Zabalaza #14 Editorial: Where to, South Africa? Anarchist-Communist Reflections

Zumaby Tina Zisovuka (ZACF)

In 2013, Zabalaza/ ZACF took a decision to redirect our energies into certain aspects of our work that we felt were more urgent and immediately important at the time, given the challenges and conditions we were facing. The bad news is that this decision took its toll on our publishing work, which partly explains the long gap (over two years) between issues of our journal. The good news is that this reorientation has paid off elsewhere: hiccups notwithstanding, over the past two years our militants have participated in various new initiatives in and around Johannesburg, where we have witnessed a renewed and growing interest in anarchism. The inclusion of several new names in this issue is a much-welcomed reflection of these changes.

Over the past two years, there have been many important developments that deserve special consideration. We have tried to include our own, anarchist, appraisals of these where possible, although in some respects we have fallen unavoidably short. It is precisely because South Africa’s burning social and national issues remain unresolved (in fact they cannot be resolved within the existing capitalist and political party systems established in 1910 and 1994), that the country continues to undergo social turbulence, seen in strikes, union splits, struggles over symbols, and sadly, anti-immigrant attacks.

The expulsion in November 2014 of the metalworkers union (NUMSA) from the federation (COSATU), and the consequent formation of a new NUMSA-driven “United Front” (UF) is an interesting turn of events in South Africa. On the one hand this is a major setback for trade union unity, but on the other, NUMSA’s pledge to work for the type of “social movement unionism” that once distinguished it, could also mean a victory for working class unity broadly speaking. In this, NUMSA has cut ties with the ruling ANC, and – in its defence of former general secretary Zwelinzima Vavi – has been at the forefront of a struggle against that powerful ANC-SACP group within the federation’s leadership, which, in NUMSA’s words, is attempting to turn COSATU into a “labour desk” of the ruling party. However, it is yet to be seen whether the UF will signal a new phase in our politics; with the launch being postponed several times, with influential groups pushing for it to stand independent candidates in next year’s local elections, and with a programme that at times seems more concerned about uniting the left under a NUMSA programme than about unity of the working class in struggle, the future is uncertain. How anarchists should relate to this is the subject of an entry in the “Open Correspondence Column” by Jakes Factoria and Tina Sizovuka, which argues for participation, where possible, in the unions and the UF, to build revolutionary counter-power and promote revolutionary ideas.

It is significant that it is NUMSA driving these new developments; its predecessor, MAWU, in the 1980s, was one of the most vehement voices against alliances to political parties – warning of the dangers of embroiling unions in party-political factional battles. However, we should also not forget that it was Vavi that led the campaign to back one faction of the ANC (around Zuma) over the other (around Mbeki) in the 2007 elections, the aftermath of which was the political assassination of the then COSATU president Willie Madisha, who opposed it. This decision was a watershed moment for COSATU’s independence: as predicted by MAWU, COSATU would soon become infected by the ANC’s factional battles – battles of which Vavi himself was later made victim. It was also a watershed moment for COSATU’s culture of consensus building and debate, which was increasingly replaced by the culture of “disciplining” and malicious elimination of political opponents. Vavi’s recent birthday present to Mbeki – an apology for 2007 – is a welcome admission of guilt, although the apology would best be directed at COSATU’s millions of members who suffered the real consequences of the union leadership’s embrace of political parties.

Pitso Mompe’s article takes lessons from syndicalism, focussing on disunity within the trade unions – which not only occurs horizontally (along the lines of nationality, race, ethnicity, language and so on) but also vertically, between workers and the trade union bureaucracy – arguing for a return to the type of syndicalist-leaning bottom-up, worker controlled trade unionism of the 1970s and 1980s. This is precisely what is missing in many COSATU unions, wracked by internal turmoil, with bureaucracies enmeshed into the patronage networks of the nationalist ANC state. Thabang Sefalafala and Lucien van der Walt revisit the Spanish CNT in search of lessons for building a mass anarchist organisation and union revitalisation. On this important example, we also include here a review of Jose Peirat’s account of the Spanish revolution, The CNT in the Spanish Revolution, a three volume study by a militant – written in exile – of the inspiring events of 1936-9.

The formation of the UF by NUMSA is an important rupture with the status quo, although its future is uncertain. Activists and leftists from a wide range of political orientations have pinned their hopes on it, a beacon of light in a sea of darkness, and much ink has already flowed in attempting to understand its significance. Unfortunately a serious ZACF anarchist analysis of the UF is still outstanding, but one is surely necessary. The lessons and insights of anarchism would add a valuable voice of apprehension that could stand up against those (many of whom are influential leadership figures) pushing the fledgling structure in the direction of a workers’ party.[1] Nonetheless the rise of the UF also poses several questions to us as anarchists about how we relate to mass movements, addressed in the “Open Correspondence Column”. A related article by Bongani Maponyane takes a theoretical look at the role and importance of having an organised active anarchist minority within mass movements, focusing on the role of the specific anarchist political organisation.

Alongside the UF, since our last issue we have seen the rise of a new, so-called “revolutionary” political party – the “Economic Freedom Fighters” (EFF). The EFF exploded onto the political scene in mid-2013 as a splinter from the ruling ANC by the faction surrounding Youth Leaguer Julius Malema, grabbing far more media attention than its weight warranted (it received only 6.35% of the votes in the 2014 national elections). Despite its flirtations with shady business figures like Kenny Kunene (who has now also launched a new party, the Patriotic Alliance), authoritarian structure (initially around an unelected “Central Command”), factional infighting for access to lucrative state positions, undisclosed funding by powerful interests, and a long string of broken promises, the EFF’s provocative – if sometimes ultra-nationalist – rhetoric has provided a pole of attraction, especially for poor youth, who are largely excluded from the system (youth unemployment is roughly 36%, and youth account for 90% of the unemployed who have never had a job).[2]

In the midst of all this activity, the families of the 41 Marikana miners who were brutally gunned down in August 2012 while on strike, in the aftermath of major splits in the mining unions, have been shunted into the background. The “Farlam Commission” set up to investigate the incident (commissions are the typical SA state response (delay tactic?) to popular anger) has finally, after years of proceedings, come up with nothing more than to institute another inquiry, this time into the capability of the National Police Commissioner and Provincial Commissioner to hold office after deliberately misleading the Commission. No one has been named responsible for the actual massacre, and no compensation has been forthcoming. Rather than seek to address the problems, major parties like ANC and EFF have instead sought votes from the miners’ communities, seeking to ride people’s pain into lucrative state office with promises.

With the “Nkandlagate” scandal fresh in memory – during which President Zuma refused for months to make public this inquiry into the misuse of billions of public funds for his Nkandla homestead – we are left with little hope. However, we would be wrong to single out the ANC (or the EFF) for exploiting its access to state resources as a means to entrench its power (by rewarding the loyal, building patronage networks and so on); the National Party, just like the ANC, used the state to reward voters, and built the state into an ethnic and racial fiefdom, appointed their cronies and allies to all key positions, and, more specifically, used and expanded state companies, funds, legislation and pressure for a process of either Afrikaner or black economic empowerment. This will be the topic of an upcoming Zabalaza journal supplement, soon to be published by the collective.

While the elites gorge themselves at our expense, and in doing so, continue to fan national divisions, the working class and poor, faced with desperate conditions, have turned on themselves. Another wave of brutal xenophobic attacks broke out in early 2015. Hundreds of foreign-owned shops were looted, and (as some policemen joined in the looting) the army was deployed to various areas of Johannesburg and KwaZulu Natal, which had turned into battlegrounds. The latest wave of anti-immigrant violence was triggered by the xenophobic statements of the Zulu King, King Zwelithini (although he later retracted his suggestion that foreigners “pack their bags”). Public condemnations and meaningless romantic talk of African unity aside, the South African state bears responsibility for these attacks both directly and indirectly: by deliberately turning a blind eye, by the fact that its policy for dealing with the “problem” of “illegal” migration is one of clampdown and internment, and because its imperialist incursions into the rest of Africa cannot be separated from the contempt that South Africans hold towards residents of dominated countries.

This is the focus of another group of articles in this issue. Shawn Hattingh analyses South African political interference in the DRC (including backing the Kabila regime), exposing how troops stationed in the DRC (as part of “Operation Mistral”) are being used to clear rebel groups so that SA big business, state-owned enterprises, and ANC-linked interests (including of the President’s nephew) can take advantage of mineral and oil concessions in North Kivu. Philip Nyalungu also focusses on the state’s role in the recent xenophobic attacks (by deliberately weakening immigrant solidarity networks through arrests, and silencing movements critical of the ANC); at the same time, however, the article takes a tough look at the pervasiveness of xenophobic attitudes amongst ordinary people in South Africa, calling for open and honest discussion as a starting point for dealing with such rampant xenophobia.

Lucien van der Walt argues against the thesis of a Western “labour aristocracy”, showing that there is no basis for the claims that Western imperialism – through wars, colonial conquest and so on – benefits the Western working class. South Africa is itself a small imperial power, and plays an important role in popular anti-immigrant sentiment, state military actions and regional politics. The argument against “labour aristocracy” also applies: the South African working class has no stake in its ruling class’s expansionism.

The issue of the legacy of imperialism – the older, “Western,” colonial variety – has come to the fore again in South Africa, a country deeply shaped by the British Empire. Students from the University of Cape Town sparked a series of symbolic actions across the country, when they attacked a statue of Cecil John Rhodes, arch-symbol of British imperialism and the former namesake of Zimbabwe (“Rhodesia”), by covering it in human faeces.

Our colonial past deeply shapes the lives of working class South Africans. In South Africa the colour of your skin still strongly determines your life chances and social positions, and thus this anger is justified. However, Leroy Maisiri, a student at Rhodes University in South Africa, questions the overly racialised slogans (e.g. “Rhodes so white”) that have come out of the initiative, arguing that symbolic, cosmetic actions like removing statues fail to take account of deeper structural problems that link race and class, and cannot be a meaningful solution to the continued legacy of racism and colonialism in South Africa. Instead of erasing painful history, the article calls for more symbolism and more iconography – that celebrates the working class, and its heritage and history (which is also a key focus of a Heritage Day speech, reproduced here, by Lucien van der Walt). Nationalism, a politics of cross-class unity and the affirmation of narrow identities, has failed throughout the twentieth century to solve South Africa’s problems: its resurgence in some of these protests, and through the EFF, does not take us forward, as Maisiri stresses here, and van der Walt elsewhere. Real university transformation means creating, not an “African university” or a “world-class university,” but a “workers and people’s scientific university” and free education.

Turning to the international front, the recent uprisings by the predominantly black – but also working class – community of Baltimore in the United States, sparked by the murder of Freddie Gray while in police custody, raise many similar questions about the race-class connection in the US. While the international press has drawn historical comparisons (e.g. to the Civil Rights Movement, slavery), too often these have failed to go beyond simplistic references to “white supremacy.” As in South Africa, class-based exploitation, slavery and conquest are central to the origins of racism, and capitalist and statist social relations play a key role in entrenching racial and national oppression today.

In terms of national liberation struggles, very little has raised more international interest (not only amongst anarchists) than the impressive fight by the People’s Protection Units (YPG) and the Women’s Protection Units (YPJ) in the region of Rojava in Western Kurdistan, against the Islamic State. Linked to the Kurdish Workers Party (PKK), the YPG/YPJ, like the PKK, have increasingly and explicitly adopted ideas with roots in the anarchist tradition, in place of their older Marxism-Leninism: this includes efforts at an anarchist-influenced programme of self-government and direct democracy in Rojava in Syria, which is linked to a struggle for both gender equality and environmentalism. On the latter theme, Bongani Maponyane’s article on climate change takes issue with the false solutions to climate change being promoted by the bureaucrats; the fact that elite-driven processes like the Kyoto Protocol, COP and others have thus far failed to meaningfully address the crisis, makes the type of class-driven environmentalism being undertaken by the YPG/YPJ all the more relevant. Shawn Hattingh’s article takes a bit of a longer look at the Islamic State (IS) phenomenon, analysing the role that the US ruling class has played in the Middle East, and the reasons for its refusal to support the only forces in the region (the PKK and YPG) which have been persistently and effectively pushing back its expansion. ISIS, like radical Islamism and religious and national fundamentalisms more generally, is a reactionary movement that poses – as the YPG/ YPJ battles against ISIS show – a direct, deadly threat to the left and popular classes.

The question of national sovereignty has also come up within Western Europe, after the victory of the OXI in the Greek referendum – which many Greeks and many on the left hoped would end Greece’s long nightmare of imposed austerity. The complete capitulation of Syriza (to an agreement worse in many ways than the one rejected by the referendum!) is not that surprising, but it has been interpreted by many angry leftists either as betrayal, or as evidence that Tspiras and Syriza were never really “on the left” in the first place. This totally avoids a serious analysis of the state – placing responsibility on the genuineness or loyalty of individual leaders. At best the referendum could have led to Syriza exiting the Eurozone, and implementing a friendlier version of capitalism – but it was never going to end it, nor bring about real social equality in Greece. Again this has exposed the limits of strategies focused on the state for genuine socialist change. Although this is not featured here, an analysis of the Greek events is on the cards for the next issue (or, more realistically, our website).

Shifting our focus further south, our regular Black Stars of Anarchism series features the life of Domingos Passos, in an article written by Renato Ramos and Alexandre Samis, two Brazilian comrades. Passos was a black Brazilian carpenter, unionist and anarchist, and an active leader in the Civil Construction Workers’ Union (UOCC), Rio de Janeiro Workers’ Federation (FORJ) and the Workers’ Federation of Sao Paulo (FOSP). Passos travelled extensively, and his tireless organising and propaganda work was a crucial contribution to the spread of trade unionism, and anarchist ideas and counterculture in the region. In our other regular Counterculture section, we include here a presentation by Warren McGregor about anarchism to the travelling Afrikan HipHop Caravan – a radical underground HipHop initiative linking collectives in six African countries – held in Johannesburg in 2013.

We conclude on a positive note. Despite facing deepening austerity, desperate poverty, grinding exploitation, frightening elite-sponsored terror attacks and more, the working class has not responded by lying down in submission. Also, importantly, the fight back has not only been defensive, but has produced exciting constructive initiatives that are noteworthy not only for their effectiveness, but for their form and content. The picture of militant, largely female, popular militias determined to protect their communities effectively repelling forces like Boko Haram in Nigeria and ISIS in Kurdistan and elsewhere is illustrative.

There are struggles everywhere that we could note with pride – even if space has prevented fuller explorations here. But we also know that much work lies ahead. “The passion for destruction is a creative passion, too!” [3]


1. 2015/03/12/the-party-ishaunting- us-again/
2. za/ ?p=2746
3. Mikhail Bakunin, 1842. The Reaction in Germany.