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‘Walk to Work’ in a historical light - Mamdani

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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 



Posted  Sunday, April 24  2011 at  00:00
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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.

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