[SPEECH] Lucien van der Walt, 2006, “Xenophobia, Solidarity and the Struggle for Zimbabwe”

I gave this talk at the”Freedom in our Lifetime” resistance festival in Newtown, Johannesburg, 10 December, 2006

It was previously published online, uncredited, at http://www.anarkismo.net/article/4424

Xenophobia, Solidarity and the Struggle for Zimbabwe

Lucien van der Walt, 2006.

How to fight for freedom in Zimbabwe? How to avoid another Mugabe coming into power? How to fight poverty, inequality, unemployment? How to create equality and decent lives for all? These are the burning questions we must face.

There are two main issues we have been asked to talk about today: xenophobia and solidarity. Let’s look at each of these, and then explore them, and look for answers to the burning questions.

Xenophobia

Around the world, millions of people are moving between countries. Some move to find jobs and a better life. Some flee repressive, murderous regimes. And some just want to see more of the world: nothing wrong with that.

What is a problem is that the States, the governments, of the host countries, seek to divide the immigrants from the local working class and peasants. Let me be more precise. Rich immigrants are left alone. Their money brings them access to the charmed circles of the wealthy and powerful elites. The ruling class of one country recognises its fellows from other countries.

The elite knows the elite, and they know that they have something in common: their wealth, their power, are based on keeping the mass of the people – the working class, the peasants and the poor – in their “place.” And what place is that? Working for masters, earning low incomes, being told what to do: suffering through domination and exploitation from above.

But the situation is different for working class and peasant immigrants. The ruling elites – using the States and governments, which are their property, their tools – promote xenophobia. They promote hatred by local working class and peasant people towards the immigrants. The immigrants are blamed for unemployment, for crime, for everything imaginable.

The South African ruling class – which is generally happy to join its elite brothers and sisters from abroad – want the masses to believe that all their problems are caused by the immigrants – people who face exactly the same problems as the local working class and peasantry, like unemployment, exploitation, domination and crime. In short, the ruling classes everywhere tries to teach the masses to hate people – and blame people, and scapegoat people – who are exactly the same as them, their brothers and sisters, people with whom they should unite to fight the ruling classes, the ruling classes of every country.

Take South Africa. Not a day goes by when the press does not claim that Nigerians and Zimbabweans peddle drugs and steal. Police reports list their successes: capturing hijackers, rapist and murderers – and illegal immigrants. And if you have refugee status, or a work permit, and you left it at home, too bad: you’ll spend the next few weeks at prisons like Lindela.

To be an immigrant becomes a criminal offence. The ruling classes tell the local working class and peasantry that it shares more in common with its own exploiters and oppressors than with working class and peasant people who happened to be born somewhere else. Can anything be more ridiculous? The ruling classes welcomes foreigners with money – and labels foreigners without money as criminals, and tells local people without money to chase and oppress them.

And why do they do this? The immigrants become the scapegoat for the very problems of unemployment and poverty the ruling class has created. The immigrants are divided from the local masses, forced to live in the shadows, unprotected by unions, lacking human rights.

This is exactly the situation here in South Africa, where we are told to be “Proudly South African,” blame everything on immigrants, and cheer our local ruling class for persecuting the immigrants – all the while we are supposed to forget what that ruling class – which is now brown, black and white – does to the masses everyday. 1 million jobs have been lost in 10 years, new jobs are mostly casual jobs, old jobs are increasingly unprotected, industrial accidents soar, 500,000 people are evicted off the farms, 10 million people have electricity cut-off – all by the local ruling class – and yet we are supposed to think poor immigrants are to blame! It is a disgrace, and an insult to our intelligence.

And here we come to the second big reason for xenophobia: the conditions of the immigrants make them into cheap labour, which benefits the local ruling class. Then the immigrants get blamed for being cheap labour, and accused of stealing jobs! The working class is divided between national and foreigner, and unable to fight back against the elite, which orchestrates the whole situation. Immigrants do become cheap labour, but this is the result of the actions of the local elite, and believe you me, the ruling class benefits.

There is one final issue: nationalism. Nationalism is the ideology that all people born in one country – regardless of class – have something in common, and share a government that represents their will. This is a powerful weapon in the hands of the ruling class. On the one hand, it hides the class divisions in society, and presents the local exploiters and oppressors as friends of the people; their crimes against the working class and peasantry are hidden. On the other hand, it confuses people: the State and government appear as defenders of the masses, when the opposite is true, for these institutions are always – always – controlled by the ruling class.

The ruling class promotes nationalism to divide the masses, and their struggles, and to label popular movements as foreign-controlled. There are two more problems with nationalism.

First, elites use this to hijack power. We are for national liberation, but we know the elites try to infiltrate national liberation struggles to take them over, and to take State power. They then replace the old oppressors with new oppressors, and create new forms of national oppression, against other nationalities.

You have an example before your very eyes. The South African working class fought apartheid, but the black elite, through the ANC, hijacked the struggle, and took State power, which they now use to create a black capitalist class. This is called “Black Economic Empowerment”: the proper term is black elite enrichment. And this so-called empowerment goes hand in hand with neoliberal policies – privatising, casualising, union-busting, cutting spending on hospitals and schools – which hits the African working class hardest. It is a black empowerment for a minority of blacks, who now join the old white ruling class in oppressing all South African workers: Africans, Coloureds, Indians and whites.

But there is another example: Robert Mugabe. Using negotiations and the ZANU structures, Mugabe got into power. From 1980-1982 there was a big strike wave in Zimbabwe. It was the biggest strike wave since the strikes of 1948, and organised from below. Mugabe condemned the strikes as “quite inexcusable” and “nothing short of criminal”, the army and police moved in to arrest militants, protect strike-breakers and installations, enabling dismissals of militants. Kumbirai Kangai, the new Labour Minister, insisted that workers make use of the “established procedures” and threatened: “I will crack my whip if they do not get back to work” Then Mugabe placed the unions under government control: the new head of the unions was his nephew, Alfred Mugabe. His crimes continued after that every year: the Matabeleland massacre, the arrests of dissident unionists, the repression of the 1990s, and finally, the Green Bombers and the attacks on May Day rallies.

Secondly, nationalism is used in struggles among the elite. Above we said that the ruling class tends to practice international solidarity amongst itself. This is true, in general, but we must add that the ruling class is also divided internally. The interests of the elite are basically unified in support of the class system. But divisions also arise.

The ruling classes of very powerful countries often try to dominate the ruling classes of weaker countries. Let us think of Iraq. In the 1980s, the American ruling class was very pleased indeed with the dictator, Saddam Hussein: they armed him with weapons, training and money, because they wished him to fight against regimes like that of Iran. The American, Iraqi and Iranian ruling classes were all agreed on one thing: keeping a class system in place, and keep the working class peasantry in their “place.”

But the American ruling class felt the Iranian regime would destabilise the Middle East. They did not care the regime of the Ayatollah Khomeini had come to power through crushing the Iranian revolution of 1979-1981, or that it viciously oppressed workers, trade unions, women and national and religious minorities. They did care that it wanted to expand its own capitalism at the expense of American interests, and that other Arab ruling classes might do the same. So they backed Hussein, another butcher of the masses, a man who used nerve gas against the Kurdish minority, tortured trade unionists, repressed free speech.

In 1991, though, Hussein felt strong enough to make himself a little empire of his own, starting with invading Kuwait to grab its oil fields. Then the American ruling class got angry, invaded in 1991 and again a few years back, finally giving Hussein the death penalty. And here is where nationalism comes in: the American ruling class promoted American nationalism to strengthen its campaign, and mislead the American workers (who after all, gain nothing but more taxes, higher petrol prices, less democracy and death in the army from this clash between ruling classes). Iraq promoted variants of Arab nationalism, and spoke of freedom while he crushed uprisings in his country during the two Gulf Wars, and did his best to stay in power.

To go back to Zimbabwe, we have the same thing. There was a long-standing split between the African sector of the ruling class, based mostly in the State machinery and organised through ZANU, and the old white capitalist farmers.

In the 1990s, three factors made this division deepen to the point of crisis. A section of the African elite began to promote a strident “indigenisation” programme, aiming to use the State to transfer white wealth to elite Africans. The economy went into a crisis with Structural Adjustment, and the State started to go bankrupt, and saw the farms as a resource that could be used to reward loyal ZANU followers. And the mass democratic movement grew into a powerful force. In this context, Mugabe and ZANU moved against the White farmers, promoting the crudest racism against Whites, while cracking down heavily on the democratic movement. The land could be used to reward his cronies; the racism could be used to discredit groups like the MDC.

Solidarity

What does this mean? First, we need to recognise that we live in a class system. There is the ruling class – generals, politicians, directors of State departments and State companies, the big capitalists – on the one side. There are the masses on the other: the working class (by which we mean those who work for wages and lack control of their lives, including the unemployed) and peasants (small family farmers who work for themselves).

Between the ruling class and the lower classes, there is nothing in common: the ruling class exploits the masses, enriching itself at their expense; the ruling class dominates the lower classes, telling them where to live, what to do, even what to think, who to hate and who to persecute. The ruling class, on the one hand, and the lower classes, the working class, peasantry, the poor, on the other hand, are locked in struggle. Everything the ruling class has comes from the lower classes: a higher wage means less profit for the elite; insubordination means less power for that elite.

The only way out of this situation is to unite the working class and peasantry to fight back, whether through unions or through community struggles or through movements in the schools and army. Only a mass movement from below can start to change the situation, fighting for better living conditions, higher wages, lower rents, lower charges, more rights, more freedom, more space to live our lives as people, as human beings.

And only such a movement can start to make fundamental changes in society: not just improving our lives in the here and now, but challenging the whole inequitable class system. Only through a mass movement from below can the masses start to build organs of counter-power that can defeat the instruments of the ruling class – the State, the companies – and create a new society, based on equality and freedom. Such a society we call libertarian socialism, or anarchism: a society based on distribution by need, grassroots control (self-management) of the community and the workplace, with an economy planned from below to meet human needs rather than satisfy the lust for wealth and power. It would be a universal human community, not a world divided into different States, with endless war and oppression.

And when we say a mass movement from below of the working class and peasants, we do not mean a movement in one country only, or of one nationality, or of one race, or of one gender. We mean a movement that refuses to recognise the divisions imposed from above by the ruling class, a movement that opposes all States, a movement that really stands for the principle “Workers of the World – Unite!”

So, we are for class struggle, not for race struggle. We are for the masses everywhere, whether African, Asian, or white, whether black, yellow or brown, whether South African, Zimbabwe, Brazilian, Yemenese, Russian or British. We do not hate a man because he is Chinese, or Indian, or Zulu, or Afrikaner, or Arab or a Jew. We fight the ruling class because it is a ruling class, because it exploits and oppresses, not because of what it looks like- and we know the ruling class is also international and drawn from all peoples. There are European politicians and capitalists, as there are also American politicians and capitalists, also Arab politicians and capitalists, also African politicians and capitalists.

We stand for a movement of the masses of all countries, against the elites of all countries. And nationalism is poison to such a struggle, an international class struggle. Let’s take two examples. One is xenophobia: dividing working classes and peasantries between locals and foreigners, which often also means pitting ordinary people against each other because of their culture, or their race, or even their religion.

Another is racial hatred: you have seen how Robert Mugabe used the issue of white land ownership in Zimbabwe to label the democratic movement as the tool of the British, and to hide his own crimes. Above we said So Mugabe said the MDC was the tool of Tony Blair, and that anyone who opposed him wanted Ian Smith back! What nonsense. The people were struggling for justice, in their own interests.

Conclusion

To sum up this talk on xenophobia and solidarity, we suggest the following:

We live in a class system – we must wage a class struggle.  The working class and peasantry of all countries have common interests in fighting the ruling class: we are for international solidarity.

We are against xenophobia and nationalism, and we are for the principle, “Workers of the World – Unite!”

There must be a mass movement from below to fight immediate struggles and move towards creating a new type of society by building institutions of counter-power through the daily struggle. Therefore, we say, “Tomorrow is Built Today.”

Such a mass movement must be driven by struggles on the ground, and through the self-activity and grassroots democratic movements of the masses: “Only the Workers can Free the Workers.”

Now, in terms of the Zimbabwe struggle, we suggest:

There must be support from the South African working class for the struggles in Zimbabwe and other countries suffering from terrible regimes. COSATU has taken this position: what is needed is action, not just words.

What is also needed is to challenge xenophobia and divisions between the South African masses and the ordinary Zimbabwean people in exile in South Africa.

The key task in Zimbabwe is to overthrow Mugabe. This can only be done through struggle from below: through general strikes, struggles around food and housing, struggles against evictions, against cut-offs, against retrenchments.

Even an MDC government would be better than Mugabe’s regime: there must be no illusions that ZANU-PF can become a better, nicer, kinder party. We can work with any forces opposed to Mugabe, so long as we do not compromise our principles, or sacrifice our objectives.

Even so, we must be revolutionary watchdogs against the emergence of new elites in these struggles, elites that aim only to replace Mugabe’s regime, with their own. As Mugabe’s regime shows, the new bosses are as bad as the old bosses: the forms of oppression have changed, but the old evils – inequality, oppression, and suffering – remain.

So, the key tasks are to fight neoliberalism and dictatorship – but this is not enough. There must be a struggle for a new world: a world of solidarity, equality, grassroots democracy, a world freed of capitalism.

There are those who say there is no alternative to globalisation and neoliberalism: we say a “New World is Possible.” There are those who say the choice is between Mugabe and Blair: we say we don’t want either of them. The masses deserve better than an endless parade of tyrants. The African masses, like the masses elsewhere, want a better world, and they deserve it.

About Lucien van der Walt
I teach at Rhodes University, the Eastern Cape. I’m South African, born and bred. I am currently also involved in union education and have a background in social movement and left-wing activism, the Workers’ Library and Museum, the Anti-Privatisation Forum, and the National Health and Allied Workers Union (NEHAWU). I’ve presented papers at more than 120 conferences and workshops, published in key journals like 'Capital and Class' and 'Labor History', have co-edited 3 journal specials (these on global labour history, African labour, and unions in the Global South), and written well over 130 other articles, papers and entries. I was Southern Africa editor for the 2009 'International Encyclopaedia of Revolution and Protest' (Blackwell). My focus has been on South Africa, but I have also done research in Zambia and Zimbabwe. I won the 2008 international 'Labor History' thesis prize, and the 2008/2009 Council for the Development of Social Science Research prize for best African dissertation, for my PhD thesis on South African anarchism, syndicalism and black militants. I have several books, including 'Negro e Vermelho: anarquismo, sindicalismo revolucionário e pessoas de cor na África Meridional nas décadas de 1880-1920,' 'Anarchism and Syndicalism in the Colonial and Postcolonial World, 1880-1940: the praxis of national liberation, internationalism, and social revolution' (co-edited with Steve Hirsch, Brill, 2010/ 2014) and 'Black Flame: the revolutionary class politics of anarchism and syndicalism' (co-written with Michael Schmidt, AK Press 2009).

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