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Publication Details

Reference
Chance, Kerry & Mandisa, Mbali  (2004) Talking is Walking: A Critical Review of Patrick Bond’s Wolpe Lecture. Centre for Civil Society (Wolpe Review) : -.

Summary
To a packed auditorium, Patrick Bond opened his Wolpe lecture on 22 April with an enlarged projection of a striking image from George W. Bush’s recent visit to South Africa: Mbeki walking down a red carpet, shoulder-to-shoulder with the American President. Above the photo of these cheerfully be-suited presidents, Bond had written, “Talk Left, Walk Right.” For Bond, this image offers insight into how we might critically reflect on ten years of South African democracy, and in particular the often-contradictory relationship between the South African government and corporate globalization.

The first section of this review is dedicated to an analytical synopsis of Bond’s talk. In the latter sections, drawing from the question-and-answer session, we will argue that, while at times inspiring and politically potent, the talk still left us considering what had been absent, flattened or forgotten in Bond’s picture of democracy’s tenth anniversary in South Africa. Specifically, by drawing out some of the problems with Bond’s walking/talking binary, and by taking “talk” seriously, we attempt to open his critique of neoliberalism and corporate globalization to a few socio-historical nuances.

Bond Remembering Ten Years of Neoliberalism
Using news articles and photographs, Zapiro cartoons and the ANC’s own website, Bond argued that over the last ten years, the South African government has pursued a neoliberal agenda to the advantage of big corporations and to the detriment of its poorest people. Yes, the poor are getting poorer and the rich are getting richer, but Bond warned, the neoliberal agenda hides its corporate allegiances in various ways.

Firstly, he suggested that, while the period of race-based apartheid has come to an end in South Africa, global class-based apartheid insidiously continues, transcending both local and national boundaries. In 1994, South Africans celebrated the official demise of the National Party government and its race-based apartheid state. Today in 2004, however, South African activists cannot hope for ending class-apartheid by toppling one particular state government or institution. 90s-style South African resistance, for example, is just not enough to take down the World Bank. This is because networks of power operating in this new global class system are too diffuse: they are located in multinationals like BP, international institutions like the IMF, and transnational alliances like NATO. But, with the image of George W not far from our minds, we must not forget that American and European countries are simultaneously the strongest power brokers, and the greatest beneficiaries, of global class apartheid.

Secondly, Bond pointed out that the South African government, much like its Western counterparts, uses the rhetoric of democracy and human rights to mask the fact that it consistently makes policy decisions, which extend the reach of this new form of apartheid. So, for example, while the ANC claims on its website to prioritize people’s right to water, in actual practice, the ANC has privatized and introduced aggressive cost recovery into water provision, making it ever more difficult for poor people to access that right. The ANC “talks left, while walking right.”

However, Bond’s analysis of this global system leaves much room for optimism, particularly for what he calls “the new social movements.” Another world is possible, he argues, if not inevitable. In his talk, he cited data and numerous economic studies, which at bottom showed neoliberalism as a slowly dying ideological breed. For Bond, corporate globalization is not only unsustainable and morally condemnable, but is also economically unstable.

Perhaps this is where Bond’s talk, and his recently published book, will be such an asset to “new social movements” and their activists in the field. Bond, throughout his talk, de-bunked the ANC’s claims to have delivered on post-apartheid promises by taking hold of the authority of what could otherwise be described as an unassailable and esoteric language of economic structures and capital.

When the ANC claims, therefore, that jobs have increased at such-and-such a percentage over such-and-such period of time, it may at first appear that the mystical authority of the numbers themselves are impenetrable, stand alone, and are best challenged by other, equally authoritative economic conclusions. Even though it may be true that the ANC’s calculations could be simply refuted in everyday, ‘un-caluculatable’ experience, it might also be said that one of the most effective academic defenses against the authority of neoliberal economic language is another kind of economic language.

In this case, fortunately for activists, and perhaps unfortunately for the ANC, Bond has just the politico-economic savvy needed for the job. Placing the ANC or World Bank’s self-congratulatory numbers side-by-side with his own more critical macro-economic findings, Bond is able to match blow-by-blow any of the mystifying weight or authority neoliberal economists attempt to throw around.

To offer an example, and an exemplary move by Bond, the ANC’s website announced that 1.6 million net new ‘jobs’ were created between 1995 and 2002. Through his own careful research, Bond points out that in reality these ‘jobs’ include tending subsistence backyard vegetable plots, or selling coat hangers at traffic lights. In other words, the ANC’s numbers are wrong. In fact, Bond continues, many of the ANC’s newly created ‘jobs’ pay between R1 and R200 per month. This is hardly a living wage, and these can hardly be called ‘jobs.’

At the Wolpe talk, Bond’s point about job creation so captured the audience that many people were sent into gasps and murmurs. Rightly so, because macro-economic and structural-based critiques of neoliberalism can be a powerful tool, especially when borrowed, reformulated, and used against the very people who are misleading South Africans in the first place: the neoliberals.


Not to Forget the 2004 Elections
While the question-and-answer session of the Wolpe lecture could have been more critical, it nonetheless pointed to an undeniable lacuna in Bond’s work. As one audience member said, “I saw that people in the townships were celebrating [the ANC’s victory].” He continued, “I believe the ANC dismally failed [in this election]. We are dissatisfied.” These two statements suggest a central paradox that leaves us begging the following question: if South Africans are, as Bond and the audience member suggested, “dissatisfied” and living with the reality of worsening economic conditions caused by a neoliberalist ANC, then why did the ANC win the national elections with an overwhelming and “celebrated” 70% majority? Even bearing in mind that many poor South Africans did not vote (McKinley, 2004), a substantial number voted ANC (1) Are these poor South Africans guilty of “talking left,” and voting right?

Before we get to Bond’s attempt at answering this question at the talk, we would like to suggest that this paradox points to the fact that macro-economic and material realities only offer a partial and problematic picture of South Africa today. In the main, we do not disagree with Bond’s critique of neoliberalism and the ways the ANC is complicit in reproducing these macro-systems of power at a local level. However, Bond gave inadequate acknowledgement to the fact that while structural and material analyses are needed and politically useful, most people do not live or see their lives through economic structures and material capital alone. As much as South Africans should be aware of the ways the ANC’s neoliberal economic policies impact their everyday lives, their experience, understanding, and relationship to that knowledge cannot be reduced to bare material facts and figures. Perhaps, economists such as Bond might contend, “This is not my project. Leave that level of analysis to the sociologists, anthropologists and historians.” Fair enough, but we would further argue that without socio-historical specificity in the picture, the limits of orthodox economic-based readings of resistance in South Africa become apparent insomuch as these readings do not take into account the many ways that plausibly explain why some people choose to vote ANC, or opt to not engage with social movements. In other words, resistance is not necessarily the logical or inevitable outcome of living under a neoliberal economy. Some people are neither invested nor willing to wait for a global ground swell of resistance to counter neoliberalism.

The paradox of the election results gives clear voice to this concern, and moreover, glaringly points out that the idea of “the poor getting poorer under the ANC” has more historical and socio-cultural nuances than can be simply explained away through the language of economics. This is especially true if Bond wishes to speak directly about South Africa and seeks to push an approach to resistance in the country. As we will outline further, there are serious consequences in flatting local socio-cultural and historical context into a type of economic frame, wherein both are seen as superstructure to the base of global capital. Convincingly demonstrating and declaring “the ANC is neoliberal!”, we would argue, is not enough, and certainly not enough when critically reflecting on ‘ten years of democracy’ nor when positing a local plan of resistance to corporate globalization.

When challenged with the trouble the ANC’s election victory might pose to his conclusions, Bond turned to Zimbabwe, arguing that people need time, post-independence or post-apartheid, to restructure their consciousness outside a nationalist understanding of politics. Eventually, he suggested, South Africans will come to realize that nationalism will only serve to keep poor people under the power of the ruling governments, and only a globally united poor will have the potential to overthrow the system of global class-apartheid. While local activists unquestionably stand to gain ground by tapping into larger international movements, it is problematic to reduce South African’s relationship to the ruling party as merely ‘false consciousness,’ in a classic Marxist sense. Furthermore, to suggest a monolithic, teleological march of neoliberal history, or indeed an activist history, actually threatens to undermine the agency activists have within that history, both locally and internationally. Teleological fantasies, not only undermine the agency of activists, but also the very many people who do not consider themselves activists at all but who are still, of course, social actors.

The fact of the matter is, despite what global material flows allow us to declare, South Africans’ and activists’ relationship to the ANC is often fraught with contradiction and ambivalence, which is even evidenced in the comments made above by Bond’s audience members. What Bond’s talk did not reflect, and which problematizes such classic Marxist readings of the inevitability of radical consciousness, is the contradiction and ambivalence in the practical ways people experience the post-apartheid world. Some people are desperately saving up money to send a child to a model C school, which was previously not allowed. Others may have undergone water disconnections, and yet some of the same people may see themselves as benefiting from social grants, which were previously unavailable. Some feel alienated from mainstream political parties, and yet do not deny being able to vote as a very real and recent gain.

When considering these contradictions and ambivalences, it becomes clear that it is one thing to be critical of the ANC’s neoliberalism, which we are, and another to posit an overarching conclusion that everyone has lost out post-1994. We do not wish to enter any kind of empirical debate about the poor getting poorer. From Bond’s empirical work, and the work of other critical economists, this is undoubtedly the case. Our point is that people do not experience average macro-economic figures; they live in real places and face real issues.

In this light, we ask Bond and other critical economists of his stripe to remember these ambivalences and contradictions in everyday experience within a socio-historical context – not to become historians, sociologists, or anthropologists, but simply not to forget. Similarly, we ask both Bond’s adherents and opponents not to remember that his argument about “the poor getting poorer” is framed within the specific terms of macro-economics, and should not necessarily be taken as a truism about the everyday lives of all poor South Africans in all situations. So rather here, we argue for a consideration of the many socio-historical ways different people experience post-apartheid, and challenge the romantic idea of global uprising, yet agree with Bond that a neoliberalist ANC is a dangerous one. To address this danger, and to contribute to Bond’s work in a productive way, we will offer a few broader socio-historical comments about the recent elections, in an effort to extrapolate some of the problems with his ideas about inevitability and the walking/talking binary he sets out in the Wolpe.

“A Better Life for All”
In expanding Bond’s picture, and thinking about the paradox of the recent elections, we are reminded that the lived experience of worsening economic conditions for many under the ANC cannot be separated from the image of the ANC as the party of the liberation and South African democracy. This historically sedimented, though problematic, story of the party, often declares the ANC to be the party of the anti-apartheid movement. Many South Africans and people all over the world, however critical they may be, continue to imagine the ANC as the party of African majority, as the united force of the anti-apartheid movement, or as a socialist people’s party fighting for a “better life for all.” The ANC, after all, is still seen by many as Madiba’s party, no matter how far “right” the ANC “walks.” This narrative, and people’s invocation of it, has different consequences for different people. Political and social space is fluid and contestable, as is the idea of the ANC as the party of liberation. Some people, like activist Trevor Ngwane, have withdrawn their support for the ANC. Yet many continue to support the party, and, in some cases, that support very powerfully intersects with the image of the ANC as the party of liberation.

This hallowed image of the ANC as the “liberation movement party” is what the ruling party of today wants South Africans to believe, as Bond might rightly respond, the ANC trades on this idea. Indeed, to use Bond’s terminology, it “talks left” about its liberatory past and present democratic ideals. We would not disagree with Bond that the ANC has to some extent or another co-opted a particular story of the liberation to suit its own purposes, has used its struggle identity in attempts to censure the media and to legitimate its relationships to multinational corporations. However, Bond somewhat underestimates the power of talking left, as if it happens in ahistorical isolation, and seems to want us to believe material reality can reveal the “True ANC,” the ANC as simply modern-day oppressors replacing an earlier oppressive regime.

As far as the Wolpe talk is concerned, Bond’s critique rests on the idea that to undermine the complexities of that history of insincere leftist talk, all one has to do is materially and structurally demonstrate the right-wing “walk” of the ANC – show the people, show the world, and show the ANC. The problem is that the “talk” should not be taken simply as smoke-and-mirrors, nor as something that fits into an easy binary in opposition to the so-called “walk.” The talk is not so effortlessly extractable. In many ways, the talk is inseparable from the walk. “Talk,” which more accurately in this context we will refer to as discourse (Foucault, 1977a, Foucault, 1977b), (2) demands consideration beyond global flows of material power, and beyond the idea that it is a secondary consequence of neoliberalism. The ANC’s discourse then could be seen not only in the form of unfulfilled economic promises but also in the ways it works through people and through a struggle history inscribed on the very bodies and memories of South Africans. In other words, “talking” is a form of power that can be felt as very ‘real,’ one that is caught up with capital and material structures but not necessarily dependent upon them. This is not some trendy Foucauldian reading, indeed as several self-proclaimed Marxist theorists have noted, talking, or discourse, plays a key role in informing both resistance and compliance to state and international power (Gramsci, 1991, Lumsden and Loftus, 1991, Thompson, 1966). (3)

In this sense, it seems Bond may underestimate the power and even the possible danger of talking left, and in doing so reduces the ANC and South African people to acting through a walking/talking split. To push an earlier example a bit farther, as we have said, there is a recognizable feeling toward the ANC, seen in media representations, academic publications, and even in contests within new social movements, which Bond’s walking/talking binary necessarily leaves out of the fold. As we also have already said, Bond’s work neither answers to the paradox of the election results nor this feeling toward the ANC as imagined bearers of South Africa’s struggle history. Now, to make a larger point about ‘who’ Bond leaves out of his walking/talking picture and ‘how’ he leaves them out, let us turn to an example from the 2004 election day.

Televised “Talk” of Struggle History
On 14 April, in what could be considered a crass move by SABC’s “10 Years” programming, films and reports on struggle stories beamed out all across the nation’s televisions. One such covered story was of an elderly woman in Northern KZN. With deep-cut scars on her hands and face, she spoke to the nation, recounting her story of IFP supporters attacking her in her home, and killing her son who had been an ANC sympathizer during the 80s. A story well familiar in this province by IFP, ANC, UDF, and party-unaligned people alike.

Now, no one would argue that her story tells the whole truth about this province or country’s history, and we all should question the SABC’s cynical decision to show almost exclusively sympathetic ANC stories of the struggle on election day and before. Still, what is interesting about this particular story is also that today this woman is an ANC supporter, and she will be until she dies. As Bond’s work so convincingly demonstrates, as a poor, black, rural woman she has the least to gain, on a macro-economic level, from the ANC’s neoliberal agenda. Maybe global flows of material capital are of concern to her, maybe not. The bottom line is that her relationship to the party is much more complicated than that, as she truly carries with her the scars of the fight for democracy in this country, even if she was not herself actively fighting. For her, as evidenced in this interview, voting ANC without threat to her or her family’s life has intense meaning to her past and present that cannot be undone or stripped away by macro-economic structural analyses. So how does Bond’ work speak to this woman’s story? Is she guilty of false-consciousness, of not walking truly left? More importantly, how does Bond’s picture of activism and new social movements engage with her history, and with her possibly ambivalent relationship to the ANC?

This woman is not alone in her story. What her memories of the recent past suggests is that on some level Bond’s analysis does account or allow for the people who either did or do create histories of their lives where they see themselves as having made sacrifices for democracy in this country, even as much as those peoples’ ideas of democracy may be in contest with each other. What is possible, if we do try to break apart the walking/talking binary, is that we can see and consider the ways that people themselves are ambivalent, conflicted about the meaning of ten years of democracy, and the ANC’s relationship to it.

Whether to the advantage of the ANC or not, for the elderly woman in story above, the ANC’s democratic and rights-based discourse is not necessarily a lie for her, not necessarily an impotent form of talk that leads her to believe that the ANC is her party and the party of democracy. Even so, as far as we can tell about her story, we also do not see any call for declaring that she is walking or talking ‘right’ by supporting and voting ANC. For all we know, she is on the streets each weekend demanding that her water be reconnected. Rather, it is her personal history, her scars, the history of the province, and her family’s story that makes her identify, makes her believe in the ANC. She is not simply “walking” or “talking” one coherent political line, and we would suggest that too much consideration of macro-economic structures and movements of global capital might allow us to forget that. Moreover, we contend that forgetting, or placing people or parties into binary models, is not a productive approach to building a global or local resistance to corporate globalization or neoliberalism.

A Card-Carrying ANC Member “Walking” Among Us
Let us take another example, for we know little about the public life and story of the woman above. Let us take a public figure, a new social movements ‘insider.’ Zackie Achmat, spokesperson for the Treatment Action Campaign (TAC), has attained a level of international superstardom in activist and political circles. In leading a successful campaign for HIV/AIDS treatment access, Achmat has directly addressed the local material realities of poor South Africans as well as the global power of governments and multinationals who contribute to the deaths of poor people. Despite the numerous ways the ANC has participated in blocking treatment access, Achmat to this day often notes that he is a card-carrying ANC member, who will continue to support and vote for the ruling party through thick and thin. As an activist in the organization during the struggle, Achmat feels that he played a small role in the ANC’s ascent to power. He thus feels both a sense of ownership and belonging toward the party.

TAC and Achmat keep careful watch of the ANC’s “talk,” they take it seriously and often “talk” acts as a catalyst for the organization’s political action. He calls for civil disobedience against the state when he feels that ANC is too closely protecting multinational interests, and then again, he calls for friendly negotiations when he feels TAC has something to gain from the ANC, its resources, and its power. For him, the ANC “walking right” and his awareness of that fact does not mean he will recede from supporting the party.

We would question Achmat’s ANC card-carrying status, as we feel that a critical position of the party should take shape not only in civil society but through voting and in other arenas as well. Still, this case illustrates how Bond underestimates the complexities of “talk.” The emergence of more people who acknowledge that the ANC is “walking right,” join ‘new social movements,’ and organize resistance against the state and multinationals, does not necessarily translate into a recession of ANC power. Even so, from our perspective, that does not mean that Achmat and TAC’s contribution to ‘new social movements’ is null and void, and while we may challenge Achmat about supporting the ANC, we also would not dismiss his personal political projects as walking or talking in clearly rightist directions.

Yet, in thinking about Achmat’s story and how it is refracted through an idea of democracy’s tenth year, we would like to raise a question for future consideration of whether civil society or voting can pose a serious democratic opposition in contemporary South Africa. When the ANC came to power, the party called for a strong civil society sector to both assist in service delivery and act as a necessary check-and-balance to the government and corporate sectors. By extension, activists such as Achmat see building a strong and critical civil society as the chosen means of democratic opposition, rather than challenging the party in power at the polls (Devenish and Mbali, 2004).(4)

Just Add Struggle History and Stir
Nevertheless, we do not wish to dwell on struggle histories. That is not our point, and we are not arguing for any simple quick-fix or add-on to Bond’s critique of neoliberalism. Struggle history is just one of many possible examples. What we ask is that a critical economic story of the poor getting poorer be opened to an acknowledgement of the contradictory ways people resist and experience material realities, and hopefully in doing so, move away from an idea of the inevitability of resistance. It takes work and agency to build and sustain social movements. There is also agency in choosing to support the ANC or choosing not to participate in any political party of social movement.

Most importantly, we ask that Bond give attention to the people that make up his idea of radical participatory democracy. The people who make up such a democratic framework should not be described or addressed as a mass body of comrades, undifferentiated, coherent. These people should not be simply seen as either “true leftists,” who walk and talk left, or as sell-outs, ANC hacks, or neoliberal apologists. Activists involved in new social movements, to their credit, are seriously divided, in part, along lines of geography, class, race, religion and gender (Desai, 2001).(5) There is no absence of contest between the players in new social movements. And the discourse that surrounds these contests warrants attention, as it shapes and informs what activists are doing on the ground.

Take, for example, the anti-Iraq war demonstrations in Durban during 2003. A large and wildly diverse group came together under a common banner here, calling for socio-economic and political justice, and an end to American and British aggression against Iraq. Even as demonstrators acted as a seemingly united front, women were asked, or rather, instructed to march behind men. Though we do not ask for any apologies to be made for those responsible for this disgraceful display of gender discrimination, we also recognize that, in this example, the historical and cultural locatedness of the participants, and the gendered discourse invoked at the demonstrations, demands reflection. As this example suggests, we cannot assume, in a romantic revolutionary sense, that ‘the masses’ will seemingly shut down for a day other parts of their identities such as race, class, or gender for a simultaneous uprising against the Iraq war or against global capitalism.

What it meant to be a part of a globally connected anti-war movement held very different practical and discursive meanings to the participants, and without a concerted effort to recognize that fact, one would be guilty of glossing over or sidelining such problems. To a certain extent, therefore, we would like to see these contests within ‘new social movements’ be carefully considered on a socio-historical and discursive level, as these contests not only point to the weaknesses within these movements, but also allow the democratic space for critical debate (Gibson, 2001). (6) Anything else, we feel, would be dogmatic.

Remembering “Radical Participatory Democracy”
The questions and examples that we have highlighted are all to say that we feel a critique of neoliberalism must be opened up to the ‘realness’ of discourse, not as smoke and mirrors, but as something to be taken seriously, something that shapes peoples’ understandings of their lives, and their relationship to resisting or consenting to the state. As we have argued, discourse is not something that can be explained away by macro-economic ideas of the relationship between superstructure and base. The ways that various discourses are invoked in specific contexts can likewise not be seen as purely “Left” or purely “Right,” just as party allegiances or declared resistance to the state cannot be reduced to leftist or rightist positioning.

Without this nuanced, socio-historical approach, we would be encouraging both a monolithic idea of the ANC, and an in-or-out mode of thinking about new social movements. We would be encouraging a kind of witch-hunt that sought to ensure all legitimate participants in new social movements were “Talking Left” and “Walking Left.” At the current juncture, a radical project of resistance that seeks broader influence needs to acknowledge and address the fact that a significant proportion of poor people still invest their hopes in the ANC. That does not mean such a radical project should privilege a comfortable relationship with the ANC over an openly hostile one.

Rather, while opening a critique of neoliberalism to the possibilities of discursive reflection and socio-historical locatedness, we are allowing and accounting for contests over meaning within these movements and the multiplicity of voices engaged in that contest. We are arguing for the left to escape simple Manichaeism and open up to self-reflexive debate. As for our part in that contest, we would finally ask: is this not what “radical participatory democracy” looks like?


Notes and References

Kerry Chance is a Visiting Researcher at the Centre for Civil Society.
Mandisa Mbali is a Research Fellow at the Centre for Civil Society.

(1) See Dale McKinley, “A Disillusioned Democracy: South African Elections Ten Years On,” 2004. Available in the Centre for Civil Society’s online library at www.nu.ac.za/ccs

(2) As Michel Foucault has noted the workings of modern disciplinary power – whether in the form of the prison, hospital, or state – relies upon discourse, as does resistance and compliance to state power. For a more expansive theoretical discussion of the term discourse, see Michel Foucault. Discipline and Punish. The Birth of the Prison. Transl. A Sheridan, Ed. R Laing Tavistock: Penguin, 1977. Also see, Michel Foucault. The History of Sexuality Vol I. An Introduction, Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1977

(3) One does not even need to solely rely on Foucauldian readings to understand the complex and nuanced relationship between power and knowledge to be clear on the importance of rhetoric in shaping political allegiances. For instance, Italian Marxist Antonio Gramsci, when analyzing why fascism had so much popular support in Italy in the early twentieth century, argued that the Italian ruling class exercised an ideological stranglehold, or hegemony, over the masses though the Catholic Church, the media, and even civil society itself. See, Antonio Gramsci. Prison Note Books. New York: Columbia University Press, 1991. For how Gramsci’s work might be used in a socio-historically nuanced critique of neoliberalism, see: Fiona Lumsden and Alex Loftus. “Inanda’s struggle for water: Through pipes and tunnels: Exploring state-civil society relations in a post-apartheid informal settlement” Available at www.ukzn.ac.za/ccs In a similar vein, social historians have shown the ways political culture is interwoven with popular culture and within the histories of the working class. See, E P Thompson. The Making of the English Working Classes. London: Vintage, 1966.

(4) See, Annie Devenish and Mandisa Mbali. A review of Zackie Achmat’s Wolpe Memorial Lecture Ten Years of South Africa’s Democratic Constitution. Available at www.ukzn.ac.za/ccs

(5) A sensitive portrayal of how these factors shape social movements is Ashwin Desai’s account of everyday words and actions of poor people involved in such movements in Durban’s townships. He also addresses how people, in their local struggles and resistance, wrestle with increasing poverty under the ANC, and the idea of the ANC as the party of liberation. See, Ashwin Desai. We Are the Poors. New York: Monthly Review Press, 2001.

(6) For more on the need for critical debate under the ANC government, see Nigel Gibson “The Pitfalls of South Africa's Liberation.” New Political Science. Pp. 23: 371-386, 2001. Available in the Centre for Civil Society’s online library at www.ukzn.ac.za/ccs

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