2009: Interview with Zimbabwean Anarchist Communist

Interview with Zimbabwean Anarchist Communist

A member of the Zabalaza Anarchist Communist Front caught up with Biko, an anarchist communist militant from the Uhuru Network in Zimbabwe, on August 10th 2009 when he was in Johannesburg to attend the annual Khanya College Winter School.

In this interview Biko talks about the changes in the social, political and economic landscape since the Government of National Unity came into being; the state of the unions and students’ movement; the suppression of gays and lesbians; the constitutional reform process and expected Zanu-PF campaigns of violence ahead of the next elections.

The audio is rather poor quality, but can be found here (off-site, seems to be down)

The transcript of the interview is, however, available below. Also seeToyi Toyi Artz Kollektive website

 Could you please tell us how the political, social and economic landscape has changed since the Government of National Unity came into being?

The first thing is that there has been a bit of an opening up of democratic space in terms of people articulating, but in terms of the socio-economic situation things have worsened, particularly with the dollarisation of the economy. This has had much more of a negative impact on the rural communities and, with particular regard to the urban communities and given the fact that 85 percent of Zimbabweans are unemployed, a lot of people have problems accessing the US dollars.

How have people on all sides reacted to the MDC’s entry into government and in what conditions has this left its structures?

The Movement for Democratic Change’s entrance into what we prefer calling a transitional government, but what they refer to as a government of national unity has been seen by most people within the pro-democracy movement as a betrayal because there was no consultation with the people with regards to that entrance. It is part of an elitist pact brokered by Thabo Mbeki. The first three months of the GNU has seen Robert Mugabe outrightly defying the GNU’s agreement itself, appointing five extra ministers, refusing to acknowledge certain ministries that he agreed would be headed by the MDC. So, its by and large viewed as a treacherous move.

What challenges and opportunities does this offer the Uhuru Network and other social movements?

There has been now a clear disillusionment amongst the militant grassroots ranks of the Movement for Democratic Change and these community activists are much more persuaded to work with radical groups that have always attacked the political parties in Zimbabwe.

What state does the Zimbabwean Congress of Trade Unions find itself in, in the context of this massive unemployment and power sharing?

The Zimbabwean Congress of Trade Unions’ base has weakened giving the shrinking of industry in Zimbabwe. They are no longer a movement that is based on a mass of workers in Zimbabwe. The leadership has taken radical stances, deciding not to engage the constitutional reform process as stipulated by the GPA agreement which governs the GNU. But to what extent they will be able to follow through threats of a general strike that they have been issuing over the last month is doubtful given that their mass base is weakened.

How does the students’ movement find itself in the current context?

The Zimbabwe National Students’ Union leadership has issued a statement that they will also join hands with the National Constitutional Assembly and the Zimbabwean Congress of Trade Unions in campaigning against any draft constitution that will emerge from the government’s constitutional reform process as conducted under the GPA. The University of Zimbabwe remains closed as a result of the state’s fear of student mobilisation and students’ actions, but there is a radical base within the students given that some other colleges are open and they have been conducting a campaign against privatisation of education, which is being perpetuated even by the MDC and ZANU-PF government.

Can you elaborate on the various positions that have been taken in relation to the constitutional reform process, how Uhuru Network intends to engage this or whether it doesn’t intend to engage it, and what prospects this might offer for the future?

Within the pro-democracy movement in Zim there are basically three positions. One is that which has been taken by the National Constitutional Assembly, the Zimbabwean Congress of Trade Unions and the Zimbabwe National Students’ Union, which position is of non-engagement and campaigning against any outcome of the process.

The second position is that which has been taken by most NGOs and civil society organisations, particularly organised under the Crisis Coalition and the National Association of Non-governmental Organisations, and these organisations have agreed that the process is flawed but under protest they will engage in the government’s consultative processes and will even seek to be part of the commission and the structures of this process.

The Uhuru Network has decided to stay away from the structures of the commission because we believe it gives an illusion that these governmental processes can offer prospects of liberty for the people, which position we do not agree with. So we have decided to continue to expose the flaws in the process by campaigning against this process at the consultative meetings that will be held in communities ahead of the referendum. This is our position which is particularly informed by the fact that when the draft constitution that will emerge from the constitutional reform process of the government is given to the people, the people will ultimately realise that it is not what they have wished for and will have to campaign for it. We feel that the momentum to campaign against that draft will be built in these consultative processes and thats where we seek to build the energy.

Can you tell us about the structure and activities of the Uhuru Network, about its cultural aspect and how you combine this with the political?

The Uhuru Network at present is comprised of two collectives; the Alternative Media Collective and the Toyi Toyi Artz Kollektive. Within those collectives we have artists and media activists who are based in communities. We have five communities that we are working with around Harare; Chitungwiza,Glen Norah, Glen View, Highfields and Waterfalls. We have an approximate membership of 20 people within these communities and our major political programme in these communities are study circles. So artists and media activists get to engage in study circles where we build the politics of the organisation.

With regards to our cultural component of programming, this has emerged particularly because of the difficult terrain we operate in and the repression that comes with free expression. And we find that our comrades find it easier to express themselves in poetry and music and other artistic forms and these are the forms that we use to conduct outreach in communities.

How do you deal with issues of gender within the network; is there a gender balance and do you have a gender quota?

Over the last five years our network has been dominated by male comrades and last year we made a decision that in reconstituting our community circles we will put a gender quote of 50 percent. So at present, within each community we have a gender balance. This move has seen some resistance from some members within the organisation, but over the last two months we think the politics of it has been understood.

What is your relationship to Women of Zimbabwe Arise?

We believe that Women of Zimbabwe Arise are probably the strongest community-based direct action organisation. We have seen also their orientation towards social and economic justice issues, in terms of their campaign issues, and we agree that organisation in Zim should be at the street level and we mostly interact around direct action questions and programmes.

What is the climate of homophobia like in Zimbabwe; are gays, lesbians, bi-sexual and transgendered people able to organise to defend their rights? How severe is the persecution and how do you engage this struggle?

The utterances that were made by Robert Gabriel Mugabe against gays and lesbians in Zimbabwe a couple of years ago have seen the state repressive forces putting more and more pressure against the gays and lesbians, particularly their organisation Gays and Lesbians of Zimbabwe. We believe that there is little or no space that is currently open for them because within Zimbabwean society there are also stigmas against gays and lesbians that emanate from conservative traditions. We have tried to forge links with Gays and Lesbians of Zimbabwe but the situation is so repressive that nothing has come out of that.

(Note: Biko later said that it was not that nothing at all had come out of their attempts to forge links with GLZ, but that these attempts had been frustrated due to the severe climate of repression and the depths to which organised gays and lesbians in Zimbabwe are forced to operate underground. He felt that they still needed to develop trust in order to forge practical links)

What about the struggle of women, is there more room to maneuver in this regard?

We believe so because of the lip-service that the government has given to the women’s rights campaigns, particularly when Zanu-PF appointed a woman vice president. As a result of this we find that its much easier, now, to be advocating for women’s rights but to what extent the structures of society have been reorganised in order to actually allow women we are not sure. We believe that by-and-large the status of women in society remains unchanged.

What scenarios do you think are likely to play out over the next year-and-a-half and how could international solidarity be practically demonstrated?

The constitutional reform process in Zimbabwe has seen the decimation of MDC structures and also in the aftermath of the violent campaigns that Zanu-PF conducted against militant activists in communities. As a result we believe that the MDC as a party will be powerless in opposing the Zanu-PF agenda around constitutional reform. We believe that the outcome of the current constitutional reform process is not people-driven and therefore will not be accepted by the people of Zimbabwe.

There are few organisations that are organising against this process and we believe it will be a polarised situation when the referendum is conducted. As a result Zanu-PF will conduct a bloody campaign. The referendum will be followed by general elections and Zanu-PF is not ready to do, has not dismantled its repressive machinery. So we are likely to see more of what we saw last year around the general elections in Zimbabwe.

The priorities for movements in Zimbabwe is to strengthen the structures of the movements and to prepare them for self-defence and also to forge strategic alliances that strengthen the pro-democracy movement as a whole. So international solidarity, we feel, should be more around strengthening these structures, particularly perhaps through deepening comrades’ political awareness, and I suppose literature and educational materials will be useful in this. And also, we feel we need to remain linked up, particularly for solidarity against repression that we foresee next year.

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About Lucien van der Walt

I teach at Rhodes University, the Eastern Cape. I’m South African, born and bred. I am currently also involved in union education and have a background in social movement and left-wing activism, the Workers’ Library and Museum, the Anti-Privatisation Forum, and the National Health and Allied Workers Union (NEHAWU). I’ve presented papers at more than 120 conferences and workshops, published in key journals like 'Capital and Class' and 'Labor History', have co-edited 3 journal specials (these on global labour history, African labour, and unions in the Global South), and written well over 130 other articles, papers and entries. I was Southern Africa editor for the 2009 'International Encyclopaedia of Revolution and Protest' (Blackwell). My focus has been on South Africa, but I have also done research in Zambia and Zimbabwe. I won the 2008 international 'Labor History' thesis prize, and the 2008/2009 Council for the Development of Social Science Research prize for best African dissertation, for my PhD thesis on South African anarchism, syndicalism and black militants. I have several books, including 'Negro e Vermelho: anarquismo, sindicalismo revolucionário e pessoas de cor na África Meridional nas décadas de 1880-1920,' 'Anarchism and Syndicalism in the Colonial and Postcolonial World, 1880-1940: the praxis of national liberation, internationalism, and social revolution' (co-edited with Steve Hirsch, Brill, 2010/ 2014) and 'Black Flame: the revolutionary class politics of anarchism and syndicalism' (co-written with Michael Schmidt, AK Press 2009).