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.

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1997 march on the Johannesburg Stock Exchange (JSE)

The Workers Solidarity Federation (WSF) at the University of the Witwatersrand (Wits) was actively involved in the student struggle, often participating in actions by the South African Students Congress (SASCO) or the Socialist Student Action Committee (later, Socialist Worker Students, later Keep Left). Below is a newsclipping of a regional SASCO march in Gauteng, in which WSF participated. That did not mean uncritical support for SASCO, which was part of the African National Congress (ANC)-led movement: in the case below, SASCO was responding to serious cuts on higher education spending by the ANC-led state by marching on big business (the Johannesburg Stock Exchange/ JSE), a sleight-of-hand that avoided dealing with the contradiction of SASCO supporting the ANC despite ANC neo-liberalism.

 

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.

“Education is a Right, Not a Privilege!”: WSF leaflet for university struggles (1997)

This was issued by the Workers Solidarity Federation (WSF) at the University of the Witwatersrand (Wits), in early 1997, and condemned proposed cuts by the state to public universities.  It holds up very well: 20 years onwards, the university system is underfunded, marked by job insecurity and outsourcing, and substantial exclusion of black working class students. The division between historically advantaged (“white”) and historically disadvantaged (“black”) universities is entrenched. Today, of course, white students are a minority in the universities, but the skewed transformation that resulted means that most black students in historically advantaged (“white”)  universities are middle and upper class.

Get the PDF here.

WSF poster for 1997 meeting: “What’s ‘Left’? Is there an Alternative to Capitalism Today? An Introduction to the politics of the WSF” (13 February 1997)

Talk was at the University  of the Witwatersrand, Johannesburg, where the Workers Solidarity Federation (WSF) was active. This was a public meeting for new members / supporters and for other interested people. WSF was the direct predecessor of today’s Zabalaza Anarchist Communist Front (ZACF).