Africa's Struggles Today

Lee Sustar interviews Dennis Brutus

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 together.

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 an alternative?

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 it.

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 the suit.

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 issue?

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 operation...

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 new one.

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.

Africa Watch

Index of Website

Home Page