An interview by Organização Anarquista Socialismo Libertário (Sao Paulo, Brazil) with Jonathan P. and Warren McGregor, two militants from the Zabalaza Anarchist Communist Front (ZACF)

ZACF logoby Organização Anarquista Socialismo Libertario (São Paulo, Brazil)

OASL: Could you briefly describe what the ZACF is, and what model of organisation you chose to enact?

ZACF: The Zabalaza Anarchist Communist Front , ZACF or just Zabalaza (which means “struggle” in the African languages of isiXosa and isiZulu), is a specific anarchist organisation, or a political organisation. The ZACF identifies with the platformist tradition within anarchism, or in Latin American terms, with Especifismo.

Zabalaza is a unitary organization, with membership open only to committed anarchist communists, who agree with our goals and principles, and are able to show them in practice.

As an organization that identifies itself with the platform, while recognizing its limitations and weaknesses, we demand a certain level of theoretical and strategic unity and collective responsibility. This is mainly due to our own experience, when we discovered that a smaller but  more firmly united organization, with a greater level of strategic and theoretical unity and collective responsibility, can achieve much more than a large organization with very little common understanding of its goals and objectives, little strategic and tactical unity, and therefore little collective responsibility.

This is how we understand the distinction between the specific anarchist organization, an organization open only to militants of a particular tendency within anarchism, and the organization of synthesis, bringing together those who identify themselves as anarchist, even if their interpretations of anarchism is completely different, even opposed.

OASL: Could you talk a little bit about the work that  ZACF does, and what the focus and perspective of the organization are?

ZACF: Due to the size of the organization, and the fact that the majority of our members come from the middle class, a lot of ZACF work is directed at doing political education within the popular social movements and approximating new militants in order to grow and increase our capacity .

However, we do not want to recruit new members and supporters just for the sake of growth, and our recruitment process and entrance procedure adopted at our Congress in January 2011, is closely tied to a revolutionary strategy of growth directed at gaining a presence and the construction of an influence in the organizations of working class struggle.

Following the example of the FARJ and other Especifista organizations in South America, we usually divide or conceive of our work on two levels: at the political level, which can be more easily understood as internally, and the social level, which can be better understood as our public or external work.

In order to obtain an influence on the social level, in mass movements, it is important for the anarchist political organization to first develop, clarify and refine their ideas, strategies and proposals at the political, or internal level, and then take them to the social level through the political practice of the organization.

In practice, this translates into facilitating public seminars with activists from popular social movements and, increasingly, trade unionists. From the workshops we try to identify activists who are close to anarchism, whether practical or theoretically, and then try to get them to join one of our study circles on anarchism.

We also participate in discussions and public events of popular social movements, always defending anarchist principles and trying to defend these movements against authoritarianism and opportunism. However, our goal is to help build strong, independent and autonomous social movements and unions – and that’s why we put an emphasis on building a layer of working class militants – through our workshops and study circles – with a comprehensive understanding of anarchist practice, that really come from these movements and are always there to defend them.

It is for this reason, and because there is little pre-existing anarchist tradition from which to draw, that we put so much emphasis on the activity of political education. However, we are not educationalists, and this focus is part of a medium to long term strategy to achieve a presence for our ideas and organization in the mass organizations of the class.

Quite recently, we have been working very close with the youth of the Landless People’s Movement (LPM), which recently succeeded in forcing the president of the LPM to step down from a position she has held since the beginning of the LPM, and it is likely that we will move our study circle based in Soweto to an informal settlement where the LPM is concentrated in order to involve these young people who expressed interest in learning more about anarchism.

Other works that we have recently been involved in is solidarity with the Mine-Line factory occupation, which is the first occupation of its kind in post-apartheid South Africa. We will be trying to organize political education workshops with the workers there and try to establish a study circle with them, as well of course as trying to meet their specific needs for solidarity.

Some of our members and supporters were also involved in the occupation of University buildings last year at the University of Witwatersrand and the fight against rate increases, as well as solidarity work with workers on campus. These members and supporters based on campus also facilitate a study circle on anarchism, with an anarchist lecturer, and some students who participate are interested in getting more involved.

So as you can see, despite putting a big emphasis on political education and trying to attract new members and supporters in this way, we are careful to ensure that these efforts are linked to a strategic program to build a layer of working class anarchist militants, with the aim of gaining social insertion in the popular struggles of the class.

OASL: Are there other anarchist organizations in South Africa, and how is the anarchist movement there currently?

ZACF: In fact we have no information about other anarchist groups in South Africa. Recently, in the last few months, there has been an initiative to build an  Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) in Cape Town. The proposal is that the IWW will be an independent union, but as I understand it now, it seems more like a political group that does activities with the other unions / union members and serves more as a solidarity committee. It seems more a synthesis political organization, that has the participation of activists from various lines of thought within socialism, but I’d rather not talk more about it because I do not have adequate information.

But apart from that, I do not think there are other anarchist groups in South Africa. There are several individuals, in Johannesburg and other cities, but they are not – to my knowledge – involved in any kind of struggles or popular movement, and be honest, I think at least some are anarchists in name only – without content.

So the anarchist movement in South Africa is very small and is concentrated in Johannesburg, with the ZACF, and in Cape Town with the IWW. Both organizations are small, relatively new groups and do not have much experience or influence.

However, through nearly a decade of consistent militancy in popular social movements around Johannesburg the ZACF is gradually gaining an audience for its ideas and building a small, but significant influence, consistently arguing against authoritarian and reformist socialism and raising  revolutionary anarchism and its principles as a viable alternative.

Recently, we attended the first Conference of the Democratic Left (now the Left Democratic Front), which is an attempt to draw the various social movements, independent trade unions and leftist political organizations in to an anti-capitalist front and to explore ways to overcome the divisive sectarianism within the class struggle left and help to assist the various organizations involved in practical cooperation and solidarity. At this conference we helped to successfully defend an independent class line and to defeat any attempt to constitute the initiative into an electoral front. This may be short-lived, however, as although the authoritarian socialists generally agree that we need to focus on the construction of mass struggles from below and build the DLF in the process – there is no doubt that if we succeed in building a mass movement they will try to drag it  in to the elections.

OASL: It is difficult to get an insertion in the communities and the slums of South Africa, do you face problems with militias or organized crime?

ZACF: The biggest problem to get an insertion in poor communities and townships is not the militias or organized crime, even if they exist, but the government party, the ANC (African National Congress – ANC) and its members and officials. It has already happened that ANC members, friends of the ANC Councillor, threatened ZACF militants with firearms when we were conducting activities in a slum in Soweto.

More recently, a ZACF supporter  and his family were forced to flee their home in the informal settlement after a gang of men wanted to attack our comrade, accusing him of instigating and leading the community in the illegal connection of electricity that they can not afford to pay for.

In other cases, although ZACF members were not directly involved, working class militants of social movements such as the Anti-Privatization Forum (APF) were attacked, beaten and murdered in order to prevent them from further building support for social movements and undermining the power and influence of local authorities. These types of attacks have often been committed by members of the Community Policing Forum (CPF), a government initiative to involve community members in preventing crime, but which has basically evolved into vigilante groups to enforce the will of the local political elite.

OASL: Here in Brazil, we are preparing the country to host a world cup, the people in need seems to be the main target of the government’s propaganda that these people have passion for football. In South Africa, what was the impact that this event caused the poor population which is most there has been a popular event, people could enter the stadium to see international football?

ZACF: It was the same thing here: the government and Fifa focussed its advertising on the poor and working poor, who were desperate that the World Cup would bring both much-needed development and investment in poor areas, but also desperate for something that could provide an escape, albeit briefly, from their daily misery. The World Cup seemed to offer both, and people were generally supportive of South Africa hosting the World Cup.

It was only when people began noticing the misuse and mis-allocation of tax money that people began to raise the question. Instead of developing poor areas, equipping schools and hospitals etc. money was used to build new stadiums, improve roads in affluent areas, where there are a large number of hotels that tourists would use. Soon it was obvious to anyone who bothered to look that the whole thing was a farce, and that the only ones to benefit would be government and FIFA officials, contractors and major international investors, etc. In fact, the country suffered a large external debt as a result of hosting the World Cup and, as with the global economic crisis, the working class and poor have been presented with the bill.

Not only were the tickets for the games too expensive for anyone in the working class to be able to pay, but the informal traders who make their living by selling goods around the stadiums were banned from entering within a three kilometer radius of the stadiums. Most contracts went to existing corporate giants and multi-nationals. The government sold the idea to host the World Cup to the people by saying it would bring investment, jobs and development. What happened in practice is that people who are poor and working class, were excluded and marginalized in every way possible.

The jobs that were created were mostly temporary, and these people are probably already unemployed again. In fact, besides the stadiums – which will probably never be full again – an increased police presence on the streets is one of the only visible and lasting effects of hosting the World Cup.

What is encouraging, however, is that people in Brazil have begun to question the whole process, seen through some of the lies and have begun to organize and mobilize in their defense. Already in Fortaleza, Ceara, one of the host cities, several community-based organizations have come together to resist the displacement of several slums to make way for a type of above ground metro which is being built to serve tourists during the World Cup.

OASL: How are relations between blacks and whites, are the vestiges of apartheid still part of politics and South African society?

ZACF: Relations between blacks (which include coloured/mixed race, and indian) and whites since 1994 have been infused with class distinctions which generally (although not completely) determine relationships between them. Although it is correct to say that racism is very much alive in South Africa today, it is complex and ideas as to this cover a broad range of sentiment.

Since 1994, the old political and structural vestiges of apartheid have been removed, such that black people are nominally as politically free as white people. However, economic relations have virtually remained the same (with reference to privately and state-owned – ruling class-owned – relations to the rest of the population), exacerbated by the Mandela-led ANC government enthusiastically grabbing onto the neo-liberal trajectory of globalising capitalism. 

The vast majority of South Africans are black, thus the vast majority of the poor here are black too (there is, however, a sizable population of poor and working class whites – mostly former state civil servants, military and police personnel etc). Although the state owns and/or controls more than 30% of the economy through direct ownership, majority shareholding, etc., most of the economy is still owned by those companies and/or individuals who directly benefitted from the apartheid-era dispensation – whites. This is not to say that it was only white people who benefited from apartheid, nor that all white people benefited from apartheid. Most whites were working class, but as a whole enjoyed more privileges and greater access to better education, employment and better paying jobs and far more political rights than black people as a whole. There existed a tiny layer of black administrators of the former Bantustans and a tiny localised black elite that also benefited from apartheid-era legislation, who have been absorbed as they were into the post-1994 dispensation and into the ANC itself.

Many poor South Africans thus point to their existing material and social circumstances, which have not improved since the ANC-takeover and have in fact, in many ways, become worse, as evidence that economic and political prejudice in favour of whites still exists. Also, many poor and working class people, in their having to fight over meager scraps and opportunities fallen from the table of capitalist greed, turn to violent physical expressions of frustration, which manifest, for example, as xenophobic attacks against poor immigrants (mainly from other African as well as Asian countries). These vitriolic exclamations are reserved for the immigrant poor while upper classes from other countries are seen, amongst other things, as bearers of investment and thus economic growth and jobs. These are constant features of life in poor townships around the country.

The rural poor face tremendous hardship under domination that in most ways has not changed since 1994. Most labourers are black and coloured, who work (if they are lucky enough to find work) on farms and in factories owned and run almost exclusively by whites. Their work conditions are terrible! Many perform tasks that are physically exhausting for longer than 12 hours a day, some as much as 18 hours a day (the workers at an abattoir in Robertson, a small rural town in the Western Cape, for example, who number 40 workers and have to slaughter 1040 sheep daily) and the work and their contracts are usually seasonal and thus very precarious. However, many would attach their hardships not to racism and white mastery, but to capitalism and if not, then specifically to ineffective management of the capitalist system by a black African government – evidence that apartheid-era divisions were drawn and promoted between sections of the black population too and that they are still very much alive today. 

Since 1994, the ANC has successfully deracialised the state machinery, but has failed in deracialising the domestic capitalist economy. Thus, there exists a small and weak (but materially extremely well-resourced) black bourgeoisie. This layer uses state and ANC patronage systems to further improve their material resources and bank accounts. This has created a culture amongst politically well-connected people of using the ANC as a ladder to financial success through the state. Many in poor townships, most particularly social movement activists, have started realising this trend and have become disillusioned with the ruling party. This more open and deracialised class analysis is slowly coming to the fore. There are, however, quite a few loud black nationalist voices (individuals and small organisations) who seek influence by evoking centuries of colonial and oppressive hardship, tying these to their claims of a present-day racial white supremacist agenda, and propagating an Africanist (and more particularly a black South Africanist) incentive which includes stripping all white people of their land and resources and placing them in hands of black people – who these black people are is unclear as is who is to administer this, as well as the fact that their class-less narrative is equally murky. Some of these people may go so far as to say that whites should be forced out of the country, despite the fact that for many white South Africans whose families have lived here for generations, this would be extremely difficult for them as they don’t bear any links, such as foreign passports or family ties, to the European countries from which their families originate.

Despite these disparate voices, the ANC still enjoys mass support amongst the working class and poor (although not nearly as much as it claims), who are seduced by the message of certain leaders who proclaim that the problem is not the ANC itself, but individuals and cliques within the party, and that the party is, thus, an open, contested space and not an entity advocating the dominance of domestic and international capital. 

Thus racism today is more clearly understood as being more tied to economic circumstance than to old political apartheid vestiges (one is clear to highlight that internal economic sanction was crucial to the maintenance of segregation and apartheid). This is not to discount, however, the tremendous influence apartheid had on South Africans and their attitudes, as many people still carry individual prejudice (eg. “the country is in a miserable state because black managers are not as efficient as white managers”, “coloured and indian people will always side with whites”, “black people can only access good level jobs because of state law”, etc.).