Is Southern Africa About To Experience Its Own "Arab Spring"?

When the Arab Spring revolution started 10 years ago as a bunch of sporadic and isolated protests which followed the self-immolation of Mohamed Bouazizi, a Tunisian unemployed graduate who police refused to operate his cart which he was using to make a living, no one could have predicted that they would eventually engulf the entirety of North Africa and the Middle-East region leading to the fall of many authoritarian and dictatorial governments from Tunisia to Egypt to Libya to Yemen. Is Southern Africa about to experience a similar period of revolt?

The similarities are striking and can't be ignored. In Southern Africa, it started early June in Swaziland when protests erupted, sparked by the death of a 25-year old Law student Thabani Nkomonye at the hands of the police. Initially meant to address the issue of police brutality, the Swaziland protests eventually have grown to address the small kingdom's extensive socio-economic issues including lack of a democratic system, low standards of living for the masses while the monarchy lives lavishly, and misuse of public funds by the ruling elite.

South Africa is the current focal point. What started as protests against the incarceration of former president Jacob Zuma for contempt of court has turned into full-blown riots and looting which have engulfed most of the country. Even though the motive of the South African protests might be less noble, the consequent looting shows the country's underlying issues including high rates of poverty caused by, among others, racial inequality which was never addressed after the fall of apartheid and state corruption, both of which have contributed to the country being the most unequal in the world in terms of income distribution. 

Many other countries in Southern Africa are a ticking time bomb waiting to explode. Take Botswana for example. Currently under a year-plus long "State of Emergency" which has allowed the president to basically rule on his own, the threads holding the country's world-renowned peaceful state are getting more and more worn out. 

The period of SOE has seen looting of public funds, suppression of media freedoms, high rates of inequality, poverty, and unemployment, spiraling crony capitalism through awarding of dubious tenders, the government allegedly putting hits on dissidents, mishandling of the same pandemic the SOE was meant to address, etc.

Southern Africa has over the years been considered Africa's darling region compared to her peers in the rest of the continent. Characterized by relatively stable economies and strong democracies as a result of mostly uneventful elections. the region was a good role model. But the on-the-ground experiences of its citizens have been contrasting how outsiders view the region. Pulling the curtain further back on the region reveals that it is not that it has not been having governance issues like the rest of the continent, but rather that the people's reaction to the issues has been dormant. Well not anymore. 

The COVID-19 pandemic seems to be the straw that will finally break the camel's back. The people are tired of being nonchalant while their very livelihoods are eroded by corrupt and self-serving government and ruling elites who have seen the region's countries occupy the entire Top 5 of the world's most unequal countries as well as occupying 7 spots in the Top 10.

In the classic novel "A Tale of Two Cities", when addressing the cause of the horrors of guillotined heads of ruling aristocrats during the French Revolution, Charles Dickens said that " crush humanity out of shape once more and it will twist itself into the same torturous form. Sow the seed of oppression again, and it will yield the same fruit". Southern African authoritarians and dictators masquerading as democratic rulers should heed this here passage. If you continue to push people and erode their humanity, there will come a point when they will push back, and looking at the current events happening across the region, that point does not look very far away. It happened in  North Africa and the Middle East during the Arab Spring, and it can happen here too.


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