We have entered a time where clashes within nations have eclipsed clashes between nations. The mass street demonstrations sweeping across the globe have pitted governments against their people. Even in democracies the people are distrustful of their own governments as many are more interested in acquiring and then maintaining power than in the well-being of their electorates. Leading up to elections, politicians vying for power, raise hopes and make promises that are rarely fulfilled once they attain power. Consequently, people are left frustrated and alienated from their governments.

Thomas Jefferson, who in 1776 drafted the document that eventually became known as the Declaration of Independence, is imputed to have said: “When government fears the people, there is liberty. When the people fear the government, there is tyranny.”

Perhaps, with the “streets” finding their voices, governments may indeed start to “fear” the people, ushering in more responsiveness and consultation between government and the people. On the other hand, when the more strident and vociferous voices control the “streets” and drown out the more passive and moderate voices, mob rule and confrontation between government and its subjects is likely to become an interminable conflict. The most frightening tendency that is gaining currency is political extremism and its manifestation as terrorism either directed at organs or symbols of the state or internecine violence between religious sects. When the state weakens to the extent that it loses control over these nihilistic forces, failed states are the consequence.

Traditionally, in democracies, the voice of the people is heard only during elections, every four or five years. The modern arena allows interfacing between government and the people, through social media, which is more sustained and offers a remedy and constant source of challenges. Social media allows the disenchanted to share their grievances between the aggrieved and suggest corrective action to government on a perpetual basis.

Disaffected individuals and groups can be brought out onto the streets in “flash mobs” or mass protests in the blink of an eye. This, however, requires a certain level of sophistry: being literate and having general access to the internet. This excludes many of the victims of government excess, particularly in sub-Saharan Africa, where these resources are lacking. The conundrum that the most impoverished are also likely to be deprived of is the ability to be mobilised by their absence of access to the tools of social media, thus spares the most iniquitous governments from their least contented constituents.

Even in South Africa, the most technologically advanced state in Africa where the government is constantly accused of failing to deliver essential services to its poor, the victims have not been mobilised as elsewhere. While constant rolling protests occur continually across South Africa, these have been largely of low intensity and disconnected from each other. The reason that the masses have poured onto the streets of relatively prosperous Turkey and Brazil, is that these protesters are more “wired” into social media and therefore more predisposed to being galvanised and organised. The event that triggered the protests in Turkey took the government by complete surprise and what started as an environmental protest morphed into a protest against the dictatorial style of Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan. In the United States, shortly after the George Zimmerman judgement, protesters gathered in cities across the country within hours, to express their outrage and disapproval of the judgement.

In countries where corruption is rife, it is a truism that if ruling elites were to fight corruption they would themselves become disempowered. It is therefore unsurprising that the person that most personifies “corruption” in South Africa, Julius Malema, is launching his new party, the Economic Freedom Fighters, dedicated to fight corruption in all its guises. Surely with Malema’s credibility and political capital all but squandered, one would hope that he and his political platform would be rejected by the voters. However, if due to some bizarre twist he succeeded to be elected, the chasm between his leadership and those not voting for him would become unbridgeable and lead to increased alienation between the people and its leadership.

The 21st century so far is characterised by internal conflicts, by issues of dealing with cultural, religious and economic differences within a country. Despite the west adopting “multiculturalism” as a model for dealing with these differences, achieving understanding, empathy and respect for disparate groups has so far proved evasive. Even way back in the 18th century, Thomas Jefferson identified a fundamental weakness of democracy, namely that
“Democracy is nothing more than mob rule, where 51% of the people may take away the rights of the other 49%”.

The overthrow of Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi was justified by the “other 49%” because their hopes, sensitivities and aspirations were clearly disregarded by the Muslim Brotherhood. So while all the protesters thronged onto the streets in droves because they aspired to change the status quo, it was easier to agree on what to discard than what to replace it with. In Egypt, the constitution inspired and infused with political Islamic principles, by its very nature excluded the other 49% — the Copts and other religious minorities, the secularists and women who aspired to enjoy rights that men take for granted. It even brought to the fore the schism between Shia and Sunni sects of Islam. In short it alienated almost as many people from the new social order that they had nothing to lose by rebelling against it before a new form of tyranny could become entrenched.

In reconciling governments to the will of the people we would be well-advised to refer to Jefferson’s preoccupation with the “pursuit of happiness”, which became enshrined in the US Declaration of Independence. According to Gary Wills’ book Inventing America: “When Jefferson spoke of pursuing happiness, he had nothing vague or private in mind. He meant public happiness which is measureable; which is indeed, the test and justification of any government.”


  • Ben studied at Wits, the Hebrew University, London School of Economics and University of Pretoria. He has two master’s degrees and has written four books on anthropology. He was the founding member of Jews for Justice, which took a stand against apartheid and provided assistance to victims of violence in Crossroads. He started Boston House College, a multiracial school in 1979. He currently serves as chairperson of the SA Zionist Federation in the Cape Council. He is married with four children.


Ben Levitas

Ben studied at Wits, the Hebrew University, London School of Economics and University of Pretoria. He has two master’s degrees and has written four books on anthropology. He was the founding member of...

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