The late poet-activist Dennis Brutus occasionally used ‘Seattle’, the name of a city in the northwestern United States, as a verb. We should ‘seattle Copenhagen’, he said in late 2009, to prevent the North from doing a climate deal in their interests, against Africa’s.
The point was to communicate his joy that in December 1999, the efforts of tens of thousands of civil society protesters outside the Seattle convention centre and a handful of patriotic African negotiators inside together scuppered the Millennium Round meeting of a stubborn ruling crew: the World Trade Organisation. Their pro-corporate free-trade agenda never recovered.
Although a decade later Brutus died, his verb-play signalling a democratic society rising against tyranny lives on if we consider the shaken ruling crews of Libya, Iraq, Zimbabwe and Durban, each a product of scandal-ridden crony capitalism, and each impervious to popular demands that they quit before the prosecutors catch up. After Tunisia and Egypt, where Ben Ali and Hosni Mubarak lost power in recent weeks, a growing cohort of now fragile dictatorships are experiencing a dose of ‘mubaraking’ by hordes of non-violent democrats.
Libya is the ripest regime to fall, but London’s generous military aid and the support of politicians like former Prime Minister Tony Blair, oil company BP, arms-deal facilitator Prince Andrew and London School of Economics (LSE) intellectuals seem to have emboldened Muammar Gaddafi and his family, leaving open the question of how many more hundreds – or thousands – the lunatic will kill on his way down.
Gaddafi may try to hang on, with his small band of loyalists allegedly bolstered by sub-Saharan African mercenaries – potentially including Zimbabweans, according to Harare media – helping Gaddafi for a $16,000 payoff each. After Gaddafi zigzagged to a pro-Western stance in 2004 by demobilizing weapons of mass destruction in exchange for closure on the PanAm 007 airline bombing and subsequent sanctions, some millions of the family’s ill-gotten wealth were showered on the academic crowd most favoured by Blair.
Blair’s ‘Third Way’ political advisor, former London School of Economics Director Lord Anthony Giddens, visited the Libyan dictator in 2007, pronouncing, “As one-party states go, Libya is not especially repressive. Gaddafi seems genuinely popular… Will real progress be possible only when Gaddafi leaves the scene? I tend to think the opposite. If he is sincere in wanting change, as I think he is, he could play a role in muting conflict that might otherwise arise as modernisation takes hold.”
To help ‘mute conflict’, as Giddens might have it, British weaponry is mainly being deployed against Libyans in the capital Tripoli, for Gaddafi’s army seems to have defected nearly everywhere else. Muammar’s second oldest son (and most likely successor) Saif al-Gaddafi – who last week vowed to “fight to the last minute, until the last bullet” – was awarded a doctoral degree from the LSE and his foundation then gave £1.5 million to its Centre for Global Governance.
The Centre’s money-blinded director, Professor David Held, remarked at the time: “It is a generous donation from an NGO committed to the promotion of civil society and the development of democracy.”
But to clear-sighted LSE students, that funding “was not obtained through legitimate enterprise but rather through 42 years of shameless exploitation and brutal oppression of the Libyan people,” as one put it, and so a sit-in ensued last week to demand that Held transfer the funding back to assist Gaddafi’s victims.
So far Held has only agreed to halt the North African reform research underway with the Gaddafi money, not return it, and last week, his lame excuses for the murderous Saif sickened former admirers (myself included).
In the same spirit, several African civil society organizations and Archibishop Emeritus Desmond Tutu insisted on Friday that the African Union (AU) act against Gaddafi, on grounds that “Article 3 of the Constitutive Act of the AU lists the promotion of peace, security and stability on the continent as one of its key objectives. Despite this, the AU and African governments have been slow to react.”
Sorry, don’t expect peace promotion from Pretoria. Late last year, the Chair of South Africa’s National Conventional Arms Control Committee, Justice Minister Jeff Radebe, approved the sale of 100 South African sniper rifles and more than 50 000 rounds of ammunition to Gaddafi. Any references to human rights in the Committee’s deliberations are already considered a joke, but Radebe may now have some serious bloodstains on his reputation.
The civil society statement continued: “The three African countries that sit on the UN Security Council – South Africa, Nigeria and Gabon – as representatives of the continent have a special responsibility to ensure that the people of Libya are protected from grave human rights violations constituting crimes against humanity.” But all three also have substantial popular uprisings underway internally.
Looking eastward from Libya to Iraq, the US-installed government of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki was protested by tens of thousands on Friday, a so-called ‘Day of Rage.’
According to Washington Post reporters, state security forces opened fire, killing 29 and arresting “300 prominent journalists, artists and lawyers who took part in nationwide demonstrations, in what some of them described as an operation to intimidate Baghdad intellectuals who hold sway over popular opinion.”
The Iraqis were “handcuffed, blindfolded, beaten and threatened with execution by soldiers from an army intelligence unit.”
Iraqi protester demands “ranged from more electricity and jobs to ending corruption, reflecting a dissatisfaction with government that cuts across sectarian and class lines,” according to the Post. The day was “organized, at least in part, by middle-class, secular intellectuals,” against whom Maliki’s troops “fired water cannons, sound bombs and live bullets to disperse crowds.” Shades of Saddam.
Moving south and west, other democracy protests were waged in recent days by tens of thousands of activists in Gabon, Oman, Djibouti and Sudan, where on January 30, “students held Egypt-inspired demonstrations against proposed cuts to subsidies on petroleum products and sugar,” according to a Durban journalist serving al-Jazeera News’ courageous service, Azad Essa. In Ethiopia, Essa reports, police “detained the well-known journalist Eskinder Nega for ‘attempts to incite’ Egypt-style protests.”
Even harsher treatment was meted out by Robert Mugabe’s police to 46 Zimbabweans led by former Member of Parliament Munyaradzi Gwisai. The group was charged with ‘high treason’ (punishable by death) for showing news clips of Egyptian and Tunisian protests at a February 19 meeting of the International Socialist Organisation.
As ten of the group were apparently tortured by Mugabe’s police and the dozen women arrested were transferred to the notorious Chikurubi maximum security prison, demands for their release grew louder, with South Africans chiming in at a Hillbrow, Johannesburg picket last Saturday.
At home, brave Zimbabweans’ support will emerge more publicly on Tuesday at noon, when democracy activists gather in Harare Gardens to demand the prisoners’ release, Mugabe’s resignation, freedom of speech, freedom of assembly, press freedom, fair elections and an end to the Zanu PF regime’s political violence which is currently resurgent in several hotspots from Mutare in the east to Harare to Gwanda in the west.
But Mugabe wants to hasten the same kind of unfree, unfair elections he has been ‘winning’ over the last decade, and has apparently amassed a war chest through illicit diamond sales to once again dominate the campaign. Last Tuesday, Finance Minister Tendai Biti from the opposition Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) confronted Mugabe over the diversion of $300 million in revenues from the Marange diamond field, site of hundreds of civilian deaths by the armed forces a few years ago.
The Kimberley Process to identify ‘blood diamonds’ remains chaotic and corrupt, as self-interested South Africans and Israelis support diamond exports controlled by Mugabe’s generals. Reports Harare journalist Dumisani Muleya, “There are fears that the $300 million has either been stolen or was being kept secretly somewhere by Zanu PF ministers as a war chest for anticipated elections.”
Rebutting wildly, Mugabe’s ally and chair of the Zimbabwe Mining Development Corporation, Godwills Masimirembwa, claimed (without proof) that Biti had indeed collected the funds but would not pay civil servants a promised raise, in order to prompt an “insurrection so that we have another Egypt or Tunisia in Zimbabwe.”
Amnesty International representative Simeon Mawanza blames South African President Jacob Zuma and other regional leaders: “Their silence might be interpreted as being complicit in what we are seeing.”
Hopewell Gumbo, who contributed enormously to one of our Centre for Civil Society political economy programmes, was one of the activists tortured last week. He was recently quoted on the radio: “I personally work for an organization that has started an initiative with the rural cotton farmers, in terms of pricing of their commodities, that kind of strategy goes above political differences because when Zanu PF and MDC farmers meet they realize their problems are common and political issues can only divide them at the end of the day.”
More international solidarity for oppressed Zimbabweans is urgently needed, and from 12:30-2pm on Tuesday in Durban, refugees Shepherd Zvavanhu and Percy Nhau lead a Centre for Civil Society public discussion on the situation in UKZN’s Memorial Tower Building, and at 5:30pm in Washington DC, a pro-democracy demonstration will be held at Zimbabwe’s embassy on New Hampshire Ave near DuPont Circle.
Back home in Durban, City Manager Michael Sutcliffe’s regime appeared terminally wounded when his protector, provincial African National Congress chairperson John Mchunu, died late last year. The neoliberal-nationalist municipal order is now in much greater danger because in recent days, the figurehead Mayor, Obed Mlaba, broke with Sutcliffe and his officials over a $500 million fast-track spending scandal. The ruling party seems to be backing Mlaba.
Sutcliffe has repeatedly defended corrupt municipal deals with the Mpisane family on ill-constructed black township housing and Remant Alton on the failed privatization of municipal buses. Sutcliffe is widely disliked because of autocratic tendencies, including the repeated banning of protest marches, a factor that community and environmental activists are factoring into considerations for the November-December 2011 world climate summit.
The mubaraking of Libya’s Muammar, Iraq’s Maliki, Zimbabwe’s Mugabe and Durban’s Michael is long overdue. But revolt is just as necessary in the country that long propped up so many dictatorships, the United States.
On Saturday, all fifty US state capitals witnessed demonstrations held in solidarity with public sector workers in Wisconsin who are under attack by a hardline conservative governor. Even in the frigid weather and snow of the Wisconsin capital Madison, 70,000 people marched against the Republican leader’s attempt to end collective bargaining, in what is probably the most important US class struggle since the 1930s.
Revolution is still in the air and throughout, the most visionary television network has been al-Jazeera. Its director general Wadah Khanfar had an easy explanation for the network’s repeated scoops: “When opinions crowd and confusion prevails, set your sight on the route taken by the masses, for that is where the future lies.”
(Patrick Bond is co-editor of the new Africa World Press book Zuma’s Own Goal.)