Sunday April 24 2011

‘Walk to Work’ in a historical light - Mamdani

People demonstrate after the police and military tear-gassed them during  the walk-to-work campaign in Kampala on Monday.

People demonstrate after the police and military tear-gassed them during the walk-to-work campaign in Kampala on Monday. Photo by Joseph Kiggundu 

On Thursday, Prof. Mahmood Mamdani, the director of the Makerere Institute of Social Research at the university, made a passionate presentation at the Rotary International District Conference in Munyonyo. We bring you a full text of the speech;

Those of you who come from outside may have heard of a novel form of political protest in Uganda, called ‘Walk to Work’. Both the opposition that has taken to walking and government that is determined to get them to stop walking are driven by the memory of a single event.

The memory of Tahrir Square feeds opposition hopes and fuels government fears. For many in the opposition, Egypt has come to signify the promised land around the proverbial corner. For many in government, Egypt spells a fundamental challenge to power, one that must be resisted, whatever the cost.

Matters have reached a point where even the hint of protest evokes maximum reaction from government. So much so that a government, which only a few weeks ago came to power with an overwhelming majority, today appears to lack not only flexibility but also an exit strategy.

For civilians, supporters and skeptics alike, the sight of military resources deployed to maintain civil order in the streets, has come to blur the line between civil police and military forces as those in power insist on treating even the simplest of civil protest as if it were an armed rebellion.

If government is losing coherence and unity that it displayed during the elections, the opposition is beginning to find at least a semblance of unity and vision that had evaded it during election season.

If you keep in mind that many in this opposition, many of those who had been in the last Parliament, were complicit in every major turn for the worse when it comes to governance, then you marvel at the nature of this shift.

How can it be that some of the same opposition that only yesterday saw Parliament as passport to patronage and licence to pillage, are discovering resolve and moral courage even though there is no election in sight and the times are, if anything, hard? This single thought is the source of contradictory popular notions, both skepticism and optimism, when it comes to politics.

My purpose today is neither to celebrate the opposition nor to demonise the government. I want to talk about the memory that seems to be driving many in the opposition and haunting many in government. That is the memory of Tahrir Square. It is not too much of an exaggeration to say that the great Egyptian revolution began in Tunis. Where will it end? A decade from now, will we think of it as a local, a continental or a global event? How should we understand its significance today?

Historians admit that there is no single objective account of any event. The account depends, in part, on the location of the observer. For many in Europe, the events in Tunis and Cairo were evidence that the colour revolutions that began in East Europe with the fall of the Soviet Union are finally spreading beyond the region.

In East Africa, there was a flurry of discussion after Tahrir Square, mainly in the press. Many asked whether the Egyptian revolution will spread South of the Sahara. And they responded, without a second thought: No! Why not? Because, media pundits said, sub-Saharan societies are so divided by ethnicity, so torn apart by tribalism, that none can achieve the degree of unity necessary to confront political power successfully.

This response makes little sense to me. For this answer resembles a caricature. Nowhere in the history of successful struggles will you find a people united in advance of the movement. For the simple reason that one of the achievements of a successful movement is unity. Unity is forged through struggle.

To make this point, and a few others, I want to look at the democratic revolution in Egypt in the context of a longer history, a history of democratic struggle on this continent. I want to begin with an event that occurred more than three decades ago in South Africa.
I am thinking of the Soweto uprising of 1976, which followed the formation of independent trade unions in Durban in 1973. Together these two developments inaugurated a new era in the anti-apartheid struggle in South Africa.

Soweto was a youthful uprising. In an era when adults had come to believe that meaningful change could only come through armed struggle, Soweto pioneered an alternative mode of struggle.

This new mode of struggle substituted the notion of armed struggle with that of popular struggle. It stopped thinking of struggle as something waged by professional fighters, guerrillas, with the people cheering from the stands, but as a movement with ordinary people as its key participants. The potential of popular struggle lay in sheer numbers, guided by a new imagination and new methods of struggle.

The significance of Soweto was two-fold. First, as I have already said, it replaced belief in power of arms with the discovery of a greater power, that of a people organised in the face of oppression.
Second, Soweto forged a new unity – a wider unity. Apartheid rule had split South African society into so many races (whites, Indians, Coloureds) and so many tribes (Zulu, Xhosa, Pedi, Venda and so on) by putting each under a separate set of laws, so that even when they organised to reform or remove the law in question, they did so separately. In this context came a new person, Steve Biko, a visionary leader at the helm of a new movement, Black Consciousness Movement.

Biko’s message undermined apartheid statecraft. Black is not a colour, said Biko. Black is an experience. If you are oppressed, you are Black. This was a revolutionary message – why?

ANC had spoken of non-racialism as early as the Freedom Charter in the mid-50s. But ANC’s non-racialism only touched the political elite. Individual White and Indian and Coloured leaders had joined the ANC as individuals. But ordinary people remained confined and trapped by a political perspective hemmed in narrow racial or tribal boundaries. Biko forged a vision with the potential to cut through these boundaries.

Around that same time, another event occurred. It too signaled a fresh opening. This was the Palestinian Intifada. What is known as the First Intifada had a Soweto-like potential. Like the children of Soweto, Palestinian children too dared to face bullets with no more than stones. Faced with feuding liberation movements, each claiming to be a sole representative of the oppressed, the youth of the Intifada called for a wider unity.

Even though the Egyptian Revolution has come more than three decades after Soweto, it evokes the memory of Soweto in a powerful way. This is for at least two reasons.

Embracing violence?
First, like 1976 Soweto, Tahrir Square in 2011 too shed a generation’s romance with violence. The generation of Nasser and after had embraced violence as key to fundamental change in politics and society. This tendency was secular at the outset.

The more Nasser turned to suppressing the opposition and justifying it in the language of secular nationalism, the more the opposition began to speak in a religious idiom. The most important political tendency calling for a surgical break with the past now spoke the language of radical Islam. Its main representative in Egypt was Said Qutb. I became interested in radical Islam after 9/11, which is when I read Sayyid Qutb’s most important book, Signposts. It reminded me of the grammer of radical politics at the University of Dar es Salaam where I was a lecturer in the 1970s.

Sayyid Qutb says in the introduction to Signposts that he wrote the book for an Islamist vanguard; I thought I was reading a version of Lenin’s What is to be Done.
Sayyid Qutb’s main argument in the text is that you must make a distinction between friends and enemies, because with friends you use persuasion and with enemies you use force. I thought I was reading Mao Zedong On the Correct Handling of Contradictions Amongst the People.

I asked myself: how should I understand Sayyid Qutb? As part of a linear tradition called political Islam? Is the history of thought best understood inside containers labelled civilisations; one Islamic, another Hindu, another Confucian, another Christian, or, alternately, one European, another Asian, yet another African?

Was not Sayyid Qutb’s embrace of political violence in line with a growing embrace of armed struggle in movements of national liberation in the ‘50s and ‘60s? Was not the key assumption that armed struggle is not only the most effective form of struggle but also the only genuine mode of struggle?

The more I read of Sayyid Qutb’s distinction between Friend and Enemy, that you use violence to deal with an enemy and reason to persuade a friend, the more I realized that I had to understand Sayyid Qutb as part of his times.

No doubt, like the rest of us, Sayyid Qutb was involved in multiple conversations: he was involved in multiple debates, not only with Islamic intellectuals, whether contemporary or of previous generations, but also with contending intellectuals inspired by other modes of political thought.

And the main competition then was Marxism-Leninism, a militantly secular ideology which influenced both Qutb’s language and his methods of organisation and struggle. The first significance of Tahrir Square was that it shed the mark of Syed Qutb and the romance with revolutionary violence.

The second resemblance between Soweto and Tahrir Square was on the question of unity. Just as the anti-apartheid struggle in South Africa had uncritically reproduced the division between races and tribes institutionalised in state practices, so too had the division between religions become a part of the convention of mainstream politics in Egypt.

Tahrir Square innovated a new politics. It shed the language of religion in politics but it did so without embracing a militant secularism that would totally outlaw religion in the public sphere. It thus called for a broader tolerance of cultural identities in the public sphere, one that would include both secular and religious tendencies. The new contract was that to participate in the public sphere, you must practice an inclusive politics with respect to others.

This was a move away from inscribing religious identity in politics, away from turning religious identity into a basis of political factionalism and sectarian violence. In the days before Tahrir Square, sectarian violence was often initiated by those in power, but without a convincing anti-dote, it also tended to rip through society. You only have to think of the violence against the Coptic minority in the weeks before the historic assembly in Tahrir Square.

Soweto forced many people internationally to rethink their notions of Africa and African. The convention before Soweto was to assume that violence was second nature with Africans and that Africans were incapable of living together peacefully.

Before Tahrir Square, and particularly after 9/11, official discourse and media representations in the West were driven by the assumption that Arabs are genetically predisposed to violence and to discrimination against anyone different. But in Tahrir Square, generations and genders, milled and marched as we say in Kiswahili, bega kwa bega. So did people belonging to different religious denominations.

What can we learn from this?
New ideas create the basis of new unities and new methods of struggle. The tendency for power is to seek to politicise cultural differences in society and then to claim that this division is only natural. To be successful, a new politics needs to offer an anti-dote, an alternative practice that unites those divided by prevailing modes of governance.

Before and after Soweto, Steve Biko insisted that blackness was not part of biology but a political experience. In so doing, he created the ideological basis for a new unity, an anti-racist unity.
I do not know of a counterpart to Steve Biko in Tahrir Square. May be there was not one but many Bikos in Egypt. But I do believe that Tahrir Square has come to symbolise the basis for a new unity, one that consciously seeks to undermine the practice of religious sectarianism.

In Uganda today, prevailing governance seeks to divide the population by politicising ethnicity. The motto is: one tribe, one district. Inside the district, an administrative tribalism divides the bafuruki from those designated as indigenous to the district. As a mode of governance, tribalism institutionalises offical discrimination against some citizens and in favour of others.

New ideas nurture new practices. Given time, even the most revolutionary idea can turn into a routine divorced of meaning. Think of how we have managed to reduce the practice of democracy to routine rituals.

The remarkable thing about the events we know as ‘Walk to Work’ is that they have followed on the heels of a national election whose results were anything if not decisive. Whatever its outcome, ‘Walk to work’ must make us rethink the practice of democracy in Uganda.
For a start, one is struck by the spread of cynicism among both rulers and ruled. More and more in the population thinks of elections not as the time to make meaningful choices but as a time to extract dues from politicians who are unlikely to be sighted until the next election season!

Similarly, more and more in the political class are coming to think of elections as a managed exercise where the outcome is decided not by who votes but by who oversees the counting of votes. What does it say about contemporary democracy that even an election where those in power can win support of a vast majority of people, over 90% in Egypt and over two-thirds in Uganda, does not give you any idea of the level of dissatisfaction among the electorate?

Consider one remarkable fact. In spite of the growth of universities and think tanks worldwide, researchers and consultants have been unable to forecast most major event in contemporary history.

Why? This was true of Soweto 1976, it was true of the fall of the Soviet Union and it was true of the Egyptian revolution. What does it say about the state of our knowledge that we can foretell a natural catastrophe – an earthquake, even a tsunami – but not a political shift? The rule seems to be: the bigger the shift, the less likely is the chance of it being foretold.

I think this is so for one reason. Big shifts in social and political life require an act of the imagination. They require a break from routine, a departure from convention. That is why social science, which is focused on the study of routine, of institutional and repetitive behaviour, is unable to forecast big events.
Herein lies the challenge for Uganda’s political class.

No matter how small the numbers involved in the developments we know as ‘Walk to Work’, there is no denying its sheer intellectual brilliance. That brilliance lies in its simplicity, in its ability to confer on the simplest of human activities, walking, a major political significance: the capacity to say no.

The irony is that many in the opposition, and perhaps just as many in government, seem to think of ‘Walk to Work’ as a shortcut to power, which it is unlikely to be. The real significance of ‘Walk to Work’ is that it has broken the hold of routine. In doing so, it presents us with a challenge. That challenge is to come up with a new language of politics, a new mode of organization, and a new mode of governance.
From this vantage point, I would like to offer a few reflections by way of conclusion.

We should resist the temptation to think of Tahrir Square – as Soweto before it – as a road map. Rather, let us think of Egypt as a vision, a democratic vision, as both event and process. Remember that it took nearly two decades for the Soweto Uprising to deliver a democratic fruit in South Africa. When it comes to Egypt, the democratic revolution has just begun. None knows how long it will take to institutionalise its fruit.

Today, we need to acknowledge that Tahrir Square has not led to a revolution, but to a reform. And that is not a bad thing. The lesson of Egypt – unlike that of Libya next door – is the moral force of non-violence. Unlike violence, non-violence does not just resist and exclude; it also embraces and includes, thereby opening up new possibilities of reform, possibilities that seemed unimaginable only yesterday.

The challenge before the Ugandan political class today is not to close ranks for a final struggle, as it is habitually prone to doing. The real challenge is to forge possibilities for a new politics, on the basis of new associations and new imaginations. The real challenge is not revolution but reform. The verdict is still out whether it is government or opposition that will take the lead and provide the initiative.

advertisement