Thursday, 16 June 2016

The Turquoise Dress & Lessons of the 1st Insurrection

On bookshelves near you, the 40th Anniversary commemorative album on the "Soweto Uprising," which marked the start of what I term the 1st Insurrection (the 2nd Insurrection being that over 1985-1991), a collection of gut-and-heart-wrenching pictures by my wonderful colleague, the gentlemanly Peter Magubane, who lives in my area, with a foreword by Winnie Madikizela Mandela who, among other encounters, I interviewed in her Soweto home on the 30th Anniversary about her reminiscences of 16 June '76. 

Another reminiscence of that dark time come from my friend Izak Khomo, a veteran journalist with Channel Africa who is a walking encylopaedia of Africana, writing to me today: "I was in Britain on the 16th June 1976, Cardiff to be precise. At 21:00 hrs after coming back from the pub and having bought a pasty and chips I sat before a television which had been liberated by a Capetonian friend Gordon, or rather he inherited the TV which had been initially liberated by his girl friend Heather and thereby inherited by me. All same I was watching the News when what comes up us a report of South African Police having gunned down protesting Black students. Then the footage followed; it was shot from within the police lines. I cried, I was on my own and I immediately knew that things will never be the same again."

My friend the writer Eric Miyeni was 10 years old in 1976 (as was I) and he recalled for me last night hearing a woman recently tell how her world had been turned upside down as a young girl on that day: "Her elder sister used to hand her clothes down to her, and she had her eye on this turquoise dress; she was actually jealous of her sister for that dress. Then one day she made a plan with the boy down the street, Thabane with the dreamy eyes, to meet at the corner of Kruis and Commissioner [in downtown Joburg] at twelve the next day. It was her first date, and her sister said 'here' and held out the turquoise dress. So she was wearing that dress in the taxi, her face pressed against the window and a smile on her face. She got to Kruis and Commissioner and waited. Twelve, then one, and no sign of Thabane. By four o'clock it was plain he wasn't coming so she took a taxi home and this time her face was sad. When she arrived she heard some boys talking; Thabane had been shot. So she never had that date; and that's how it was; some people were going on a date and it just never happened."

Some things that people probably don't know about the misnamed June '76 Soweto Uprising:

1) The Insurrection in fact started not in June with a revolt by schoolkids against instruction in Afrikaans as is usually recalled, but in January by adult black workers outraged at the Western Services Council dramatically raising rent and service charges after the all-white Joburg City Council suspended its usual R2-million annual subsidy;

2) The Insurrection was also not limited to Soweto but spread countrywide, or to the year 1976, as it spilled over into 1977, so it really should be recalled as a national insurrection over 1976-1977;

3) The rioting on 16 June 1976 itself was started by younger, primary school children, and only later taken up by older children at high schools such as Morris Isaacson. 

4) Selby Semela claimed in his 1979 analysis linked below that June 16 hero Tietso Mashinini was actually stoned by students angry at him for ordering them to retreat in the face of the armed police.

5) The police commander who gained notoriety for ordering a police phalanx to gun down protesting schoolchildren on 16 June, Theuns "Rooi Rus" (Red Russian) Swanepoel, who later became a brigadier and the chief interrogator of the Security Branch as well as a staunch AWB fascist, lost an eye in the rioting. He told the Truth & Reconciliation Commission "I made my mark. I let it be known to the rioters I would not tolerate what was happening. I used appropriate force. In Soweto and Alexandra where I operated, that broke the back of the organisers." Having never stood trial, Swanepoel died  on 7 July 1998 at the age of 70 years old at his home in Roodepoort, Johannesburg. 

6) Afrikaans was in fact retained as a medium of education at Morris Isaacson well past 1976, until 2005 when a misinterpretation of a Department of Education ruling that instruction needed to be in at least two official languages lead to Afrikaans being dropped, which really upset the many black Afrikaners in the school (contrary to popular belief that it is a white language, Afrikaans is the home language of 16 million South Africans, about 3 million white, three million coloured, and 10 million black). 

7) Mystery shrouds the fate of one of the most famous faces of 16 June, that of Mbuyisa Makhubu, the young man in the blood-spattered dungarees with the distraught face, carrying the body of murdered 12-year-old Hector Pieterson whose younger sister Antoinette runs alongside, in the famous photograph by Sam Nzima. I last interviewed Antoinette at the Hector Pieterson Museum in Soweto a few years ago in the company of a New York journalist who was keen on tracking Makhubu. Makhubu disappeared into exile in 1979 and was last heard of living in Nigeria in 1984 - but a man detained in Canada today may be the missing man according to his nephew, my friend Zongezile Makhubu. The story is complicated by the fact that the detained man has since retracted his claim to be Mbuyisa Makhubu, but the case is not yet closed. An Eyewitness News report is here EWN on Mbuyisa Makhubu and a Guardian piece here The Guardian on Sam Nzima photograph.

So what are the lessons of the 1st Insurrection for today's student movement? Academic Anne Heffernan in the Mail&Guardian today (M&G Strategic Lessons from 1976notes that "University students of 2015-16 have some key things in common with their 1976 predecessors. They have changed the tenor and shape of political discussion around education in South Africa, more effectively than any other single movement since 1994. They have re-interrogated the ideologies that animated students in 1976. Their engagement with Black Consciousness and Biko, with Fanon and with pan-Africanism has led to a movement to decolonise universities’ faculty and curricula. But today’s students have struggled to move their activism beyond universities. Not withstanding significant gains in the movement to end the exploitative practice of outsourcing jobs on campuses, for which the Fallist movements of 2015-16 deserve a great deal of credit, student movements today have yet to create enduring alliances with workers outside the university, or with school students." 

Heffernan fails, however, to suggest actual strategies for today's "Fallist movements" - Fees Must Fall, Rhodes Must Fall, Zuma Must Fall, etc - so I would suggest these movements look at a vital critique of the Black Consciousness Movement (BCM), an exile formalisation of the post-16 June movement. The 1st Insurrection was not the movement of any one party - although it has tended in recent years to be "captured" by ANC revisionists - but it did generate a significant new layer of militant working class youth both internally and in exile. But what was the historic revolutionary task of that layer? And what is the historic revolutionary task of today's militant layer? 

Onen important approach to the question is laid out by Selby Semela who was an 18-year-old school pupil and treasurer of the Soweto Students Representative Council (SSRC) on June 16, 1976. Forced into exile after being shot and wounded by a black policeman during the Insurrection, he co-wrote this rare libertarian socialist analysis of the Insurrection in 1979 aged about 21, for which I wrote the introduction to the ZACF's African Resistance History Series (Zabalaza Books, Durban, South Africa, 2005): Reflections on the BCM and the South African Revolution

Leaders of the Soweto student uprising (left to right) Tsietsi Mashinini, Selby Semela, and Barney Makgatle in London after escaping from South Africa in 1976. Mashinini woul be deployed to Nigeria to deal co-ordinate African support for the fight agaist apartheid, Semela to the USA, and Makgatle to Europe. Within three years, Semela would split from Mashinini, developing a libertarian socialist critique of the ossification of the Black Consciousness Movement into a conventional political party similar to what he termed "the old huckster-spinster parties" of the ANC, SACP and PAC. Today, 40 years later, he still lectures on his experience: Selby Semela profile

Anyway, here is the bulk of my introduction to Semela et al, "The Return of the Red-headed Step-child": 

The shotgun wedding in which South Africa was forcibly welded together out of two British colonies and two Boer republics in 1910 produced grimly racialised authoritarian political offspring: White Labourism and African Nationalism.

The real multiracial working class alternative of libertarian socialism (in its mass-based
form, revolutionary unionism and parallel revolutionary neighbourhood organisations) was treated by both the Rand Lord oligarchy that grew rich off [the working class], and the black chieftain / merchant class that founded the South African Native National Congress
(SANNC, ancestor of the African National Congress, ANC) in 1912, as a red-headed step-child. From the founding of a local section of the revolutionary unionist Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) in 1910, to the establishment of the Industrial Workers of Africa (IWA) along similar lines in 1917, the step-child flexed its muscles and served notice on the old order.

But libertarian socialism was crushed in the 1920s in a vice between the devil of para-fascist Afrikaner nationalism, and the sea of “native republic” Stalinism. It fell into a coma from which it only surfaced briefly in the late 1950s / early 1960s with the establishment of a tiny libertarian Marxist current, the Movement for a Democracy of Content (MDC), which played a key role in the successful Alexandra bus boycott.

Then the 1960 Sharpeville Massacre and the subsequent banning of the nationalist 
“liberation” movements provided the pretext for the authoritarians of both camps to embark on a war with racist overtones that peaked in 1976/1977 and again in 1985-1987 (remember: the ANC only fully deracialised in 1985). 

While libertarian socialist tendencies were present in civic, street and trade union organising in the heat of the conflict, it was only in the dying days of racial-capitalist apartheid and its pseudo-opposition that a specific anarchist movement emerged from underground, culminating in the Zabalaza Anarchist Communist Federation (ZACF) of today, a working class organisation that agitates among the poor for a rupture, a severance of ties between the exploited and the parasitic classes that rule us. The red-headed stepchild had awoken once more! 

One of the pseudo-opposition’s main aims in the [liberation] war was to cynically use rank-and file worker and poor community militancy to build the profile of what Semela and 
company call “the old spinster/huckster organisations: the African National Congress (ANC), the Communist Party of South Africa (CPSA), and the Pan Africanist Congress (PAC).”

Today, these hoary old pseudo-liberators have gone further than the old Afrikaner elite ever could to help the capitalist state overhaul its image, while maintaining iron discipline over the blood and bread of the working class. The “democratic” emperor and his phalanx of “corporate guerrillas” now wear Armani suits over their T-shirts of that dead Stalinist, Ch√© Guevara. Capitalist class rule, aided by reworked race classification, remains intact.

This is the process of deception, disintegration and decay the authors describe here with regard to Semela’s own organisation back in the ‘70s, the SSRC - and the Black
Consciousness Movement (BCM). Both were, briefly, legitimately used by the oppressed to throw off their chains. Both are here castigated for their later pretensions to “leadership” of the struggle, for their “symbiotic” relationship with capitalist power, and for their substitution of the vanguard party-form for the masses themselves. That is the primary strength of this pamphlet.

Its main weakness is that while Semela & Co. make a distinctly libertarian socialist (albeit not anarchist communist) critique, they fail to suggest clear socio-organisational solutions to the problems they highlight. Hailing working class spontaneity, they are so shy of “bureaucracy”, having had their fingers burnt by the BCM and SSRC, that they do not dare spell out what plural and organic forms working class organisation should take to ensure the continued political autonomy, self-sustainability and anti-capitalist content of that militancy.

The working class, peasantry and poor need to create their own organisations in their own image, completely divorced from the compromising models of both the ruling class and its pseudo-opposition. These must be organs of decentralised power (not the refusal of power - or the concentration of power), run along direct-democratic lines in which every participant is a decision-maker, all empowered individuals strengthened by community.

These organs, as much as the “revolution” itself, are the “school of the oppressed” which train them to create egalitarian grassroots communism in the shell of capital, even as it is being gutted. These ideas, and not self-appointed leadership cadres, are what shall lead a future South(ern) African Revolution, the final overthrow of parasitic class rule and profiteering that our ANC/SACP/PAC/BCM “liberators” have forced to retreat far over our horizon.

True communism is only possible from below, when the vast majority of the underclasses
resolve en masse to end our slavery in our own right, in our own name and by our own organs of communal power. The social revolution will only be carried out by the “wretched of the earth”. The time has come for the return of the red-headed step-child. With the hammer of revolutionary working class unity in her fist, she will smash capital and the state.

- Michael Schmidt, Zabalaza Anarchist Communist Federation (ZACF), Southern Africa, 2005