May you live in interesting times[i] is an often-misquoted proverb (or curse) allegedly of Chinese origin. It is rather strange that Chinese proverbs, quotes and curses are so enduring, yet the biggest criticism of Chinese made goods is their poor quality, even if the Mac Book Pro I am putting this together on is in fact made in China, but maybe that is a blog for another day.
And indeed, I feel I am truly living in the most interesting of times, from being chased by state police off a beach reserved for white people only, when I was 10 years old, to being one of the first non-whites to attend the local university in my hometown after finishing high school. Then a few years later, I got to vote, along with all other South Africans for the first time in 1994[ii] and several other wonderful experiences of being an equal citizen in the country of my birth. It is a wonderful and humbling experience to feel in your own skin, a real part of the only country you really know, are a part of and belong to. The current global power shift feels to me to be pretty much like that feeling on 27 April 1994, when I stood in a queue at the primary school near my parents' home, waiting and feeling the energy of people around me, young and old, that wonderful feeling of being a real part of something that had been a part of us for a few generations already.
So, if we ask what a perspective of the global power shift is about, then we must know it is about people expressing their desire to once again feel a real part of their countries. By and large, CSOs are on the periphery of this movement of people. Most NGOs are part of what is usually described as the establishment and tend to work to models of development that presume to know what needs to be done to develop people and how to deliver it.
In South Africa, there is a gentle but interesting shift in this power balance; manifest in the way both political and other social groupings are building mass-based support outside of the traditional apex NGO network organisations. Two examples of this power shift are the pro-poor role taken on by African National Congress Youth League (ANCYL) leader, Julius Malema[iii], and on the other side of the spectrum, the growing support for the September National Imbizo (SNI). [iv] Neither Julius (or Juju as he is more affectionately known) nor Andile Mngxitama (of the SNI) represent poor people. A few small forests and gigabytes of server space dedicated to just how disparate Juju’s calls for economic freedom are from his personal wealth are a distraction – no one derides Warren Buffet when he calls for the super rich in the United States to be taxed at a higher rate[v], yet in SA, this point is missed and it seems that only a very poor person can in fact try to break down a system that keeps people poor. Not that Juju is trying to break down any system, if anything; the reductionist view of his climb to power can be described as purely selfish, he wants to be President and have even more power at his disposal. Andile and the SNI on the other hand are what can be described as Black Consciousness warriors. Sadly, these warriors have not only lost their only map but have redrawn a vague version of the original map in their own image and now seek to polarise people as a means of amassing support to topple the current ANC-led government. This is very different from the ideals of Bantu Steve Biko.
Where are people in all of this? Nowhere really, because both Juju and Andile seek to support the very basic premise of modern power relations by promoting the cult of leadership, whereas the occupy movement is at least, focussed on people acting in harmony to demand more open decision making about the way their countries and the world are managed.
So, what is the prognosis for the occupy movement? For a start, it is here to stay. It is here and will not go away despite attempts by the ruling elite, including NGOs, to cannibalise their ideals and find ways to organise the movement in the only way they know, in a way that is palatable to current political hegemony. It is unlikely to work.
What we are likely to see is a growing mass of people, sans any rigid framework of NGO or CSO control, constantly demanding the same simple things: that the people we elect are accountable, that the taxes we pay are not frittered away on bling cars and that quality public and social goods are delivered to all.
What is needed now more than ever, is for one brave nation to heed the calls of the occupy movement, to sit down and listen to the demands of people, to agree to fix what needs to be fixed and to deliver it, promptly and effectively. If that happens, then the global power shift of the current era has a chance of delivering a better life for all. If this brave nation can be SA, the current economic colonisers of Africa, then, there is a bigger hope that Biko’s dream of a great gift from Africa, of giving the world a more human face[vi], is in fact realised.
President Jacob Zuma, as you enjoy Cannes and the G20, know that you have the opportunity to give this gift, from all of us to the entire world. Go occupy the G20 with some radical ideas!
This blog post was inspired by an invitation from the Berlin Centre for Civil Society’s 3rd Annual Global Perspectives meeting from the 9-11 November 2011, in collaboration with the Global Call to Action against Poverty (GCAP).
- Rajesh Latchman is a guerrilla gardener, cyclist (who has had more bicycles stolen in Johannesburg than he has slept nights in 5 star hotels) and an unreformed recycler. He works as Coordinator of the National Welfare Forum and is the Volunteer Convenor of GCAP South Africa. He writes in his personal capacity.