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 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?

“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.

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.

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.”

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.

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.

This just in -- anti-poverty organization is broke again!

The importance of a resource base for trying to organize is hard to overstate. Much of the reason so much of the 'left' (such as it is) is based on or around campuses is resources: who else has the time, the space (I mean literally, the rooms), the opportunities.

Well, there are other bases. The churches, for example. Much of the Central America solidarity movement in the 1980s was organized through churches. I guess much of the very early civil rights movement in the US was organized around churches.

Of course, liberal non-governmental organizations and political organizations have tremendous resources and can provide these on occasion for real movement work. The anti-globalization movement of the 1990s and the WSFs are related to this resource base.

Still another base, and perhaps the most potentially powerful, is still the unions. Even the small percentage of the workforce that is unionized provides tremendous resources to major national organizations with major infrastructures, whose principal political activity seems to be supporting parties who have more contempt for working people even than the union bureaucracy does.

Every once in a while one of these bases provides enough resources to start something that takes on a life and a momentum of its own. That is what happened with the Ontario Coalition Against Poverty some 15 years ago now. Begun with a tiny bit of union funding to organize some anti-poverty actions, OCAP took on a life of its own -- and indeed became very critical of the limited resistance being offered by these unions that have such potential power (see this interview for some of that critique). But while OCAP definitely has a life of its own, including a movement base and an absolutely crucial function, the resource base has been drained away from it, and OCAP has been forced, as radical groups seem frequently to be forced, to rely on the most tenuous resource base -- small donations from activists and sympathetic people. Below is their latest appeal for help with sustainable funding...


An Appeal for Emergency Donations AND Sustaining Solidarity