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Is Africa boiling over? Winter of discontent or Arab spring

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Picture: Oupa Mokoena/African News Agency (ANA)/ taken March 20, 2023 – Members of EFF gathers at Church Square for the National Shutdown. Protest action in South Africa, Tunisia, Nigeria, Kenya and Senegal reached red hot temperatures early this year, and intensified in March, as slow burn furnaces of discontent became more explosive, the writer says.

By Kim Heller

Protest is a universal language, yet it is often a difficult dialect to decipher. For protest is the grate of the aggrieved, it is the parlance of the poor, and it is the scream of the suppressed. Protest can also be the cry-wolf of politicians who lost at the polls or the orchestrated, manufactured chaos of regime change. But more than often, it is a public display of a nation or community in despair. A despair so deep that it is ready and set to trump fear.

A decade ago, the climate was perfect for an Arab Spring. Endless seasons of economic dereliction and political despotism, sowed wrath among citizens and seeded massive rolling protests. This brought an end to the reign of Egypt’s long-standing President, Hosni Mubarak. The Arab Spring was a ground-breaking season that also brought regime change to Tunisia, and Libya.

Protest action in South Africa, Tunisia, Nigeria, Kenya and Senegal reached red hot temperatures early this year, and intensified in March, as slow burn furnaces of discontent became more explosive. This heightened protest activity is a stew of distressed, dissatisfied, and desperate citizens.

Despite the diversity of these nations, the reasons for discontent are not dissimilar, untenable economic hardships, public service deficits, unaffordable living costs and fuel, energy, and food scarcity. It is a dangerously inflammable brew, especially when blended with poor or illegitimate political leadership, or where the lid on political dissent is too tightly fastened to allow for any release or relief of even the very mildest protest.

In Tunisia, anti-government protests were sparked by discontent with both the political leadership and the state of the economy. President Kaïs Saïed had dissolved parliament, arrested many political opponents, and evoked much anger with his racist comments against black African migrants. Tunisia’s economy was flagging severely, with a youth unemployment rate of close to 40%, and food shortages and cost increases. In Senegal, citizens took to the streets over the dictatorship of their President, and his desperate bid to hold onto power. President Macky Sall has been in Office since 2012.

In Kenya, protests pivoted around broken promises from the newly elected President, William Ruto, amidst crippling droughts, food shortages and steep price increases for basic provisions. A Kenyan protester, Charles Odour, cried out to a journalist from the news agency, AFP, “They lie to us every day. Where is the cheap maize flour they promised? Where are the jobs for the youth they promised? All they do is hire their friends”.

Alleged fraudulent and corrupt elections drove dissatisfied Nigerians to protest against President Muhammadu Buhari. In South Africa, an EFF-led national march across the nation was a massive remonstrate against rolling electricity blackouts and the poor and compromised leadership of President Cyril Ramaphosa.

The recent swells of mass protests on the Continent is sparking heated conversations about whether Africa is boiling over and heading into another Arab Spring. It is noteworthy that these African countries are protesting against some of the very same issues that caused the 2022 Sri-Lanka uprising. An uprising that saw the removal of that country’s President.

For now, it is likely to be yet another winter of discontent in Africa rather than a new Arab spring. Yet there is potential for explosion if government response is heavy handed militarisation against citizens. Governments that seek solution to protest through gunfire rather than resolution of social and economic problems, that caused them in the first place, are likely to ignite social unrest. The recent protests in Africa have been met with much might from the state. In Kenya, a student protester was killed, several injured and hundreds arrested.

In South Africa, an alarm rang out from KwaZulu-Natal Police Commissioner, Lieutenant-General Nhlanhla Mkhwanazi, “This is an attempt to overthrow the government. This is not a shutdown, but it’s anarchy”. Across the nation 8,000 police officers and 3,500 soldiers were deployed to contain the national shutdown. Over 80 people were arrested. In Senegal, clashes between protesters and police saw a cloud of discontent settle over this ordinarily stable country.

South Africa is vulnerable, as are many African countries. The Covid-19 pandemic and the Russian-Ukraine war have exposed the lack of strong self-sustainable, self-dependent and robust economies across the Continent. This has resulted in hard economic times, food shortages, a brutal rise in the cost of living and a deeper end pool of joblessness. Unemployment rates are at dangerously high levels, especially for South Africa.

The World Economic Forum estimates a 35.6 percent unemployment rate for South Africa for this year. While for the other countries, unemployment is lower, a 40 percent unemployment rate among Tunisia’s youth is a red card in the country’s quest for stability. Unemployment was at 30 percent in Egypt when 80,0000 citizens gathered in Tahrir Square to protest. Senior economist at S&P cautioned that “the Arab Spring” sets the 30 percent level of unemployment as the tipping point for spontaneous eruptions of revolution.”

The wave of protests in several African countries is both a sign of democracy at work and of democracy failing. Former President Jacob Zuma once said, “the problem is people don’t understand what democracy is about”. “You’ll agree with me that in the countries of dictators there are no protests or booing – all these things are part of the culture of democracy. But democracy says: Let these people express themselves.”

Protests, like elections, are a temperature gauge of a nation’s mood, of its satisfaction or dissatisfaction with the country’s leadership. For now, many countries on the Continent are raging hot and threatening to boil over.

With economic woes of these countries expected to get worse rather than better, it will take a special quality of leadership to navigate nations into a better tomorrow. For now, it looks like such leadership, if not entirely absent, is in short supply. This does not bode well for a stable, sustainably healthy Continent.

Heller is a political analyst and author of ‘No White Lies: Black Politics and White Power in South Africa.’

This article was written exclusively for The African. To republish, see terms and conditions.