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Anti-(sub)imperial Solidarity: The Case Of SA-Zimbabwe


Last month (April 15), David Moore and I wrote in ZNet about Zimbabwe’s March 31 election scam. On May 22, Johannesburg’s Sunday Independent newspaper reported on a leaked copy of an official – and thoroughly ludicrous – South African mission covering the same event: ‘In a startling recommendation on how to improve its future polls, parliament’s observer mission to Zimbabwe’s recent election has cautioned the country to use indelible ink more economically. Even more baffling is the fact that it is one of only two recommendations, indicating that the predominantly African National Congress team could find almost no fault with the controversial 2005 election which gave the ruling Zanu PF a two-thirds majority.’

As a result, anyone in this country with democratic, progressive instincts now comprehends the exhausted-nationalist cronyism that links the ANC and Zanu PF. As explained by veteran journalist Wilf Mbanga in The Zimbabwean on May 20, ‘While President Thabo Mbeki of South Africa’s overt support for President Robert Mugabe and his tyrannical, corrupt regime in Zimbabwe merely serves to make Mugabe more intransigent, it is having a profound effect on the fundamental fabric of the nation. While the world is confused by all the politicking – endlessly debating Mbeki’s possible motives and employing futile isolationist tactics against the Mugabe regime – a quiet, but significant, transfer of ownership is taking place under our very noses.’

The isolationist tactics are ‘futile’ because Mugabe has every confidence Mbeki will protect him, the way the apartheid regime protected the illegal Rhodesian regime of Ian Smith until the late 1970s. For Mbanga, the emerging problem is ‘transfer of ownership of the lion’s share of a once-vibrant, resilient and diverse manufacturing industry to South African business interests.’ (Johannesburg activist Dale McKinley has also written of this threat, last year in the Review of African Political Economy.)

Apparently, Mbanga continues, the Zimbabwe Electricity Supply Authority ‘is paying the South African power utility Eskom for electricity in gold bars. Land, mines, shareholding in financial institutions, ivory and tobacco are just a few of the innovative ways in which the Government of Zimbabwe has paid its foreign debts recently.’

As a result of the political relationship between Pretoria and Harare, and the subimperial agenda of South Africa’s politicians and Johannesburg business elite, it is urgent now to establish bottom-up countervailing popular solidarity strategies and tactics.

The outpouring of South African civil society concern over Zimbabwe – as witnessed in numerous election-related protests – must be maintained throughout the very difficult period immediately ahead. The Congress of SA Trade Union’s relationship with the Zimbabwe Congress of Trade Unions is one indicator of durable solidarity, but I don’t think it emerged from or resulted in the strategic clarity that is now required.

Aside from the moral obligations, solidarity is also crucial because many features of Zimbabwe’s crisis represent problems that South Africans are beginning to face, or will face – as the fabled ‘Zanufication’ process unfolds. As some have said, if Zimbabwe is the preview, South Africa is the full-length feature movie.

For example, consider Pretoria’s response to local civil society in late April, when Earthlife Africa embarrassed the ANC government just as the United Nations Environmental Program was – against all evidence to the contrary – conferring the ‘Champion of the Earth’ award on Mbeki and the South African society. As a series of nuclear radiation controversies suddenly emerged, Mbeki termed Earthlife’s activism ‘reckless’, ‘without foundation’ and ‘totally impermissible’, and a new ‘anti-incitement’ law was threatened to punish Earthlife and similar groups: déjà vu for those familiar with former Zanu PF spindoctor Jonathan Moyo’s rhetoric. Yet the illegal dumping site exposed near Pelindaba, just west of Pretoria, was quickly fenced off by the National Nuclear Regulator, vindicating the NGO’s critique.

Zimbabweans have a great deal to teach South Africans about the way a sometimes paranoid government, often unable to deliver the goods, increasingly turns to repression. Over the past few weeks, riots and mass marches by low-income urban residents broke out in the townships of Durban, Port Elizabeth and Harare, and anti-privatization activists from Soweto picketed the head office of Johannesburg Water, a company linked to the notorious Paris multinational Suez, in a coordinated global campaign to protest that firm’s brutal treatment of poor people.

Why is this unsurprising? In both countries, economic austerity and municipal services commodification coexist with patronage-oriented state practices. Hence demands made by the community organizations in South Africa and Zimbabwe are strikingly similar.

Consider a communiqué by the Combined Harare Residents’ Assocation (CHRA) on May 20: ‘We want water in our taps, our children in schools, medicines in our hospitals. Most of all we want a future for ourselves and our children. Zanu PF can offer none of these things. Having stolen a third election, this regime can do nothing but preside over the empty carcass of the country it has ruined, fighting over its bones and sucking the very marrow dry.’

The CHRA’s militancy is autonomist in tone (if not, yet, accomplishments): ‘Citizens must create their own liberated zones, both inside their minds and on the ground. Residents must come together to create collective community initiatives around food, health, education and other areas that reject the Zanu PF totalitarian vision. Yet again, CHRA calls for an end to dictatorial and imposed Commissions; the restoration of our democratic rights; dialogue between genuinely elected representatives and citizens. Reject the fascist actions of the oppressive regime! No Taxation Without Representation! Boycott all Council charges until municipal elections!’

Likewise, the response by police on both sides of the Limpopo River is identical: banning of marches and undue use of force. Hence Zimbabwean and South African progressive movements are potentially united in the struggle for justice, for a decent post-nationalist and post-neoliberal society.

Still, the tradition of nationalism provides lessons on popular mobilization which we have not yet taken sufficiently seriously. Hark back to the mid-1960s, when ANC leader Albert Luthuli and Martin Luther King Jr. issued calls for sanctions against apartheid, which in turn were debated for twenty years as the exiled ANC aligned itself with internal civil society. Are we anywhere near the point that sufficient consultation with Zim-SA solidarity forces might result in a coherent strategy or even a coordinated call for the specific pressure required to weaken Mugabe’s dictatorship in this manner?

For the ANC, sanctions and other forms of international anti-apartheid activism were part of a multifaceted approach. Apart from the 1988 Cuban victory over the SA Defense Force in Angola, the key battles to end apartheid were fought internally, by civil society organized mainly through the United Democratic Front, and from outside, by dedicated sanctions activists putting pressure especially on major banks during the mid-1980s, at the crucial moment of regime vulnerability.

The challenge is for activists to improve coordination between the internal and external forces for social change, and in doing so, how to establish clearer options for strategy and tactics. To that end, South African and Zimbabwean solidarity activists need to pose and answer these sorts of questions:

* what is the history of discussions about international alliances, and especially SA-Zim solidarity, in your organisation/movement?

* what are your views on: i) passive sanctions against the Mugabe regime (especially the ongoing international credit and hard-currency boycott); ii) smart sanctions against Mugabe and his cronies; iii) stronger sanctions with a more surgical orientation, against particular sectors/state agencies/businesses, or even against individuals with influence in the ruling party iv) blanket sanctions of the kind the ANC called for against apartheid; v) support for any other activity to put pressure on the Zim government; vi) activity to put pressure on the Mbeki government to in turn pressure the Zim government; vii) activity pursued by trade unions and other activists in the run up to the 31 March election?

Questions of this kind need more widespread discussion especially among progressives in Zimbabwe, where signals have been weak or nonexistent: not just in the democracy, church, human rights and labor communities, but also in the Zimbabwe Social Forum and so many other sites where exploitation and repression are being met with organized resistance.

Following the example of the SA United Democratic Front’s endorsement of apartheid-era sanctions, the specific answers that will be most convincing, will come with formal mandates by Zimbabwe’s democratic organizations.

By way of comparison, progressive South African solidarity movements with Burmese and Palestinian democrats are actively promoting sanctions, especially because Pretoria is giving each target government – ‘Myanmar’ and Israel – with unjustifiable, substantial legitimacy. In these cases, the mass democratic organizations have explicitly asked for sanctions, a model of solidarity that might work for Zimbabwe (and perhaps Swaziland as well).

For our purposes, though, another question must be raised: how might official South African condemnation of oppression in Zimbabwe – as so often requested by Zimbabwean democrats – actually be manifested?

If this is not thought through carefully, the most likely outcome will have subimperialist overtones, by which Mbeki constructs an elite pact – as is being attempted across Africa, from Liberia and the Cote D’Ivoire to the DRC, Burundi and Sudan – which leaves intact structural contradictions that in turn undermine the pact and invite a new round of state repression against the masses.

In the process, if and when Eskom takes over Zimbabwe’s electricity supply, for example, it will be tempted to raise the price of rural electricity by a factor of roughly 20 times, to correspond with the overpriced power that the Johannesburg parastatal charges low-income rural South Africans.

Likewise, if and when World Bank and IMF lending teams are brought back to Harare airport one day by SA finance minister Trevor Manuel, the debt repayments on arrears accumulated since 1999 will evaporate any economic peace dividend that might otherwise be expected. (Last month in Washington, Manuel labeled incoming Bank president Paul Wolfowitz – architect of the Iraq war and US oil-looting spree – a ‘wonderful individual, perfectly capable’.)

Consider a warning by Zimbabwean political economist Godrey Kanyenze provided on May 13 at a Centre for Economic Justice-Southern Africa conference in Johannesburg: ‘The political-economic crisis is emanating from the failure of neoliberal policies, and yet it has been reduced in liberal interpretations merely to human rights. That is very dangerous, because we might end up in the Chiluba mode [the anti-worker post-nationalist experience in Zambia].’

Kanyenze continues, ‘It’s very easy [for liberals] to sell the idea that the only problem with structural adjustment was bad implementation by Mugabe, and that the World Bank will save us. Our job is to be more ideologically clear. We are organising economic literacy programmes across the country, and especially through the Zimbabwe Social Forum. That way we can all act together as a countervailing force against neoliberalism.’

This sounds familiar. Since Zimbabwe is further along the learning curve than South Africa and is not beset by the SA split between trade unions and the independent-left social movements, the need to learn lessons about the post-independence trajectory are especially crucial.

And since subimperialism is still the core process within the New Partnership for Africa’s Development – specifically, in ignoring good governance promises, collaborating with the US on geopolitics, lubricating Johannesburg/London capital, and relegitimising the World Bank and IMF – the need for regional solidarity by progressives has never been greater.

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(Patrick Bond and Dennis Brutus will be launching new books and addressing the topic ‘Imperialism, subimperialism and popular resistance’ at NY’s Brecht Forum – 451 West St – on May 23, 7-9pm. Join us.)

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