The class dimension of African social struggles

Class Struggle and Resistance in Africa

Even before today’s economic crisis, austerity dictated by the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund (IMF) left a trail of devastation across Africa in the form of massive debt and the globe’s highest unemployment and poverty rates. The IMF itself predicts that the crisis will cut growth in sub-Saharan Africa in half, to about 3 percent in 2009. Fifteen of the twenty-one countries that it deems the most vulnerable to the crisis are in Africa. And while the U.S. has dedicated $4 trillion to bail out the financial system, the G-8 nations have pledged a paltry $25 billion in annual aid to African states. As the continent is once again short-changed, a new scramble for Africa has emerged in recent years to renew the plunder of resources, chiefly oil, and minerals.

Exploitation in Africa, however, has always met resistance, and the reissue of Class Struggle and Resistance in Africa could not come at a more urgent time. The book’s essays outline the legacy of struggle from the colonial and post-colonial eras in Nigeria, Zambia, South Africa, Egypt and Zimbabwe. Paired with each essay are interviews with leading activists who give fascinating first-hand accounts from the front lines of the trade union, anti-globalization and pro-democracy movements. The book also includes broader pieces on class formation within a world system, workers’ power, and the challenges faced by the left.

African poverty cannot be explained by problems of “corruption” and “governance,” but rather are rooted in an historic relationship of exploitation within a larger capitalist system. As many of the essays describe, the thwarting of industrial development under colonialism, followed by single-commodity export economies after independence and World Bank/IMF-imposed austerity, have combined to produce debt crises, collapses of infrastructure, poverty, lack of access to health care, and high rates of HIV infection.

The book’s contributors explore the contradictions within African development. As David Seddon describes in his historical overview,

despite the efforts of the colonial authorities to constrain the emergence of either an African capitalist class or a proletariat, the increasing demands of the colonial state for revenues to support…capital investment meant that the local population was subject to a variety of taxes and levies. These, in turn, obliged rural producers either to increase sales of farm produce for the market, or to seek wage employment.

These processes produced an African working class, a new social force within the colonial state.

Class Struggle and Resistance in Africa is above all about the strength of the African working classes to challenge exploitation and oppression, and it does an effective job of showing workers’ power in action, from the strikes that drove out colonialism, to the mass upheaval against apartheid, to the struggles against neoliberal austerity. Azwell Banda writes that to see only the impact of neoliberalism “from the point of view of the devastation of the continent is to miss the point of this book…. The last thirty years, as well as being a record of capitalist destruction across the continent, have also been an astonishing record of anticapitalist protest and revolt.”

Woven through the book are debates on creating a genuine, independent workers’ alternative. Several chapters note that some on the left have written off the African working class as a “labor aristocracy” too enmeshed in narrow economic demands, both before and after independence, to unite with the continent’s peasants and poor to embrace a broader emancipatory vision for social change.  More recently, others such as Mike Davis in Planet of Slums, have argued that liberalization and privatization have decimated the working class, leaving massive slums of urban poor delinked from the formal economy and powerless to resist.

Turning those ideas on their head, the authors reassert the relevance of Marxism for Africa, asserting that social change both past and present can only be understood through the lens of struggle from below. Much as workers’ power brought down colonialism, workers, socialists, and other activists have struggled since then to challenge single-party regimes and build alternatives to state-run trade unions.

In post-independence Nigeria, for example, the government’s calls to unite for “national development” were unsuccessful at papering over assaults from above or deflecting the rise of class consciousness in the general strike of 1964. Similarly, Zambian mineworkers battled attacks by the new government that were also mounted in the name of “national development,” while the years following independence in Zimbabwe saw strike waves for wage hikes and social reforms. As elsewhere, new rulers such as Zambia’s Kenneth Kaunda and Zimbabwe’s Robert Mugabe faced off workers’ militancy with repression and cooptation.

Peter Dwyer offers an excellent account of the embrace of neoliberalism in South Africa by Nelson Mandela and his successor, Thabo Mbeki. As Dwyer quotes, the Financial Times gloated that Mandela “delighted investors, businessmen, and white South Africans [with] his commitment to free-market economic and political moderation. Again and again, Mr. Mandela has stressed the need to restore business confidence and attract foreign investment.” Activist Trevor Ngwane of the Anti-Privatization Forum comments, “There are no miracles in history, and this has been decisively proven in South Africa, where the miracle is turning out to be nothing but the betrayal of workers by its self-appointed liberators.”

The weakness of the nationalist left in Africa was expressed in their two-stage theory of revolution, where it was posited that national anticolonial and anti-apartheid struggles would precede a much-deferred socialist revolution. These politics reflected the mixed-class composition of nationalist forces and the will of bourgeois and petty-bourgeois African leaders to subsume workers’ demands to those of national independence. South Africa’s left, notes Dwyer, “relied on trade unions to build a working-class movement, while not forming an independent socialist organization that could have united the political struggles in the trade unions and townships.” For Mandela’s African National Congress (ANC), “the potential they generated was used to gain strategic access to existing institutionalized political and economic power.”

Following the ANC’s accession to power in 1994, GDP growth proceeded to a slow crawl while unemployment grew, and the ANC broke its social-justice, redistributive promises. As Ngwane says in the accompanying interview, a new movement against neoliberalism was born, as unions and social movements battled ferociously against ANC austerity.

The new scramble for Africa has only sharpened the inequality and class contradictions on the continent. As Seddon and Leo Zeilig point out in the book’s new introduction, oil wealth has flooded countries like Nigeria and Angola, but at the expense of ordinary people. Angola, for example, Africa’s second largest oil producer, produced $30 billion in oil in 2007; meanwhile, one in four children dies before reaching the age of five. The new round of plunder has enriched a handful of African elites while the bulk of the population remains impoverished.

But as the introduction describes, the “new scramble” and the global economic crisis has provoked resistance in the form of strikes, riots, social movements, and armed militias, a “convergence of protests that have included traditional the working class and the wider poor.” Last year, protests from Mauritania to Burkina Faso to Egypt resisted rising food prices.

Struggles of recent years show that a key challenge still remains—to pull together forces that can pose a genuine socialist alternative.

In the face of the weaknesses of the political left—[which] could and did argue for a “workers’ organization capable of taking over”—these social movement parties [of the 1990s] 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.

A new generation of workers and militants is emerging to square off with globalization and its crises. Class Struggle and Resistance in Africa is a crucial contribution to making the case for socialist organization and workers’ political independence in the struggles of the future.

Issue #103

Winter 2016-17

"A sense of hope and the possibility for solidarity"

Interview with Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz
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