As rebels moved into Tripoli, Libya’s capital, Barrack Obama said that “The Gaddafi regime is showing signs of collapsing. The people of Libya are showing that the universal pursuit of dignity and freedom is far stronger than the iron fist of a dictator”. Months before, in January of this year, the Tunisian President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali was ousted. Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak met a similar fate in February. There have been movements – successful or not - in Iran, Iraq, Jordan, Algeria and Syria amongst other places.
As early as 1961, the Martinican revolutionary Frantz Fanon warned of the dangers of governments following their own agendas and becoming an oppressive and predatory force over the people they are meant to be serving. This is most powerfully expressed in his essay on ‘The Pitfalls of National Consciousness’ in his famous last work, The Wretched of the Earth. It seems almost poetic, that 50 years after his death, many of the governments in Africa (and the Middle East) that have fallen prey to a toxic mix of authoritarianism and elite predation are now crumbling under the weight of the people.
Many different countries, like the USA, are celebrating the destruction of these blatantly oppressive regimes, and the introduction of a free era for these countries. We are being told that these people – who have so bravely taken a stand – and fought, bled and died for this freedom, should be hailed as heroes in the fight for universal freedom. We are being told that they have won political and civil freedom and are now well on their way to join with the rest of the “free world”. What more is there to say?
But many people are neglecting the sometimes inconvenient fact that the “free world” has many of the deepest and darkest forms of oppression. In even the most advanced societies, there are undercurrents of oppression, most notably marginalization which can lead to outright violence towards a specific group. Here in South Africa we have a democracy and a wonderful constitution but the eery memories of the burning man and the other 60 or so victims killed in May of 2008, along with thousands of people forced out of their homes simply for being ‘foreign’, still rings in the memory of all South Africans. Throughout history, groups have been marginalized on the basis of characteristics and physical appearance. These groups extend further than just race or class, as they encompass groups such as the physically and mentally disabled, the homeless, the elderly, followers of minority religions and even single mothers. These groups have been dealt with in a range of ways – ranging from rehabilitation to outright extermination. These groups very often find themselves materially deprived and socially excluded and more often than not, at the mercy of the very institutions that are meant to be helping them. These groups appear to be viewed as if they are little more than a burden on society. They often internalize this view. Society finds its methods of removing these burdens, such as putting the elderly and the disabled – especially the mentally handicapped - in homes and institutions, or relocating the homeless from the cities during mega-events like the Olympics or the Soccer World Cup. Fanon in his first book, Black Skins, White Masks, stated that in post-war France “the white man is sealed in his whiteness, the black man in his blackness”. Today in much of the 'free world' the disabled are sealed in their disability, the homeless in their homelessness.
Fanon cries out, “I, the man of color, want only this … That it be possible for me to discover and to love man, wherever he may be.” This is a cry that has been echoed across the lands; across all the perceived races; across the classes; all the genders; sexual orientation; the able-bodied as well as the disabled. It is a cry that every individual can and should listen to, but a cry that has very often been ignored, whether purposefully or unintentionally. This is a cry to allow for the discovery of true humanity, not a humanity that has been killed somewhere along the current path of inhumanity. It is a cry for the recognition of a humanity that is being denied, the same recognition that has been fought for by countless individuals.
Here in South Africa both the striving for freedom and the tendency to repress that striving did not end with the end of apartheid. We, in South Africa, have witnessed oppression in many forms, such as the obvious sharp increase in state brutality against those like Andries Tatanes, only want to be heard; through to the subtlest of forms, like not even noticing that – say, a wheelchair bound individual cannot enter a building because of a simple thing like stairs. Although it is true that both forms of oppression are terrible, it is the subtle form of oppression that does not raise any concerns, that is most damning. How often have we South Africans seen or been party to able-bodied people, often without thought, parking in parking bays specifically for the disabled? This has become such a problem that many shopping centers often hire security guards who have to remain close to parking bays specifically for the disabled, and open make them inaccessible until an individual in a vehicle produces a disabled parking permit. How do we say we have achieved a true state of humanity without oppression when we still need to fend off lack of thoughtfulness coupled with lack of care with a show of force? We still find Poor Peoples’ movements all across the country have been fighting continuous legal battles to prevent arbitrary eviction. Our democratically elected state seems to wish that these movements and the human beings they include would just disappear. At times there have been attempts to make them disappear from the public sphere as an independent political force through arbitrary violence, as in the attack on the shack dwellers movements in the Kennedy Road settlement in Durban in late 2009. In our democracy there are still groups of people that are not seen as human beings but are rather seen as a blight on our society. There are people that remain unwelcome.
We should not try to take away from the momentous victories that are being won across North African and the Middle East. We are certainly witnessing an important step in the direction of greater freedom, one in which Fanon would undoubtedly be proud. However, freedom extends deeper than just having political and civil rights in principle. It is the full recognition of each person’s humanity in practice that allows for greater freedom, and the creation of a better world. We can watch in awe as political and civil rights are won, and then continue with our daily lives, or we can remain faithful to the deeper desire for change that has animated these revolutions and continue on past the toppling of dictators to go on to root out oppression in all forms. Frantz Fanon, Stephen Biko, Martin Luther King, Jr. and many others saw and experienced unspeakable horrors of oppression committed by their fellow human beings, but – to use an old cliché - they also saw in humanity the potential greatness and ability to overcome these horrors. A true humanity beckons us. Shall we follow?