A Reply to the Opportunistic Slanders of Trevor Ngwane

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In response to Trevor Ngwane’s comment, we must acknowledge that our article “Collective Bargaining by Riot” contained errors and misleading statements. We regret any statement or suggestion that Ngwane was a candidate either for the Johannesburg metro council in 2006, or for any position as an office-bearer of the Anti-Privatisation Forum at the time of the election of Bricks Mokolo as chairperson. We know of nothing in APF policy that denied Ngwane and his comrades the right to stand in the local elections via the Operation Khanyisa movement, nor would we have denied them that right, although we have consistently rejected electoral politics as an authoritarian method that can only undermine the struggles of the oppressed classes. Let them stand if they want, but we will neither vote for them nor in any way support them. Further, we regret the misspelling of comrade Bricks’ name, while noting that Ngwane was also in error on this matter.

At the same time, we stand by our rejection of Ngwane’s authoritarian and divisive electoral politics, and we further reject his comment as a whole: it is an entirely unsupported slander against the APF, Bricks Mokolo, anarchists and autonomists. We may, indeed, have gone too far in calling Ngwane a careerist. We must acknowledge that he has made sacrifices. If Ngwane had toed the party line of the ruling ANC, of which he was once a member, he could have been a prominent party bigshot or a “black economic empowerment” businessman. We assume that he rejected such opportunities on principle, and, indeed, that his sacrifices went much further than this.

But there is a well-known phenomenon of revolutionary leaders making genuine sacrifices and going on to act in ways consistent with personal ambition, and just as destructive. Consider the Bolsheviks, who made great sacrifices in the revolutionary struggle, but went on to seize state power, install themselves as oppressors and exploiters, and obtain great privilege and power through the toil of the workers and peasants. (“The Russian Revolution Destroyed”, online here, explains how the Bolsheviks’ authoritarian ideology led to authoritarian and capitalist practice.) Again, Nelson Mandela and many other nationalists in South Africa and elsewhere endured prison and numerous sacrifices. But when Mandela took power, he got rich from the sweat of the workers and became a vigorous defender of capitalism. Whether an individual is a careerist or not, authoritarian politics leads in careerist directions. In a recent article, “The Struggle as Seen from Soweto” (see here), Ngwane notes that the Operation Khanyisa Movement’s councillor, Joyce Mkhonza, has defected to the right-wing liberal opposition, the Democratic Alliance. We in the ZACF are not at all surprised by such events: they follow from electoral politics, which separate the leaders from the popular classes. Whether or not individual representatives make such open breaks with working class politics, ultimately electoral and statist parties are bound to turn against the workers they “represent”, however sincere they may be. We note from Ngwane’s article and appended material that he and his comrades of the Socialist Group are aware of these dangers; this leaves us all the more baffled that the comrades continue to insist on participating in elections! As for the expropriation by an electoral party of the name of a direct action movement – Operation Khanyisa, the reconnection of electricity that has been cut off for non-payment – we can only regard this as a travesty of working class resistance. Indeed, Ngwane himself did not asume the OKM council seat – but the OKM person who did proved our argument perfectly by her actions in defecting to the DA. All that time, effort and money wasted to bankroll her betrayal – and that was the predictably bankrupt strategy that Ngwane argued for – and which we argued so vehemently against, consistently.

Our quarrel, let us be clear, is not with Ngwane as an individual, but with his ideology and practices. At the same time, Ngwane has attained considerable status, in South Africa and globally, as a leader of the APF and the Soweto Electricity Crisis Committee. Such status carries an inherent danger of authoritarianism and careerism, and such individuals must expect to be harshly scrutinised. One hundred years ago, Piotr Kropotkin had earned the reputation of perhaps the world’s leading theorist of anarchism. But on many occasions, anarchists rightly subjected him to harsh criticism. And when World War I broke out, and Kropotkin made what amounted to a break with anarchism by aligning himself with British and French imperialism, he was duly rejected by some of his closest comrades. Nobody is immune.

On to Ngwane’s attack on the APF. He charges that the election of Bricks Mokolo and other office bearers was contrary to “gender equity” because they ran against women. Now it should be clear that the ZACF is fully committed to the liberation of women and to complete gender equality. And we fully agree that there is a problem of sexism in the South African social movements. But we do not stand for gender equality in the manner of President Thabo Mbeki. That is, we do not think having a woman as Supreme Commander, or proportional representation of women in the leadership, secretariat or what-have-you, is the answer to the problem.

The ZACF’s own secretariat is currently entirely male; this is regrettable, but the organisation chose those it regarded as the best individuals for the positions. Such situations are not changed by wishful thinking. If we had a chance to elect a secretariat consisting of Mikhail Bakunin, Errico Malatesta, Nestor Makhno and Buenaventura Durruti, based on their record, we would probably do so, regardless of whether someone accused us of sexism. And we would go on to scrutinise their performance, as is appropriate for mandated delegates – all the more so if they have great prestige. We have every reason to believe the APF acted in the same spirit when it elected Mokolo as chairperson. We know that Ngwane and the Socialist Group backed women against Mokolo to become APF office-bearers; but they could have been rejected for any reason from genuine lack of readiness for their positions to their adherence to the Socialist Group’s authoritarian politics! Taking the support of female candidates as the one true expression of anti-sexism is the road to Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka, Hillary Clinton, Condoleeza Rice and Margaret Thatcher. We would oppose sexist candidates – and we know that sexist leaders in the social movements have been a major problem. But it would be absurd to automatically oppose all female candidates or support all male candidates.

The problem of sexism in the APF and other social movements shows itself most deeply at the grassroots. In a movement that is numerically dominated by women, men are the main decision makers; women are excluded in all the standard ways characteristic of a sexist society. The problem isn’t that women aren’t on the secretariat: we do not believe the secretariat should be the main decision making body in any case! Decision making should come from the membership, from the bottom up. The problem, roughly speaking and hugely oversimplifying, is that women are silenced in discussion and expected to follow men’s lead in action. This must be tackled on the ground. Thinking that even an *entirely* female leadership or secretariat could resolve this problem is an authoritarian illusion. Revolution begins, not in the inner councils of the vanguard, but in the sink.

Turning to the alleged “running down” of the APF, we note that it is well known that Mokolo has not been particularly active in his role of chairperson. We also note that this was expected: he informed the APF at the time of his election that his role will be limited. Bricks Mokolo is our comrade, but he is not our hero. Creating heroes is not what we do, and we recognise that questions have been raised about his performance. But to accuse him of running down the APF is absurd. This running down exists only in Ngwane’s imagination. Since its launch in 2000, the APF has gone through periods of strength and periods of weakness; it is our view and that of many APF militants that under the current non-Trotskyist leadership, its strength has been growing. In 2007, under this non-Trotskyist leadership, it organised a series of locally initiated workshops, protests and campaigns, and carried on a general public campaign and legal action against prepaid water meters, among many other things. What more would Ngwane have it do? Does he have anything else to offer beyond standing in elections, which we maintain would only make things worse?

Ngwane talks of confusion regarding the APF’s “raison d’etre, modus operandi, strategy and ultimate aim”. We do not fully understand his meaning here; but while we see that some such confusion probably exists, we hold that this is only to the extent that it can be expected. It would be inconceivable for a mass organisation in the current circumstances in South Africa to have a fully consistent ultimate aim – still less one that made sense to revolutionaries with sophisticated theories, whether anarchist or Marxist. Members’ understanding is bound to be uneven. From a Trotskyist perspective, informed by substitutionism and entryism, a fully worked-out strategy and ultimate aim might indeed seem desirable: the Trotskyist vanguard can take the leadership and impose the strategy, regardless of confusion on the ground. But we anarchists do not believe such authoritarian methods can take the struggle forward.

It may well be that there are clearly identifiable flaws in how the APF operates; but Ngwane should point these out specifically, rather than making general attacks that could be informed by an unrealistic pursuit of perfection. All we can see behind his attacks is dogmatic electoralism, authoritarianism and the politics of the sore loser – the trademarks of Trotskyism. We understand that Ngwane has elsewhere attacked anarchists and autonomists, accusing us of undermining the social movements. Not surprising given his politics: Trotskyists seldom see anything in libertarian ideas beyond undermining. But who is undermining what here? Who is spreading unsubstantiated slanders? Ngwane has lost support within the APF; does he maintain that small groups of anarchists and autonomists, who by his account are not active on the ground, have somehow turned so many comrades against him? Does he think that we somehow engineered the split in the SECC, the breakaway of the Soweto Concerned Residents? His response in “The Struggle as Seen from Soweto” is that greater unity is required. He talks of discipline. Does he think this unity and discipline can be imposed from above? Does it not occur to him that his methods of achieving unity and discipline might be part of the problem?

Finally, we must point out that we in the ZACF are not “anarcho-autonomists”. We are anarchist communists; we uphold the ideas and practices of Bakunin, Makhno and many generations of working class militants in the anarchist tradition. Among our main principles are anti-authoritarianism and anti-electoralism – and we have consistently fought for these principles within the social movements. On this and many other matters, we have found ourselves in agreement with those militants who are widely known by the name of autonomists. We have much in common with them and our relations are friendly, but we are not the same tendency.

Ngwane charges that anarchists and autonomists are not building the struggle on the ground. As far as the ZACF is concerned, we welcome criticism; we would be happy to hear any specifics on what we’re doing wrong and where we could do better. We would particularly welcome such input from the many comrades who do know us on the ground, but if Ngwane has anything specific to offer, we are ready to hear. He may not know all we are doing on the ground. Being involved at the grassroots is not the same as being involved in APF or SECC leadership structures – and certainly not the same as promoting electoral politics! As for the “autonomists”, they have been involved both at the grassroots and in the leadership structures of the APF since its inception; some of them, and some of us, are working closely with the General Industries Workers’ Union of South Africa; and not least, “autonomists” have played the biggest part in building Indymedia South Africa, one of the movements’ most valuable resources. Some would say these and other contributions are less valuable than standing in elections. We would disagree. We are confident that our comrades of the APF would welcome any constructive suggestions; but we are equally sure that they are no more interested in slander than we are, and are ready to rebut unsupported attacks.

Ngwane accuses us of bias. We fully admit to this. Not being liberals or capitalists, we have no reason to deny our biases. We are biased in favour of the working class, communism and freedom, and against the ruling class, capitalism and authoritarianism. We have no wish to make factual errors or to mislead, and we regret having done this at any time. But we will continue to exercise our bias against those who mislead oppressed people and build new structures of authority under cover of struggle.

Zabalaza Anarchist Communist Front
Feb 19, 2008

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