Zachariah Mampilly
941,115 views • 10:15

Like many of you, I'm often frustrated by the democratic process. It's messy, it's complicated, it's often inefficient. Our political leaders feel disconnected from the concerns of ordinary people. Many feel that voting every few years for leaders disconnected from their daily challenges is pointless. But before we reject democracy, let's imagine what it could be. And I believe that African activists are redefining democracy by putting protest at its center, what I refer to as "protest democracy."

International organizations and academic experts define democracy as regular, multiparty electoral competition. But democracy should not only be about elites competing at the ballot box. For it to have meaning, it's something we must engage in every day. When I say "protest democracy," I'm challenging how we think about democratic action. Viewing democracy as only elections is no longer adequate and threatens democracy itself. So we must protest democracy to give it a renewed meaning.

What would this look like? We need to turn to African societies, where ordinary people are increasingly taking to the streets to transform their lives. African social movements have often been at the forefront of conceptualizing democracy in this way. This may come as a surprise to those of who think that the only way Africans engage in politics is through the barrel of the gun. But increasingly, young people are taking to the streets and abandoning organized violence in favor of more effective nonviolent action.

I've spent much of the past two decades talking to African activists, both violent and nonviolent. Across Africa, young people are rising up to challenge almost every type of regime known to humanity. This is my friend Thiat. He's a rapper from Senegal. He led a large movement in Senegal that was successful in preventing the president from stealing a third term. From Morocco to Lesotho, young people are rising up against entrenched monarchies: in Egypt and Sudan, against brutal dictatorships; in Uganda and Ethiopia, against powerful militarized states with quasi-democratic veneers; in South Africa, where this image was taken, and Burundi, against democratically elected leaders who have done little to improve the conditions for ordinary people. Across the continent, protest is not exceptional, but a normal part of life. Africans use protests to challenge both dictators as well as power cuts. In a way, Africans are protesting democracy itself, enriching its possibilities for us all.

There have been two major waves of African protest, and we are currently living through the third, which began around 2005. It includes the so-called Arab Spring, which took place mostly on the continent. The first wave took place in the 1940s and 1950s and led to Africa's decolonization. Kwame Nkrumah led a broad coalition in Ghana that overthrew British rule, providing a template for nonviolent movements globally. The second wave took place in the 1980s and 1990s against austerity measures that imposed harsh conditions on African economies. These protests led to the overthrow of autocratic regimes and led to the introduction of multiparty elections across the continent.

The ongoing third wave is correcting the shortcomings of the earlier two. If the first wave brought liberation but not democracy, and the second, elections but only for the elites, then it is the third wave that is most concerned with transforming democracy into the rule of the people. It includes movements like Y'en a Marre in Senegal, Le Balai Citoyen in Burkina Faso, Tajamuka in Zimbabwe, LUCHA and Filimbi in the Democratic Republic of Congo, movements that work outside of more conventional nongovernmental organizations and political parties to challenge the economic and political system itself, often at great risk. Brilliant young activists like LUCHA's Fred Bauma have been detained and tortured, often with little to no outcry from the international community. The list goes on, as you can see from some of the data we collected. There have been large popular protests in over 40 African countries since 2005, and if you look, you'll recognize that in 2011, the year of the so-called Arab Spring, was actually the spike of this broader wave. Contrary to popular belief, many of these protests have been successful. We know of the dictators falling in Tunisia and in Egypt, but popular movements have prevented presidents from stealing third terms in Senegal, in Malawi and Burkina Faso as well.

What's driving this upsurge of protest? Demographically, Africa is both the youngest and the fastest-growing continent, with the largest age gap between the people and their rulers. It is urbanizing at a tremendous pace. Economically, African countries have been growing for over a decade now, largely driven by investments from Asia. But little of this wealth is trickling down. Formal jobs in the industrial sector are actually decreasing, with informal labor the only option left for people to eke out a living. As a result, inequality is skyrocketing, and political leaders are increasingly disconnected from their much younger populations.

For those of us from outside of Africa, we're familiar with parts of this story: a massive spike in inequality, the product of a decline in good jobs for good wages that were once considered the hallmark of an advanced society; the capture of our political parties by elites accompanied by the hollowing out of civil society that once provided a voice to ordinary people; that sinking feeling that no matter what you do, external factors related to the global economy can disrupt our lives for the worse. Our political leaders seem helpless, insisting on austerity, even as public goods diminish to levels unseen in decades. And this is when they're not succumbing to exclusionary nationalism, blaming our woes on the weak rather than the powerful. What those of us from North America and Western Europe consider to be new has been the normal condition of African life since the 1970s. So who better to learn from than those who have been engaged in resistance to these conditions for the longest period of time?

What can we learn from African protest democracy? First, democracy must begin with ordinary people. Viewing democracy as only elections has led to widespread disillusionment. We must instead work to center ordinary people in democratic life. Protest provides us one way to do that. Regardless of your age, sexuality, your gender, whether you're a citizen or a non-citizen, able-bodied or disabled, anyone can participate. In contrast to elections, protests are not confined by rigid electoral cycles. They offer a much more immediate form of action in our era of instant feedback.

Second, while protests may be messy, this is what makes them powerful. Protests are contentious and contested processes, defined by contingent actions, often devoid of clear messaging, characterized by incomplete organization. These dynamics are what makes it easy to dismiss protests as riots or to assume they are of limited political utility. But it also makes them easier to suppress. Too often, governments do not view protests as elementary to democracy. Instead, they violently crush social movements or work to discredit their message.

Third, as I already hinted, protest is the space from which new political imaginations may emerge. Protests are about coloring outside the lines, a way for ordinary people to rewrite the rules of the game that too many feel are stacked against them. Many young people in Africa have grown up in societies where a single ruler has ruled their entire lives. Protest is the space for new possibilities to emerge, as young people begin to discover their own power.

Consider the situation of my friend Linda Masarira, a single mother of five, who is leading protests against the Mugabe regime in Zimbabwe. She has been beaten, arrested, harassed. But Linda perseveres, because as she told me a few months ago, protest has given her a sense of meaning and direction. And though she knows the odds against her, Linda perseveres.

Like Linda and other young African activists, we all must work to redefine democracy as something more than just elections and political parties. Democracy is a creative process, and protest has always been the vehicle for expanding our political imaginations beyond what we are told is possible.

(In Swahili) Thank you very much.