||Dennis Brutus, a life-long freedom fighter and poet who was imprisoned on Robin Island with Nelson Mandela, is Professor Emeritus in the Department of Africana Studies at the University of Pittsburgh. A long-time supporter of the Thomas Merton Center and many campaigns for peace and justice in the Pittsburgh area, he now spends most of his time in South Africa. He was recently in New York for a landmark court case seeking millions in reparations for South Africans from major corporations who refused to acknowledge the sanctions against South Africa during the apartheid era. An interview with Democracy Now about this case is at http://www.democracynow.org/2008/7/8/landmark_case_returns_to_ny_seeking
He visited Pittsburgh briefly on his U.S. tour where we caught up with him. In this discussion we see that many of the problems that we are facing in the United States are being confronted in South Africa and around the world too. By Pete Shell.
Q: What's your perspective on the crises taking place in the U.S. and throughout the world – housing, financial, and now, food?
A: The immediate crisis is economic, and it's especially acute in the U.S. If you want dramatic evidence, look at the sub-prime crisis and the need to bail out Fannie May and Freddie Mac. It's worse than that though – the solution to that isn't a solution, it's going to deepen the crisis. When you have to borrow more money from somewhere else in order to bail them out, you're generating additional layers of debt.
There's another area of crisis though: physical, which has several areas. First is the skyrocketing price of oil. Second is the steady deterioration of the climate. It's no longer speculative, it's climatic. Third is the under-supply of food in the world. It's not just a problem of undersupply but also a problem of maldistribution to some areas.
Perhaps more urgent is the crisis of water. Two things are happening here: first, the corporations are taking control of it and it's being privatized. Those who can afford it, get it, and those who don't, get diseases or die. Second, corporations are controlling the source of water. Coca-Cola has even bought an entire river in India. There's a book about this by Manda Barlo called "Blue Planet". This may very well be the more serious crisis of them all.
The last one is based on the theory among scholars that capitalism has revealed a crisis called over-accumulation. Theoretical work by people like Rosa Luxenberg discuss the idea that capitalism in the West has exhausted its sources of profit so it seeks new sources of it in the Global South. Another aspect is that in the search for profit, capitalism is now turning to the commoditization of natural resources like water – and even air!
Q: You've lived under apartheid and you're familiar with the Palestinian situation. How would you compare the two?
A: We have to look at two aspects. First, there's property. Palestinians are denied basic human rights both in Palestine and in Israel. This is similar to apartheid. In South Africa there were two classes of citizenship: one for Blacks, another for whites. The United Nations passed a resolution declaring the Israel policy of Zionism equivalent to apartheid. Later, with pressure from the U.S., the U.N. revisited the issue and reversed that resolution. At the world Congress on racism in Durban, South Africa, some people tried to revive that resolution. They weren't able to pass it but instead they had a successful fight on a different resolution equating apartheid to crimes against humanity. This became the basis for the federal lawsuit in New York that we have going that calls for reparations from U.S. companies.
Another point on Palestine: the most significant evidence of Israel's crimes are the apartheid wall. On the Israeli side there's a paved road. On the Palestinian side it's just a dirt road. Note that the U.N. and the ICJ (International Court of Justice) both condemned the wall. Many people are still depending on U.N. resolution 242 which calls for two independent states, but it's meaningless – it can't be achieved because the Israelis are constructing settlements in the area where there's supposed to be a Palestinian state.
Q: We've told you a little about the troubles facing the Merton Center recently, with fighting between groups and several board members having resigned. You've certainly weathered several political and factional struggles in South Africa. What's your perspective on how we can move forward?
A: These problems happen all over the world, those questions on structure and governance are being asked by the young. The questions arise out of impatience. People flounder around with them. An example is one of the top intellectuals in Africa, Samir Amin, a brilliant and respected Egyptian. He went to the Social Forum in Porto Allegro and said that they didn't have enough structure. The young people there said "we're not accepting hierarchical structure". Those are two mindsets and value systems.
But – this is where it gets interesting – we achieved an accommodation of the two mindsets in Seattle in 1999. It's possible to achieve. Both sides must respect each other, there must be an exchange of ideas. This is where the World Social Forum comes in – global political structures. Broadly, the model is consensus with respect for everybody, and a commitment to reaching outcomes that everybody can live with.
Since the judge in the reparation case didn't show up for the court date, Mr. Brutus will be back in New York in late September for a rescheduled hearing. We will be planning a public event featuring him around that time. Watch this space for more information and please contact the Thomas Merton Center to help organize this event.
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