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Umsebenzi Online

Volume 3, No. 10, 19 May 2004

In this Issue:


Red Alert

Building an African continent with and for the workers and the poor

By Blade Nzimande, General Secretary

25 May is Africa Day. It is a day to celebrate all that is good about out continent and its many achievements. However, most critically, this time around, it should be a day on which we seriously reflect on progress made towards the goals that the heroes and heroines of our continent have set for Africa – national liberation and genuine social emancipation of the millions of our people. It is a challenge to advance the struggle to resolve the class, national and gender contradictions in an interrelated manner, to free our continent from the shackles of neo-colonialism and imperialism.

In 2002, perhaps more clearly than a decade ago, it is obvious that the current dominant global trajectory has deepened rather than lessened the burden of class exploitation, gender oppression, national inequalities and imperialist domination. It is for this reason that the SACP firmly believes that we should use this Africa day to recommit ourselves to rebuilding and strengthening the social motive forces of our continent – the workers and the poor – the only forces capable of leading and winning our protracted struggle.

The transformation of this continent to genuinely serve the interests of millions of African people rests with the organisation of the workers, with the rural masses and the burgeoning millions of urban poor. African workers, consciously organised as a political force, and linked by a thousand threads to the wider mass of urban and rural poor, are the critical engine to attain genuine transformation of our continent. Not enough attention has been paid to the political organisation and conscientisation of African workers in recent times

Workers, together with the peasants and urban and rural poor, led by the national liberation movements, were central in our independence struggles. Workers have the immense responsibility to continue to be the central force in the struggle to defeat neo-colonialism and poverty in the continent, thus realising the true liberation of our continent

The voice and organisational presence of workers and the poor is not being adequately felt in the current debates that preoccupy the AU and other regional blocs. The organised class presence of African workers is not adequately engaged with the debates on the challenges of development, including the debates around NEPAD.

Perhaps on this Africa Day we should earnestly resuscitate a debate on how the left and all progressive organisations representing the workers, the peasants and the poor should network, and generate further ideas on continental solidarity and practical ways of strengthening the organisation of these layers as social motive forces for national and continental transformation. The SACP is committed and prepared to make its contribution to these tasks, to establish the appropriate linkages with all progressive organisations representing the interests of the workers and the poor on our continent.

To do the above it is important to start by briefly reflecting on some aspects of the political economy of Africa today, and outline some of the key challenges and tasks.

The post-colonial (and neo-colonial) African state

In the first edition of the African Communist – the official journal of the SACP – published an article “The New Africa – Capitalist or Socialist?”. This was 1959, in the context of a quickening process of decolonisation. The article stated:

“Centuries of imperialist domination and robbery have left Africa backward and undeveloped. The European powers, Britain, France, Portugal, Belgium, have only been interested in taking as much wealth out of each country as quickly as possible. At one time they captured millions of our people, and deported them to Europe and America as slaves. Afterwards they enslaved Africans in their own continent, through forced labour on European-owned plantations, farms and mines, at starvation wages.

As a result of alien oppression and exploitation, Africa is the most backward part of the world. The great masses of her people live in terrible poverty, ignorance and disease. The first task of every African patriot is to liberate our continent from alien domination, for without this there can be no progress. But to win and keep true freedom we must also liberate Africa from backwardness. Her countries must be able to stand on their own feet economically, here people’s living, health and cultural standards must be rapidly advanced”

Much as this was said some 45 years ago, unfortunately the conditions on our continent have not changed in any significant way. It is true that almost all African countries have now attained their independence, thus ending the era of classical colonialism on the African continent. However, the continued economic and imperialist subjugation of the African continent by the North has led to the entrenchment of neo-colonialism and thus the continued imperialist exploitation of the continent, not through direct political occupation, but through complex economic subjugation and exploitation.

The main problem facing the post-colonial African state is that of having political liberation but without economic and social emancipation. Revolutions of political independence have not led to economic liberation. As the SACP’s 11th Congress Programme argues, the state in most African countries is weak, and therefore unable to play an effective developmental role. There is also very little sustainable accumulation capable of grounding effective growth and development, as a result of the weakness of the state and the subjugation of the post-colonial nation-state to imperialism. Infrastructure is weakly developed and skewed, because of decades of neo-colonialism, towards the interests of transnational corporations and the former colonial powers.

The above realities have been a product of, and reinforce, a persistent and stubborn process of parasitic capitalism. Because of low levels of accumulation and redistribution, the primary form of breaking out of the poverty cycle is that of seeking political office for purposes of personal accumulation. Therefore, hold over the state apparatuses is, in many instances, the only means of accumulation; thus battles by elites to grab state power. This has tended, in many African countries, to lead to violent struggles over the control of the state apparatuses, as the only means to access power and economic resources.

It is within this context that even modest progress that has been made over the last decade or so towards multi-party democracy in many, formerly, one party states has not led to substantive democratic regimes and people’s power. Instead, multi-party democracy in many parts of the continent has been nothing more than recycling of elites (controlling different political parties and with ethnic and regionalist support bases), alternatively backed and abandoned by imperialist dollars, depending on whether they are willing to play the role of compradorial classes championing neo-liberal solutions.

This regression has been exacerbated by the collapse of the Soviet bloc of countries that, at least, provided some opportunities for progressive African governments to experiment with alternative paths of development beneficial to the majority of the workers and the poor. Another important factor in many African revolutions has been the weakening, if not downright repression, of organisations and movements representing the interests of the workers and the poor, both urban and rural.

The state of organisation of the workers and the poor on our continent

In most national liberation, and independence, struggles on the African continent, the workers and the poor, as well as their political and mass organisations, played an important role in the defeat of colonial powers. Many of the newly independent countries in the 1960s and 70s drew heavily from the ranks of worker organisations, and leaders from those representing the peasantry and the poor. In many countries the incorporation of trade union and peasant leaders in government structures enabled the influence of these forces to be exerted on government policies, and in many instances leading to progressive policies.

However, given the overwhelming dominance of the colonial and imperial economy, with complicity from sections of the local elite with the imperialist former colonialists, the workers and the poor have been marginalized in the political evolution of the post-colonial state. In many cases, the liberation movements, once in power, expected loyalty from the workers and the poor, irrespective of the policies and class orientation of these governments. In worst cases, where organisations of the workers and the poor, including trade unions, legitimately protested against neo-colonial and neo-liberal measures by the very governments they helped to bring into power, they have been violently suppressed if not smashed.

Nascent working class organisation has been largely weakened in many parts of the continent as a result of the above realities, even within the context of a resurgence of multi-party democratic dispensations. This has also been reinforced by the reality of underdevelopment in most African countries. Most African countries have also had very tiny, usually unorganised and weak working class organisations, where the peasantry is numerically preponderant and largely unorganised and incapable of leading post independence struggles for the benefit of the overwhelming majority of the poor.

Possibilities and opportunities for creating an Africa of our own: With and for Workers and the Poor of the continent

In these circumstances, the collapse of the Soviet bloc of countries and the end of the Cold War have not led to any departure from the political economy of neo-colonialism.

Some political leaders and intellectuals from the developing world, had postulated that the collapse of the Soviet Union and the end to the Cold War, would lead to many positive developments in the developing world - “benign globalisation”. Hence the insistence on the use of the phrase “globalisation” – projected as a neutral process that will reward those who willingly submit to its dictates and punish those who seek to challenge or disconnect from it – thus obscuring the reality that the dominant trends within the current phase of globalisation are dominated by an imperialism of the post Cold War era.

There is increasing awareness amongst the workers and the poor that the promise of neo-liberalism is a lie to the peoples of Africa. The policies of privatisation, liberalisation and the so-called free market have proved to be a wholesale failure on the continent. These policies have instead served to consolidate the very same elite that had benefited from neo-colonialism. Instead, “globalisation” has deepened the poverty and inequalities of the colonial and neo-colonial era. This is an important basis for beginning to forge a common consciousness and build organisations of the workers and the poor on the continent.

Despite deepening poverty and is some regions famine, the spread of HIV/AIDS and other diseases in our continent, and regions that are still caught in wars, there are some positive developments that progressive forces need to exploit to build a movement of the workers and the poor to rebuild our continent in the interests of the overwhelming majority of the peoples.

The growth of anti-capitalist and anti-imperialist protests in recent years in many parts of the world is a development that the workers and the poor of Africa need to link up with. At the centre of these movements are issues that affect the African people directly and with greater impact than anywhere else in the world: plunder by transnationals, growing social inequalities, the role of institutions like the World Bank and the IMF in growing global inequalities, debts and wars. It is therefore important that progressive left formations in our continent, not least the trade union movement, need to find ways to engage with and be part of these developments. This provides opportunities for placing the African continent at the centre of the struggles to build an alternative economic global regime

The emergence of multiparty democracies in many parts of our continent provides new spaces to build truly people’s movements articulating the aspirations of the workers and the poor. Deformed and elite driven as many of our multi-party democracies are, the challenge is how to use these spaces to forge unity of the workers and the poor by creating broad based social and political movements (including political parties of the workers and the poor).

The formation of the African Union last year, on a platform of peace, end to wars and coups, and growth and development has assisted in at least highlighting the question of economic transformation and peace on our continent. Much as this has been a process led primarily by governments, organisations of the left, of the workers and the poor need to engage with AU processes as part of building a progressive momentum.

The AU has adopted NEPAD as its economic programme. We are aware that there are debates and suspicions from a number of progressive organisations about this programme. As the SACP we do indeed welcome critical debate and engagements on such developments and programmes. We agree that there are indeed gaps in NEPAD, particularly the absence of engagement with organisations, voices of the workers and the poor and weaknesses in relation to gender. However the view of the SACP is that NEPAD has assisted in placing the question of growth and development and the eradication of poverty at the centre of major continental bodies and governments. There are therefore two challenges in this regard.

The first is that we need systematic and extensive debate and engagements, not just throw-away and casual commentaries, on spaces that could be created for the left through NEPAD. Secondly, that we must of course critique the programme with the view of seeking to bring to bear the perspectives and weight of the workers and the poor of our continent. As the SACP we do not believe that it is correct to simply write it off as a “begging bowl” in front of imperialism nor as a new self-imposed structural adjustment programme, as some left critiques have done. The challenge is engagement and to seek effective representation and participation of left progressive forces on the ground! The SACP programme puts the challenge thus:

“Notwithstanding its weaknesses and potential dangers, the NEPAD initiative has squarely placed the underdevelopment challenge on our national and (hopefully continental) agenda. Overcoming Africa’s crisis of underdevelopment is a huge challenge. As a Party of communists, who are South African and African, the SACP will actively engage with, support and help to consolidate the NEPAD initiative – with and for the workers and the poor”

Another key and immediate challenge for the workers and the poor of our continent is to harness emerging progressive mass movements, including women’s movements, peasant organisations, towards intensifying struggles for eradication of poverty, fighting the HIV/AIDS pandemic, and a movement for peace and democracy. To this end particular attention will have to be paid to using continental and regional platforms as means to get together and for purposes of mass mobilisation. There are a number of these platforms that we need to use.

The most important platform is that provided for by continental and regional trade union councils. We need to ask ourselves the question of how these are used to strengthen not just worker organisations, but to forge links with peasant and other movements of the poor in our respective countries. Another important platform, we would argue is the proposed Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC) - a civil society arm of the African Union. It would be a mistake for the left, progressive mass organisations and the trade union movement to boycott or adopt an ambiguous stance towards this body. We should seek to ensure that progressive NGOs, trade unions and other mass formations should network and populate this body right from its inception, and seek to use it in the same way as we do with, for instance, some UN gatherings like the World Conference on Sustainable Development. Workers and their trade unions in the African continent are well placed as they already have continental and regional trade union bodies.

In addition, an effort should be undertaken to create such economic and social councils at regional levels. For instance at gatherings of the Southern African Development Community we should have such councils sitting concurrently, as critical platforms for engagements, debates and networking by progressive forces. Another key platform is that of the World Social Forum, as a place to build a truly progressive African Social Forum representing the aspirations of the workers and the poor.

A fundamental challenge, in which trade unions on the continent are well placed to play an important role, is that of solidarity struggles around common problems. Our continent is faced with the problem of continuing plunder of its mineral and energy resources by a group of transnational corporations, the violation of workers’ and trade union rights, privatisation of key state resources and continued erosion of democracy and rolling back of some of the gains from the liberation and independence struggles. It is time that workers seriously engage to share these experiences and undertake solidarity actions.

Perhaps, most importantly, is the need for left political parties to strengthen party-to-party relations across the continent, bilaterally, regionally. In the end it is our belief that any meaningful effort towards genuine social emancipation and lasting democracy on our continent can only be led by political movements and parties that genuinely represent the interests of the workers, the peasants and the poor.

What is it that should bind us together? Whilst efforts should be deepened to create broad based people’s movements representing the widest range of forces on the continent, at the heart of this should be the class interests of the workers, the peasants and the poor, with the ultimate goal of socialism. It is only socialism that will bring lasting solutions to the problems facing our continent. Hence the importance of deepening working class solidarity continentally and across the globe.

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