It all started with mass protests, riots or uprisings in Africa, the Arab world, Southern Europe, and more recently in Turkey and Malaysia. Many of these are calling for regime changes. But one such event that South Africa should carefully heed, to avoid a similar fate, is last week’s mass demonstrations in Brazil, its close cousin and fellow Brics member across the Atlantic Ocean.
South Africa is frequently compared to Brazil on a range of political, social and economic indicators. Both countries belong to the Brics (Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa) bloc, normally a comforting membership from a trade, investment and international relations point of view.
But in this case, the uncomfortable truth is that all five of these countries, all with developing economy status and many common characteristics and goals, have, in the past five years experienced civil unease in varying degrees, mostly related to inequality and other socio-economic issues.
High levels of inequality are a common underlying factor in the Brics countries. The rankings in the CIA World Fact Book, corresponding closely with World Bank and other lists, have South Africa as the second most unequal country after Lesotho. Brazil is ranked 17th worst; China 29th; Russia 52nd; and India 78th out of 136 countries. This makes Brics membership look considerably less appealing.
A little-known fact is that politically repressive China in 2010 experienced up to 180 000 mass protest incidents alone, according to Sun Liping, a professor of sociology at Beijing’s Tsinghua University. This was 100% up on 2006 and ranged from illegal strikes, to riots and demonstrations over mostly socio-economic issues.
And, it seems its inequality ratio worsened despite government efforts to reverse it. A January Oxfam report states.
“In China, the top 10% now take home nearly 60% of the income. Chinese inequality levels are now similar to those in South Africa, which is the most unequal country on earth and significantly more unequal than at the end of apartheid."
India too is increasingly experiencing mass demonstrations, mostly triggered by an underlying range of interconnected socio-economic conditions and issues, including inequality, poverty and corruption. Just last week Indian riot police fired tear gas and water cannons at protesters in southern India as a demonstration against corruption organised by the Democratic Youth Federation of India turned violent.
In 2011 Russia saw some of its biggest mass protests since the 1990s. Mostly politically inspired aimed at Vladimir Putin's return as president for a third term, there were clear socio-economic undercurrents as well.
Inequality, poverty, unemployment and corruption also run high. While in Forbes’ rich people lists, Russia may rank third in the number of its billionaires, behind the United States and China, a survey by Moscow’s Higher School of Economics found that for 60% of Russia’s population real income remained the same as 20 years ago at the collapse of the Soviet Union, and some are even poorer.
In some other countries resistance to severe political oppression plays a role but the one refrain that runs through most of these events everywhere is that people are tired of poverty, exploitation, inequality and financial hardship. They want to seize back control over their own lives either through new political, economic and financial systems or drastically reforming existing ones.
This was strikingly highlighted last week in Brazil. Some one million demonstrators countrywide took to the streets of cities and repeatedly chanting: “No more political parties!”
Quoted in news reports, one 22-year-old woman protester in Sao Paulo put it like this: "What I hope comes from these protests is that the governing class comes to understand that we're the ones in charge, not them, and the politicians must learn to respect us”.
Underlying these grievances are things like poor education, high levels of unemployment and corruption, lack of service delivery and housing, and more. Banks, unfair tax regimes, commercial and financial speculators, among others, stand accused as major contributors to the financial hardship of millions of people around the globe.
In most cases anger and dissent have been simmering just below the surface for many years, occasionally bursting through in isolated incidents until often one single incident jolts the national conscience into action and large-scale protests or uprisings.
In Cameroon, it was high fuel prices that triggered mass riots in 2008, causing the army to be deployed and the deaths of around 100 protesters and soldiers with damage estimated at $23.4 million.
In Mozambique the 2010 food riots were sparked by a bread price increase of 30% after double-digit increases for water and energy.
The Arab Spring, eventually engulfing 17 Arab nations in varying degrees of intensity, was initially triggered by a Tunisian street vendor setting himself alight after harassment by municipal officials who confiscated his goods. But the underlying causes across the Arab world were inequality, high unemployment, food inflation, corruption and political oppression.
In Turkey the ongoing protests, with thousands detained, were sparked by public outrage at a brutal police action against a peaceful demonstration at Istanbul's Taksim Gezi Park against the park's demolition.
In Malaysia, in May this year, tens of thousands of protestors took to the streets after the rejection of the country's elections, claiming they were fraudulently rigged by the coalition that has ruled for 56 years.
In Brazil, last week, the trigger of the biggest demonstrations there in 20 years was seemingly an innocent 10% hike in bus and subway fares in major cities. But preceding this for many years was public resentment over high taxes, high food and other prices, poor public transport systems, other low-quality public services and high levels of government corruption.
In South Africa, in some quarters referred to as the protest capital of the world, dissent has also been present below the surface for many years, leading to drastically escalating protest actions in townships.
In 2004/2005 about 6 000 protests were officially recorded, with an unknown number of protests being unrecorded. In early 2013 it was reported that protests in South Africa had reached the highest rate since the end of apartheid.
A number of incidents came close to unleashing national protests or anarchy on a large scale.
Among these were last year’s Marikana mine unrest and the farm workers’ revolt in the Western Cape, the xenophobic violence of 2008, the stirring up of the youth and the unemployed during marches led by former ANC youth leader Julius Malema, and the e-tolling saga, to name but a few.
Underlying all of these protests, as in Brazil and elsewhere, are high levels of inequality, poverty, unemployment, general economic hardship, poor service delivery, high prices, lack of housing, and corruption.
Perhaps, instead of only focusing on trade relations, economic issues, investment and establishing a new development bank, the members of Brics, and especially South Africa, should heed some of the lessons from the streets of Brazil.