Thursday, July 2, 2020

If a revolution is nigh, can ATI be its leader?

When almost half the population has been classified as “economically marginalised” by credible research institutions, trouble in the form of a revolution can’t be too far away. As a matter of fact, the African Development Bank has issued similar warning. However, the history and anatomy of revolutions strongly suggest that Botswana is currently in no shape to mount any kind of credible revolution and that a conspiracy-peddling artist who has admitted drug use cannot be its leader. We may have witnessed the first episode of the first season of a soapie that stars ATI (real name Atlasaone Molemogi) an on occasion might guest-star members of cabinet and the police. It should be easy to dismiss ATI but this is someone who has 180 000 Facebook followers, some of whom possibly lap his every word because that is how much power influencers have over their fans.

When ATI was locked up at the Central Police Station in Gaborone for taking pictures of the State House, the presidential mansion, some of his supporters showed up to demand his release. It remains unclear how pictures of the State House compromise national security or the safety of the first family and how pictures of the State House fit into his crusade.Feeling the impact of the lockdown and economic slowdown, especially in the entertainment industry where he plies his trade, ATI has announced plans to launch some kind of programmatically undefined and unfocussed economic emancipation revolution for Batswana. Posted to his Facebook page are videos about the protests by Palestinians in the Occupied Territories of Palestine as well as another by Louis Farrakhan, the leader of the Nation of Islam in the United States.  At least on the face of it, this seems to suggest a political awakening from someone who franchised his personal and artistic brand through apolitical revelry music.On the other hand, the revolution that ATI hopes to spark has its own set of rules and revolutionaries themselves require a certain set of leadership qualities that he has yet to exhibit.

The classic revolutionary template says that revolutions are underpinned by an ideology; that they are energised by a groundswell of public support; that they are the end-result of a process and not an odd once-off event; that they are built on the ground and not online and that the new order has to be better than the old one. Revolutions also require organization and leadership in order that they can be conceived, planned and executed with the context of a strategic framework. As a revolutionary, ATI will have to prove himself to be industrious, strategic, disciplined and principled.In various interviews with the print media, ATI has, to his credit, been honest enough to admit that he has not always been successful in his battles against his personal demons – which include taking hard drugs. In him, some young people see a leader and in taking in the livestreamed Central Police Station spectacle, the director of a major media communications company located at the Gaborone International Commerce Park remarked that the youth are in desperate need of a leader. This is a valid point but there is also having to worry about whether there is a leadership vacuum that ATI is filling.

As stated, revolutions are the result of a process, not an event, which in the ATI case, was the carnival-like spectacle outside the police station. Elaborating on a broader point about how revolutions thrive on the symbolic and the strategic, Dr. Simon Schama, a History lecturer at Columbia University in the United States, has made the following observation about true revolutions and carnivals: “Carnivals are not revolutions … If you are too carnival-like, and you actually don’t redirect and harness all that popular energy strategically against the institutions of power, you end up, actually, sitting in your own prison. It looks like a carnival, but actually, life goes on around you, and you become a kind of museum of failed revolutionary energy.”The very small number of the youth demonstrating outside the police station was proof that no revolution is in the making and that revolutionary fervor is far from penetrating all domains of society. At the precise that the demonstrators were shouting themselves hoarse, business was being conducted as usual all around. ATI’s youthful supporters need the energy they dissipated outside the police station for something more worthwhile. With COVID-19 and the resultant national lockdown having devastated the economy, people have genuine concerns about how their socio-economic lives have been brought to a standstill.

Unlike in the pre-COVID-19 era, when you hear people complain of hunger nowadays, there is no hyperbole involved. These young people, some of whom were already unemployed before the pandemic, have very genuine case to present to the government. However, there is standard global operating procedure for governments that has to be followed. If you feel that is not radical enough, just stick around and see what will change when power changes hands. ATI’s most staunch supporters are artists, most of whom, at this point in time, literally don’t know where their next meal is coming from. Before carnivals, a strategic leader wants productive engagement with those in power – which is what, at first glance, appears to be what ATI wanted to do by seeking audience with President Mokgweetsi Masisi. His very public campaign to have this meeting forced the government’s hand and from public reporting, was invited to a meeting with the Minister of Youth Empowerment, Sport and Culture Development, Tumiso Rakgare.

ATI didn’t honour the appointment for this meeting, insisting that he wanted to meet the president and no less. He scored an own goal because a meeting with Masisi would have been fruitless. He supervises more than 20 ministers who are better informed about what happens in their ministries and even they have to ask for information from the relevant officers. In that regard, a meeting with Rakgare would have been more productive.However, what ATI says in a video that he has posted to his page (that there is no COVID-19; “it’s a lie”) could be proof that the meeting would not have been productive. The government has suspended music concerts because they would imperil public health. There is no need to speculate what a musician who says there is no COVID-19 would propose to the government.It is yet unclear how much influence influencers like ATI have on those they influence but ATI has 180 000 followers on his Facebook page. What are we to make of the youth who thronged the Central Police Station failing to observe social distancing and wear face masks?

If it ever takes off, ATI’s crusade and those who have aligned themselves to it will have to learn things as basic as how governments work and how deadly diseases spread. These young people are in a bad place and deserve leadership that will take them to a good one. To make that journey, they need to differentiate between a revolution and a carnival.For its part, the government should realise that hollow promises are not going to cut it this time. While ATI is no threat to it, someone else who is better organised and methodical would be more successful in plugging into public anger and mobilising it on the streets.

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Sunday Standard June 28 – 4 July

Digital copy of Sunday Standard issue of June 28 - 4 July, 2020.