||This has been a particularly busy year for overseas media coverage of Africa, at least in Europe. Not since the Rwandan genocide have we been schooled so insistently by our televisions that Africans are barbarians. Throughout 2002, we’ve been asked to believe that the continent (a whole continent!) and its ihabitants are mired by congenital corruption, incompetence, and, so close to the surface that the very chastity of Misses World is under threat, sexualised violence.
To the defence have sprung a more or less familiar band of leftists. Giovanni Arrighi, for example, has in the New Left Review recently deployed a world historical approach with characteristic thoroughness to explain how it is that “The African Tragedy” – a phrase first pressed into service by Colin Leys (NLR I/204) - is largely a function of the world economy, and its systematic prejudice against, and assault on, Africa. Arrighi’s analysis revisits a 1968 essay co-authored with John Saul, published in the then exciting, currently moribund, Journal of Southern African Studies: “Socialism and Economic Development in Tropical Africa”. John Saul, too, has been busy of late. The most recent Monthly review sees a continuation of an exchange between Saul and Jeremy Cronin, Deputy Secretary General of the South African Communist Party and National Executive Committee member of the ANC, a man who was recently in trouble with the ANC hierarchy for suggesting, as he had in 1998, that the party was autocratic, out of touch, and disconnected from its support base.
Then, as now, Cronin staggered on with an apology, a rebirth through modest self-criticism and a vituperative defence of the ANC oligarchy.
Both Saul and Arrighi’s interventions are valuable – they reorient the debate away from a Conradian apocalyptic appreciation of Africa to something a little more grounded in the study of politics, and a little less in the visceral and racist reading of the movements of black bodies in which mainstream European media seems to excel. (The US is good at this too, it has to be said. But it seems far too busy criminalizing the bodies of African-Americans to trouble with coverage of Africa.)
Missing, though, from these stories is any sense that the majority of Africans are any more engaged than Marx’s French Peasantry. Yet the majority of Africans have not been the sack of potatoes that one might be led to think. Their activism has conspicuously shaped the domestic political terrain. Leo Zeilig’s edited volume gives an important glimpse into how this has happened.
First, two caveats. The title of the book is a slight misnomer – in a very readable 200-odd pages, it isn’t possible to detail class struggle in
anything like a comprehensive fashion, and all of the essays are clear that this isn’t their aim. Absent from all of the essays, because they are borne of an urban workerist tradition of socialism, is any discussion of peasant activism.
Besides David Seddon’s excellent historical overview chapter, there are no references to peasant struggle. In other words, the book is not about class struggle in its entirety, but about that corner of it involving the industrial proletariat. This is not a reason to dislike the book. Nor are the standard pieties to the British Socialist Worker Party luminaries, necessary one imagines because of the membership of some of the authors in that particular party, but dispensable and peripheral to the larger, and far more interesting core of the book.
Second caveat: four of the contributors to this book are writers for the Turtle, and one has even been Saluted. Many more of the contributors are friends and comrades of your reviewer. You’d be reasonable to suspect that the encomium below is motivated by personal proximity and amity. If you harbour such suspicions, do try to cast around for other sources that deal with African resistance. Inevitably, you’ll be led back to the sources and ideas in this book, most notably those of David Seddon. Which is why you’ll have wasted your time – for this book is an excellent guide to the key debates and struggles, in some of the most important countries on the continent. Indeed, the prescience with which the cases were selected seems almost uncanny, for all of them are relevant in international debates today. The countries covered by the book are Egypt, Nigeria, Zambia, Zimbabwe and South Africa. These countries share more than the British colonial experience and an availability of English-language scholarship. (Anne Alexander and David Renton’s fine chapter on Egypt is, for example, polyglot – and has been available to Turtle readers in modified form for a while.) Each of the chapters provides insight into the configuration of forces within these states that has been left substantially untouched by recent leftist journalism.
Of particular note is Peter Dwyer’s elegant chapter on South Africa. “[A]t a rally in Johannesburg protesting plans by the metropolitan council to privatize services and sell off council properties, SACP spokesperson Mazibuku Jara referred to the council in these terms: ‘These are our comrades. It makes it difficult for us to use tactics that we used against the previous government.’ The same politics and strategy that obscured class antagonisms during the liberation struggle continue to do so today.”. This might serve as a fine epigraph for the post-colonial politics described in the book. Fanon, as Zeilig and Seddon note in their introduction, predicted this. But he could not know the form these politics would take.
Zeilig is particularly sensitive to the contours of these political forms, and their shaping by activists. His generally editorial hand, revealed in a variability in style and analytical emphasis - though not quality - between the chapters, is well judged. The academic-activists who write in this book speak with their own voices. Often directly – the descriptive chapters are interspersed with interviews with labour activists. Those with Tafadzwa Choto and Trevor Ngwane are particularly revealing not only as analyses of actually-existing struggle, but as oral historical documents of lives in socialism.
These are important scholarly interventions and, as I say, particularly relevant at the moment. The continuities of venality of Mugabe in Zimbabwe, Chiluba and then Mwanawasa in Zambia, of de Klerk through Mbeki in South Africa, over decades in Nigeria, and over a century in Egypt are rendered urgently contingent by the writers in this volume. And hence mutable – although the balance of working class struggle looks fairly negative at the moment, Azwell Banda’s foreword ends with remarks that are more than a genuflection to Trotsky: “I am convinced that a return to mass struggle and resistance in Africa, against globalization and the market, can transform the continent. And if we understand the processes at work, we can build the movements that will finally overturn our world.”
By Raj Patel