A few notes on the question of national liberation struggle in 1990s South African anarchism and syndicalism

One of the key issues that the re-emergent anarchist and syndicalist current in South Africa in the early 1990s had to face was the fact of national liberation struggle against apartheid. This was no “pure” class struggle. How should it relate? Two views were present in the English-speaking anarchist milieu of the time, then dominated by US and UK publications.

One was purism, which basically rejected all national liberation struggles as basically “capitalist” since they generally got controlled by elite classes, and often ended up with capitalist outcomes — witness almost all cases of decolonisation in Africa. This line of argument would stress failings, and ignore aspects that did not fit the analysis; national liberation would be conflated with  nationalism, which is a multi-class movement aiming at state power.  Often the argument would become one of presenting a given national liberation movement as just as bad as the oppressor it fought. Impressive aspects of these struggles, like massive rebellions in 1980s South Africa, were — when noted — set up as something distinct from — and threatened by — the national liberation struggle and the nationalists, rather than seen as part of the complexity and class contradictions in national liberation movements.

This line was evident in the Anarchist Communist Federation in the UK,  in its paper, Organise!, which was read locally: it was completely against imperialism, but it also consistently rejected the main form that anti-imperialism then took, national liberation movements, as capitalist. But the fact that a movement might end up in capitalism surely does not prove that is its inevitable outcome; and a move from a capitalism based on overt imperial rule, white supremacy and anti-black racism (like British Kenya) to a capitalism with an independent state that rejected these, was no small thing, even if “capitalism” continued. Thus, the issue of how to engage with reforms and non-anarchist movements arose. This  posed the question of daily practice: where would the forces against capitalism emerge? How might daily work by anarchists — beyond statements — concretely contribute to anti-capitalism and the building of a specific anarchist current and for an anarchist revolution?

The other common approach was uncritical support, or liquidationism, where (some) national liberation movements were endorsed without real reservations. This was evident in Arm the Spirit (North America), which mainly consisted of news about various armed Marxist-Leninist and nationalist groups, usually the most radical; and Love and Rage (USA), which tended to celebrate various movements, and individuals, and endorse or absorb some of their views. Thus, when a global revival of interest in African-American radical, Malcolm X, ensued with the 1992 film Malcolm X (Spike Lee, with Denzel Washington etc.),  Love and Rage confined itself to a short article praising X’s militancy and refusal to compromise. No real discussion of the strengths and weaknesses of his politics, his strategy, was provided; nor of what anarchism might contribute to the question of black liberation in the US, beyond being militant.

So, where the purist approach tended to highlight failings, and set up a neat boundary between the masses and the national liberation movement and the nationalists, this more celebratory approach had at least the value of recognising the attraction of national liberation movements, their often heroic actions, and their attraction for many people. implicitly, it was also a recognition that anarchists were often outside of these struggles. But beyond this, there was not much in the way of critical evaluation: while the purist approach tended to one-sided and often misleading polemic, this approach tended to fairly superficial engagement and limited commentary and analysis. Again, the question of how daily work by anarchists — beyond statements — would concretely contribute to anti-capitalism and the building of a specific anarchist current and the possibility of an anarchist revolution was left vague.

A third approach — critical engagement and intervention in national liberation struggles — was adopted by the class-struggle current in the Anarchist Revolutionary Movement (ARM) and its successor, Workers Solidarity Federation (WSF), forebears of today’s Zabalaza Anarchist Communist Front (ZACF).  This argued that national liberation movements were progressive, in comparison to imperialist or colonial forces; that they were contested by different classes, and should not be read off elite agendas; that while nationalism, seen as the class project of local elites in te oppressed group e.g. the emergent black bourgeoisie and state elite under apartheid, would certainly lead to statist and capitalist outcomes that would frustrate the mass of the nationality, it was also possible to build class-struggle, revolutionary currents within national liberation movements that would potentially lead to more radical outcomes closer to anarchism; and that, therefore, it was important that anarchists participate in national liberation struggles, as a distinct current, cooperating in actions where possible, even with nationalists, rather than engaging in purism, and resolutely putting forward their own positions, including a serious critique of nationalist and other rival positions, rather than liquidation.

There is no doubt that this third approach was influenced by a body of thinking on these issues, including the rediscovery of the earlier South African anarchist and syndicalist tradition, like the Industrial Workers of Africa and the International Socialist League, as well as by texts in the Canadian paper, Endless Struggle [link to follow], and the Italian anarchist Alfredo Bonanno’s Anarchism and the National Liberation Struggle [link to follow]. Some of these texts will be posted soon.

Advertisements

Nigerian, Sierra Leone and South African anarchist and syndicalist links in the 1990s

The 1990s upsurge of anarchism found one expression in South Africa, where the anarchist and syndicalist tradition re-emerged after a break of decades. But this was not unique in English-using African countries. A substantial section of the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) was formed among diamond miners in Sierra Leone, but destroyed in the country’s ongoing civil war in 1997, leading members ending up displaced in Guinea to the north. In Nigeria, the anarcho-syndicalist Awareness League emerged in 1990, claiming over 1,000 members, and joined the syndicalist International Workers Association in 1996. Its roots were in Nigeria’s large (mainly Marxist) left, and its development is partly described in a book issued by two League members,  Sam Mbah and I.E. Igariwey, African Anarchism (published 1997, See Sharp Press in the USA: See Sharp version available here; also in an interview with Mbah in 2012, here).

Yet there was very little direct contact between the West African groups, and those of South Africa: news of one another was often second-hand, there was no direct contact by email (email use was a rarity for many African people at the time, even in South Africa), only the South Africans had a website (the Workers Solidarity Federation / WSF had a basic website from around 1995,  on the then-popular, now-dead Geocities system; the WSF’s sister group in Ireland, the Workers Solidarity Movement / WSM,  put the then-available materials on the Nigerians and Sierra Leoneans on a basic site, which is still online here); communication between the groups, such as it was, was by snail mail, which was very erratic.

The Awareness League gained global attention when a number of its members were jailed in 1992  on the eve of a short-lived transition from military rule. The anarcho-syndicalist Workers Solidarity Alliance (WSA) in the United States of America built an international campaign, reliant on the then-key methods of spreading news in the anarchist and syndicalist milieu: snail mail. This meant mass mail-outs (of letters to groups), plus press statements that got picked up by anarchist and anarchist-friendly papers (these papers were also widely distributed by mail, the custom being that each group or paper would send free copies to a number of other groups).

So the South African Anarchist Revolutionary Movement (ARM) read about the campaign in American anarchist papers, got letters from the WSA (see scanned copy of a WSA package sent to the South Africans here: this includes material by the League) and both ARM and WSF wrote about the Awareness League (here, here, here). The Nigerians meanwhile wrote about the Anarchist Revolutionary Movement (ARM) in African Anarchism . ARM and WSF regularly sent materials and letters to the Awareness League, but only in 1999 did it get a direct letter from Sam Mbah. News about the IWW in Sierra Leone reached WSF through email contacts in the West. The South Africans sent letters and materials, but never heard back.

The Sierra Leone IWW did not survive the civil war; the Awareness League dissolved in the 2000s, and the stalwart Mbah passed away in 2014; and neither formation had obvious successors; while the WSF dissolved in 1999, it was replaced by projects like the Bikisha Media Collective, in turn absorbed into the Zabalaza Anarchist Communist Fedeation (later, Front, the ZACF), in 2003.

A 1990s Durban-based group in South Africa, the Anarchist Awareness League, was obviously named after the Nigerian group: see here. This, too, ended up in ZACF.

Hattingh, 2014, “Exploding Anger: Workers’ Struggles and Self-Organization in South Africa’s Mining Industry”

Shawn Hattingh, 2014, “Exploding Anger: Workers’ Struggles and Self-Organization in South Africa’s Mining Industry,” in Immanuel Ness, editor, 2014, New Forms of Worker Organization: The Syndicalist and Autonomist Restoration of Class-Struggle Unionism, PM Press, Oakland, CA.

Get the PDF here.

Factoria, Sizovuka, “The General Approach of Anarchists/Syndicalists to the United Front and NUMSA” (2015)

The General Approach of Anarchists/Syndicalists to the United Front and NUMSA

b1028by Jakes Factoria and Tina Sizovuka (ZACF)

FROM: Zabalaza number 14, from here

In this section we address questions that have been posed to ZACF militants. We are sharing these discussions because we think these are important and pertinent issues in Southern Africa. If you have questions you would us to address in our next issue, please get in touch!

In this column, comrade Themba Kotane, a union militant, asks:

Will the United Front (UF) address the crises we are currently facing in South Africa? I am concerned about how the UF works and who leads it. In my own view we don’t need a leader, we need to all have equal voice. How can we build the UF as a basis for a stateless, socialist, South Africa?

Jakes Factoria and Tina Sizovuka respond:

What the UF will do, will depend on which perspectives win out in it. Our general anarchist/ syndicalist perspective is that the UF (as well as the unions, like the National union of Metalworkers of SA, NUMSA) should be (re)built, as far as possible, into a movement of counterpower, outside and against the state and capital.

This means UF structures and affiliates should be developed into radical, democratic structures (in the workplaces and in communities) that can fight now against the ruling class, and that can eventually take power, directly. The UF should be (re)built into a direct action-based, direct democratic-structured movement for anarchist revolution. That means building structures in communities (street and ward committees and assemblies) that can replace municipalities, and developing the unions in the workplaces (through shopstewards committees and assemblies) into structures that can take over and run workplaces. This is not such a foreign concept in recent South African history: NUMSA’s predecessor, MAWU, was involved in the movement for “people’s power”, which took many steps in this direction during the anti-apartheid struggle in the 1980s.

For this to happen, a second step is needed: mass movements like UF and unions must be infused with a revolutionary counterculture. This means the masses are won over through anarchist political education, which is partly about building up the confidence and ability of workers and poor people to run society, including the understanding amongst the majority, that the tasks ahead are bigger Continue reading

Payn, “NUMSA and the ‘United Front Against Neoliberalism’” (2014)

NUMSA and the ‘United Front Against Neoliberalism’

By Jonathan Payn

Part 1 in a series of four articles on the concept and history of the United Front

This article first appeared in Workers World News

The resolution adopted by the National Union of Metalworkers of South Africa (NUMSA) to form a ‘United Front against neoliberalism’ – as well as its decision not to endorse the ANC in the elections – represents an interesting development in the political landscape, one which activists should look at carefully and engage.  Due to the language used by the media, the Left, NUMSA’s critics and even NUMSA itself much confusion surrounds the debate – leaving many questions: Is the ‘United Front’ an organisation or attempt to build a new labour federation or political party? Is it an attempt to revive the 1980s United Democratic Front (UDF)? Why NUMSA’s sudden interest in community struggles?

This series, of which this article is the first, aims to clarify these and other questions by looking at the proposal and history of united fronts locally and internationally to clarify key issues and draw lessons that activists can use when engaging the pros and cons of NUMSA’s United Front proposal and if and how they think it should be developed.

NUMSA: The United Front is a weapon for uniting the working class.

Global capitalist crisis and a stalled revolution

To understand NUMSA’s decision to break with the ANC and SACP, and the potential its call for a united front could offer for building a working class-based alternative to the ANC-led Alliance and its neoliberal policies, activists must contextualise these decisions and unpack what NUMSA understands by the United Front.

NUMSA has noted that, twenty years after the democratic transition, the majority-black working class has not experienced meaningful improvements in its conditions. At the same time, however, a small black elite has become super wealthy. In South Africa NUMSA has noted that the neoliberal restructuring, implemented by the ANC government and supported by its Alliance partners, has been aimed at benefiting the capitalist class and has resulted in the increased dominance of finance capital, in massive job losses and increased poverty and inequality.

‘A weapon for uniting the working class’

NUMSA claims not to see the United Front as a new organisation or party but a mechanism “to mobilise the working class in all their formations into a United Front against neoliberalism”. Whereas NUMSA sees the Alliance as “simply a mechanism for mobilising a vote for the ANC”, it envisions the United Front as a “mobilising tool to organise and coordinate working class struggles”.

The United Front is also not about building a new labour federation as NUMSA is calling on COSATU to join it in breaking with the Alliance and building a new movement. Nor is it an attempt to simply revive the UDF. Rather, it is “a way to join other organisations in action, in the trenches”, through sharing common struggles.

NUMSA says that “better working conditions are inseparable from the working class community struggles for transportation, sanitation, water, electricity and shelter” and that it wants to break down the barriers that exist between worker and community struggles. The two pillars on which its United Front would stand are gaining community support for NUMSA campaigns and building “concrete support for other struggles of the working class and the poor wherever and whenever they take place”.

‘NUMSA is part of the community, and NOT the community’

For many community activists the question then is why now, after ignoring community struggles for so long, does NUMSA claim to want to support them? Moreover, why does NUMSA think it should lead this unification process? After all, community activists long ago identified the ANC’s neoliberal character.

Despite the fact that its members come from the communities NUMSA has not supported community struggles in recent years. Yet now it seems NUMSA wants to support community struggles and lead them in building a united front. While it might have a role to play, some community activists feel NUMSA cannot legitimately take the lead in uniting community struggles.

Instead they feel NUMSA should focus on building unity with other unions before approaching communities. Similarly, communities should first work together to unite their own struggles from the bottom up; a process that is already underway in parts of the country.

Only once community struggles are united and coordinated from below, by the activists involved, can they feel confident in uniting community and worker struggles without fear of bigger, more resourced organisations like NUMSA imposing themselves on them.

Conclusion

A good thing about the United Front is that it accommodates ideological differences in order to build the unity of working class formations in struggle. However, Communist Parties have historically engaged in united fronts to create unity in action in struggles against the onslaught of capitalism, but also with the aim of winning over the majority – who mostly (but not exclusively as there were other revolutionary currents) supported reformist social democratic parties – involved in these struggles to their programme and lead as a Party. When engaging the NUMSA United Front proposal, then, it is important to ask whether or not NUMSA also sees the United Front as a tactic to win what it has sometimes unfortunately described as leaderless and unorganised community struggles to its perspectives and to ensure they accept its leadership in struggles.

Community activists across the country have, despite scepticism, responded positively to NUMSA’s call by supporting the 19 March actions against the Youth Wage Subsidy.

Will NUMSA reciprocate by putting its resources and capacity at the service of building “concrete support for other struggles of the working class and the poor “wherever and whenever they take place”?

The possibility of NUMSA playing any relevant role in fostering working class unity depends on the answer to this question.

Maponyane, “Our War Cry is “We Have Had Enough” (ZACF, TAAC) (2017)

OUR WAR CRY IS “WE HAVE HAD ENOUGH”
Bongani Maponyane (ZACF/ TAAC)

13 July 2017

Recent repression in South Africa, like the sentencing of four protestors from Boiketlong township to 16 years in jail for alleged violence, shows what we face. The black working class is victimised and unfairly charged. This is due to the fights and popular unrest in township communities, against unfair, corrupt, maladministration and brutal living conditions. We have less and we live under financial constraints. But once we take action to the streets to fight the brunt of poverty, we face the guns and fists of police brutality. And this where jail time comes in.

Rich men who have stolen billions and exploited millions face no charges, despite media exposing their evils. But the freedom fighters in the struggle get imposed penitentiary time,

We want to stop the corruption, stop the suffering, stop the injustice. The war cry, our popular slogan, should be that we, the black working class, have had enough. The bedrock of every liveable community rests on honour, good services and decent livelihoods. Our brothers and sisters who take up this fight for justice should not be the ones punished for these actions.

But we cannot rely on the politicans, no matter the party or the colour. We know that the people we elect to serve our communities forget doing so, once they live cozily, sit in the luxury seats. So down with this stomach politics!

The 1994 ANC-led regime said it will not do what the National Party did to the people. But we experience the opposite today. The enemy we face has proven to include the ruling party. Nelson Mandela said that if the ANC does to the people, what the NP did to the people, then the people must fight back. So we must fight for justice, against what they have since perpetrated against us.

It is only by building working class counterpower and ideological clarity, and never by elections, that we can win our fight for freedom.

Related link: www.zabalaza.net

ZACF: Free the Boiketlong 4! Remember and Revive the Militant Tradition of September 3, 1984! (ZACF)

Remember and Revive the Militant Tradition of September 3, 1984! (ZACF)

Free the Boiketlong 4! No more banning orders!

6 September 2017

On 3 September 1984, the Vaal Triangle, which is located southeast of Johannesburg and was part of the industrial heartland of South Africa, exploded into unrest. A general stay-away from work was called, schools were closed, buses and taxis stood idle and militant protest spread across the country. It was the most significant and large-scale rebellion of the black working class since the Soweto Uprising of June, 1976, and signified one of the final nails in the coffin of apartheid and white minority rule.

For the black working class living in the townships across the Vaal Triangle, such as Sharpeville, Sebokeng, Evaton, Bophelong, Boiketlong, Zamdela and others the conditions were very similar to those of today. A slump in the steel industry had led to many workers being retrenched, there were evictions of rent defaulters and bribery, corruption and self-enrichment of local councillors was rife. Councillors’ Continue reading