Bylines Thought Leader

Taking on ‘Gareth Cliff on Everything’

I participated in a “blog tour” of Gareth Cliff’s first attempt at a book . Kudos to the good people at Thought Leader for hosting the first pitstop on the tour.

It is far easier to collect books than to actually read them. Recently, even the most bookish of my friends report some measure of difficulty in reading a book from start to finish. These are not people who have spent their lives eschewing books. Many of us spent our teenage years lapping up classics with the same intensity we consumed bubble-gum pop. We got through university successfully combing our individual ways through the drivel sprouted at us but now in the mindless haze between our smartphones and our laptops, we have lost our taste for reading, dare I say it, religiously. It may well be the impending pall of old age that has reconfigured our literary bents. After all, these are our mid-late twenties — the brink of veritable antiquity. But something more insidious has conspired to rob of us what we once loved. Somewhere between our smartphones and computers, in the midst of our restlessness, we have foregone depth.

In our relationships, our reading habits, our consumption of news there is now a remarkable lack of depth. Too busy to actually engage with someone or even a complex idea we skim the surface of the world and then retreat back into ourselves only to fall asleep from the exhaustion of it all.

William Powers in his book Hamlet’s BlackBerry underscores well the need for depth in our experiences. “Depth roots us in the world, gives life substance and wholeness. It enriches our work, our relationships, everything we do,” he writes. It takes some measure of psychological and structural adjustment to regain some measure of depth but in the meanwhile the world is changing to accommodate this lack of depth. The news has been reduced to pockets of 140 characters supported by trifling 200-word reports. Books too have not been unaffected by this trend.

The newly released Gareth Cliff on Everything is one such product that has been primed to accommodate for our collective lack of time and disinclination towards depth. This is certainly not an autobiography and it is not meant to be. It is a collection of short pieces on a dizzying array of subjects upon which Cliff weighs his opinion and emerges supreme. This is not a meaty treatise on the philosophy of Gareth Cliff. These are easily readable chunks of opinion bound together by the force of Cliff’s personality. And while it is easily readable, and in parts very well written it is not always agreeable.

When I was first approached to write a review on this book, I immediately felt repulsed. I am no fan of Cliff. I last listened to him on radio when he anchored the afternoon show on Radio 702. Yes, that long ago. I do not follow him on Twitter but every now and then suffer the misfortune of seeing an errant retweet from him. I eventually accepted the offer to review the book because I believe in the little cliques we form online, we suffer the danger of insulating ourselves from thoughts and opinion that bruise us or just plainly take an opposing view to ours.

The blurb on the book warns that this is a book that will “engage, enrage and derange” you all at once. I picked up this book carefully, well aware that I would not be nodding my head in fawning approval of Cliff but I was ready to try to understand him better. Early on, Cliff reveals that his impatience with religion runs so deep that he cannot take anybody who is an adherent to any religion seriously. What is clear however is that Gareth has swopped religion for self-righteousness. I don’t deny that he does sometimes make sense but too often his views are couched in a saucy superiority but in a piece titled, “Getting the house in order”, he concedes his fallibility. “I’ve never imagined for a second that I was perfect. I know I’m full of stupidity, occasional myopia and some prejudice, but that doesn’t mean I’m not capable of correcting myself,” he says.

He proceeds to offer an apology to Thabo Mbeki, Cindy Nell, the late Manto Tshabalala-Msimang, Blade Nzimande, Helen Zille, his co-worker Damon Kalvari, Alec Erwin, Idolscontestants and anybody else he may have once incensed. It may be a turgid apology but I thought it was a refreshing admission of his own humanity.

Fear not, however, any good will that the apology does extend is easily balanced out by a number of other questionable views Cliff expresses of women, fat people and those he deems stupid. This is a book that Cliff’s fans should read in fitting worship of their hero. It is also a book Cliff’s detractors should read. There is nothing particularly engaging, enraging or deranging in this book. It’s just all Gareth Cliff.

This book, through no fault of its own, or indeed Gareth Cliff, is however a sad indictment of human life today. We have forsaken the complexity of depth for easy opinion — my own included.

* This is the first stop in a “blog tour” organised by representatives of Jonathon Ball Publishers. The writer received a complimentary copy of the book for purposes of this review.

Bylines Thought Leader

Digital tongues: Africans in conversation 2

A little later than promised here is part two of “Digital Tongues”. For new readers here is a brief recap of what this is about:

“Digital Tongues” is a series of Skype and email conversations between myself and four other Africans from Egypt, Nigeria, Rwanda and South Africa. As I lack ruthless editing skills, I decided to publish the as a series of three posts in the hope that those living on the continent and it’s diaspora, will read and participate in the dialogue in their own way by posting a comment below or blogging or tweeting their thoughts. This is one of many discussions young Africans need to be having in order to push forward the concept of Africa as a whole continent and bridge the perceived gaps between “North” and “sub-Saharan” Africa and the ethno-political divides within Africa’s five regions.

Here, the five of us discuss African politicians and social media, perceptions/misperceptions of Africa in the international media, in African politics and the effect that dividing North and sub-Saharan Africa has on perceptions of the continent. We also discuss how the national and nationalistic politics of our respective countries impacts on the construction and understanding of our own identities.

In this series, the conversationists are: myself and Sophia Azeb, an Egyptian living in the US. Sophia is studying for her PhD, Tolu Ogunlesi is a writer and journalist, currently working asfeatures editor of 234 Next, a Nigerian newspaper. From Johannesburg, the city of bright lights and fast cars, is Khadija Patel, an opinionista for the Daily Maverick. Last but not least, is Sonja S Uwimana, a Rwandan American working in international development who, if she’s like me, cares as much for Hollywood’s “help starving Africa” humanitarians, as stinky piss on hot concrete. (For part one and a more colourful introduction to the participants, see thisprevious post.)

Tendai (Zimbabwe): Sonja, where do the Sudanese locate themselves in terms of their identity and the geopolitical labels imposed on us? Are they in “sub-Saharan” Africa or North Africa? Or the Middle East?

Sonja (Rwanda): I find it frustrating (and somewhat hilarious) that whether I’m in north or south Sudan, I’m told I could be Sudanese … and yet both sides don’t recognise each other in that way. [On location] they are all of those, and none of them.

Tendai: And what does being Arab mean in Egypt? I thought I knew, but sometimes I struggle with understanding what “Arabness” and “Arabised” mean.

Tolu (Nigeria): And then there’s the peculiar Libyan case — self-defining as Arab, but with strong Gaddafi involvement in the AU, and his dubious pan-African vision … not sure the rest of North Africa really cared that much about a pan-African ideal.

Tendai: All hail the King of Kings of Africa!

Sophia (Egypt)*: Arab is often used as a racial category — something I frankly think is akin to people claiming a “pure” heritage of (whatever).

Tendai: But are Egyptians of “pure” Arab heritage?

Sophia: Absolutely not! We’re talking about a nation almost precisely in the centre of the trading world of ancient times and today. North Africa and South-West Asia have been home to peoples of all phenotypes, racial and ethnic identities, languages and cultures. “Arab” culture, like other cultures, is built around language affiliations.

Tolu: So is it correct to say that what we call the Arab world is bound more by language and religion than by any racial homogeneity?

Sophia: Tolu, I would say so, but that doesn’t mean that the mythology of a racially homogeneous “Arab” world doesn’t exist in South-West Asia and North Africa as well as the West.

Tendai: So Arabness like Africanness is a social construction, made up of many cultural and political practices over time. Concerning Arabness, I don’t get it’s inclusions/exclusions. Why, simply because of their skin colour, are Sudanese Arabs “not quite Arabs” or “Afro-Arabs“, yet other Arabs in Africa are also of ethnic mixes indigenous to Africa? And similarly with Africanness in Zimbabwe, South Africa, Rwanda and Nigeria it is used for political and cultural convenience and power plays. What are some of the identity issues in your countries and how do young people — all generational differences therein — see themselves?

Khadija (South Africa): As I said earlier [in part one], we’re not sure ourselves what being South African entails. But what is really interesting is watching how the rise and rise of a black middle class with middle-class values and tastes are being “excommunicated” as blacks. But we must remember that social identities are inherently fluid and the thrill in studying them is founded mostly in watching them in a state of constant flux.

Sonja: Ha! Well if you ask our dear leader, Kagame, we are all Rwandan. My generation is very much still imbued with the myths of my parent’s generation, who are the ones who grew up under colonialism and came of age during independence.

Tolu: In Nigeria the major defining characteristics are ethnicity and religion. Hundreds of ethnic groups, a handful of major ones (each with upwards of 25-30 million people) and two main religions — Islam and Christianity. No wider-world identity ambiguities — all Nigerians regard themselves as black Africans. Plus we had no “settler culture”, unlike say Kenya.

Sophia: My father’s generation — Nasser-era Egypt — often identity as black, African and Arab simultaneously. And now my generation has the opportunity to revive that very pan-Africanist, Non-Aligned Movement ideal of cultural and racial solidarity. For now, all I have to offer to your question about Sudan, Tendai, is that it is as arbitrary as any racial classification is. The fight for racial solidarity is just one stepping stone on the road to a collective struggle against neo-colonialism and neo-liberal economic opportunism. In Egypt, Mubarak did not only depend on creating strife between Copts and Muslims — he also manipulated Nubians, Bedouins, light-skinned and dark-skinned “Arabs” to struggle among each other.

The same thing is happening in Palestine, much more successfully — Palestinians of African descent and Palestinians of Asian descent (and mixed Palestinians) are very focused on uniting with each other against Israeli apartheid. They are aware of the tactics Israel has used to separate them by race, not only religion.

Tendai: We also had a “settler culture” in Zimbabwe and as Mubarak executed his own ethnicity and religion-based strategy of divide and rule, we have it too in my country. Mugabe works on an insider/outsider and inclusive/exclusive strategy (Giorgio Agamben) and among the insider’s ie black Zimbabweans, there’s preferential treatment depending on tribe/race — but still ensure he presides over the nation. Zimbabwe’s tribal divisions are there, but thankfully they don’t run as deep as some African countries.

Khadija: It’s easy for me to say ‘”agh over here, we don’t do the whole tribal thing”. But then I’m a fourth generation urban South African of Indian descent. Rural realities are of course staggering in their contrast. And yet, we are dogged by assertions of Afrikanerdom everywhere in South Africa. And the often vitriolic rhetoric from the ANC Youth League has further contributed to a sense of ethnic polarities.

Sonja: Kagame’s Rwanda is one where we are all Rwandan. Where we don’t talk about that which has historically divided us, but behind closed doors, “Hutu” and “Tutsi” are still very much alive.

Tendai: So what happens if you need a national identity card, what do they write?

Tolu: Curious about Rwanda. Do forms bear “ethnicity” markings? Or is it a “We’re All Rwandan” policy, “Death to Ethnicity/Tribalism”? In Nigeria most forms you’ll fill (and even people’s resumes) will have “STATE OF ORIGIN” on them.

Sonja: Any mention of ethnicity means you are somehow leading us back down the road to 1994, which is why Kagame has instituted all those “anti-genocide ideology” laws.

Tendai: And what’s the conviction rate under those laws?

Sonja: So far it’s mostly affected journalists, who are receiving sentences of upwards of 17 years. You’ll be hard pressed to find private citizens who speak “out of turn” in Rwanda. On the other hand, in the diaspora, we do all the talking we want yet can’t seem to find a way to have meaningful dialogue.

Tendai: Seventeen years is harsh. So much for PK Mr Nice Guy, eh? About IDs for black Zimbabweans it’s like Nigeria, not for CVs, but for things like your ID you have to state your tribal village, animal totem, chief’s name and ethnic group.

Tolu: LOL. You’re kidding about the chief’s name bit right?

Tendai: No I’m not, it’s evolved from earlier forms of colonial bio-power. When I got my ID my mom wrote all the info down on a piece of paper for me. Note that I was born in a town and have lived in a city all my life. I go to the rural areas for holidays and don’t think I’ve ever met this chief and yet, without naming this stranger I could not get my ID card.

Khadija: I keep thinking back to the xenophobic riots that broke out in Johannesburg in 2008. Many of those killed were later found to have actually been South African citizens. Yet, that piece of paper that ought to have safeguarded them, was ultimately no refuge from a bloodthirsty crowd.

* Correction: In the previous post, Sophia Azeb had been asked about the role of social media in the Egyptian revolution and a link was posted to the wrong blog post. The correct link is to a piece called “We are not all Clay Shirky“.

Bylines Thought Leader

Digital tongues: Africans in conversation 1

The brilliant Tendai Marima roped me into a fascinating conversation on identity, Africa and the curious space of Africans in the contemporary.

“Digital Tongues” is a series of Skype and email conversations between myself and four other Africans from Egypt, Nigeria, Rwanda and South Africa. I can’t bring myself to shred any major parts of this digital chat, so I’ve decided to publish this as a series of posts over three days this week. I hope readers will also participate in dialogue by posting their thoughts below. Here, the five of us discuss African politicians and social media, perceptions/misperceptions of Africa in the international media, in African politics and the effect that dividing north and sub-Saharan Africa has on perceptions of the continent. We also discuss how the national and nationalistic politics of our respective countries impacts on the construction and understanding of our own identities. In this first part, the conversationists are: myself and Sophia Azeb, an Egyptian living in the US. Sophia is studying for her PhD and moonlights as a superheroine exorcist dashing out the Orientalist demons of Dubya in Americans. Tolu Ogunlesi probably belongs to that rare breed of human beings who go to bed muttering must … send … one … more … tweet and though I’ve never met him, I’m sure he’d appreciate an “On Twitter, do not disturb” sign as a Christmas gift. In between his musings about Nigerian politics and daily life, Tolu is a writer and journalist, currently working as features editor of 234 Next, a Nigerian newspaper. If there’s a Twitter-coloured dreamcoat out there somewhere, I’d like one shipped to Johannesburg, South Africa for Khadija Patel. Surely her efforts as a global news aggregator have not gone unnoticed by the good Lord. When she’s not tweeting about world events, Khadija is an opinionista for the Daily Maverick. Last but not least, is Sonja S Uwimana, a Rwandan American working in international development who, if she’s like me, cares as much for Hollywood’s “help starving Africa” humanitarians, as stinky piss on concrete.

Tendai: (Zimbabwe) Welcome, everyone. I hope we’ll have an interesting discussion where each can enlighten the other about how we each see identity issues and political relations on the African continent.

Sonja (Rwanda): Cool. Any leading questions? I’m on deck for Rwanda then.

Tendai: Can you tell us when Paul Kagame will be back on Twitter after that entertaining exchange with the journalist Ian Birrell?

Sonja: He still is! Even when he was in Chicago recently.

Tendai: How have I missed his tweets???

Sophia (Egypt): Beloved leaders need their own twitter list. I wish at least one of the Hosni Mubarak twitter accounts was actually the man himself.

Tolu (Nigeria): It’s Facebook for Mr Jonathan in Nigeria. Well over half a million fans as we speak. I think only Obama’s got a higher number. I’m fascinated by how the new bunch of African leaders are taking to social networking. Even Zuma recently had a page set up for him as president of South Africa.

Sonja: How much is it actually them though? I find it hard to believe that Kagame tweets for himself. Seems to me it’s some overzealous editor of Rwanda’s New Times newspaper, state-owned of course.

Khadija (South Africa): Zuma’s recently taken to Twitter. We do wish his timeline would be as lively or newsworthy as Kagame’s but alas we’re stuck with a Twitter presence that someone in the presidency is using to give Zuma an affectation of social media prowess. But like all things in recent South African politics, the real story of social media among our bigwigs is with the ANC Youth League. After threatening to close down Twitter (forgive their delusions of grandeur), they’ve recently taken to social media platforms with some gusto.

Tolu: I’m curious to know how the Idi Amins and Mobutus (were they alive) would have handled Twitter and Facebook. Would Amin have tweeted from exile in Saudi in a bid to rehabilitate himself (reputation-wise)?

Tendai: Idi Amin might. He had a charismatic enough side to his twisted personality to try Twitter. With followers, he might imagine he presided over a kingdom of Scotland.

Sophia: Amin and Gaddafi would have almost exclusively DM’d each other, I think.

Tolu: Sophia, so do you think social networking played any significant role in Egypt uprising?

Sophia: I do, yes. I wrote a brief post about my perspective on it for the blog Sonja and I both contribute to. But I do think the West crediting social networking as inspiring a “shift from the typical Egyptian apathy” (or similar stereotypes) has been a desperate attempt to rationalise these large-scale uprisings that are not just against dictatorships, but also incredibly corrupt and devastated economic structures and US imperialism.

Sonja: It’s all anyone wants to talk about and I’ve given up trying to change the narrative and then, of course, come the “what about sub-Saharan Africa” questions.

Sophia: Oh yes, we’ve discussed this before. “Sub-Saharan”, “Middle East”, “Middle East and North Africa” etc. These terms are so incredibly problematic and totally neglect the nuances of identities through Africa and Asia.

Tendai: I think there is a tendency to oversimplify things within the mainstream media — just as we want to speak of Twitter revolutions, we draw permanent yet imaginary lines in the sand to distinguish north from south overlooking the centuries of complex encounter in these spaces. I suppose in today’s world of easy, convenient discourses, to begin to understand Africa as a whole and the sum of many parts would be too difficult for those who produce the dominant narratives on Africa.

Khadija: Hey, over here [in South Africa], we’re still getting used to the fact that we’re not an island floating somewhere off the coast of Blighty somewhere. We actually have a whole continent attached to us. Seriously though, South Africans are becoming increasingly insular and our media caters to this predilection.

Sophia: Internationally, it’s certainly faulty media coverage. It’s almost totally focused on South West Asia and North Africa — when politically convenient, I mean — and a reliance on the imperial borders we all live under and our former/current colonial masters still propagate (including a depressing number of scholars of colour in the West) that make impossible fair and thorough coverage of uprisings, protests etc.

Tolu: I wrote a piece for CNN about “sub-Saharan Africa” [protests] and realised how tough it is to be very nuanced in an 800-word piece that tries to cover sub-Saharan Africa. Damn! At times like this you realise that Africa is a BIG place and that no theory covers two countries, every situation is different.

Tendai: Even within one county like Sudan the media trips up, badly. The constant references to “black African” versus “Arab” read like woeful misunderstandings of the context-specific politics of race and identity in Sudan. Khadija, does the South African media trip up with South Africa’s identities?

Khadija: For sure! But then as South Africans we’re still working out what it means to be South African. We continue to reel from the effects of being a severely fractured population so opportunities to share experiences and construct a sense of “South Africanness” through shared experiences are scarce.

Sonja: I’m actually more interested in the ways we (as “Africans” — whatever that means) also propagate these “Arab” vs “African” / “Middle East” vs “sub-Saharan Africa” divisions.

Tendai: That’s a good point, Sonja. How “Arabs”, “Afro-Arabs” and “Africans” see ourselves — politically and culturally — feeds off of and feeds into how others see us. In Zimbabwe, we have a violent kind of nativist politics that is tied to the notion of being an indigenous African and Zimbabwean ie black. But when the Chinese and Europeans come with their cheque books, it all goes eerily quiet on the frontiers of indigenisation.

Sophia: Just a few months ago I heard several black American and Canadian scholars at a conference definitively conclude that Tunisia and Egypt have the US Civil Rights Movement to thank for their uprisings and then declare Egypt and Tunisia to be “non-white but not black African” nations. A sentiment many in South West Asia and North Africa also ascribe to, but one many of us are working against, given the complexities of our identities — racial, ethnic, religious, gender and otherwise.

Tendai: But what is it that makes us racialise everything? Why are we still hung up on colour?

Khadija: I recently participated in Michelle Obama’s Young African Women Leaders Forum. I was one of 76 women from across sub-Saharan Africa who had been identified as “young women leaders”. Now, without delving into what exactly what all of us had done to merit a place there, what perplexed me was that these were 76 women exclusively from sub-Saharan Africa. We’re all trying to reach across our borders and find a sense of Africanness but the absence of “Arab” Africans was not at all questioned. If we are indeed to discover a sense of pan-Africanness then we have to look beyond linguistic and racial divisions. Or, is it easy to clump together the [north] Saharan block because they share a linguistic heritage? Or is it indeed racial?

Tendai: I wonder who did the choosing for the Michelle Obama Young African Leaders and what kind of view of Africa informed their choice. Concerning the Saharan north and south, I think there are very good reasons there are these linguistic, cultural and racial determinants creating the imaginary divide, but it also has negative effects especially when it seen as a raced division.

Sophia: I think we’re hung up on colour because it is precisely how neo-colonial and authoritarian powers keep us separate. The divide and conquer trope is very real, but it has shifted in dramatic ways.

Tendai: And we too have become the dividers and conquerors.

… to be continued on Tuesday.


Bylines Thought Leader

On Egypt, bread and South Africa

I’ve got a new post on the Mail and Guardian’s Thought Leader platform which you can read here.

The article was also posted in a guest slot at the Christian Science Monitor.

In the provincial town of Sidi Bouzid, in Tunisia, Mohamed Bouazizi was 10 years old when he became his family’s bread winner, selling fresh produce in the local market. While he attended a local high school, he did not graduate and his attempts at finding work in the public sector were futile. His day would begin in the town supermarket where he would load his wooden cart with fruit and vegetables and then walk to the local market five kilometres away. Bouazizi, at 26 years old was used to being accosted by the police. But in December last year, he was pushed too far. A policewoman confronted him on the way to the market and like a bully in an elementary school playground she insisted he hand over his scales for want of a trading licence. Bouazizi refused. After a heated verbal exchange, the policewoman slapped him and with the assistance of other officers, forced him to the ground.

His meagre stock of fruit and vegetables, as well as his scales, were confiscated. Publically humiliated, Bouazizi sought redress. After being denied an opportunity to speak to a municipal representative and in a fit of angry despair, Bouazizi set himself alight outside the municipal office. Some weeks later, Bouazizi died, a casualty of circumstance, if not abject anguish. In the days that Bouazizi lay in hospital, every inch of his body covered in bandages, his picture was printed in newspapers around the world. And if the rest of the world reacted with alarm, the desperation of Bouazizi resonated loudly with the Tunisian people.

In Tunisia, Bouazizi’s grave remains draped in the Tunisian national flag and his people continue the fight to shed the last remnants of an oppressive regime.

Now it’s the people of Egypt who have thronged to the streets resolute in their demonstrations against a stubborn dictatorship.

Their chants last Friday of “freedom, liberty, bread” have proved the plainness of their incentive. A remarkable 60% of the region’s population is under 30 and in Egypt the substantial chunk of that young population is severely stymied by the government’s failure to provide adequate schooling. They are largely inadequately educated and then let down by an economy that does not offer the jobs to match the abilities or aspirations of this population. A generation caught in limbo, with all the demands of adulthood but none of its means.

The scenes we’ve witnessed over the past week in Egypt and the level of anger they have conveyed prove that though this uprising was sudden and unexpected to the rest of the world, to the legions of the unemployed, uneducated and underfed it has been a long time coming.

In June last year, a young man called Khaled Said died in police custody on a street in Alexandria. Witnesses claim Said died after he was dragged out of a cafe and beaten up. The government, conversely, insists he swallowed a packet of drugs and choked. As news of the murky circumstances around Said’s death spread, Egyptians became incensed and took to the streets to vent their anger. For a nation living under emergency rule for so long, the death of Said was a turning point for Egypt, a sense of self-actualisation began to thrive. As, Mona Saif , a young Egyptian woman from Cairo puts it: “I think this different wave of protesting in Egypt started with Khaled Said, I truly believe that his death changed something in us all.”

Acts of self-immolation, similar to Bouazizi’s, have been reported everywhere from Mauritania to Saudi Arabia. In a very real sense, the entire region is on fire. Colonel Muammar Gaddafi, his penchant for the ridiculous undimmed by the revolution in Tunisia has chastised his neighbours for forcing his friend, Ben Ali, out. In a televised address to the Tunisian people he said: “I hope your sanity returns and your wounds heal, because you had a big loss that will never return.” Protesters have cited soaring food prices, coupled with a rising cost of living. Protesters have been vocal but governments in Yemen, Oman and Jordan have struggled to respond. Even Saudi Arabia, the most populous of the Gulf states saw dozens of people protest after flooding in Jeddah left 10 people (by the official account, at least) killed and three others reported missing. The protest, like most political dissent in the kingdom, was quashed by police. In Jordan meanwhile, responding to protests in his kingdom, King Abdullah sacked his entire cabinet in the name of political reform. While in Kuwait Sheikh Sabah Al-Ahmad Al-Sabah has ordered a monthly grant of KD1 000 ($3 599) and free food for one year to everyKuwaiti citizen. In Yemen, officials close to the president say he will announce measures aimed at tamping down unrest that has swept the country. Whatever those measures actually translate to, it’s clear that the appetite for political repression may well be dwindling but the efforts to feed the feeble structures propping up these regimes will escalate efforts to remain in power.

Crippling levels of unemployment, rising food prices and poor education systems are hardly unique to the Middle East and North Africa.

The story of Bouazizi and his native Sidi Bouzid has reminded me increasingly of scenes in my own pocket of Johannesburg.

In Bird Street, Mayfair, a short walk outside the boom gates separating the enclave of larger, newer homes from the rest of the suburb, between the thriving Somali restaurant and the Pakistani tuck shop, is the Tanzanian fruit seller who echoes Bouazizi’s experiences. I’m reminded of a winter’s day two years ago when from the comfort of my Toyota, I watched her attempt to pack her things in a sack, grab her son and attempt to flee the marauding troop of Metro police officers demanding a permit, tea money or God-alone-knows-what from street vendors a corner away. Later that day, I watched Metro officers unceremoniously dumped her stock of fruit and vegetables on the back of a truck, her usual station at the corner, empty. I imagined her hiding in the Somali restaurant some metres away, watching her goods being confiscated and helpless to stop it, thwarted by the reality of eking out a living in the margins of formal society.

While we agonise over who exactly is awarded the right to be called “African”, we’ve neglected the shared experience that entrenches a sense of Africanness. It is a shared legacy of colonialism, a present set of imperfect circumstances and a driving will that ultimately is more definitive than a geographical location, or ethnic heritage. And yet thorough analysis and well thought-out opinion has been conspicuously absent in our coverage of both Tunisia and Egypt in South Africa. Most newspapers, reporting on unrest in Egypt, carried the same generic wire report over the past weekend. We have indeed been too busy cringing at the national police commissioner, clawing ourselves out of potholes and attempting to make sense of the billing chaos — in between observing a vigil at Nelson Mandela’s sick bed — to really look at fires burning beyond our border but it’s not just the rest of the world that we’re losing track of, we are failing as well to give voice to that facet of the South African experience that strongly resonates with the Egyptians and Tunisians.

As young people in South Africa grow in number and access to the internet improves, access too, to the kind of resistance we’re witnessing in Egypt and Tunisia will advance. The grand South African narrative may well be re-written.