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Patel, Raj  (2002) Class Struggle and Resistance in Africa (A review). The voice of the turtle : -.

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 television sets that Africans are barbarians. Throughout 2002 we've been asked to believe that an entire continent and its inhabitants are mired by incompetence, congenital corruption, and -- so close to the surface that the very chastity of the Misses World is under threat -- sexualised violence.

Appearing for the defence have been a more or less familiar band of leftists. Giovanni Arrighi, for example, has recently deployed a world-historical approach with characteristic thoroughness in the pages of the New Left Review, in order 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 upon, 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. 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 did 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, for they help to reorient the debate away from an apocalyptic appreciation of Africa in the tradition of Joseph Conrad to something a little more grounded in the study of politics, and a little less in a visceral and racist reading of the movements of black bodies of the kind in which the mainstream European media seem to excel. (The American corporate media machine is good at this too, it has to be said, but in general it is far too busy criminalizing the bodies of African-Americans to trouble with coverage of Africa.)

Missing from these stories, though, is any sense that the majority of Africans are any more engaged than Marx's French Peasantry of 1851. Yet the majority of Africans have not been the sack of potatoes that one might be led to think they are. Their activism has conspicuously shaped the domestic political terrain, and Leo Zeilig's excellent edited volume gives an important glimpse into how this has come about. But first, two caveats. First caveat. The title of the book is a slight misnomer, for 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. In particular, because these essays are borne of an urban workerist tradition of socialism, there is almost no 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 evinced towards the luminaries of the British Socialist Workers' Party, 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 Voice of the Turtle, and one has even been Saluted; more of the contributors are friends and comrades of this reviewer. All things considered, it'd be reasonable to suspect that the encomium below is motivated at least in part by personal and political proximity and amity. And so, 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 arguments and ideas in this book, most notably those of David Seddon, and you will have found that you have wasted your time -- for this book is a superb 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 the countries covered in this volume -- Egypt, Nigeria, Zambia, Zimbabwe and South Africa -- are relevant in international debates today. These countries share a British colonial experience and an availability of English-language scholarship, to be sure -- though Anne Alexander and David Renton's fine chapter on Egypt is quite polyglot (and has also been available to Turtle readers in modified form for a while.) And each of these 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." [131]. 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 as much. But he could not know the particular form these politics would take.

Zeilig is particularly sensitive to the contours of these political forms, and to their shaping by activists. His editorial hand, revealed in a variability in style and analytical emphasis between the chapters -- though not, happily, in quality -- is well judged. The academic-activists who write in this book speak with their own voices, and often in a quite direct fashion, for 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 in these times. The continuities of venality between 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 they are also rendered mutable -- although the balance of working class struggle looks fairly bleak at the moment. Azwell Banda's foreword, nevertheless, 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."

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