African Social Movements Today

KC JOURNAL NO 4 June 2003

MP Giyose* argues that the present social movement are an historical continuation of pre-independence struggles in Africa, and that it is important to unite these movements with the ideological leadership of the new intelligentsia.


It would have been instructive if we had been able to review the subject of African social movements from the period of the pre- independence struggle along the lines covered in an early promising essay by Kwame Nkrumah entitled “Towards Colonial Revolution”. The essential features of such a review would have enabled us to cover the history of such an enigmatic period as the history of the Mau-Mau movement in Kenya (1952), the great labour struggles in West Africa (1947– 1950) and the variegated struggles for land, labour and liberty throughout the continent in the entire period 1946–1976. Indeed, so sustained were these struggles of the popular masses that they expressed themselves in clear class terms. It was however precisely because of the political aspirations that were also associated with democracy that the African national petit bourgeoisie was able to perch itself at their head and deflect them onto the path of colonial bourgeois democracy. The result has been neither a bourgeois nor a democratic revolution, but a continuation of the colonisation of Africa by other

As a result, the new phenomenon that now confronts us as social movements has a number of aspects. On the one hand it is a continuation of the historical aspirations by Africans to construct economic regimes that will enable African people to lay their hands on landed resources. These will be used to grow many types of agricultural enterprises whose specific aim is to secure food for the people of Africa. On the other hand, revenues from landed surplus products will enable urban populations on the continent to build a genuine industrial base for the country. Other aspects of those same aspirations will include the fulfilment of health needs, needs in education and culture as well as the establishment of civilised housing estates. It is obvious that such development will only grow in conflict with the big corporations coming out of the imperialist countries, as well with capitalist client groups inside of African societies.

In a very real sense the emergence of our peasants social movements can be traced to the land questions in almost every African country. It is not for nothing that African landless organisations have already found kindred spirits in the landless peoples’ movement in Brazil. There are of course similar movements throughout South America, Asia and parts of Europe. The connections of this peasant movement with the industrial working class remains as important in Africa today as it was in 1945. At a cultural level, the bitter mobilisations caused by the current economic system in the area of housing, water, education and health reflect an urge of the basic needs which all humanity has a right to.


This brings us face to face with the basic question of the character of these movements today. In order to examine this problem from perhaps a frightening perspective, we need a comparative experience from Indonesia. By the early 1960s a postcolonial regime had been led into power in that country under the leadership of Sukharno. He had led a broad alliance of classes – including the working class in the towns, the peasantry, and the so-called national bourgeoisie – in a struggle against Dutch colonialism in such major islands as Java and Sumatra. A critical element of the militant national movement was the activists of the Communist Party, who had willingly subordinated the interest of the toiling classes to the “national” impulse lead by the merchants, the educated classes and other elements of Indonesian petit bourgeoisie. The continuing inability of the Sukharno regime to satisfy the material needs of the labouring classes led to tensions in the national alliance. These tensions were expressed in the periodical occupations of factory plants by workers, and in the unauthorised seizures of land from the huge commercial farmers, by peasants. Of course the bourgeoisie, which was now increasingly coming under the leadership of American imperialism throughout the pacific area, South East Asia and China felt compelled to find a resolution to the problems of class struggles in the country behind the shield of the army. This led to the emergence of Suharto. In a memorable coup de tat in 1965, Suharto and the generals seized power and drenched the country with the blood of some hundreds of thousands of workers and peasants. The result was the stabilisation of capitalism in Indonesia, which occurred over a prolonged period (1966 –2000). The emergent regime in the country was a part of those experiments in despotic colonial neo-liberalism, totally subject to USA capitalism.

The experience of Indonesia showed that the great movement of workers and students that exploded after the 2nd World War had not prepared the social movements of these classes for political power. In other words the social movements had not been purposefully directed over the entire period of their political life for a seizure of power. Headless and without strategic purpose they led a revolutionary explosion which soon lost its way. After decades of rule by the military, the restoration of an even more unambiguous neoliberal “democracy” in that country, led by the daughter of Suharto, is a disaster that will lead to a greater catastrophe in the future.

A new phase in the struggle

The experience of Indonesia provides a central lesson that the social movements in Africa will fail to learn at their own peril. The current movements are for land, for basic rights and general economic prosperity both in the urban areas and in rural life. They also include the struggle of African women against both want and cultural domination. They include the needs of children and youth for security. As an instant reaction to class denial, they believe in direct action whether this relates to the questions of housing, water, power and land. In the areas of labour and health direct action will soon encompass factory occupations on closure or threatened destabilisation by the bosses, and will include the possibilities of setting up health brigades. One of the greater problems threatening to engulf the very lifeblood of modern African society is that of HIV/AIDS – which is

an element of the health question. Indeed so great is the poverty facing the continent that crime and a low level of internecine warfare, which sometimes breakout into hideous forms of warlordism, pose the very question of survival for the majority of the poor.

A critical question facing the social movements therefore is the kind of class destiny to which they will head the movements of the people. Will it be toward a repetition of yet another regime in neoliberal stabilisation or, will it be in terms of an entirely different class configuration? The social movements must see themselves as early incubators towards an entirely new phase in the development of African history. They must be clear however that it is only the big battalions of organised labour, both urban and rural, which will constitute the body that will lead them to that future. An instructive development in South Africa is the impending split in the labour movement, which is already presaged by the appearance of what some people call a “Red Union” in Johannesburg. These are not the beginning of red unionism in the country. Rather it is the re-emergence of general unions, which will include employed workers, previously employed workers and the unemployable working classes. Such are the battalions of the mass body of social movements, which will have a revolutionary potential for the country.

How then do we explain the motive forces for this new phase of struggle in Africa?

The contradictions of African capitalism

The foundations for the new process in Africa lie in three places. Firstly, the new African nations whose real revolutionary content has failed to be consummated contain a whole set of national issues that remain unresolved. The new nation is but a shadow of the national ambitions of the local bourgeoisie: it remains deprived of its property interest, which is now shared amongst giant multinational corporations coming from the North. This shell of a nation will only have the national question resolved when the interests of all its dispossessed classes are realised. In that sense they will be able to rebuild a real nation to join in the community of other modern nations.

Secondly, African colonial bourgeoisie classes are a class of dependent capitalism. Local companies, which are able to compete in the context of modern globalisation, have already fled onto the global market and thus attached themselves onto foreign stock markets. Here they have come to join the world investor class and look upon their former homeland with the eyes of a parasitic class whose aim is equally to plunder the African continent.

They have lost all commitment to the national revolution, and make only paltry contributions to their former countries – both in the realm of the fiscus as well as in the area of job creation. At the same time the new groups of indigenous Bourgeoisie that are created by new governments under programmes similar to South Africa’s “black economic empowerment” look for investment strictly in areas of high financial return – in the financial services industry, for example. They specialise in attaching shareholding elites to older corporate formations. They hover around in speculative activities thus doing next to nothing in building up a truly local stock of domestic investment with networks of fixed assets. They therefore make a direct contribution to the crises of poverty and misery in their lands.

Thirdly, there is the emergence of a new leadership in the social movements. The flight of the old leadership into bourgeois corporations and into the state has created space for the emergence of a new layer. These are women, men and youth who constitute a rich cadre of political experience for the social movements. Some of them come from the “pre-democratic” phase. They escaped the type of killing machines in the old regime that obliterated earlier leaderships in countries like Indonesia. Having survived to the present they join hands with newer layers of intelligentsia in the country and thus participate in the building of a new national leadership. They divide their work amongst the various social movements offering their varied experiences to each. They preserve the historical memory of working class organisations using lessons learned in a variety of ways. Their experience also includes participation over a long period of time in the international struggle of the working class. All these lessons pay for much in the work of movement building and the even more in the long-termed efforts at party building. They therefore offer mammoth contributions to the broader struggles of employed workers, unemployed workers, rural workers, women combatants, and youth brigades in all the sectors into which the social movement divides.

It is absolutely imperative therefore to unite the dynamic of the new social movements with the ideological leadership of its emergent intelligentsia. The interaction of cutting edge struggles by the social movement with an ideological leadership that is forward looking in class terms constitutes the dialectic that will telescope the growth of our present social movements to a path where higher goals will be achievable. In that way it will be possible to pose and resolve, through practical struggle, the very questions that eluded the Indonesian social movements.

* MP Giyose is the Chairperson of Jubilee South Africa and is active in the social movements in South Africa.

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