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Mutual Aid: An Anarchist Concept at Work in Southern Africa

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category southern africa | culture | opinion / analysis author Tuesday April 07, 2009 15:28author by Steffi - Zabalaza Anarchist Communist Frontauthor email zacf at zabalaza dot net Report this post to the editors

Part I of "Four Tools For Community Control"

Mutual Aid is an important and relevant anarchist concept. It shows how aspects of a better world already exist everywhere, including in Southern Africa, and how we can achieve this world, building on and extending existing cultural practices.

First published in issue number 10 of Zabalaza: A Journal of Southern African Revolutionary Anarchism, April 2009.


Mutual Aid: An Anarchist Concept at Work in Southern Africa

Part I of "Four Tools For Community Control"

by Steffi

Kropotkin’s Research is Still Relevant

The Russian Piotr Kropotkin was not only a key anarchist militant and thinker but also a well-known geographer and scientist. His most famous book “Mutual Aid”, a concept to be discussed in this article, was a strong critique of Social Darwinism [1] and generalisations about human nature [2]. Starting in the 19th century there has been an ongoing debate about human nature around the question as to whether humans are either essentially good or bad. So-called idealists have held that humans are actually good and that civilisation is the cause of war. Realists on the other hand have claimed - and this is the dominating idea within politics in general (all over the world) - that humans are essentially bad and Piotrwould always kill each other (Hobbes’ war of all against all) if it wasn’t for the state to intervene, making the state look like a conflict-resolving institution necessary to bring about and uphold peace. The theory of the “survival of the fittest” therefore justified the existence of the state and disasters that came along with it: colonialism, imperialism, capitalism, as well as every other form of exploitation not necessarily connected to the state (but often to religion) including racism, sexism [3], heterosexism [4] and ableism [5]. However, as Kropotkin has extensively shown for the first time, and what is now common sense within anthropology [6], is that there is no such thing as human nature. Humans are neither inherently good nor bad, but both. The question therefore is if they are more good than bad and how to deal with conflict, poverty and other problems arising in our society today.

What is Mutual Aid?

Mutual Aid, the concept that people help one another, was first thoroughly studied by Kropotkin and published as a book with the same title in 1902 [7]. This study of mutual aid, which he thinks is an important factor in human evolution, was an important critique of the idea of the “survival of the fittest”. In this book Kropotkin shows the importance of mutual aid amongst various animal and human societies. He shows how societies based on mutual aid are more peaceful, a concept that is taken up again by anthropologists to describe common practice among peaceful societies [8] which exist all over the world. Modern anthropology has confirmed Kropotkin’s theory that there is no human nature. Contrary to taking any side in the big debate, Kropotkin said that there is both mutual struggle and mutual aid among humans and animals but that mutual aid was more important for the survival of the species. This means that even though humans sometimes fight each other, they nevertheless cooperate more than they fight.

Mutual aid means that people help one another, not only materially but also emotionally, instead of individualism or, worse even, fighting each other. It means that they cooperate instead of compete in many aspects of life for everyone’s benefit. It means realising that social support is better for everyone and that we survive better when we help one another instead of fighting. It means that you see other people as comrades and friends and not as enemies. Mutual aid means sharing without the expectation of equal return. Furthermore, mutual aid is an example of living in harmony with one another instead of having conflict. General examples of mutual aid are hunting in common to achieve better results, living in common for mutual protection, helping one another with work of all kinds, giving each other mutual support in times of need. Concrete Southern African examples will be discussed below.

Mutual aid does not imply that aid has to be totally equal. Mutual aid rather operates along the communist principle “from each according to ability to each according to need”. This comes from the idea that we are all one, that all of humanity belongs together, that we all should work for everyone. Because of the practice of mutual aid, Kropotkin writes, people realise that they depend on one another, that everyone’s happiness depends on the happiness of all and it shows that all are equal. As one can see, this is close to the meaning of Ubuntu, an African concept to be discussed below. However, mutual aid does not imply that aid only goes in one direction. This is charity.

“Church” and Charity

Just like the state (see below) has tried to intervene and destroy mutual aid, the church has done similar things. In general churches, mosques, synagogues and temples [9] destroy people’s self-help and put charity in its place.

Charity is not mutual aid. It is a way of giving from someone who has to someone who doesn’t have, thereby creating a situation of dependency. Charity does not empower people, it does not help them to get back on their own feet, to try help themselves. According to Kropotkin, charity “bears a character of inspiration from above, and accordingly, implies a certain superiority of the giver upon the receiver” (Kropotkin 2006 [1902]: 233). It rids the donor of feelings of guilt when s/he can give money to an organisation which then gives food or clothing, for example, to people in need. As the saying goes, philanthropists give back in public a portion of what they steal in private. Of course, in times of huge crisis such as a famine, when there is not enough food and people are starving, food needs to be given to those who starve. In general, however, giving food creates dependency and destroys the local economy by importing free foreign food. It destroys people’s independence and self-help.

Charity, not only coming from churches but also NGOs, is therefore counterproductive to the development of a better world in which everyone is equal and free.

Mutual Aid Among Animals and Humans in General

Kropotkin spends a lot of time in his book describing mutual aid among insects and other animals. This is not of immediate relevance for this article nor for Southern African society, yet it links with human society in general. Describing mutual aid among animals supports his argument, which is based on evolutionary facts, after all, humans are descendents of certain animal species. It shows that mutual aid has been a natural instinct among humans even before they were humans.

Kropotkin gives great examples of mutual aid among animals and that in most of the animal kingdom mutual aid – and not what we usually hear, the survival of the fittest – is the rule. As he writes: “The ants and termites have renounced the “Hobbesian war,” and they are the better for it” (Kropotkin 2006 [1902]: 11).

As we can see in nature, there are many species of animals that live in herds. Kropotkin shows how animals not only cooperate with members of their own species but also across species for mutual protection (e.g. Zebras and Giraffes). He does not deny that animals kill each other because they need to eat or because they have to compete over potential partners. However, he makes it clear that what we are told (kill or be killed) is not the full story. Animals don’t just kill each other and those that kill most are not always the fittest. He shows that most animals can only survive because they cooperate and watch out for each other.

Kropotkin shows that mutual aid is a general rule among animals and links this to humans. He writes that humans are no exception to this rule of nature, especially since they have been very defenceless creatures for most of their existence (before they invented weapons). Therefore, humans have always lived in societies to protect and help one another. As Kropotkin writes: “Unbridled individualism is a modern growth” (Kropotkin 2006 [1902]: 71).

Kropotkin shows how mutual aid has existed among humans at all times, from hunting and gathering societies, to agricultural, to medieval societies in Europe up until modern times. He shows how mutual aid was a means of protection of poor and working class people against exploitation by slave-owners, bosses, authoritarian chiefs, kings or other politicians who not only led wars against other groups of people but also against their own people. They exploited them as well as punished them for not paying taxes or not joining the army. Kropotkin makes it clear that it is only a minority of humans that love to lead wars, most people just want to live peacefully with their family, friends and neighbours. As he writes: “At no period of man’s life were wars the normal state of existence. While warriors exterminated each other, and the priests celebrated their massacres, the masses continued to live their daily life, they prosecuted their daily toil.” (Kropotkin 2006 [1902]: 94)

Furthermore, Kropotkin shows how the state has tried to destroy practices of mutual aid, for example by trying to destroy self-help among poor people and putting a state bureaucracy in its place. Instead of leaving poor people alone so that they can continue growing their own food, they imposed taxes so that poor people had to seek additional work in order to pay them.

But not only politicians tell us that we need to lead wars to protect us from other “evil” people and that we need states to protect us from our own evil human nature: also historians have tended to “exaggerate the part of human life given to struggles and to underrate its peaceful moods. […] but they paid no attention whatever to the life of the masses, although the masses chiefly used to toil peacefully while the few indulged in fighting” (Kropotkin 2006 [1902]: 96). This means we constantly get told that humans are war-like creatures and would kill one another. Reality, however, shows the opposite, and Kropotkin was one of the first to point this out. Most humans prefer to live peacefully. Kropotkin writes “In reality, man is so far from the war-like being he is supposed to be” (Kropotkin 2006 [1902]: 113). Mutual aid is one sign of how many of us live along peaceful lines and how we prefer to help each other instead of fight each other.

Furthermore, without mutual aid, poor and working class people could not survive. The capitalist system makes it nearly impossible even for workers to survive on their own. This is why mutual aid still exists in a capitalist society and this is also why it is growing and has to grow if we want to build a better world.

Even though the state and other institutions (such as various churches) have tried to destroy mutual aid, it still exists today, even after over 100 years of capitalism which created individualism and gave the ‘survival of the fittest’ new meaning. Indeed, often it seems that within capitalism you have to exploit and be selfish in order to get by. But, as Kropotkin writes: “The Mutual-Aid tendency in man has so remote an origin, and is so deeply interwoven with all the past evolution of the human race, that it has been maintained by mankind up to the present time, notwithstanding all vicissitudes of history. It was chiefly evolved during periods of peace and prosperity” (Kropotkin 2006 [1902]: 184).

Mutual Aid in Southern Africa

Mutual aid is something that everyone growing up in a family or a close community knows about. Family members usually help each other out without expecting equal return. In small rural communities worldwide this is still common practise not only among family members but also among neighbours. In many parts of the world, and especially in Southern Africa, we can see mutual aid on an even bigger, cultural scale. There are even specific terms for mutual aid and it is still widely practised with new forms evolving due to harsh circumstances.

Kropotkin already wrote about mutual aid among the Bushmen [10] in the Kalahari, of which he talked with admiration. According to him they lived under “primitive [11] communism” (that is communism in a non-industrial society). Like many other groups in Africa (and around the world), the Bushmen not only practiced [12] mutual aid and shared everything with everyone – even people not belonging to their group – but also did not have chiefs and can therefore be considered to have been “primitive anarchists” [13]. They mistrusted chiefs who tried to get a bigger piece of the cake thereby threatening to destroy egalitarian practises. Kropotkin wrote about the Bushmen that “they used to hunt in common, and divided the spoil without quarrelling; that they never abandoned their wounded, and displayed strong affection to their comrades” (Kropotkin 2006 [1902]: 72). And: “If anything is given to a Hottentot, he at once divides it among all present […]. He cannot eat alone, and, however hungry, he calls those who pass by to share his food” (Kropotkin 2006 [1902]: 73).

However, mutual aid has not only existed among the Bushmen in Southern Africa and it is by far nothing that was only practised in the past. There are many examples of mutual aid in Southern Africa that are known under various terms, but all of them are similar. Furthermore, we can see mutual aid among all ethnic groups in Southern Africa.

In Southern Africa mutual aid is often based on the idea of Ubuntu, which even though it is a Zulu word, is commonly used among other groups throughout Southern Africa. Ubuntu is often written and talked about, especially in South Africa. It is also often connected to the church. While certain aspects of Ubuntu are similar to mutual aid, there are many aspects of it that lead people to accept their poverty and are therefore contrary to the advancement of the human condition. It is therefore much more interesting to talk about real mutual aid practises that are not connected to any religion.

In general, helping one another in the fields is very common in rural Africa. Most of the time fields are worked in common and the person whose fields are being worked on that day provides meal and drinks for everyone helping. Fields are worked rotationally and so everyone’s fields will have been worked and everyone will have had food during ploughing and harvesting season. The same communal effort can be seen all over Southern Africa when it comes to helping one another building houses.

In addition to cultural practises, new examples of mutual aid are emerging all over Southern Africa when people (especially women) get together to form social societies, such as burial or funeral societies, in which they help each other to save money for a funeral and help each other out in the case of a death in the family. Such societies also give emotional support to relatives of the deceased. These recent creations mainly have to do with the consequences of poverty.

Another new example in South Africa are stokvels in which people help each other save money which at the end of a decided upon period of time can be spent on decided upon necessary household products (such as fridges).
Crèches in poor areas in South Africa in which an otherwise unemployed woman takes care of employed women’s children are very common and the caretaker will get food in return.

Culture-Based Mutual Aid

One good example of how only chiefs or a minority of people wanted to lead wars and the majority of a certain population wanted to live peacefully are the Zulus, who are said to be very violent. But mutual aid is just as common among Zulus, if not more so, than in other ethnic groups in South Africa. While some Zulu chiefs obviously were violent (like all chiefs because power corrupts) the masses lived peacefully and always supported each other. Up to the present there are many examples of cultural based mutual aid among the Zulu.

In general, Zulu society is built around the saying “umuntu ngumuntu ngabantu”, which translates to English as “a person is a person through other people”, which means that one needs the communal whole to advance one's individuality.

Mutual aid is known under various terms in Zulu. One of these terms is ilimo which refers to the working of someone’s fields in common during ploughing season and everyone who helps will get food and traditional beer. The following week someone else’s fields will be ploughed. The Zulu word for a funeral society is masingcwabane and it literally means “let’s bury each other”. People in a community contribute a certain amount of money every month. This money is used when someone else who was contributing passed away. A fixed amount is withdrawn from the bank account and given to the family of the deceased. It covers funeral costs, buying a coffin, hiring a tent and chairs etc.

The Zulu word masakhane, which means “let’s build one another” refers to the building of houses in common.
Izandla ziyagezana (Zulu) literally translated means “when washing one’s hands, the one hand washes the other one” and vice versa. Each hand helps the other one to get clean. Therefore as humans we should help each other like our hands help each other.

In Sotho and Tswana culture mutual aid is known as letsema. Letsema is the coming together of people for a common purpose, and further results in the benefits flowing to all of those who are part of a letsema. It refers to cooperative village work on common projects, for example building infrastructure.

Another communist aspect in Sotho and also Pondo culture is the raising of children communally which means that everyone takes care of all the children, they are seen as children of the whole community. In other words, everyone helps to raise everyone’s children.

In Pedi culture kobufedi refers to working each other’s fields in common. Everyone helps in the planting of vegetables and taking care of the crops and the herd because it serves the purpose of the whole community.

In Xhosa culture dibanisani means “let’s work together for a better future”. It is a general term that refers to people coming together and helping each other. For example initiations take place somewhere else every year and people in one place prepare everything for it. If shacks burn people help each other to build them up again. At funerals or weddings people help each other, for example to clean and cook.

In Venda culture mutual aid is known as uthusana which means ‘helping each other’.

In Swaziland, lilima is the Swati term for mutual aid. It refers to neighbours helping neighbours.

There are many more examples from all over Southern Africa which cannot be included in this article, yet they are all very similar and very alive, showing that despite the high level of crime (which has to do with the immense inequality in South Africa) and also anti-social crime, there is already a lot of potential on which we can build to create a better world.

Relevance for our Society Today

A lot of the practise of mutual aid has been forgotten, mostly because it has been destroyed by the state. The state does not want people to be independent, to grow their own food and be autonomous from it, but it wants to control people. People even forget how to grow their own food. They become workers if they are lucky, or unemployed workers whose only chance to get by is to beg or commit crime. City life often not only destroys people’s cultures, it also destroys our society by creating individualism and making people forget about mutual aid. Kropotkin showed this when he wrote that while “among the Hottentots, it would be scandalous to eat without having loudly called out thrice wither there is not somebody wanting to share the food. All that a respectable citizen has to do now is to pay tax and to let the starving starve” (Kropotkin 2006 [1902]: 188). In times of crises this is fatal.

In many townships we see a few people growing community vegetable gardens and sharing other things. The above mentioned examples are a sign of mutual aid alive and growing because people start to realise that the solution to many of our problems is working together to help one another. Kropotkin has made it clear how we in today’s society and especially in the cities can learn from age-old practises and from what is still alive in rural parts of the world. Mutual aid is one way of taking back some of our independence from the state or charity organisations. It is an aspect on which we have to build a better world and on which a better world has to be based.

1 Darwinism (theory of evolution) applied to humans, the theory of the “survival of the fittest”,
2 When I talk about human nature, I am referring to the debate whether humans are essentially good or bad.
3 discrimination of women
4 discrimination of homosexuals
5 discrimination of disabled people
6 the study of social and cultural aspects of humanity
7 Kropotkin, Piotr (2006 [1902]) Mutual Aid. A Factor of Evolution. Mineola, New York: Dover
8 societies that do not know any form of conflict, e.g. the Bushmen in the Kalahari
9 not limited to one particular religion as many practise charity
10 whom he also called “Hottentot”, a common term at the time he lived but now rightly considered to be inappropriate
11 the term primitive was not used as a derogative term by Kropotkin
12 I am writing in the past because a great amount of Bushmen culture has been destroyed by colonialism and capitalism
13 Anarchist societies have been discussed by various authors, see e.g. Barclay, Harold (1996): People Without Government. An Anthropology of Anarchy. London: Kahn & Averill

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