Tag Archives: resistance

The Content of Politics: Social Movements and their Interlocutors in Post-Apartheid South Africa

— Zachary Levenson

Originally appearing in Against the Current 160, Sept/Oct 2012

A MIDDLE-AGED WOMAN continued stuffing an old tire with bits of straw, refusing to stop as two younger men pleaded with her not to ignite it. She didn’t seem to take them seriously, presumably because one of them was wearing a Democratic Alliance (DA) shirt, the reigning party in the Western Cape and largely despised by black voters. It was hard to hear the substance of the debate over the chanting of struggle songs and vigorous toyi-toyiing, not to mention the crowd shouting down officers in an SUV marked “Anti-Land Invasion Unit.”(1)

It was only after a well-known leader of the Western Cape Anti-Eviction Campaign told her that a fire would provoke arrests that she relinquished the kindling. With the burnt asphalt of Symphony Way easily visible from the previous few days’ protests, it seemed obvious where this was going, but this time no tires were torched; the critics of the tactic won out.

Instead, residents of Blikkiesdorp and Tsunami formed a line and continued dancing, blockading the thoroughfare through Delft South on the eastern periphery of Cape Town just east of the airport.

This was one of hundreds of so-called “service delivery protests” that have occurred over the past decade in South Africa. As the post-apartheid promise of housing for all — a guarantee enshrined in the country’s constitution — proved to be empty rhetoric, residents in shack settlements around the country have begun to demand change.

With grossly inadequate access to potable water and sanitary toilets in major metropolises including Johannesburg, Durban and Cape Town, not to mention the unlikelihood of legal electricity connections, the number of such protests has grown remarkably over the past few years, combining demands for municipal service provision with disgust over the dysfunctionality of post-apartheid housing delivery.(2)

According to analyses now circulated around the internationalist left, South Africa has the highest per capita number of uprisings of any country, a rapidly intensifying “rebellion of the poor” marking it as the “protest capital of the world.”(3)

But even if a purely quantitative analysis of these gatherings suggests escalating unrest, does their content match the hype? While certainly one can find instances of cumulative organizing and the emergence of sustained challenges to a rapidly degenerating welfare state, can these protests reasonably be described as “rebellions”?

I asked the woman who was prevented from lighting the tire what she was hoping to achieve and why she thought this might be an effective tactic. She told me that all of this — the blockade, the tires, the confrontation with police — was an effort to attract the ward councilor for Delft South.

Trying to Get Attention

Hardly a rebellion in the standard sense then, this was actually an attempt to engage an elected official, as heterodox as it might appear. According to numerous residents with whom I spoke, the councilor had never set foot in Blikkiesdorp despite having been in office for the better part of a decade. All they wanted, I was told, was to get answers.

Lest this be dismissed as an isolated incident, I witnessed similar modes of engagement by peri-urban shack residents across the country. Last November, 700 members of the youth league of Abahlali baseMjondolo, reported to be the country’s largest shack dwellers’ organization, marched on Durban’s City Hall through the pouring rain, and I marched with them. Continue reading

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Between a Trot and a Hard Place: The Debate Within Our Movement

As we get further from March 4th and various groups put out their analysis, we see emerging differences in political line. Some of the primary differences we’ve seen emerge [discussed in our Post-March 4th analysis] stem from our criticisms of the Trotskyist tradition. Recently, Unity & Struggle (U&S), a group we consider to be aligned with our general political orientation wrote a response to two of the Trotskyist responses to our piece put out by Labor’s Militant Voice – LMV and Socialist Organizer – SO. We think U&S’s response piece very clearly illustrates some of the emerging differences that distinguish us from the existing Trotskyist groups. These differences center on the following questions:

How should marxist militants understand the political character of unions? How should militants relate to unions, their leadership and their rank and file? Many Marxists agree that union bureaucrats have been bought off, but there are often disagreements as to why.

How should disciplined revolutionaries relate to, and work within coalitional spaces? How important are general assemblies as organizational forms for the working-class’ political self-activity?

Is there a need for revolutionaries to have independent spaces and organizations outside of both coalitions/united fronts and general assemblies? Or are general assemblies and united fronts the only true legitimate spaces for working-class self activity? If not, what should independent political organizations look like?

How should a marxist ‘cadre’ type organization relate to such a space or organization? Should we help build them to the exclusion of participating in united fronts? Are these forms of organization mutually exclusive?

Furthermore, can the problem facing the working class today be summed up by Leon Trotsky’s assertion in the opening line of his famous work, ‘The Transitional Program’, which states that:  “the world political situation as a whole is chiefly characterized by a historical crisis of leadership of the proletariat”? And, if so, does this mean that the problem facing revolutionaries today is primarily the task of substituting ‘bad leadership’ [read: union bureaucrats] for ‘good leadership’ [read: correct-line trotskyist revolutionaries], or do revolutionaries need to orient in radically different ways that consciously avoid reproducing the same hierarchical structures of authority present in capitalism?

These are all questions that we were thinking about when we wrote our Crisis and Consciousness piece, which analyzed March 4th and the movement that lead up to it.

Unfortunately all of us in AtS are not merely armchair intellectuals [we got jobs and other political work ya’ll!] and thus it has taken us a lil’ while to engage with all the responses that have been put out.

We are also taking time to respond to the Trotskyist responses in a way that moves beyond March 4th, and which moves us in the direction of a more fleshed out articulation of our position on many of the above issues, as political questions in general.

In the meantime, we think people should seriously engage with the piece written by our Seattle comrade from the group  Unity and Struggle.

We were psyched to read U&S’s response to the responses to our piece, because we have been heavily influenced and inspired by the work they do. U&S is a great example of the class-struggle left we describe in Crisis and Consciousness, and we had them in mind when we wrote it. We believe their response to the two Trotskyist responses to our piece (one by Labor’s Militant Voice – LMV and the other by Socialist Organizer – SO), is a very straightforward and accurate, cursory overview of the debate thus far. As we’ve mentioned,  U&S shares many of our critical disagreements with the Trotskyist tradition and its current incarnations.

We look forward to continuing these debates, as they help us develop our own understanding of ourselves and the existing left. We are a new formation and we are trying to develop a fresh analysis of the current conditions, while trying to avoid many of the political mistakes made by revolutionary militants in the past.

We plan to put out more in-depth and detailed analysis on the questions raised above, for which we are studying, reading and discussing with our political milieus. We welcome you to become part of this debate as it unfolds.

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The Debate on Strategy in the Anti-Budget Cuts Movement

As an anti-budget cuts organizer in Seattle, I am excited by the important debates Advance the Struggle (AS) has raised with their piece Crisis and Contradictions: Reflections and Lessons from March 4th. I basically agree with the perspective that AS is putting forward;  it confirms and advances a lot of the perspectives that my comrades in Unity and Struggle have been developing, especially with our anti-budget cuts work with Democracy Insurgent in Seattle, with ella pelea! in Austin, and our comrade’s work at Berkley.  For those who don’t know, Unity and Struggle is a revolutionary organization animated by a belief in the self-emancipation of oppressed people; for more info, check out the “About US” section of the Gathering Forces blog.

I would consider Unity and Struggle and a lot of the milleiu around Gathering Forces to be part of  the “class struggle Left” tendency that AS outlines and calls for; like AS we are attempting to chart a third path that is independent from both the centrists (the “we need to meet people where they are at” folks) and the adventurists (the “Occupy Everything Demand Nothing” folks).  We appreciate the chance to dialogue with AS and other  like-minded activists around the country and we also appreciate the chance to have principled debate with comrades from the other two tendencies.

The response pieces written by Socialist Organizer (SO) and Labors Militant Voice (LMV), raise some important challenges to this third tendency and highlight some key differences between us and the centrist tendency.  It is important to note that LMV’s piece raises important critiques of SO’s piece and I engage with those here  – I have no intention of lumping them together.   I offer my notes on these responses  in the hope of furthering the debate.

Continue reading

San Francisco 8

CRUEL AND UNUSUAL — Hank Jones and Ray Boudreaux spoke before the Pasadena ACLU May 12 to tell the story of the “San Francisco 8,” former members and/or associates of the Black Panther Party who have been charged with the 1970 killing of a San Francisco police officer. The case against the men, initially dismissed in 1975 because confessions from some of them had been based on torture, was reopened in 2007.

CRUEL AND UNUSUAL — Hank Jones and Ray Boudreaux spoke before the Pasadena ACLU May 12 to tell the story of the “San Francisco 8,” former members and/or associates of the Black Panther Party who have been charged with the 1970 killing of a San Francisco police officer. The case against the men, initially dismissed in 1975 because confessions from some of them had been based on torture, was reopened in 2007.

At first glance, the SF8 are just another case of police abuse and the corrupt criminal (in)justice system. Our sympathies are with them, as they are with Mumia and Leonard Peltier and hundreds of other political prisoners, but no lasting movement has developed with the kind of strength to affect the outcome of the trial and end their persecution. The community knows the cops are a daily obstacle and are even dangerous, but the community has not seemed ready to get behind a campaign to end it.

There seem to be three models of resistance to police. The first model, which members of the SF8 ascribed to was the Black Panther model. It involved outflanking the police by building community support and conducting armed patrols of neighborhoods to monitor police.

The second model is the “police accountability” model that has been adopted by the Coalition Against Police Executions (CAPE), a coalition of Oakland non-profit organizations. This aims at reforming the police but essentially leaving them as they are, with some minor changes such as sensitivity training an extra layer of bureacracy in the form of citizen review boards.

The third model is the spontaneous eruption of anger and desperations by those members of the community that deal most directly with the police. Young black and brown men and boys from the hood that are unemployed and involved in informal markets often through gangs have shown what their response to police abuse is: riots and “cop killing.” While these responses are barely worth considering as “models” they are inform the analysis, especially considering that they are the most hotly sought after constituency for both reform organizations such as the non-profit sector (see Ella Baker Center’s “Silence the Violence Campaign”) AND militant community organizers (like the Panthers).
Instead of repeating the same sob story about police “terrorism,” and boring folks with legal details from the case, can we pose this question to working class black and brown communities: out of these three  strategies – militant direct action community organizing, liberal compromising non-profit coalitions, random acts of violence – which approach is the most effective? When they answer that the militant direct action community organizing (panther) model is best, can we pose a follow-up question: who’s going to build such an organization to do that work?

Instead of imploring people to act in sympathy for these innocent old men, we should present them with the opportunity to act on their own behalf in these old men’s righteous example.

San Francisco 8 Members Blame Murder Charges on Police Corruption