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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