Art and Activism


The other night, the KZN Society of the Arts Gallery invited me to share a panel with Thembinkosi Goniwe — one of the foremost leading art curators in the country, to discuss art and activism in South Africa. It was an exciting exchange.

Below are some of the points that I argued around that night.

As we celebrate 10 years of democracy in South Africa, mainstream intellectuals and critics constantly reminds everyone that we now need to move away from the race question. We are told class analysis is the useful intellectual tool if one is serious about understanding South African society.

In the “art-world”, as Goniwe has argued somewhere, critics dismiss black artist’s work as predictable, monotonous, exhausted, and that black artists are accused of not wanting to go beyond the “comfort zone” of what they have explored over the past ten years.

What is it that makes economists and white critics who can be categorized as progressive not want to acknowledge, and therefore, give legitimacy to the continuing and the necessary race struggle in South Africa?

bell books, an African-American feminist, has this to say about this phenomenon: “Critics who passively absorb white supremacist thinking, and therefore never notice or look at black people on the streets, at their jobs, who render us invisible with their gaze in all areas of daily life, are not likely to produce liberatory theory that will challenge racist domination, or to promote a breakdown in traditional ways of seeing and thinking about reality.”

What bell hooks is saying is that it is silly of us black people to expect white critics to compliment us on “subject-matters” we decide to explore. Instead, we should expect the kind of debilitating criticism that white critics are ever ready to dish out every time we mention race.

If one looks at the South African social movements today, one finds that the word racism to the people in these movements is a taboo. There are a lot of reasons behind this. One reason is ideology. Another reason is the factor of donors. In most cases, donors and ideology tend to go hand-in-hand.

The same logic applies to artists. Artists find themselves compelled to produce what sells. Economic pressure is real for artists, especially black artists in South Africa. As a result of these economic pressures, most artists are forced to make sure that their way of looking at reality corresponds with market forces. And right now the market forces do not really appreciate anything that explores the social construction of race in the new South Africa. This is why we have to applaud those artists who continue to explore this terrain in spite of economic pressures.

In the South African context, it would be foolish of us to ignore race. Given our economic present situation which is informed and shaped by race, it is only honest and it is necessary to address race issues.


The term “sub-imperialism” is often used to describe the relation South Africa has with other African states. In other words, the term is used to describe the economic and military power South Africa has over other African states.

But does the term “sub-imperialism” capture that power relation? My philosophical education compels me to always want to understand issues conceptually. Meaning it is not important to know the names of a bird in different languages, nor does knowing how to spell the word bird help us understand what the bird does or what a bird is.

So, does the term “sub-imperialism” help us understand the role of the South Africa state in global affairs? I mean does the term “sub-imperialism” explain the influences of the global economy in relation to South Africa?

Sure, South African economic policies are meant to exert control on the politics and economy of other African states. I am talking here about policies that are clearly articulated in NEPAD. However, one must also take into consideration that the direction the South African economy takes is heavily influenced by outside forces. I’m referring here to institutions like the IMF and the World Bank. It is often said that NEPAD was not even the brainchild of African governments, let alone South Africa.

Given this scenario, does the word “sub-imperialism” sufficiently explain the economic dynamics at work here? If the South African economy and the policies that South Africa pursues inside and outside of South Africa are meant to please international financial institutions, what then is “sub-imperialistic” about South Africa? The power dynamics in this scenario compels me to want to give this situation a “neo-colonialism” label instead of “sub-imperialism”.

Speaking of post-colonialism; does the term “sub-imperialism” take into account post-colonialism theory? Does “sub-imperialism” communicate the post-colonial dilemmas faced by a young democratic state like South Africa? How does “sub-imperialism” deal with deeply complex issues of a society that has undergone colonialism? Does the term “sub-imperialism” take into consideration the dilemmas of developing a national identity and the predicament of addressing race issues and a racial past while alienating the economic base of a post-colonial state?

Does even the term “sub-imperialism” take into consideration that the economic base of a post-colonial state tends to be largely white? If it does then how are those socio-economic relations presented or even explored? Does the term “sub-imperialism” capture these nuances in power dynamics?

If South Africa is “sub-imperialistic”, does that then mean the South African government is planning to establish “sub-colonies” in the Democratic Republic of Congo and Burundi? Both these countries speak French because of their colonial history, so does it mean then that if South Africa “sub-imperialises” them, they will have to speak English – given the fact that South Africa speaks English because of its colonial history? How does the term “sub-imperialism” address that colonial history?

It seems to me that the term “sub-imperialism” distorts reality. The term mystifies more than it explains. Perhaps the term is used in a post-modern (PoMo) context. Well, if that’s the case, then that will explain my confusion, because I’m not well versed in PoMo.

My most important concern is that how does the term “sub-imperialism” help activists understand the South African state that they are up against. Does this term help social movements understand what’s at stake, and therefore help them devise political tactics to engage with the state?

Does the term “sub-imperialism” help Africans outside of South Africa understand the agenda of the South African government? How does it do that without taking into consideration the dilemmas of a post-colonial state?

Is the term “sub-imperialism” a useful conceptual tool? Under serious scrutiny it does not appear so.

“Bushmen” in Botswana

The UN Special Envoy, Anna Tibaijuka, is quoted in the Sunday Times as saying: “Although a case for a crime against humanity… might be difficult to sustain, the government of Zimbabwe clearly caused large sections of its population serious suffering.”

In 2002, reporting on the plight of the San people in Botswana, the UN Human Rights Commission reported that remaining in the Kalahari is essential to the San’s “survival as a distinct people”. The San people are not only distinct, but are indigenous people of Southern Africa; something that the Botswana government refuses to recognize. The government claims that every Motswana (people of Botswana) is indigenous – a self-serving argument that does not stand in the face of historical and archeological evidence.

And, just like in Zimbabwe, the San people have been subjected to forced removal from The Central Kalahari Game Reserve (CKGR) where they have been residing since 1961. The government started the forced removals in 1997, saying that it was removing the San people from the CKGR because the game reserve is not for humans, and so, hence it had to relocate them to a better site 60 km away from the reserve.

If Tibaijuka, the UN Special Envoy, takes issues of crimes against humanity seriously, she would look into the case of the San people. The Botswana government refuses to recognize the San people as indigenous people, but are instead called “Basarwa” by ordinary Botswana people. Basarwa is a demeaning word suggesting servitude. The San people are the poorest in the Botswana, totally marginalized and landless. In addition, there is the forced removal that they have been subjected to since 1997.

One wonders when is the UN going to employ the same harsh terms used to describe the situation in Zimbabwe when it describes the plight of the San people. When is the UN going to talk about the impoverishment and the destruction of the social network of the San people as a “man-made” disaster like it does when it talks about Zimbabwe?

I guess when there is a big diamond company and the IMF in the picture, the language gets softened a bit, and justice is not pursued with the same intensity as it would normally be the case.

The reason behind the forced removal of the San people is to create a tourism industry in Botswana, the goal being to diversify the country’s economy. The IMF made it clear to the Botswana government that it must diversify its economy, and move away from depending on diamond revenues (Business Day 25/11/99). Botswana is the world’s top producer of diamonds by value, and the gems represent some 60 percent of government revenues (Sunday Times 24/07/05). This is generated by Debswana – a company jointly owned by the government and De Beers.

Survival International believes that the main reason behind the removal is that the game reserve (CKGR) which the government once considered barren, houses one of the world’s richest diamond fields. According to the UN news agency, test drilling has already taken place at Gope – a location within the reserve. Survival International points out that the International Finance Corporation, part of the World Bank, has given credibility to the exploration by providing Kalahari Diamonds (part owned by Billiton – an Anglo-Australian multinational) with $ 2 million.

I want to say in conclusion, I am not in any way trying to devalue the struggle of the Zimbabweans; but what I am attempting to reveal is the hypocrisy that drives the international institutions.

World Social Forum and Africa

“Who was there to demand a change in vocabulary?’ – bell hooks

A while back, Trevor Ngwane (from the Anti-Privatisation Forum), wrote a piece entitled “10 Reasons – Why The WSF 2007 Should Not Come To South Africa”. In that article Ngwane argues that the WSF should rather be held in Kenya in 2007 instead of South Africa.

This article aims to assess the reasons given by Ngwane. However, I go further to argue that it does not matter where the WSF is held in Africa – as long as it is in Africa.

Ngwane writes that “The main reason the WSF is coming to Africa in 2007 is because we must give solidarity where there is the greatest need. Africa, taken as a whole, is …one continent where the greatest suffering of humanity is to be found….” After having stated all of this Ngwane quickly makes an about-turn and writes that the WSF must not be held in South Africa (SA) because “that is not where the greatest need is in Africa”.

The South African society is one of the unequally societies in the world as Ngwane also points out. The majority of black people are unemployed or under-employed (because of casualisation), and live in poverty-ridden townships. Actually, the socio-economic conditions that black people in this country have to navigate daily as a matter of survival is not that different to that faced by black people in Kenya. So why advocate that the WSF be held in Kenya based on this reason?

The second reason that Ngwane gives is that “During the recent WTO ministerial negotiations the SA government has mostly come out on the side of the imperialist countries against the position of its fellow African and southern countries. The SA government has at times exerted pressure on SADC states trying to coerce them into adopting neo-liberal policies.”

If Ngwane’s reasoning is valid, then it should not be a problem if we want to generalize his assessment to other similar situations. The Brazilian government sent its soldiers to oversee the “transitional government of Haiti” and “maintain order”. In reality the Brazilian soldiers were sent to Haiti to serve the interests of the US and France; and by so doing siding with the imperialist countries against the position of its neighbours. So, if we use Ngwane’s reasoning, the WSF should not be held in Brazil again.

The third reason that Ngwane gives is that “Too many conferences and international events are coming to SA, namely WSSD, WCAR, international HIV/AIDS, rugby world cup, soccer world cup 2010, etc. This is unfair on other African countries; they too must be given an opportunity to host important international events and showcase their countries….”

Firstly, the WSF is not a mainstream event like the WSSD and WCAR, nor is the UN involved in the organization of the WSF like it was involved in the organization of WSSD and WCAR. So, to compare the WSF with these events is red-herring. Furthermore, even if we were to decide to give other African countries a chance to showcase their own countries, it still does not explain why Kenya?

The fourth reason given by Ngwane is that: “SA has failed to repay the debt it owes to African states and peoples who sacrificed to help us attain our freedom…. Indeed, Mbeki’s opposition to apartheid-financing reparations and default on odious apartheid debt remains one of the biggest stumbling blocks to international financial reforms. Instead, SA has chosen to play the role of a sub-imperialist power, encouraging its big capitalists and bankers to re-colonise Africa….”

Here, Ngwane is talking about the South African government which does not represent the interests of the South Africans majority to start with. And if the WSF were to come to South Africa, it wouldn’t be coming to establish relations with the government; but to reflect on how the ordinary people in South African can help stop what their government is doing in other African states.

A fifth reason given by Ngwane is that “South Africa does not convincingly reflect the cultural, political and economic conditions in Africa if that is what the WSF seeks to find out….”

I guess the key word in that sentence is “convincingly”. Does Ngwane mean, perhaps, for him the conditions in South Africa do not convincingly reflect socio-economic conditions that the WSF seeks to find out? Then why present this view as an established fact? Sure, South Africa might be more developed than other African countries, but whom does this development serve? The poor majority or the privileged few?

The sixth reason that Ngwane gives is that “The South African political and economic elite, in particular, President Mbeki and the (black and white) bourgeoisie and its political corps, will take full advantage of the WSF and use it to promote their hegemonic ambitions in Africa.”

What makes Ngwane thinks this won’t happen in Kenya or in any other African country that the WSF goes to? I agree that perhaps other countries won’t use it to pursue hegemonic projects; but they will try to use it for their own political ends. So, no matter where the WSF goes, the risk of it being hijacked by those in governments will persist.

Ngwane’s seventh reason is not different than the one above. Actually it reads more like a continuation of his sixth reason. He says: “If the WSF in 2007 finds [Mandela] alive and politically active this will be a source of great confusion to many activists and NGOers coming to SA. He will be the neo-liberals’ trump card.”

Although Lula’s project is becoming clear to everyone, this case could be made about him too. And besides, what makes Ngwane think that the Kenyan government won’t invite Mandela to come to Kenya to use him for their own political ends, if the WSF were to go to Kenya.

His eighth reason is that “The WSF’s coming to SA will not challenge South African social movements, trade unions, progressive NGOs and research institutes to broaden their social base by working harder and closer to the ground.”

Is this statement made based on the Brazilian and Indian experiences? We do not know, Ngwane does not say. On what assumptions is this assessment based on? We do not know, Ngwane does not say. If the WSF goes to Kenya, will it have the opposite effect? That is what Ngwane suggests. But based on what? Ngwane does not say.

His ninth reason is that “The WSF will prove to be divisive and damaging to the re-invigorated struggle in SA and Africa. A complicated repeat of the tensions and division that visited us during the World Summit on Sustainable Development is bound to happen.”

Will this not happen in Kenya? What are these “complicated repeat of the tensions and division” that Ngwane is talking about? What were the reasons behind these tensions and division? And why can’t we learn from that experience?

These are basically the political reasons Ngwane gives to support the call to hold the WSF in Kenya. As I have attempted to show, these reasons do not convincingly show why we should go to Kenya, nor do they sufficiently explain why the WSF should not come to South Africa.

Be that as it may, Ngwane expects the South African left to support him in this project. It is going to take a lot of explaining than this if he wants my support.

Burundi and the media

The Mail and Guardian (M&G), a weekly South African newspaper, likes to present itself as one of the best investigative and critical newspapers in the country. This week, the newspaper reports that: “Burundians this week cast their ballots in a poll that should finally end decades of skewed ethnic politics….”

Compare that assessment with what the newspaper wrote about the Zimbabwe elections in March this year: “Leading European Union officials are warning that the general elections in Zimbabwe on Thursday will be a sham.”

From the newspaper that claims to be critical, one would expect some consistency in skepticism when reporting about elections in conflict-ridden areas. However, when it comes to Burundi, the skepticism and the criticalness, that the newspaper prides itself of, goes out of the window. Instead what one finds is an air of assurance, with the underlying message that everything is in order in Burundi – maybe just a few hiccups here and there, but nothing serious.

In the same article (entitled “Tale of two elections” by Jean-Jacques Cornish); the M&G reports that: “The senate and the National Assembly, both comfortably under Nkurunzinza’s control, will elect the president next month.”

In reality, nothing is comfortable in Burundi. The Forces of National Liberation (FNL), still refuses to sign the ceasefire agreement, and continues to wage war. Even Pierre Nkurunzinza’s organization, Forces for the Defence of Democracy (FDD), joined the peace process at a very late stage. When the transition of power began two years ago, Nkurunzinza, who now we are told is “comfortably” heading the National Assembly and the senate, was busy mobilizing his forces to wage war. At the time, Nkurunziza was demanding that a new charter of transition be implemented in place of the existing Arusha Accord. The Arusha Accord has not been replaced by any new charter of transition, but, if we are to believe the media, what has change is how Nkurunziza feels about it. Now that he is “comfortably” heading the National Assembly, he has suddenly realized his folly; so we are told.

According to the Burundi’s transition constitution, the next head of state will be elected in the legislature by assemblymen and senators. You will remember, as the M&G reports, “the senate and the National Assembly [are] both comfortably under Nkurunziza’s control.”

Now contrast the above statement with how the newspaper wrote about Zimbabwe. “Mugabe has introduced some electoral reforms, such as election commission and court to run the polls. But in spite of these moves, human rights groups have raised concerns about the climate of fear….”

In another article on Zimbabwe by the same newspaper, we are told that: “Zimbabwe’s opposition is steeling itself for defeat in this week’s parliamentary elections as new allegations emerge of plans to rig the ballot. Veteran observers such as Pius Ncube, the Roman Catholic Archbishop of Bulawayo, believe the opposition has already lost the elections.”

In Burundi, Nkurunziza, a warlord, is reported to be heading the senate and the National Assembly “comfortably”. Unlike the article on Zimbabwe, we are not told what the human rights groups think about the elections in that country. Neither is there an assessment of what the political climate looks like. What the newspaper has to report, however, is that Nkurunziza is heading the senate and the National Assembly “comfortably”.

What are the “veteran observers” think about the process in Burundi, that we are not told. Neither are we told about the opposition, if there is any. However, the newspaper does assure us that: “He [meaning Nkurunziza] even turned on erstwhile ally and fellow Hutu rebel leader Agathon Rwasa whose FNL remain the last fighters still at arms.”

Why the newspaper is at pains to portray Nkurunziza in a positive light is anyone’s guess. To be fair to the newspaper, the M&G does attempt to criticize the man. “The Mail and Guardian noted Nkurunziza’s presidential swagger many months ago,” reports the paper. The man is a warlord and is only participating in the transition process simply because, as the newspaper pointed it out, the “senate and the National Assembly [are] both comfortably under [his] control.”

Reporting on Zimbabwe, the newspaper does not tell us that Mugabe is heading the National Assembly comfortably; rather, we are told: “Mugabe has appointed members of his own clan, the Zezuru, to every important position in the party, including his new vice-president, Joyce Mujuru.”

The complaint about Nkurunziza, a warlord, is that he has a swagger; whereas the complaints about Mugabe are endless. He is appointing his own members of his own clan, human rights groups are raising concerns about a climate of fear, and the opposition and “veteran observers” believe that the elections will be rigged way before the elections even took place.

A warlord, Pierre Nkurunziza, is described as heading the senate and the National Assembly “comfortably”. The newspaper goes further to say, though Nkurunziza was a latecomer to the peace process, “once in the swing of it, Nkurunziza participated enthusiastically.” The high standards of skepticism and criticism that Mugabe is subjected to, suddenly disappears when the topic is Nkurunziza.

The newspaper does not even feel obliged to provide evidence to back the claim that the senate and the National Assembly are being headed “comfortably” by Nkurunziza. Readers are expected to take it as a fact that all is comfortable and running smooth.

If the peace process and the elections going on in Burundi right now were not a matter of life and death for the Burundians, then one would simply dismiss this as incompetence. But when there are people dying, and when the conflict there has already claimed about 300 000 lives, according to the UN, this is unacceptable.

What’s wrong with the alternative media in South Africa?

Does the South African alternative media justifiably deserve the label “alternative”? Take for instance the two popular media outlets that can be described as alternative: Chimurenga and Laugh It Off (LIO). What is alternative about Chimurenga and LIO? Put differently, do these media outlets deserve the reputation of being “independent” that they seem to have?

Both outlets do not carry adverts. The one, LIO, claims to be the vehicle for South African youth culture, and the other, Chimurenga, has a Pan-Africanist slant.

Michael Albert, co-founder and the editor of Znet, writes that “Being alternative can’t just mean that the institution’s editorial focus is on this or that topical area. Being alternative as an institution must have to do with how the institution is organized and works.”

For example, if a mainstream newspaper like the Sunday Times were to suddenly drop all the corporate adverts it carries, and become a vehicle for South African youth culture, or become a platform to voice Pan-Africanist views, that wouldn’t make the Sunday Times an alternative media outlet. To become alternative, the Sunday Times would have to do away with the hierarchical structure that reinforces society’s way of decision-making.
To deserve the reputation of being independent, the Sunday Times would have to fight against reproducing oppressive social relations. To be an independent institution, the Sunday Times would have to pay careful attention to its division of labour, with the aim to subvert the gender and racial roles which make South Africa the society it is today.

So, when we refer to Chimurenga and LIO as alternative or independent media outlets, are we talking about the alternativeness or independence described above? Or are we referring to the editorial focus of these two media outlets?

It would be interesting to know if LIO has a radical affirmative action programme or training. Just like it would be fascinating to know how decisions are made at Chimurenga. As well as how different levels of remunerations (if there are any) are justified, at both media outlets.

If both media outlets are managed like a factory, as far as gender and racial roles are concerned, then why call these media outlets alternative or even independent? If both media outlets justify different levels of remuneration based on the same division of labour and hierarchical structure that factories operate on, then why call these media outlets independent or even alternative?

Is there anything alternative about such media outlets? What are they independent of?

Sure, both media outlets have different editorial focus than what South African mainstream media offers; but is that enough for a media outlet to present itself as alternative or independent? To want to be independent or alternative presupposes that one perceives a certain oppressive bias in the status quo – an oppressive bias that champions one way of looking or doing things over others.

So, it follows that, an independent way of perceiving reality, goes hand-in-hand with the alternative way of doing things, which in this case would mean an alternative way of organizing one’s media outlet. To solely have a different editorial content than the rest is not sufficient to make any media outlet alternative or independent. That is if we are serious about our ideas, and if language still has any meaning.

Editorial Content

Given that both Chimurenga and LIO present themselves as being progressive in their politics, it would be worthwhile to interrogate how sensitive these outlets are in matters of class, sexuality and race.

Laugh It Off prides itself for being the vehicle for South African youth culture. LIO makes it a point to include diverse views of opinions in their book; something that should be applauded.

However, despite the diversity of opinion, the questions raised and the problems that are discussed are issues related to the middle class of the South African society. Something which automatically makes LIO not the vehicle for South African youth culture, but a propaganda machine for South African privileged youth.

Take for example, the latest issue of LIO, on page 22 there is an article entitled “When being Gay does not matter anymore”. In that article the author discusses how wonderful it is to be a gay person living in Green Point, Cape Town

He writes that “…Being Gay doesn’t matter anymore, …Think about it: I can go for dinner and drinks with other gay men at Café Manhattan and no one cares that we are touchy-feely with each other. I can have a romantic dinner with my boyfriend in any restaurant we feel like and no one cares that I’m holding his hand. I can go out for steak and chips at a sports pub with my stepfather… drink beer… and no one will know, or maybe even care, that I would much rather look at the dark-haired barman than the blonde waitress with the big boobs.”

Needless to say, this is a white, middle class perspective presented as reality for every gay person. The Green Point area the auhor is talking about is the same area where a black gay man was turned away (with his white partner) from a nightclub simply because he was too black for the establishment. This incident happened last year, not ten years ago.

It is a pity that the author does not make it clear that the Green Point he is talking about is the neighbourhood where rich, white gay men and women live. And that in Cape Town, most black gay men and women live in poverty-stricken townships; and for them to be openly gay means social exclusion.

The author paints a picture of a blonde woman to conceptually invoke the image of an accepted beautiful woman. He applies the same logic when referring to the “dark-haired barman”. I mean, really, how many barmen of colour with blonde hair do you know?

Interestingly enough, on page 12, there is an article that attempts to grapple with issues of blackness. The article is entitled “What makes you black, when it matters most?”, and is written by Zanele Nyingwa.

Nyingwa writes that it took a “stunted, heavy-breathing Xhosa man” to wake her up to issues of blackness. This is, she says, after 18 years of waking “to the same old shit”, and lying in bed. Apparently, this Xhosa man, wish a “big ass”, woke her up by asking her: “Why is it that you black girls in this university are more white than these white girls in that university…?

First and Foremost, for Nyingwa to be confronted with issues of race when only at the age of 18, one wonders which world Nyingwa grew up in? One wonders if she grew up in the still racially segregated (socially and geographically) South Africa. Further, why the need to conjure up stereotypes to describe the Xhosa man?

As one further reads the article, it becomes clear that this is not the reality of the black majority who live in poverty-stricken townships, and who have to confront racism on the daily basis as a matter of survival.

The journal, Chimurenga, tends to be a bit sophisticated in its analysis of race matters, compared to LIO at least. However, just like LIO, their class analysis is not exceptionally profound. Take for instance, the volume 6 of Chimurenga. There is an article in it that discusses Kenyan politics. The article entitled “who invented truth”, is written by Binyavanga Wainaina.

Wainaina writes that: “I wonder sometimes, whether the main problem with the educated classes of our continent is simply this: we want our continent resolved in our own lifetimes. So we contort, and twist ideas around… create whole new disciplines… when maybe all that is required of us is to document, to simply document our times if we are writers….”

Wainaina is clear from the onset that he is discussing issues relating to the middle class, if not upper class. The curious aspect about Wainaina’s thinking is that he does not question how “educated classes” are created in African societies. Nowhere does Wainaina make the connection between the creation of “educated classes” of African societies with the poverty that they co-exist with. On the contrary, Wainaina simply accepts the “educated classes” as a fact of life.

Witness Wainaina talk about a formation of society: “A young nation is bad novel: contrived, trying to push an agenda that cannot persuade readers, trying to impose a tight structure that excludes all reality.”

This does not make sense. A nation, whether young or old, is nothing like a novel, whether good or bad. A nation’s story – whether young or old, always focuses on its social evolution, with all members of the society as protagonists. Even if we were to accept the analogy of a bad novel, we would first have to answer the question: bad novel according to whom?

Further, what agenda cannot persuade which readers? And we would have to define the “tight structure that excludes all reality” and make it clear whose reality we are referring to. The educated classes or the impoverished many?

In the same volume, Chimurenga published an exchange between yours truly and the co-founder of Laugh It Off, Justin nurse. Today I regret giving Chimurenga the permission to publish that exchange. In that exchange I come across as a hired gun that does the dirty job for Chimurenga by handling LIO – the rivalry of Chimurenga.

I reject this misrepresentation, whether done consciously or not. I champion solidarity, not competition.

When I wrote to Nurse I wrote to him because I was sincerely interested in getting to know more about his company. I respect him as a person, and admire what his company is trying to do – with all its limitations.

By the same logic, I respect the founders and editors of Chimurenga and admire what they are trying to do – with all their limitations.

I therefore submit this article as a constructive criticism for both media outlets.


Why are we not winning?

At ZMI (Z Media Institute) this year, Michael Albert asked me a very important question that I couldn’t answer at the time. His question was (am paraphrasing it): why didn’t the African National Congress (ANC) win economically and politically as it had set out to do when it was formed in 1912?

Black people still do not own the land in South Africa. About 80 percent of arable land is still controlled by white farmers. And as things look, white farmers are not prepared to let go, even ten years after the liberation.

The South African economy benefits white people, except for the black comprador class that has been manufactured to serve as the buffer between the black majority and the white community that enjoys the standard of living only seen in the first world.

Some commentators believe that the reason the ANC did not win as much as it had set out to do, is because of the outside pressure (from the IMF and World Bank). Sure, it makes sense that if the global economy is against your goals, you would want to compromise. But compromise one’s political organization to the level of betraying one’s organization’s values? Values that are clearly articulated in the ANC Freedom Charter, and which the ANC cherished and fought for, for over 50 years.

It does not make any sense that a political organization like the ANC which had and still has a huge support of the black majority would abandon its values at the last moment. Nor does blaming outside pressure seem to be a sufficient answer to explain such a move.

Ideology? Did the ANC suddenly change its nationalistic ideology as the apartheid struggle reached a climax? Writing a year ago, President Mbeki made it clear that the ANC has never claimed to be a socialist movement. So what does that mean? Does that sufficiently explain the neoliberal policies that the ANC is implementing in this country (South Africa)?

A friend I discussed this with told me that there are a multiple of factors that one must take into consideration when trying to make sense of the evolution of the ANC. She says one has to take into consideration the ideology of the ANC, the outside pressure, the global economy, and the psychological factors. By the latter she meant the psychological strain of being in jail or in exile (as most ANC leaders were) for more than 20 years.

Fine. But do all these sufficiently explain the neoliberal ANC we see today? Maybe. Maybe not. I guess a large part of it depends on which school of thought you are coming from.

Another important question is why do South African social movements fail to reach the kind of resistance we see in Bolivia? About 70 percent of the people who voted in the last elections voted for the ANC; meaning a large majority of the poor people voted against their own interests.

Social Movements like the Anti-Privatisation Forum, Treatment Action Campaign, and Anti-Eviction Committee have been able to win very important battles; but when it comes down to putting the ANC back in government, most of the same people who make these movements do not hesitate to vote for the ANC.

One reason to explain this phenomenon is that there is no real opposition to the ANC that appeals to the black majority at the moment. Another reason is that some of the people in these social movements are still very much loyal to the ANC.

And of course the ANC manipulates the race question to mobilize the black majority. And the social movements on the other hand rarely ever address race issues. White leftist academics and leftist institutions that are also run by mostly white males constantly inform these movements that race is no longer important, rather class is the most important thing right now. Let us be clear about one thing and that is the politics of social movements in South Africa are informed by white academics who study these movements; and who, by the way, reduce reality into economics.

These white academics then quote one another when writing their papers so as to institutionalize this discourse. After a while, this oppressive discourse becomes a fact of life — unquestionable.

With the exception of Ashwin Desai, almost all the academics who write about the politics and vision of social movements in South Africa are white. Something which reinforce the old white supremacist thinking, that people of colour provide the experience, while white folks do all the intellectual work.

Interestingly enough, when one talks to radical black activists, like Andile Mngxitama, one finds that they do not echo the dominant discourse (i.e class is more important than race in South Africa).

I, too, certainly reject such a discourse.

But, white privilege works in mysterious ways. Tim Wise explains it: “… [white privilege] is the daily psychological advantage of knowing that one’s perceptions of the world are the ones that stick, that define the norm for everyone else, and that are taken seriously in the mainstream.”

That is the situation.

Robert Mugabe and Zimbabwe

The living standards of the Zimbabweans have plummeted as the country’s gross domestic product has shrunk by more than 40 percent in the past five years, so the mainstream media tells us.

To attribute this state of affairs solely on the Mugabe presidency without talking about external forces that contributed to the plunge of the living standards of Zimbabweans is intellectually dishonest. The introduction of structural adjustment in that country in the early 1990s can be seen as THE process which eroded the living standards of Zimbabweans. It is the introduction of structural adjustment in that country that facilitated the increase of illegal settlements that Mugabe has been tyrannically demolishing in the past weeks.

President Mugabe terms this demolition of informal settlements: “Operation drive out dirt”, and promises to build 2 million homes by 2010 to replace the informal settlements – a promise economists say he cannot afford. The main opposition, Movement for Democratic Change (MDC), has been reported as saying the campaign is aimed at breaking up its stronghold among the urban poor and forcing its supporters into rural areas, where Mugabe’s Zanu-PF dominates.

The South African government stance of “Quiet Diplomacy” towards Zimbabwe has been criticized as ineffective, nationally and internationally. Calls for South to intervene have increased.

Strangely, no one is making any strong demands that the African Union (AU) should intervene in Zimbabwe. If anyone has a right to intervene in that country, it should be the AU, not South Africa. We do not need an imitation of the US that goes around playing policeman and telling sovereign states what changes they should implement in their own countries. It is to guard against such moves that we have structures like the AU and the South African Development Community (SADC).

Robert Mugabe is a dictator, no doubt, and he rules by an iron fist, and has even stated in public that he intends to rule until he is 100. As for the opposition, MDC, because of the donations and funds it has received from overseas — particularly from countries like the UK and US, it has been accused of being agents of foreign powers, who are bent on fomenting discord and trying to reverse the gains of the liberation war.

The fact that the MDC is pushing for the neo-liberal agenda has not help improve its image. And its vagueness as to how to deal with land reforms in Zimbabwe does not advance its cause.

In the last elections, which were held two months ago, the MDC did not do so well. The disputed elections gave President Mugabe a two-thirds majority in Parliament. The MDC is challenging the election results in the new electoral court on the basis of compelling evidence of massive vote-rigging, according to The Sunday Independent.

Political commentators compare Mugabe to Pol Pot, and the Amnesty International claims that: “The people of Zimbabwe are being sold out – in the interest of a false ‘African Solidarity’.” Tony Blair has repeatedly called for Mugabe’s resignation, and in 2002 Zimbabwe was suspended from the Commonwealth.

In a surprising move, last month, Britain suddenly ended the two-year moratorium on returning asylum seekers to Zimbabwe. Now, the question is: “If Mugabe’s government is as bad as the [British] Foreign Office claims, why is the [British] Home Affairs sending failed asylum claimants back to Zimbabwe?”

As much as I think the Zimbabwe situation is serious, but I also believe that there are other conflict-ridden areas on the continent that urgently and desperately need the attention Zimbabwe is getting. Places like the Congo (DRC), Sudan and Eritrea come to mind.


My name is Mandisi Majavu, am joining up forces with with Justin Podur. I’m based in South Africa, Durban; and predictably my blog will focus mainly on African politics. As a philosophy student, I like to practise my philosophical skills from time to time, and so tend to ramble about nothing. So please bear with me.

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