Big shifts in social and political life require an act of the imagination

By Mahmood Mamdani

Steve Biko

Steve Biko

The following is an excerpt from  – Africa Awakening The Emerging Revolutions  – edited by Firoze Manji and Sokari Ekine. An African reflection on Tahrir Square is the original title in the publication.  The author refers to the events of the Egyptian revolution of 2011 and points at the unpredictability of social shifts in societies. However, he highlights the prevalence of precursor signs which do not necessarily configure potential future changes. The question that arises knowing that such ingredients are required for political transformation, would it then be possible to bring them together beforehand.

New ideas create the basis of new unities and new methods of struggle. Modern power seeks to politicise cultural differences in society and, having done so, turns around and claims that these divisions are inevitable for they are natural. To be successful, a new politics must offer an antidote, being an alternative practice that unites those divided by prevailing modes of governance. Before and after Soweto, Steve Biko insisted that, more than just biology, blackness was a political experience. This point of view created the ideological basis of an anti-racist unity. I do not know of a counterpart to Steve Biko in Tahrir Square – maybe there was not one Biko but many Bikos in Egypt. But I do believe that Tahrir Square has come to symbolise the basis for a new unity, one that consciously seeks to undermine the practice of religious sectarianism.

Consider one remarkable fact. No major event in contemporary history has been forecast, either by researchers or consultants, whether based in universities or think tanks. This was  true of Soweto in 1976. It was true of the fall of the Soviet Union in 1989 and it was true of the Egyptian revolution in 2011. What does it say about the state of our knowledge that we can foretell a natural catastrophe – an earthquake, even a tsunami – but not a political shift of similar dimensions? The rule would seem to be: the bigger the shift, the less likely is the chance of it being foretold. This is for one reason. Big shifts in social and political life require an act of the imagination – a break from routine, a departure from convention – why social science, which is focused on the study of routine, of institutional and repetitive behaviour, is unable to forecast big events.

It took nearly two decades for the Soweto uprising to deliver a democratic fruit in South Africa. The democratic revolution in Egypt has just begun – it seems to me that Tahrir Square has not led to a revolution, but to a reform. And that is not a bad thing. The significance of Egypt, unlike that of Libya next door, is threefold. First is the moral force of non-violence, of the many rather than just the few. Second, non-violence of the multitude makes possible a new politics of inclusion. And finally, it makes possible a radically different sense of the worth of self. Unlike violence, non-violence does not just resist and exclude. It also embraces and includes, thereby opening up new possibilities of reform, possibilities that seemed unimaginable only yesterday.

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