Where slogans wear thin, citizens grow weary

Shiraaz Mohamed/AP
Shoppers line up at a store in Durban, South Africa, on July 17, 2021, after a week of unrest. South African President Cyril Ramaphosa has vowed to restore order after the week of violence set off by the imprisonment of former President Jacob Zuma.

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They were sudden eruptions of unrest, on a scale not seen for decades, on opposite sides of the world. But last week’s demonstrations and riots in Cuba and South Africa carried a similar message, and targeted regimes that share a pedigree as well.

Those regimes are the heirs of two iconic political figures: Fidel Castro and Nelson Mandela. And the message was that the old rhetorical flourishes and lofty promises have lost their resonance. Put more bluntly, slogans cannot feed us, nor house us, nor give us jobs and hope for the future.

Why We Wrote This

Once, leaders like Fidel Castro and Nelson Mandela could command loyalty through their rhetoric. The unrest in Cuba and South Africa shows that their successors must offer more concrete sustenance.

It’s a message that could have implications elsewhere in the world, where other self-styled heirs of revolution or long-ruling leaders are already under pressure, such as Nicaragua’s veteran President Daniel Ortega in Latin America, and post-independence African leaders like Uganda’s Yoweri Museveni and King Mswati III in Eswatini, the former British protectorate of Swaziland.

Two key catalysts for the Cuban and South African turmoil were the economic shock waves from the pandemic and the widening influence of social media in knitting together young people. These factors aren’t unique to those countries and they aren’t likely to fade anytime soon.

They were sudden eruptions of unrest, on a scale not seen for decades, on opposite sides of the world. But last week’s events in Cuba and South Africa carried a similar message, and targeted regimes that share a pedigree as well.

Those regimes are the heirs of two iconic political figures: Fidel Castro and Nelson Mandela. And the message, amid festering economic hardships and growing inequalities, was that the old rhetorical flourishes and lofty promises have lost their resonance, especially among young people. Or put more bluntly: Slogans cannot feed us, nor house us, nor give us jobs and hope for the future.

And while the focus now will be on how the leaders of Cuba and South Africa respond, that message could have longer-term implications for other self-styled heirs of revolution or long-ruling leaders already under pressure elsewhere in the world, from Nicaragua’s veteran Sandinista leader Daniel Ortega in Latin America, to post-independence African leaders like Uganda’s Yoweri Museveni and King Mswati III in Eswatini, the former British protectorate of Swaziland.

Why We Wrote This

Once, leaders like Fidel Castro and Nelson Mandela could command loyalty through their rhetoric. The unrest in Cuba and South Africa shows that their successors must offer more concrete sustenance.

That’s because two key catalysts for the Cuban and South African unrest aren’t unique to those countries and aren’t likely to fade anytime soon: the economic shock waves from the pandemic, and the widening influence of social media in knitting together young people, who are the worst affected.

Cuba and South Africa, of course, are different. Cuba is an authoritarian Communist state. South Africa is a democracy, with one of the most progressive constitutions in the world. Mr. Castro came to power in a revolution more than six decades ago. Mr. Mandela’s ascent to the presidency, and the final chapter of apartheid, occurred through a negotiated surrender by the country’s white-minority rulers.

Last week’s eruptions were different, too. In Cuba – to chants of “libertad” and “si, se puede,” an echo of Barack Obama’s “yes, we can!” – thousands poured onto the streets in a peaceful show of their accumulated frustrations over food shortages, job shortages, and electricity outages.

In South Africa, the language was violence, in what initially seemed an organized uprising by supporters of former President Jacob Zuma, imprisoned for contempt of court and facing corruption investigations. But it spiraled into break-ins and looting at shops and shopping malls, in a country where nearly half of young people are jobless.

Yet both countries are in effect one-party states: Mr. Mandela’s African National Congress (ANC) has been in power since the end of apartheid in 1994. And both regimes have anchored their rule, shaped their political lexicon, and staked their legitimacy largely on the reflected early triumphs of the now-departed Nelson Mandela and Fidel Castro.

The problem, suddenly thrust into the open, is that times have changed.

Alexandre Meneghini/Reuters
People sit under a poster with images of Cuba's late President Fidel Castro, former President Raul Castro, and current President Miguel Díaz-Canel at a state office building in Havana, July 18, 2021.

Cuban President Miguel Díaz-Canel – who succeeded Mr. Castro’s younger brother, Raul, two years ago – initially fell back on the old political playbook. He summoned supporters to take back the streets from “counter-revolutionaries” and “delinquents,” who he said were part of a U.S. plot. They duly turned out and, alongside police, assaulted, arrested, or dispersed the protesters.

Still, even the president seemed to acknowledge the economic grievances, saying it was “legitimate to feel dissatisfaction.” And a few days later, he made at least one small concession, meeting the demonstrators’ demand to waive duties on food and other necessities brought into the country by overseas visitors.

And he cannot have missed one signal, at least, of how the ruling party’s Castro-era hold on the islanders has been eroding.

The last such public demonstration came in 1994, when Cuba’s economy was suffering the aftereffects of the collapse of its key international ally, the Soviet Union, and thousands gathered along Havana’s famed Malecón coastal promenade. A visit by Mr. Castro himself to the waterfront helped calm the situation.

This time, President Díaz and senior aides rushed to San Antonio de los Baños, the town about 15 miles outside the capital where the first demonstration erupted – only to find that the protests had already spread to other towns and into Havana itself.

In South Africa, the violence amounted to an exclamation point to years of post-Mandela government marked more by power struggles inside the ANC – and, during Mr. Zuma’s nine years in power, by cronyism and corruption – than by a focus on the country’s problems.

President Cyril Ramaphosa’s reaction was forceful, denouncing what he called an attempted insurrection by Mr. Zuma’s supporters, who retain considerable influence inside the ANC, and vowing to bring the perpetrators to justice.

But the question now is what he’ll do next. Mr. Ramaphosa, a former union leader who was close to Mr. Mandela, took office three years ago pledging to clean up the ANC, reform government, and address the country’s economic and social problems.

So far, he has proved reluctant, or unable, to confront Mr. Zuma’s ANC supporters head-on.

Still, with signs that the most serious violence since the end of apartheid has shocked many South Africans, Mr. Ramaphosa may now feel he has a political window finally to make good on his promises and focus the government’s energy on the country’s problems.

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