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Amandla! Ngawethu!

category southern africa | miscellaneous | other libertarian press author Wednesday February 01, 2012 15:29author by Jeremy Report this post to the editors

Disclaimer: These are some impressions of life, politics and social movements in South Africa (and to a lesser extent Namibia, which shares many of the same historical and social conditions). My ideas are based on a few weeks of travel, and some limited participation as an Australian outsider in political actions. For much better analysis, check out - a great resource of anarchist news and analysis from South Africa.

South Africa is a land of extremes. There is the extravagant wealth of the northern suburbs of Johannesburg, where (mostly) white people live in massive houses with manicured gardens, behind 2 metre walls topped with electrified barbed wire. Their cooking, cleaning, gardening and child-raising are done by black people, in a culture of servitude which would strike most Australians as shocking or bizarre.

The rich elite drive their BMWs with the windows up and the doors locked, in fear. They socialise in gated communities and shopping centres that are many times more opulent than Westfield Bondi Junction.

A few kilometres away are townships and squatter camps. The townships were the black-only areas under apartheid where poverty and overcrowding are still the norm. Many people here can't afford houses, electricity or water - even if they are available. If available, electricity (and sometimes water) are pre-pay only.

There are vast areas of informal settlements where tens of thousands of people live in tin shacks or other makeshift structures, and are sometimes violently evicted by the government. Power lines and water pipes bypass the settlements and run to nearby jails, uranium mines, and factories. There are poor and unemployed whites living in some of these camps, but the majority are blacks and people of colour.

This sort of class hierarchy exists in many places in the world (including Australia), but in Southern Africa it is sharper and more obvious to everyone. A black maid will travel straight from her village or township where the children don't have proper housing, light or books, to a mansion where she cares for white children who have every luxury imaginable. I spoke with one woman who has been doing this for 30 years - during and after apartheid. She said 'things haven't changed.'

Economic inequality has actually increased since 1994, both between races and within races. Although the ruling class now includes some people from every race, the large majority of private capital remains white-owned, and there is a persistence of racist ideology.

But a much more important feature of South African society is that everyone here understands struggle. Apartheid was overthrown 16 years ago by a truly powerful social movement. Workers went on strike, students boycotted school. People fought the militarised police force in the streets, and made the society ungovernable. They made a real political (if not economic) change, and they remember how.

This history is contested. The new rulers want to confine struggle to the past. The ANC - the ruling party - lays claim to leading or in fact being this movement. Many people fall for this lie, and hold their leaders in awe. However cracks are showing in the facade. People express anger at the corruption and 'broken promises' of the politicians. Some turn to the growing semi-fascist tendency within the ANC, but others have turned away from the party altogether. Recently the ANC spent the equivalent of A$12 million to celebrate its 100th anniversary. The Deputy President proposed a toast and told the audience that if they did not have champagne, they could take photographs of their leaders drinking, or raise clenched fists. 'The leaders will now enjoy the champagne, and of course they do so on your behalf through their lips' he said.

Neoliberal capitalism is the model favoured by the ruling elite. People pre-pay for basic services, unemployment has skyrocketed, and poverty reigns, while at the same time, corporations are given handouts and the government attempts to crush dissent. Some sections of the mainstream left (such as the South African Communist Party and the leadership of the Congress of South African Trade Unions) are complicit in this project, with or without the fig leaf of some form of marxist-leninist ideology of 'development before revolution'.

In this context, a range of radical social movements have blossomed. With their roots in the anti-apartheid struggle, these movements have fought for basic rights, houses, services. The things their leaders have been promising since 1994. These movements are strong and very much based in the grassroots of communities around the country. From Durban to Cape Town, squatters have occupied unused land and taken over houses that corrupt officials have promised to their mates. They have fought the privatisation of land, water and electricity. A great account of the Symphony Way occupation written by the squatters themselves is available at Jura Books. It's called 'No land! No house! No vote!' - meaning that the squatters refuse to vote for anyone until they have houses. Some trade unions have also broken away from the ruling party alliance and set out on a more radical democratic path.

I spoke to a few comrades from Zabalaza - an active anarchist group based primarily in Johannesburg. They are involved in a range of movements and have been running an education project with numerous grassroots activists from around the region. The participants in this project come together to talk about their struggles and anarchist politics. They go away able to have similar discussions with comrades in their communities. Zabalaza pays for their travel costs. The Zabalaza comrades felt that struggle in South Africa is in a down-turn at present - compared to a peak a few years ago. To me, based on the actions I went to and the activists I met, the level of consciousness and the militancy of the struggle are many times greater than in Australia.

The politics around climate change is quite different to Australia. There is less of the liberal 'we have to care for the environment' attitude, and more of a 'water, land and electricity are fundamental to our lives' approach. The politics of climate justice appeared to me to be the strongest current within the movement. People seem to really care about renewable energy and are willing to fight for it - in conjunction with winning basic rights.

Many villages I saw in the countryside had a solar panel or two, simply because the infrastructure for fossil-fuel electricity doesn't exist, or is preserved by cost for corporate use. Of course the flipside is that the rulers are able to use people's need for electricity to justify building massive new coal-fired power plants, expanding the nuclear industry, and undermining the climate movement.

In Durban, outside the COP17 climate polluters conference, 10,000 people marched (and sang and danced) for climate justice. It was easily the largest, most working-class, most colourful, angry and hopeful climate action I've ever participated in. The crowd was overwhelming poor people from around South Africa, who are angry about climate change and the issues I've described above. They understand that the planet is being killed, and that it's the ruling class who are killing it. They are proposing fair and class-conscious solutions, like publicly controlled renewable energy. The march was mostly organised into contingents of particular organisations. Some of these organisations were unions, others were community-based. The organisations paid for busses and trains to bring the activists in from their communities around the country - otherwise they wouldn't have been able to attend. Perhaps we should think more about this as a way to involve working-class and marginalised communities in Australia?

Policing of the march seemed to me to be much less intense than it would be for similar actions in Australia. However other 'illegal' actions in South Africa have been smashed ruthlessly by the cops, including the use of rubber coated bullets to evict squatters. There was a small scuffle on the march when some people from the ANC youth league attacked some other demonstrators because of the latter's anti-governmnent chants.

At the 'people's space' in the days preceding the march, a range of forums and workshops were held. I went to well-attended forums on eco-socialism, climate jobs, and renewable energy models. The conference as a whole was not very well-organised, but many of the forums and workshops (for which individual organisations took responsibility) were good. People started each discussion with traditional militant singing and dancing. The chorus of one popular song is 'My mother was a kitchen girl, my father was a garden boy, that's why I'm a socialist.' Another well known call is Amandla!' meaning 'the power!' - to which everyone responds 'Ngawethu!' - 'is ours!'

One major failing of the people's space forums was that too many of the speakers were white, middle-class academics, many from overseas - which meant that the voices of black community activists (the majority of the audience) were not heard often enough. This point was raised by some of those activists. There was an interesting moment when one of the forums erupted into a full scale revolt because the (mostly white, middle-class) leadership of the organisation had failed to consult with the membership about food, accommodation and the programme in general. The membership would not allow the forum to continue until their grievances were addressed.

This is symptomatic of a wider problem in social movements in South Africa (and elsewhere), where authoritarian socialist leaderships seek to impose their ideas on the rank and file.

If mass working-class organisations around the world are going to fight effectively for climate justice, the people themselves need to take ownership of those organisations. I believe this is a real possibility in South Africa. We can all learn from the militancy, consciousness, involvement of the poor, and vibrant musical traditions of South African movements.

author by Michaelpublication date Thu Aug 09, 2012 13:53author address author phone Report this post to the editors

I am particularly glad to see that the author deals, although just in passing, with the revolt against the (mostly white) academic and NGO control of the so called 'People's Space' at COP 17. It wasn't a people's space of course. It was an NGO/academic space to which grassroots comrades were bussed in but over which they had no control. In fact they had to listen to endless speeches by visiting (white) academics from Europe and America.

There was also a revolt against undemocratic NGO/academic control over spaces where grassroots movements can meet at the Social Movements Indaba in Johannesburg in 2005 and again in Durban, where the Anti-Eviction Campaign led a walk out which was joined by Abahlali Base Mjondolo.

In 2006 the response from the academic/NGO left that control these spaces as a result of their money and not any democratic mandate was to call the grassroots comrades 'criminals' and to slander their middle class comrades in an extreme manner.

We really do have to start learning lessons from these experiences so that we can build real organisations from the ground up ( and stop this business of NGOs/academics taking control over struggles on the basis of their money and then running spaces in the interests of NGOS and academics rather than the people on the ground).

A lot of people are too scared to discuss these things because they know that they will be purged from the NGO/academic spaces and subject to wild personal attacks but we really do need to discuss this.

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