Scar on the Conscience of the World

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Review of 'Class Struggle and Resistance in Africa', ed. Leo Zeilig, New Clarion Press £12.95

Tony Blair's stance towards Africa effectively sums up that taken by the rulers of the world more generally. At the Labour Party conference last October he called Africa 'a scar on the conscience of the world'--before authorising the sale to impoverished Tanzania of a military air traffic control system that even the World Bank has condemned as inappropriate. Africa, in other words, is a basket case, there just to be exploited economically and militarily.

The plight of Africa is indeed grim. Giovanni Arrighi sums it up in the latest issue of New Left Review:

'In 1975, the regional GNP per capita of Sub-Saharan Africa stood at 17.6 percent of "world" GNP; by 1999 it had dropped to 10.5 percent ...Life expectancy at birth now stands at 49 years, and 34 percent of the region's population are classified as undernourished. African infant mortality rates were 107 per 1,000 live births in 1999, compared to 69 for South Asia and 32 for Latin America. Nearly 9 percent of Sub-Saharan 15 to 49 year olds are living with HIV/Aids--a figure that soars above that of other regions.'

There are many explanations--some of them ill concealing their racist assumptions--that effectively blame the peoples of Africa for their continent's decline. Arrighi traces the source rather to the much harsher competitive conditions produced by the long economic crisis of the past 30 years, reinforced by the neoliberal policies of the Washington Consensus imposed by the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank, and by the venality and incompetence of the African ruling classes.

But there is another side to the story, which is told in the essays and interviews gathered together in 'Class Struggle and Resistance in Africa'. Already during the 1970s and 1980s the initial austerity policies imposed by African regimes in response to the crisis provoked large scale popular resistance. But, as the Stalinist states were swept away in Eastern Europe and the USSR, one nervous African ruler said: 'The winds from the east are shaking the coconut trees.'

The example of the East European revolutions encouraged African workers and poor people to rebel against corrupt regimes that had forced through neoliberal structural adjustment programmes at the behest of the IMF and the World Bank. As Leo Zeilig and David Seddon put it,

'A second wave of popular protest, now more explicitly political and with more far-reaching aims and objectives, spread across the continent like a political hurricane ... In a four-year period from the start of the protests in 1990, a total of 35 regimes had been swept away by protest movements and strikes, and in elections that were often held for the first time in a generation.'

Towards the end of the decade came social and political explosion in Zimbabwe. Workers' struggles and food riots in 1997-98 threw the regime of Robert Mugabe into crisis and created the context in which the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) could emerge from an alliance of trade union leaders and human rights organisations. These and other struggles form the background to this book, in which activists and intellectuals come together to map out the course taken by mass resistance to capitalism and imperialism in Africa.

In an important historical overview, David Seddon dismisses the idea--very popular among the African left and their western hangers-on in the 1970s and 1980s--that wage-labourers in Africa form a privileged elite, a 'labour aristocracy' whose interests conflict with the rest of the urban poor and the peasantry. As Nigerian activist Femi Aborisade puts it elsewhere in this collection, the latter have come to see: 'That the lot of the workers determines their own lot and that indeed they have a common interest. When workers are not paid or are poorly paid, the poor peasants and the poor petty traders (mainly women) know from their own experiences that their sales suffer. In an age of increasing unemployment, there are several dependants on the worker, and they have come to appreciate that their interests and that of the worker (who sustains their survival) are the same.'

By far and away the dominant version of Marxism in Africa has been Stalinism. It is now much weakened, but its legacy survives in the widespread pursuit of popular fronts uniting--and also subordinating--workers and peasants to sections of the middle classes and to capital itself. Thus the South African Communist Party has helped to defuse working class resistance to the ruling African National Congress's neoliberal economic programme.

In his foreword Zambian political exile Azwell Banda admits that the left failed to organise independently within the Movement for Multiparty Democracy (MMP) at the beginning of the 1990s. This allowed trade union leader Frederick Chiluba to ride to power on the back of the MMD and install an authoritarian neoliberal regime that still misrules Zambia. In the final case study Munyaradzi Gwisai and Tafadzwa Choto of the International Socialist Organisation in Zimbabwe describe how they have had to grapple with a similar problem in the MDC, whose neoliberal leadership has given Mugabe the space in which to regain the initiative and hang on to power.

A crucial difference between the two cases is that the ISO exists in Zimbabwe. It represents one of the first precious shoots of the real Marxist tradition in Africa. This excellent collection should contribute to the further growth of this tradition in the continent that bears the most eloquent witness to the horrors inflicted by capitalism.