Frances Piven and Richard Cloward (1977) once wrote that when poor people’s movements go against the doctrine of those who regard themselves as the intellectual revolutionary vanguard, the movements are often derided and dismissed. History is full of examples in which movements were dismissed for either being too “nationalistic” or for “lacking class consciousness”. For instance, although the Black Consciousness Movement (BCM) is now regarded as one of the political movements that played a significant role in the fight against the apartheid regime, it was once accused of being manipulated by the CIA. The Unity Movement, a defunct political organisation that also fought against the apartheid regime, characterised the BCM as an “American implantation, class-based and manipulated by the CIA” (Chisholm 1991).
In differing degrees, post-apartheid social movements have learnt that disagreeing with those who see themselves as the intellectual revolutionary vanguard comes at a high cost. Owing to the legacy of the apartheid system, the intellectual revolutionary vanguard in South Africa tends to be educated middle class white activists who research and write about social movements for journals. In the academic/intellectual circles, it is this intellectual revolutionary vanguard that sets the tone and the perimeters of the debate regarding social movements in post-apartheid South Africa. Black intellectuals such as Buntu Siwisa (2008) refer to these middle class white activists as “city-based intellectual-cum-activists”. Siwisa further notes that these “city-based intellectual-cum-activists” are characterised by the fact that they are university educated and have secure employment, while grassroots based black activists are uneducated and are often unemployed.
Recently, poor black activists in South Africa have found themselves the target of a nasty campaign that is led by Heinrich Bohmke—one of the “city-based intellectual-cum-activists” that Siwisa wrote about in his article, which is entitled: “Crowd Renting or Struggling from Below? The Concerned Citizens’ Forum in Mpumalanga Township, Durban, 1999–2005”. According to Siwisa (2008), Heinrich Bohmke was once the “legal adviser” and one of the “prominent organisers” of the now defunct Durban-based social movement, Concerned Citizens Forum (CCF).
These days Bohmke sings a different tune however. He is of the view that “Social Movements are Dead”. Through his blog, Dispositions: http://dispositionsjournal.blogspot.co.nz/, Bohmke has unleashed a series of hostile and destructive attacks on poor people’s movement. Bohmke’s contempt for black leadership is unmatched. For example, he argues that S’bu Zikode of Abahlali baseMjondolo (AbM) is intellectually incapable of discussing Frantz Fanon without the help of a white mentor. In his own words Bohmke writes that:
“When we read Abahlali statements and speeches by Sbu Zikode it is Pithouse's [a white academic] take on Fanon not Zikode's that is found, word for word.”
“For a painful example of this, view Sbu Zikode's interview outside
a Fanon lecture, hosted by the Church Land Programme, on “Why is Fanon
Relevant Today …. Although he treads water fairly well, Zikode is plainly out of
his depth and the platitudes about Fanon could apply to any human rights activist.”
In the same article, which is entitled “Ventriloquism, Fanon and the Social Movement Hustle”, Bohmke attacks another poor people’s movement—the Unemployed People Movement (UPM). He mocks and ridicules the movement saying that:
“UPM hands do not hold the pen. Kota [Ayanda Kota is the leader of the UPM] and Co. supply the raw data but the narrative into which 'the more important' parts are inserted is supplied by an outside mentor. It is both above and beneath individual UPM members to write what appears in Inboxes the world over.”
Bohmke then zooms in on Ayanda Kota. Quoting an anonymous source, he writes that:
“An academic who shared a platform with Kota remembers him struggling through a speech on Fanon. ‘It was painful’, he says, ‘you could see he did not write the speech’.”
One of the most enduring racist stereotypes is the belief that blacks are incapable of cerebral functioning (Wright 1997). Thus Bohmke finds it easy to portray black leaders of post-apartheid social movements as morons. As far as Bohmke is concerned, black leadership of social movements imitate whites when they engage in intellectual debates, and additionally, black leaders need white help to talk about Frantz Fanon.
Bohmke further accuses the black leadership of post-apartheid social movements of being dishonest, labelling them hustlers who enjoy the benefits that come with the status of being leaders of social movement.
“The black man, a bit of a hustler, who can blame him, an activist too, thinks that
he can pull the strings. There are the airfares, the money from the NGO's, the
sense of grandeur. But he is ensnared. The strings tighten, the dependence
increases, room for maneuver less so. He must perform. Give township tours to
researchers from overseas. Denounce the bad white rival of his mentor. Keep a
semblance of an organization going.”
When the AbM refuses to work with the Centre for Civil Society in Durban, Bohmke writes that the poor people’s movement is used as a “stalking horse” by a certain white academic to fight his own academic battles. I quote Bohmke:
“And then being the stalking horse for a silly and unsustainable boycott of the Centre for Civil Society, where one of its mentors worked and had to leave under a cloud of allegation by women colleagues, not political persecution, at the exact time Abahlali's boycott began.”
The underlying message being that poor black people are simply incapable of reaching their own conclusions. Bohmke has an annoying tendency to portray poor black people as lacking initiative and without agency.
Writing disparagingly about poor people’s efforts to organise themselves, Bohmke accuses the AbM of being a brand and of being a “liberal NGO”.
“The brand representation of Abahlali is of an organization with strong anarchist tendencies; it is resolutely democratic, militant, massive, vibrant and radically autonomous of the state. It is an organization with chic aesthetic affinities, theoretical inclinations towards Badiou, Fanon and Engels…”
The AbM is a movement of the poor for the poor. Contrary to Bohmke’s claims, the AbM is neither a brand nor a liberal NGO. I quote the AbM:
“We have thought for ourselves, discussed all the important issues for ourselves and taken decisions for ourselves on all the important issues that affect us. We have demanded that the state includes us in society and gives us what we need to have for a dignified and safe life. We have also done what we can to make our communities better places for human beings. We have run crèches, organised clean up campaigns, connected people to water and to electricity, tried to make our communities safe and worked very hard to unite people across all divisions. We have faced many challenges but we have always worked to ensure that in all of this work we treat one another with respect and dignity.”
The AbM is made up of poor people; people who were impoverished by the apartheid regime. These are people who unlike Bohmke were deprived of life opportunities simply because they are black. These are people who have the humility to give speeches in their second or third language (i.e. English) in order to share their experiences with the outside world.
Blinded by his cultural chauvinism, Bohmke demeans the efforts of these poor people by portraying them as imbeciles who go around imitating their white mentors. I quote Bohmke: “When people interview the leader they appreciate his obvious qualities but also know full well that the speeches and articles are not his work.”
Bohmke has also accused the AbM of having “dubious allies”. According to Bohmke,
“Abahlali is affiliated with the Informal Settlement Network launched in May 2009. The Informal Settlement Network (ISN) ‘is an alliance of settlement-level and national-level organizations of informal settlement dwellers in South Africa’…. The ISN is supported by the Community Organisation Resource Centre (CORC) based in Cape Town and the transnational Shack / Slum Dwellers International (SDI) based in the United States.”
The AbM has stated on record that as a matter of fact, “we have never joined the ISN and we are not even aware of their programmes and projects.” According to the AbM, Bohmke is a “liar”. The UPM calls Bohmke “the notorious slanderer”.
Among other things, white privilege protects Bohmke from being seriously questioned and exposed for what he is—a bigot on the loose. In a country like South Africa where the colonial legacy still affects every single aspect of people’s social life, a white person’s word carries a lot of weight. It is against this backdrop that even the most unreconstructed colonial creature and, an out-and-out racist like R.W. Johnson can still be accorded intellectual respect and have their racist work circulated in civil society internet forums. In 2010, over 30 academics from around the world wrote to the London Review of Books (LRB) objecting to the continued publication of RW Johnson’s racist rants and ravings. In their letter, these academics noted that “we find it baffling therefore that you continue to publish work by RW Johnson that, in our opinion, is often stacked with the superficial and the racist.”
To understand how voices such as RW Johnson are continuously given space to air their white supremacist myths, one has to keep in mind that, among other things, the white supremacist system gives authority and legitimacy to white voices that would be regarded as unmitigated racist ravings in an egalitarian society. What the system aims to achieve is to prevent understanding, while, simultaneously, reinforcing white supremacist points of view.
That system makes it easy for poor blacks to be accused of being dishonest, corrupt and hustlers. In such a context, “all kinds of allegations can be levelled against you without any proof being offered to support them and many people will believe them. It can be said that you are undemocratic, that you are corrupt, that you cannot think and speak for yourself and worse,” according to the UPM.
The UPM also points out the dangers of simply ignoring the racist ravings of the Bohmkes of this world who rely on the white supremacist system to give their writing credibility and legitimacy.
“We are aware that other movements and individuals think that Bohmke’s ravings are beneath contempt and should not be dignified with any response. It is true that his poisonous attacks on individuals and movements are always grossly dishonest from start to finish. …But while we respect the views of those that have advised us to just ignore Bohmke’s slander and to rather focus on building our movement we feel strongly that the left must confront itself honestly and openly if we are to avoid repeating the mistakes of the past. The reality is that some of those people in the left who think that they have a right to rule all popular struggles have used Bohmke’s slander to try and destroy movements that they can’t control. A lot of people are fighting ruthless turf wars in the left and some of them have been willing to use Bohmke’s attacks for their own interests.”
Indeed, the left at large ought to come to terms with the fact that poor people’s movements do not proceed by someone else’s rules or dogmas. As Piven and Cloward (1977) once pointed out, poor people’s social struggles flow from historically specific circumstances, “it is a reaction against those circumstances, and it is also limited by those circumstances.” It is necessary to remember this insight when we discuss social movements.
Bohmke, H.(2012). Ventriloquism, Fanon and the Social Movement Hustle: http://dispositionsjournal.blogspot.co.nz/
Bohmke, H. (2010). The Branding of Social Movements in South Africa: http://dispositionsjournal.blogspot.co.nz/
Bohmke, H. (2009). Between the Halo and the Panga: Accounts of Abahlali Base Mjondolo.: http://dispositionsjournal.blogspot.co.nz/
Chisholm, L. (1991). Education, politics and organisation: The educational traditions and legacies of the Non-European Unity Movement, 1943 – 1986. Transformation, 15.
Piven F. F. & Cloward, R. A. (1977). Poor People’s Movements: Why They Succeed, How They Fail. New York: Pantheon Books.
Siwisa, B. (2008). “Crowd Renting or Struggling from Below? The Concerned Citizens’ Forum in Mpumalanga Township, Durban, 1999–2005”. Journal of Southern African Studies, Vol 34 (4).
Wright, W.D. (1997). Black Intellectuals, Black Cognition, and a Black Aesthetic. Praeger Publishers: Connecticut.
Open Letter to the London Review of Books. (2010). http://jhbwtc.blogspot.co.nz/2010/07/open-letter-to-london-review-of-books.html