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.