Africa's Struggles Today
Lee Sustar interviews Dennis
International Socialist Review,
September / October 2003
ISR - Africa is obviously very poorly
covered in the US. media, in particular during the period around
the war in Iraq. What was unfolding in Africa was ignored except
for the Liberia crisis-although once it reached a certain stage,
it began to get some attention. Of course, the Bush trip to Africa
shed some more light on what's been happening. You've been there
for several weeks, watching things unfold from the African point
of view. What can you tell us about the overall picture?
DB - It's quite true that the Bush visit
put an enormous spotlight on Africa when Bush traveled with his
600-person entourage, journalists, etc. In many cases media events
were carefully controlled so that only the American press were
allowed at the press conferences. In fact, there were long articles
in the South African press about journalists who finally sneaked
in to stand at the back of the hall and were told they were not
allowed to ask questions. Bush goes to Senegal, he goes to Gorrei,
which is the island from which slaves were shipped to the New
World. He comes to South Africa and meets with [Prime Minister
Thabo] Mbeki in Pretoria and significantly does not go to Maputo
where the AU is meeting-the new African Union heads of state.
Then he goes to Botswana which is very rich in diamonds, does
Uganda very briefly for a couple of hours and ends up in Nigeria
which of course is Africa's biggest oil producer.
But I would say for the whole of Africa,
if they look at the total visit, the event that they would say
that is the most significant was Bush meeting with Mbeki and announcing
that Mbeki is his point man. Specifically, of course, on the Zimbabwe
issue, where Mbeki's quiet diplomacy the British have been screaming
about is now endorsed by the U.S. government, which says whatever
Mbeki does is OK. But more seriously, the process is a signal
to the rest of the continent that they have to take orders from
Mbeki. His sub-imperial role is clearly defined.
I should mention that wherever he's gone
there were protests. In South Africa, we had huge protests. In
Johannesburg the protests were directed not at Bush but at Mbeki's
embracing of Bush. So you had loyal ANC [African National Congress]
people, labor workers and so on joining in a march in protest
against Mbeki's welcoming of Bush. But at the same time, ironically,
the ANC put together a small protest saying, we're not protesting
against our president, we are protesting against the U.S. president
and the invasion of Iraq. So that you have a kind of tail attached
to the protests. They come in with this little footnote.
The second issue I would focus on as being
of major significance for me and for most Africans-apart from
Bush's designation of Mbeki as his agent in Africa-was Bush's
endorsement of NEPAD [New Partnership for Africa's Development]
and saying this is the program which is being led by Mbeki and
which has the U.S.'s endorsement. So simultaneously you have an
allegedly African initiative together with a U.S. initiative coming
The two of them, of course, mainly focused
on trade- doing two things and we should recognize both. On the
one hand giving South Africa access to the U.S. textile market.
Although interestingly one of the conditions is that the manufacture
of textiles has to be done with U.S. material. So you can manufacture
the goods but the raw material has to be U.S. produced. So it's
not really as advantageous even as it appears on paper.
The other more significant-and I think
far more dangerous-element for the future is the creation of free
trade zones, where you would have U.S. manufacturers being able
to produce without being taxed locally on the products. And of
course within these free trade zones labor controls on wages are
removed. So there is freedom to depress wages to the lowest possible
level in order to increase the margin of profit on the product.
And there are already several areas in Southern Africa that are
free trade zones. In one case on the island of Mauritius, they've
gone from making a region of the island a free trade zone to the
entire island becoming a free trade zone.
So the last point I should make is that
I was very impressed to hear people talking on talk shows in Africa.
One of the things they're saying was that there is no country
in Africa where there is not some opposition to NEPAD. So maybe
just a word about NEPAD. The notion is that Africa becomes an
equal partner in trade either with the U.S. or the developed West-Europe
and the U.S. But others have compared it to the partnership between
a rider and his horse. You know the African does all the work
and the partner (the U.S. or Europe) is in fact riding on the
back of Africa. The whole thing is unequal and we could go into
it in detail, but I might as well focus on the one issue in NEPAD
that seems the most damaging. If you read the document called
the "New Partnership" you'll find that it says very
explicitly that Africa will be brought into line with the requirements
of the IMF, the World Bank and the WTO. And that spells out more
clearly than anything else the dependency relationship which Africa
is being forced into. With South Africa leading that process.
Now, as you know, Mbeki was the first chairman of the AU and in
that way was directing the NEPAD process. But he's no longer chair
as he's just handed over the chair to President Joaquim Chissano
from Mozambique. But since there is a troika consisting of the
three people who fathered NEPAD- that's Mbeki, Nigerian President
Olusegun Obassanjo and President Abdoulaye Wade of Senegal. The
three of them really gave birth to NEPAD as we know it. They still
are pretty much the power brokers, and although Chissano is the
chair, the three of them still exhibit a very strong influence.
ISR - With NEPAD, is the view from the
standpoint of South African capital and these three players to
try to create a more economically unified Africa, to try to negotiate
a position to play the US. and Europe off one another-to try to
look for the better deals as opposed to paying separately?
DB - My guess would have to be yes and
no. Instead of regional agreements, you have one for a continent.
But that's only half the answer because simultaneously there are
agreements with Europe and the EU, including the Lome Agreement.
The catch here why I'm kind of hedging my answer, is that when
these three guys recently went to Evian to meet with the G8, and
then they meet with the EU representatives, there is a sense in
which what you suggest of them playing Europe against the U.S.
is still going on. But it's almost as if the U.S. and Europe have
already agreed on spheres of influence between themselves. So
when the Africans go to Europe there are certain things they know
they can get and certain things they can't get. Then they go to
the U.S. for those.
I'll give you one example and a very dangerous
one. In Evian, where the G8 met, they refused to give Africans
anything. Even the promises they made in Canada, they didn't deliver
on those. But guess what-they offered Africa $15 billion to set
up a military force, an RDF. So Africa is going to have a Rapid
Deployment Force funded by Europe. Not by the U.S. So it's as
if Europe is getting into the act in one way. Of course this means
supplies of weapons. You've got to update your weapons and all
that. But at the same time that Europe is taking care of the military
side, the U.S. is taking care of the economic side. So the colonization
of Africa is really going to be a two-fold process. The attack
comes both from the United States and Europe.
ISR - The other news that we did get in
the US., however briefly, was that during the world conference
on racism there were actually sizable demonstrations that brought
some focus on different social movements and different trade union
struggles in South Africa in particular. Can you tell us about
that and how that fits into the overall opposition to this program?
DB - Yes, I am glad that you mentioned
that. Of course there was the world summit against racism in Durbin,
followed by the world summit on sustainable development in Johannesburg.
And you really should take the two together because the same forces
are at work in both cases. You have your whole combination of
government and corporations on one hand and you have the people
in the streets. About 10-15,000 in Durban and over 20,000 in Johannesburg.
And both of these really are the embodiment of the social movements
we've seen in Seattle, Genoa and Prague.
The focus in Durban was on the kind of
glossy facade, which said racism in South Africa is over. Even
while people are still living in shacks and their water was being
cut off, electricity was being cut off. So you get the homeless
and the jobless and people with AIDS and of course your activist
movement, student movement, your labor movement coming together
very powerfully in Durban. And as you may remember, one of the
strongest elements in Durban was this demand for reparations,
a demand for the cancellation of debt. So these two elements come
into play in Durban. And then later they come into play in Johannesburg.
Johannesburg was called the WSSD [World Summit on Sustainable
Development]. And what is striking there is that Mbeki calls a
rally in the stadium in support of the WSSD and gets under 5,000
people. And then the social movements-they group themselves under
something called the SMI (Social Movements Indaba)-from the same
stadium they put 20,000 people into the streets, marching from
Alex (this is one of the worst slums in Johannesburg) to Sandton
(which is your most expensive suburb).
Both of them, it seems to me-and I think
you've made the point, I just want to reinforce it-reflect this
kind of global opposition to the global agenda. It's taking on
the corporate power and governmental power, the whole neoliberal
project. The commodification of water, commodification of air,
it all fits into this.
ISR - Can you tell us about the line up
of forces? Certainly from Mbeki fronting for NEPAD and an imperialist
project in Africa, the prestige of Africa's greatest liberation
movement is being used for these purposes. We have seen tensions
in the Communist Party [CP] alliance, the ANC and the trade unions.
COSATU [the Congress of South African Trade Unions] has been much
more critical. How is the legacy of the national liberation struggle
and the politics of this opposition playing out? How are people
defining themselves and what are they trying to put forward as
DB - It's not easy but I'll try. I have
to start by stressing that the new struggles all emerged as initially
local issues. People's water being cut off. People's kids dying
because they don't have food. People dying in the streets. More
homelessness, more unemployment than there was under apartheid.
The gap between rich and poor has increased. And South Africa
now has become the number one country in the world with the largest
gap in the world between rich and poor by their own statistics.
Very significantly, recently they showed that real earnings for
Blacks have gone down by about 15 percent in the past 10 years,
just as for the white minority and few elite Blacks it has gone
up by 16 percent. So the gap actually widens there. I think one
has to stress that it's a response to lived experiences that people
build a new movement and new struggle. And then it takes different
forms-the homeless, the jobless, the landless, the people with
AIDS, people with water cut off, with lights off.
All those come together. Now in that context
you get a tension developing in the left-in ANC, in COSATU and
in the NGOs. It takes two forms and it's a little bit difficult
to explain and even I can't satisfactorily explain it for myself.
For instance, people recognize that one of the reasons they are
homeless and waterless and lightless is privatization. The social
services have become commodities and they can't pay. So they understand
that the whole process of their immiseration is driven by privatization.
When you understand that you have to ask why is the government
doing this? And then you get a split within the left-those who
defend privatization and those who attack privatization.
This is where we find the dilemma being
crystallized. Jeff Radebe, who is a member of the Central Committee
of the Communist Party, is the minister in charge of driving the
privatization process. So you have a man who is both a member
of the Communist Party-which denounces privatization- and is also
the minister who is driving the privatization process. Of course
we challenge him. And the explanation is, "Oh, if you are
a member of the Communist Party and you become a minister of government
your first loyalty is to the government." You can claim to
be loyal to the party but your first loyalty is to the government.
COSATU identifies very clearly that privatization is why they
are losing jobs. A million jobs lost. And they say this is what
privatization has done.
So what do we do? Every year, at what
is now called the annual general meeting, they call a strike against
privatization. Then they meet with the government and they call
the strike off. It's a ritual annual strike: We're not going to
take it any more. Then the government says, "OK, go ahead
but don't do it again." Until it happens next year. It really
has become a ritual.
So that partly explains it. But of course
the CP now has 50 members in parliament. And they get really nice
perks. They get free airfare, free hotels for themselves and their
families and so on. The perks, I hate to say it, I think are really
quite important. And the government, I think, has the ability
to disperse all these advantages. The resources are there. There
may be a few people if you read the left literature (especially
the CP) you'll find them coming up with a kind of tortured logic,
which says in any case we're not really free. Of course this is
also what George Soros says, that the ANC is a captive of the
World Bank and IMF. But there are people in the CP itself who
say we don't really like what we're doing, but we're not really
free not do it.
ISR - There are many struggles There is
the beginning of protests but also an ideological challenge to
this as well. How does the labor movement fit into this and the
unions, the pressure from the rank and file?
DB - Not yet. Not yet. There's talk of
dissatisfaction. The way COSATU has dealt with it is rather clever.
You do have these annual strikes of thousands in the street or
you may have a stay-at-home or a one-day strike-and then after
that there's just a massive shedding of jobs. The mines have just
announced that another 18,000 are going be fired. And the mining
union says we're going to go on strike and then they make some
compromise. I don't follow those negotiations closely because
they're so repetitious. There's talk and threats and little action.
Interestingly, I've met with the head
of COSATU, but I didn't meet him on those issues. COSATU is an
ally of Jubilee South Africa with which I serve in filing the
case for reparations [from corporations that benefited from apartheid].
COSATU is our ally and is also an ally of the ANC as part of the
tripartite alliance. When they came over to our side on reparations,
they went back to the government to check if they could do it,
and the government said we will neither support you nor oppose
you. But since then, under pressure from a) corporations and b)
the U.S. government at Davos [Switzerland, the site of the World
Economic Forum], the COSATU guys backed off. Suddenly they are
no longer our allies in the reparations fight, although they started
out as our allies. Now, apparently this happened in Davos. The
U.S. government and of course IBM and the banks said don't touch
Jubilee South Africa filed a suit in New
York for reparations in the name of a collective of the homeless
and jobless and it was OK'd by COSATU and by the churches. Suddenly
the churches announce, "We don't like what you are doing."
And this was quite remarkable because evidently Mbeki and people
in the government contacted the churches and said get out of it.
So at the moment it looks like Jubilee is alone in conducting
Now its not really as simple as that because
what they've said is not that they're getting out but that they
don't like the way we're doing it and they'd like these changes
and so on. So the fact of the matter is that they are trying to
find a way of killing the action. They told us you can't have
a conference so we went ahead and had a workshop instead. We had
about 140 people coming from 23-25 organizations willing to buck
both the churches and COSATU-saying in spite of those guys we'll
go ahead. After that the churches and trade unions said go ahead,
we can't stop you, so we'll go ahead and join you. My feeling
is they'll either stack that one with so many church organizations
that they'll either wipe us out or discredit us or maybe even
instruct the lawyers to drop the suit. There is a whole range
of possibilities. What we are trying to do of course is to mobilize
our allies so we will be there in force. The dates are August
20-21. The government has filed a countersuit in New York in opposition
to our suit for reparations.
We think we can sue for $100 billion.
And we don't think we'll get it. But what we might get is a settlement
out of court when we go after Ford and GM and IBM, Citibank and
these guys. They'll do what they did on the Holocaust issue. They
settled out of court when they saw they were going to lose and
the dirt was flying around. And we think that money should go
into institutional reparations-schools, hospitals, clinics for
people with AIDS and so on. But the corporations have decided
that they don't want to go into court and they want to kill this
suit. And the way to kill the suit is not by themselves, but to
get the churches and trade unions to say don't touch it.
ISR - In recent weeks we've heard about
demands for Western military intervention in Liberia. Groups like
the Congressional Black Caucus, which has been quite good on African
debt are now calling for intervention in Liberia. What attitude
should people in the global justice movement take toward that
DB - I was very interested in the debate
that the left has had on the future of the UN. I can understand
people saying things like somebody has to do something in Iraq.
And if it's not the U.S. then it better be the UN. And I say:
Too bad. The one is as bad as the other. We'll have to find alternative
ways to go in and clean up Iraq. But to ask the UN to do it is
to ask it to go in as a surrogate for the U.S. First of all, it's
a U.S. mess you're asking them to clean up, and the UN has not
demonstrated independence of mind or independence of values. Even
if you ask why did the Security Council stand up to the U.S.,
you get a set of very mixed motives. The French and the Germans
were worried they wouldn't get a piece of the oil. You get a whole
set of reasons that have nothing to do with ethics. This is not
morality we're talking about. I would say Africa is an enormous
mess mostly generated by the West-its diamonds, its oil and its
mercenaries. So when you get to a mess in Africa the wrong people
to call for help from are the people who caused the trouble. As
desperate as the situation is, I promise you, if you get Charles
Taylor out of the way, you'll get another American stooge, a Mobutu
being installed to protect American interests-gold or diamonds
or oil or uranium. There are terrible killings and of course they
must be stopped. But sending a killer to clean up the killing
ISR - Twenty-five or 30 years ago I think
that debate would have been answered by a left in solidarity with
the struggles. The idea of national liberation and self-determination
was at the forefront. Now there's formal independence-the formal
colonies are virtually all gone, although Iraq may be something
different. How can we get that politics back on the agenda?
DB - The reality is that Africa has been
re-colonized. It is the neo-colonial process that is now paralyzed.
And it is that neocolonial process that generates those conflicts,
internecine conflicts in Africa. Genocide and fratricidal killings
of people even from the same community. One side paid by the other
side. Armed by both sides. The South Africans are selling guns
to both sides like crazy. They don't care as long as the money
comes through. Black diamonds out of Botswana. Blood diamonds
out of Sierra Leone. And who profits? They are now selling diamonds
on the streets of Amsterdam.
So the short answer, again, is don't send
in the killer to clean up the killing. Find alternative solutions
among themselves. I think we are in a terrible mess, but we aren't
going to solve the disease by giving the patient poison.
ISR - We have had the rise of a global
social movement. Africa is increasingly vocal and important in
that. How do we take the issues out into the movement?
DB - Glad you asked that. I think this
is where the social movement globally becomes significant for
Africa. Alliances form because other parts of the world are suffering
from the same imperialism. We have allies at the same time we
begin to construct our own opposition. And usually the very simple
lesson is that we fight the oppressor where we find him and we
define our resistance in terms of that oppression. So it varies
from place to place. Just for the record, we now have an African
Social Forum. We have a Southern African Social Forum and in South
Africa we have SMI. People are suspicious in Africa about things
not indigenous to Africa and they want to know that we do it in
our own way.
One of our curious problems is that at
the moment, parallel to the uncertainty people have about the
UN, we have uncertainty about the AU. You must remember that the
AU is the replacement of the OAU [Organization of African Unity].
It is perhaps good in one area, which is the emphasis on decolonization,
on African independence. That was its strong point. It was full
of intrigue and dishonesty and was infiltrated by the CIA. They
were corrupt people in there so it really wasn't very good except
on the insistence of an independent Africa. And eventually, of
course, we pretty much won that struggle after a fashion. Most
of Africa is in some way or another independent.
Then, along comes the AU. And the AU is
not about independence. Ideally, it's about "good governance"
if you like. It's certainly about trade relations and international
stature. There's talk about the African Renaissance and so on.
But for the left, radicals in Africa have been unable to define
their attitude towards the AU. And you can understand why. We
do need a continental body. It makes sense. But with the disappearance
of the OAU, which was not regretted...but once you have a vacuum
you're in trouble. You need some sort of organization there. So
we do need a coordinating body. Should it be the AU? The answer
more and more is no.
Which is interesting because what people
are saying is what is the AU all about? The heart of AU is NEPAD.
Now if NEPAD is what the AU is about, it means we are going to
be subjugated to the IMF, the World Bank and the WTO. It means
surrendering ourselves into bondage by believing that we were
establishing an autonomous body. Interestingly, about two weeks
ago when they were meeting in Maputo, the AU was discussing NEPAD,
and there was a meeting with Bush in Pretoria, we issued the statement
and for the first time we denounced the AU. We said as long as
the AU has NEPAD as its backbone, we must regard the AU as suspicious.
And again, out of the African Social Forum
we may have to develop an alternative to the AU. It may take some
time, but the AU is not in our interest and we need to build a
ISR - For those of us who were alive in
the 1980s, the South African struggle was a touchstone. Today,
there are all these contradictions and difficulties I'm not asking
for inspiration, but it seems to me that the struggles are repeating
and beginning anew and drawing from the past.
DB - I like that and I'll give you an
interesting little episode. Last year, just before the World Summit
on Sustainable Development, we got together to plan an action.
And the place we chose was a house on a farm in Johannesburg called
Rivonia. Now Rivonia was the house in which Walter Sisulu and
Nelson Mandela had met to plot the overthrow of the apartheid
government. So when we met there I said this is the beginning
of a new struggle and it's appropriate that we meet in the place
where the serious challenge to the apartheid regime began.
Dennis Brutus is an award-winning South
African poet, a leading activist in the global justice movement
and a Professor Emeritus in the Department of Africana Studies
at the University of Pittsburgh. Lee Sustar is a frequent contributor
to the ISR.