“Nothing will come of nothing,” the old King Lear lashed out at his youngest daughter Cordelia. Cordelia unlike her older siblings, Regan and Goneril, had failed to shower the King, who was nearing the end of his mortal existence, with praises in order to earn an inheritance. This enraged the old king. For having “nothing” to say to the king, Cordelia was banished from the kingdom empty-handed and stripped of her royal title.
In Shakespeare’s tragedy lies a greater measure of truth about the manner in which particular events are necessitated by antecedent conditions; that ex nihilo nihil fit, “out of nothing comes nothing”. History provides for us instructive lessons that we only can ignore at our own peril.
Irish dramatist and socialist George Bernard Shaw (1856 — 1950) captured this aptly when he said: “If history repeats itself, and the unexpected always happens, how incapable must man be of learning from experience.”
That our present is born of events buried in history is by no means a plausible excuse to repeat the past as we would be derailing progress. However, ignorance is that natural trait that continues to stalk humanity with consistent regularity. We refuse to learn from the past in order that our present and future reconcile with those ideals we continue to imagine for ourselves and next generations.
Civilisations rise and fall, political power waxes and wanes all because we are what we repeatedly do. Excellence in blunders becomes our natural habit. Our present is constantly unfolding in the shadow of radical social and political upheavals in history.
The Russian Revolution of 1905 was set in motion by the massacre of unarmed and peaceful demonstrators who marched to present a petition to Tsar Nicholas II. These were ordinary Russian workers who embarked on peaceful protests in solidarity with the workers of the Putilov Plant in St Petersburg. Their action led to the establishment of a constitutional monarchy and the State Duma of the Russian Empire.
The Tsarist regime after this revolution, however, continued on its authoritarian path, which again provoked the indignation of ordinary Russians in 1917 and sparked the February Revolution, which overthrew Nicholas II, the last Tsar of Russia. Born from the February Revolution was a provisional government that was also later overthrown in the same year by Vladimir Lenin during the October Revolution.
The social causes of the Russian Revolution can be traced back to the French Revolution of 1789, when the French rose against the ruling monarchy of King Louis XVI. He was deposed and later executed for high treason in 1793. Rising bread prices and dire economic circumstances were at the heart of general discontent. When pushed to the limit the people shall respond and respond in their multitudes.
These crucial lessons of history continued to evade rulers of the modern nations during the 20th century. The worsening economic situation across the entire Eastern Bloc in the 80s after the failure of a series of economic reforms, devastated Poland the most. The communist state of Poland had been subjected to economic sanctions and by 1988 its economic situation had become desperate and food prices had risen by more than 40%. Ordinarily the Polish people embarked on mass demonstrations that swept across the country and led to the collapse of the communist regime in 1989. The success of the Solidarity Revolution in Poland sparked a series of protests across the entire Eastern Bloc in the same year.
The non-violent student demonstration in Prague, then Czechoslovakia, ignited the Velvet Revolution which ended communist rule on November 17. In Estonia thousands of peaceful demonstrators had also gathered at the Lauluvaljak, where they sang patriotic songs in defiance of the ban by the Soviet regime. The neighbouring Baltic states, Lithuania and Latvia, were also gripped by similar peaceful protests. The Singing Revolution ushered the independence of Estonia in 1991. The voice of the people triumphed.
The communist state of East Germany was not spared of social unrest. Again students initiated protests that eventually led to the fall of the Iron Curtain. The Berlin Wall had been a symbol of communism. Its fall symbolised the end of the Cold War and the freedom of the people who had been subjected to the tyranny of communism.
Unmistakeably,1989 was an eventful year, the year of revolutions. Not all of these revolutions were peaceful. The Romanian Revolution was a series of violent social upheavals that collapsed the communist totalitarian president Nicolae Ceausescu. Ceausescu and his wife were publicly executed after the overthrow the government.
In China, peaceful student demonstrators after seven weeks of demanding political reforms after the death of Hu Yaobang, a liberal communist leader, faced brutal assault by the military. Almost a thousand demonstrators were killed during a brutal crackdown that began at Tiananmen Square and spread across mainland China. The regime managed to halt a revolution.
The eventual collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 was significant in burying the communist ideology and relegating it to the rubbish-bin of history. Even China today is mulling over political reforms in recognition that the people cannot be denied their freedoms with no end. Their economic reforms that began in 1978 had been most successful in appeasing the Chinese people but liberation cannot be complete unless the people are emancipated both politically and economically.
The persistence of social and political unrest in the 21st century emanates primarily from the failure of governments to institute meaningful political and economic reforms. This bears testimony to the observation that humanity refuses to learn from history. There are people across the world who are still subjected to political tyranny to the detriment of their respective social and economic circumstances. Despots are concerned with plundering state resources and suppressing the universal freedoms of their people. Superpowers are in constant pursuit of self-interest and are more amiable to the friendship of dictators and violators of freedoms of their own people.
The anger of ordinary people will continue to fester and revolutions, whether peaceful or violent, are inevitable. The Rose Revolution of Georgia in 2003 which unseated Eduard Shevardnadze from power as well as the Orange Revolution in Ukraine in 2004 serve as immediate reminders of what is possible when the interests of the people are trampled on by those in power.
The recent revolutions across the Arab world, from Tunisia to Jordan, Yemen, Algeria, Egypt and Syria should serve as an inspiration to Africans whose existence is at the mercy of kleptomaniacs and despots. The African Union has become a club of despots, most of whom have been in power for over 30 years. They have plundered the resources of their own countries with no meaningful economic development and social progress of their people. The people of Libya, Equatorial Guinea, Zimbabwe, Angola, Swaziland and other parts of Africa, were despots refuse to yield to meaningful political and economic reforms, must rise to defend their own countries and install governments they deserve.
South Africa may be a democratic state but it is no different to those countries in Africa where kleptomaniacs are using state coffers as personal accounts. Our government is infested with crooks, thieves and violators of our national dignity. Their primary interest is self-enrichment and not serving the poor or advancing economic transformation. Those in power abuse their liberation credentials for narrow political ends. The poor are held hostage to the sentiment of the liberation struggle despite after 16 years of political freedom still being subjected to a miserable existence.
Not only should people revolt when subjected to autocratic rule but as South Africans we deserve better and must rise against mediocrity. The people must rise against corrupt leaders and thieves that form an intricate patronage network and deny them their economic emancipation. The arrogance of the ruling party continues to grow because of their comfort in the knowledge that despite their mediocrity, they have secured votes from those they have liberated. Economic liberation cannot be a negotiable cause.
Aldous Huxley said “that men do not learn very much from the lessons of history is the most important of all the lessons of history”. We have none but ourselves to blame for the pathetic governments we have. The power is with us to remove those who do not serve our interests. No military, no amount of intimidation and threats and no scale of mass murder can defeat the noble cause.
Nothing will come of nothing if we do not act and act now!
Rise Africans, rise!