Waiting for Gukurahundi
“We dare not compromise nor dare we use moderate language in our cause for freedom”
Robert Mangaliso Sobukwe
Why I say I am waiting for Gukurahundi is because they will probably come for the Black lesbians first. So if I am arrested or disappear mysteriously in some random ‘thug’ attack I want to know I said what must be said before it was too late.
This evening I attended the memorial service of Ramesh Vassen. For those of you who don’t know him he was for many years the colleague of Dullah Omar and lawyer for (amongst many others including myself) Ahmed Kathrada and Oscar Mpetha. Now the one thing I remember most clearly about Vassen was his habit of always speaking the truth. He carried many secrets, some of them to the grave, but when he spoke he spoke absolute truth without caring for the consequences or whom he might offend. Then he would laugh. It was a most charming characteristic to a young radical like myself. In Vassen’s honour, I wish to do some plain speaking.
So here are the facts: Zimbabwe has not had free and fair elections since 2002. Kenya, Ghana, Uganda, Nigeria, Guinea Bissau, Mozambique, Angola, Sudan, Somalia: the list of African countries who have suffered from either military dictatorships or a version thereof like civil war for periods ranging from ten to twenty five years is long and depressing. This is obviously not evidence of some inborn African propensity to violence or anything like that, it is simply the inevitable consequence of the fact that when direct colonialists consented to share a modicum of political power, they did so with every intention of retaining the economic structures of white supremacy. They therefore set in power organizations who were most likely to deploy the rhetoric of peaceful governance under the reality of capitalist rule. Settler colonies like Kenya, Zimbabwe and South Africa probably felt it the most but all over Africa we have tried to perpetrate the logical impossibility of a politically democratic rule together with an economic structure of exploitation and inequality. If it was going to be possible it would have worked by now. But it doesn’t. Africa would be an excellent example of where we have empirically tested the hypothesis that political peace can co-exist with economic injustice and proved it thoroughly flawed.
Let me underline this point. White supremacists need to admit that their economic system is logically impossible to combine with social cohesion and a level of peace. The levels of violence necessary to keep the poor poor and the rich rich requires a continuous undermining of the rule of law (at least if the law is a just law) and civil peace. The more so since the share of income going to profits rather than labour has increased worldwide during the last few decades of neoliberalism and structural adjustment. The inescapable tendency of capitalism is towards rising levels of violence. So the post-World War Two rhetoric of Westminster-style parliamentary democracy is just that. Rhetoric. As long as the economic system remains unchanged, white supremacists are deluding themselves that they can ever live outside their well-defended laager. So too are those black middle class people who think they can continue to accumulate while talking left and walking right.
This is not to cast aspersions on the good intentions of our founding fathers like the Nkrumahs, the Nyereres or the Mandelas. The problem is that such leaders cannot last. They are replaced, sooner or later by what can only be characterized as the houseniggers of African politics. Just like in patriarchy where the women who rise to the top are the ones patriarchs are most comfortable with – i.e. feminine’ women – and just like in heteronormative society where the few LGBTI people who do well are those who most conform to straight stereotypes, so in white supremacist economies the blacks who end up in charge (and I use the small ‘b’ deliberately) will be those who are easiest for whites to deal with. Those are the blacks who fit into the archetype of the violent, brutal but rather stupid black. Does that sound like anybody you know?
This housenigger sooner or later gets tired of reconciling the irreconcilable and decides that it is easier to enrich himself and his cronies through cutting short the rhetoric of democracy. Outright military dictatorship saves a lot of time and trouble all round and allows him to deliver more efficiently to his capitalist masters. Make no mistake. Despite Mugabe’s pseudo nationalist garbage that he spews out every time he feels defensive. some white capitalists have done extremely well out of the new Zimbabwe. As has the World Bank.. +
What I am saying that the decision in 1994 to take the political sphere while conceding the economic one meant that the present political moment could be foreseen by anybody with an understanding of the dynamics structuring recent African political history. Yet this trajectory was chosen not just by the ANC, but by everyone who voted ANC. As the last remaining political colony on the continent, we did not have the excuse of, say, Ghana or Zambia. We had forty years to study this dynamic. So it was indeed foreseen by some – unfortunately not the majority. The entire Black Consciousness Movement did not participate in the 1994 elections. A fragment of Azapo stood in the 1999 elections, but most of us remained outside the system. We worked to keep the initial period of political liberalism open for as long as possible, and if you consider that Gukurahundi took place from 1983-1986 – that is, from three years after political independence, then managing to keep the liberation struggle momentum rolling until 2006 was not bad going at all. I myself took no interest in party politics although I spent much time studying the building of a nation state under Mbeki. It was not an easy task, and it must be said in fairness that while the turn to neoliberalism was much to be regretted under his tenure, it had this one advantage that it kept corruption to a minimum. Selling out the family silver and paying private companies to do the government’s job may not be the best way to run the country. But keeping the state to a minimum meant there just wasn’t that much money to steal and the implementation of the Public Finance Management Act under Trevor Manuel and his trainees (Gordhan and Nene) meant there was some modicum of control. I would venture to say that if fruitless, wasteful and unauthorized expenditure under Mbeki amounted to millions, under Zuma it amounts to billions. Whereas the Mbeki government occasionally built taps and toilets, not to mention the odd house, under Zuma we have seen a failure of service delivery such that mass public protest has reached unprecedented heights.
Please do not read what I am saying as in any way a defence of GEAR! The only point I am making is that the difference between neoliberalism and what we have now is like the difference between a bowl of porridge for lunch and no bowl of porridge because the head of the school feeding committee stole the sack of maize. Obviously children should eat a lot better than mealie meal for lunch. But a bowl of porridge is a damn sight better than nothing at all. Anybody who says it isn’t has never gone hungry.
In this spirit the 2006 Zuma rape trial was a wakeup call for me and many others. It signaled that the end of relative political liberalism was at an end. Figuring that half a loaf was better than no bread I took a job defending the Constitution. At the CGE I was in a prime position to observe the patriarchal backlash as most of the advances made by the women’s movement inside and outside government were roiled back.
The history of Gukurahundi began with an attack against women. Every woman who could be interpreted as having some measure of economic independence, such as nurses, teachers, etc, were attacked, called prostitutes, beaten up in the streets, forced to moderate their dress code and appear securely attached to some man in a heterosexual marriage. The persecution of LGBTI people followed soon after, beginning with the prosecution of Canaan Banana. Independent women and LGBTI people were, so to speak, the canary in the goldmine. That is why the public metaphorical lynching of “Khwezi” struck me with stunning force. It signaled that the logical contradiction between an oppressive economic system and political governance was about to rear its ugly head. The Mandela miracle was well and truly over. The ten years since has been one violation after the other. It is like being in an abusive marriage. Just when you think it cannot get any worse (say Marikana), it gets worse (say ‘we are going ahead with fracking and nuclear’).
What is the relation between this analysis and the situation today? Well, obviously, the last semblance of a ruling party which practices governance has gone. The president now does not consult even with the remaining vestiges of a once proud liberation movement. He rules this country singlehandedly. The coup he has perpetrated is so thorough that it cannot be undone without a thorough revision of our current political system. You see, the trend of recent African political history was never inevitable. It could have been undone by the actions of many people at many times. Every one of us Africans who acted in their own self-interest instead of in a spirit of Ubuntu in the hope that somebody else will be the Ken Saro Wiwa; and every single one of us that chose at critical moments to do nothing have to bear the responsibility of the violence and militarization which has engulfed this continent while all the while extraction of its riches has continued unabated.
The white supremacists who choose to believe that merely getting rid of Zuma will somehow allow them to continue to cling to power and privilege are of course wrong. The problem is systemic not individual, and just like many whites were forced to flee under Mugabe so continuing along the present trajectory will lead many individuals to lose out. And they will have no South Africa to go to. Whether Europe wants them is extremely moot. So for people who identify as whites there is little option but to accept that it is either the end of democracy or the beginning of redistribution. They choose.
The black middle class people who use system change as an excuse to do nothing are not convincing. Fine, you do not want to support anyone in the ANC. What are you doing instead? Where is your revolutionary option? Because to pretend you can get up tomorrow morning and carry on as usual merely demonstrates your tacit support for the system. It leads me to believe that you in some way benefit from the system and you are acting to protect your class interests. You choose.
Where does this leave us now? Going back to the status quo ante is impossible. Those who say protest now will only benefit Ramaphosa or some other neo-liberal candidate have it wrong. History cannot move backwards. It can only move forward. Should civil society move now to save what is left of the ANC which once believed in Mandela’s dream, they will owe us. The driver’s seat of history will have shifted from Parliament to the streets. We will have taken back the power we gave away in 1994.
There are no inevitabilities in history. Please do not believe that Zimbabwe is the only option! We could also choose to become like Somalia: a bunch of city states run by politicians who are little more than ganglords. We could choose to become like Southern Sudan or Niger: a state which is at such a low level of functioning that it can barely be called a state. We could choose 25 years’ civil war like Congo or Angola. Or we could choose to use the current political moment in the same way that Mandela used glasnost in 1989. He was not a god but a human being just like every one of us, and chose to move history forward a little bit. The future is in our hands. The Black lesbian has spoken.