Thursday, 3 February 2011

SP Lead In: Struggles In Africa

Heres a lead in I gave for the SP Debate, focused on socialism, anticapitalism and struggles in Africa. I was tasked this before Christmas, and obviously recent developments forced me to switch it up a bit, which is probably why its a disjointed mess.

Class struggle and general struggle has always been an underlying theme within Africa. Since the time of colonisation, Africa has been in constant conflict. The conditions that heighten dissatisfaction and anger within Africa are on the rise. Poverty is rising in sub-Saharan Africa, with 288 million people living on less than $1 a day in 1980, rising to 516 million by 2001. However, it is always good to have a historical understanding of leftism within Africa when tackling how anger is shaped there. One interesting example of Marxism flaring within Africa is the case of Thomas Sankara and Burkina Faso in the mid-80s.

Thomas Sankara, in western circles, is not very well known or recognised. However within Africa he is viewed as a charismatic and iconic revolutionary, often being referred to “Africa’s Che Guevara”. In 1983, he seized power in a popular coup from French colonial power, hoping to eliminate corruption and to embark on "the most ambitious program for social and economic change ever attempted on the African continent”. He we staunchly anti-imperialist and opposed French colonial powers to the point where he even renamed the country from the Upper Volta to Burkina Faso, meaning the Land of Upright Man. His philosophy was one of autonomy and rebirth, often refusing to be tied to foreign aid, stating “he who feeds you, controls you”, and to push away the influence of neoliberal organisations such as the IMF. Through land reform and solidarity campaigns, he sought to end poverty and to unite the country. His popularity rose through these Solidarity with the Poor initiatives, one of which was the highly popular move of selling off the government fleet of Mercedes cars and instead replacing the official service car of the ministers the Renault 5, the cheapest car sold in the country at the time. He also reduced the salaries of government officials, including his own, and forbade government officials to use chauffeurs and 1st class tickets.

Sankara also combined many other philosophies into his own, including that of pan-africanism, environmentalism and feminism. He argued for a united Africa to fight against neoliberal influences and to correct the terrible poverty and income inequality present in Africa. He also planted 10 million trees to try and halt desertification, while embarking on radical land reformation projects. His fights for womens' rights within Burkina Faso are also notable, as this led him to outlaw female genital mutilation, forced marriages and polygamy; while appointing females to high governmental positions and encouraging them to work outside the home and stay in school even if pregnant. One of his well known quotes on this issue is:

"The revolution and women’s liberation go together. We do not talk of women’s emancipation as an act of charity or because of a surge of human compassion. It is a basic necessity for the triumph of the revolution. Women hold up the other half of the sky."

His attitudes to healthcare were greatly progressive, embarking his government on a vaccination program of 2.5 million children against meningitis, yellow fever and measles. Sankara's administration was also the first African government to publicly recognize the AIDS epidemic as a major threat to Africa."

However, the threat of French colonial retaliation often forced Sankara to take authoritarian methods to achieve these goals, often restricting the role of unions and free press. In the end, French powers did retaliate and was overthrown and assassinated by the by the French-backed Blaise Compaoré on October 15, 1987. A week before his execution he declared that, "While revolutionaries as individuals can be murdered, you cannot kill ideas."

However, the revolutions and struggles that are springing up all over north Africa take on a different characteristic from those in Burkina Faso. Rather than a straight Marxist revolution headed by a leader with popular support, these revolutions seem to be a somewhat leaderless and spontaneous outburst of people power. The case of Egypt’s ongoing revolution is somewhat different to Tunisia’s, but there are connecting threads between them. Egypt’s movement seems to be focused on Hosni Mubarak and his dictatorial 30 year presidency, whereas Tunisia’s uprising was begun by both the self immolation of the 26 year old street vendor and through the general anger over unemployment and poverty. Although these uprisings both different in initial characteristic, one of the main themes about them seems to be a rejection of American ideals. After all, Mubarak was an ally of the US and the US supported him, both publicly and through trade. We all know that America likes to champion democracy at every possible opportunity, except when it inconveniences them. This was made clear from the very milquetoast statements from America which AJE reporters described as supporting both sides at the same time, mainly because while they cant be seen to not support people’s crys for genuine democracy they at the same time must not lose the support of Mubarak, often hiding behind vague and silly notions of stability.

However, violence in Egypt has escalated recently greatly. A few days ago, the million man march in Egypt was relatively peaceful. However today and yesterday pro-mubarak protesters and forces have come out to violently counter-protest. This violence began as knives, machetes and quickly elevated to guns and molotovs. However, there are suggestions that this pro-Mubarak counterdemonstration was not as spontaneous as it seems, especially after one BBC reporter asked a pro-Mubarak protestor about his support. He revealed that he was not a supporter and was, in fact, being paid £5 and a chicken to protest. The CNN is quoted as saying:

"As battles raged between the two sides, some pro-Mubarak protesters were captured by his opponents. Some were terrified to be caught and begged for their lives, screaming that the government had paid them to come out and protest. Others turned out to be carrying what seemed to be police identification, though they were dressed in plain clothes." - Source

These tactics are not new to both Mubarak’s regime and to the uprisings in Northern Africa in general. The state will use its arms to suppress people’s movements wherever they are found, as was demonstrated in Tunisia with police shooting at protesters randomly and looting shops. The main reason for this is that in a Dictatorial regime like that of Egypt and of Tunisia, the police are used to suppress the people and squash any genuine feelings of anger against the government. This is often done through, in comparison to the average wages, ludicrous wages for the police to keep them on the governments side. However, this same level of attention is not given to the army, as it is viewed less essential to maintaining the stability of a regime. This is why we find, curiously, that the army in both Egypt and Tunisia has come out in support and defence of the protesters, although they are still obliged to enforce curfews etc. However, one must be cautious and conclude whether the army are supporting the protesters out of genuine conviction or in an attempt to weaken the government for a coup, as was feared in Tunisia. Personally, I would say its a mix of the 2, but its a situation that must be kept in check by the protesters.

One of the main worries, especially in America, is that when the governments are ousted the people will naturally side with the Muslim Brotherhood rather than birthing their own secular moderate democracy. For example, Steven Fish in Islam and Authoritarianism written in 2002 conducted research and found that the the assumption that religion is consistently more important to Muslims than it is to adherents of other faiths and that this difference is clearly reflected in social and political life is open to doubt. I would personally think that the protesters would not allow a theocracy to form, and would instead deny it through continued demonstration.

Now, what does this mean for Socialism in Africa? Although the protests are generally anti-government, they also take on an air of rejection of American interference and that of neoliberalism, instead favouring workers rights. This is evident in Egypt, as Mubarak has been criticised constantly for favouring big business over the rights and conditions of workers. While there is a general feeling of anti-neoliberalism within these protests, small sections of radical leftism have emerged, with workers taking over and controlling 2 factories in Tunisia the last week. This dissatisfaction of both American backed dictatorships and of declining economic and social conditions are pushing feelings of perhaps not outright socialism, but definitely feelings of anti-neoliberalism. With rumblings of uprisings in Algeria, where the president is planning to lift the 19 year state of emergency in order to stave off unrest, and Libya, where AJE has been blocked in order to prevent a repeat of Tunisia, we may well see an almost domino effect amongst north African countries, of protesters unwilling to accept the meagre scraps thrown to them by desperate governments.

What remains to be seen is whether these uprisings are limited to the Arabic African countries, as it looks now. While socialist and class struggle continues in places like South Africa, where workers took over factories last year, and trade unions continue to strike, it is unclear whether they will be influenced by the uprisings in Northern Africa. Perhaps the philosophy of pan-africanism that Thomas Sankara so passionately spoke about will grip the people of Africa once again, and a call of a united Africa will spread dissatisfaction with governments, poverty, income inequality and economic systems that cause them.

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