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By Prince Charles Dickson
(‘A person is dead, but their spirit lives; if you poke the iris of their eye, they still come alive’)
Democracy has a dream-like character. It sweeps into the world, carried forward by an immense desire by humans to overcome the barriers of indignity and social suffering. When confronted by hunger or the death of their children, earlier communities might have reflexively blamed nature or divinity, and indeed those explanations remain with us today. But the ability of human beings to generate massive surpluses through social production, alongside the cruelty of the capitalist class to deny the vast majority of humankind access to that surplus, generates new kinds of ideas and new frustrations. This frustration, spurred by the awareness of plenty amidst a reality of deprivation, is the source of many movements for democracy.
Habits of colonial thought mislead many to assume that democracy originated in Europe, either in ancient Greece (which gives us the word ‘democracy’ from demos, ‘the people’, and kratos, ‘rule’) or through the emergence of a rights tradition, from the English Petition of Right in 1628 to the French Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen in 1789. But this is partly a retrospective fantasy of colonial Europe, which appropriated ancient Greece for itself, ignoring its strong connections to North Africa and the Middle East, and used its power to inflict intellectual inferiority on large parts of the world. In doing so, colonial Europe denied these important contributions to the history of democratic change. People’s often forgotten struggles to establish basic dignity against despicable hierarchies are as much the authors of democracy as those who preserved their aspirations in written texts still celebrated in our time.
The large mass demonstrations that laid at the heart of these struggles were built up through a range of political forces, including trade unions – a side of history that is often ignored.
In much of the world (as in Brazil, the Philippines, and South Africa), it was trade unions that fired the early shot against barbarism. The cry in the Philippines ‘Tama Na! Sobra Na! Welga Na!’ (‘We’ve had enough! Things have gone too far! It’s time to strike!’) moved from La Tondeña distillery workers in 1975 to protests in the streets against Ferdinand Marcos’ dictatorship, eventually culminating in the People Power Revolution of 1986.
In Brazil, industrial workers paralysed the country through actions in Santo André, São Bernardo do Campo, and São Caetano do Sul (industrial towns in greater São Paulo) from 1978 to 1981, led by Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva (now Brazil’s president). These actions inspired the country’s workers and peasants, raising their confidence to resist the military junta, which collapsed as a result in 1985.
Fifty years ago, in January 1973, the workers of Durban, South Africa, struck for a pay rise, but also for their dignity. They woke at 3 am on 9 January and marched to a football stadium, where they chanted ‘Ufil’ umuntu, ufile usadikiza, wamthint’ esweni, esweni usadikiza’ (‘A person is dead, but their spirit lives; if you poke the iris of their eye, they still come alive’). These workers led the way against entrenched forms of domination that not only exploited them, but also oppressed the people as a whole. They stood up against harsh labour conditions and reminded South Africa’s apartheid government that they would not sit down again until class lines and colour lines were broken.
The strikes opened a new period of urban militancy that soon moved off the factory floors and into wider society. A year later, Sam Mhlongo, a medical doctor who had been imprisoned on Robben Island as a teenager, observed that ‘this strike, although settled, had a detonator effect’. The baton was passed to the children of Soweto in 1976.
The above ranting for me captures the frenzy in the lead up to the Nigerian General Elections next month, whoever it is one supports amongst the three musketeers, the fact is that not much will change because Nigerians still dey play… The Nigerian worker is at a crossroads, there is a potpourri, people who want to see real change. He is the one that will play a crucial role in the general elections by exercising his right to vote and selecting the candidate who they believe will represent their interests and address the issues affecting their daily lives. It is also important for workers to actively participate in election campaigns and advocacy for their rights to be recognized and addressed by elected officials.
Sadly, at the other corner, countless corrupt Nigerian workers are engaging in unethical or illegal practices, such as embezzlement, bribery, or nepotism, for personal gain. This behavior undermines the integrity of the workplace and can harm the reputation of the organization and in this case (the Nigerian state) and the individual. It can also negatively impact the economy and society as a whole. The government and private sector have a responsibility to take measures to prevent and address corruption among workers.
But we dey play, the POS Operator is charging 2K for 20K if you want the new currency, no matter who wins the next election, we will remain the same, because Nigerians contribute to over 50% of their sufferings, like play we fundamentally exploit our crisis against the common man. The #endsars movement looked close but it lost steam and lacked leadership and as such the powers that be had loopholes to exploit and truth be told, we don’t seem ready for a movement.
Listening to Hugh Masekela’s ‘Stimela’ (‘Coal Train’), the 1974 song of migrant workers travelling on the coal train to work ‘deep, deep, deep down in the belly of the earth’ to bring up wealth for apartheid capital. I thought of the Durban industrial workers with the sound of Masekela’s train whistle in my ear, remembering Mongane Wally Serote’s long poem, Third World Express, a tribute to the workers of southern Africa and their struggles to establish a humane society.
– it is that wind
– it is that voice buzzing
it is whispering and whistling in the wires
miles upon miles upon miles
on the wires in the wind
in the subway track
in the rolling road
in the not silent bush
it is the voice of the noise
here it comes
the Third World Express
they must say, here we go again.
‘Here we go again’, Serote wrote, as if to say that new contradictions produce new moments for struggle. The end of one crushing order will not herald a new beginning if we are not ready. It was the workers who brought us this democracy, and it will be workers who will fight to establish a deeper democracy yet. Here we go again, if February elections will change our play mode—Only time will tell
Prince Charles Dickson PhD is the Team Lead at The Tattaaunawa Roundtable Initiative (TRICentre)