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Breaking bread with the Egyptians

In the provincial town of Sidi Bouzid, in Tunisia, Mohamed Bouazizi was 10 years old when he became his family’s bread winner, selling fresh produce in the local market. While he attended a local high school, he did not graduate and his attempts at finding work in the public sector were futile. His day would begin in the town supermarket where he would load his wooden cart with fruit and vegetables and then walk to the local market five kilometres away. Bouazizi, at 26 years old was used to being accosted by the police. But in December last year, he was pushed too far. A policewoman confronted him on the way to the market and like a bully in an elementary school playground she insisted he hand over his scales for want of a trading licence. Bouazizi refused. After a heated verbal exchange, the policewoman slapped him and with the assistance of other officers, forced him to the ground.

His meagre stock of fruit and vegetables, as well as his scales, were confiscated. Publically humiliated, Bouazizi sought redress. After being denied an opportunity to speak to a municipal representative and in a fit of angry despair, Bouazizi set himself alight outside the municipal office. Some weeks later, Bouazizi died, a casualty of circumstance, if not abject anguish. In the days that Bouazizi lay in hospital, every inch of his body covered in bandages, his picture was printed in newspapers around the world. And if the rest of the world reacted with alarm, the desperation of Bouazizi resonated loudly with the Tunisian people.

In Tunisia, Bouazizi’s grave remains draped in the Tunisian national flag and his people continue the fight to shed the last remnants of an oppressive regime.

Now it’s the people of Egypt who have thronged to the streets resolute in their demonstrations against a stubborn dictatorship.

Their chants last Friday of “freedom, liberty, bread” have proved the plainness of their incentive. A remarkable 60% of the region’s population is under 30 and in Egypt the substantial chunk of that young population is severely stymied by the government’s failure to provide adequate schooling. They are largely inadequately educated and then let down by an economy that does not offer the jobs to match the abilities or aspirations of this population. A generation caught in limbo, with all the demands of adulthood but none of its means.

The scenes we’ve witnessed over the past week in Egypt and the level of anger they have conveyed prove that though this uprising was sudden and unexpected to the rest of the world, to the legions of the unemployed, uneducated and underfed it has been a long time coming.

In June last year, a young man called Khaled Said died in police custody on a street in Alexandria. Witnesses claim Said died after he was dragged out of a cafe and beaten up. The government, conversely, insists he swallowed a packet of drugs and choked. As news of the murky circumstances around Said’s death spread, Egyptians became incensed and took to the streets to vent their anger. For a nation living under emergency rule for so long, the death of Said was a turning point for Egypt, a sense of self-actualisation began to thrive. As, Mona Saif , a young Egyptian woman from Cairo puts it: “I think this different wave of protesting in Egypt started with Khaled Said, I truly believe that his death changed something in us all.”

Acts of self-immolation, similar to Bouazizi’s, have been reported everywhere from Mauritania to Saudi Arabia. In a very real sense, the entire region is on fire. Colonel Muammar Gaddafi, his penchant for the ridiculous undimmed by the revolution in Tunisia has chastised his neighbours for forcing his friend, Ben Ali, out. In a televised address to the Tunisian people he said: “I hope your sanity returns and your wounds heal, because you had a big loss that will never return.” Protesters have cited soaring food prices, coupled with a rising cost of living. Protesters have been vocal but governments in Yemen, Oman and Jordan have struggled to respond. Even Saudi Arabia, the most populous of the Gulf states saw dozens of people protest after flooding in Jeddah left 10 people (by the official account, at least) killed and three others reported missing. The protest, like most political dissent in the kingdom, was quashed by police. In Jordan meanwhile, responding to protests in his kingdom, King Abdullah sacked his entire cabinet in the name of political reform. While in Kuwait Sheikh Sabah Al-Ahmad Al-Sabah has ordered a monthly grant of KD1 000 ($3 599) and free food for one year to every Kuwaiti citizen. In Yemen, officials close to the president say he will announce measures aimed at tamping down unrest that has swept the country. Whatever those measures actually translate to, it’s clear that the appetite for political repression may well be dwindling but the efforts to feed the feeble structures propping up these regimes will escalate efforts to remain in power.

Crippling levels of unemployment, rising food prices and poor education systems are hardly unique to the Middle East and North Africa.

The story of Bouazizi and his native Sidi Bouzid has reminded me increasingly of scenes in my own pocket of Johannesburg.

In Bird Street, Mayfair, a short walk outside the boom gates separating the enclave of larger, newer homes from the rest of the suburb, between the thriving Somali restaurant and the Pakistani tuck shop, is the Tanzanian fruit seller who echoes Bouazizi’s experiences. I’m reminded of a winter’s day two years ago when from the comfort of my Toyota, I watched her attempt to pack her things in a sack, grab her son and attempt to flee the marauding troop of Metro police officers demanding a permit, tea money or God-alone-knows-what from street vendors a corner away. Later that day, I watched Metro officers unceremoniously dumped her stock of fruit and vegetables on the back of a truck, her usual station at the corner, empty. I imagined her hiding in the Somali restaurant some metres away, watching her goods being confiscated and helpless to stop it, thwarted by the reality of eking out a living in the margins of formal society.

While we agonise over who exactly is awarded the right to be called “African”, we’ve neglected the shared experience that entrenches a sense of Africanness. It is a shared legacy of colonialism, a present set of imperfect circumstances and a driving will that ultimately is more definitive than a geographical location, or ethnic heritage. And yet thorough analysis and well thought-out opinion has been conspicuously absent in our coverage of both Tunisia and Egypt in South Africa. Most newspapers, reporting on unrest in Egypt, carried the same generic wire report over the past weekend. We have indeed been too busy cringing at the national police commissioner, clawing ourselves out of potholes and attempting to make sense of the billing chaos — in between observing a vigil at Nelson Mandela’s sick bed — to really look at fires burning beyond our border but it’s not just the rest of the world that we’re losing track of, we are failing as well to give voice to that facet of the South African experience that strongly resonates with the Egyptians and Tunisians.

As young people in South Africa grow in number and access to the internet improves, access too, to the kind of resistance we’re witnessing in Egypt and Tunisia will advance. The grand South African narrative may well be re-written.


  • Suspended tenuously between the crushing weight of everything she is expected to be and the meanness of what she is, Khadija is inching herself out of a yawning chasm of mediocrity. Calling herself a writer would require she actually write something, so she cowers behind language practitioner instead. She busies herself exploring why we speak the way we do, blabbering a copious amount of Porcine Latin across the interwebs, while thinking deeply in Gobbledygook. Don't mind what her headscarf and brown skin tell you, she don’t need no liberation, and that’s not the Stockholm Syndrome talking.


  1. Azad Essa Azad Essa 2 February 2011

    Imagine street traders, the urban poor in our cities reaching such levels of desperation that they turn to setting themselves alight.

    Hopefully not.

    But It is only a matter of time before something drastic happens. Using the Constitution takes years, resources, ‘decent legal wrangling’ and activists who then take over the struggle (and then write a book about it)

  2. Khadeeja Bassier Khadeeja Bassier 2 February 2011

    gave me goosebumps. really well written.

  3. Dave Harris Dave Harris 2 February 2011

    Well written Khadija, a reminder that these revolutions are about real people being pushed to the brink.
    Here in SA our glaring socioeconomic disparity – a direct result of apartheid, is worse that ever! With the economic power and the majority of the land STILL under the control of the previously privileged, we are also stoking the fires of revolution here at home. While the Egyptians struggle to free themselves from political and economic oppression, we in SA have largely liberated ourselves from the political oppression but are still struggling to overcome the weight of centuries of economic oppression and white supremacy.

    A recent report of unemployment rates shows that the beneficiaries of apartheid enjoy the lowest rates of unemployment yet complain the loudest and castigate the government at every opportunity to detract from reality.

  4. Judith Judith 2 February 2011

    I have been at a two conference and the sense of betrayal of the poor by governments in Africa shone brightly. There is anger and frustration in those voices as well. Our rural communities are feeling raped by government, which allows mining companies to take the mineral rights and march onto their land and remove them from their source of livelihood – their vegetable plots and their grazing areas. They are deprived of the ability to feed their families, to provide themselves with work. Their sacred sites are polluted and destroyed. They are disempowered. The mine moves in and gives jobs to outsiders, not to the community, which is left in abject poverty. BBEEE companies prosper; government is paid licence fees and children and babies die. Somehow that doesn’t look like job creation and a better life for all to me or indeed to anyone at that conference. It is a systemic betrayal of the people who put this government in power on that promise.

  5. Muhammad Reehaz Muhammad Reehaz 3 February 2011

    Thank you Khadija , well written. I initially thought you were going to remind us of the youth of June the 16th but you brought the message home very well. Its time we pick up the south African dream and share it with those that have become our neighbours.

  6. Hoosen Hoosen 3 February 2011

    I don’t think it will come to that in SA in the near future, because we have the right to vote for change. But I do hope these uprisings spread to other parts where people are living such quality lives that they are forced to leave and travel thousands of Kilometres to sell fruit on a street corner!

  7. Aliyah Aliyah 3 February 2011

    Wow! What a brilliantly written piece.
    I feel so helpless to the cause of those people. I feel strange even calling them those people. They are our brothers and sisters. Our own!
    What saddens me about our own cause here in South Africa is that while our people,both born in South Africa and elsewhere in Africa, suffer to stay alive, our government is pushing through Apartheid-like legislation like the Secrecy Bill. Power to the people my friends!

  8. Lennon Lennon 3 February 2011

    @Dave Harris: “A recent report of unemployment rates shows that the beneficiaries of apartheid enjoy the lowest rates of unemployment yet complain the loudest and castigate the government at every opportunity to detract from reality.”
    Reality check: The same “beneficiaries” are also tax payers and have every right to complain when their tax money is wasted on garbage instead of being used to correct the injustices of the previous regime.

    Get a clue.

  9. MLH MLH 3 February 2011

    A good post that resonates the reminder that the time for lip service is past.
    It’s all too easy to blame colonialism when several countries have had more than enough time to right those wrongs, especially since we should remember that Oz was also colonised. Post colonialism habits are as much a common thread. Colonialism is just a common excuse for present governments to do too little.
    I wonder whether the ex-employees at Aurora blame colonists for finding gold or the mines present owners for their present position? There are little pockets of people all over this country who are blaming the present and if they again give their present masters yet another chance, will soon rise up in disappointment. No one can build their lives on promises.

  10. malini malini 5 February 2011

    There has been more than the European Colonialist destruction in Africa.

    Sudan the politic of Religion: The Politics of defeat.

    Click red button on bottom right hand side.

  11. Wendolyn Lyness Wendolyn Lyness 30 March 2012

    Today we got information about repo and reverse repo rates increased. So will it effect on gold rates. Now gold rates will come down or goes up? Is it right time to invest on gold. How you will Say if your answer is yes.

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