)

    • Tofolux

      @ The Creator, if you have no idea as to how democracy works in the ruling party, so pray tell, from what position are you commenting? Also, if you have no facts on the ”arab spring” then also, from what position are you commenting? I ask this because at some point you have to give your educational background some credibility especially when you have had priviledged education where they must have taught you the meaning of objective analysis (?)

    • Caro

      All interesting comments. I note that the Arab countries that are Monarchies remain largely calm and free or major violence. I wonder what is going on there, happy people or people that have resigned themselves.

      It’s just so sad that the growing bulk of South African middle class is so apathetic to the plight of marginalized Young and desperate black people. Concerned about only, me, myself and I. History will judge us harshly. I would never advocate for mayhem, and violent uprisings, but demanding accountability would be agreat start. Giving back to those less fortunate, and fighting corruption would go a long way. Challenging injustices, and using the power of a vote, to unseat those that have become self serving.