by Imam Dr. A. Rashied Omar
As we ready ourselves for the coming year, we typically reflect on the events of the past year. What are the lessons we need to learn, internalise and actualise from our lived experiences of the past year 2016?
The Lesson of 2016 at the Local Level
At the local level, the destructive sectarian Sunni-Shi`a conflict which has caused countless deaths and unimaginable destruction in Syria, Yemen and elsewhere in the Middle East has now finally been exported into the South African context. It was locally inaugurated in the form of a press conference that the Western Cape Muslim clergy body, the Muslim Judicial Council (MJC), convened in October. At the conference the MJC provided unequivocal support for an unverified Saudi Arabian allegation that the Yemeni Shi`a Houthis had launched a ballistic missile aimed at destroying the holy ka`bah in Mecca. This was followed by an MJC fatwa or policy in November that declared marriages between Sunni’s and Shi`as as prohibited (haram). It is palpable that the current anti-shi`a hysteria is a response to the Iranian and Lebanese Hizbullah’s support for the brutal crushing of the legitimate uprising of the Syrian people against the dictatorial regime of Bashar al-Asad.
However, the problem with the MJC’s position is that that they are viewing the conflict in the Middle East through a sectarian Sunni versus Shi`a lens. This means that on the one hand they are easily recognizing the crimes against humanity perpetrated by the Syrian regime of Bashar al-Asad, but on the other hand they are legitimizing the brutal Saudi regimes bombardment and massacre of innocents in Yemen, Bahrain and in their own country. Thankfully, it appears that the majority of Capetonians are not buying into the current leadership of the MJC’s sectarianism. This was clearly evidenced by the low turnout at their protest march in support of the suffering masses of Aleppo in Cape Town on Thursday 8 December 2016. The low turnout can surely not be attributed to the fact the Cape Town masses do not agree with the call to show solidarity with the suffering masses of Aleppo and to denounce the Asad regime and its duplicitous support from Russia and Iran. It is my considered view that one of the reasons for the lack of support for the Aleppo protest march is that the masses can see through the MJC’s sectarianism.
The lesson is clear: If we are true in our commitment to the compassionate and intersectional justice, then we must recognize that the Syrian, Russian and Iranian regimes are just as guilty as the Saudi, Bahraini and other Middle Eastern regimes in perpetrating human rights violations and massacres against their people. In this regard, they are also no different to non-state extremist groups like ISIS, Boko Haram and Al-Shabab. They differ only in the extent of their extremism and brutality.
The Lesson of 2016 at the National Level
At the national level during 2016 the magnitude of the “capture” of the South African State by powerful private interest groups via the corruption of the Zuma presidency was fully exposed. In April, South Africa’s Constitutional Court ruled that President Jacob Zuma should abide by the recommendations of the Public Protector’s report. In terms of the court verdict Zuma was compelled to pay back a portion of the gratuitous amount spent on the upgrades of his private home in Nkandla. In September President Zuma paid back R7.8 million to the state for non-security upgrades to his private homestead. This was made up of a R2.3 million for a swimming pool, a R1 million amphitheater, and a R1.2 million chicken-run. President Zuma was also forced to issue a public apology for misleading the nation.
In response to this and much more malfeasance, there has been a growing call from a broad range of civil society actors, including more than 100 African National Congress (ANC) stalwarts, and even from within the South African cabinet, for President Zuma to resign. Despite this, President Zuma and his beneficiaries have remained obstinate and unrepentant. How do we respond to the dismal state of our nation and what is the lesson we can take from this reality?
Here, I would like to refer to a seminal article written by an ANC member, Dr. Phillip Dexter, published in April 2016. Dexter correctly argues that it is not only President Zuma that should issue an apology and resign from office, but that the entire national executive of the ANC who enabled the corruption of the state should also step down. I concur with Dexter and a growing number of social justice activists that the ANC needs to convene an urgent national consultative conference and elect undefiled and credible leaders.
However, I would like to take Dexter’s proposed remedy further and argue that it is not only ANC politicians and members who bear responsibility for the current state of affairs in our country. Big business and captains of industry are also culpable of perpetuating a capitalist economic system that thrives on and maintains economic inequalities, and spawns a culture of greed and covetousness. Ordinary South Africans and civil society also need to take some responsibility for the dismal state of our country. Our lethargy, cynicism and lack of action render us complicit in enabling the “state capture” and corruption that is rampant in our beloved country.
The critical lesson we need to learn from this is that if we want a strong and robust democracy then each of us needs to become active citizens who hold government and those in leadership positions accountable for their moral and political mandates. Such active citizenship was clearly on display during the student protests that continued for a second year in 2016, albeit in a less coherent manner. As veteran trade union activist, Lennie Gentle, so eloquently describes it:
“Something deep is stirring amongst our young people, which is not easily, or magically, going to go away…something than can either frighten us or inspire us to believe that it is possible to make things better for everybody.”
Social justice activists should anticipate greater maturity and strategic sophistication for the Fallist movement in 2017.
The Lesson of 2016 at the Global Level
Lastly, at the international level during 2016 we witnessed a resurgent right populism across the globe. Emblematic of this trend was Brexit; the unexpected outcome of a referendum in support of the United Kingdom’s withdrawal from the European Union in June. This was followed by the surprise election of Donald Trump as president elect of the United States of America in November. This global shift to rightwing chauvinism and particularly the election of millionaire businessman, Mr. Trump, has shocked and defied almost all of the pollsters, political analysts and political scientists. I concur with Irish Peace Studies scholar, Roger MacGinty who argued that the reason why most journalists, expert pollsters and mainstream academics were unable to correctly read public opinion was because they were “trapped in a conventional wisdom paradigm”, by “employing top-down methodologies”, and most of all because “they live lives far removed from general society.”
The lesson from this is clear. It is possible that one of the major reasons for the inability of these experts to read the signs of our times is that most academics, journalists and policy-makers live lives that are far removed from grassroots communities. They then make the mistake of presuming that they can predict the behaviour of these same communities when it comes to voting trends. The challenge that this lesson holds for social justice activists is to try not to sequester themselves by living in ivory towers and bubbles disconnected from local communities, but to live in close proximity with the masses.
These then are some of the critical lessons derived from our experiences of the year 2016.
All of these lessons cannot be internalised and actualised by merely speaking about it. We need to create more public discussion forums where we can grapple with these lessons and many others more intensely so that we can take them along with us as part of our competences to meet the challenges of 2017. We pray that we will use the lessons of 2016 to take forward the cause of social justice with greater vigour in the coming year 2017.
A. Rashied Omar earned a Ph.D. in Religious Studies from the University of Cape Town, South Africa. He is currently a Research Scholar of Islamic Studies and Peacebuilding at the University of Notre Dame, USA. His research and teaching are focused in the area of Religion, Violence, and Peacebuilding with a twin focus on the Islamic Ethics of War and Peace and Interreligious Dialogue. In addition to being a University-based researcher and teacher he also puts theory to practice and serves as Imam at the Claremont Main Road Mosque in Cape Town, South Africa.