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Geopolitics of Jo’burg Protests: Independent Left beats Ruling Party


For ninety years, we’ve waited to see the combined geographical and political implications of locating an urban bantustan in a small block of land in northeast Johannesburg called Alexandra Township. Today was breakout day, with South Africa’s most militantly anti-government march since 1994 pulling at least 20,000 activists (according to even the BBC) in and out of Alexandra. They marched 10 kilometres on a sunny, hot spring day to the site of the World Summit on Sustainable Development, condemning global elites and the regime in Pretoria for unending neoliberalism.

It was an incredible day, and my main reaction is a humble sense of profound historical importance: class/community struggle has finally physically crossed the highway separating the country’s richest suburb, Sandton, from one of the poorest. For even at the mid-1980s height of revolutionary anti-apartheid fervor, the idea that tens of thousands of people could walk westward from Alexandra over the 8-lane motorway and into the den of the ultra-hedonistic bourgeoisie was considered unthinkable.

From 9 am the crowds gathered for the “United Social Movements” march. A last-minute alliance brought the Social Movements Indaba, itself comprising anti-privatisation activists and Jubilee South radical internationalists from across Southern Africa, together with the Landless People’s Movement, Via Campesina and several hundred progressive internationalists. (For background on the split in SA progressive politics, see my ZNet commentary, 28 July.) Red and green, urban and rural, local and global, autonomist and socialist mixed comfortably.

Looming on the horizon across a valley was the glistening Sandton skyline, mainly constructed during the 1990s flight of white capital from the Central Business District. The Convention Centre where 6,000 WSSD delegates were working sits next to Citibank’s Africa headquarters, in the shadow of the Michaelangelo Hotel and the opulent Sandton City skyscraper and shopping mall.

What relationship do Alexandrans have with their rich neighbours? Sandton’s financial firms, hotels and exclusive retail outlets draw in workers for long, low-paid shifts in the security, cleaning and clerical trades. Once they clock out, Alexandrans are quickly repelled from consumption due to high prices, blatant class hostility and intensive surveillance.

They return to shacks and broken sewage systems. For many tens of thousands, a single yard watertap sometimes serving 40 families in overcrowded filth. Materially, nothing much here has changed since democracy arrived 1994, aside from new but tiny houses on the township’s eastern hill, and a vicious slum-clearance and displacement programme along the filthy stream coursing through the slum.

Just as important as the symbolic route of the march were the battles of numbers and of passion: the independent left surprised itself by conclusively trumping the mass-based organisations. The “Global Civil Society Forum” supported by trade unions, churches and the ANC itself attracted only roughly 5,000 to the Alexandra soccer stadium to hear Mbeki two hours later. At stake in this contest were both prestige in South African politics and the ability of Pretoria politicians to disguise deep dissent from world leaders.

Mbeki’s attempts to manage South Africa’s–and the world’s–socio-economic contradictions were for naught today. The SA NGO Coalition of 3,000 member organisations had pulled out the day before, claiming the ANC was manipulating the gathering. Fewer than 1,000 Civil Society Forum marchers left the stadium for the long trek to Sandton, and many of these (especially Palestinians) had been locked in earlier when they tried to exit, as the larger march passed nearby.

In a township which had been relatively unorganised, due to myriad splits in community politics over the past decade, the attraction of Alexandrans to the United Social Movements instead of the pro-government group was revealing. The Social Movements Indaba had claimed the week before, “We will take Sandton!”–but in some ways the prior question was, who would win the hearts and minds of Alexandra?

Yesterday, on the eve of the big march, Mbeki’s triumphant weekly public column in the e-zine ANC Today (http://www.anc.org.za) including the following tortured prose:

“So great is the divide that even as many are battling in the WSSD negotiations for a meaningful outcome that will benefit the billions of poor people in our country, Africa and the rest of the world, there are others, who claim to represent the same masses, who say they have taken it upon themselves to act in a manner that will ensure the collapse of the Summit.

“These do not want any discussion and negotiations. For this reason, they have decided to oppose and defeat the UN, all the governments of the world, the inter-governmental organisations, the major organisations of civil society participating in the Summit and the world of business, all of which are engaged in processes not different from those that take place regularly in our statutory four-chamber NEDLAC, which includes government, business, labour and non-governmental organisations.

“Those who hold these views, which they regularly express freely in our country, without any hindrance, also have their own economic views. As with all other ideas and views about the central question of the future of human society, we have to consider and respond to them rationally, whatever is happening in the streets of Johannesburg, for the benefit of the global mass media.”

With more than twenty times as many people on the United Social Movements march, and with a mostly empty stadium as his audience today, Mbeki must have cringed. His top political fixer, minister in the presidency Essop Pahad, had done his damndest to limit the damage but, responding irrationally, only compounded it.

Ironically, the “benefit of the global mass media” was indeed a factor, but on the United Social Movements’ side. International attention was partly responsible for the public pressure required to even gain police permission for the protest march.

To illustrate the darker side of Mbeki’s paranoia, the previous weekend, outside the main entrance to my university (Witwatersrand), a phalanx of riot police blocked a peaceful march of roughly 700 people carrying nothing more provocative than candles. We had been conferencing all day with the International Forum on Globalization (http://www.ifg.org), when at sunset, Soweto leader Trevor Ngwane informed the gathering that Social Movements Indaba activists wanted to march in solidarity with hundreds of people who had recently been arrested by police in pre-WSSD intimidation raids (http://southafrica.indymedia.org).

The crowd grabbed candles and followed, with the IFG intellectuals’ blessing. Within 200 metres of leaving the academic setting, we were ambushed and dispersed by eight stun grenades. Vandana Shiva, Maude Barlow, Tony Clarke, Naomi Klein and many other luminaries were on the front line, dodging the police attack. After a regroupment, we retreated when vans emerged for a mass arrest, something the social movements could not then afford.

Yesterday morning’s Mail and Guardian newspaper carried an unprecedented semi-apology from the South African National Intelligence Agency for police “overreaction,” but enormous damage to Mbeki’s self-declared status as a democrat was done. BBC and other outlets ran the story as lead last Sunday.

Notably, activists from the Ontario Coalition Against Poverty demonstrated at the SA consulate in Toronto on Wednesday in solidarity with the campaign for basic SA freedoms. Finally, late in the week, after labour leaders intervened with authorities, today’s march was granted the permission that Pretoria had wanted to continue denying. Mbeki’s heavily-armed security apparatus was now tranquilised.

The same could not be said for Pahad, the former editor of the Eastern European World Marxist Review. When early in the week it appeared that media sympathy had swung to leading activists Ngwane and Dennis Brutus, Pahad wrote a telling letter to the country’s largest newspaper, the Sowetan, ending in these lines:

“Brutus disappeared without trace from the anti-apartheid struggle many years before 1994, and re-emerged in the last few years to hurl invective at the democratic government and programmes for Africa’s recovery. However, to the extent that on some issues such as eradicating global inequality, we may agree, perhaps there is hope for co-operation. Welcome home Dennis the Menace!

“Hope this time you will stay, the better to appreciate that we cannot not allow our modest achievements to be wrecked through anarchy. Opponents of democracy seek such destruction. But if you intend once more to leave for demonstrations elsewhere, we can only retort: et tu Brute! Good luck.”

No doubt to Pahad’s regret, the spirit of demonstrations elsewhere–Seattle, Washington, Prague, Quebec City, Genoa, New York–that Brutus has graced came home with him today, as the 78 year old former Robben Island prisoner welcomed more than mere traces of anti-global-apartheid activism to the WSSD protest.

Though no one else from the global movement aside from Brutus spoke at the United Social Movements’ final rally, they didn’t need to. The voices Dennis has unleashed here now sing cheeky songs about global capitalism, the World Bank, IMF and WTO, and US imperialism that would warn any radical internationalist heart.

When at 4 pm Pahad appeared at the rally to receive a memorandum addressed solely to Mbeki (no substitutes allowed), community activist Virginia Setshedi drew him onto the stage and asked the crowd, “Do we want to hear from comrade Pahad?” The response: “Phansi!” (Down! Away!). (I didn’t see Brutus’ face as Pahad was roughly turned away, but I can imagine the satisfaction.)

By no means, however, was this new alliance of left social movements without its own internal contradictions. As the final rally opened, a spokesperson from the landless movement intoned “Viva Robert Mugabe, Viva!–Viva ZanuPF, Viva!”, to strong applause from the large rural delegation.

The talented South African landless leaders had attracted thousands from across the country. They creatively transformed their convergence centre from an abandoned, surreal 1960s entertainment centre near Soweto to a site where debates raged and where, in small workshops for rural folk, excellent local educators joined international analysts like Berkeley geographer Gillian Hart (author of the amazing new book “Disabling Globalisation”).

However, the landless gathering was full of promise but also pitfalls, as witnessed in the movement’s positive reaction to Mugabe’s invitation for a welcome to the Johannesburg airport this afternoon in advance of the heads of state meeting beginning tomorrow.

Ngwane took the microphone soon after the Zimbabwean ruler’s name was uttered: “While we are happy to have unity with the landless, we respectfully disagree on the matter of Mugabe. He is a dictator and he has killed many Zimbabweans.” Roars of approval followed from, amongst others, the Zimbabwe Coalition on Debt and Development which had travelled a full day by bus to attend.

Ironically, at the same time, the ANC was reeling from universal criticism in a backlash over use of the word “Zanufication.” Earlier in the year, Communist Party deputy leader Jeremy Cronin had responded to leftist criticism by Canadian academic John Saul in Monthly Review magazine by conceding, in an obscure web interview, that the ruling party leadership suffered authoritarian Mugabe-style tendencies that included silencing genuine left critiques (http://www.comms.dcu.ie/sheehanh/sheehan.htm).

Actually, Cronin’s interview was a sleight-of-hand defense of locating political work within the ANC. But his internal detractors accused him of treason, played the race card, and demanded that he either apologise or be expelled. Shamefully, caricaturing 1930s show trials, Cronin said sorry unreservedly. His admirers were even more sorry, for this was self-delegitimisation of the most humiliating kind.

Likewise, the failure of the liberation movement’s left flank in the SACP and Congress of SA Trade Unions to anticipate and outrun the new social movements’ radicalism is, now, codified in our unforgettable memories of today’s event. “The new movements have arrived,” Ngwane announced, and everyone knew it was true and real.

The elites watching from the surrounding Sandton skyscrapers are hereby warned. When they fail this week to do any WSSD deals of import to the planet or the people, it will merely confirm the infamy of the name Johannesburg amongst environmentalists and progressives. But the names Alexandra and Sandton today have an entirely different twang, for the proud marchers who broke through really formidable barriers, into this country’s rich leftist history and future.

(Patrick Bond teaches at Wits University and is author of “Unsustainable South Africa: Environment, Development and Social Protest,” available at http://www.unpress.co.za and through Merlin Press, London and Africa World Press, Trenton.)

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