There is no doubt that the level of discontent around the world is rising to dangerous levels. Maybe that is what their leaders think, but it is clear, to use a contemporary term, revolution has gone viral. Not only are social networking and cellphone technology helping ordinary people, especially the youth, to arrange and coordinate protest movements and events, but these same technologies are spreading the word about what is happening in country after country. And discontent in one place tends to inspire discontent elsewhere. We have only to look at the events in North Africa and the Middle East over the past few weeks to see how quickly that can happen.
Popular discontent is not limited to that area of the globe, however. Print and electronic media have been filled with reports, often transmitted via Twitter, of demonstrations from Cairo to China.
Democracy and the ability to vote are not proving sufficient to allay public anger. German Chancellor, Angela Merkel, has seen her Christian Democratic Union party lose in elections held in several federal states and her minister of defence had to resign. French President, Nicolas Sarkozy, was obliged to reshuffle his cabinet and the much revered elected president of Bolivia, the first of indigenous origin, Evo Morales, is in deep trouble. Even Oman, where no problems were expected, has joined the list of countries beset by popular uprisings, although on a limited scale at present.
Authoritarian governments have noted what is happening and have been quick to react. Zimbabwean authorities arrested 46 people merely for watching footage of developments in Libya. The charge against them is treason. Chinese security forces are also taking no chances.
There is no doubt that the level of discontent in the world is rising to a dangerous point as revolt captures both public airwaves and public imagination.
There are marked similarities between what happens in poor communities in South Africa and the causes of popular discontent in other countries. Many more voices, such as that of social activist Jay Naidoo, are being added to those that warn of the dangers of poor governance, poor service delivery and the large discrepancies between the lives of the fat cat ruling elite and large portions of the rest of South Africa’s population.
How do we prevent these justifiable complaints from escalating into flash points of widespread revolt? Already, such complaints rouse local communities to sometimes violent demonstrations.
First and foremost there is a need for change in the political rhetoric. The fractious debates within parties and across party lines are threatening the peace and progress of our land. Our leaders must deal with the real issues that cause discontent.
Discontent is contagious. But so is enthusiasm, as our recent experience during the FIFA World Cup showed. Millions of South Africans are waiting to be encouraged to work together, to develop and use their talents and skills to make this country the non-racist, non-sexist, rule-of-law nation the 1994 constitution promised.
It is time to make use of those skills, to create quality of service, rather than political connections and the perpetual race to be the determinants for high political office, or indeed, for any job or public office.
We need leaders committed to nation building, to promoting the good of all the people of South Africa. We need leaders who demonstrate through their actions, as well as through their rhetoric, the principles on which our nation was founded to keep world discontent from erupting into a local disease.
Meanwhile, the unrest in Libya remains the focal point of world attention for the moment.
When a person we all assumed was the head of state claims he occupies only an honorary position and when an ambassador says he has no one in his capital, Tripoli, to submit his resignation to - presumably because officials in the foreign ministry have deserted their desks - we have a strange and unique dilemma.
In addition to this, the very wealth generated by Libya’s oil resources has left many countries in an embarrassing position.
Western countries which promote democracy in the developing world and make their aid packages conditional on progress towards good governance are red faced at their close relationships with a government that has proven to have no regard for the niceties of protecting the lives and rights of its citizens.
Not only have these countries purchased Libyan oil, but they have banked Libyans’ money, accepted Libyan donations and allowed the Libyan sovereign wealth fund, which invests government money abroad, to purchase assets in their countries. They even supplied some of the arms that are being used in attempt to suppress the uprisings of the people against a corrupt and authoritarian government that will not accept that it is time to go.
But it is not only Western governments that face this embarrassment. South Africa is one of many other countries similarly embarrassed.
But South Africa, having recently resumed a non-permanent seat in the United Nations Security Council to its credit, has unequivocally supported a UN statement condemning the situation that had developed in Libya.
A few days later it joined in supporting a resolution calling on the International Criminal Court to indict members of the Libyan government for violating the human rights and security of the people of that country.
No more of the legalistic obfuscation of the kind that brought embarrassment to South Africa in 2007, when its delegation voted against a resolution condemning the government of Myanmar for its violation of human rights.
That inexplicable vote lost South Africa much of what remained of the moral high ground it had gained from its relatively peaceful and highly acclaimed transformation to full democracy in 1994.
Now, while declining to reveal the names of specific political leaders, South Africa has brought itself to declare that it will not permit actions that are in obvious violation of pre-existing agreements it had helped to negotiate.
The attempts to hold elections in Zimbabwe before the conditions of the Global Political Agreement have been met, are the most obvious examples of such a violation.
This may be a first step in reclaiming the moral high ground that once made us so proud to be South Africans.
- Tom Wheeler is a research associate at the South African Institute of International Affairs (SAIIA). This article first appeared on the SAIIA website. It is republished here with the permission of SAIIA.