Can Africa learn from South Korea’s protest culture?

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Since October last year, millions of South Koreans have taken to the streets to protest against former President Park Geun-hye. The country’s first female president became embroiled in a corruption scandal that rocked the entire nation and saw angry citizens spend much of its harsh winter demanding her impeachment.

Five months later and the South Korean demonstrators have gotten their wish. Park Geun-hye is now a former president, her formal impeachment officially upheld on Friday. The process to remove Park from office started a mere two months after the first process demanding her impeachment.

However, more amazing than the result has been the process. South Korea captured the world’s attention with its potent use of peaceful protests over recent months. It wasn’t until Park’s impeachment was upheld on Friday that violence truly tarnished the five-month run of protests. Three people died in clashes after Park supporters reacted in anger to the unanimous decision to uphold the former president’s impeachment.

This is in stark contrast to the kind of protests we see across much of Africa. Burundi, Cameroon, Congo, Ethiopia, Kenya, Nigeria and South Africa are just a handful of the African nations to experience deadly protests in 2016. Roughly of the entire continent lost lives due to violent protests throughout the year – and few with such modest death tolls as the unfortunate end to South Korea’s political scandal.

 

Should Africa take notes from South Korean protests?

South Korean isn’t the only country suffering from political discontent in the early months of 2017. In fact, it didn’t take long for unhappy Americans to look towards their allies on the Korean peninsula with envy.

 

 

It’s not difficult to see why either. Peaceful protests ending in the demands of a democratic nation being fulfilled are the envy of the world – even in the US, where protest violence is common, even if not deadly.

As for onlookers in Africa, the notion of police standing by and watching demonstrators voice their demands, of security forces allowing protests to remain peaceful, is something elusive to many countries.

Here’s the key question, though. Did South Korea’s mass protests force the country’s government into doing anything it wouldn’t have otherwise, or did it simply vindicate the process?

The truth is protests in South Korea are nothing new; in fact, political demonstrations are a daily event in the country. So much so, experts say they lose the potency onlookers mistakenly see from afar – or participants feel during the events.

“Leaders and the public alike are acutely aware of the power of taking their grievances to the street—and even in ordinary times, they do it so regularly that momentous gatherings can seem entirely banal for the people involved,” is how Foreign Policy as the largest anti-Park protests gathered late last year.

Not to discredit the impressive displays that took place across South Korea over the last five months, but Park’s impeachment followed government protocol. Public pressure may have played a part in the judicial system’s decision making, perhaps, but not to the same extent as the influence coming from Park’s growing political rivals.

 

Africa has its peaceful protests, too

With all the headlines reporting deadly protests, it would be easy to think there’s no such thing as a peaceful demonstration in Africa. However, just last week Somali soldiers maintained peace as they marched over unpaid wages in a demonstration that lasted a matter of hours.

Last year, Zimbabwe pulled off a peaceful stay-away protest against corruption, following violent clashes in part of the country.

There would be more peaceful protests in Africa, too, if governments and security forces would allow them to remain so. Ethiopia has endured a year of violent protests that leaves the country in an ongoing state of emergency. However, the demonstrations held by Oromo people started peacefully, dating back to 2014 initially.

However, the government deemed them “anti-peace elements” in November 2015, starting a violent crackdown that ultimately killed hundreds of protestors and detained thousands.

It’s a common theme that runs across Africa; regimes that seem to think any public display of discontent will rattle the regime – but this rarely proves to be the case. So it’s not Africa’s citizens that could learn something from South Korean protests, but rather their governments.

 

Featured image: By Blogger 샛길(Set-gil) – 너무나 뜨거운 광우병 쇠고기 수입 반대 촛불집회 열기 (Korean), CC BY-SA 2.0 kr, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=4007375

About Aaron Brooks

Aaron Brooks is a UK journalist who wants to cut out the international agendas in news. Spending his early years in both England and Northern Ireland he saw the difference between reality and media coverage at an early age. After graduating from the University of Chester with a BA in journalism, his travels revealed just how large the gap between news and the real world can be. As Editor-in-Chief at East Africa Monitor, it’s his job to provide a balanced view of what’s going on in the region for English-speaking audiences.