Posts Tagged ‘ANC’

“ZACF Reply to the Misrepresentation of the ZACF by American Journalists and on the Schmidt Affair”

February 24, 2016

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Published on Anarkismo, 19th February 2016

The following is the official statement of the Zabalaza Anarchist Communist Front (ZACF) of South Africa on the controversy that erupted around Michael Schmidt, a South African activist, several months ago. It follows a careful collective discussion process and research and comes several weeks after the last installment in a series of articles claiming to be an expose of Schmidt. As we are also committed to a number of ongoing workshops, activities and publications, our time was limited. It has two main aims: to outline our position on the claims made for, and against, Schmidt, and to respond to a number of false statements that have been made about the ZACF in the course of the developing Schmidt affair.

The statement opens with an executive summary, followed by a much more extensive discussion.

The statement was collectively crafted and issued by the ZACF: www.zabalaza.net

EXECUTIVE SUMMARY (DETAILED ANALYSIS FOLLOWS):

1. The Zabalaza Anarchist Communist Front (ZACF, or “Zabalaza”) is a small anarchist / syndicalist organisation in South Africa, dating back to 2003. It has a long history of militant work and publication, a majority black and working class composition, and connections in neighbouring countries. It was formed on May Day 2003 by independent collectives involved in student and township struggles and in the “new social movements” of the time. In line with its founding documents, the ZACF Constitution and Position Papers, the ZACF opposes all forms of oppression, including racial domination, national oppression, imperialism, the oppression of women and immigrants, and capitalism and the state (http://zabalaza.net/organise/theoretical-positions-of-the-zacf/).

2. We stand for the complete national and class emancipation of the black working class in South Africa through revolutionary struggle, and have a long track record as an organisation that’s political work and social base lie primarily with the black working class and its organisations (see e.g.www.zabalaza.net and www.saasha.net and www.facebook/zabalazanews). The anarchist and syndicalist movement in South Africa is very small, and the ZACF is a substantial and important part of this movement, not a minority strand.

3. In this statement the Zabalaza Anarchist Communist Front (ZACF) discusses the controversy that has surrounded accusations against former ZACF member Michael Schmidt, by the American journalists Alexander Reid Ross and Joshua Stephens and the America-based publisher AK Press. Schmidt left active work in ZACF in early 2009, and resigned in early 2010. The allegations are that Schmidt was, from at least 2002 to the present, a fascist and racist cadre infiltrating the anarchists – including ZACF. Schmidt argues that he has been misrepresented, that his track record and the evidence are at odds with the claims, and that fake right-wing statements he made as an undercover journalist investigating the white radical right have been misrepresented as his real views. Schmidt’s accusers claim these statements reflect his real views, and are part of a larger pattern of ongoing right-wing thought and action.

4. This is the second ZACF statement on the Schmidt affair, in the sense that ZACF was party to a statement issued by the global Anarkismo network on 29 September 2015, which currently comprises over a dozen revolutionary anarchist groups on five continents, most, historically, from the Global South. This statement did not take sides, but called instead for a careful evaluation of the case, the release of all evidence, and on AK Press to state that the accusations applied to Schmidt alone (not to everyone with whom he had been associated (www.anarkismo.net/article/28576). This statement was not acknowledged by Reid Ross and Stephens, or AK Press. The gravity of the allegations does not justify a lack of fair process.

5. ZACF completely distances itself from any and all racist and fascist and white supremacist positions, and condemns them in the strongest possible terms.

6. ZACF completely distances itself from any offensive statements that Schmidt has made, regardless of the rationale for such statements. We are disgusted by what we have read, and by the number of these statements, and note that these statements are indeed deeply racist and sometimes fascist. The “manifesto” and blog posts attributed to Schmidt on the right wing website Stormfront and on his blog at strandwolf.blogspot.com (linked to a group he now admits to setting up named Black Battlefront) are horrifying. It is very difficult for us to reconcile these awful blog posts (and those of several related online personas) with our experiences of Michael Schmidt as an active and dedicated member of our organisation.

7. ZACF views the accusations against Schmidt with the utmost gravity. If the accusations are proven true, ZACF will denounce Schmidt and take all appropriate steps. If proven, the accusations would indicate activities and views completely at odds with the positions and practice and social composition of the ZACF, at odds with the class-struggle, anti-racist and anti-oppression anarchist and syndicalist traditions that ZACF champions, as well as manifest dishonesty on Schmidt’s part. And the ZACF would have been the primary victim of Schmidt’s activities. Schmidt, if guilty, must bear the consequences of his actions.

8. ZACF also wishes to put on record that Schmidt has not been a member or participant in ZACF for over five years, has played no role in the development of this statement, or in any proposals and points that this statement makes, and has not been shown drafts or asked for comment, and also that ZACF has not been lobbied by Schmidt – or anyone else – to make any particular statements on the Schmidt affair, 2015-2016.

9. It is our position that the Schmidt affair cannot be resolved through another round of online articles, social media debates or statements. Not only have the online debates become unproductive and polarised (see point 27) but so much information and analysis has been produced that it is very difficult for individuals and organisations to methodically process and evaluate all arguments made by both sides.

10. In terms of evaluating the charges against Schmidt, ZACF instead supports the 30 January 2016 Anarkismo proposal for an inclusive and international anarchist and syndicalist commission of inquiry, to examine the allegations against Schmidt, as well as Schmidt’s replies to the allegations, with accusers and accused and sources available to answer questions and provide materials to the commission. The proposal does not envisage an Anarkismo-controlled process. Nor would Reid Ross and Stephens, AK Press or Schmidt, decide on its composition. See http://anarkismo.net/article/29047

11. We believe there are real problems with some of the statements made by both the accusers of Schmidt against Schmidt himself, as well as in Schmidt’s responses to these accusations. These may be open to innocent explanations: we keep an open mind. The ZACF will make a formal submission to the proposed commission, and be available for questions and to provide additional materials to that commission. We have extensive archives and records, which back up our claims, for example, about ZACF history (see below).

12. ZACF will also consider itself guided by the findings and recommendations of the proposed commission. The ZACF will address all the allegations against Schmidt himself, as well as his defence, in a separate statement at the conclusion of the commission’s investigations.

13. ZACF wishes to place on record that when similar accusations were levelled against Schmidt from 2011 onwards, we confronted and checked on Schmidt several times. He has always maintained the same basic defence as that he has presented in 2015. Given the evidence we had to hand, and given Schmidt’s record and status as a long-standing comrade, we felt that we had no real choice but to give him the benefit of the doubt. Historically we have critically accepted Schmidt’s explanation for what we felt was the lack of an alternative, but we recognise that an extensive case has now been made against Schmidt, and new evidence brought to bear. This new material and debate merits careful reflection and evaluation, but must be weighed up carefully against his own counter-case – honestly and fairly.

14. ZACF expresses its disappointment with Schmidt’s now-admitted non-disclosure of aspects of his claimed underground journalistic work to the ZACF, both during his tenure in the ZACF and when it previously spoke to him from 2011 onwards. ZACF is highly disappointed by Schmidt’s now-admitted failure to inform ZACF that he knew the identity of a National Intelligence Agency (NIA) spy moving in left circles.

15. We do not, in this statement, therefore discuss whether Schmidt is indeed guilty of all the charges that have been made against him by AK Press, and Reid Ross and Stephens. This statement is not a point-by-point discussion of evidence around Schmidt, and should not be misconstrued as such. It is detailed, not to bury issues in words, but because serious allegations need a serious reply.

16. ZACF rejects the version of ZACF history and politics contained within Reid Ross and Stephens’ articles. We realise well enough that ZACF was not the focus of the articles, and take it in good faith that we entered the conversation only by way of association, but we have to respond to what constitutes (even if unintentionally) a series of very serious, very damaging (and, as we show, false) allegations about our organisation. They were not irrelevant to it, or trivialities that can be ignored on the grounds that the focus was on Schmidt.

17. ZACF specifically rejects the following central claims put foward by Reid Ross and Stephens: that the ZACF considered a proposal for racial segregation in 2003 (untrue), that Schmidt successfully engineered the expulsion of black and township ZACF members in 2005 to whittle ZACF into a white group (untrue), that ZACF’s organisational culture was deeply shaped by an allegedly racist and fascist Schmidt (untrue), that ZACF ignored evidence that Schmidt was involved with the radical right (untrue), that other ZACF members shared Schmidt’s alleged right-wing opinions (untrue), that ZACF opposed feminism (untrue), that a ZACF social centre and garden in Soweto was run on racist lines (untrue), and they speak of a “Schmidt-era” of ZACF lasting into 2009 (untrue). ZACF also rejects Reid Ross and Stephens’ claims about the “national” character of ZACF, claims about the 2007 ZACF congress, claims about ZACF financial practices, claims about ZACF organisational culture and standards, and claims that ZACF ignored a problematic document that Schmidt issued internally in 2008 called “Politico-Cultural Dynamics of the South African Anarchist Movement” (ZACF discussed and rejected the document, and Schmidt also formally repudiated it that year).

18. There is no evidence whatsoever that ZACF was subverted, before, during or after 2008 by any fascist or racist or radical white right agenda, by anyone whatsoever. We are not concerned here with the separate issue of what Schmidt might have done elsewhere, covertly or otherwise in this period, we are stating that ZACF was never influenced by these politics – and that Schmidt never openly pursued any such politics while in ZACF. Contrary to the impression given by Reid Ross and Stephens, ZACF has always strived to act decisively and in line with its revolutionary principles and approach. There was no transition from a so-called right-wing “Schmidt-era” of ZACF, to a new, transformed ZACF later: ZACF theory and perspectives never changed, and the black working class orientation of ZACF never changed.

19. This criticism of the articles is not a matter of “shooting-the-messenger,” but of demonstrating that the message (as regards ZACF) is wrong. It is essential to our honour as revolutionaries to challenge, on the basis of facts, the profoundly inaccurate Reid Ross and Stephens’ version of ZACF history and politics, to clarifying the record of the ZACF, this including Schmidt’s role in ZACF, and ZACF’s relations to Schmidt, when he was a member, and subsequently.

20. Reid Ross and Stephens’ inaccurate representation of ZACF is based on poor research and analysis, and serious factual and analytical problems, regarding not just ZACF but South Africa generally. Eurocentrism and an uncritical embrace by the two journalists of deeply problematic anti-left arguments associated with the South African state and ultra-nationalists, but rooted in the colonial geography of reason, are part of the problem.

21. No use was made of easily available ZACF source materials and archives, and the two journalists have failed to contact ZACF throughout the series to check facts or to provide right-of-reply to charges made. Their account of ZACF is almost entirely based on the views of one former member active for a relatively short period, outsider opinions, dubious inferences from an inaccurate document by Schmidt that was rejected by ZACF, and unsubstantiated and often demonstrably false assertions. The history of ZACF cannot be based on so few sources, especially given that claims made by these sources contradict a larger body of other evidence that has been ignored.

22. Silencing black and African voices, and the ZACF, has been central to the articles’ methodology. ZACF sources were ignored. Contradictory data and testimony was ignored. In particular this relates to one ZACF ex-member and founder member, comrade Mzamani Philip Nyalungu, who was made central to one article (in fact he is the only person we feel was insulted by name, besides Schmidt, in their seven articles.) His testimony, at odds with key claims by the journalists, was not cited, yet the testimony of two white ex-ZACF members was repeatedly presented as self-evidently true. This can be construed as racist: while Reid Ross and Stephens may argue that they have grounds to criticise Schmidt harshly, there is no justification for this treatment of a serious black working class militant.

23. Claims that we are unduly emotional about what we feel is an unjustifiable misrepresentation of the ZACF, that trivialise this misrepresentation, or that present ZACF as ill-informed or ill-motivated, reflect the same colonial and silencing outlook.

24. There was a double-standard throughout the discussion of ZACF, which placed ZACF in a subordinate position, and had racial overtones. Reid Ross and Stephens stated that they concealed the names of the sources cited to ensure their personal security. Yet they provided the name and residential information of a prominent, township-based, black working class ex-ZACF member, while diligently concealing the details of a white middle class ex-ZACF member, no longer even resident in South Africa. No account was taken of the often violently intolerant contexts in which ZACF operates, and how the claims made in the articles against ZACF place it and its members at risk. If Schmidt was a fascist, racist infiltrator who was allegedly sufficiently dangerous to require that sources be kept concealed for safety, as the journalists insisted, then their immediate responsibility was actually to inform ZACF of a potentially deadly security threat. This would have allowed us to take immediate steps for the security of our black working class base. This never happened.

25. The same double standard was evident in the contrasting treatment of AK Press and ZACF. ZACF believes it completely unacceptable that Reid Ross and Stephens informed AK Press of their investigations into Schmidt and pending articles, allowing it to avoid reputational damage with a pre-emptive public statement – yet did not contact ZACF in a similar manner.

26. The development of the Schmidt affair raises questions about the future of the anarchist movement in the Global South and elsewhere. Certainly if Schmidt is guilty there are grounds for serious concern, but we have in mind here other issues that are just as important. The absence of a proper right-of-reply prior to publication, for both ZACF and Schmidt, the neglect for the safety and wellbeing of a black ZACF founder member, the hostile and personalised tone of many claims in the articles, the trial-by-media that has taken place, and the serious inaccuracies in the story around the ZACF, are some of the problems.

27. The ZACF also expresses its serious concern about the venomous and polarised tone that online debates on the Schmidt affair have assumed. A vocal anti-Schmidt current dominates many forums by relying, not on substantive debate, but on innuendos and on labelling, with any disagreement with any part of Reid Ross and Stephens’ / AK Press’ claims treated as the work of fascists, racists, tools of Schmidt etc. In this climate, those with contrary views soon withdraw, rational debate is closed, and more nuanced views that do not fit a neat pro-/ anti-Schmidt position, are lost. This is not a constructive approach to any debate, regardless of the severity of the accusations.

28. A sectarian current has also used the Schmidt affair to attack the ZACF, Anarkismo, and the whole anarcho-syndicalist, revolutionary syndicalist and anarchist-communist mainstream of anarchism. The simple fact of the matter is that, if Schmidt is indeed guilty, he would have betrayed the basic principles of class-struggle anarchism, the ZACF he helped found, the anarchists he has worked with as a militant and as a writer, and the movement generally. Therefore it is false to assume that if Schmidt is guilty, that his views represent, or arise from, class-struggle or Platformist/especifista anarchist traditions.

29. We are appalled that the worst public caricature that has ever been made of the ZACF comes, not from the state, not from capital, not from other left groups, but from people who claim to be anarchists. This is not a sign of a healthy movement.

30. ZACF believes there are also serious North/ South power dynamics at play in the affair that need attention. Precisely because countries like the USA dominate media, knowledge production and publication globally, even obscure writers in the Global North have a louder voice than almost any in the Global South. This is the context that allows the tiny collective running the America-based publishing house AK Press, and two minor (although doubtless well-intentioned and sincere – we are not debating their personalities) American journalists, Reid Ross and Stephens, to propagate their views on a global scale. ZACF simply has no commensurate power, this being directly linked to its African basis.

31. This North/ South situation allows the views of ZACF and Anarkismo, representing far more people and countries than one American publishing cooperative and two American journalists, to be completely marginalised, power reinforcing the process of silencing the African and black and ZACF voices that we have mentioned. It allows AK Press to effectively ban from publication Black Flame: The Revolutionary Class Politics of Anarchism and Syndicalism, which was primarily authored by one-time ZACF member, comrade Lucien van der Walt, almost a decade ago, as part of a larger project with Schmidt. It allows Anarkismo’s efforts to democratise the AK Press space by taking responsibility, qualifying its claims, and carrying different views on the story, to be ignored. It allows Reid Ross and Stephens to say what they wish about ZACF from behind the secure walls of the dollar and the American legal system. And it allows the unedifying spectacle of two white Americans doling out advice on racial politics and “the deleterious effects of institutionalized power disparities” to African and black anarchist revolutionaries.

32. We reject the AK Press collective’s attempts to deny responsibility in this affair. By their own admission, they worked with Reid Ross and Stephens to investigate Schmidt, and collaborated with them in compiling evidence; and they have provided the main platform for the mass dissemination of Reid Ross and Stephens’ seven articles. They are as responsible as Reid Ross and Stephens for what the ZACF has endured.

33. All of this is far from the prefigurative, solidaristic and internationalist movement we would like to see change the world. To avoid similar situations in future, we advocate a code of conduct for anarchist or anarchist-identified writers and journalists, that measures be put in place to keep small collectives controlling massive resources – including publishers like AK Press – accountable to the movements they claim to serve, the development of a more inclusive anarchist press, in which voices from working class and peasant movements, from ghettoes, from townships, from labour movements, from the oppressed nationalities and classes, and from the Global South as well as the Global North, are central.

34. ZACF also believes that substantial sectors of the self-identified anarchist movement need to have some serious introspection about the political culture of venom, sectarianism, and McCarthyite-style paranoia, obsessed with ultra-fringe forces like “national-anarchism,” exposed in the Schmidt affair. This that often substitutes for, and certainly hinders, building a mass, sustained, organised anarchism and syndicalism rooted in the popular classes, in labour movements, in oppressed nationalities, and in actual revolutionary struggles. Approaches like those proposed by Anarkismo and ZACF – a cautious approach to serious allegations, the use of a commission – can play an important role in this process.

35. We do not object to debate, or to criticism or self-reflection. Nor do we object to the anarchist and syndicalist movement having open and frank discussions. We do not call for a unity based on ignoring differences or on silence. We welcome open and honest debate as an essential part of an effective political practice. But what we do object to are debates based on sectarianism, personal attacks, innuendos, labelling, and bullying, and a lack of sensitivity to power dynamics.

36. We wish to stress that we have no personal issues with either Reid Ross or Stephens, neither of whom we know. We have no objections to critique. And we note Reid Ross emailed us on 27 December 2015 to state, “You have only my deepest respect for carrying on your incredible work” and stated he was “deeply sorry” if the articles created problems for ZACF. He also stated, “It was always my intention to remove both your collective and Lucien [van der Walt] from the investigation in such a way that would prevent a kind of ‘witch hunt’ effect.” We appreciate this effort to reach out to us, and the sentiment contained in these statements.

37. But the fact remains that the articles have, whether intentional or not, promoted falsehoods about ZACF, created serious problems for ZACF, silenced and even lectured ZACF. Neither AK Press, nor Stephens, nor Reid Ross have admitted this publicly; AK Press cancelled “Black Flame,” of which comrade van der Walt was primary author, Reid Ross and Stephens slated that book in their articles and by implication comrade van der Walt, and the articles presented ZACF as fundamentally subverted by a fascist and racist agenda. This obviously creates problems for ZACF.

38. Although Black Flame has, like any book, various flaws, and is not a ZACF publication, we insist that it is a revolutionary anarchist classic that remains of enduring value. It is a non-Eurocentric South-centred text that, for the first time, places people of colour, the Global South and struggles against imperialism and racism at the very centre of the history, canon and movements of historic anarchism and syndicalism. Reid Ross and Stephens themselves concede the book asserts the “primacy of class struggle and workers’ movements” in a global anarchist struggle – and this is not a rightist or a nationalist position.

39. We therefore urge both Reid Ross and Stephens, as well as members of the AK Press collective, not to fire off a hasty response to what we have written, but to consider seriously and respectfully the problems they have created for ZACF, one of the main anarchist organisations in Africa. And to admit there is fault, and that there are errors in the articles and the process that created them. We have no personal issues with any of these parties: we are raising issues of principle and process that deserve due consideration and a respectful conversation. We urge them to avoid statements that trivialize what has been done to ZACF, and how it has been done, or that evade responsibility by suggesting our responses are unduly emotional or ignorant.

40. If they are deeply sorry for the problems they created, as Reid Ross stated in his e-mail to the ZACF, they should issue a public apology to ZACF and to comrades Nyalungu and van der Walt (approved by ZACF in advance), for the misrepresentations that have been made, and also make a clear public statement (approved by ZACF in advance) explicitly stating that the allegations that they have made against Schmidt refer to Schmidt alone, and not to any publishers, co-authors, editors, left organisations or currents with which he may have been associated. (To his credit, Reid Ross has suggested that he is amiable to the idea of such a statement although we note that it has not, so far, appeared. We note with appreciation a statement by Reid Ross published on 17 February ( http://alexanderreidross.com/ideological-influence-and-the-schmidt-affair/ [10]) in which he states that “some have implicated the wrong people, groups, or sets of ideas”, but do not feel this goes far enough in addressing our concerns and ameliorating the damage done to the political work, dignity and reputation of the ZACF, comrades Nyalungu and van der Walt or “Black Flame”.)

CONTENTS:

**SECTION 1: THE ZACF, AN AFRICAN REVOLUTIONARY CLASS-STRUGGLE ANARCHIST / SYNDICALIST FORMATION

*1A. ZACF: Politics, Record and the Black Working Class Revolution
*1B. Locating ZACF in Southern Africa’s Radical “Humanism” and Revolutionary Non-Racialism
*1C. Online Resources on the ZACF

**SECTION 2: ANARKISMO & ZACF POSITIONS ON THE MICHAEL SCHMIDT ISSUE SO FAR

*2A. Overview of the 2015 Controversy over Michael Schmidt
*2B. How Anarkismo and ZACF Intervened at the Start of the Michael Schmidt Controversy
*2C. A Proposed Anarchist/ Syndicalist Commission into the Charges against Schmidt in 2016
*2D. FACT: ZACF Questioned Schmidt When Similar Allegations were made from 2011 Onwards
*2E. FACT: ZACF has Not Yet Taken a Position For or Against Schmidt in 2015/ 2016

**SECTION 3: GRAVE CONCERNS WITH REID ROSS & STEPHENS’ ACCOUNT OF ZACF

*3A. A Summary of Reid Ross & Stephens’ Inaccurate Claims about ZACF
*3B. FACT: The ZACF Never Considered any Proposal for “Segregation,” Argued Instead for a Black Working Class Focus, in 2003
*3C. FACT: The ZACF Never “Purged” Township Groups or Members
*3D. FACT: ZACF Mass Work in Motsoaledi, Soweto as Against Reid Ross & Stephens’ Disrespect for Comrade Nyalungu and PMCP/ BAG
*3E. FACT: ZACF Spending and ZACF Democracy
*3F. FACT: The 2007 ZACF Congress Aimed to Rebuild the ZACF Presence in the Black Working Class
*3G. FACT: The ZACF (and Schmidt) Rejected Schmidt’s “Politico-Cultural Dynamics …” Document in 2008
*3H. FACT: The Revolutionary Politics of “Black Flame”
*3I. FACT: Dispelling the Myth of a ZACF Debate on the “Recruitment of People of Colour” and of ZACF Becoming “Increasingly Open”
*3J. FACT: Claims that Schmidt Allegedly Voted FF+ were Never Ignored
*3K. FACT: Dispelling the Myth of a ZACF Debate on the “Inclusion of Feminism,” 2009-2010
*3L. FACT: Dispelling the Myth of a Debate on Working with “Collectives with Ideological Differences,” 2009-2010

**SECTION 4: METHODOLOGY: SOME REASONS FOR THE PROBLEMS IN REID ROSS & STEPHENS’ ZACF RESEARCH

*4A. Extraordinarily Narrow Data Collection, which Silenced ZACF, African and Black Anarchists
*4B. A Selective Use of Evidence and Leading the Witness
*4C. The Need to Distinguish Direct Witness Testimony, Second-hand Information and Opinion
*4D. Research Problems with Excessively Using Anonymous Sources
*4E. Fact-Checking Controlled by the Authors
*4F. Was Such Extensive Anonymity Really Required?
*4G. Time Constraints Do Not Explain the Mistakes
*4H. The Lack of a Proper Editorial or Peer-Review Process

**SECTION 5: THEORETICAL FRAMING: SOME REASONS FOR THE PROBLEMS IN REID ROSS & STEPHENS’ ANALYSIS

*5A. Authoritarian Nationalism and Colonial Reason: The Roots of Anti-Left Arguments
*5B. The Unknown Country: Reading South Africa off the USA and Western Europe

**SECTION 6: POLITICAL ISSUES IN THE AFFAIR – AND HOW A BETTER ANARCHISM IS POSSIBLE

*6A. For a Constructive Debate, Against Sectarianism
*6B. The Importance of Consistent Principles: The Double Standards of Personal Security in the Schmidt Affair
*6C. The AK Press Connection: Also Guilty
*6D. The North/ South Dynamics of the Schmidt Affair

Link to the full statement

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“South Africa’s Untold Tragedy of Neoliberal Apartheid” by Jérôme Roos

December 8, 2013

SA blood

In light of the recent death of Nelson Mandela, the “father” of post-Apartheid South Africa, I am reposting this excellent reflection by Jérôme E. Roos on a recent trip to the country.  The essay was originally published in Reflections on a Revolution (ROAR) on 12 November 2013.

Twenty years after apartheid, the old freedom fighters of the ANC have come to reproduce the same structures of oppression against which they once arose.

We were driving down the N3 highway on our way back home from the Eastern port city of Durban, passing by the endless lines of improvised shacks that constitute the Katlehong township just outside Johannesburg, when we saw the flashing blue lights of a police car in the distance. As we approached, a horrific scene revealed itself. A local slumdweller, probably somewhere in his thirties, lay dead on the side of the road, his body awkwardly twisted into an impossible position, his eyes still wide open. Some two hundred meters ahead, a car had pulled over on the curb, its driver casually leaning on the vehicle while talking to a policeman. No one had even bothered to cover up the body. This man just lay there like a dead animal — another road kill in endless wave of needlessly extinguished lives.

Every year, more than 14.000 people are killed on the road in South Africa, an average of 38 per day — nearly half of whom are pedestrians. Of the other half, many die as overloaded buses, micro-vans or so-called bakkies crash during the daily commute from the townships to the city to work as waiters, clerks or house maids. Just today, a bus full of commuters slammed into a truck on a narrow and potholed road to Pretoria, killing 29. But in the aggregate, tragedies like these are only numbers in a cold statistical series. The front pages of the country’s newspapers remain splattered with horror stories and graphic photos of brutal killings, as fifty people are murdered daily. Another 770 people die from AIDS every day. A total of 5.7 million, or 18% of South Africans, is HIV/AID infected, the highest infection rate in the world. Needless to say, one of the bloody red lines that runs through the broken social fabric of this heartbreakingly beautiful country is that human life is accorded shockingly little value.

“They Only Care About Power, Not People”

All of this became painfully obvious in August last year when militarized police forces violently cracked down on a wildcat miners’ strike in the platinum town of Marikana. In the ensuing bloodbath, the most serious bout of state violence since the Sharpville massacre of 1960 and the end of apartheid in 1994, 34 workers were killed after being peppered with machine gun fire at close range. Needless to say, the Marikana massacre brought back painful memories of police brutality under white minoritarian rule. This time, however, the policemen and politicians responsible for the massacre were mostly black and represented the same party that had once led the struggle against racial oppression: the ruling ANC of President Jacob Zuma and the iconic freedom fighter Nelson Mandela. The Marikana massacre was the most powerful expression yet that little had changed below the surface. The violence of the state simply reasserted itself anew under the ANC.

Today, the ANC faces a growing crisis of legitimacy. While it is still on course to win next year’s elections, disillusionment with the party and its leaders has become widespread even among its traditional support base: poor people living in the shantytowns. “The ANC today is all about power, not the people,” union organizer Teboho Masiza said during the one-year commemoration of the massacre in August this year. “They are supposed to be here to listen to the problems of the people of South Africa. But they are nowhere to be seen. They only look after themselves.” Andile Nkoci, a young miner from the East Cape, said he felt betrayed: “They have abandoned us. They are only looking to make money for themselves.” Another miner, Alton Dalasile, more recently echoed the exact same frustration: “They have abandoned and betrayed us. The ANC is no longer the party of the poor man, the working man. They care only about enriching themselves.”

The Authentic Tragedy of the World’s Liberal Conscience

The story of South Africa over the last 20 years must qualify as one of the most authentic political tragedies of our era. Once upon a time, not very long ago, the country was held up as an example to the world. In 1994, when the apartheid regime finally came to an end and South Africans overwhelmingly elected Mandela as their first democratic President, the world looked to South Africa with a mix of hope and expectation. In this new era of globalization, the Rainbow Nation seemed destined to break down the lines between social and racial divisions. Legal scholars hailed the country’s new constitution as the most progressive in the world. Truth and reconciliation committees were to set up to transcend old grudges and to come to terms with the country’s racist past. The new South African flag, combining elements of the ANC’s party flag and the national flags of Britain and the Netherlands, was meant to symbolize a new harmony converging from racial segregation into “unity-in-diversity”. The new anthem combined elements from the Xhosa and pan-African liberation hymn Nkosi Sikelel’ iAfrika (God Bless Africa) with the old Afrikaner anthem, Die Stem van Suid-Afrika (The Voice of South Africa).

But don’t forget: these were the halcyon days of a triumphant neoliberalism. The Cold War was over, communism had been defeated, the Gulf War had reasserted American hegemony in the world, and Francis Fukuyama had just thrown the doors of the radical imagination shut by publicly declaring the End of History. From now on, global capitalism and liberal democracy were to reign supreme. South Africa, as it emerged from the depths of institutionalized racism, became a progressive beacon of this new world order — and Mandela its very conscience. In this brave new world, Mandela was a former revolutionary turned philosopher-king; an elder of the global village who came to represent not only the suffering and aspirations of black Africans, but also the hopes and desires of Western progressives. Mandela mingled with world leaders, the European royalty and multi-billionaires; he hung out with popstars and sports legends, but he also maintained a close friendship with Fidel Castro and Muammar Khaddafi. Father Madiba, in a way, was above politics. Or was he?

The Post-Racial Apartheid of Neoliberal Globalization

Today, both the revolutionary narrative of the ANC militants and the liberal narrative of the world’s progressives ring increasingly hollow. Racial segregation may have been institutionally lifted, but the socio-economic segregation that undergirded it continues unabated. South Africa is still one of the most shockingly unequal places in the world, ranking second (after Lesotho) on family-level inequality. In this middle-income country, forty-seven percent of the population still lives in poverty, which is actually two percent more than back in 1994. Unemployment formally stands at 25 percent, but the rate goes up to 50 percent for young black men. Twenty years later, blacks on average still earn six times less than whites. While a couple of pejoratively called “black diamonds” have made it to the top, crafting a small indigenous elite that slowly takes up residence in the old vestiges of white privilege, for the vast majority of South Africans nothing has really changed.

Of course, there are good reasons for this. Apartheid fell as neoliberalism rose, knocking down old walls on its quest for globalized market access but forever erecting new ones in its concomittant quest for cheap labor and natural resources. Samir Amin once wrote that “the logic of this globalization trend consists in nothing other than that of organizing apartheid on a global scale.” Apartheid here is not meant as a metaphor; it is what a philosopher might call anontological category of the neoliberal world order. As Slavoj Žižek has argued, “the explosive growth of slums in the last decades … is perhaps the crucial geopolitical event of our times.” Shantytowns continue to arise around South Africa’s cities and mines as workers migrate in the hope of securing a humble living, even as new gated communities and shopping malls protected by private security guards bearing assault rifles spring up to cater to the consumerist desires of an emerging interracial elite. The Rainbow Nation may be blind to race at the top; but it still reproduces apartheid-era segregation at the bottom.

The Oppressive State and the Political Philosophy of Rights

None of this is a coincidence. In a way, the tragic outcome of the ANC’s liberation struggle was encoded into the very DNA of the party’s vanguardist strategy. First of all, the ANC decided to take over existing institutions — political and economic institutions that were based on systematic exclusion and massive inequality — and thereby ended up unwittingly reproducing these same oppressive structures with a new elite formation. Secondly, as Lawrence Hamilton explains in his book The Political Philosophy of Needs, the ANC leadership deliberately embraced a particular ideological vision of how to “transform” the country: a vision he refers to as the “political philosophy of rights”, in other words: liberalism. South Africa’s new constitution was the clearest manifestation of this: everything was put to work to secure the rights of individuals to vote and be represented, to own property, and to not be discriminated against in any way. Little attention, however, was given to questions of political participation, genuine popular sovereignty, and the satisfaction of basic human needs.

This state-centered and rights-based approach never truly broke with the legacy of apartheid; it merely extended the franchise while keeping the structural logic of separation between people and power, between property-owners and wage-earners, intact. Partly because of the reigning neoliberal ideology of the time, and partly out of fear of reproducing the Zimbabwean experience where Mugabe’s violent land expropriations had led to a white exodus and economic collapse, Mandela and the ANC opted for a gradualist approach that actually ended up turning the ANC into an agent of apartheid itself. Legally, the property rights of white landowners took priority over the human needs of local shackdwellers. Workers’ rights were increasingly hollowed out as the right to unionize gave way to the “right” to be “represented” by a corrupt and ANC co-opted union leadership. The state-oriented approach and the political philosophy of rights thus locked poor South Africans into a logic of representation and top-down decision-making whereby human needs, social autonomy and political participation came to be subordinated to the formation of a new political and corporate elite of former ANC revolutionaries.

Towards Autonomy and a Political Philosophy of Needs

But there are signs that things may be changing. In 2005, a completely different type of movement burst onto the scene when a large group of poor shackdwellers set up a roadblock in Durban to protest against the eviction of an informal settlement. The so-called Abahlali baseMjondolo, or shackdwellers’ movement, has since spread to Cape Town and Pietermaritzburg. With tens of thousands of members, Abahlali now constitutes the single largest grassroots organization of poor South Africans. Unlike the reactionary maverick, corrupt multi-millionaire and former ANC youth leader Julius Malema, who is now contesting the ANC on a Chávez-inspired populist platform, Abahlali stresses its autonomy from state institutions, political parties, businesses and NGOs, and rejects both the ANC and its principal rivals in the opposition, drawing instead on self-organization and direct action to secure improvements in living conditions, to defend communities under threat of eviction, to reclaim urban land for social redistribution, and to democratize society from below.

The ANC and all other so-called revolutionaries betrayed the poor the moment they made it their aim to take over the institutions of apartheid and reproduce them in a different form. But with the ANC’s crisis of legitimacy deepening following the Marikana massacre, more and more people who do not feel represented are being driven towards the only sensible conclusion. Earlier this year, in March, one thousand shackdwellers stormed a piece of land in Cato Crest in Durban, occupied it, and called it Marikana in honor of the slain miners. The action was just one more expression of the dawning realization around the world that, in these times of universal deceit, only an insistence on radical autonomycan take the revolution forward. In South Africa, the only way to overcome the social segregation that continues to needlessly kill hundreds every day, is to embrace a political philosophy of needs that focuses on the empowerment of communities; that operates through democratic participation and militant direct action; and that — instead of trying to ‘emancipate’ South Africans by becoming more like their former oppressors — actively breaks out of the cycle of exploitation by building interracial autonomy from below.

Radical Political Economy of the Environment

October 17, 2013

Libres&Salvajes800

Libres y Salvajes, (“Wild and Free”) by Santi Armengod

Originally published on Counterpunch, 15 October 2013

On Saturday, 5 October, the Union for Radical Political Economics (URPE) held a conference on the “Political Economy of the Environment” at St. Francis College in Brooklyn. As should be obvious, any application of a “radical political economic analysis to social problems” such as the devastating present environmental crisis should likely be welcomed at this late stage; thus, the URPE’s twin strategy of advancing a “continuing critique of the capitalist system and all forms of exploitation and oppression” and “helping to construct a progressive social policy and create socialist alternatives” should prove an attractive one to self-identified militants.  It it thus with militant desire that I attended the conference.

Fortunately, I consciously missed the morning plenary, entitled “Confronting Capital in Defense of the Environment,” given that Christian Parenti was slated to speak—while I liked his 2011 book Tropic of Chaos: Climate Change and the New Geography of Violence, I had been rather disappointed by his presentation just months prior at the 2013 Left Forum, where he presented a totally reformist—hence inadequate—vision for combating the specter of catastrophic climate change, one which I felt served to foster illusion and delusion with regard to the willingness of the U.S. ruling elite to act swiftly to redress climate breakdown. As far as I understand, Parenti presented very similar notions at the URPE morning plenary, side-by-side with his co-panelist Prof. Robin Hahnel, who in his comments regarding “Left Unity” on “Climate Change Policy” apparently cast carbon-trading mechanisms in a positive light. Less problematically, Sean Sweeney of Cornell’s Global Labor Institute reportedly advanced more legitimate perspectives than the other two plenary speakers in his arguments for a “Progressive Labor Agenda on Work and the Environment.”

As against what could be taken to have been a rough start, the first afternoon workshop I attended, “Environmental Issues for Developing Countries,” was quite excellent. The session began with the intervention of Fabián Balardini, who took a critical view of “Extractivism and the Governing Left in South America.” He opened his presentation by citing Karl Marx’s famous reformulation of G.W.F. Hegel’s observation that history repeats itself over time tragically, noting such repetitions to transcend tragedy for farce: in essence, the “pink-tide” governments advancing “Twenty-First Century Socialism” in Latin America are resorting to the same resource-intensive, environmentally destructive modes of “development” that had been advanced by the twentieth-century neo-liberal governments which they have replaced.

As has been theorized both by Rosa Luxemburg and David Harvey, this model is one of “accumulation by dispossession”: whereas previous Western-oriented governments in the region promoted extractivism in conformity with the neo-classical theory of “comparative advantage” (essentially, specialization), the new “progressive” governments of Venezuela, Bolivia, and Ecuador continue in this tradition by arguing that its perpetuation is necessary toward the end of decreasing material poverty and gross social inequality. As Balardini showed, however, citing the work of Ecuadorean economist Pablo Davolos, recent declines in poverty rates in these countries may have more to do with remittances from migrant laborers abroad than increased governmental spending resulting from taxes on increased natural-resource exploitation: indeed, Davolos infamously finds that a great deal of the income gained from “progressive” extractivist schemes has—rather than be transferred to the people through social spending—instead been invested in major international banks!

In light of such considerations, Balardini’s comical summarization of the political philosophy of the late Hugo Chávez is particularly adept: “Oil producers of the world, unite!” and “Two, three, many OPECs!” Similarly, Balardini showed the government of Evo Morales to be rather hypocritical, given its posturing on the one hand in the international arena against the undoubtedly terracidal climate-inaction regimes pushed by the U.S., Europe, and China, as juxtaposed with his mandated expansion of hydrocarbon and mineral exploitation in Bolivia, particularly on indigenous lands. Also farcical in Balardini’s estimation is the rule of Rafael Correa in Ecuador, who transformed the original indigenous proposal to without question leave the petroleum reserves discovered within the Amazonian Yasuní reserve undisturbed into a money-making scheme. As is well-known, Correa’s proposal was for the international community to provide for an estimated half of the projected market value of the Yasuní oil deposits (estimated at 840 million barrels), as based at least in part in the principle of constraining future carbon emissions, in exchange for his government’s observance of the indigenous and popular desire not to “develop” Yasuní—a region of the Amazon believed to possess in a single hectare more species than exist in all of North America.

Given that international donors only came up with $13 million of the estimated $3.6 billion Correa had demanded, the deal has been cancelled, with the country’s parliament voting ten days ago to authorize oil drilling in Yasuní. First tragedy, then farce… Beyond Chávez, Morales, and Correa, Balardini showed even the new government of José Mujica in Uruguay to favor the orthodox economic policies upheld by his allies, this despite his iconoclastic support for such social measures as gay marriage and marijuana legalization.

As should be obvious, then, this “progressive” economic model provides no real alternative to mainstream capitalism, instead merely mirroring its brutal and thoughtless legacy. With this in mind, it should come as no surprise, as Balardini revealed, that the percentage of primary products in export revenues has in fact increased under the “left-wing” governments, as compared to their neo-liberal predecessors; in this sense, Morales, Correa, and co. are merely following the money—according to data presented by Balardini, the extractive industries have in recent years proven more profitable than pharmaceuticals themselves! Similarly unsurprising, for all its horror, is the increase in the criminalization and repression of environmental protest in these countries, given the 150 ecologists murdered in Ecuador in recent years and the unleashing of police forces on indigenous protestors expressing their opposition to Morales’ plans to build a highway through the TIPNIS nature reserve (September 2011). But apologists of these “socialist” regimes can take pride in the fact that, like Prof. Hahnel, Correa too supports carbon markets!

The next speaker on “Environmental Issues for Developing Countries” was Paul Cooney, a Marxist economist working at the Universidade Federal do Pará in Brazil, who spoke on the “re-primarization” of national economies in Latin America—that is to say, the relative de-industrialization experienced in recent decades by countries such as Brazil and Argentina which has led them to regress into becoming major agro- and mineral-exporters. This historical process, which has followed from the existence of relatively high interest rates and, in the case of Brazil, the overvaluing of currency, has led these two countries to focus heavily on large-scale mining and capital-intensive agricultural production, particularly of soy crops. Indeed, on the global market, Brazil and Argentina have joined the U.S. as the largest soy exporters in the world.

In Brazil, growth in soy production has greatly accelerated the destruction of the Amazon rainforest, thus exacerbating this worrying trend which previously had been driven by the demand to massively expand the number of cattle to be reared and slaughtered for export. In Argentina, soy has become something of a monoculture, with Cooney claiming 95% of the crop to be genetically modified. One result of this process—the threat to domestic food security aside—has been the effective alliance with Monsanto and the massive use of its herbicides which have destroyed a great deal of the microbial life in the soils of Argentina. As highly capital- and land-intensive enterprises, soy megaprojects in both countries come to parallel the expansion of mega-mining in Brazil: the world’s single-largest iron ore open-pit mine is located in Carajás in the Brazilian state of Pará, and much of the recent impetus to erect hydroelectric dams in the country—think of the proposed Belo Monte Dam on the Xingu River, a major tributary of the Amazon and home to tens of thousands of indigenous peoples—in fact corresponds to the energy demands of planned mining projects, noted Cooney.

The final speaker for this session was Sirisha Naidu, who discussed forest-management policy in India. Naidu contrasted the imposition of the “scientific management” forestry model during the British Raj and its perpetuation after formal independence in 1947 with the community-based natural resource management (CBNRM) model practiced at the grassroots and theorized by scholars such as Elinor Ostrom. As against the profit-based extractivism favored by the postcolonial State, Naidu explained that the coming of the Convention on Biological Diversity in 1992 explicitly opened space for community management of resources, leading eventually in 2006 to the Indian Forest Rights Act which recognizes the rights of so-called “encroachers” to the forests in which they may reside. Naidu welcomed the fact that the increased respect for CBNRM policies have in some cases successfully blocked the expansion of mining projects in Indian states, yet she expressed concern that it may also increase the risk of land being employed for less savory ends; moreover, she noted the problematic tendency to consider communities as monolithic entities, an approach which effectively papers over the very real social inequalities and oppressions experienced in such settings.

During the second afternoon session, there was a workshop on “Grassroots Initiatives against the Theft of Resources by Multinationals” on the continent of Africa. First to speak was Milton Allimadi, editor of Black Star News, who spoke on grassroots resistance in Uganda to the U.S.-backed dictator Yoweri Museveni, particularly as coalescing around the proposed deal between the Mehta Group and Museveni’s government to clear 30% of the Mabira rainforest to make way for a sugar plantation (2006-2007). Against this proposal, mass-popular demonstrations were organized, coupled with boycotts of Mehta sugar, leading Museveni to order violent repression, a move that only intensified the opposition movement, ultimately leading the government to suspend negotiations for the project—which would have greatly enriched the ruling elite, as Allimadi argued. He also mentioned that millions have been dispossessed of their lands in Uganda in recent years, given the introduction by foreign investors of commercial farming on lands that have been effectively expropriated in cohoots with the Museveni government.

After Allimadi spoke Maurice Carney, from Friends of the Congo, who presented a comprehensive overview of the history of the Democratic Republic of the Congo/Zaire. A country approximately the size of Western Europe, the DRC is the site of vast mineral wealth—one estimate claims the sum of its geological resources to amount to $24 trillion—while its peoples have suffered the world’s most devastating war since WWII in recent decades, leading the UN consistently to locate it at the very bottom of the Human Development Report. Indeed, Carney revealed that it was from Congo that the U.S. military extracted the very uranium it would employ in the atomic bombs it dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945. So in addition to the 10-15 million Congolese killed by the imposition of Belgian rule in the person of Leopold II at the turn of the nineteenth century, some 6 million have lost their lives in the wars which began with Museveni and Paul Kagame’s invasions to depose Mobutu Sese Seko (1996)—another kleptocrat backed by the U.S., one who in fact replaced anti-colonial Prime Minister Patrice Lumumba, who in turn was overthrown and murdered by the CIA in 1961 out of fear that the U.S. would “lose the Congo” and all of Africa if Lumumba were “allowed” to continue with his autonomous policies following Congo’s formal independence from Belgium (1960).

It is the U.S. “darlings” Museveni and Kagame, noted Carney, who constitute the “godfathers” of the mass mineral-exploitation of the eastern DRC that has sustained the genocide experienced in the region. Nonetheless, of course, both Western consumers and the world’s militaries remain entirely complicit in these massive crimes: as should be well-known, the coltan mined in eastern DRC constitutes a critical component of most if not all current electronics devices (cell phones and computers) as well as jet-fighter systems, while cobalt similarly serves many functions for the military-industrial complex. In conclusion, Carney noted that the international corporate media focuses far more on Robert Mugabe’s regime in Zimbabwe than on the astronomically larger social devastation in DRC—mostly because Mugabe resists Anglo-American political designs, while the culprits in the DRC are entirely supported by the West. However, Carney expressed hope in the oppositional potential of the presently developing Congolese youth movement.

Lastly in this session, Tseliso Thipanyane of the South African Human Rights Commission spoke on the situation in his home country as well as in Nigeria. At the outset of his comments, Thipanyane observed that the historical trajectory of these two countries shows clearly the extent to which the interests of transnational capitalism have captured indigenous African elites, tying them indelibly into the perpetuation of the system. Optimistically noting that it would take 30 years and $1 billion dollars to remediate the Niger Delta following the extreme devastation wrought on the region by Royal Dutch Shell, Thipanyane noted a similar tendency in South Africa, especially given the shocking Marikana massacre of striking platinum miners in August 2012—a show of force, he claimed, which no one in South Africa would have expected from Nelson Mandela’s African National Congress (ANC), which of course overturned formal Apartheid in 1994.

Nonetheless, Thipanyane observed that even at the Davos Forum in 1992, Mandela was threatened by powerful transnational economic interests, leading him to drop his previous advocacy of the nationalization of South Africa’s mines following the coming fall of Apartheid. In an analysis reminiscent of John Pilger’s recent denunciation of Mandela’s effectively capitalist economic policies, Thipanyane observed that since 1994 many ANC insiders have become major shareholders in the country’s large mining operations, leading inexorably to State capture by oligarchical interests. In environmental terms, Thipanyane mentioned the worrying tendency by which the sulfuric acid produced in mega-mining has penetrated the country’s water supply, forcing its government to begin to import water from Lesotho. In more systemic terms, he noted that, while Africa south of the Sahel famously stands to bear the worst impacts of climate change, the governments of the region can pay no more than lip service to the struggle against this horror, given their total integration into global capitalism.

Next and last for the day came the closing plenary on “Capitalism, Environmental Crises, and the Left.” First to address the audience was Prof. Joan Hoffman, who condemned hydrofracking as a proposed alternative to the petroleum-based economy (the idea of natural gas as a “bridge fuel”). She noted the fracking industry to act typically, as in the mantra of “come, harm, take, and go,” and she warned of the serious risks of large methane leaks from fracking sites, as well as the real threat of explosions. Against the “vampire economics” represented by hydrofracking, Hoffman proposed stewardship economics, which would be based on cradle-to-cradle production and powered by renewable resources such as solar and wind. Next spoke Salvatore Engel di-Mauro, editor of the journal Capitalism Nature Socialism, who warned of the problems posed to left-wing environmental politics by over-reliance on the findings of “bourgeois scientists.”

Arguing soil pollution and degradation to represent an ecological problem equal to climate change in severity, Salvatore noted that the employment of soil-quality indicators derived from the aforementioned scientists often leads to an increase in use of fertilizers, and he warned that the historical bioaccumulation of heavy metals in urban settings may pose a serious problem for the recent emergence of urban agriculture. Indeed, he observed that one approach favored by bourgeois soil scientists has been to engage in bioremediation schemes which aim to extract heavy metals from the soil so as to allow them to be liberated and reused in production! Salvatore clearly declared that the “neutrality” and “objectivity” which are mainstays of mainstream science must be broken with radically in the struggle for emancipation.

Finally, Paul Cooney spoke once again, this time on globalization and the second contradiction of capitalism, which he took from the work of Marxist economist James O’Connor. While capitalism’s first contradiction is better-known—referring to the class struggle between labor and capital—the second postulated contradiction has to do with the conflicts between relations of production and conditions of production, particularly in ecological terms, such that capitalism effectively “fouls its own nest,” as John Bellamy Foster writes, through the destruction of the life-world it prosecutes via its endless pursuit of profit. Invoking the spirit of (anti)catastrophism theorized by Sasha Lilley and comrades in their 2012 PM Press book on the subject—which was, incidentally, severely criticized by Ian Angus in last month’s issue of Monthly Review—Cooney argued that we still have two fronts with which to confront capital: labor and the environment.