At the End of the Baton of South African Pretensions

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by Warren McGregor (ZACF)

Post-1994 South Africa is usually seen and promoted as a country of moral and political exceptionalism. The spawn of negotiations between the bourgeois nationalist and voluntarily neo-liberal African National Congress (ANC) under the guidance of Nelson Mandela and the hierarchy of the vicious apartheid state, post-apartheid South Africa was to provide a shining example of reconciliation and socio-economic progress. During a few dark days in May 2010, these claims were finally and mercilessly put to rest. So it seems and has been for those who survive in and who are social activists at the layer of society most subject to the oppressive nature of the state and capital: the working class and poor. The Landless People’s Movement, a shack and rural township dwellers organisation based in the Gauteng province, suffered attacks at the hands of their fellow community members. These attacks were designed by local community members to harass and expel prominent local activists and to destabilise the organisation and its constructive community work. Most of the LPM’s activism is directed against the state and its representatives at a local and municipal level, and thus an attack on activists can be seen to benefit a larger state desire of quietening social movements throughout the country. Lack of initial police intervention to prevent further attacks on the night of the attacks, and the subsequent arrest of prominent community activists speak to this desire.

The attacks on social movements and activists should be viewed within a socio-economic context that sees South Africa as one of the most unequal societies on the planet (according to its Gini coefficient – the income inequality indicator, literally the gap between the rich and poor). This inequality persists, bred during the last century and exacerbated by the ANC government’s grasping at neo-liberalism. Added to this cauldron of inequality was the morally criminal and immense spending by the state in hosting the recent 2010 FIFA Soccer World Cup which revealed what the staging of the event was designed as and who it ultimately will benefits –  a capitalist and corporate state project for the benefits of the very few (domestically and globally).

The death, carnage and misery suffered recently must forever be etched into our memories, collective and individual, as must the realisation of the desperate need for collective libertarian socialist action, organisation and struggle towards our desired goals and a truly free society

THE ‘ELECTRICITY WARS’

The Landless People’s Movement (LPM), an independent organisation of the rural poor and shack dwellers near cities, primarily based in Gauteng,[1] has raised the ire of the local state and ruling party apparatus by consistently highlighting their land and housing plight. They have been consistently effective in regionally mobilising the working class and poor on a ‘No Land No Vote’ campaign.

Another “campaign” of illegally connecting electricity to shacks to provide families with a meagre amount of power, puts them in direct conflict with local ‘bonded’ house inhabitants (home owners who continue to claim that these connections are at their expense, which is not the case as connections are made to the main supply box, not to homes’ lines, and who persistently lobby provincial government to evict neighbouring shack dwellers who “limit” property and house prices).

During the last week of May 2010, less than 3 weeks from the lavish World Cup opening ceremony, armed men acting in accordance with home owner wishes, attacked prominent LPM organisers’ homes in the impoverished shack dweller communities of Protea South, Etwatwa and Harry Gwala. Some homes were set alight, while many organisers and their family members were physically assaulted and shot at in an attempt to drive them from the community.

In a harrowing account, a ZACF comrade, who is also a prominent LPM organiser and Protea South shack dweller, relayed that in the middle of the night of May 23, he and his partner were woken from their sleep by an armed gang who were out to get our comrade. While hiding in his home in real fear of his life, he was unable to prevent the gang beating up his partner. The family were driven from their home, and after months of searching have relocated to a nearby community (still housed in a shack).

Despite similar events, the only police intervention saw 17 people arrested (all belonging to, or associated with the LPM, and none from the original gangs that launched the attacks), 5 from the Protea settlement and 12 from Etwatwa (whom have subsequently been released) as well as the continued harassment of organisers in Harry Gwala.[2]

I’LL HAVE THE USUAL, PLEASE

The LPM suffers attacks due to its prominence in highlighting the issues and daily sufferings of the working class and poor outside, and in many regards, against the formal institutions of the state.

The reasons for the attacks have been presented here, but what also needs to be mentioned is that the Regional Secretary of the LPM, based in Protea South, has recently used organisation resources to initiate an electoral campaign with the 2011 local government elections in mind. With the ability to mobilise large numbers, the Secretary (who has a history of authoritarianism and “misuse” of organisation funds and resources) has caused concern amongst the community’s political elite and raised the prospect of a local power struggle. In recent discussions with two LPM activists in Chiawelo [3] and Protea South, the Secretary has joined the Democratic Alliance (DA) [4]- a neo-liberal political party and the largest elected opposition to the African National Congress – after a period of opportunistically searching for a political home within other prominent political parties. In so doing, the Secretary has dragged large portions of the LPM’s membership with her in an attempt to reap the benefits of local councillor office. The DA’s main constituency is among the white middle and upper classes nationally and coloured [5] voters based largely in the Western Cape, although it continually seeks to build a poor and working class black voter base throughout the country. The Secretary’s shifting alliance provides it with such an opportunity.

WAKA WAKA, WHAT?!

The official FIFA World Cup song, sung by Colombia’s pop princess Shakira and local band Freshly Ground, claims that the hosting of the games was Africa’s ‘time’. Time for what exactly was not made clear, and how Africa was actually to benefit was even less identifiable, but it was sung with gusto by those who could afford the local satellite service and attend the games (the vast minority locally, and the thousands who travelled from Europe, the United States, and the South American moneyed).

The real reasons for hosting the games though, as far as we are concerned, were better expressed in songs like the Chomsky Allstars’ “The Beautiful Gain” [6] and the ZACF piece [7] (the title of this statement owes a debt of gratitude to the Allstars’s song). Having spent exorbitantly on hosting the World Cup, close on R850 billion on Cup infrastructure and stadia, the government has clearly insulted the working class and poor, many of whom exist in dire poverty without access to necessary basic resources and work.

The state constantly claims it has no money for desperately needed social services – crumbling state health and education systems and resources that are on the verge of collapse and that are the only points of service available to the working poor – but when it comes to putting on a show for the viewers, it exhibits a spending pattern that flies in the face of such claims.

Many in South African society have claimed social cohesion as a lasting benefit of having hosted the tournament. This claim must be unmasked for its ridiculousness. Having white and black faces waving flags in and around soccer stadiums and fan parks tells little of the cost required to access those bastions of the FIFA empire. It does not take into account, but exhibits unintentionally, the class character of the tournament as a neo-liberal, capitalist project designed not for the majority of Africans, but for the very few who could afford the various shows on offer.

The ‘social cohesion’ perspective also creates an ‘us’ versus ‘them’ compartmentalised way of thinking. This sparked new rounds of xenophobic violence which broke out in townships recently. These were preceded by a massive exodus of poor African foreign nationals from poor and working class townships throughout the country.

EDUCATE TO ORGANISE! AGITATE TO SOCIALISE!

Global ruling political and economic elites’ have continually sought to co-opt or shut up independent social organisations and movements of the working class (for example by enmeshing trade unions into the state through hierarchically-structured bargaining councils, attacks on social movements, etc.). This is inspired by a need to expand a neo-liberal project that ultimately seeks to lay an attractive foundation for foreign and domestic capital investment. Social movements, despite certain failings and deficiencies, still possess the ability to mobilise en masse and challenge the devastating social effects of this ideology. In violently confronting community protesters, elites have ruthlessly shown that they will use the organs of the state [8] as well as their personal capacities (as in the attacks on LPM activists) and the explosive xenophobic atmosphere for its own ends of continued suppression of independent community-level voices and action, to maintain socio-politico-economic control of the country.

These voices of agitation, their movements and organisations, must not be allowed to be quietened. In fact, the LPM has put in motion “reconstruction” plans which maintain their collective spirit of defiance, and which serve as points of inspiration for a currently embattled independent social activist movement and a truly left alternative.

Social agitation and its organisation must not be seen as inevitable outcomes of socio-economic oppression, but as the continued hard-working initiatives of activists at grassroots level. It is to this that we, as anarchists, have always aspired and committed ourselves. In a South African and African climate of political and social authoritarianism, despite a perceived lull in organised and sustained anti-state action at a social movement level, the conditions for the building of a libertarian alternative do still exist. However, we need to be realistic about our capacities and focus on projects that can be achieved and used as examples of success to further our goals.

The continued education initiatives at the shop and shack floor need to be sustained, providing communities and activists with an alternative reading and understanding of society. On these we can build truly democratic and horizontally-structured organs of people’s power that can take the fight to the state and the economic elite, always keeping in mind the power of these forces of opposition, but realistically understanding that united on a constructive platform, we as the working class and poor have the strength of fist, stick, stone and collective common purpose to beat back the batons of oppression and pretension. In so doing, we reveal the wounds within the systems of authoritarianism and capitalism, prising open spaces for further collective action and societal change.


Footnotes:

  1. see here.
  2. For more information regarding the attacks and the subsequent experience of LPM comrades, see here.
  3. a neighbourhood of houses, shacks, and little access to running water (provided by pre-paid water metres) and electricity in Soweto
  4. see here.
  5. in the South African sense used here, referring to people of mixed race origin and descendants of the slaves of the Cape Malay, indigenous Southern Africans (e.g. KhoiKhoi, Bushmen) and Europeans
  6. see here.
  7. see here.
  8. see here and here.
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