Let the ashes of Burkinabe Parliament stand as a stern warning

Revolution: The writer argues that the death of Marxist and Pan-Africanist theorist Thomas Sankara weighed heavily on the collective Burkinabé subconscious, resulting in rebellion. Photo: Issouf Sanogo/AFP

Revolution: The writer argues that the death of Marxist and Pan-Africanist theorist Thomas Sankara weighed heavily on the collective Burkinabé subconscious, resulting in rebellion. Photo: Issouf Sanogo/AFP

October brought to an end in a dramatic fashion the brutal 27 years rule of Blaise Compaoré in Burkina Faso. After two days of protest the people burnt down Parliament and the president fled.

This event invites the question: What is the impact of this Burkina Faso revolution on that society and on sub-Saharan Africa? More specifically, are there any lessons for South Africa, given the ongoing and deepening political and economic crises that are compounded by an increased abuse of power and crude corruption?

These questions take the notion of revolution to mean fundamental transformation in the interest of the poor and working majorities. Here, revolution is the opposite of reform.

Reformism merely changes managers, but retains the system that benefits national economic and political elites.
Reformism is what happened in South Africa in 1994 – change that didn’t bring change.

A proper response to the question as it relates to the Burkina Faso “revolution” should correctly be: it’s too early to tell.

Burning down Parliament and chasing out a president with mass protest is, however, an act of historic importance. Such acts transform people – not just the participants, but the spectators as well. No one can be the same again after such an event. This is true irrespective of whether the events after the act betray the revolution and turn to reformism.

The revolution of the person has already occurred, it’s the institutions that lag behind. A turn to reformism ends the dream at societal level, but the individual has seen the promised land. They are no longer of this place. Melancholy follows reform and compromise. One hopes this is not the fate awaiting the people of Burkina Faso. Post-revolution Egypt turned to reformism and now the people wallow in endless sadness.

More profitable questions to pose are: What are the underlying factors that lead to upheaval and revolutionary breakdown and are such factors present in South Africa even in nascent form?

The psychology of the oppressed is the best place to attempt an answer. In Burkina Faso it can be said that the trauma inflicted by the assassination in 1987 of the president, Thomas Sankara, was a key factor. That event brought trauma multiplied by scandal and produced collective shame. Under such conditions the desire for change is repressed and love, or the appearance of love, is performed towards those responsible for one’s own predicament. This paradox explains why evil rule can continue for long periods, but also how it can fall so suddenly.

In Burkina Faso, everybody knew that the man who took over from their beloved son, Sankara, was the same man who had a direct hand in his murder. For 27 years they called Compaoré president and pretended to be obedient citizens. It was a fraud from beginning to end. The whole nation was involved in a lie. But an unethical existence is also a restless existence.

This unethical existence can only be appeased by an upheaval that uproots and thereby cleanses the people and returns dignity to their being. This means social and political trauma can be repressed for decades but will, in all likelihood, lead to an explosion that heals the actors.

Revolution is a cleansing ritual. One can imagine the disbelief of those who found themselves inside hallowed spaces such as Parliament and television stations. One moment they were outside – power locked them out. The next moment they are inside and making history. They shout and look at each other and recognise not fear but victory and pride reflected in each others faces.

The protesters and rulers alike could never have anticipated how events would turn out. It’s the iron law of revolution; no one knows how things will unfold. The children of Soweto didn’t know they would end up with a massacre and shake apartheid to its roots with their Black Power cry.

The surprised yet elated Burkinabé protestors look at the smoke that rises from the ashes of Parliament and burst out laughing. The joke is on politicians who rule so long by lies. Protesters enter palaces and throw rocks and chairs about as if to erase from memory the 27 years of oppression. Parliament, which was once a symbol of power, was elected men in suits calling each other “honourable” while screwing the nation. But now it lies in ashes – a confirmation of defeat of the elite and resurrection of people’s power.

If you had asked the ruling party and its president a week before the two days that changed everything about the prospects of revolution, they would have laughed at you. Ruling parties are deaf to the roaring sound of rebellion always present, always probing, until the floods. Then it’s too late.

We can now ask, in post-1994 South Africa, what is the event that is likely to play a decisive role to inaugurate the repressed trauma that may lead to the upheaval? Pre-1994 South Africa had the Sharpeville and Soweto massacres. To ask the same question differently: What happened to the tears of the Marikana massacre; the tears induced by the public execution of Andries Tatane for demanding water? Haven’t we seen the same process of betrayal and shame among the people?  

    The only question becomes: How long before the flood hits? The triggers are likely to be the same: the arrogance of power, blatant corruption as in the Nkandla scandal, denuding the institution of democracy of any integrity, reducing Parliament to an instrument of absolving those in power. Mix all this with frustration and the legendary South African rage, then the Burkina Faso revolution will look like a Sunday school outing.

The ruling party in South Africa increasingly rules by administrative fiat of naked majoritarianism, not by a superior logic and moral authority emanating from ethical politics. The halo no longer sits with dignity on the head of the head of state. The emperor’s nakedness can only be covered by even greater obscenity, such as turning a mass of buttocks into the shield of Nkandla. The people look on with half amusement and half incredulity.

The restlessness of our people suggests something is in the air. It may not happen tomorrow, but it will certainly happen in our lifetime. It was Karl Marx who advised that “revolution comes at night like the thief”.

We had better be ready.

Andile Mngxitama is an Economic Freedom Fighters MP

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