by Richard Pithouse, LibCom
Life, ordinary life, is meant to follow certain rhythms. We grow, seasons change and we assume new positions in the world. When you have finished being a child you put away childish things and move on to the next stage of life. But there is a multitude of people in this world who cannot build a home, marry and care for their children and aging parents. There is a multitude of people who are growing older as they remain stuck in an exhausting limbo, perhaps just managing to scrape together the rent for a backyard shack by selling tomatoes or cell phone chargers on some street.
Mohamed Bouazizi was one person amongst that multitude. He was born in 1984 in the Tunisian city of Sidi Bouzid. His father died on a Libyan construction site when Mohamed was three. He went to a one roomed village school but had to start working from the age of ten and abandoned school altogether in his late teens. In a city with an unemployment rate of 30% he couldn’t find work and began, like so many others, selling fruit and vegetables in the street. With the thousand rand that he made each month he looked after his mother, his uncle and his younger siblings. He was, incredibly, managing to pay for his sister, Samia, to study at university.
Since he was a child he had been harassed by the police who regularly confiscated his wheelbarrow and his wares. On the 17th of December last year he had just laid out one thousand and five hundred Rand to buy stock when a municipal official asked him for a bribe to keep his place on the street. He couldn’t pay it and so they turned his cart over, confiscated his scales, spat at him and slapped him. He went to the municipal offices to complain but no one would see him. He went outside, bought some petrol, poured it all over his body and set himself alight outside the municipal offices. Mohammed’s mother told a journalist that he didn’t kill himself because he was poor but because he had been humiliated. "It got to him deep inside, it hurt his pride."
In 1961 Frantz Fanon wrote, from Tunisia, “The colonial world is a world cut into two....The town belonging to the colonized people, or at least the native town, the Negro village, the medina, the reservation, is a place of ill fame, peopled by men of evil repute. They are born there, it matters little where or how; they die there, it matters not how or where.”
Fifty years later cities are still divided into separate zones for those who count and those who don't count. These days what distinguishes those who count from those who don’t is usually the possession of wealth. But the people spurned by society continue to be taken as a threat to society. Jacques Depelchin, the Congolese historian, writes, “the poor in Africa have replaced the Dark Continent as the symbolic conceptual definition of the obstacle to civilization.”
But of course Mohamed Bouzazi didn’t die the invisible death of the average poor person. When he set his own body alight he ignited the uprising that drove Zine El Abidine Ben Ali from power in Tunisia, toppled Hosni Mubarak in Egypt and then spread like a prairie fire to Algeria, Yemen, Iran and beyond. Revolt is leaping across the borders that are supposed to contain people while money is moved, dissidents rendered and intelligence exchanged.
These revolts may, like the European Revolutions of 1848 or the revolts against Stalinism in 1989, remake the world order in ways that we cannot yet predict.
Popular anger can be mobilised against innocent scapegoats like gay people in Uganda, Muslims in parts of India or migrants in South Africa. Revolutions are often rolled back, co-opted or even used to strengthen oppression by modernising it. The future of Tunisia, Egypt and all the other countries where people are now taking to the streets against the police and party thugs has yet to be written. Local elites and imperialism will certainly aim to do more of that writing than the ordinary people that have already brought down two dictatorships.
But whatever the eventual fate of the struggles in North Africa and the Middle East something has been done that cannot be undone. That something is the fact that the refusal of a street vendor to continue to tolerate indignity and the sheer sadism of so much bureaucratic power was heard and acted on in a way that eventually brought down a brutal dictator and ally of imperialism and, for a moment at least, seized the initiative from the dictators, the officials, the experts, the police and the NGOs and put it, firmly and gloriously, in the hands of the people.
This is not the first time that the agency of people that don’t count has, like the proverbial thief in the night, suddenly appeared at the centre of the world stage without warning.
The Christian story is just one of many in which a poor man from some village in the provinces assumes a tremendous historical consequence that far outweighs that of his tormentors. And from the Haitian Revolution of 1804 to the Paris Commune of 1871 to the anti-colonial movements of the 50s and 60s that ignited a global rebellion in 1968 the modern world has periodically been remade by the intelligence and courage of the women and men it has most denigrated.
There are many lessons to be drawn from the drama unfolding in North Africa and the Middle East. One of them is that we should not assume that South Africans will continue to trudge through life without work, without homes and without dignity forever.
If we carry on as we are, the day will come when a fire will be lit in Grahamstown or Harrismith or Ermelo, or on some farm or in some school or shack settlement whose name we don’t yet know, and neither the rubber bullets, party thugs, offers of jobs and money to leaders or senior politicians arriving in helicopters with smiles and big promises will put it out.