by Albino Kalolo (Public Health Scientist, Tanzania)
The Occupy Movement celebrated its first year anniversary on 17 September this year. The Movement is believed to stem from the Arab spring, spreading through Spain and Greece to the US. The Arab spring was relatively successful in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya but some other countries in the region such as Syria are still a mess, unfortunately. In the 2011-2012 Spanish protests, also known as 15-M (15 May movement), so called ‘Indignados’ held a series of demonstrations in more than 58 cities demanding radical change in Spanish politics as politicians systematically seem to condone mass unemployment, welfare cuts, brutal neoliberal policy measures and the dominant influence of financial institutions.
The Occupy movement aims at addressing the enormous social economic inequalities that exist in the world today. The initiators of the movement used the slogan “We are the 99%” (i.e. the ‘have nots’). They blame the 1% (the ‘haves’) who control the economy. In New York City, they demonstrated by occupying Wall Street (OWS) pointing out the greed, corrupt deals and excessive influence of corporations on the government, particularly in the financial sector.
Aiming at turning the pyramid upside down, the Occupy movement questions our modern capitalistic societies that in the name of liberalism, democracy (what if democracy is turns out to be an illusion?) and other fancy political economy models ( such as conditional aid and poverty reduction programs by the World Bank) perpetuate socio-economic systems that are fundamentally unjust and in fact often even worsen inequalities in the society. These ‘clever’ models have more in common with plutocracy (whereby an oligarchy of extremely wealthy individuals control the country) rather than with democracy (all people have a say in decisions affecting their lives). Labels as ‘state corporate capitalism’ or a fusion of big capital and the government describe the governance system better than the more politically correct word ‘democracy’, it seems. Nevertheless, although the Occupy movement has spread to many cities across the western world, it is fairly unpopular in the global south.
The unpopularity of this movement in the developing world, especially in Sub-Saharan African countries (SSA), might be attributed to several reasons. The access to social networks (via the internet) that has been a key ingredient of success stories in other parts of the world is still limited in SSA. Moreover, (local) civil society organisations have limited capacities when it comes to mobilising people so as to address social concerns. As for international organisations and agencies, they tend to have their own agenda and might prefer to distance themselves from movements that might trigger uprisings. Furthermore, most of the African governments intimidate people involved in demonstrations; by now these governments are even more alert because of the ugly Arab spring “aftermath” in a number of countries in the Middle East. Also, due to the fact that the majority of the people in these countries are in rural areas, it is easier for governments to limit access to the (at least sometimes) enlightening mainstream media. In addition, history has formed another barrier to these movements, as many countries gained their independence by war. Therefore any group that emerges to initiate such movement might be perceived as a rebel group, rightly or wrongly. There exists no record of successful people’s based movements that managed to change political and economic systems in the past 50 years of independence of most SSA countries.
Admittedly, there have been some Occupy Movements in South Africa. I believe this might be due to the fact that this country’s political economy and background differs from most of the African countries. Countries like Nigeria and Senegal also witnessed Occupy-like movements after fuel subsidy removal and the denouncing of incumbent President Abdoulaye Wade and his decision to run for a third term respectively. Hopefully, with increased globalisation these movements might spread to more countries. Today we witness harsh neoliberal policies in many SSA countries, coupled with the enormous influence of multinational corporations and rampant corruption in African governments. Consequently, the gap between the rich and the poor will probably increase further, which might inspire new Occupy branches. It is also evident that the recent growth figures in African countries have not benefited the majority so far. Combine this with the enlightenment and rising expectations that tend to come with globalisation, and we might soon see more Occupy (style) movements pop up in many countries .The austerity measures taken in compliance to neoliberal ‘dictates’ ( meant to perpetuate capitalism?) that create unemployment, open market economies and inflation while cutting government spending on essential services such as education, health, transport and other essential services that empower and upgrade the living standards of the people, might justify the cause.
Since the Occupy movements are taking different shapes in different settings – from the Arab spring to a diversity of Occupy movements and actions in many cities in the world -, you could also ponder what an Occupy movement means in a country like Tanzania. What I consider an Occupy movement in Tanzania, for example, are the daily strikes among public sector employees (doctors, teachers and other civil servants) and the pro-activeness and courage of many citizens in supporting opposition political parties. In neighbouring countries similar animosities have led to tribal skirmishes, even in the struggle (for example, by Kenyan doctors) for the limited portion which has spilled over to them from the “Big Fish” (the 1%). Little by little, humiliated enlightened youths are developing a rebellious spirit as they are not very pleased with the ‘happy few’ who are unashamedly enriching themselves.
Due to the fact that the right to demonstration and petition is not explicit in the most of the African countries (including Tanzania), in many instances human rights of individuals who support or who are in the frontline of such movements were violated. The recent kidnapping of the coordinator of the doctors’ strike and killing of a journalist by the police on political grounds in Tanzania, point to the fact that many people are in fact supporting the Occupy Movement, but in a different way, a hard way so to speak, as the government is working hard to suppress them by intimidation and often violating their human rights using the police – in many African countries, the police is like a private organisation that works for the 1%. The use of the police as a silencing tool of late is not only igniting the rage of more potential Occupy Movement members but to some extent even worsening the situation. However, the SSA Occupy movements are not going all the way like the Arab spring movements (who ran similar risks of intimidation, torture and all types of violation of human rights) due to the fact that there is some practice of democracy in most SSA countries. Therefore people might be pleaded to wait for elections where they might elect a leader they like (although this is always tricky due to often massive vote rigging).
In cities where the movement has spread, people have taken to the streets. However, different proponents of the movement have been using different names (that they feel comfortable with) such as Occupy money, Occupy economy and many more. It casts some doubt on whether the proponents have similar demands as the original Occupy Wall Street movement. One year later, in order to gain momentum again, some Germans even suggest a global Occupy brand or NGO that would work to address these issues worldwide. Critics, however, view Occupy Wall Street as just another unorganised ‘feel good’ movement where people demonstrate, discuss their concerns and attract attention… and that’s it. I think that is being oversimplistic, though. Let the supporters cherish the success of the Occupy Movements so far!
The movement might mean different things to different people, but the Occupy movements do have one thing in common: they all point out the vast inequalities that exist in our 21st century world and are perpetuated by financial institutions. The movement emphasizes it’s urgent to do something to liberate the majority of the people who are left without reliable social services, while the happy few (the financial elites) are enjoying their lives big time. In principle, doing away with capitalism (individualism?) calls for a form of collectivism or socialism, but these ideologies seem to have failed as well in the past. Will the Occupy movement come up with another idea? I do not know. However, there is hope that the movements might form a catalyst to other movements that advocate for social justice such as the People’s Health movement, and will help propel Universal health coverage, as without them, UHC could very well remain elusive in our übercapitalist world.