Workers’ resistance in Africa

April 22, 2009

"Plunder, domination and the conversion of able-bodied men and women into desperate laborers have characterized Africa's contact with Western and American civilization," writes Azwell Banda in the Foreword to Class Struggle and Resistance in Africa.

At the same time, of course, resistance to this domination is a central part of any examination of Africa. That is the central theme of Class Struggle and Resistance in Africa, edited by Leo Zeilig and recently republished by Haymarket Books--a collection of essays by and interviews with leading activists and socialists that offers important insights into class battles across the continent.

Here, we reprint an excerpt from the Introduction to the 2009 edition, "Resisting the Scramble for Africa," by Leo Zeilig and David Seddon.

LIKE EVERY other proletariat in the world, and in history, the African working class is characterized by and brings together heterogeneous groups. It has never been a "monolithic subject." But these debates can only be fully understood in the context of popular struggles and the actual moments of protest and resistance. This sees class as a relationship brought to life by the real course of events.

As E.P. Thompson wrote, "like any other relationship, it is a fluency which evades analysis if we attempt to stop it dead at any given moment and anatomize its structure...the relationship must always be embodied in real people and in a real context." This collection seeks to look at this relationship in concrete struggles that have taken place on the continent. Now we need to briefly consider the recent class struggle as manifested in protest--in strikes, marches, demonstrations and riots--since this book was first published.

Two examples from 2007 substantially dismantle the myths of a poor multitude dislodging the working class. The wave of strikes in South Africa, including the June public-sector strike in 2008, has seen the increase of strike days from 500,000 in 2003, to 2.9 million in 2006. The public-sector strike was arguably the largest in South Africa's history, with 11 million strike days in June.

But workers' struggles have been matched by the struggles among other groups of the poor. Service-delivery demonstrations and riots have skyrocketed to over 20,000 in 2005-2007 from fewer than 6,000 in 2004. In this sense, there has been a real convergence of protests that have included traditional working class and the wider poor. The strike in June 2007 was characterized by mass meetings, demonstrations and strike solidarity committees. It also blew a hole into the traditional loyalty binding the ruling ANC to trade unionists. Claire Ceruti describes a meeting of strikers during the June strike:

When a speaker on the platform shouted, "Viva ANC!" I listened as usual for the loudness of the reply to judge the popularity of the ANC. I heard something I had never heard before--dead silence, followed by a sprinkling of insulting phrases. Soweto activist Trevor Ngwane commented, "You could hear the audience thinking in that silence, 'Do we still support the ANC?'" Throughout the strike one striker after another repeated the refrain, "We put them where they are and look how they treat us." The implication, still only half grasped, is that power lies below--a lesson that has been disguised by years of policy battles.

It is not only in South Africa that we can find evidence of rising working-class action and popular protest. In the words of President Umaru Yar'Adua, a four-day general strike in Nigeria also in June 2007 "wreaked havoc on the economy and our people." The strike succeeded in closing down government departments, petrol stations and stores. Export of the country's largest commodity--oil--was paralyzed in all but one terminal. Demands included the reversal of the N10 (Naira) increase in petrol prices, a 15 percent pay raise for public-sector workers and a review of the privatization of oil refineries and state power plants. But still the strike was called off four days after its start, without the full demands being met.

However, Femi Aborisade, who is interviewed in this collection, is right to argue that "Regardless of the weaknesses of the strike, the working class has shown that based on a united force of organizations of the poor, it is a force to reckon with." Huge riots and protests, often simplistically (but not entirely misleadingly) called "bread riots," have punctuated the first decade of the new century in the Third World.

In April 2008, recent price rises were labeled "mass murder" by Jean Ziegler, UN special rapporteur on the right to food. Linked to oil price increases and speculation in the aftermath of the sub-prime crisis, price rises of basic foods have been astronomical--the UN Food and Agriculture Organization has shown that the food import bill for poorest countries is probably going to increase to $169 billion in 2008, with prices unlikely to return to previous levels.

By early April 2008, the effects were clear; protests had broken out across Africa including in the Ivory Coast, Guinea, Senegal, Mauritania, Morocco, Mozambique and Burkina Faso. In Burkina Faso, a three-day general strike took place in April against the rise in food prices with trade unions demanding a 25 percent wage increase for all public-sector workers. Ziegler explained that one day the starving poor could stand up against their oppressors: "It's just as possible as the French Revolution was." He is right except for one crucial point: they are already are--every day and in most cities, towns and villages across the continent.

BUT TO see these instances of protest as simply spontaneous explosions of a slum-dwelling multitude is nonsense. More often they are organized or semi-organized expressions of political dissidence--movements based on a combination of anger and outrage at government failures and pressures of globalization--that carry demands for social and economic transformation. From protesting food price increases and demanding affordable bread, some of these movements have insisted on an across-the-board increase in the national minimum wage. Old political masters lose their credibility as economic questions become suffused with political actions and slogans.

This criss-crossing of political and economic demands constantly folding over one another is a common feature of mass strikes. Nowhere has this process been clearer than in the extraordinary wave of protest and strikes that has swept Egypt in the last two years. Mentioned in the chapter on Egypt in this book, which refers mainly to popular protest between 1977 and the 1990s, Egypt has been the setting since 2000 for major demonstrations, one of the most significant of which has been that of the democracy movement that pulled in a range of opposition groups under the slogan "Kefaya" ("Enough").

In May 2006 pro-reform judges challenged the state's authority, and the previous year (in the November elections) the Muslim Brotherhood, despite violence and intimidation, won a large share of the parliamentary vote. But more significant still has been the wave of strikes that have broken out from December 2006, involving something like 200,000 workers and justify comparison to the strike wave in Egypt after the Second World War and during the protests of 1977-78. The recent strikes of the textile city of Mahalla al-Kubra have been central to Egyptian working-class action. Anne Alexander, who writes on Egypt in this book, has described this more recent upsurge in popular protest and working-class action:

During the two strikes of December 2006 and September 2007, the area was transformed into a tented city where workers ate and slept. Workers' representatives reported back to mass meetings of thousands of strikers on the progress of negotiations. Lively protests with chants, drums, placards and palm branches communicated the strikers' determination to the authorities and kept their spirits high.

These strikes have also exposed another fallacy that sees the informalization of work, temporary contracts and unemployment as a barrier to real working-class action on the continent. The first strikes at the Mahalla textile factories were launched by women, few of them with formal contracts and most suffering terrible conditions in the factories. These workers, often on temporary contacts for three months, then fired and then again rehired, were among the most radical. They moved between sites and pulled out male workers. Sameh Naguib, an Egyptian socialist, emphasized, "Most of the women are fully veiled, but they are extremely militant, spending the night in the occupation alongside the men. If you lose the image of the veil, you'd think they were militant socialists, and they are often leading men in the struggle."

Zimbabwe tells us another related story. The chapter on Zimbabwe in this collection still provides excellent background to the current situation. Between 1996 and 1998, Zimbabwe had its biennio rosso of rising working-class militancy. Old shibboleths were overturned and the regime, once a symbol of the armed and victorious resistance to white settler rule on the continent, became synonymous with the cankerous rot of a corrupt postcolonial elite.

Knighted by the British monarch in 1994, President Robert Mugabe was congratulated at the time for bucking the continental trend of tyranny and dictatorship. His ruling party, ZANU-PF, was the willing midwife to repeated programs of structural adjustment. But out of these reforms emerged a movement of impressive force, which by 1999 had decided to organize itself into a political party. On September 11 that year, the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) was formed, principally by the nation's trade union federation, the Zimbabwe Congress of Trade Unions Congress (ZCTU), but with a complex configuration of class forces supporting it.

Such opposition parties, in which the working class played a significant but not necessarily decisive role through the trade unions, were important to many of the developments that had taken place earlier in the decade on the continent. The nature and development of mass parties--often formed by the protest and opposition movements in the 1990s--were contested, however, by those socialists who were active in the opposition movements. In Zambia, for example, trade unions were central to the growth of resistance to President Kenneth Kaunda's ruling party, the UNIP. Frederick Chiluba was the leader of the Zambia Congress of Trade Unions and took a leading role in the formation of the opposition coalition.

But trade unionism alone is insufficient to determine the progressive and revolutionary orientation of opposition politics. Azwell Banda was a socialist who tried to influence the processes at work. He explains, in the foreword to this book: "In April 1990, I spent days with Chiluba at his home trying to persuade him to participate in creating a workers' organization capable of taking over from Kaunda, but he had other ideas." Eventually the Movement for Multi-Party Democracy (MMD) was formed and went on to win elections held in 1991. The party, a coalition of business interests and trade unions, continued with the politics of adjustment and neoliberalism--all that the party came to represent was the vacuous notion of "change."

THE FAILURE of those socialist forces to assert themselves on the new and frequently trade union--based parties had a crippling effect. In the face of the weaknesses of the political left--that could and did argue for a "workers' organization capable of taking over"--these social movement parties were prey to domination by a new or more usually recycled elite, often led by ex–trade union leaders, who argued for a continuation of structural adjustment, liberalization and a new form of comprador capitalism.

For those countries that overturned regimes in the 1990s--during what was called the "democratic transitions"--all too often, new parties and coalitions resumed neoliberal reforms once in power. These new governments delivered a quick death to the African renaissance that was momentarily promised to the continent in the mid-1990s.

Activists and trade unionists who have fought in the recent riots, strikes and protests against price rises are, however, a new generation that needs to be won to the idea of socialist politics and organization. These are not novel needs or demands. After the general strike of 1964 in Nigeria--which involved over 500,000 workers--one strike leader argued that "although the cause of the strike was based on economic demands, yet in its development it has raised possible political action which, with a developed Marxist-Leninist party, could have led to a proletarian revolution." The failure to build these alternative voices, proposing, arguing and organizing a break with "the Washington consensus" and allied "reactionary consensus in Africa" has been a disaster for ordinary African people.

In Zimbabwe, those forces created in the ferment of political protest and uprisings were unable to challenge effectively a regime that has cynically and brutally attacked the Left, and indeed wide swaths of the opposition movement. At the same time, the opposition has itself leaned on an accommodation with the Washington consensus and neoliberalism and not relied on its original foundations as a movement of trade unions and students. However, there is an alternative--to which this book is dedicated--that looks to the power of the national and regional working class.

On April 16, news spread around the world of the arrival of a Chinese cargo ship, the An Yue Jiang, owned by China's state shipping company, in the major container port in Durban, South Africa. The ship included 3 million rounds of ammunition and 1,500 rockets bound for Zimbabwe, two days drive from the port. The South African government explained to the world that there was nothing they could do: this was a legal transfer of cargo that had already been paid for by a neighboring sovereign state. The problem was that the sovereign state of Zimbabwe was busy stealing an election and crushing the opposition.

The South Africa Transport and Allied Workers Union (Satawu) refused to be browbeaten by claims of legality. The union refused to unload the ship, while Satawu truckers said that they would not transport the cargo by road. The ship was paralyzed in "outer anchorage" in "off-port limits." Within a few days, trade unions with members in ports near Zimbabwe followed suit: Mozambique and Namibia also refused to unload the weapons. The ship was forced to sail to Angola, where dockworkers "maintained a watch" to ensure that the 77 tons of weapons were not unloaded. This was a signal and heroic action.

However, while we can celebrate the extraordinary and complex vitality of class struggle and resistance in Africa, we also need to build and organize political alternatives. In each country, socialist politics, based on the strengthening of popular resistance and working-class struggle, can, we believe, bring an end to adjustment, poverty and underdevelopment. It was in order to harden and strengthen this project that this book was originally conceived. Now, republished several years later, it can continue to assert not only the relevance but also the centrality of a combination of popular protest, working-class action and socialist organization for the real development and future of Africa.

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