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From Washington to Cape Town: Let them eat cake!

A lot of cake has been promised to ordinary citizens lately. Such have been the levels of desperation; the citizenry seem to have lost their usual sense of fear of those who lord it over them. Promises of cake when there is no bread will no longer suffice. How else do you explain the amazing bravery of the Egyptian people who rose up against three decades of rule by fear, intimidation and naked terror? How to explain the resilience of the people of Syria who lay their hopes and lives before a regime determined to extinguish hopes and lives alike?

Desperation and utter frustration have led the people of Libya to do the unthinkable — rising up against the seemingly almighty ruler of 42 years. In Yemen, Ali Abdullah Saleh hangs to power — vowing only to hand power over to “safe” hands — even as the people have been protesting for months against his 30-year rule. I dare say that when Americans voted Barack Hussein Obama into the presidency, they were searching for a different path and a different type of leadership for their country and for the world than the one that was emerging since the Bushes took over.

Ordinary citizens have done everything possible in their quest for democracy. They have given their lives for freedom and liberation. For half a century (at least), they have given the benefit of the doubt to their rulers and to the powerful friends of their rulers abroad.

They have sung generous songs of praise about their leaders; they have filled stadiums and arenas with pulsating dreams and poured these out to the politicians, willing them to become beacons of democracy and midwives of prosperity for all. When election time comes, the people queue up to vote again and again, each time hoping that democracy with tangible benefits will ensue. The people are still waiting. Even the deposition of known dictators — such as happened in Egypt and Tunisia — is no guarantee that freedom and prosperity for all will follow. The fall of a Gbagbo in Ivory Coast, a Bush in the USA, a Mubarak in Egypt and a Ben Ali elsewhere offers no guarantees. You can bet that the ruling elites and their powerful allies, in those countries and elsewhere, are hard at work to ensure that power is transferred to “safe hands”.

The slippery gains made in the “revolutions” of Tunisia, Egypt and Ivory Coast could still be lost and be lost comprehensively.

In my own country citizens are begging and protesting for needs so basic it is surreal. Why did the residents of Meqheleng in Ficksburg recently mount a protest? For water! All they want is some water in or near their houses — instead of water located 10 to 15km away. But here is the irony and where the “let them eat cake” metaphor comes into play. The people ask for water so you send police with, guess what, water canons! As if that is not enough, a week later the mayor of  Ficksburg — a certain Mbothoma Maduna — is reported to have suggested that the people of Ficksburg should resort to bottled mineral water!

On Freedom Day — April 27 2011 — some residents of Khayelitsha — a township outside Cape Town — marched in protest. What for? For toilets and water sanitation! This, in a country that raised the funds to host one of the biggest sporting events in the world — the Fifa World Cup — less than a year ago. And still the politicians, on all sides, seem to have seen no more than an electioneering and point-scoring opportunity in the people’s need for something as basic as toilets — a national need and a crying shame that is not exclusive to Khayelitsha and Makhaza outside Cape Town. No one is disputing the fact that the protesters lack the things they are protesting about: water, electricity, infrastructure etc, yet the amount of political spin that comes into discussions about these mundane matters is mind-boggling.

So called “service delivery protests” seem to have become a permanent feature of post-apartheid South African political activism. The methods of the protesters have come under intense scrutiny — the violence especially, the intolerance shown to fellow citizens, the burning of community facilities such as libraries. Especially troubling have been the fact that even as the opportunity to vote in the forthcoming elections is looming, some citizens appear to prefer protests to the ballot box. This should not surprise us too much. Six voting opportunities since the advent of democracy do not appear to have delivered the services people are still crying out for. So why should they think voting will yield different results this time around?

Add to this the growing incidents of police brutality against people who dare to protest. In 2010 alone more than 1 700 unarmed protesters have died in clashes with members of the South African police — about five persons a day. For a country supposedly not in war that is way too much. Police brutality during protests is unacceptable because the message being conveyed on behalf of the government of the day is “if you do not like what we are doing, shut-up or die”. Maybe there is an unspoken and ongoing low-intensity war in the country. South Africa is a country where the wealth of the few is growing as the poverty of the majority grows. The unemployment rate, estimated conservatively a 24%, remains very high. Nor are the education and health systems either accessible or helpful to the poorest of the poor.

How long can the poor live on the promise of cake when they do not even have a place to relieve themselves?

While the media fed us the fat marriage of the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge on April 29 2011, a war was going on in Libya, Afghanistan, Syria, Yemen. Good luck to the Duke and the Duchess. But do they know that 15 protesters were killed in Syria on the day when their wedding dominated the global news media?

A global revolution is brewing. I can foresee a day soon when my entire country will be brought to a standstill through protests. A day is coming when the entire world will come to halt as people in several places around the globe take to the streets to protest the raw deal they are getting. When that day arrives, do not blame it on WikiLeaks, Facebook or al-Jazeera. It will be caused by the greed and insensitivity of the ruling classes and our selfish leaders.

Author

  • Tinyiko Sam Maluleke

    Tinyiko Sam Maluleke is a South African academic (currently attached to the University of South Africa [UNISA]) who suffers from restlessness, intellectual insomnia, insatiable curiosity, a facsination with ideas, a passion for justice, a crazy imagination as well as a big appetite for music, reading and writing. He has lectured briefly at such universities as Hamburg in Germany, Lausanne in Switzerland, University of Nairobi in Kenya and Lund University in Sweden - amongst others.