We need careful political work over the long haul

Five years ago, there was serious public dissent and disorder in many parts of the world. The self-immolation of street vendor Mohamed Bouazizi in Tunisia in December 2010 set the scene for the year to come. By the second week of January 2011 Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali had been forced out of power in Tunisia. On January 25 Tahir Square was occupied in Cairo and protest spread through North Africa and into the Middle East. In May, there were protests in southern Europe, particularly Spain and Greece. In August, there were riots in London and other towns and cities across the United Kingdom. In September, Zuccotti Park in the financial district of New York was occupied. By October, there were occupations across the United States, and many other parts of the world too.

The roots of this wave of rolling public dissent were traced back to protests against structural adjustment in the Global South in the 1980s; the First Palestinian Intifada from 1987 to 1993; the protests against the World Trade Organisation in Seattle in 1999; the occupations and blockades in Latin America, particularly Argentina and Bolivia, around the turn of the century; the protests across the Arab world when Israel invaded the West Bank in 2002; the election of left-wing government in various countries in Latin America from 1999 onwards; and the riots in Greece in 2008.

As protest leapt from country to country, there were some striking similarities. Social media was often an important mobilising tool. In many countries, there were significant alliances between people from the often well-educated but underemployed middle class, the remains of the industrial working class and the underclass.

But there were also differences in the forms of organisation that developed. In Syria, protest took the form of armed struggle after confronting murderous repression. In the squares of Cairo, Athens, Madrid and New York, the dominant mode of protest took the form of occupation and novel forms of solidarity and collective discussion. Images of Muslims and Christians taking turns to protect each other during prayer in Tahir Square opened a vision for a very different political future.

There were also marked differences in terms of the goals to which the protestors were committed. In some countries, dictatorial states, brazen corruption and oppressive (and in the UK, racist) forms of policing were among the reasons for protest.


In the formerly colonised countries, collective action cohered around a primary demand for the end of authoritarian regimes. In Europe and the US, protest was explicitly linked to the financial crisis of 2008, which generated an aftershock in 2011. There was an often visceral contempt for the political class, but political antagonism was chiefly directed at the bankers.

Nonetheless there was a thread that ran from North Africa to southern Europe, the Middle East and across to the US. There was a general sense of opposition to the accumulation of wealth and power by small elites at the cost of the diminishment of the social power and economic prospects of the majority. In some countries, there was a strong generational dimension to this, with young people in particular confronting precarious work, crushing debt and unaffordable housing.

While the events of 2011 were unfolding they were sometimes compared with 1989, 1968 or 1848. But although 2011 was an extraordinary moment, five years on, the optimism that was often generated during that year has largely been dashed. Egypt is under another authoritarian regime. Syria is wracked by war. In Libya, where imperial powers quickly seized on popular protest for their own purposes, the situation remains altogether grim.

Greece, despite impressive popular mobilisation and electoral success by the left, is still subordinated to finance capital. In the UK and the US right-wing populism has surged to the fore and the power of capital over society has been entrenched. At the same time, across Latin America, the left, which had made notable advances before 2011, is in retreat.

In South Africa there was little response to the international affirmation of a desire for rupture with the status quo in 2011. In retrospect perhaps the most significant event in the limited attempts to connect to this international moment was a small protest organised under the banner of Occupy in Grahamstown in October of that year. Ayanda Kota used the occasion to throw a bucket of shit into the decaying city hall.

In 2013 this mode of protest would be taken up in Cape Town. In May 2015 it arrived, in a spectacular mediatised form, at the University of Cape Town and inaugurated a new sequence of dissent in elite spaces.

But popular protest, often organised from urban land occupations, had been escalating since 2004. Outside of Durban, where there had, despite serious repression by the ruling party and the state, been sustained organisation since 2005, the growing wave of protest had largely been treated as if it were peripheral to the concerns of the elite public sphere.

It was the campaign that brought Jacob Zuma into the presidency in 2009 that had rattled the established order. Although that campaign included ethnic chauvinism and gross misogyny in its ideological repertoire, it was, with a handful of notable exceptions, embraced – often with real fervour – by the left in the ANC, the unions and the South African Communist Party, and a few independent activists, journalists and academics too.

We are paying a high price for their hubris and conflation of demagoguery, masculinist posturing and ill-defined populism with the labour of undertaking serious political work in terms of the development of ideas and organisation.

It was the televised police murder of Andries Tatane at a protest in Ficksburg in April 2011 that began to generate a wider awareness of popular protest outside of the terrain of elite politics and its violent repression by the state. The initial response in the elite public sphere to the massacre of striking miners at Marikana the following year was an orgy of race and class prejudice. But as the labour of critique exposed the exploitation on the mines, and the full horrors of a state massacre, the delusions – previously endemic in many nongovernmental organisations as well as some academic and media circles – that conflated the law with reality and, at times, the ANC’s rhetoric with its practices, were no longer sustainable. The massacre put an end to any naivety about the character of the ANC, and the nature of democracy in South Africa.

There was considerable political realignment after the massacre. The Association of Mineworkers and Construction Union displaced the National Union of Mineworkers on many mines. The Economic Freedom Fighters were formed in July 2013. In December that year, the National Union of Metalworkers of South Africa broke its ties with the ruling party.

But in terms of electoral politics, it has been the Democratic Alliance that has, so far, been the primary beneficiary of the precipitous decline in the ANC’s credibility – a decline occasioned more by its own failings than an admittedly challenging international environment.

On August 9 2014, Michael Brown, an unarmed black man, was shot dead by a white police officer in Ferguson, Missouri. The movement that grew out of the rebellion that followed inaugurated a new sequence in the struggle against racism in the US. As with previous sequences in that struggle, it quickly acquired an international dimension.

In 2015, the protests that had been present at historically black universities since the end of apartheid intersected with this new international moment and arrived, with spectacular effect, on the campuses of the elite universities. This has been followed by the entry into elite space of some of the techniques of repression that were previously confined to the zones of exclusion and subordination.

As a result, a good number of middle-class people have been brought into an antagonistic relationship with various structures of authority. Like the student insurrection in Paris in May 1968, the ferment at our universities has already enabled a cultural shift in the media, the arts and the academy itself.

But unlike the arrival of 1968 as an international moment on South African campuses, it has not, so far, resulted in sustained organisation in wider society. In the early 1970s many of the students who formed the Black Consciousness Movement, and the students and academics who began to work with trade unions after the strikes in Durban in 1973, chose a form of praxis that centred on commitment to popular struggles, in communities and workplaces, over the long haul.

The political character of the new moment is uneven. There have been democratic practices, bold new commitments to intersectionality and impressive intellectual innovation as well as authoritarian elements, various kinds of chauvinism and questionable tactics.

For those who see the stirrings of new political possibility, and possibly even a new economic and political order, it will be vital to confront these contradictions directly.

After the Zuma debacle, there is no excuse for conflating charisma and fervour with the long and careful labour of praxis.

But it will also be important to take the limitations of the 2011 moment seriously. One of the many lessons of 2011 is that the primary structures and ideologies of domination are deeply entrenched at national and, significantly, international levels.

There can be no naivety about the weight, scale and tenacity of the political work that is required to achieve political change in terms of working out ideas, building organisation and alliances and developing effective strategy and tactics.

Richard Pithouse’s new book, Writing the Decline: On the Struggle for South Africa’s Democracy, is published by Jacana

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Richard Pithouse
Richard Pithouse
Richard Pithouse teaches politics at Rhodes University, where he lectures on contemporary political theory and urban studies. He writes regularly for journals and newspapers, both print and online, and his commentary is widely read.

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