Posts Tagged ‘Southern Africa’

A few years back, a zoologist who sat on our union executive recommended a book to me by an author I had never heard of – Blindness, by Jose Saramago. Took me a while to get around to reading it, but when I finally did so I was completely blown away. Saramago did everything so well, and merged social critique and storytelling like no one else. The imaginative premises of Kurt Vonnegut, the political force of John Steinbeck or Margaret Atwood at their best, the intellectual sophistication of Umberto Eco, the magic of Isabel Allende or Gabriel Garcia Marquez, and a brilliant prose entirely his own. I couldn’t believe I’d never heard of him before, all the moreso when I realized that Jose Saramago was renowned as a communist social critic and had won the Nobel prize.

It is exciting to stumble across a Saramago, to discover a voice, to rush out and feverishly read anything and everything to have come from that pen, to preach the good news of this find to friends and family. But it doesn’t happen often.

The latest such discovery in our little world is J.M. Coetzee. Another Nobel Laureate, I’d never heard of him until Meg and I started exploring the “1001 Books to Read Before You Die” that has been so much in my blog posts lately. This Coetzee guy kept popping up everywhere, and so we pulled a few books of his out of the library and started reading. (more…)


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Today I am thinking of Steven Biko. Student leader and a central figure of the anti-apartheid struggle in the mid-1970s, Biko founded the Black Consciousness Movement. He spoke a very different language that that of the better-known ANC – a language not of multi-racial organizing, but of autonomy; a language not intended to bring whites away from apartheid-sympathies, but to stress African-ness. For Biko, there was no separating race from class in South Africa, so nor could there be a separation of race and class in the resistance struggle.

He was called a racist, a hate-monger, by the ANC as much as by the apartheid state, for his insistence on placing blackness and whiteness front and centre, his insistence that the liberation struggle was an African struggle, a black struggle, his insistence that white participation could do as much damage as good. Biko understood that political struggle involves real human bings, human beings who have histories and emotions and psychologies.

But his was no simple identity politics. It was something much more nuanced, about how political movements take shape at different points. This was no mean separatism, but something altogether different, articulating the need to form a viable political community among one sector before entering coalitions – simply because a coalition can only be successful when its members are equals. That is, Biko got that “non-racialism” is not the same as anti-racism, and is no sufficient response to the colonial or apartheid state. Biko got that the psychological legacy of instititutional racism involves a certain deference to those who look like, sound like, speak like the powers of state and capital, and that this acted as a barrier to meaningful autonomy in the anti-apartheid struggle.

There’s no “let’s be class-less” under capitalism. And there’s no “let’s be colour-blind” under apartheid.

When I was living in Zimbabwe, participating in some meetings of a village-based youth organization, I tried to get conversation going. A question would come up, no one would speak. So I would, Everyone would nod and indicate assent. Another question, more silence, so I’d speak again, with the same result. After a few rounds of this, my friend Max, who was facilitating the session, pulled me off to one side. “Shut up,” he told me. “You can’t participate in this like an equal, because you are not an equal. This is a country coming out of colonialism and white rule. Don’t you understand that when you speak they have to agree with you, whether they want to or not? Until each person in this room can tell you to fuck off, you need to walk carefully, speak carefully. Until each person in this room can tell you to fuck off, you need to remember that, while you may be a friend and comrade, you are also white, and there is no whiteness without power here.”

Wow. That was hard to hear. Max gave me a book of Biko’s speeches and newsletter articles to read, and then I started to really get it. Attacked as a racist for his endorsement of explicitly black resistance organizations, Biko responded to the effect: You whites have displaced us and taken our country, regardless of how you feel as individuals. Offers to share South Africa with you are not freedom. It is ours. We will take it. You may support our struggle, but make no mistake, it is our struggle. Who makes the struggle makes the liberaton.

Biko got that people make their own liberation, and that what freedom looks like depends on who makes it and how. He had no issue with the intentions and sympathies of white Marxists, or even white liberals. But he knew that a post-colonial freedom has to be defined by the colonized, not the colonizers. Biko got that black South Africans would never find liberation until they stopped caring about permission or approval from, or compromise with whites, radical or otherwise.

And Biko got the power of resistance – psychological as well as physical resistance – and its relationship to state violence. He knew how to find the hope in the most brutal represstion – because repression is always a last, desparate attempt to hold power that’s slipping away.

“If you guys want to do this your way, you have got handcuff me and bind my feet together, so that I can’t respond. If you allow me to respond, I’m certainly going to respond. And I’m afraid you may have to kill me in the process even if it’s not your intention.”

Don’t know why I’m thinking of Biko today. It just came out of the blue. But he was a huge influence on me at a very impressionable age.

If you haven’t seen Cry Freedom, do. It’s not the best movie going, but not bad. It’s Hollywood, and as a result focuses more on the white journalist touched by Biko than Biko himself. But it hits me hard nonetheless.

Steve Biko was murdered in prison on September 12, 1977.

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This is what I wake up to. News out of South Africa that 12 people – most likely all Zimbabweans forced into economic or political exile – have been killed in a wave of anti-immigrant violence in Johannesburg. Yeah, free South Africa.

I’ve never travelled to S.A., but Zimbabwe I know quite well. I know that through the last decade of the anti-apartheid struggle Zimbabwe was refuge for families fleeing the violence of apartheid’s last gasp and a central organizing hub for the broad scope of resistance – not only Mandela’s ANC, which we in North America are most familiar with, but also more radical organizations, most notably the Pan-Africanist Congress and the Azanian People’s Organization.

I remember the 1988 Amnesty International concert celebrating forty years of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights – Springsteen, Peter Gabriel, Sting, Tracy Chapman, Youssou N’Dour, Oliver Mtukudzi. What a fucking show. At that point, Zimbabwe’s steep decline hadn’t really yet begun – it was still early days of that country’s structural adjustment process. Zim was still pretty economically and politically stable, concerns with Mugabe’s grip on power only beginning, dissent only starting to coalesce in any organized way. Zimbabwe, though, was a frontline in the South African resistance war. So though intended by Amnesty as a party for the U.N., that concert was all about apartheid, as thousands poured across the border for a massive celebration of struggle.

I remember that same year, Nelson Mandela’s 70th birthday as he sat still in his Robben Island cel. The ANC held a massive birthday party that Max and I attended – a party that knew the white regime was on its death-bed, and a party that knew this man, its intenational symbol, would indeed see the outside of that prison before long.

I remember just a few years later, when I returned to Zimbabwe to be with Max at his death, meeting with PAC and Azapo reps to discuss the history of South African liberation movements, the relationships across S.A., Zimbabwe, Mozambique, Angola, the then-current peace process and the way apartheid’s negotiated demise was being linked to maintenance of property relations and land concentration, and commitments to IMF partnership in a post-apartheid world. Mandela was out, the state was negotiating the terms for general elections and a handover of political power. And while back in Vancouver the left celebrated victory, across southern Africa things were much more tentative, much more tense, as it became increasingly apparent that fundamental economic and social issues were off the agenda. Anger in some quarters, disillusionment in others. But mostly a collective shrug of resignation, I think – compromise, yes, a commitment to keep the whites well-protected, yes, but finally this fucking war is over, finally the end of the pass-book, finally no more state guns trained on schoolkids.

And then the ANC’s overwhelming electoral victory. And Mandela’s speech to the U.N – “The international business community has nothing to fear from a free South Africa.” And over the next several years the killings of Chris Hani and other prominent figures on the left of the ANC. And through it all, Zimbabwe a central battleground of the struggle.

We’ve watched over the last 15 years as both Zimbabwe and South Africa transition from the post-liberation euphoria to the drawing of new political alliances to successive waves of protest and mass strike, both countries grappling with that age-old post-revolutionary question, “is this the freedom we died for?” But as Zimbabwe teeters on the edge of rebellion, as we await what might just be the last chance to see regime change without renewed civil war, this news from South Africa shows something else.

Solidarities are fragile. Formal coalitions and alliances, yes, but also mass solidarities. It was not many years ago that there was a pretty clear sense of common struggle across southern Africa – in-fighting, yes, and power struggles and petty violence and jockeying for power and battles between and across various factions in the armed struggle. But despite all that, the anti-apartheid war was a regional battle, fought inZimabwe, Mozambique, Namibia, Angola, There was a sense that borders were artificial, and even quite explicit discussion of a formal economic and political union following the final blow to the apateheid state.

No more. That didn’t last past the declarations of victory. Workers kill workers. The sprawling townships see all the same violence, but now its an internal violence, the rage of people who know they’re angry, know they need to fight, but can’t quite determine who exactly the enemy is anymore. The news will call it tribalism – an easy way to frame conflict in Africa whether here, or in Sudan or the Congo.

Tribalism. No, this is no more tribalism than World War 1 and 2, and any other war in which enemies have to be defined and set apart in order to justify the violence. What’s happening here is something pretty fucking common, particularly in the wake of colonialism. Freedom struggles are maintained and grown only by the promise of freedom. But state power is maintained and grown only the limitation of freedom. And in that social space in between, in the fomenting and dashing of expectation and hope, that’s where the real work lies, that’s where people raise their families and go to work and cook and eat and fuck and sleep and play.

And that’s also where they get scared, and get mad, and explode in anger.

The riots in L.A. following the Rodney King verdict, which saw the torching of my old neighbourhood only a couple of months after I’d left. The attacks on Chinese labourers decades ago, but whose impact on the shaping of my old downtown eastside community is still evident. Partition of the Indian subcontinent. Gang warfare replacing revolutionary warfare in El Salvador, Nicaragua. Violence across this country and so many others directed against any community large enough to be more than a curiosity but small enough yet to make a safe target.

No, not an African story. Not a new story. But each and every time I wonder how fucking long it will take to see that rage consistently directed where it belongs. Soldarity is fragile. Rage is eternal. And I have no fucking answers.

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As my daughter writes to her pen-pals in Zimbabwe, I’ve been watching that country’s elections quite closely. And I’ve been thinking alot about friends and loved ones, from those I can still reach, those who have lost their lives to austerity and AIDS, those who have simply disappeared in everything that preceded this still-unsettled vote. Mostly, though, I’ve been thinking about Max, who twenty years ago this week grabbed a scrawny, long-haired white kid from a crowd and took him home.

In 1988 Zimbabwe the so-called Marxist government of Robert Mugabe had signed ESAP – the Economic Structural Adjustment Programme – with its international creditors to cut spending and boost debt service payments. As austerity took command of policy-making, the two parties of national liberation, ZANU-PF and ZAPU-PF, merged into one new and greater ZANU, while in villages and high-density suburbs, a consensus began to form that this is not what liberation looks like.

I found the contrast with 1985 Nicaragua staggering. Two countries with similar time-frames of national liberation, with similar political projects – at least rhetorically – for non-Cold War socialism. But in Nicaragua I rose at school each day to since Carlos Mejia Godoy’s Hymn of the Revolution:

We march forward, comrades, we advance the revolution

Our people are the owners of their history, architects of their liberation

Soldiers of the Sandinista Front, we advance, it is our future

A red and black flag we wear, free homeland, to victory or death

The children of Sandino will not be sold nor surrender

We struggle agains the Yankee, the enemy of humanity

We march forward, comrades…

Not here. In Zimbabwe, instead, I watch former freedom fighters spin riot police at the university, attacks on strikers, bans on left publications, and IMF partnerships for austerity into a somehow-still-revolutionary vigour. But few are buying it.

Francisco Campbell, Nicaragua’s ambassador to Zimbabwe at the time, just shook his head. “Nicaragua today is not as you remember it. This is no anomaly.” In two years time, the Sandinistas would go down to electoral defeat as the country voted to trade hope for peace.

Jean Vanier was in Zimbabwe, too. The.son of a former Canadian Governor-General, Jean considered the priesthood before opting for a more risky and more revolutionary path. He began  springing the mentally-challenged from institutions to establish L’Arche, now a multifaith, international network of communities and homes – communist homes, in the best sense of the word – for some of the most  ignored and abused people in the world.

Following a talk by Jean, as I prepared to leave the retreat centre, a man approached. Max was thirty-three at the time, 6’4, powerful. “I’ve been watching you these past days. I think you should come stay with me in my village.” A week later I was in Shamu, a group of 200 households on communal lands some 80 miles north-east of Harare, settling into the room that will be mine for the next year. Another week later and I woke to the smell of the fire and sounds of the children chasing snakes. I shook the scorpions out of my shoes and stepped from my concrete room into the 7:00 am sunshine for a splash of well-water on my face, then into the darkness of the cooking hut.

Max was eating thick, fire-cooked toast, goose eggs and sliced tomato. I filled a cup with creamy, sweet tea from the pot on the fire and and glanced around for breakfast. Max just finished his meal, and smiled at me. “The food is gone.” He drew out a smoke, passing one to me as well. “You need to go.”

I must have appeared stunned. “If you are going to stay in this home, in this community, then you need to know the community on your own. Go. You can come back to sleep tonight. And don’t worry – if you are hungry, someone will feed you.” There was no discussion; this was not debatable. And when I returned home late that night, I was well-fed, a little drunk, and knew several new songs. Waking the next morning, I was promptly sent to buy milk from the grocery store in the next town – over two hours walk. Didn’t take me long to figure out I was a project.

1988 rolled by, me being taught to sit for hours in silence. Taught about the headman who bought a Mercedes to impresss the other villagers, who promptly re-possessed the car that now sits on the common lands strapped to a plow to prepare the earth for tomatoes and greens. Taught about whiteness, and how colonialism resonates today in work, play, and conversation – mine included.

A 5:00 am phone call in January 1992 woke me to Max’s ’s voice. Within a week I was on my way back to Zimbabwe to spend two weeks at bedside, holding his hand, emptying his urine from a plastic bag strapped to his leg, singing and walking and telling stories to his four kids, watching his wife, Lucia, as she tried to say her own goodbye while moving the family from Shamu village to a high-density Harare neighbourhood so she could find work. In a short time, I learned a great deal about HIV/AIDS. Then it was off to Shamu for two weeks of funeral, as Max and Lucias’ collection of huts played host to street kids, communist priests, sex workers. Max’s clothes and other belongings were gathered in a pile for distribution; a few goats were slaughtered; we danced and shouted and cried.  Mostly I pounded ground-nuts into peanut butter.


After the burial I sat wrapped in an old t-shirt of this communist, pan-Africanist, teacher and comrade. The it was a few months writing about South Africa’s transition from apartheid for the IWW’s Industrial Worker and back to Vancouver for my 20th birthday. In the years between my Shamu stays, the Soviet empire had collapsed, the Americans had announced the end of history, my old L.A.. neighbourhood had exploded in riots, socialists had become neoliberals. And Zimbabwe moved from disappointment to despair to desperation….and would continue to move, quietly, almost-invisibly, to rage.

So here I sit two decades later, following the news accounts of that rage filtered through an official opposition, an electoral process, a corporate media. Part of my mind leaps to analysis, to a desire to explain and predict. Most of me, though, just watches, and worries, and remembers. And my little girl types out the latest news from school and play and books she’s read to be sent across the world to twins born halfway between my first days in Shamu and my writing here today.




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