The DA’s recent jobs march may have been a bid to join the global trend of the middle class taking to the streets, says Peter Fabricius.
DA leader Helen Zille has taken quite a lot of flak for her party’s recent jobs march on Luthuli House.
Her critics found it incongruous that a bourgeois party was indulging in the political tactics of the working class.
But maybe Zille knew more than they; from Egypt to Turkey, from Thailand to Ukraine, the global middle class is taking to the streets, and often bringing down governments.
In an essay in the Wall Street Journal last year, titled The Middle Class Revolution, the American political scientist Francis Fukuyama says the political turmoil across the world today has a common theme: the failure of governments to meet the rising expectations of a new middle class that is relatively prosperous and educated.
These protests, in Turkey, Brazil, Tunisia, Egypt and elsewhere, have been led not by the poor, but by young people with above-average levels of education and income, using Facebook and Twitter to organise.
The sudden fall of Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych last week was a stunning demonstration of this phenomenon.
The demonstrators who toppled him seemed to be motivated more by the economic implications of his reneging on a co-operation agreement with the EU, than by any of the cultural and geopolitical factors at play.
In Thailand, Prime Minister Jingluck Shinawatra is also struggling for survival against largely middle-class street demonstrators incensed by her populist policies.
Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff, leader of the Workers’ Party, was evidently stunned last year by something similar, though on a smaller scale – violent street demonstrations sparked by dissatisfaction with bus services.
This is not to say that such upheavals have all or entirely been reverse class revolutions in the sense of pitting middle-class demonstrators against working-class incumbent regimes.
The 2011 revolutions that toppled Hosni Mubarak in Egypt and Zine El Abidine Ben Ali in Tunisia were also largely led by the middle class. But their targets were simply autocratic and extremely corrupt regimes, themselves supported by crony capitalists.
And this is a thread that runs through all of the middle-class revolutions.
Rousseff’s unionist supporters believe the Brazilian protests were largely a backlash against the successful pro-poor policies instituted by her predecessor, Lula da Silva, and continued by herself, which have made a dramatic impact on inequality (and are envied by many South African leftists).
But Fukuyama contends that the Brazilian protesters were largely just venting their spleen at a government that they believed had been sucked into the same corrupt ways of all governments.
Fukuyama has been criticised by some commentators for bending the definition of middle class too much to make his point.
Such commentators note that an income of $10 (R107) a day is hardly middle class, and that in all these popular uprisings, workers have also been a decisive component.
In fact, Fukuyama concedes that point – as he concedes that the middle class has been at the forefront of most revolutions.
And he in fact goes on to say that unless the middle class has been able to broaden the revolution to include the workers and others, it has been likely to fail.
He points to Egypt as a typical example in which the middle-class, liberal-led revolution that toppled Mubarak then lost its way and allowed the Muslim Brotherhood to seize the initiative.
That of course lead to another mass protest and to the toppling of the Brotherhood’s Mohamed Mursi, although whether that was a people’s revolution or a counter-coup to restore military government is a moot point.
Fukuyama sees danger for the Chinese Communist Party as its economic reforms create a burgeoning middle class.
Perhaps Africa’s growing middle class will also flex its muscles before too long.
The ANC is no doubt also conscious of the irony that its pro-poor policies are creating a growing middle class that is often inclined to vote DA.
But the ruling party need not fear a blue revolution just yet.
The DA supporters marching on Luthuli House backed off when the first stone was thrown.
* Peter Fabricius is Independent Newspapers’ foreign editor.