Tag Archives: Democracy

Suspension has Ended: Revolution is Returning

wits protest

The fierce urgency of now. This was the phrase, coined by Martin Luther King Jr., that I scribbled onto a piece of paper on Friday afternoon, while camped in solidarity inside an occupied Senate House. Surrounding me were scores of students – sisters, brothers, comrades, the dispossessed and their allies – sitting in the nucleus of a movement that was in its third day of a successful shut down of Wits University. A few meters before me was the student leadership, donning the shirts of parties accustomed to rivalry between themselves, negotiating with Vice-Chancellor Adam Habib. Habib had suggested he leave Senate House to convene with council and was met with thunderous objection from the crowd gathered. Eventually, the people decreed that they would not wait – council would meet that day, in Senate House, in full view of the students whose lives were impacted by their decisions. No closed doors. No secrets. Direct accountability. Habib agreed. At that moment, Dr King’s declaration echoed in my mind: “We are now faced with the fact that tomorrow is today”. We were indeed confronted with the fierce urgency of now – and it was glorious.

This departure from the lethargic politics of bureaucracy and delay was invigorating. Inside the dimly lit, vast chamber of Senate House, we were a revolutionary collective. Although student leaders (crucially, female leaders who were pushed out of the spotlight too often) spearheaded the movement, they were aware of their role as a proxy for the people. They stood on the shoulders of the students, and weren’t allowed to forget that without popular support, they could not stand up to the powers that be. Every decision, down to the organisation of food, was ratified by popular consensus. The spirit of democracy danced among us. A healthy suspicion of authority sat in our ranks. Hierarchy slowly dissolved in the acid of persistent mockery, directed towards power structures and their petty manifestations. Inside our contingent collective, the vice-chancellor wasn’t afforded his title. Civility remained, but decorum was discarded. We refused to engage in the fruitless spectacle of ceremonial flattery and political theatre. In contrast to the town hall meetings hosted by political representatives, where citizens queue for the opportunity to ask a question of an aggrandised figurehead, the engagement with Habib did not give him much leeway to engage in tactics of diversion and duplicity. Although he was not being held against his will, he was under pressure to engage with students possessed by an uncompromising political will. The ordinary, impotent mode of discourse had been turned on its head.

The Senate House I sat in was radically different from the one I’ve walked into countless times before. Of course, it was materially indiscernible – the same brown and blue university banners hanging from beams spanning the high ceilings, the same concrete pillars climbing to the skies, the same set of converging stairs rising like a peculiar altar from the polished floor and descending into a crypt below. However, the first time I walked into that foyer of the executive, the fumes that clung to the walls of my nostrils were those of polish from the gleaming floors. On Friday evening, it was the choking stench of pepper spray. The space had changed.

It was not just the halls of Senate House that had transformed. During the three day peaceful occupation of the university, it was all too apparent that business as usual had ceased. Some areas of campus were left almost eerily deserted; others were filled with the vibrant energy of rhythmic protest. Seeing the university in this radically different light is, if I may be so bold, a variation of Camus’s Absurd, spawning a peculiarly pleasant kind of Sartrean Nausea. The buildings on campus ordinarily wear the garment of the Institution. The occupation disrobed it. It divorced the space from the veneer of authority and the presumptions of power which usually pervade it. It illuminated our agency to radically redefine it. The realisation of radical freedom may be existentially unsettling, but it is politically liberating. Looking upon an institution that has departed starkly from its usual character, an aura of anarchism meets the eye: the university is not inherently imbued with any indomitable hierarchy, nor is the society which surrounds it structured in a manner that is unchangeable. Its people have no concrete, pre-ordained telos. We are the agents who define the essence that existence precedes. This movement is the product of a generation’s realisation of its own power. And, when we stand together, worker and student hand-in-hand, powerful we are indeed.

Later on Friday evening, while the pepper spray dissipated in the packed halls of Senate House, key members of the council convened. Feverish negotiation followed, stretching deep into the night.  As the sun was only just beginning to peer out from beyond the horizon the next morning, an interim agreement was signed: the decision to raise fees will be suspended, no students or workers who participated in the protests will face punitive measures and crucially, the university will not be at liberty to revert to its original position if negotiations break down. In a vindication of protest tactics, the students had emerged with a clear path towards victory. Those perched atop their privilege, who spent much of last week trying to justify their inaction or opposition by cynically criticising the occupation, were forced to face the concrete results those tactics had produced. In our hands, we held a declaration of our own power – a testament to the strength of our political will.

The Student Awakening is spreading. As sparks from the fire raging at Wits find kindling at UCT, Rhodes University, and the others that will most certainly follow, it’s clear that our generation is shedding its image as the one born outside of Apartheid and inside of Apathy. As we move forward today to hear from council, we are mindful of the fact that our struggle will not end here. The decision to raise fees was not taken in a vacuum, but rather in a climate of marginalisation, commercialisation and dispossession that has excluded the poor for too long. It was the flashpoint, the prelude to a paradigm shift that must occur. Reasons to resist have not evaporated: from the exploitation of outsourced workers, to wealth inequality that is staggeringly high; from dwindling government subsidies, to the fact that even without increases, fees remain too high for too many. Struggle, therefore, should not cease. No longer can we allow our universities to perpetuate a status quo they ought to challenge. If we conserve this momentum, we can become the custodians of a force Victor Hugo deemed indomitable: an idea whose time has come. South Africa’s students have awoken, and we’re ending the suspension of its revolution.


No Brotherhood with Bloodlust: A Poem of Protest against Xenophobia in South Africa


No Brotherhood with Bloodlust

You, South African

You, filled with cancerous hate

Merciless sealer of innocent fate

You, persecutor of the ‘other’

You are not my brother


You, South African

You, filled with fatal fear

Who kills with conscience all too clear

You, beating until hands blister

You are not my sister


You, South Africa

You, country of my birth

Fierce fire of freedom’s hearth

You, stubborn hope in my heart

You stand not from Africa apart


You, find humanity, children of stardust

Speak louder and declare:

No brotherhood with bloodlust


Raees Noorbhai

A Personal Polling Station: Internet Voting and The Future of the Electoral System

Google's Doodle on May 7, the date of South Africa's general election

Google’s Doodle on May 7, the date of South Africa’s general election

At the dawn of South African democracy in 1994, millions of liberated citizens left their homes, unhindered by the shackles of segregation, to assume their position at the country’s helm on April 27th of that year. South Africa’s first free election-a culmination of decades of struggle-was a victory for democracy and saw invigorated voters display remarkable patience as they stood in seemingly endless queues, oblivious to the brutality of the African sun above, to make their mark and steer the country into a new future. On May 7th of this year, South Africans are once again given that opportunity to oust the establishment-in a country with a political landscape that has tremendously transformed over the past two decades. Regardless of this altered national dialogue however, the voting mechanism has not evolved and millions of ballots will be cast this year as they were 20 years ago-by making a mark on a piece of paper in a designated voting station.

In a world where the internet permeates ever facet of life, this method seems increasingly anachronistic. For years, the possibility of utilizing the technology of the net to conduct a national election was considered an inevitability by scores of internet users. This dream materialized in 2007, when the Baltic Republic of Estonia offered voters the opportunity to remotely cast their ballots from behind the screen of their nearest computer. Four years later, candidates were propelled to the Riigikogu, Estonia’s parliament, by an election in which 24.3% of voters indicated their choice online, with some even exploiting newly mandated chipped mobile phones. Less than a decade after it began by nudging municipal polling stations into the cyber world, the great Estonian Experiment was a resounding success. However, few nations have followed into the realm of internet democracy-for Estonia is far from typical.

With a mere 1.3 million citizens, the small Northern European state’s population is dwarfed by those of larger nations, such as the world’s populous democracy-India-which houses more than one billion people within its borders. Therefore, the logistical challenges surrounding the deployment of a remote e-voting system to accommodate Estonian voters are barely comparable to those which will be faced when deploying it within a country with a far larger populace. Sites attempting to cope with the traffic created by millions of voters may find themselves struggling to drink from what is effectively a fire hydrant. Moreover, unlike the prevailing attitude in most other countries, internet access is deemed to be a human right in Estonia and the net penetration rate in the Baltic state, widely considered one of the most wired countries in Europe, is among the highest in the world. Put simply: Estonia is the perfect candidate for the deployment of digital democracy.

Consequently, few states have only partially repeated Estonia’s success and those that have done so are exclusively developed, first world nations like Australia, Canada and Austria. For third world countries, where basic infrastructure in sectors like healthcare and education are inadequate, the notion of an internet-based voting system is considered to be but a pipe dream. Even countries like Brazil, Venezuela and India, which have implemented e-voting systems at polling stations, are far from the levels of internet penetration needed to accommodate a viable remote voting system. However, the obstacles which face a web-based democracy exceed infrastructural inadequacy.

For every 100 citizens in either the United States or the United Kingdom, more than 80 had access to the internet in 2012, according to statistics compiled by the World Bank-yet neither of these countries have embraced remote internet voting with the same fervor seen in Northern Europe. This can easily be attributed to the possibility of voter fraud and the fear of malicious hacking (when Estonia held their first virtual election in 2007, a bot-scanner was unsuccessfully deployed by a hacker to identify possible vulnerabilities in the system before it was deflected by CERT-the Computer Emergency Response Team). Furthermore, in a geopolitical climate wherein cyber-warfare has become commonplace, virtual elections would create a new front for potential exploitation by a rival nation. Politicians often reflect the concerns of their electorate when addressing the possibility of ceding a key component of their democracy to a realm which is still seen by many as dark, duplicitous and arcane.

Perhaps it is this fundamental public distrust of the internet, no doubt exacerbated by Edward Snowden’s revelation of its abuse by an intrusive spying apparatus, as well as missteps such as the botched roll-out of the Obamacare website, which is primarily to blame for the lack of definitive action towards establishing comprehensive internet voting in countries which are theoretically capable of making that leap. It is therefore imperative that the public reclaims that trust, by reducing government control over the net (which may allow incumbents to rig polls) as well as by devoting a portion of their time to learning the ostensibly foreign language of the net. Only then will citizens realize that while cyber-voting methods have vulnerabilities, the problems they face are not new (election fraud was not invented by malicious hackers) and like their real world equivalents, they can be equipped with mechanisms which can reliably detect, reduce or eliminate breaches in the system. After all, an educated public is indispensable to the proper functioning of a democracy and if a democracy is to adopt the platform of the net, then the public must understand it-if government is to remain accountable to the people.

As more aspects of our lives, from our social interactions to our banking transactions, are integrated into a web-based environment, it is not a far cry to imagine that our electoral process may follow. However, if South Africa (as well as other nations) are to recreate Estonia’s success, we must first remedy many of the issues which have shaped the debate in this year’s elections-primarily the provision of basic infrastructure-as the voting system will predictably remain anachronistic if widespread suffering endures as a remnant of centuries of oppressive colonial and racist rule in a comparable anachronism. Expanding the reach of the net is a cause which has been adopted by tech giants like Mark Zuckerberg (through Internet.org) and if coupled with a greater understanding of the nature, potential and limitations of the internet, may well create a culture conducive to an internet-mediated democracy.

We cannot definitively know whether the polarizing political debate surrounding this issue will keep it from becoming a reality-but I wouldn’t write off the idea that one day in the not-so-distant future, citizens will have the opportunity to, in a matter of minutes, exercise the basic right of democracy from behind a PC within the comfort of their homes-if they so desire. The question is now what it always has been: what do we truly desire?

Revolution? What Revolution? Democracy and Sisi’s Egypt

Protesters in Tahrir Square against the Mubarak Regime in February of 2011 (PEDRO UGARTE/AFP/Getty Images)

Protesters in Tahrir Square against the Mubarak Regime in February of 2011 (PEDRO UGARTE/AFP/Getty Images)

It has been almost three years since January 2011, when protesters in Egypt took to the streets, chanting anti-government slogans and ushering in the beginning of a revolt which resonated from Tahrir Square and would see Egypt’s autocratic ruler of three decades-Hosni Mubarak-step down.The phoenix of hope emerged from the ashes of despair as Egyptians adopted an optimism about their future. More than a year later, Mohammad Morsi, a man with strong links to the formerly banned Muslim Brotherhood, was sworn in as the first democratically elected president in the nation’s history and that phoenix of hope seemingly reached a promising adolescence. Like the bird of legend, however, it was soon to undergo a process of incendiary self-destruction and burst into spectacular flames-leaving us once again with the ashes that bear witness to the hope that once was.

Within the first year of his presidency, Morsi received growing criticism of his transgression of democratic values, from undermining the independence of the judiciary to suppressing criticism of the new political establishment. Left-leaning liberals, myself included, became increasingly concerned with the rule of the Islamist president, which was exacerbated by the passing of a constitution which undermined the separation of Church and State. These concerns, coupled with the struggling economy, gave birth to enormous popular protests against Morsi’s rule-protests initially backed by many leftists. However, the dynamic rapidly changed and the Egyptian Military subsequently intervened-deposing Morsi in a coup in July of this year. I immediately found myself in the camp of those liberals who were well aware of the possibility of democracy’s demise at the hands of the military, supported by the testimony of history and hence denounced the power grab by General Abdel-Fatah Al-Sisi. Unfortunately, the prevailing sentiment swung in the other direction, driven by the momentum of naivety from those who believed the army had arrived to protect Egyptian democracy. Under Sisi,who remains the most powerful man in Egypt today, violence and despotism has risen, while-as predicted-democracy has been desecrated and discarded.

Morsi, along with prominent Muslim Brotherhood leaders now stand trial, for charges ranging from murder to new indictments today for escaping prison during the uprising against Mubarak-and empowering “terrorism” by breaking out thousands of others. To many, these charges are politically motivated and US Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel expressed concern today to General Sisi regarding them. Moreover, the trial of Morsi is telling of the wider crackdown by the new military-backed government on the Muslim Brotherhood and its supporters. Since the ouster in July, hundreds of pro-Morsi protesters have been brutally killed and thousands more injured by the security forces. A two-tier justice system has emerged, disproportionately harsh upon Islamists and exemplified by the sentencing of the notorious ‘eye sniper’-who deliberately aimed at the eyes of protesters-to just three years in prison, while 21 women (seven of whom are under 18) were swiftly sentenced to 11 years in prison for participating in a pro-Morsi protest. Charges have ventured further into the realm of the outrageous and absurd, with Khaled Abdulghani Bakara, a 15 year old boy, being arrested and detained. His crime: possessing a ruler which bore an image of the “R4BIA sign”-the four fingered symbol associated with the Brotherhood. Additionally, his father and two of his teachers now also face charges for “inducing” him to possess the ruler.

Sisi, in a bold move earlier this year, appealed to the Egyptian masses to take to the streets once again and grant him “a mandate to fight terrorism”. The brutality which followed at the hands of the armed forces has, ironically, resulted in precisely the opposite. By discrediting the idea of democracy in the eyes of Islamist radicals as one which can be manipulated and selectively applied by the military, Sisi’s iron fisted-approach has empowered terrorists at the expense of the moderate Islamist centre. Sisi, whose face appears on t-shirts and chocolate bars and has garnered a cult following, as well as frequent comparison to Gamal Nasser, has reinvigorated Islamist interest in the teachings of Sayyid Qutb-who was executed by the Nasser government and is seen as an inspiration for Al-Qaeda. Disillusioned Islamist youth regard the crackdown as a vindication of the warnings of fundamentalist clerics that democracy is incompatible with Islamic principles and they have subsequently swapped ballots for bullets-which culminated in the cowardly burning of churches and attacks upon the Egyptian Christian minority. The crackdown however, recently expanded beyond the borders of just Islamists and the Muslim Brotherhood.

In an act of incredible hypocrisy, the military-backed government-which cited popular protest as justification for their coup-passed a law which greatly restricts popular protest and requires groups to acquire permission from the Interior Ministry for gatherings of more than 10 people. Penalties for breaking the law are harsh and since its inception, dispersion of protests which are regarded as “illegal” by the government, has not been uncommon.The groups who have daringly defied the new restrictive law were not limited to Morsi supporters and some liberal and secular factions also expressed dismay at the infringement upon a fundamental democratic right. Two prominent liberal activists,Ahmed Maher and Alaa Abdel Fatah, were arrested due to their opposition to the legislation. Maher co-founded the April 6 Movement and Fatah is an award winning blogger and both were integral to the deposition of Mubarak. Furthermore,the satirist Dr Bassem Youssef, who was arrested for criticising the Morsi administration on his weekly show Al Bernameg (and who I refuse to refer to by the cliched title of ‘Egypt’s Jon Stewart’) was taken off the air after subjecting the military government to the same scrutiny. However, outrage from the left remains relatively muted.

There is seemingly a flawed perception among some so-called ‘liberals’ in Egypt that liberalism and democracy are mutually exclusive ideals. The continued support for the repressive military regime,even through the brutality of the crackdown upon Islamists, espouses a tendency to abandon not just liberal, but human values of non-violence, free speech and peaceful protest, simply because the repression of those values appears to be in one’s favour. By allowing the military to become the false vanguard of leftist ideals, they have endangered their own goals by allowing their achievement to be stained by the blood of those who disagreed. The Egyptian revolution remains a revolution in only a geometric context, for after 360 degrees of turmoil and unrest, they have arrived where they began three years ago-under the repression of military rule. It seems the Egyptian people have no choice but to once again unite across the ideological divide and demand a democratic framework wherein they can negotiate a better future for their country. Failure to do so risks deepening the divide and turning the already polarized country into a hotbed of violent conflict between extremists and lionized military rulers. Those people of Egypt, who demanded from the platform of Tahrir Square a future free from this cycle of violence and autocracy, I can only hope, will reignite that flame of optimism and reclaim that idealistic dream of a peaceful people’s government.They deserve nothing less.