Walter Bhengu

Should revolutions have a leader?

Nelson Mandela was quoted as saying, “It is not kings and generals that make history but the masses of the people.” This came to mind as I watched what was unfolding in Burkina Faso. I watched Blaise Compaoré’s 27 year reign come to an abrupt end in the midst of a burning Parliamentary building.

He tried to resist the opposition to his bid to extend his reign – but the people had finally decided that they wanted change. Soon after Compaoré’s resignation, an army officer declared himself president of Burkina Faso. A vacuum had opened up and someone needed to fill it.

Army generals around the world in recent history have “stepped in” each time there was a vacuum. One only needs to look at the Egypt example from a few years back. The masses of the people had made history without kings or generals, and deposed of their president.

However, there was now a vacuum, and some sections of society have noted that if there is a vacuum, opportunists are sure to follow. Whether the army can be seen as being opportunistic still remains to be seen. However one question remains: should revolutions have leaders?

A revolution is defined as a forcible overthrow of a government or social order, in favour of a new system. Revolutions can be characterised by spontaneity, persistence or planning, with a massive part of the population rising up to protest an injustice.

The Iranian Revolution of 1978/79, the Cuban Revolution of the 1950s and the October Revolution of 1917 all had leaders; Ali Hosseini Khamenei, Fidel Castro and Vladimir Lenin. But do all revolutions have a discernible leader? In the case of the Arab Spring in Tunisia and Egypt, there was no discernible leader.

Vacuums in modern day politics have led to transitional governments, coalition governments, military juntas or extended chaos, taking time to re-establish democratic order. The Burkinabé example showed a man rising up to claim control last week due to the sudden and uncoordinated exit of the president.

Should the deputy president or speaker of Parliament have taken over? Maybe the view was that all of them were tainted, since even the brother of the deposed president had his house ransacked. It has been good to see civil society, the people and other organisations coming up to protest against military rule, insisting that this was “the People’s Revolution”.

In an ideal world it would be nice to have a smooth transition once a revolution ends. However, this is not always the case. A revolution is usually coupled with organised or disorganised “chaos”.

In addition one needs to understand that when there is such a protest, the thought of who will take over the reins of the country is hardly ever a priority. If the revolution does have a leader, like in the instance of Cuba’s Castro, then maybe a smooth, solid transition can be guaranteed.

However, we have seen instances were a revolution had a leader but that leader ended up being deposed themselves. Ironically, one such example is Thomas Sankara, who was removed by the now deposed Compaoré 27 years ago.

Therefore, there can never be a consistent answer on whether revolutions should have leaders as this is not a priority when such action is taken. Opportunism will always be present in some form.

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    • Judice

      ‘A revolution is defined as a forcible overthrow of a government or social order, in favour of a new system.’ Currently, it seems to have a slightly different meaning. All the movements that use the word ‘revolution’ and ‘revolutionary’ in their speech have a different meaning – that the normal rules of human behaviour are turned upside town – revolved completely. This entitles those who use these words to lie, cheat, steal, deceive, and extort and completely absolves them from any kind of shame or dishonour, all in the name of the revolution. Mainly, it is about ‘leaders’ who do not work taking money from producive people who do. Those who use the word ‘revolution’ in every sentence – and many leaders regard it as their divine blank cheque – have a word that is completely absent and missing from their vocabulary, and is their greatest anathema. That word is HONOUR.

    • Rich Brauer

      Point of correction: The leader of the Iranian revolution was Ruhollah Khomeini. Khamenei is his successor.

    • Balt Verhagen

      Revolution has in modern parlance become to mean the forcible or violent overthrow of an existing order. The word itself means essentially the reversal of a trend, the opposite of evolution, the trend. Our picture of the French revolution is events such as the storming of the Bastille and the decapitation of royalty and other symbols of the old order. But the revolutionary process of which these phases have historically become characterised was under way at least for decades, a ferment amongst the people and at different times given a focus by leaders, people who became identified as being able to give voice to what people felt and their frustrations. These, by and large, were/are selfless and become easy targets for elimination by the forces of conservatism. In the last sixty years in South Africa we can identify, amongst many prominent others: Luthuli, Mandela, Biko, Tsitsi Mashinini, Beyers Naudé – all giving voice to a revolutionary process. which has been punctuated by violent events: Sharpeville, Soweto and following repression and latterly, sadly, Marikana when the self-appointed and slef-serving leaders and ‘kings’ were seen to fail.

      Today the internet has added a new dimension to the ‘struggle’ as in the `Arab Spring’. Mobilisation can be arranged by and amongst ‘the people’ themselves, without there being easily-identifiable leaders. But be sure that they exist; that is how human communities operate.

    • Balt Verhagen

      Mea culpa! Re-reading my short list of selfless leaders of the struggle in South Africa, I cannot believe myself for not having included the name of Robert Smangaliso Sobukwe, perhaps the most astute revolutionary and utterly selfless of them all. I had fallen into the trap of obliteration of his name and significance perpetrated by the the much less than selfless, increasingly self-aggrandising post-1994 ANC leadership.

    • Raeez Jacobs

      If it does have a leader, it’s a quasi-revolution.

    • Mark Whelan

      An excellent observation. You leave this question open. The debate will continue for some time, I gather, although, curiously no mention is made of the Chinese, or American, and even South African (democratic) revolution. In all three cases, the sanctity and preservation of human rights has not been observed, or met. In all three instances citizens are not entirely free or equal to their peers.

    • Justis Matotoka M’rokolo

      this is a test comment for TL