BUILDING A PYRAMID OR CHASING A MIRAGE? SOME MODEST REFLECTIONS ON THE MASS UPRISING IN EGYPT AND TUNISIA AND LESSONS FOR ESWATINI
As the crisis in eSwatini deepens, so do opportunities for social change. It is perhaps an appropriate time to look at where we are today, and how we can best absorb some of the lessons from those parts of the world that have undergone profound social upheavals to inform eSwatini’s struggle for democracy.
No Shortcuts or Techno Fix to Social Change.
One of the lessons that has emerged from the recent struggles for democracy is that the mass democratic uprisings that have taken place were not spontaneous. They were not made possible, as much of the media has erroneously reported, by simply utilising social networks like Face Book. In Cairo and Tunis as the literature and testimonies that are now emerging indicate, lay bare a different and more complex reality. In both Egypt and Tunisia the uprisings were only made possible by the patient work of countless (and largely unheralded) comrades from all walks of life, who had been courageously building opposition to oligarchic rule for years. Trade unionists, social and environmental activists, feminists, human rights advocates, militant students, all played a vital role. These were ‘ordinary’ people, undertaking extraordinary political work. On a daily basis, they dared to challenge the hated security forces. They helped to make connections between and within their communities and workplaces, often semi-clandestinely because of the ever present threat of repression.
They ran workshops and meetings to build collective confidence and planted a seed of hope that change was possible. One of the issues that these vital activists were able to spread was that by working together, trust and mutual respect could be built. This has proved to be an essential pre-requisite in those societies where countless numbers have been ruthlessly compromised and bullied into reporting their neighbours and workmates to the security services. But there was also another vital message to propagate; in numbers the weak can become strong.
Facebook Still No Match for Face to Face Contact!
There is no doubt that social networks will remain an important tool for information sharing and alerting very large numbers, very quickly of planned mobilisations. No wonder that despots like Mswati close networks down when civil unrest takes place. It is important though to remind ourselves that real democratic power lies in being able to mobilise at factory, office and community level, and that this is most effective when opportunities are created for substantial engagements to enhance class confidence and deepen class consciousness.
That’s why ‘face to face’ discussion, not facebook messaging, has proved to be so much more powerful! Trade Union comrades, student activists and progressives working in faith based organisations in Swaziland know this only too well. They have been doing the patient organisational building work. They have held campaign workshops. They have strategized and mobilised, and they have studiously considered the pros and cons of different forms of struggle, and rightly so. Struggles for national liberation are sadly littered by well meaning (but often fatally mistaken) comrades who believed that all that was needed was to ‘announce’ the coming revolution or in the case of Swaziland today, herald the arrival of an Uprising Movement. The problem with relying on a ‘spontaneous’ approach of this type is that it can be both unpredictable and hazardous.
Building a Movement or Wishing one into Existence?
One of the lessons that Swazi comrades must learn quickly is the need to build a truly mass based movement and not relying on spontaneity. Lets us for one moment imagine that the announcement of an Uprising (and especially one that is in organisational isolation from the bulk of progressive forces) is heeded by some comrades on the ground. What if they are attacked and brutalised by the security forces? Will this enhance or undermine popular confidence and consciousness?
What if the call for an Uprising falls flat, and an emboldened state uses the opportunity to unleash yet further repression and persecution of known leaders it deems to have been somehow associated with it? Will this strengthen or weaken the democracy campaign? Furthermore, how can anonymous or self appointed leaders of the Movement be held accountable to those they are hoping to mobilise? These are important questions comrades. They have to be considered.
The Swazi regime can be merciless as the bereaved family of of those massacred know only too well. It is argued that clandestine or secret political work is sometimes unavoidable given the repressive nature of the state, but it does have serious implications, not least being an absence of active engagement with the leadership and structures of the mass movements. Surely history has shown us that when many secretive groups have been eventually ‘outed’ they have often been infiltrated or subverted by the forces of the state. Of course state infiltration happens in many progressive organisations, and we must work on the assumption that if they don’t attempt to infiltrate our organisations, we pose no threat to them!
But there is another vital lesson here, and that is those organisations with accountable and transparent structures and practices are more likely to be able to expose and deal with state infiltration before real damage is done. Our comrades in PUDEMO understand this well, despite numerous arrests and impositions. As a banned organisation, they continue to try and maintain democratic structures, to hold internal elections, to be open about who their leaders are, what they are seeking to achieve, and to openly engage potential allies. Surely this is why despite the odds, they are still able to function.
Mobilising Now, Looking to the Future
One other important lesson that has emerged from the struggles in Egypt and Tunisia, and from our own struggle here against apartheid, has been the importance of moving beyond the immediate though vital tasks of mobilising for social change, towards beginning to construct the type of society that we want to achieve when democracy is firmly placed on the agenda.
This is why the character of the struggle that we wage is of vital importance. If we want to build an inclusive, responsive and accountable society, surely our campaigns have to reflect these values and norms, and embed practices based on them. This means that the struggle has to involve the widest possible layers in both rebellion, but also in the discussion and processes towards reconstruction. The teachers union, SNAT for example, is not just mobilising for democracy, but is consciously thinking about the type of educational system that will be needed in a democratic Swaziland. It also means that our campaigns have to embody gender equality, anti-racism, cooperative working methods, and given the magnitude of the challenges that will be faced, the critical and creative thinking that will render imaginative solutions. Thankfully, comrades in Civil Society in Swaziland, including those in the trade union movement, know that there is no quick fix solution for either mobilising the masses, or for meaningful social transformation.
This explains why our comrades in eSwatini have embarked upon the essential work of not only building united democratic organisation, and articulating and popularising key demands, they have also started to discuss what type of economic and political policies will be needed to make a difference to the lives of the majority of Swazi people. By their example they have shown real leadership in aligning themselves openly with the masses they seek to mobilise, but perhaps equally importantly, by being ready to acknowledge that mistakes have been made, and that there are important lessons to learn from then for the future.
The crisis in Swaziland is moving fast towards some form of change. There is a tangible popular confidence in the air. Our efforts must be on helping to strengthen democratic struggle, and a vibrant civil society, not least for the tasks of rebuilding Swaziland after the wasteful retrogressive experience of rule by Royal Decree. It is hoped that this reflection will provide food for thought for all those who wish to see a democratic Swaziland.
NB: Stephen Faulkner is former International Officer SAMWU and former Co-coordinator for the Swaziland Democracy Campaign (SDC) in South Africa.