Interview with Michael Schmidt and Lucien van der Walt about Anarchism in Africa
The interview was conducted in 2010 for the German book Von Jakarta bis Johannesburg: Anarchismus weltweit. This is the original English version.
Very little is known in the German-speaking world about the history of anarchism in Africa. If at all possible, can you give us a short summary of what people really ought to know?
Michael Schmidt (MS): Firstly one should recognise that anarchism historically was primarily a working class movement of dockers, builders, railway workers, sailors, factory workers and so forth, who represented the bulk of the membership of the anarchist movement and of its organisations; agricultural labourers were also important; of course, peasants and the crafts were also represented, but in much smaller numbers. What this means is that the spread of anarchist ideas into Africa – and the establishment of anarchist organisations on the continent – occurred in those areas where colonialism developed industries, and to a lesser extent, commercial farming. In practice, in anarchism’s “classic period,” this meant the Mediterranean littoral, starting with initiatives by Italian, French and Spanish anarchists, and, in southern Africa, initiatives by English and Scottish syndicalists, as well as Portuguese. By the “classical period,” I mean from the First International into the 1940s.
Lucien van der Walt (LvdW): Michael is correct there. Africa was, of course, affected by the rise of European power from the 1500s, but generally served as a source of slaves and of trade goods. Only from the late nineteenth century did capitalism proper, start to take root: in the Egyptian case, this followed deliberate attempts by the local state to promote industrialization; in Algeria, there was a belated colonial modernization; the various colonies that were united into the South African state in 1910 were radically changed by the rise of a massive mining sector and an industrial revolution; Portuguese Mozambique modernized due to the changes in South Africa, as well as efforts by Lisbon to stave off British claims to the territory. Of course, capitalism requires workers, and many of the immigrant workers who worked in centers like Alexandria, Johannesburg and Lourenço Marques (now Maputo) were revolutionaries. These workers helped spread anarchism and syndicalism into Africa. But it is also important to stress that the movement set down roots amongst indigenous black and Arabic peoples.
MS: Let me take this up with reference to North Africa; Lucien will deal with southern Africa. In the Mediterranean littoral, organised anarchist activity was evident by 1877, centred on Italian exiles and expatriates living in the Egyptian port of Alexandria and the city of Cairo. An Italian anarchist journal, "Il Lavoratore" (The Labourer), began printing in Alexandria in 1877, and it was followed by publications in French-occupied Tunis, Tunisia. Daud Muja‘is of Beirut edited the Arabic-language journal "al Nur" (The Light) of Alexandria (1904-1908) which had subscribers as far afield as Haiti and Brazil. Italian radicals played a key role in founding the labour movement in Egypt, forming a People’s Free University in Alexandria in 1901, and activists associated with the University and "Le Tribune Libre" appear to have been amongst those involved in founding syndicalist "international" unions in early 20th Century Egypt. These were remarkable for drawing in native Egyptian workers, as well as Europeans. Particularly notable was the syndicalist International League of Cigarette Workers and Millers of Cairo in 1908, "open to workers of all nationalities, Egyptians as well as foreigners". The early Egyptian Communist Party also included anarchists like Joseph Rosenthal, a Jewish militant.
Algeria (legally a province of France) also had French-language anarchist journals in Algiers by the end of the 19th Century: "L'Action Revolutionnaire" (Revolutionary Action) (1887), "Le Tocsin" (The Alarm) (1890), "Le Libertaire" (The Libertarian) (1892) and "La Marmite Sociale" [...] (1893). By 1891, anarchists were also active in many trade unions in Algiers – and these anarchists played a role in the larger shift of mainland French unions towards syndicalism. The CGT–Revolutionary Syndicalist (CGT-SR), successor of the syndicalist French CGT, organised in Algeria. Opposed to French colonialism, it included native Algerians like Saïl Mohamed, who fought in the Spanish Revolution and remained active until his death in 1953. Mohamed helped found the Association for the Rights of the Indigenous Algerians and the Anarchist Group of the Indigenous Algerians with Sliman Kiouane in 1923, was the secretary of the anarchist Algerian Defence Committee Against the Provocations of the Centenary in 1929, and editor of the North African edition of the anarchist periodical "Terre Libre" (Free Land). Albert Guigui-Theral, born in Algeria and raised in Paris, led metalworkers’ strikes in North Africa, before returning to France. Arrested in June 1940, as France succumbed to Nazi rule, he was released and joined the Maquis under Jean Moulin, with the Clandestine CGT.
So those are a few key figures. Aside from Alexandra, Cairo, Tunis and Algiers, the cities of Oran in Algeria and of Tangiers in Morocco were anarchist strongholds – and refuges – in the period up until the fall of Tangiers to Franco and of French North Africa to the Vichy regime during World War II. In 1947, a North African Libertarian Movement (MLAN) was founded – apparently a French-speaking organisation, with Moroccan, Algerian, and Tunisian sections. That year the Algerian section was recognised as the “13th Region” of the Paris-centered Francophone Anarchist Federation (FAF). The Tunisian section later joined the FAF too. The Moroccan section is not mentioned in the Anarchist International Relations Commission (CRIA) correspondence but presumably was based in the French-ruled Atlantic ports Casablanca and Rabat. The MLAN’s Algerian section’s first manifesto called: “For economic and racial equality and the establishment of libertarian communism,” a “harmonious society based on solidarity, mutual aid, co-operation and federalism,” against “patrimonial feudal colonialism,” racism, war and imperialism. But it was quite small: a CRIA document states the section consisted of “three comrades in Algiers, and several comrades dispersed and isolated in the bled [the small-town countryside].” In 1950, the Algerian section was legalised by the authorities, and sought to register in its own name as an affiliate of “the Anarchist International” (presumably the CRIA). It later appears to have merged with FAI exiles in North Africa.
Later records are less clear. It seems that the movement was marginalised by nationalists and Marxists from the 1960s. Since the 1980s, there have been some important new developments, especially in West Africa, with groups in Senegal (the Anarchist Party for Individual Freedoms in the Republic, founded 1981), Sierra Leone (a 3,000-plus section of the syndicalist Industrial Workers of the World/ IWW, founded 1996), and Nigeria (the anarcho-syndicalist Awareness League). The first two seem to have collapsed; the current status of the Awareness League is unknown.
You are both based in South Africa. What is the specific history of anarchism there?
LvdW: There were two separate movements: one in the British territories, and one in Portuguese Mozambique. The movement in the British colonies dates back to the early 1880s, and the work of Henry Glasse, an Indian-born Englishman who was part of Pyotr Kropotkin’s London-based Freedom Group. Operating in Port Elizabeth (then a booming port city on the east coast) he distributed works by Kropotkin, Errico Malatesta and others, formed a Socialist Club circa 1900, and worked in the unions. Before the 1910s, this meant work amongst white workers primarily – outside of Cape Town, people of colour were largely outside the unions – but he was an early champion of racial equality. He compared the situation of the black majority to that of the Jews in Tsarist Russia – segregated, persecuted and humiliated – and he advocated an interracial and revolutionary workers’ movement as a way forward. The country was at that time made up of around 4 million blacks, 1,2-million whites, 500,000 coloureds (people of mixed descent) and 150,000 Asians (mainly Indians).
From 1900, groups started to emerge across the country. In Cape Town, the anarchist-led Social Democratic Federation (SDF) organised across the color line, with a multi-racial General Workers Union and integrated unemployed demonstrations, based amongst coloureds and whites; from the Witwatersrand (the centre of mining industry and of militant unionism), anarchist Italian immigrants corresponded and sent donations to Malatesta’s newspapers; a strong local IWW emerged in Johannesburg, the economic heart of the region, as well as in Pretoria and in the port city of Durban, and the (De Leonist) Socialist Labor Party (SLP) also emerged.
Lourenço Marques in Mozambique was one of the destinations for anarchists deported from Portugal. In 1910, the anarchist printer José Estevam (released from prison) formed a Revolutionary League; there was also a Francisco Ferrer Libertarian Group. These promoted anarchist ideas, were noticeable at May Day demonstrations, and wrote in the republican and labor press – like their South African counterparts, they stressed cross-racial organizing. This was not a very popular line in either country amongst many white workers, who preferred to organise to keep people of color segregated, rather than organise jointly against segregation. This was the tradition of "white Labourism.” There was a lively cosmopolitan café culture in the city, and it influenced a number of blacks including members of the assimilado elite (blacks exempted from the discriminatory legal code), including João Dos Santos Albasini, the city’s most prominent intellectual.
Unlike the SDF, the IWW and SLP did not manage to draw in people of colour, but they did take a principled stance: integration, equality, class struggle. This was very unusual: most white workers favoured segregation. The emerging black nationalist movement, exemplified by the South African Native National Congress (formed 1912, later renamed the African National Congress, ANC, which is today the country’s ruling party) only allowed other races to join its ranks in 1969! Both the IWW and SLP fell apart around 1912, but their key militants reemerged in the International Socialist League (ISL, formed 1915). The ISL argued for One Big Union to unite all workers, to fight against racial discrimination, and to make the social revolution. It was instrumental in forming syndicalist unions amongst people of colour, including the first black workers union in the region, the Industrial Workers of Africa (IWA, 1917), the Indian Workers Industrial Union (1917), the Clothing Workers Industrial Union and the Horse Drivers Union (both 1919).
The ISL included many prominent non-white activists, including T.W. Thibedi, Bernard Sigamoney, Henry Kraai and Fred Cetiwe, besides its white radicals like Bill Andrews and Andrew Dunbar. In the Cape, the SDF split – and the newly formed Industrial Socialist League (not to be confused with the ISL) also formed a syndicalist union, the Sweet and Jam Workers Industrial Union (1918) and influenced the moderate Cape Federation of Labor. From 1917 to 1921, the Port and Railway Employees’ Association led a strike wave at Lourenço Marques and on the Mozambican railways, in which individual anarchists and syndicalists were prominent.
The 1920s saw a decline. Many leading figures helped form the Communist Party of South Africa (CPSA, 1921, relaunched as the South African Communist Party in 1953); the syndicalist unions declined or merged into other bodies; several key radicals were killed in the 1922 Rand Revolt, an armed rising on the Witwatersrand. The strike wave in Mozambique was crushed with martial law. Yet, anarchist and syndicalist influences continued. There was a syndicalist faction in the early CPSA, at least until 1928. The Cape Town IWA and other unions merged into the Industrial and Commercial Workers Union (ICU), a powerful mainly black and coloured union that showed persistent syndicalist (especially IWW) influences. The ICU was also influenced by Garveyism, Marxism, liberalism, and Christianity – but syndicalism was a key part of the mix. The ICU grew to 100,000 in South Africa, and spread into neighboring colonies like South West Africa (now Namibia), Northern Rhodesia (now Zambia) and Southern Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe). In Zimbabwe, it was still going in the 1950s. Its main influence in South Africa was amongst labor tenants on commercial farms.
It is well known that the South African Communist Party (SACP) and the Congress of South African Trade Unions (COSATU) were strongly involved in the anti-apartheid struggle. Was there an anarchist influence as well?
LvdW: Yes, there was, but it was quite small and scattered. It is worth noting that there were some libertarian currents between the 1930s and the 1980s, although they were not really anarchist. There was a group called the Movement for a Democracy of Content (MDC) in Johannesburg in the 1950s – Murray Bookchin was linked to its American section. Rick Turner, a radical intellectual who was assassinated in 1978, advocated radical participatory socialism, and had some influence on people involved in the new unions emerging then. There were also some isolated black and white individuals who identified with anarchism, but I don’t think there was an organised current before the late 1980s. In the late 1980s, a number of self-identified anarchists – mainly coming out of the punk sub-culture, which in South Africa at the time meant basically white and Indian youth – started to publish fanzines. Notable examples were Social Blunder and Brave New World (Sux). These generally took an anti-apartheid line, but analyses were often pretty shallow and not much of a real strategy was developed to take the movement forward. Part of the problem was that overseas anarchist materials were often blocked by the censor. Marxism was also very strong. And, in my opinion at least, many of these pioneers were far too isolated in the punk subculture to really get to grips with the national liberation struggle that was going on. They were principled and committed, but they lacked an effective politics.
MS: Generally, anarchists were not then (or later) involved in the ANC-SACP-COSATU Alliance. The anarchists (or at least, those who identified as “anarchists”) always maintained a cynical attitude towards the ANC – and a sophisticated and revolutionary perspective on the Alliance from the start. The 1990s saw some qualitative advances. There was an anarchist reading group at the University of Stellenbosch, which grappled quite seriously with the ideas. A group called the Anarchist Revolutionary Movement (ARM) emerged in Johannesburg around 1993, as did a Durban Anarchist Federation (DAF) around this time. These were the dying years of apartheid. Both groups were synthesist, i.e. they tended to group together a wide range of people who identified as “anarchists.”
LvdW: There was a massive sense of possibility, and radical materials were easily available as state repression started to ease. This started to push people to try and develop an anarchist politics that could really get to grips with the changes taking place. Here, synthesist approaches proved wanting, as always. In the case of ARM, for instance, members varied from punks whose main interest lay in running concerts, to cranks influenced by bizarre types of environmentalism, to people, like myself, who were anti-apartheid student activists from the hard left. The ARM structure was very loose, and people disagreed on very basic issues. This was not a formation that could act together. In practice, the group simply divided in two, those who favored a continued immersion in the world of punk, and those who favored an orientation towards the black working class. The latter group started to run reading groups, in order to develop a series of Position Papers that spelt out a road to the masses.
MS: The DAF focused primarily in anti-militarist work aimed at conscription for whites and anti-fascist work aimed at the Afrikaner Resistance Movement (AWB). The DAF contained a collective known variously as the Awareness League, then Land & Liberty and then Zabalaza Books. After the coming of capitalist democracy under a shared white/black nationalist coalition, the Government of National Unity, the hardliners in both organisations formed the anarcho-syndicalist Workers’ Solidarity Federation (WSF) in 1995. The WSF was based on the Position Papers developed in Johannesburg, focused on radicalizing the trade union (mostly COSATU) rank-and-file, and was actually very successful in recruiting black workers. For the first time in decades, a largely black, working class, anarchist group emerged.
LvdW: The WSF had a big appeal. On the Witwatersrand, it included militants from the Food and Allied Workers Union, workers from the Johannesburg municipality – every week, it seemed, we would get letters from workers interested in joining. WSF also made some good alliances with independent Marxists in the unions. In Durban too, it drew in blacks from the townships, although on a smaller scale. The Durban group also did a lot of good work in translating materials into the Zulu language. I can remember going to marches with hundreds of newspapers and leaflets, and long queues of workers lining up to buy materials. It was a confirmation of the importance of the black working class focus: the black working class was interested in our ideas, had a basic class interest in the anarchist project, and had a fighting tradition that attracted it to anti-capitalism more generally.
MS: The WSF also had an influence beyond the country. It helped with the establishment of a short-lived Anarchist Worker & Student Movement (AWSM) in Zambia – which died with its founder, Wilstar Choongo, in 1999. But syndicalist knowledge was lacking among WSF members. Many joined up because the WSF seemed militant, and was willing to help workers out. Many undoubtedly had only a vague idea of our ultimate aims. Meanwhile, space was closing down in COSATU, as ANC loyalists pushed to oust anyone vaguely dissident. Around 1999, the WSF was transformed into the Bikisha Media Collective (BMC), a far tighter organisation than the WSF had become. This was an exciting period. A number of new social movements emerged, which were basically community groups in the black slums that opposed the ANC’s attempts to commercialize and privatize water, electricity and other basic services.
LvdW: In mid-2000, following a series of protests at the University of the Witwatersrand, where WSF and then BMC had a presence, the Anti-Privatization Forum (APF) was formed. This was a broad coalition of groups, with a loose structure. The BMC was an early affiliate, and played a role in the coordinating bodies. The APF initially included COSATU unionists and SACP members, as well as a range of people to the left of the Alliance, like anarchists and Trotskyists. The Alliance types tended to drop out within the first year, and the APF became widely seen as anti-ANC. Over time, its relations with COSATU worsened, to the extent that the two formations even ran separate May Days.
MS: Meanwhile, the BMC core was involved in running the Workers Library & Museum in downtown Johannesburg, following the election of a new Management Committee in 1999. This was a labor centre which had been founded around 1987. Among the initiatives that were taken by BMC was the founding of a radical Workers’ Bookshop at the centre (the only one on the Witwatersrand) with regular monthly public meetings and fund-raising to keep the centre open. The BMC also ran its own meetings, called Red and Black Forums. Meanwhile, Zabalaza Books was also active, focused almost entirely on publishing anarchist material – including occasional newsletters. By this stage, the relations with the ANC and SACP were rather poor.
Since the end of the apartheid regime, the Zabalaza Anarchist Communist Front (formerly Federation, ZACF) has emerged as the flagship of South African anarchism. Can you tell us a little more about the organisation?
MS: The increased militancy around the World Summit on Sustainable Development in Johannesburg in 2002 saw the emergence of a new layer of township anarchists and a decision was taken to form the Zabalaza (“Struggle”) Anarchist Communist Federation (ZACF) in 2003. This brought together six collectives in a federation: Zabalaza Books, BMC, the Anarchist Black Cross and three township Action Groups, two in Soweto and one in Umlazi at Durban. It then spread into Swaziland, a small neighboring country ruled by an absolute monarch. The ZACF played a role in the townships, sponsored a centre in the Motsoaledi squatter camp, and also made contacts in Zimbabwe, another neighboring dictatorship.
Whereas the WSF was mainly a union-based group, the ZACF drew heavily on unemployed youth. But both groups made the same mistake: too little care was taken in recruitment and political education. The unemployed labor under heavy burdens: state education for blacks was (and remains) abysmal; unemployment is usually long-term; social welfare is minimal. Some members were literally starving. The poverty of ideas and of basic needs is a perennial problem. It affected the WSF; it affected the ZACF; it has no easy solution. The township Action Groups declined, the Motsoaledi centre collapsed, and the ZACF decided to rebuild itself as a tighter organisation, centered on Johannesburg. It was a tough decision, but has resulted in a far more efficient organisation. Our primary work is supporting and defending the radical social and industrial movements and their prisoners, publishing literature, researching anarchist history and networking with green, LGBTI and other associated movements.
Zabalaza is very committed to a working class based anarchism, and many other self-declared anarchist currents seem to be met with strong skepticism. Do you have to deal with "individualist" or "lifestylist" tendencies in South Africa?
LvdW: Anarchism is part of the working class movement, a radical form of libertarian socialism. So, you are correct in speaking of a certain “skepticism” towards some self-styled “anarchist” currents – neither “individualism” nor “lifestylism” are forms of anarchism. The WSF was certainly shaped by a frustration with so-called “lifestylism” and “individualism” – which are, basically, dead-ends. The problem is not sub-cultural links, as such: there are comrades from punk backgrounds who are exceptional militants.
We must be careful not to apply these labels incorrectly: by “lifestylism” and “individualism” we mean those whose politics essentially amounts to a narcissistic bohemian lifestyle. This is not revolutionary; it is basically a form of self-indulgence that does nothing to change the world. The terms should thus not be loosely applied to people, who genuinely do try and change the world through real struggles – but who may be a bit wrapped up in subcultures. The question is: does the person have a strategy for revolutionary change centered on the working class? In short, calling yourself an “anarchist” does not make you one. The key task set by groups like ZACF is to develop a mass, working class and (in the South African context) predominantly black, anarchist movement, and “lifestylism” and “individualism” play no role in this task.
MS: Generally, these currents are politically irrelevant (except to the extent that they give anarchism a bad name). Of course, there are some good, independent anarchists, as well as libertarians of various types (autonomists, radical greens and so on) outside the ZACF. No doubt many feel a bit uncomfortable with the ZACF’s Platformist approach. That’s fine: the ZACF has no interest in controlling what people do, although of course it is always interested in winning militants over...
What are the relations to non-anarchist groups within the radical left in the country?
MS: This is a far more pressing issue, since these groupings are involved in the radical social, political and industrial movements in the country. We might surprise some Western readers when we say we find it easier and more productive to work alongside various Bolshevik types, including Maoists and Trotskyists and even a section of the SACP (particularly among its youth wing), than with many of the libertarians. The APF provided one space for such cooperation, the Workers Library and Museum another, the student movement a third, and the unions a fourth. This is what we term the “communist” left, as opposed to the SACP – which is, these days, basically a social-democratic party with radical pretensions.
We have had some dealings with other sectors of the African socialist left, but never at an official level: former Pan-Africanist Congress (PAC) guerrillas languishing behind bars, and a few PAC youth in the hostels and townships. Times are changing, too: we have formed close ties with community groups like the Durban-centered Shack-dweller’s Movement Abahlali baseMjondolo, which has libertarian socialist tendencies. In essence, as long as people are not crude vanguardists, are pro-working class, and operate openly and honestly, we tend to get along. I like to say that one advantage of the left in South Africa is that its very small size forces us to get along with each other. This makes for a resistance that is far more shaped by real human concerns than idealised positions.
Internationally, the political perception of South Africa is still very much tied to the history of apartheid and race issues in general. How big a factor is this in anarchist politics? Are there any equivalents to organisations like Bring the Ruckus or the Anarchist People of Color (APOC) network in North America?
MS: There are no specific anarchist organisations “of colour” in South Africa. Presumably such race-based organisations could emerge, if anarchists of any colour feel the necessity due to exclusion and so on. But such separatism is generally not very popular on the left, which has been largely a black and colored movement since the 1910s. White radicals on the left are a fact of political life, but these radicals are essentially immersed in a largely black and coloured milieu.
LvDW: Moreover, the ZACF tradition does not advocate separatist organising as a strategy (although obviously we defend people’s right to free association). Radical social change requires a united working class, and integrated struggles around both general issues directly and obviously relevant to all working class people, and consistent struggle against special oppressions that directly and obviously affect specific sections of the working class. Special oppressions undermine working class unity, struggle and conditions, and are thus a persistent and real threat to all working class people right now. Equally, only through class struggle can the deep roots of these oppressions in society be tackled, and only a new society can fundamentally tear these roots up. This is not a question of "class struggle now, women’s equality later" (for instance), but of "class unity through women’s equality" and "women’s freedom through class struggle" (to extend the example). Such struggle will require campaigns and activities focused on special oppression – but these would be integrated, open campaigns.
There are two things we need to distinguish here: one, the conditions in South Africa, versus those of the United States, where the groups you mention originate; and, two, the question of how questions of national or racial oppression get linked with the question of the class struggle.
On the first issue, the fact of the matter is that people of colour are well over 85 percent of the total population of South Africa; blacks alone comprise around 75 percent of the population. The social weight of the black working class – as a fighting force, as a mass movement, as the great majority – is not in question for any serious radical. In short, no attention to the black working class equals no possibility of a real anarchist movement; concomitantly, there is no possibility of a substantial, all-white, anarchist movement emerging that could exclude the racial and national issues that affect people of colour.
This is very different to the United States, where people of colour are minorities in a largely white country, with a large white working class. The motivations that led to the rise of APOC are seemingly, in large measure, a failure by whites to deal with racial and national oppression. This led some to conclude that there was a need for minorities to form separate groups in order to strengthen their voice. This step was, in short, very much tied to particular American dynamics. I am not commenting on whether it was the correct approach, merely pointing out that the political options of oppressed minorities are shaped very much by minority status. And in South Africa, the “minorities” are the Asians (mainly Indians), the Coloreds (including groups like the Griqua and Nama), and the whites.
The second issue is the question of how to engage with the national question in South Africa from an anarchist perspective. There are two basic approaches you could take, both of which have been tried at various points over the last century. One is to be, basically, colour-blind, and to stress the common experience of all workers, and therefore their need to come together against capitalism and the state. This was very much the approach of the old 1910s IWW. The other is to organise across the colour line by mobilizing amongst whites as well as people of colour around both class and national oppression. That is, to develop a programme that links class struggle and integrated class organizing through joint struggle against capitalism, the state and national oppression. This is the old ISL’s approach, and later that of WSF, BMC and ZACF.
As indicated. this tradition rejects labor aristocracy arguments, which claim that one section of the working class benefits from the oppression of other sections. Generally, this is not true: racial and gender divisions worsen the conditions of all workers and working class people. The segregationist tradition of mainstream white labor in the 1910s reflected the fact that the use of cheap, often unfree, black labor by capital was an immense threat to the living conditions of white workers.
The segregationist solution was unjust and unsustainable. In the long run, the only way out was to equalize and improve the conditions of all workers by working through joint struggle. White workers, as a minority, were able to secure their segregationist utopia for a while – the 1920s into the 1970s – but it has fallen apart now. Their future must lie in solidarity with the blacks, Coloreds and Indians. Likewise, the future of the black working class lies in class struggle against the black nationalist ANC – as much as against white capital. And globally, the future lies in establishing global unions, aglobal minimum wage, global labor standards – as part of a global struggle for change.
MS: It is possible that, should more working class and underclass whites get involved in anarchism, they may feel the need to develop race-specific organisations to deal with their specific minority circumstances. I foresee that any such move would be condemned and misunderstood both here and abroad, because of the projection of Western social norms onto Africa’s very different conditions, and because of the false assumption that white South Africans are automatically wealthy (sometimes a version of the “white privilege” argument which, as indicated, the ZACF rejects) – but I don’t expect any such development is imminent. It is also not a tactical or strategic line that the ZACF would endorse.
That said, racial divisions run very deep. Apartheid South Africa was probably the last classic colonial state in Africa, and, while the rapid emergence of a wealthy and powerful black elite, plus the advent of legal equality, has changed the social dynamics, the national question remains only partially resolved. The 1994 elections were a huge popular advance, as the WSF said. But since the transition took place within a capitalist, in fact a neo-liberal capitalist, framework, and within the framework of the state, there are many economic and social continuities.
Most members of the black, colored and Indian working class continue to live in terrible poverty, with appalling schooling, high unemployment and so on. Post-apartheid policy has worsened the situation, as free trade, privatization, deindustrialization and so on have gutted jobs. But we also cannot understand their experience without also understanding the material legacy of apartheid. Their oppression is an intertwined race/class one, and it cannot be resolved by nationalism – only by class struggle for a post-capitalist society.
And, of course, this is a breeding ground for ongoing racial tensions. For instance, the white working class has, on the whole, got poorer as its relative privileges have been eroded, but white and black workers remain, on the whole, divided by history. Bear in mind that by far the majority of white South Africans are poor: a 2009 University of South Africa study showed 1.5-million out of 4 million whites are poor, often unemployed, working class, another 1.8-million are in the better paid skilled section of the working class. Only 423,000 are middle class and only 310,000 are wealthy. Meanwhile, the number of super-rich people (people worth R200 million plus) has grown four-fold from 1994-2004, of whom around half are people of colour.
So, in terms of formal rights, the national question has been resolved for the working class; at a social and economic level, the national question (meaning here, the question of racial equality and racial divisions) remains unresolved. This is of course ideal for the ruling class, black and white, which can “play the race card” to distract people as it wishes. For instance, the ANC maintains racial classification in the supposed interests of redress via affirmative action and other preferential policies. This pits poor people against each other for a declining number of jobs – and essentially means that race-discriminatory legislation remains in place.
LvdW: This is not simply a cunning plot: the ruling class is itself divided, primarily between (mainly black) state managers and (mainly white) big business, competing for wealth and power. This is expressed by many people by the idea that "blacks have political power, but not economic; whites have economic power, but not political." Obviously this is a flawed formulation – most blacks do not have "political power," and most whites do not have "economic power" – but it does capture the key rift in the ruling elite. Overlaps between these groups, and factions within and across each one, further complicate things. But conflict in the ruling class over access to private sector wealth, between frustrated black nationalists and entrenched white capital, is certainly real.
To sum up: The national question entails the specific oppression of people on race/national lines, plus national/racial divisions in the popular classes. Obviously the first part of the national question has been partially but still incompletely resolved since 1994; the second part remains a major issue. Here, we need to distinguish between two rival class agendas on these issues. The elite agenda is to Africanise private capital, but retain capitalism and cheap black labour. The appropriate working class agenda is to resolve the national question through class struggle for social and economic equality in a new society.
Nationalism – a political project that stresses cross-class "national unity" to wield the nation-state for national liberation, which is the ANC project – currently corresponds to the first project. An alternative form of national liberation is expressed in the second: a revolutionary, class-struggle road that has its antecedents in earlier anarchist/syndicalist currents e.g. the work of Mikhail Bakunin, Ricardo Flores Magón, T.W. Thibedi, Nestor Makhno, Shin Ch’aeho, Ba Jin, James Connolly and many others. Nationalism is simply incapable of fully realizing national liberation for the working class majority – its class character and statism mean it cannot resolve the socio-economic aspect of the national question as it affects the masses.
It has often been argued that racial segregation in South Africa has only been partly overcome since the end of apartheid. Would you agree with this? What are the possibilities of anarchism to rectify the situation?
MS: This is partly true. The perhaps unintended – but inexorable – logic of the ANC’s deal-making with the white nationalists during the transition was to ingrain geographic and class apartheid. Apartheid was destroyed by a killer combination of popular insurrection, the collapse of the USSR (which funded the ANC) and the end of the Cold War (allowing a peaceful bourgeois transition in Namibia in 1989), economic crisis (worsened by sanctions, but linked to weaknesses in the local and the global economy), and, of course, the willingness of a section of the ruling white nationalists, and the black nationalists, to make a deal.
LvdW: That deal entailed maintenance of capitalism and the nation-state. This meant that the (mainly black) poor would remain outside of the wealthier areas (mainly in the old township slums). The poor would remain outside, particularly, the upper class areas (now also home to a rapidly growing black elite). The material side of the national question remained unresolved for most of the working class, alongside a ruling class based on (mainly black) state managers and (mainly white) big business. That ruling elite is itself divided, of course, in its struggle to accumulate wealth and power. The ANC is not just a neo-liberal party; it is also, as indicated above, a black nationalist party that aims to build a black elite as extensively and as rapidly as possible. And the working class, too, remains divided – as noted above.
MS: A combination of racialised political rhetoric, the ANC’s construction of new housing projects along old racial lines, the use of patronage via state tenders, and the maintenance of race classification, has only entrenched segregation. The solution, such as it is, comes in my view not from the anarchists but from society itself where a new generation of children (in many, but not all areas) go to school and grow up together, sharing experiences, establishing friendships. Of course, by our ethics we encourage such positive developments, but they grow not in the soil of anarchism per se, but in the soil of the emergent culture, our only fear being that this shared experience is too limited to the middle and upper classes and that the huge working class and underclass base of society is still deeply segregated.
Do South African anarchists today come from all the communities segregated by the former apartheid regime: white, black, coloured, and Indian/Asian?
MS: The movement has generally been a multi-racial one since the early twentieth century – and stressed a focus on the black working class majority. As with other left movements, it has a few prominent white members, but its overall orientation and social base cuts across the colour line. Outside our ranks, there are many black township youth, and some older activists, who, rightly or wrongly, consider themselves to be anarchist. Such work is extremely difficult, of course, but we have built, through our programme, our Red and Black Forums, and our reading groups for townships, a presence in the black working class.
The relationship between English- and Afrikaans-speaking whites has never been easy either. Is this something that has affected anarchist politics in South Africa? Is it of any relevance for the movement today?
MS: In my youth, relations between English- and Afrikaans-speakers were still bitter, based mainly on the Afrikaner experience of British concentration camps and scorched-earth in the 1900-1902 War.
LvdW: My own grandmother was in a concentration camp …
MS: The anarchist movement in the region is overwhelmingly English-speaking in its materials, in part because English is mostly the language of politics here – but in South Africa, Afrikaans is the third-largest language after Zulu and Xhosa, dominant in the south and east, and is spoken by far more coloured and black people than white, especially in the rural areas and the western half of the country, so eventually, as the movement grows, interactions in Afrikaans, as well as Zulu, Xhosa and Tswana will become increasingly important.
How do you see the development of South African politics since the end of Apartheid overall? What are the most pressing day-to-day struggles for anarchists?
MS: After his release 20 years ago, Nelson Mandela swore that nationalising the mines was fundamental ANC policy. Five years later, he swore that privatisation was a fundamental ANC policy. Within its first year in office, the ANC dropped its partial commitment to an interventionist, Keynesian state (expressed in the Reconstruction & Development Programme, RDP) in favor of overt neo-liberalism. In 1996, this shift was formally expressed by the adoption, under Mandela, of the neo-liberal Growth, Employment and Redistribution (GEAR) policy. This has been associated with widespread attempts to hike water prices, large-scale job losses, and the casualisation of labor. This offensive against the very people who voted for the ANC deeply shapes politics, leading to splits in the unions, and the rise of the new community movements. That, along with the ongoing national question, frame anarchist activity.
LvdW: In essence, the ANC appeals for votes from the black working class, the primary victims of its own policies, and presents itself as a principled party of the poor at the very same time as it imposes neo-liberalism and loots state coffers, emboldened by the knowledge that it party will probably be in power for quite a while to come. It plays up the national question to maintain the black vote, making political capital form its role in the 1980s struggles and in the 1990s transition.
Of course, in the past, before 1994, the ANC was a relatively progressive force – compared to the system it fought – but it is now very much part-and-parcel of South Africa’s rapacious capitalist state. Popular loyalty to the ANC is also entrenched by the perceived ANC role in the distribution of welfare grants and housing: the perception is created by ANC politicians that state welfare would be cut if it lost office. Of course, that’s not true: welfare and housing are forced upon the state by the pressure of the masses, not the kindness of the politicians. The unions are in retreat but very far from defeated, too: they have blocked large-scale privatization again and again. But perceptions, rather than facts, count – and the ANC takes credit for the very concessions it has been forced to make to the working class. It presents its own defeats as proof of its pro-poor policies! This is very important glue in the ANC edifice.
MS: South Africa has a far larger and more industrial economy, and a far more complicated political culture, than any other country on the continent. In other words, it is no Zimbabwe where one can simply play the peasants against the workers, and send in the army to strong-arm the unions and poor communities. But still, there are notable challenges: starvation and malnutrition, exceptionally high rates of violence against women and children, the heavy hand of religious superstitions of all sorts, a widespread political authoritarianism, shared by blacks and whites alike, a trade union movement caught between state co-option and weak politics, a police force accustomed to shooting first and asking questions later, a criminal justice system bought off by the elite, and widespread intolerance of dissident views. More immediate, daily challenges include dealing with ANC thugs when attempting to do constructive work in the townships, our own tiny size compared to the scale of the national race/class problem, and the sheer hunger and poverty of the people we interact with.
LvdW: Against that, of course, are alternative popular traditions: a long history of left/socialist politics (however flawed), a working class movement in the form of COSATU that is at least formally committed to abolishing capitalism and to radical democracy, a history of self-managed popular movements that (despite contradictions) stressed “people’s power” and “workers’ control,” and a distrust of state officials. So, local anarchists are not starting from scratch, nor are merely crying out in the wilderness. A lot of anarchist rhetoric – for example, on boycotting elections – has resonance.
How well are you connected to anarchists in other African countries?
MS: Communication over the vast distances of the continent is always difficult. The furthest we have physically traveled to meet with fellow anarchists on the continent is Lusaka, 26 hours by bus; that was myself back in 1998 to meet Wilstar Choongo and his young Zambian cohorts. We have also had very productive visits to our comrades in Swaziland (ZACF members) and Zimbabwe (the Toyi Toyi Artz Kollektiv). We used to have contact with the Awareness League in Nigeria, and with the Wiyathi Collective in Kenya, but those contacts have fallen quiet and we presume the organisations to be defunct. Currently, our only contact outside of southern Africa is with Brahim Fillali of Morocco, whose every initiative to establish an independent working class press or organisation is suppressed by the Moroccan state. And that’s it! If there are other groups on the continent, we are unaware of them, despite two decades of exhaustive work. We are pretty much out on a limb by ourselves down here! But it is this very isolation, on the outside looking in, so to speak, which has continually spurred us to develop a very internationalist perspective – and in fact this outsider’s perspective was valuable in spurring myself and Lucien to write the Counter-power books: Black Flame (published 2009) and Global Fire (in rewrite and peer review).
Is there a vision of a “pan-African” anarchism? What would this look like?
MS: In a way there is. The ZACF’s unofficial slogan is “For a Regional Social Revolution by a Front of Oppressed Classes” which I think expresses it quite well: that we reject the colonial boundaries of southern Africa that were imposed on us, that we believe in a socially-driven revolutionary change from below, and that the motivating force in that battle will have to be all the oppressed, united together. Thus we do not believe in a “South African” anarchism, but rather in a regional, southern African perspective, building on the challenges, heritage and linkages common to the countries of the south of the continent. We believe, not in the destruction of power (which is after all, merely the ability to do stuff), but in the revolutionary decentralisation of power by, and to, the oppressed classes. We have explored further what this might look like in a pragmatic step-by-step escalating fashion, but for security reasons I’m not going to detail our objectives.
Suffice to say that it is necessary to create a social rupture, severing the oppressed classes from the apron strings that bind them to the parasitic elites. This is what we mean by “counter-power”: the creation of parallel working class counter-culture that divorces the consciousness of the oppressed from that of the ruling class, as well as counter-institutional structures of “counter-power” by the working class and peasantry that can wield real power here and now, in the absence of, or against, as needed, state/capitalist power.
Speaking of anarchism in Africa, some people – particularly with primitivist leanings – might entertain the idea that relating to traditional forms of social organisation and subsistence economy ought to be an important part of it. Knowing your writings, we must assume that you disagree with such a perception. In Black Flame: The Revolutionary Class Politics of Anarchism and Syndicalism, anarchism is described as “a child of the eighteenth-century Enlightenment.” Can you elaborate on this?
LvdW: Anarchism arose among the trade unions of the First International. It was the creation in the 1860s/70s of working people from Russia to Uruguay, from Italy to Mexico to Egypt – people who were mostly wage labourers, in the modern economy. It was, in short, part of the socialist working class movement, and its core ideas are expressed very well by the work of Bakunin and Pyotr Kropotkin.
The notion that anarchism has always existed is a myth – a myth that the anarchists later helped construct, it is true, but for all that, a myth. The anarchist vision of progress and human control of history simply could not have existed before modernity. Modern ideas like socialism and liberalism provided the backdrop for the emergence of libertarian socialism in general, and anarchism in particular. The anarchist strategy of class struggle reflected the rise of the modern working class. The anarchist critique of society, with its rejection of hierarchy, was deeply shaped by nineteenth century developments, like the globalization of capitalism and the rise of the modern state (including modern empires and the nation-state). Anarchist ideas, strategy and critiques are indissolubly part of the modern world.
MS: Anarchism is derived from a combination of the rationalist ideas of the Enlightenment, of the nascent socialism and communism of the pan-European Revolt of 1848, of the radical unionism and working class counter-culture of the nineteenth century born in the ghettos of the Industrial Revolution, of the experiments in working class counter-power in Paris in 1871, in southern Spain in 1873 and in Macedonia in 1903. In other words, anarchism came into the world rational, revolutionary, social – and modern.
LvdW: I do not really want to grant undue influence to currents like “primitivism,” but think two points are important here. First, “primitivism” has absolutely nothing to do with anarchism. It’s an irrationalist anti-modernist Romantic movement, based on mystical reasoning and crude stereotypes of so-called “primitive” peoples. Politically, it’s reactionary to the core. I have encountered “primitivists” who have raised money for tribal chiefs in Africa to campaign against the introduction of free primary schooling by governments. This is a perfect example of its backwardness, and it’s fundamentally non-libertarian character.
Secondly, without science and modern technology, there is no prospect of sustaining the existing world population, let alone creating a more egalitarian anarchist and communist future. And without science and reason, the human mind will remain enchained in the superstitious dreams that have crippled the human personality for millennia.
In practice, of course, the “primitivists” concede all of the advantages of modernity, and thus, concede the bankruptcy of their politics: very few indeed actually live the “primitivist” lifestyles they praise on their websites, in their mass produced newspapers, and via writing, footnotes and definitions; John Zerzan does not take a canoe across the Atlantic when he wants to visit England, nor handwrite his books in a cave using plant dyes. “Primitivism” has absolutely nothing to do with anarchism, and nothing to do with any progressive, emancipatory politics.
Do you see realistic chances for anarchism to become a stronger force in African politics? What's your vision for anarchism overall?
MS: I believe (and this is not a ZACF perspective, but my own) that we will in the long term enter a dark period. We live in the world’s most unequal society and the fat-cat elite is growing nervous, realizing that it can’t ride the tiger forever. There are only two possible ultimate outcomes: 1) either the elite continue to fiddle while Rome burns, keeps drinking Chivas whiskey, keeps sending in the police to gun down the poor – so the poor rise up and take back by force what was stolen from them; or 2) the parasitic elite moves decisively in a right-populist direction, and drums up scare-stories of internal and external threats. The first option if exercised right now would lead to a stillborn revolution, given the current hold of nationalism and superstition; the second option will lead to further pogroms and war, a quasi-fascist direction.
We’ve seen the fits and starts of the first, sputtering in fires on barricades across the country; we try to help shape this into more constructive form, but we are few. We’ve also seen a section of the ANC-SACP-COSATU leadership flirt with the second, notably in the 2008 pogroms against foreigners and “outsiders” which saw 62 killed, 670 wounded, and more than 100,000 displaced.
Anarchism might gain traction as the poor lose patience with capitalism and the ANC nationalists, but rapid-growth anarchism, with shallow roots and limited understanding, can also mean weakness and ultimate defeat. Then again, as the saying goes, “under the snow, the seed,” and if history teaches us anything it is that repression not only tempers the mettle of anarchism, but spreads the ideas further abroad through a refugee diaspora, very much as the Spanish anarchist diaspora established syndicalist unions in Mexico and Venezuela and influential radical networks across much of the New World (and North Africa). So gloomy though this picture is, it is not hopeless.
LvdW: I am not in the ZACF, but nonetheless I disagree with Michael. I do not think any sort of major crisis or shift is looming. The South African state manages the working class and poor through a range of mechanisms besides repression. Welfare, municipal services and housing inculcate loyalty to the state, as do official ceremonies and a nationalist narrative that is taught at schools and through the media. The leadership of the unions – by far the largest working class formations, vastly overshadowing the new social movements – is entangled into a whole apparatus of official industrial relations and policy formulation. Many are also tied into the ANC through networks of patronage and hopes of political careers. Even the APF buys into the state, increasingly using the courts to try and accelerate the state’s “delivery” of welfare and services. The pogroms of 2008 – South Africa’s warped food riots – were centered on driving black foreigners out of low-end job markets and, just as importantly, away from access to state handouts. And a large section of the black elite is deeply tied into the state via preferential tenders and appointments.
Anarchists tend, in my view, to overstate the role of repression in keeping the system together, and to exaggerate the ruptures in society. Low-intensity repression, through harassment, intimidation, and even assassinations, is important, but only complements the “soft” controls mentioned above. So long as the state can keep funding the existing set-up, it will provide a major buffer against a serious – let alone successful – revolt by the poor, and even then, a failure will probably lead to a repeat of the 2008 pogroms, not a rising against the South African elite. Conflict in the ruling class over access to private sector wealth, between frustrated black nationalists and entrenched white capital, is a more likely cause of instability. But I doubt that this will lead to a melt-down on the Zimbabwe scale – so long as the state can keep absorbing black elite aspirations, the inexorable Africanisation of the private sector will continue to take place gradually. In short, I do not think a failed revolution, or a right-populist shift, is likely right now.
If the state enters a massive fiscal crisis, perhaps as the result of an economic implosion, however, the picture could change very rapidly. The national question could explode then in all sorts of ways – many, I agree with Michael, with a grim outcome. In the meantime, I think South Africa’s problems will be expressed in the same ways as now: high levels of violent crime (by some estimates, 18,000 murders a year), sporadic protests (infused with all sorts of ideas), and a general sense (very common in this country, and lasting for decades now) of unease, crisis and anxiety.
* Michael Schmidt and Lucien van der Walt are active in the South African anarchist movement since the late 1980s and authors of the book Black Flame: The Revolutionary Class Politics of Anarchism and Syndicalism (AK Press, 2009).