≡ Menu

south africa

Mama Africa Miriam Makeba

Miriam Makeba always insisted she was not a political figure, but she was Mama Africa, the BBC World Service recalled in a tribute to her in the arts and culture programme, Strand. That’s Miriam Makeba in her prime singing about the oppression of apartheid and below there’s another clip showing her much later singing about the beauty of Africa with Paul Simon.

Listen to the BBC tribute if you can. Hear what the South African novelist, Gillian Slovo, daughter of the activist Joe Slovo, has to say about her. Hear the singer of the South African group, Freshly Ground, sing.

And read Desmond Tutu’s tribute to Mama Africa on Times Online. “If you met Miriam Makeba, you'd hate apartheid,” says the headline. Desmond Tutu writes:

I remember when she was forced into exile in the 1960s after appearing in a documentary about apartheid. In one sense, those of us still in South Africa were sad that another talented person had left…

Yet it was also good that people such as Miriam, Oliver Tambo and Thabo Mbeki were going forth and showing the world that we did not go around eating people, that we walked upright and that we wore clothes.

Apartheid wanted to give the world that image of us. In spite of all the obstacles put in our way, Miriam Makeba emerged from South Africa with this beautiful voice. In that way, she became one of the greatest arguments against apartheid.

9/11, Gandhi, and peaceful revolutions

Gandhi_1 I just read that Sept 11 this year also marked the centennial of Mahatma Gandhi’s philosophy of peaceful resistance or "satyagraha" which he used in the Indian freedom movement and which was later used by Martin Luther King Jr in the civil rights movement.

The Associated Press report said:

"On September 11, 1906, Gandhi, then a young, little-known lawyer working in South Africa, joined a meeting of fellow Indians in a Johannesburg theater to protest a proposed law that would force Indians to carry identity documents and be fingerprinted…

"Gandhi convinced those present to resist or ignore the law — but without resorting to violence. He called the idea ‘Satyagraha’, which literally translates as ‘insistence on truth’."

But Gandhi did not win that battle. Here’s what actually happened, according to the City of Johannesburg website.

What Gandhi was protesting against was the Asiatic Law Amendment Ordinance of 1906.   

"This law proposed that Indians and Chinese were to register their presence in the Transvaal, giving their fingerprints and carrying passes," says the Johannesburg website. "The protest to the act united the two communities and they decided to oppose the Ordinance by peaceful methods.

"Protestors  marched through Johannesburg, were arrested and thrown into prison …

"Transvaal Colonial Secretary Jan Smuts called Gandhi to his office and offered to repeal the law if Indians and Chinese registered voluntarily. Gandhi was censured by the community for agreeing to this – he was called a traitor and severely beaten.

"Meanwhile, the (Indian) community registered under the law, but Smuts went back on his word – the new law was passed as the Transvaal Asiatic Registration Act of 1907. In response Gandhi encouraged his colleagues to burn their passes…

"But Gandhi and his passive resisters did not win this battle. He made an appeal to the British, and they put pressure on the Transvaal government, which eventually repealed the Act. But the Transvaal got self-government in 1907 and promptly reintroduced the Pass Law Act in 1907. After further burning of registration certificates, the movement lost momentum and by the middle of 1909, most Indians had registered for fingerprinting."

So Gandhi lost that battle but that did not shake his faith in the power of peaceful resistance or "satyagraha". And he used it successfully to gain Indian independence.

So is peaceful resistance more effective than armed revolution? Certainly so in India. The British put down the Indian Revolution of 1857 and defeated Subhas Chandra Bose and his Indian National Army which fought against them with Japanese help during the Second World War. Yet two years after the war, in 1947, Gandhi’s Indian National Congress succeeded in gaining Indian independence.

But let’s look at the world outside India.

COUPS

There are 10 leaders currently in office who came to power through coups, according to the Wikipedia. They are:

  • Muammar al-Qaddafi, leader of Libya (1969–)
  • Teodoro Obiang Nguema Mbasogo, President of Equatorial Guinea (1979–)
  • Lansana Conté, President of Guinea (1984–)
  • Blaise Compaoré, President of Burkina Faso (1987–)
  • Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, President of Tunisia (1987–)
  • Omar Hassan Ahmad al-Bashir, President of Sudan (1989–)
  • Yahya Jammeh, President of The Gambia (1994–)
  • Pervez Musharraf, Chief of Army Staff and President of Pakistan (1999–)
  • François Bozizé, President of the Central African Republic (2003–)
  • Ely Ould Mohamed Vall, Chairman of the Military Council for Justice and Democracy in Mauritania (2005–)

There’s also Fidel Castro, who came to power through armed revolution in Cuba in 1959.

Communist China was also created through armed revolution which forced the Nationalists to flee to Taiwan in 1949.

Hosni Mubarak of Egypt also presides over a system created by Gamal Abdul Nasser, who came to power through a coup, deposing King Farouk, in 1952.

The military also played a part in transforming Turkey from a monarchy to a republic under Kemal Ataturk in the 1920s.

BLOODLESS REVOLUTIONS

However, military coups can be peaceful too.

That was true of Portugal’s Carnation Revolution, a leftist, military-led coup d’état. Started on April 25, 1974, it transformed Portugal from an authoritarian dictatorship to a liberal democracy after two years of rule by a Left-wing military/revolutionary regime, says the Wikipedia. "Although government forces killed four people before surrendering, the revolution was unusual in that the revolutionaries did not use direct violence to achieve their goals. The population, holding red carnations, convinced the regime soldiers not to resist. The soldiers readily swapped their bullets for flowers."

"People power" changed regimes twice in the Philippines — first in 1984, when dictator Ferdinand Marcos was forced to quit, and then again in 2001, when president Joseph Estrada was deposed, bringing Gloria Arroyo to power.

Peaceful too has been the transition from communism to democracy in Eastern Europe. Starting with the Velvet Revolution that led to the downfall of communism in Czechoslovakia in 1989, every Eastern Bloc country has achieved democracy peacefully.

A peaceful regime change may still seem unimaginable in a country like Afghanistan. But Gandhi’s faith in peaceful resistance may not have been entirely misplaced.