Summit Shame

The mass arrests of demonstrators and a blanket ban on civil society demonstrations during the World Summit on Sustainable Development (WSSD) in Johannesburg highlights the contradictions in a country where values have become dangerously eroded. Some might argue this typifies the legacy of underdevelopment inherited from colonialism and apartheid. Others, perhaps more convincingly, would argue this is the price South Africa must pay for a government that has abandoned the socialist principles that brought it to power.

The South African Human Rights Commission, following the arrests of more than 100 peaceful demonstrators of the South African Landless People’s Movement, is expressing concern that the constitutional rights of free assembly, association and speech are being curtailed. The South African Police have announced that all demonstrations by civil society organisations at the WSSD are now officially illegal. Riot police have in at least one instance overreacted grossly by using stun grenades to disperse peaceful demonstrators in the Johannesburg city centre.

Organisers of the Landless People’s Movement, which boasts 20 000 members, say the WSSD comes after 30 years of promises by world governments and financial institutions to end poverty and make the world an equitable place. Yet in South Africa the vast majority of black people remain dispossessed of land, the bulk of which is owned by a comparatively small number of wealthy white farmers. The potential exists for South Africa’s landless peasants to follow the example of land seizures in neighboring Zimbabwe. The Zimbabwe government, when it was unable to stem an anarchic tide of illegal land seizures, and to regain some political credibility with its largely agrarian electorate, was eventually forced to give assent to accomplished fact.

SA Communist Party general secretary Jeremy Cronin has warned that a distancing of the SA Government’s leadership from its grassroots support base in the post-apartheid era puts it at risk of following the Zimbabwe precedent. Cronin cites government policy formulation as an example of how bureaucrats, with the assistance of American and World Bank private sector consultants, are replacing mass involvement in key decision making processes.

The SA Government has meanwhile been paying the equivalent of close on $2 million per month to suspended government officials accused of serious offences including fraud and faked qualifications. The government’s public services and administration department confirmed recently that the suspended officials awaiting disciplinary action include numerous senior officials and law enforcement officers.

This is symptomatic of the pitfalls of African nationalism as described by psychiatrist Frantz Fanon in his acclaimed book The Wretched of the Earth, with its emphasis on the greed and politicking of the new bourgeoisie in “independent” African nations. Their nationalism is insufficient for total revolution because such classes benefit from the economic structures of imperialism.

Fanon argued that non-agrarian revolutions end when urban classes consolidate their own power, without remaking the entire system. Nationalism, according to Fanon, fails at achieving liberation across class boundaries because its aspirations are primarily those of the colonized bourgeoisie–a privileged middle class that seeks to defeat colonial rule only to usurp its place of dominance and surveillance over the working-class. South Africa’s leaders might be well advised to heed Fanon’s insights.

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