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ust browsing around various websites about the Occupy movement, I came across a map of where the Occupy movements have taken place, published on the Guardian website occupy-protests-map-world. It is stunning to see the spatial distribution, a great swathe of protests occupying the world map. But what struck me was—apart from South Africa at the southern tip, and Tunisia and Cairo in the North—the apparent absence of the continent of Africa in this transnational movement.
This could be under-reporting, and it is of course impossible to generalise about this huge and diverse continent, but this absence could indicate a few things about the spatial limits of the symbolism of the Occupy movement. First, the form of occupation. In some African cities, for example, temporary or makeshift housing is not a form of protest; it is a way of life. What impact would it have to erect temporary shelters in public spaces in cities where such shelters are regularly either cleared away or entered, desired or not, into long term co-existence with more solid urban structures? The logic of the occupy movement assumes transgression of regulatory structures that should make encampment unnecessary, not the everyday reality of really living long-term with the insecurity of temporary housing.
Second, the language of occupation. In the context of a continent that has experienced both colonial settlements, and a range of military interventions, both historic and contemporary, what would be the symbolism invoked by ‘occupying’ urban centres? The threat of disorder and displacement that is part of the daily life of some people on the continent makes ‘occupation’ a fractured and dangerous word.
Third, the temporality of occupation assumes the freedom to temporarily divest yourself of other pre-occupations, to lift out from the daily round of life and work. (Not to mention that it has to do with established democratic rights, not only the right to demonstrate, but also the capacity to do so, i.e. disposable time). What symbolism is evoked by the demonstration of this temporal freedom in urban contexts where so many may not have it?
This is not a criticism of those protests (nor is it of course a complete picture of Africa), it is just an incitement to a question – what will it mean to really build transnational civil society movements that genuinely address global inequalities through the geography of their alliances, not just through their rhetorics? How do such links get made? At and in a shared historical moment, how do people find the capacity to make alliances that truly articulate their different but pressing realities?