1. First, perhaps you could say something about yourself and the organisation you are part of?
This interview was done with Sh. And St. of the Durban-based Zabalaza Action Group (ZAG), Joe Black of the regional Anarchist Black Cross (ABC), who is the ZACF acting regional secretary, and Michael Schmidt of the Johannesburg-based Bikisha Media Collective (BMC) who is the ZACF acting international secretary. Joe and Sh. Are also involved with Zabalaza Books (ZB), while Michael is also involved with the ABC. The collectives we are members of are among the founding collectives of the ZACF. Some of them, like ZB, originated as underground collectives a decade ago in the twilight of apartheid.
2. Does it involve blacks and whites? What class/social background is the typical member?
The Federation’s groups are made up of both blacks and whites who are majority Working Class, some of whom are unemployed or students. Current membership is pretty equally divided between black and white, but there are far more black people living in “squatter camps” and townships who have expressed a genuine interest in anarchism than white people living in suburbs. A typical member would be in their early 20s, casually employed and male. We expect female membership to climb as our community projects prove their worth and also hope to attract indigenous*, Asian and coloured activists. (*NB: “indigenous” refers to Bushmen, Griquas, Khoekhoen and other self-described “yellow” First Peoples who lived in SA before black people arrived).
3. Has there been much of an African Anarchist tradition/movement?
Long under the whip of hyper-extractive colonial regimes, the development of the entire spectrum of left-wing revolutionism in Africa has been slaved firstly to the late or very narrow development of an industrial working class in a handful of countries – and secondly to the development of national liberation struggles. In the first case, it was only countries such as South Africa, Algeria and Egypt where colonialism established significant settler populations (many of them labourers from Europe, or indentured labourers from India and Asia) to run sophisticated economies based on mining, commercial agriculture and their associated infrastructure. It is no accident that it is in these countries that anarchism first gained a foothold more than a century ago, finding its highest expression in the IWW-influenced revolutionary syndicalism of the Industrial Workers of Africa (IWA, founded 1917) and of the Indian Workers Industrial Union (IWIU, founded 1919) in South Africa. A notable exception to the trend is in the then-Portuguese colony of Mozambique, where it appears that an anarcho-synndicalist trade union federation allied to the powerful Portuguese General Confederation of Labour (CGT) flourished into the late 1920s in the complete absence of a domestic communist party. The situation in the other main Portuguese colony of Angola is likely to have been similar (a possible contributing factor to the choice of a red-and-black post-colonial flag?), but this is an unstudied history. Two factors contributed to the decay of the “first wave” of revolutionary syndicalism & anarcho-syndicalism in Africa. Firstly, as with other Anglophone countries (former British colonies), the lack of a specific anarchist organisation crippled revolutionary syndicalist organisations in meeting the challenges of Bolshevism and of emergent petit-bourgeois black nationalism (the ANC for instance), so the Industrial and Commercial Union (ICU, founded 1918) that the IWA and IWIU gave birth to spread as far afield as Zambia and peaked in 1927, but collapsed in ideological confusion thereafter. Secondly, from the early 1930s, much of Africa started to fall under fascism: Mozambique, Angola and other Portuguese territories under Salazar’s regime after 1927; Libya, Ethiopia and Eritrea under Mussolini in the late 1930s; Morocco and Spanish Sahara under Franco’s Spain from 1936; Algeria, French West Africa (and Madagascar?) under Vichy France during the war; and Belgian Central Africa under Rexist Belgium during the war. The post-war acceleration of national liberation struggles thus took place in an anarchist vacuum – but in a condition of largely Soviet or Maoist seduction and patronage, while parts of Africa remained under fascist control into the mid-1970s (Angola and Mozambique). In the 1990s, following the collapse of the Soviet Union and the winding down of several struggles (notably against apartheid), anarchism resurfaced in the revolutionary syndicalist IWW of Sierra Leone, the anarcho-syndicalist Awareness League (AL) of Nigeria, the anarchist movements that lead to the formation of the Workers’ Solidarity Federation (WSF) in South Africa, and more recently, the Anarchist and Workers Solidarity Movement (AWSM) of Zambia, anarcho-syndicalist networks in Morocco and Burkina Faso, the Anti-Capitalist Convergence of Kenya (ACCK) that was started by anarchists and socialists, and the ZACF that followed on from the WSF.
4. What did you think of the book “African anarchism” by Sam Mbah and I.E. Igariwey? Do you think that is a good starting place to find out more about African Anarchism and its history?
The book is good in describing the anarchic elements of some traditional African societies that existed before colonisation, and is a good starting point but is limited because the anarchist movement has only really resurfaced in Africa (with the exception of the Awareness League) just prior to the book being published, and the socio-political climate has changed quite dramatically across the continent since then. The collapse of apartheid and the end that brought to cross-border conflicts in Namibia, Angola and Mozambique in particular, the defeat of the old US client regimes like the former Zaire (now the Democratic Republic of Congo) and proxy forces (like UNITA in Angola), and the exit of dictators like Daniel Arap.Moi of Kenya and Hastings Banda of Malawi has brought the Cold War in Africa to an end. But the raping of the DRC by trans-national corporations, under the cover of military conflict between nine countries, the exposure of the fraud of electoral politics through the corruption of new “democratic” regimes like that of Frederic Chiluba of Zambia, and the last-ditch scorched-earth stance of “socialist” dinosaurs like Robert Mugabe of Zimbabwe have kept tensions high. Adding to this is the smooth sub-imperialism of South Africa’s Thabo Mbeki and his neo-liberal “New Partnership for Africa’s Development” (NEPAD) that has ushered in a whole new era of struggle on the continent. The greatest strength of the book “African Anarchism” was its critique of the monster that was African socialism and of the current obstacles – and opportunities – presented for the development of anarchism by the thug rule and chaos that is governance and business on the continent. Its greatest weaknesses are, however: firstly an exaggerated over-emphasis on the libertarian traditions of some tribes which makes it seem to look in a primitivist direction for its anarchist inspiration (seemingly because of a lack of knowledge about syndicalist antecedents); and secondly a lack of a proper analysis of and description of at least the Awareness League itself, if not of other current African anarchist movements where its knowledge is understandably more slender.
5. Is there much interest in Anarchism in Southern Africa? Has this been reflected in the size and influence of your organisation?
There has definitely been a growing interest in anarchism in Southern Africa recently, but this has not yet been reflected in the size of the ZACF which is still in its embryonic stage. However, we are more concerned with spreading anarchist ideas and practices than building an organisation. The approach the ZACF has taken towards membership is that it recruits on a by-invitation-only basis those we have worked with for probably at least a year within the social movements, those we know are convinced and active anarchists. This is a totally different approach to the old WSF’s open-door “if you’re interested, you’re in” policy that contributed to its ideological and practical weakness. The greatest popular interest we experience in the poor communities where we work (and where many of us live) is not so much in the expression of anarchist (anti-)politics, but in its practical application: non-sectarian, horizontal, directly democratic community projects like food gardens and book-and-tool lending libraries. To put it simply: our practice is our strength and our attraction. But as an organisation, we remain a tiny, if very active, player in the radical and progressive social movements that sprang up in around 2000.
6. Has the failure of African authoritarian socialism played a role in rise of the interest in Anarchism? Or did the collapse of Stalinism in Eastern Europe play a greater role? Or was it a case of better politics coming out on top?
The concept of “African socialism” as defined by continental so-called liberation leaders like Kwame Nkrumah, Julius Nyerere, Amilcar Cabral, Agostinho Neto, Eduardo Mondlane, Ahmed Ben Bella and others (including interested outsiders like Frantz Fannon) has been hugely influential in the mal-development of the continent, both ideologically and economically. Some post-liberation countries experimented initially with a form of statist decentralisation, notably Libya under Muammar Gadaffi and Tanzania under Nkrumah while on the opposite side of the spectrum were the hyper-authoritarian Marxist regimes of the likes of Mengistu Haile Mariam’s Ethiopia. The primary external “socialist” influences (based on direct military/political/economic investment) were the old USSR and to a lesser extent Cuba, China, North Korea and East Germany. The collapse of the Soviet Bloc had a big impact on the sustainability of the fascade of “socialism” across much of the continent. Some regimes, like that of Mengistu, have collapsed. Others like Frelimo in Mozambique, have transformed themselves into bourgeois-democratic regimes. Still others like Zambia under Chiluba have capitulated wholesale to neo-liberalism. The evaporation of funding from foreign “communist” states was instrumental in provoking the collapse of unsustainable African “socialism”. Lacking sustained anarchist/libertarian/syndicalist mass organised traditions, the continent has not proven a rich environment for the revival of anti-authoritarian organisations. Where they have arisen, it has perhaps been only in part because of the ideological vacuum created by the collapse of the validity of “socialism”, and perhaps more because of specific local conditions: in Sierra Leone, it was the pitiful working conditions in the diamond mines that gave rise to the IWW section there; while in Nigeria, leftist oppisition to military rule helped forge the Awareneness League. In South Africa, the legitimacy crisis of the reformist SA Communist Party (SACP) and the erosion of worker gains by neo-liberalism have helped spur some interest in anarchism. But levels of interest and involvement in anarchism on the continent are extremely low (by comparison to Latin America or Eastern Europe, for example) and should not be overemphasised. The “best politics” has yet to even gain a significant foothold, let alone “come out on top”.
7. How does the ‘liberated’ South Africa look now? Has the ending of Apartheid seen any major changes?
There are significant structural, legal, economic, political and social changes – but also a widening wealth gap that for many black inhabitants means very little has changed in real terms. The scattered black homelands and their duplicate bureaucracies (including their armed forces) have been consolidated into a unitary state. A new human-rights-based constitution and the scrapping of all overt racially discriminatory laws has established a bourgeois parlimentary democracy in which the ANC is by far the dominant party with a 2/3 majority that they hope to consolidate in this year’s general election. Less overt racial laws, those that are class-based and biased in favour of big business, have, however ensured that the black majority remains landless, impoverished tenants in their own country.The country’s protectionist economics – reinforced by sanctions isolation – has been replaced by an open-door policy that has allowed cheap imports to flood the country, leading to the loss of some 1-million jobs since 1994. Probably the hardest-hit is the clothing manufacturing sector that has long been a stronghold of workerist organising, as well as organised agriculture. Wildcat strikes have been most marked in the motor manufacturing sector, and in the late 1990s there were a spate of blockades of arterial roads by radicals in the transport sector. Labour battles between progressive and reactionary unions lead to a few murders in the ports and mining sectors. Unemployment stands at perhaps 40%, but we will discuss labour in more detail later. While the laws dividing people along colour lines have changed, inequality and the wealth gap are increasing. Some 75% of all SA homes lack food security and one can find children suffering from malnutrition-related diseases like marasmus and kwashiokor on the doorsteps of our cities. HIV/AIDS has taken a huge toll and thousands of child orphans now find themselves the heads of their households, caring for their infant siblings as best they can. Some 62% of all blacks, 29% of all coloureds, 11% of all Asians and 4% of all whites currently live below the poverty line, a dramatic increase during the “decade of democracy”. Some 3.5-million have been evicted from their homes since 1994, often at gunpoint, while millions more have had their water and electricity cut off by municipalities who are far more interested in cost-recovery than the health of their residents. Many black people have commented on how life under the old apartheid regime was in some ways better in that there was more job security and there were state subsidies in services, which have been eroded by the neo-liberal GEAR (Growth Employment And Redistribution) economic policy of the ANC, which is a home-grown structural adjustment programme that even surprised the IMF and World Bank with its austerity. The racist white ultra-right has gone into a significant decline following the failed pre-1994 election Afrikaner Resistance Movement (AWB) invasion of the Bophuthatswana bantustan and the last-gasp election bombing campaign. The current treason trial against the Farmer Force (Boeremag) is demonstrating how weak and pathetic the white right is, despite grandiose plans of blowing up dams and seizing control of the armed forces – all of which came to naught. Still, racism is a deeply entrenched reality in many farming areas where black labourers have been murdered, tortured or shot at, often for the mildest of supposed infractions. On the other hand, studies have shown that most murders of white farmers are criminally and not politically motivated. Right-wing vitilantism and murder has become a problem, both with the black/white Spots of the Leopard (Mapogo a Matamaga) organisation in the northern provinces and the PAGAD Muslim/criminal organisation in the Western Cape, but both seem to be pretty quiet now. The main thing to recognise is that the mainstream right-wingers, both white and black, are now all in parliament. And not a single parliamentary party is opposed to neo-liberalism. So for many black. coloured, Asian and indigenous South Africans, their historical experience of marginalisation, joblessness, poverty, malnutrition and racism is unchanged, perhaps even deepened.
8. The ANC has been the government for a while now. What are they up to? Have they played the same role as Blair’s “New Labour” in introducing neo-liberal reforms under a “socialist” label?
You have hit the nail on the head. The ANC remains a member of the Socialist International – yet President Thabo Mbeki is a self-described Thatcherite. The ANC still talks at its public rallies of its “national democratic revolution” – and in the boardrooms about market fundamentalism. It has fired on peaceful demonstrations at home – and cosied up to noxious dictators like Gadaffi, Suharto, Mugabe, Musharraf, Kabila and Castro abroad. These contradictions are supposedly resolved by what the ANC claims is a “developmental state” theory. Now clearly, the party has to deal with the basic provision of infrastructural services in order to do three things: encourage foreign direct investment; secure their voter base; and improve the overall skills levels of the black working class so as to ensure a significantly large domestic market and a skills base to enable manufacturing to take the economic lead from primary industries like mining, agriculture and fishing. The ANC leadership has embraced the neo-liberalism that has meant stupendous wealth for some 300 black dynasties-in-the-making, the 5% of the Johannesburg Stock Exchange that represents “black empowerment”. It was mid-way through former President Nelson Mandela’s term that the ANC shut down its quasi-socialist pretensions (the Redistribution and Development Programme, RDP) and instead wholeheartedly embraced GEAR. It is important to recognise that the ANC does not rule alone (a common misconception abroad, we find), but in cahoots with the Zulu chauvanist Inkatha Freedom Party (IFP) and the anti-communist Pan Africanist Congress (PAC). In the Western Cape at provincial level, it has even been in bed with the retread New National Party (the old apartheid government). These alliances of convenience have tilted the overall political balance of the ruling clique in the direction of centre-right, which is despicable, given the decades of socialist rhetoric that motivated millions of South Africans (and their foreign allies) to back the “liberation” movements against apartheid. Today, the ANC is a blatant capitalist party (although like Lula in Brazil and Chavez in Venezuela, it talks left while acting right). As mentioned above, they have introduced GEAR, which calls for cuts in social spending, privatisation, the casualisation of labour etc. With the socialist rhetoric of the past discarded, the ANC is revealed to be true to its orignial class interest: it is the party of an emerging bourgeoisie, of chieftains and technocrats from the black middle class who wanted to have a bigger slice of the capitalist pie.
9. And what about the Communist Party? What is their role?
The Communist Party alongside COSATU – which is the biggest trade union organisation in South Africa – is in an alliance with the ruling ANC, the Tripartite Alliance. The SACP basically toes the ANC party line and uses their influence to gain votes for the ruling party, and in return high-ranking SACP party officials have seats in government. The rank and file of the SACP is pretty inactive with many members abandoning the party to join the social movements and other members who don’t like the direction the party is taking being expelled. The role of SACP in its own view is to provide a “critical socialist engagement” with the ANC regime, but its critics say its real role is to provide “red cover” for the ANC’s anti-working class policies. On the other hand, despite the fact that key ministers are communists – police (which glories under the name Safety & Security, SS), public works, public enterprises, the office of the presidency, water affairs & forestry – the SACP clearly is a subservient organisation. This was shown by the ANC forcing SACP deputy general secretary Jeremy Cronin to apologise for warning about the possible “Zanufication” of the ruling congress, meaning it was starting to take on the dictatorial attitudes of Mugabe’s ZANU-PF party. We characterised the spat as one between “Cronin capitalism and crony capitalism”! Cronin himself, a loyal Stalinist (and don’t Stalinism and Thatcherism go well together?) booted a real Bolshevik, Dale McKinley, out of the SACP for, essentially being too communist. McKinley is today spokesman for the Social Movements Indaba, the umbrella of the social movements within which the ZACF works.
10. With the end of Apartheid and an ANC government, how is the Trade Union movement shaping up? Are they fighting for their members or agreeing to “modernisation”?
As mentioned above the Congress of South African Trade Unions (COSATU) is in alliance with the ruling party. Although it is the most progressive of the four big labour federations, it no longer fights for the interests of the rank-and-file; instead of organising workers for struggle they prefer to negotiate with bosses behind closed doors. Like the SACP, the high-ranking COSATU officials are also using their positions to get comfortable seats in government and to canvas for the ANC. With the fall of apartheid workers on the shop floor have been dissuaded from taking militant action, and a once strong fighting union has become a lapdog for the ruling elite. One of the main compromises made by COSATU is its endorsement of a Labour Relations Act that, while supposedly guaranteeing more labour rights, in fact places so many mediation obligations before aggrieved workers that it is extremely difficult to embark on a legal strike. Also, COSATU is party to NEDLAC, a cross-class labour/government/business policy forum that tends to lock it into agreements with the rulng class. Then there is the growing practice of organised labor investing in capitalist companies or investment schemes, leading to possible conflict of interest problems if labour disputes arise at the companies invested in. In addition to this, the forced amalgamation of COSATU’s more radical and powerful unions (chemical, and transport in particular) with defunct and backward ones (paper & pulp, and another transport outfit, respectively) created mega-unions on paper, but diluted the radicalism and effectiveness of these progressive redoubts of organised labour. This, combined with the erosion of internal democracy by the imposition of “democratic centralism” to silence comment from the floor, the expulsion of revolutionary leaders and shop-stewards and the bugging of union offices by suspected ANC internal intelligence agents have neutered the power of COSATU. This also lead to an anarchist change of tactics away from the anarcho-syndicalism represented by the Workers’ Solidarity Federation (WSF), that we shut down in 1999 in order to reorient ourselves more towards building serious militants outside the compromised unions. That said, it was the opposition to privatisation by the SA Municipal Workers Union (a COSATU affiliate) that helped spark the new wave of resistance to capitalism. The unions may be hamstrung at the moment, but the bite of neo-liberalism is taking its toll on the shop-floor just as much as in the township streets, so we believe it is only a matter of time before they experience a resurgence of rank-and-file militancy.
11. What about Trotskyist groups? Are they an issue? What relationship do they have to the popular struggles and to your organisation?
As was the case in Brazil, France and elsewhere, the first “communist party” in SA – the one that refused to accept Lenin’s 21 conditions – was founded by anarchists and syndicalists. The second, Bolshevik party named the Communist Party of South Africa – Communist International (CPSA-CI) – today’s SACP – followed the global trend in the late 1920s by purging itself of all its libertarians. In SA’s case, most of those who were purged became Trots, including the former anarchist Thomas Thibedi. Trot groups have ever since maintained a continuous – if fractious – presence in the Western Cape in particular and Johannesburg to a lesser extent. Today, there are something like nine different Trot factions: put three Trots in a room for a day and you have a new international; leave them there for a week, and you’ll have three different internationals! Seriously, though, they form the largest part of the non-SACP Left (excluding the African socialists), followed by anarchists, then autonomists and lastly a few very secretive Maoists (we won’t even speak about that nutty Spartacist cult!). Unfortunately, certain individual Trots carry quite a lot of influence within the new social movements and have recently attempted to get the social movements embroiled in the upcoming elections (a tiny outfit called Keep Left wanted members to vote ANC – because that’s where the working class is!) – but this was strongly opposed by anarchists, autonomists and even some Trots and the odd Bolshevik who thought it premature to try and turn the social movements into a political party. Others have tried to take credit for work that we anarchists have done. One such example is of a group who took photographs of a ZACF community library and vegetable garden and then allegedly tried to use them in their name to secure funding from overseas.
12. What are the current important issues and campaigns in Southern African? Can you tell us more about, say, the anti-eviction, anti-water privatisation and anti-electricity cut-off campaigns?
In about 2000, several new anti-neo-liberal resistance strands (those opposing the payment of apartheid foreign debt, or the privatisation of municipal water, for example) united to form a constellation of new radical and progressive social movements. After holding the fort for several years in a political wilderness where criticism of the ANC/SACP was virtually unheard of (maintaining a propaganda initiative and running the Workers Librrary & Museum in Johannesburg as an independent working class space), the anarchist movement got directly involved in the new social movements, helping found the Anti-Privatisation Forum in Johannesburg. Today the movements embrace an estimated 200 000 supporters across SA – as compared to the SA Communist Party’s largely inactive 16 000 paper membership. it must also be pointed out that it was our comrade B and the late comrade Mandla of the ZACF collective, the Shesha Action Group (SAG) in Soweto who started Operation Khanyisa, meaning “light”, the operation that illegally re-connected some 25 000 homes in Soweto. These “guerrilla electricians” are literally heroes to the millions of poor people who have had their light s cut off by state power supplier Eskom since 1994. In the Western Cape there has been an ongoing struggle against evictions since about 1998, when banks began to repossess houses that they had sold to poor communities. They then try selling them back, either to their original owners or to others, at a higher price. In addition to this there have also been private-public partnerships set up by the government to collect debts for the banks. On the other hand poor communities are struggling to put food on their tables let alone repay debts to the banks for houses that have already been paid for. This led to the formation of the Western Cape Anti-Eviction Campaign, which has affiliates across the Western Cape/Cape Flats. The fight against water privatisation has recently taken off in Phiri, Soweto, which is being used as a testing ground to see how successful the installation of pre-paid water meters will be, before installing the meters in other communities. This has led to the formation of the Anti Pre-Paid Water Coalition, which is made up of various activist groups and individuals involved in the struggle against privatisation in general. Namely amongst others the Anti-Privatisation Forum (APF) and the Soweto Electricity Crisis Committee (SECC).
13. What tactics and strategy do they use?
In general there is a tendency to use both legal means and direct action means. On the legal front, the movements take the companies, councillors etc. responsible for, for example; evictions in the Western Cape or electricity cut-offs in Gauteng, to court. The biggest success so far of this tactic is the reversal of the government’s attitude towards the provision of anti-retroviral drugs following a sustained court battle with the Treatment Action Campaign (TAC). The social movements also do research and try to bolster public support via marches, demonstrations and media blitzes. More importantly, they also take direct action, which has proven far more effective both in delaying or stopping evictions, cut-offs etc. as well as in building public support for the social movements. In areas of the Western Cape the Anti-Eviction Campaign (AEC) has successfully resisted evictions by anticipating when they are going to take place and then burning barricades, physically defending their homes and chasing the sheriffs of the court. In Gauteng, where there has been a massive number of electricity and water cut-offs because people have not been able to pay their arrears, there have been campaigns by the SECC and APF and others, including anarchists, to literally go door-to-door illegally reconnecting thousands of households electricity and water. Unfortunately, because the workers responsible for installing pre-paid water and electricity metres are always guarded by heavily-armed private security contractors the campaigns have not been successful in stopping the installations altogether. These tactics have of course led to increased state and capitalist repression and the toll is weighing heavily on the social movements in terms of having to find money to post bail, pay lawyers etc, a task for which the ABC and its project, the Anti-Repression Network (ARN) was set up in August 2002.
14. Does the legacy of Apartheid impact on the spread of anarchist ideas or collective struggle? Does racism hinder the development of class movements? Are there any problems with ethnic divisions (Zulu, Xhosa, etc.)? How do you combat these divides?
Apartheid has definitely had an impact on the spread of anarchist ideas in that for so long the majority of people in SA only had access to a limited “Bantu education”, which has created high levels of illiteracy and the availability of anarchist material was very scarce even to those who could read. However, after the fall of apartheid and, with it, the “Suppression of Communism Act” as well as the rise in access to information and availability of anarchist materials, it is a lot easier and safer to spread and implement anarchist ideas. The problem of illiteracy still exists (mostly amongst the older generations) as well as there being a lack of anarchist materials available in the indigenous languages of SA. Regarding the issue of racism, there has been a definite decline in racism in general with people of all “race” and “ethnic” groups being involved in the new social movements, but there are still lingering ethnic tensions and an increasing level of xenophobia against immigrants from other African countries, which is being fuelled by state and corporate media propaganda in attempts to divide us along new lines and scapegoat sections of the working class for the problems whose root lies at the doors of capital and state. One way to combat this is, during conversations, to challenge people when we hear racist or xenophobic remarks and try show them the roots of these prejudices and how working and poor people have more in common with each other, whoever they are, no matter their place of origin or skin colour, than they do with any person of a higher class who may have the same skin colour or place of origin. Another way is through participating in educational workshops that, for example, use economic policies such as NEPAD to show or highlight the ways that people across the continent are faced with the same neo-liberal onslaught and use these opportunities to promote class-consciousness and internationalism.
15. What are the current political discussions are they having? How do they differ from, say, those in the West? Are they linked to any political parties?
Recently there has been discussion as to whether or not the Anti-Privatisation Forum in Johannesburg should participate in the upcoming elections, as was suggested by the Trotskyist leadership. Last year the APF held a four-day long elections workshop with all its affiliates to debate the pros and cons of participation. Initially certain people proposed to turn the APF into a political party which would run in both National and Local elections, but as one might have expected, this lead to internal bickering amongst the Trot leadership as to whether or not it was the right time to form a new “workers’ party” and in the end it was decided – by them – only to run in the provincial (Gauteng) election. This was opposed outright by the anarchists and other libertarians present who argued for a boycott of the election altogether (national and provincial) and were able to attract a rather large amount of support from other affiliates although the majority proposed a spoilt vote. There are a lot of “political parties” involved, but all are extra-parlimentary (many only because of their small support base, not because of any principled oppositon to bourgeois political forums). Som are African socialist, some Trotskyist, some even tactically support the ANC (including the Trotskyist “Keep Left”!) and others are unaligned working class community organisations, whether progressive or conservative. Our social movements probably differ from those in the global North in that our focus is on how we combat the effects of living under neo-colonialism (rather than how to prevent its export, though opposition to NEPAD is growing in importance). Issues such as womens’, environmental, unionist and gay rights have so far not yet fully integrated with the mainstream movements whose focus is largely anti-privatisation, anti-neo-liberalism, anti-militarism, anti-repression and anti-debt – and in favour of community control, freedom of speech and association, radical land redistribution, free water and lights and housing and farm labourer’s rights. But there are international links between, for instance, the Landless People’s Movement (LPM) and the Landless Movement (MST) in Brazil, with which our Brazilian anarchist comrades in the FAG for instance engage at grassroots level.
16. How does your organisation take part and influence these movements and the unions? What role are anarchists and/or anarchist ideas playing in them? Do your ideas find an audience?
Members of our organisation participate in these movements on the ground in the form of direct action as well as arguing for anarchist alternatives and ways of organising within the social movements. Having previously had anarchists involved in the media committee of the Anti-Privatisation Forum (APF), we have now abandoned those positions in order to involve ourselves more with the base of the movements, particularly in the towships and the inner cities. This has to a certain extent decreased our “official” visibility although anarchist principles are still being put forward both within the communities from where the social movements draw their base as well as when we participate in workshops organised for the social movements. This has also resulted in accusations from the mostly Trot leadership that we are not involved in struggles but simply “parachute in” when it suits us. But we make no apolgies for not being movement “leaders” and focusing our energies instead on our own social projects: the ARN, our township community libraries and food gardens, and the syndicalist Workers’ Council. The latter, a Durban-based ZAG project, is our only direct organisational engagment in the union environment, but other ZACF members are also involved in the cleaning workers’ struggle at Wits University for instance, while others are fighting relatively lonely battles in mainstream unions. Generally, we find that people respect those who take initiative, work hard, stand by their promises and fight for the rights of others. It is on this basis alone that we have any audience at all. But it is a small audience standing against a high tide of the neo-liberal attrition of worker rights, both blue- and white-collar.
17. What have you learned from your participation in such struggles and organisations?
Clearly, the most important lesson is to put your muscle where your mouth is. We have to be directly involved in all radical and progressive grassroots movements. Secondly and encouragingly, the appearance of self-described anarchist groups in the black townships and squatter camps – initially totally without our input or influence – is an exciting validation of the attractiveness of anarchist ideas, even where no materials are available and no tradition exists! Thirdly, that these anarchists who directly experience repression and exploitation are themselves incredibly innovative, and have devised forms of struggle, service and organisation (without any prior knowledge) that are widely used and respected by anarchists, libertarians and syndicalists across the world, a further validation of the global movement’s ethics, ideas and practices. Fourthly, that it is out of these auto-convened anarchist organisations, built by and for the poorest of the poor, that a genuinely fresh, libertarian revolutionary movement will emerge. Lastly, we learned to be aware of opportunists and people using the social movements for their own ends (and to recognise that our own interactions could lead to patronage and political control if we were not careful to defend the autonomy of these groups). Oh, and of course, never trust a Trot!
18. What aspect of anarchism have you found most useful in practice?
The most useful practical aspect of anarchism is its universal appeal to the hearts and minds of positive-thinking people, regardless of their ethnic, political or cultural origins. our social projects are deliberately non-sectarian, provided you play according to libertarian principles, you can participate, and if you participate, you benefit. The practical mutual aid displayed by these projects tackles head-on, with vigour and enthusiasm one of the greatest plagues afflicting the working class in SA: a sense of hopelessness and dependency. The ethic of anarchism gives community members purpose and class pride, showing them that they can achieve great things – if only they listen, help, share and co-operate with their neighbours. Finally, mutual aid is strengthened by egalitarian decision-making that teaches people to be tough and flexible at the same time. All this gives anarchism and our projects an appeal that has even intrigued and delighted conservatives in the communities. Our first garden & library project has aready been featured in a Canadian film on water rights in South Africa and has attracted a volunteer youth group which helps out at weekends. The ability of anarchism to transcend the ghetto/museum that anachists themselves have kept it in for so long is inspiring!
19. Where in Africa is your influence particularly strong? How do you spread the message?
As an organisation we are only active in South Africa, which is therefore obviously where our influence lies, concentrated in the cities and townships of Johannesburg, Durban and Cape Town. We have recently established contact and begun to develop a relationship with comrades from the Swaziland Youth Congress (SWAYOCO) who although influenced by Marxist/ Leninist ideas (all they have been exposed to) are very interested in anarchism and are keen to work together and learn more about our organisation and our politics. In this case we spread the message through travelling to the region to make direct contact with interested comrades, giving them literature to read and engaging in political discussion in an attempt to influence their struggles in an anarchist direction i.e. pushing their pro-democracy struggle forward so that they have more revolutionary aims than simply substituting a monarchy with another form of government. Other than that, we know our materials have proven influential in establishing the Anti-Capitalist Convergence Kenya (ACKK) and in initiating a group in Uganda. We have no ide what influence we have in Zambia following the collapse of the AWSM, with the AL in Nigeria, or with the leftist rebel forces in southern Sudan who approached us for information about anarchism. We have several propaganda avenues: our theoretical journal “Zabalaza” (Struggle) is aimed at an activist readership, while the ABC’s “Black Alert” is the voice of its Anti-Repression Network (ARN) and is aimed at a social movement readership; then there are our ZB and BMC pamphlets which are both sold via the Workers’ Library & Museum in Johannesburg and available in downloadable form for free over our Zabalaza website (http://www.zabalaza.net) which is a propaganda tool in its own right and boasts an interactive forum to which we encourage Black Flag readers to contribute; then there is the anarchy_africa e-mail discussion & news list which is open to all interested people around the world; and finally our Red & Black Fora, which are workshops for anarchists, and other libertarians. We obviously have a presence on all major marches as well, and post news to the autonomist-run Indymedia SA, but our best propaganda is still our social projects like food gardens and community libraries.
20. Are the issues of Southern Africa similar to those in the rest of the continent? What is the situation facing the continent in general?
South Africa has a very specific condition that makes it distinct from the rest of Africa. As the continent’s most powerful economy, it is also its most important sub-imperialist power, acting as a sort of regional policeman and continental viceroyalty on behalf of British imperialism. The distinction of the UK as our imperial power is as important – and neglected – as the recognition that Brazil is the sub-imperialist power in Latin America, operating on behalf of US interests. Remember, even if the UK is junior to the US, post-colonial Britain continues to dominate relations in Anglophone Africa, which include four key regional economies: Egypt in the north, Nigeria in the west, Kenya in the east and South Africa in the south. The only other imperialist power that wields quite as much influence in Africa is France, but France had only one key regional economy, Algeria, and lost much control there after “liberation”, leaving it with the purely extractive raw material / cheap labour pools of the Francophone west. As the main continental sub-imperialist power, post-apartheid SA has: pushed the neo-liberal New Partnership for Africa’s Development (NEPAD); restructured the Organisation of African Unity (OAU) as the neo-liberal African Union (AU); invaded its neighbour Lesotho in 1998 to falsely “restore democracy” (ie: crush a pro-democratic mutiny and claim it was a coup attempt); hugely expanded its own multinationals like Anglo American into the interior, often as buy-ins to privatisation; and advanced exploitation by, for instance, enclosing huge areas of northern Mozambique by pushing peasants off the land and settling white racist commercial farmers there. SA’s infrastructure, economy – and armed forces – make it a formidable capitaladversary to the working classes of our neighbours north of the Limpopo River. So the SA situation is intimately tied to being in the sub-imperialist centre on the one hand – and on the other to having a large industrialised working class with a very recent insurrectionary history. The class in SA also has an appreciation of the promises of communist liberation fresh in its memory – while it stares down th> barrel of ANC-driven neo-liberalism. Otherwise, the wars in central Africa (DRC and southern Sudan in particular) are winding down, while West African regions like Sierra Leone (where until destroyed by the civil war, there was a 3 000-strong IWW section) and Liberia continue to bleed. Still, the DRC “peace” deal has foolishly endorsed rule-by-the-gun by simply recognising all combattants as legitimate claimants to a slice of the pie. This, the continuing attracting of plundering countries like Angola and the DRC of diamond and oil wealth by foreign (and African) multinationals, and the continued presence of interahamwe Hutu militia in the Great Lakes region make it appear that central instability is likely to continue for some time. And when the guns fall silent, there is still class rule, so no true peace. There is only one remaining colony – Western Sahara, which remains under Moroccan occupation – so the dynamics of national liberation are long faded. Essentially, we all face the same neo-liberal enemy today, but many of our neighbours do it without basic human rights, infrastructure, the means of living beyond a Medieval average age of 40 – and without any libertarian revolutionary tradition within living memory.
21. What links do you have with other libertarians? In Africa? Worldwide?
In Africa we have had intermittent contact with the Awareness League in Nigeria although this is hard to maintain, as is the case throughout the third world, due to the lack of access to communication. We have also recently established contact with the ACCK in Kenya and anarchists in Uganda as well as members of the SWAYOCO in Swaziland. Internationally the ZACF is a member of the International Libertarian Solidarity (ILS) network and has links with other ILS affiliates across Latin America, North America, Europe and the former USSR. Historically, our closest international links have been with the Workers Solidarity Movement (WSM) of Ireland, with the Swedish Workers Central Organisation (SAC), with both the CNT-AIT, the CNT-Vignoles and the Francophone Anarchist Federation in France and the CGT in Spain. In recent years, closer ties have been established, often via the ILS, with the Northeastern Federation of Anarcho-Communists (NEFAC) of the USA/Canada, the Anarchist Communist Federation (FdCA) in Italy, Rebel (Auca) of Argentina, the Gaucha Anarchist Federation (FAG) and their associates in Brazil, Tinku Youth of Bolivia, the Uruguayan Anarchist Federation (FAU) and the CIPO-RFM of Mexico. We are in contact with the Cuban Libertarian Movement in Exile (MLCE) in Mexico and in France, with the Iranian underground and the Iraqi exile movement -and with numerous other organisations – including ABCs – spanning the globe from Costa Rica to New Zealand, from Chile to Russia.
22. What do you make of the discussions in overseas anarchist groups?
There is a clear growing maturity in the analysis and debate emerging from the global anarchist movement. No longer do we hear so much the old sub-cultural “smash the state” sloganeering. In particular, we believe, must be commended the in-depth analytical work of relatively new organisations in Latin America like the CIPO-RFM of Mexico, the Gaucha Anarchist Federation (FAG), Cabocla Anarchist Federation (FACA) and Insurrectionary Anarchist Federation (FAI) of Brazil, Tinku Youth (TJ) of Bolivia and the Libertarian Socialist Organisation (OSL) and Rebel (Auca) of Argentina. Their reaction to the collapse of the IMF/World Bank “golden boy” economy of Argentina in particular has been hugely refreshing – probably because it is based on sound community activism. Their bruising critique of the fake-left dream of Lula’s Brazil, Chavez’ Venezuela and of course Castro’s Cuba, allied to their critique of the US-driven neo-liberal expansionism of the Free Trade Agreement of the Americas (ALCA), and their instigation of the Encounters of Latin American Autonomous Popular Organisations (ELOPA) give us all cause for hope, despite the death threats and petrol-bombs hurled at them. In Eastern Europe, to all intents and purposes part of the global South, the collaboration of groups like Autonomous Action (AD) of Russia, Belarus, Ukraine, Kazakhstan and Armenia and others in the “Abolishing the Borders from Below” network again is giving rise to dynamic new voices speaking with experience of real struggles. In Europe, that part of the International Libertarian Solidarity (ILS) network located there (we are also a member) has been breaking down sectarian barriers between anarchist organisations. Notable is the establishment of the journal “Afrique XXI”, a French-language anarchist analytical magazine covering Francophone Africa, as “Zabalaza” covers Anglophone Africa. In North America, the example of the North-Eastern Federation of Anarcho-Communists (NEFAC) has sparked off a resurgence of regional anarchist organisations that are tackling real issues like race, class, terrorism, the war industries, organisational modes, workplace militancy etc. head-on and unashamedly. We find NEFAC’s “The Northeastern Anarchist” a keen and relevant journal. As a global movement, our weakest links seem to be in northern Africa and in Asia, but perhaps that is just a problem of linguistic barriers because we keep hearing about anarchist organisations in Iran, Iraq, Indonesia, the Philippines etc.
23. What do you think of the western anarchist movement? What do you think we can learn from each other?
The first thing to recognise is the historical strength of the global Southern anarchist movement. This is neatly introduced in Jason Adams’ “Non-Western Anarchisms: Rethinking the Global Context” and will be dealt with in great detail in an upcoming BMC book that we hope will totally rewrite anarchist history – and give it the currency it deserves. To put it simply, the movement in countries as diverse as Mexico and China, Brazil and Cuba, Mozambique and Argentina, Chile and Uruguay was at one time far more powerful than any other revolutionary tendency, putting anarchist strength in Spain in the shade. The second thing to recognise is that we need each other and can and must learn from each other. Internationalism is not about having exotic posters on the walls of one’s meeting-place, but rather in having an ongoing interaction on anarchist ideas and struggles across the globe. The third thing to recognise is that the Western anarchist movement comes with a lot of baggage that we new Southern movements find arcane and foreign. This is expecially true of the Anglophone movement, inheritors of a crippling sense of defeat, chaos and ivory tower defesiveness that is totally unustifiable in the light of the real post-1939 anarchist history – and out of touch with the challenges posed by neo-corporatism (neo-liberalism). That said, we are delighted to see that the North is awaking from this sweaty bad dream and strarting to locate its organisations at the very epicentre of anti-capitalist struggle again.
24. As someone in an organisation from a so-called “developing” region, what do you make of the recent vogue of “primitivism” in the anarchist movement in places like the United States?
Anarchism is NOT a backward, primitivist ideology. And it is most expecially totally oposed to the neo-fascist and genocidal implications of lunatic theories such as “deep ecology” and “voluntary human extinction” that tend to grow out of this illusion that if only we would return (or allow ourselves to be culled/bombed back) to the stone age, all issues of dominance would be automatically resolved. As we are sure you in the UK are aware, the fraudulent logic of this line of neo-Malthusian thought lead to the green fascism of the periodical “Green Anarchist” lauding the sarum gas attacks on a Tokyo subway by a millennialist cult. Anarchism developed out of the real, sometimes bitter, sometimes glorious struggles of the industrial working class (and to a lesser extent the peasantry), not out of the dreams of middle-class opium-eaters who foster a forlorn hope of a return to a mythical golden age. We are frankly disgusted that the right-wing masturbation that is primitivism can be considered by any to be anarchist in any way, shape or form. It is frankly not only un-anarchist, but anti-anarchist.
25. Racism must be a point of concern for you. How would you say your approach differed from, say, anarchists in North America? Does the different social set-up change mean a different analysis and practice?
The fault-line of racism (closely duplicated by class) is the fundamental reality of South African life after three centuries of white supremacist rule and deliberate under-development of the ruled, whether indigenous, Asian, brown or black. This is an inescapeable fact and one that has troubled, challenged and enlightened our movement right from the start when we were essentially two underground organisations in the dying days of apartheid. In formulating our draft full constitution, which will hopefully be adopted at our congress later this year, the constitutional working group had a long debate over the very real differences between those collectives of ours like the ZAG and its Sowetan counterparts, the Shesha Action Group (SAG) and the Black Action Group (BAG) on the one hand that were largely black and township/locally based – and those like the BMC, the ABC and ZB on the other hand that were largely white and suburban/regionally based. The minority view was that these should be recognised as “frontline” and “service” collectives, respectively, a divide that would recognise the race/class divide so as actively to confront it (usually by cross-membership of collectives and cross-participation in projects like publishing, food gardens etc). The majority view that won out was that to underscore these divisions meant to tacitly retain them by maintaining a “division of labour” between our collectives. Whatever the ZACF congress finally decides, it is likely and preferable, that the orientation of the ZACF of the future to these compex questions will be determined more by those working class people who have a direct experience of racism. We would say that our overarching approach as revolutionaries is class struggle – but that in the SA context this so closely replicates a struggle against white supremacism that the two have to work in tandem, without the class issue absorbing or downplaying the importance of race. As a “multi-racial” organisation that has deliberately united activists from divided backgrounds, our main difference with the Western anarchist movement is that we do not feel the need for separate organisations for people of colour. We must say that we welcome the founding of ethnic organisations such as the Anarchist People of Color (APOC) network in the US, or the Popular Indigenous Council of Oaxaca – Ricardo Flores Magon (CIPO-RFM) in Mexico – where such organising appears to be crucial to establishing the validity of anarchism in marginalised communities. But in a majority black region where we have for too long been separated, racially-specific organisations would send out totally the wrong signals to the oppressed classes. In future, the ZACF may decide to establish a working group to deal specifically with this issue, but to be honest, for the moment, with significant black support, we are more concerned internally with the low level of women’s participation.
26. Your organisation is influenced by Platformism and anarcho-syndicalism. Do you see an conflict between the two? What attracts you to each of them? What do you reject in each tradition?
Firstly, it must be clearly understood what “platformism” is and what it is not – then where it fits into the anarcho-syndicalist approach to mass popular libertarian communist organisaton. There is far too much confusion in anarchist ranks generated by a debate that arose in response to the chaotic and ultimately ineffective anarchist response to the Russian Revolution by most of those on the ground at the time. The Platform was merely a re-statement (at a time of confusion generated by the defeat of anarchism by Bolshevism) of the fundamentals of anarchist mass organising that had been established in the libertarian communist majority of the First International and in the mainstream of the anarchist mass movment ever since. It was not a novel invention by a bunch of disgruntled Ukrainians, but a wake-up call for a return from chaotic individualism to the mass organisation that had made the movement a global force to be reckoned with in the first place. The tradition to which the “draft” platform (it was a discussion document, not a blueprint, after all) recalled the movement was to an anarcho-syndicalism infused with the anarcho-communist vision of a world without bosses or borders (not even between field, factory or community), for which it goes without saying, clear and firm principles and directly-democratically-agreed collective practices were and remain an absolute necessity. So let us be clear: “platformism” is NOT a different type of anarchism, but merely as GP Maximoff pointed out, a re-statement of the internal coherence required by anarchist organisations in order to be the engine of working class revolution. In other words, platformism IS an organisational form, NOT an ideology. There is only one ideological type of anarchism, although it is a broad tradition: international revolutionary class-struggle anarchism, which embraces workplace, community, militia and other organising. Anything else, any “personal liberation” theory, is not only sub-revolutionary, but non-anarchist. So to answer your question: there is absolutely no conflict between anarcho-syndicalism and platformism (although a union that is open to all workers may have difficulty being entirely platformist, while with an anarchist federation it should be easy). The conflict is between the genuine mass anarchist tradition and the pale, atomistic liberal fakes that masquerade as anarchist in much of the Anglophone world.
27. Do you draw upon any specifically Southern African ideas, struggles or movements today or in the past to inform your anarchism? If so, what are they?
Our current ZACF draft constitution locates us squarely within not only the southern African revolutionary syndicalist and anarcho-syndicalist tradition discussed already (the IWA and IWIU especially), but within the anarchist (anti-)political tradition of the Socialist Club (SC), founded in 1900 in South Africa by Henry Glasse, of the Revolutionary League (LR) of Mozambique, founded in the early 1900s by exiled Portuguese anarchist Jose Estevam, and of the Industrial Socialist League (IndSL) of South Africa in the period of the Russian Revolution. In later years, we recall the syndicalism of the 1970s defined by activists like Rick Turner, murdered in 1978 by what is believed to have been an apartheid death-squad. Often today when talking to people who are not familiar with anarchism we liken the anarchist principles of horizontal self-management and co-operation to the tactics used by the United Democratic Front of the popular insurrection of the late 1980s, which is well known and was very successful in contributing to the fall of apartheid. There is nothing specifically South African about the UDF but that the tactics and strategy it adopted were proven through the struggle to be the most effective, namely: rank-and-file workers’ and community councils, workers militias etc. all of which are anarchist in principle although the people involved had probably never heard of anarchism. Our inspiration in the present are the radical and progressive social movements, where they follow on in that libertarian tradition. Thus, domestically, our traditions are those of revolutionary syndicalism, specific anarchist organisation, popular insurrection and community control combined into a seamless whole. It is important to note the reasoning behind our name: Zabalaza means struggle; Anarchist Communist is not just our political orientation, but taps into the respect that a true egalitarian communist vision still commands in SA; and Federation for our structural form.
28. Your Zabalaza Books webpage (www.zabalaza.net/) is a great resource. Why did you decide to put so much energy into it? And how popular is it?
The site seems to be very popular amongst anarchists in the global North/ West who have much better access to the Internet than in Africa and we often get encouraging remarks both through e-mail and in person when we meet comrades from abroad. But the ZB pages and their associated links have also enabled us to reach out to anarchists in Africa, Eastern Europe, the ex-USSR and Australasia in particular. Why do we do it? “From each according to their ability, to each according to their need.”
29. What plans has your organisation got for the near future?
Our immediate plans are to extend our community libraries and food gardens into other parts of Soweto and Sebokeng (a township further south of Soweto) and to strengthen our Workers’ Council in Durban. Next up is the holding of our first full congress at which our full constitution will be adopted. We will invite all interested anarchists in the region to our congress as observers, and plan to invite other autonomists and libertarians on the second day for joint discussions on how we engage with the radical and progressive social movements. Congress will chart our way forward for the rest of the year. We would also like to set up offices in both Durban and Johannesburg, which are our main areas of activity, and we are looking into buying photocopiers for both regions in order to be able to increase our output of anarchist material and further their circulation. A printing press would be ideal but this is out of our reach financially. In addition we would like to put more focus on translating anarchist literature into indigenous languages and we would also like to try and get people from all the regions in southern Africa that have an anarchist presence together at a “no-border” camp, for possibly the first time in African history.
30. Finally, what message do you have for anarchists in the west?
If there is a single message we could get across it would be this: drop the liberal individualist baggage and get down to the real nitty-gritty of anarchist organising in your workplaces and your communities. Ignore the flakes who claim that organised anarchism is an oxymoron. Let your actions be your propaganda because people watch what you do more readily than they listen to what you say. Class War: Just Do It! Oh, and if any of you have any old printing presses to assist us with our anarchist printing project (to which the Swedish SAC has already contributed funds), please consider donating them to us.
This interview was done by the British anarchist magazine Black Flag and appeared in issue 224 of that magazine.