In a beautiful summer day, I arrived to the largest city in South Africa, Johannesburg, as westernized and wealthy as I thought with its skyscrapers, fancy neighborhoods and highways. I have taken the Gautrain from the airport to the hotel. As I was sitting next to a young South African man in his early 30s, we eventually struck up a conversation on the country’s current situation. “Few days ago, protesters against the provincial government in Cape Town ran amok and looted stores and stalls”. I was listening to him as the image of rich-poor divide Cape Town contradicts the image I have of wealthy predominately “white” place. “Other protesters were throwing stones at police, burnt tires and blocked roads to express their dissatisfaction”, he continued. After few minutes of this conversation, I realized that having the largest and most developed economy in Africa, “the most admirable constitution in the world”, 11 official languages and its pluralistic makeup didn’t prevent people’s discontent, violence and increasing inequalities.
The following day, the DEEEP "Building a Global Citizens Movement" conference, started. It was deeply enriching to meet participants from a large variety of civil society organizations from the 6 continents. We had a long engaging day with open spaces, participatory activities and cool networking. One of the most inspirational figures I met during the DEEEP conference was Jay Naidoo, a labor and political activist from South Africa. He was the moderator of the panel “Old Struggles, New Movements” where I was a speaker about the social movement in Tunisia. Later, I had several chances to talk with him about interesting issues. Almost 34 years difference between Jay, and me, yet I could relate to his old and new struggles for social justice. We might disagree on the strategy we build our movements but we both believe that whoever holds power, have to respect people’s dignity.
In one of our conversations, I was asking Jay about the reasons behind the continuous protests in South Africa. “If people are constantly disappointed and powerless, violence becomes a language”, Jay said. That phrase deeply reflects the situation in Tunisia, where dictatorship has entrenched the country for 23 years. The act of assembly was a language then protesting was the means to topple dictatorship, once overthrown violence has also become a language. From the self-immolation act of Bouazizi to the suicide attempts of an average of 21 cases per month since 2010 to the burning of political parties offices as well as police stations, are all a “Language”. Social explosion and regular protests have not been effective anymore, people started looking for ways to draw attention to their misery. The miscommunication and silence of the decision-makers who abuse public power for self-interests, engenders the escalation of the language of violence in all its forms. The violence in township streets throughout South Africa is much deeper than a discontent over state failure to deliver on longstanding promises of housing and social services. Likewise, the violence in the streets of marginalized regions throughout Tunisia is much deeper than a mere frustration over rising food prices and unemployment.
Looking at South Africa’s experience after 20 years of democracy adopting the most progressive constitution, I wonder about Tunisia’s “democratic” transition already blocked with 2 years attempt to write a constitution that can fully protect liberties and human rights. As an organizer, Jay is trying to revive the experience of the 70s by gathering people in networks and coalitions from faith based and civil society organizations, media outlets and independent movements to form a non- party based political platform such as the one that marked the end of the apartheid. I look back at Jay’s experience in 1976 when millions of young people went into the streets demonstrating against apartheid but were crushed. The key was not division and chaos but as Jay’s says “ we went back to organize”, and so we urgently need to organize in North Africa. We can actually be more efficient than any previous movements because of the available tools of high technology, advanced monitoring and networking systems and social media.
I stayed few days after the DEEEP conference and had the chance to attend an event in Melville on Tuesday night organized by Section21. The event was to discuss Wits University vice-chancellor, Adam Habib’s new book, South Africa's Suspended Revolution. Throughout Adam’s talk, I stopped in time when he said, “the solution is to divide your enemy and unite your capacity”. That’s what exactly the ruling part in Tunisia has done to win 2012 elections, which eventually promoted a very weak divided opposition and strong Troika, on the other hand. Section 27’ s director Mark Heywood was also speaking at the event. He concluded, “Power resides in the constitution and the people. If the media is the 4th force of state, people are the 5th power”. I absolutely agree that people have the power because the street belongs to the people but only if they challenge their consciousness, claim their rights and organize.
I left South Africa less frustrated about Tunisia’s situation, because social justice is a continuous struggle. I also left with a clear vision of what path Tunisia has to take in the upcoming few years. We need three clear steps into this transition; a common identity in a progressive constitution that embraces socio-economic rights, organized civil society that holds public servants accountable and youth representation in leadership position.