The protests blazing across the Arab world in the past three weeks represent a radical opening up in the frozen politics of the Middle East.
An epochal rearrangement is under way, upending the balance of power between Western-backed autocrats, both secular and Islamic, Israel, the main Palestinian factions, Iran, Syria, the United States and, crucially, the people of the region. Amid the intense global focus, first on Tunisia and latterly on Egypt, there has been little focus on the African dimensions of these uprisings.
Egypt and Tunisia are African countries for footballing purposes but too often we treat the Sahara as a dividing ocean, cutting them off physically, politically, culturally and ethnically from the rest of the continent. Although there is a growing expectation that the sparks of revolt will travel eastwards to ignite resentment — as they already have in Jordan and Yemen — almost no one is talking about the African context of the uprisings.
There are certainly countries — not least among those close to Egypt — that could do with broad-based civil movements against authoritarianism. Chad is perhaps the most benighted, but the depth of its isolation and tyranny are such that it is difficult to imagine a people-power movement succeeding.
What about Ethiopia and its increasingly authoritarian president, Meles Zenawi? Or Uganda, where Yoweri Museveni is consolidating his grip on power? Or Angola, where oil revenues fatten the ruling elite and human development stalls? Or Zimbabwe? Or any of the pseudo-democracies that dot the continent.
In these countries, engaged as they are with the global community, and possessed of at least the rudiments of civil society, the crowds in Tahrir Square ought to be an inspiration, and for their leaders, a prod to reform. Popular protest needn’t culminate in revolution or civil war; it can be a crucial democratic instrument in countries where institutional arrangements are incapable of representing the will of the people.
At present an Egypt effect south of the Sahara seems too much to expect. To be sure, the security consequences will be weighed. What would a government in Egypt led by the Muslim Brotherhood mean for Somalia, for example, or for Sudan? And what would that in turn mean for countries like Kenya that bear the consequences of instability in the Horn?
It would be tragic, however, if the discussion ended there, in a sigh of resignation and a meeting of intelligence agencies. The Sahara may be a sand sea, but it does not divide the continent nearly as neatly as the caricature of the Arab north and the “properly African” rest suggests. The Mahgreb gives way to the transition zones of the Sahel and the Horn.
Islam is a potent political and social force in countries as diverse as Nigeria, Mali and Kenya. Refugees, traders, armed men and of course the Al Jazeera satellite signal have opened routes north and south. Oceans, since globalisation began 400 years ago, have been for crossing, and the Sahara is no different.
Whether the impulse of popular revolt can spread along these complex channels is far from clear. But the tinder was stacked dry and ready for decades in Egypt. The levels of poverty, frustration and repression are if anything higher further south. Is it too much to hope that Africans choose to treat the Egyptian and Tunisian protests, with all their peril and potential, as our own?
South Africans spend a lot of time talking in abstract terms about tenderpreneurship, cronyism and corruption. The hyenas offend us morally, even, in the case of Kenny Kunene and his sushi parties, aesthetically.
But the impacts are very concrete, literally in the case of the construction industry cartel bust this week for rigging bids in major public and private sector projects. Of course, the poor feel the effects most directly.
If — as seems highly likely — the Competition Commission is able to prove that South Africa’s biggest construction firms colluded on projects such as the Gautrain and World Cup stadiums, then we will be able to conclude that South African citizens overpaid for very high-quality outcomes.
The better-off among us will have enjoyed the “world class” benefits even as we winced at the price, the poorer will have felt the direct effects of budgets diverted away from housing, healthcare and education.
In Johannesburg right now, however, some of the country’s wealthiest citizens are among those experiencing what amounts to a service-delivery failure, with the municipal billing system in a state of near-collapse.
As we report this week, the roots of the crisis are far simpler than the city’s spin doctors make out. A crucial, and exceptionally complex, tender was given to an inexperienced company whose qualifications appear to have been limited to its directors’ personal connections. The consequence? Inflated prices and appalling service.
And in the municipalities of the North West province, even those appointed to sort municipal mismanagement appear to have got the job on political grounds.
2011 is a local government election year. There will be nothing abstract about the impact of these failures at the ballot box.