Anarchism in South Africa

An interview with Michael Schmidt of the ZACF by Alternative Libertaire

The ZACF is one of the most active libertarian formations in the southern part of the African continent. In order to better understand its history, its intervention in southern African society and the fights which it impels and supports, we interviewed one of its militants, Michael Schmidt.

Alternative Libertaire: Could you tell briefly in which conditions/context and how Zabalaza, and then the ZACF, were built?

Michael Schmidt: The roots of what became the ZACF are to be found in the anti-apartheid struggle of the late 1980s and early 1990s, with the formation of two semi-clandestine anarchist federations, one in Johannesburg and another in Durban, within the anarcho-punk movement. So the initial conditions were one of low-intensity civil war between the white and black nationalist organisations, and the organised anarchists took a strong stand against neo-fascism, nationalism and military conscription. From this came the Workers’ Solidarity Federation in 1995 (a year after the first democratic elections). The WSF was the first national anarchist organisation and developed a more comprehensive platform of positions on race, class, gender, imperialism etc, most of which remain the ideological foundation of the movement today. The WSF had a significant number of trade union & shop-steward members and was 50/50 black and white. It was dissolved for tactical reasons in 1999 as the ANC began to move rightwards and trade unions became difficult to operate in. In the interim before the ZACF was founded in 2003, we ran the independent Workers’ Library & Museum (working-class meeting-place) in Johannesburg and the Zabalaza Books propaganda unit. The rise of the radical new social movements from about 2000 saw us help found the Anti-Privatisation Forum, and later form the ZACF to participate directly in social movement activism. So in practice, we have moved from semi-clandestinity to syndicalism to social activism, depending on objective conditions within the working class.

Alternative Libertaire: What are nowaday the main struggles/actions they are involved in?

Michael Schmidt: Today, our main private activity is internal political education and strategy sessions, while our main public activity is what we call “Red & Black Forums”. These are public workshops which give an anarchist-communist analysis of events. Previously, they used to be small affairs attended by a handful of anarchists and some friends. Today we sometimes get as many as 70 working-class people to a meeting, in poor areas as far away as Sebokeng, south of Soweto. The other big difference is that now instead of us inviting people to a meeting, we are often invited ourselves to give two-day Red & Black Forums in townships and squatter camps such as Orange Farm. Other than that, we participate in demonstrations relating to Iraq, Palestine and South African labour struggles – and have mounted campaigns against repression in Oaxaca and prisoners in Spain or Germany. We also have members living under the dictatorship in Swaziland and we give them regular practical and ideological support. The same goes for our anarchist comrades living under dictatorship in Zimbabwe: the ZACF helped run a public solidarity campaign for the youth of Zimbabwe in Johannesburg last December.

Alternative Libertaire: What are in your point of view the political/social emergencies now in South Africa?

Michael Schmidt: The two biggest political/social emergencies in South Africa (and southern Africa more broadly) are no doubt a) gender violence, and b) HIV/Aids. The slowness of the government in coming around to admitting that HIV causes Aids has strengthened grassroots activist organisations such as the Treatment Action Campaign, which uses a combination of lawsuits and street demonstrations to force the government’s hand. The ZACF has no specific HIV/Aids policy (a failing of ours), but has been very pro-active in interrogating its own male members’ behaviour towards women. We do, however, have too few women in our organisation. Violent crime, especially against women and children, has reached epidemic proportions especially in poor areas, and is often falsely blamed on Africans from other countries. Millions of refugees, from Somalia, the Great Lakes, DRC, Zimbabwe etc now live in South Africa, which means that xenophobia is increasingly used by the populists to divert anger from the indigenous comprador ruling class. But at base, these social distortions of crime are the result of extreme poverty in our region – which capitalism will refuse to solve because it relies on a cheap labour pool to feather its nest.

Alternative Libertaire: What are ZACF links with social movement (even if the last one is in the state you described)?

Michael Schmidt: The nature of our links has changed significantly over the years. In the WSF days, most of us were unionised and several like myself were shop-stewards. Today the climate has changed (my own union has collapsed and I’m not unionised, but am considering joining a Trotskyist-run union). So our first links to communities were through organised workers, but now our contact is directly with communities. But the social movements have proved more fruitful. We have done a little work with, for example, supporting sweat-shop workers in Soweto, but most of our work has been more within poor communities. We tried to set up community food gardens in Motsoaledi (a squatter-camp in Soweto), in Dlamini (a formal housing area in Soweto) and in Sebokeng. The one in Motsoaledi still continues – and has a popular community library and creche attached – whereas the one in Dlamini was destroyed by ANC Youth League thugs and the one in Sebokeng never took off. These projects are about teaching working-class autonomy: that the poor have enough skills, if they use them collectively, to solve their own problems outside of the state which cares so little for them. We have direct links into the prisons (and a network of jailed guerrillas) through our Anarchist Black Cross / Anti-Repression Network and have done significant prison-support work. In a wider context, through the Anti-Privatisation Forum, we became well-known to various struggling urban communities, and also to the 100,000-strong Landless People’s Movement (LPM). Although the social movements have achieved much, they are currently in a state of retreat – often because of the bad politics (sexism, opportunism, vanguardism etc) of the Trotskyists and left populists who dominate the leadership of many organisations. But we believe the anarchists, plus the autonomists and some Stalinists have been honest, decent activists and so are recognised by the social movements as trustworthy (we rate militants by what they do, not so much by what they say).

Alternative Libertaire: What about Cosatu?

Michael Schmidt: Cosatu remains important to us because it is the country’s largest working-class formation, with about 1,8-million members. It is about to embark on a massive (@1-million public sector unionists) general strike (May 30) over wage increases. They will strike alongside Fedusa, Nactu and independent unions, which is an important show of unity for union federations previously divided by ideology, now united as workers. Cosatu’s ideologues believe that starting in 2002, they managed to reverse the rightward, neoliberal drift of the ANC, but this has yet to be seen in terms of ANC policy. However, Cosatu has from about a year ago, started making overtures to the social movements saying we must work together. This is both because union membership is changing because of creeping casualisation, and because of the great layer of unemployed (40% of the working population by union estimates) that can also be mobilised if we work together. The ZACF is in favour of a convergence of these forces – so long as it remains along class lines and the social movements are not compromised by working with a union federation allied to the ruling party (there are many factions within Cosatu that are deeply critical of the ANC). The ZACF has been discussing the possibility of establishing syndicalist cells within existing trade unions in at least two areas: the University of the Witwatersrand and at Independent Newspapers.

Alternative Libertaire: What are the main problems the anarcho-communist stream is confronted with in South Africa?

Michael Schmidt: Our biggest ideological challenge is the dominance among the popular classes of the ANC’s black nationalist ideology which peddles the myth of the “National Democratic Revolution”. Fortunately, over time, segments of the popular classes (especially the unemployed and the farm-labour tenants) have come to see that this “Revolution” was about the ANC enabling the survival of white capital’s exploitation in exchange for a few seats at the feast for black leaders. Also, we have deliberately called ourselves the Zabalaza (Struggle) Anarchist Communist Federation to try to establish a true grassroots communism – and to distinguish it from the SACP’s weak social-democratic version. But still, the SACP has huge numbers and resources compared to us. Which takes us to our biggest practical challenge: extreme poverty. Even many of our own members face hunger on a daily basis and the organisation is not wealthy enough to feed them (hence the food-garden idea, but it has been plagued with problems like community members wanting to turn it into a small business). We are not a charity, but a political organisation. Still, it is hard to operate in such conditions. The working class, so impoverished, becomes prey to fly-by-night religious sects, labour brokers, loan-sharks, and political demagogues who promise them “a better life” (the ANC slogan).

Alternative Libertaire: You say the anarchist message is starting to spead: how do you notice this process?

Michael Schmidt: We notice this whenever we run into a black person in a township who describes themselves as anarchist despite having never met us. We notice it by the great interest that our Red & Black Forums generate, and by the invitations we have been receiving to hold such Forums in poor areas (we have even had an invitation to speak to a radical miners’union in the far northern Limpopo province of South Africa). We also notice it by the presence of actual anarchists in Zimbabwe, Swaziland, Kenya and Morocco – and by the people who get in contact with us from Sudan, or Uganda, or the Democratic Republic of Congo or Nigeria wanting anarchist materials. Lastly, we notice it by the noticeable presence of so many African trade unions (nomatter how mainstream) at the I07 syndicalist congress in Paris. Clearly, African workers are looking for a socio-political model that is not corrupt like the “African socialism” they know too well.

Alternative Libertaire: What are the connections with other anarcho-communist or anarchist organizations in Africa and “in the world”?

Michael Schmidt: Historically, the Workers’ Solidarity Movement (WSM, Ireland) has been our most consistent supporter, and their solidarity has been considerably added to over the years by practical and ideological support from the likes of the SAC (Sweden), CGT (Spain), CNT (France), FA (France), WSA (USA) and ART (New Zealand). We have also established close ties in recent years with NEFAC (USA/Canada), FdCA (Italy), CIPO-RFM (Mexico), OCL (Chile), FAG & FARJ (Brazil), FAU (Uruguay), AKI (Turkey), OAE (Greece), ACT (Lebanon) and others. Practically, we have oriented ourselves towards the “social insertion” practice of the Latin American “especifista” organisations. We are proud to count as our comrades anarchist activists from the MLCE (Cuban exile), Pakistan, Iran, Iraq and other places that are very tough to organise in. In Africa, we have lost touch with the Awareness League (Nigeria), though we hear that it is still operating in the north, but still have contacts with Brahim Filali (Morocco) and the Wiyathi Collective (Kenya). The situation is better in the south with a ZACF presence in Swaziland and with good relations with anarchists among the Uhuru Network in Zimbabwe. As for Alternative Libertaire, we work alongside you in the project (and met your militants at Autre Futur in Paris in 2000)! We also hope to establish closer relations so that AL can keep us informed on developments in Francophone Africa, while we tell you what is going on in Anglophone Africa.

Interview carried out by the International Secretariat of Libertarian Alternative

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