The popular revolution in Egypt which led to the ousting of President Hosni Mubarak duly reminded me of the words uttered by the American poet Walt Whitman, “A great city (nation-state) is that which has the greatest men and women.” The orderly, disciplined and principled manner in which ordinary Egyptians protested against a stubborn tyrannical government until they got the result they wanted holds many lessons for contemporary South Africa. For the political leadership of South Africa the primary lesson to be learnt is that leaders need to listen to the people they lead and be prompt to respond to their grievances. Leaders need to stop taking the people for granted and to rather respect and serve them. It is important that we remind ourselves that the “Egyptian revolution” began primarily not as a call for political change but rather as a revolt against economic hardship. Whilst the leadership of the country where living in the lap of luxury, the average Egyptian was struggling to make ends meet and just barely getting by. This is a phenomenon that you find prevalent in South Africa. Whilst the elite are living in the lap of luxury, the majority have sub-standard living conditions, poor economic prospects and very little hope of creating a better life for themselves. This is a state of affairs which is not sustainable and needs urgent attention instead of the lip-service which the current political leadership is paying to it. The grievances of ordinary citizens can be ignored for only so long before the people revolt and overthrow the current government and political and social system. For ordinary South Africans the primary lesson to be learnt from the “Egyptian revolution” is that there is a way of protesting, expressing our grievances and trying to bring about change which is non-violent, civil and orderly. Too often our civil protests are violent, disorderly and lacking in civility. As Frantz Fanon said, “there is a point at which our methods devour themselves.” Because of the violent and aggressive nature of our struggle against Apartheid it seems that we have become incapable of expressing our dissatisfaction at the inefficiencies of our government and our political leadership in a manner that is respectable. We saw ordinary Egyptians keeping their streets clean, resisting the temptation to be unruly and violent despite the best attempts of the Mubarak regime to provoke them, we saw them forming a human chain around the museum in Cairo which carries so many artefacts that are central to Egyptian and human history. This showed a certain sense of national pride and civility amongst the Egyptian protesters, something sadly lacking in South Africa. Our protests often degenerate into chaos, destruction, vandalising of property and general disorder. Clearly we can learn a lot from the “Egyptian revolution.” Another lesson that we can learn from Egyptians is what has been termed “generational mix.” Whilst the “Egyptian revolution” was multi-generational in its composition and leadership, there can be no doubt that it was initiated and primarily driven by young Egyptians. It was the young people who organised, planned and led the protests on the street. The older generation got behind them and worked with them, without in any way patronising them. The key drivers of change in Egypt where the young people. This is an important lesson not just for South Africa but for the continent as a whole. Too often it is the elder Africans who are at the centre of the drive for change on the continent and as a result we see very little of that happening, despite the many conferences and seminars that are held on this topic. It is the youth who can bring a fresh perspective, fresh impetus and a new energy to the quest for change on the continent. It’s time for the elder generation to let the young people be at the forefront of the drive for change. This is the only way we are going to see progress on the continent. It was quite significant to see how out of touch Hosni Mubarak and his elderly NDP leadership were with the young people of Egypt. It was almost like they spoke a different language to that spoken by the youth. Every time they communicated, they showed a lack of understanding of the dynamics of the changed political environment they were in. In South Africa, the political language and outlook of the ruling party leadership is clearly out of touch with that of ordinary South Africans, consisting mainly of young people. The same thing can be seen right through the continent. The time for young people to take over leadership and drive the agenda of the continent has clearly come. The older generation has had its chance and they have only managed to take us so far. It’s time they stepped aside and let the young people lead. Of course they will still have a key mentorship and advisory role to play and cannot be simply discarded but what the Egyptian revolution teaches us is that it is only when young people are allowed to lead that genuine change becomes a reality. A great example of this is the role that the young ANC Youth League leadership of Nelson Mandela, OR Tambo, Anton Lembede, AP Mda etc played, in changing the strategy and tactics of the ANC in their fight against the Apartheid regime in South Africa. Until then, the ANC had followed a certain strategy which had borne no fruit after many decades of struggle and the elderly ANC leadership at that time was set on continuing with that failed strategy. This young generation of leaders imposed their own strategy on the elderly ANC leadership at the time and it is no surprise that they became the generation that brought us political emancipation in South Africa. It simply proves the point that it is when the youth are at the forefront that real change becomes possible. Another great contemporary example is Barack Obama’s successful presidential campaign in 2008 which was largely dependent on an enthused and passionate young electorate which rose out of the political doldrums to put Obama into the Oval Office. After the euphoria of the “Egyptian revolution” and its successful removal of President Hosni Mubarak has died down, what will be important to note are the lessons that can be learnt from this inspirational revolution and how those lessons can be harnessed to make South Africa and Africa better for all of its citizens.
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