Monday 23 July 2018

Africa's New Force (2015)

By Michael Schmidt
Ogojiii, Nairobi/Johannesburg
December 2015

It is approaching twilight in the veld of the war-torn Republic of Carana, a fictitious country created for the Amani Africa II live-fire manoeuvres of the African Standby Force (ASF) held in South Africa over October and November. A lone zebra runs though the bush with a herd of wild horses and their foals. Rebel radio chants a mixture of Afro-pop and the rebel leader’s haranguing of the terrified population to join his newborn and bloody coup.

We have driven in a camouflaged ASF armoured personnel carrier (APC) all the way from the beach-head at the “ocean port,” through the ASF-reclaimed “capital city” of Galasi, past its airport which ASF forces liberated from the rebels along with a group of relieved hostages yesterday, and into the dangerous thorn-bush country to the north-east. Within an hour, we are stopped in our tracks by a long line of South African mechanised and motorised infantry, led by a squadron of tank-like eight-wheeled Rooikat armoured fighting vehicles. They are headed for the front-line for a lightning strike deep inland where the rebels have their headquarters in the city of Kale, resupplying their forces in the field by air from the nearby Tata Airport.

A short while later, on a straight stretch of dirt road, we are stopped again, this time by a section of Mozambican troops who fire warning shots into the air, causing our driver to slam on anchors. An officer packing a pistol and his adjutant with an assault rifle check our journalist credentials before allowing us to inspect the forward positions. As field ambulances and Angolan armoured vehicles position themselves, most of these soldiers are settling in for a nervous night on the frontline, their green tents arrayed close to a defensive trench. Grouped together as Portuguese-speakers to enable swifter battlefield communication, though the ASF’s lingua franca is English, they are shy and proud to be photographed, but their minds are clearly on the battles waiting ahead.

Under the exercise scenario, just over two weeks ago, the African Union mandated the ASF to be formed to counter the gross human rights violations being committed by the “Caranese rebel forces”. The ASF is mandated under Chapters 4 (h) and (j) of the AU Charter which allows the AU to intervene in cases of crimes against humanity, and grave human rights violations; the first mandate is military-heavy in suppressing violators, then switches to a civilian humanitarian mandate. The ASF is convened and its commanders appointed by the African Union’s Peace & Security Council in Addis Ababa which upstream is in turn endorsed by the United Nations. The following countries fielded soldiers for Amani Africa II: Angola, Botswana, Kenya, Lesotho, Malawi, Mozambique, Namibia, South Africa, Swaziland, Zambia, Zimbabwe and Uganda. The following countries contributed staff officers and observers: Algeria, Burundi, Egypt, Ethiopia, Gambia, Ghana, Nigeria, and Rwanda. The month-long exercise cost US$15-million, excluding in-kind support from South Africa and airlift from Algeria and Angola. NATO, the EU, and the UN’s mission to the AU observed. 

The ASF is divided into regional Standby Forces (SFs), which fall under the command and control of one of five regional economic blocs: North African Regional Capability (NARC) SF; Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) SF; Economic community of Central African States (ECCAS) SF, known in French as FOMAC; Eastern African (EA); and Southern African Development Community (SADC) SF. At full strength – if sufficient funds are available – the SFs are projected to be each of division size, comprising some 10,000 soldiers each, usually divided into about four brigades, including motorised infantry (infantry transported into battle by trucks), mechanised infantry (infantry transported into battle by armoured personnel carriers), artillery (field guns, mortars, rocket batteries and air defence), command (ASF Field HQ), and support (logistics, engineers, medics and signals). Being too heavy for rapid deployment, there will be no tanks, but this role will be performed by armoured fighting vehicles. Ideally, these ground forces would be given air superiority by attack helicopters such as the South African Rooivalk which used their 70mm rockets under UN mandate to great effect against M23 rebels in the eastern DRC in November 2013. 
In addition, said Addis Ababa-based ASF training officer Assistant Commissioner Dr Sayibu Gariba of Sierra Leone, each SF division would have about 1,000 police and civilian personnel attached: the police units being “self-contained with riot-control, canine, SWAT, intelligence, facility guarding and VIP protection capabilities, plus police investigators who gather evidence of mass graves and human rights violations; the civilians would include humanitarian aid workers, as well as political and civil affairs personnel.” 

At the moment, the ASF is 90% funded by AU partners such as the UN, the EU, and countries such as the UK, the USA and Kenya, but the AU has proposed to the UN that the ASF in the immediate future be 25% AU-funded and 75% UN-funded, with the intention for it to be gradually weaned off UN support, said the African Union’s head of peace support operations, Sivuyile Bam. One of the ASF field commanders warned that some legal, procedural wrangles lay ahead before the ASF could be fully operational – to achieve which Bam said that the total bill would amount to US$2-billion. The advantage of the ASF over UN peacekeeping operations, he said, was that while the UN took about nine months to deploy, as a pre-existing force, the ASF could deploy within two weeks, but he admitted that maintaining the force on standby and supplying it in the field were challenges still to be met.

An interim force called the African Capacity for Immediate Response to Crises (ACIRC) was formed in 2013 by Algeria, Chad, South Africa, Tanzania and Uganda before the full ASF becomes operational in December 2015 (after which it is likely to be absorbed into the ASF), this is a micro-version of the SF, being of brigade size with about 2,000 soldiers, and small detachments of police and civilians. This force is faster and more mobile than a full SF and will be easier and quicker to deploy against rebel forces usually armed with no more than “technical” (jeeps mounted with heavy machine-guns), rocket-propelled grenades and increasingly, improvised explosive devices. An element of ACIRC was involved in the Amani Africa II exercise in the centre of Carana with the capture of Ferrali Airport. 

According to exercise observer Assistant Professor Thomas Mandrup of the Royal Danish Defence College, because ACIRC is committed to by some 20 African countries that have a proven capacity to deploy forces, with a rotating chair nation, it is less likely to fall foul of regional prejudices than the regionally-controlled Standby Forces. Unfortunately, as with the SFs themselves, Mandrup warned the ACIRC is vulnerable to budget constraints: South Africa, the current ACIRC chair, has already spent up to 80% of its contingency budget for the following year on Defence Force salaries, so it could not itself contribute forces to an ACIRC/ASF mission during that time.

Insertion of these intervention forces into the field of operations can be by: cross-border land invasion (most vehicles would be self-driven except for armoured fighting vehicles which would be transported on flatbed trucks); by air transportation (usually by Hercules C-130 or Antonov An-12 transports, though ideally in future by modern military transports such as the Airbus A400M); or by establishing a beach-head from the sea (ideally via multi-role landing-ships that double as pocket helicopter carriers – African armed forces do not yet possess such vessels, though the South African Navy and others are keen to acquire some).

Fast and mobile – like using a flyswatter instead of a hammer to kill flies – a portion of the ASF rapid-intervention force of 5,000 soldiers and 300 police and civilians entered Carana by road from the south at 5am on 27 October: the force’s Rapid Deployment Capability (RDC) 1 secured the port, capital and airport by 11am the same day, allowing the restoration of Caranese civilian administration in the free zone, while RDC 2 moved swiftly inland eastwards to protect refugee camps. Back in Galasi, Brigadier Ramanka Josias Mokaloba of Lesotho, the tactical level co-ordinator at the ASF’s Mission Headquarters – which remains in constant contact with the AU’s Strategic Headquarters in Addis Ababa – had shown me a sand model of the country, explaining how ASF forces had penetrated and deployed. The fighting unfortunately spooked the civilian population, he said, with an estimated 200,000 refugees fleeing to neighbouring countries, complicating the battlefield.

A full moon is rising into the twilight when we take leave of the Mozambican-Angolan encampment, its soldiers now lying in a defensive perimeter 200m out into the veld. Meanwhile, the RDC 1 armoured column we’d encountered earlier crosses a key river barrier, pushing the rebels into a long retreat. Jackals and hares are picked out in our headlights, engaging in their nightly dance of life and death. Exhausted, we manage to grab a late supper and hit the sack at 10pm. At 2am the following morning, however, we are up again and by 3.35am, we are moving out, this time following the trail of RDC 1 to the frontline to witness a pre-dawn assault on the approaches to the rebel capital. After several hours on the road, our vehicle climbs a steep whalebacked hill and there we find RDC 1’s South African Battle Group Alpha field command post, its camouflaged armour bristling with signals antennae. From our elevation we can see the sprawling lights of the city of Kale on the horizon. Between us and the rebel positions lies a winding river with a crucial bridge crossing. On our left flank are the Ugandan Battle Group Bravo, while to our right are the Rwandans’ Battle Group Charlie.

At 5am sharp, the pre-dawn gloom is spangled with the glare of 1,000-foot flares fired from South African forward artillery positions in the valley below, lighting up the bridgehead target. As the veld illuminates, there comes the sudden deep whoomp of our 120mm mortars discharging their rounds. Within ten minutes, the enemy positions across the river are ablaze as wave after wave of explosives rains down on them in parabolic arcs. Because the rebels at the bridge put up resistance, the Ugandan artillery and motorised infantry open fire on the rebels defending Tata Airport, their 80mm and 60mm mortars lighting up at 5.15am, while 9 South African Infantry Battalion closes on the bridge, but save for the muzzle-flashes, and the mortar-ranging flares, nothing else can be seen in the dark. 

By 5.54am, the sky is lighter so civilian Kobus Zietsman at the RDC 1 command post launches a DJI Inspire surveillance drone to give the commanders a birds-eye view of the theatre of operations as the Ugandan Battle Group straffs the airport with their heavy machine-guns, the red streaks of the rounds pinpricking their targets. Within an hour and five minutes of the commencement of firing, the bridge and the airport belong to us, while the rebels surrendered the eastern town of Gorma to the Rwandans without a fight. Alpha and Bravo troops now start passing their rebel POWs to rearwards military police custody to free them up for the fighting ahead, a Ugandan-South African pincer assault on Kale. 

As the sun breaches the horizon, Zietsman lands his drone and the ASF Forces consolidate their positions on the far side of the river. RDC 1 force commander Brigadier-General Trust Mugoba of Zimbabwe tells me that he is very satisfied with the interoperability of the Ugandan, Rwandan and South African battle-groups, saying “We have mounted two major attacks and that has gone very well; we are now conducting joint patrols. Using live ammunition, with APCs and heavy equipment, sometimes the terrain was frustrating… but they managed to secure their objectives. The communication also worked very well though we initially had [technical] hiccoughs at operational level but we sorted it out and it is now working well.” He said despite teething problems, he was also very satisfied with the artillery and mortar fire-control and co-ordination with frontline troop movements, and with the way his troops dealt with rebel ambushes and mines; the column only sustained minor injuries.

By 8am, we are ensconced 200m behind the eastern flanking frontline of Battle Group Alpha’s six-Rooikat squadron from 1 Special Services Battalion. At the strike of the hour, the ASF 120mm artillery opens up north-westwards on the rebel encampments defending Kale in the valley below. Almost immediately, the Rooikats open fire, their 76mm guns sometimes blowing perfect smoke-rings, then alternating with their twin machine-guns’ stutter. The valley below explodes in silently flowering devastation, the sounds of the detonations delayed to our ears by the distance. Pungent clouds of cordite drift across our position. Thirteen minutes later, the artillery bombardment of the far side of the city commences, blocking the rebels’ escape. 

By 8.42am, the valley comes alive with small-arms fire from the advance detachments of Alpha and Bravo, and their first APCs roll into view, mopping up rebels on the approach to Kale. The fight gone out of them, the rag-tag rebels are on the run. The following morning, RDC 2 defeats the last remaining rebel holdout in the far east, allowing the ASF military commander, after consulting with leaders of the local population, to hand over the country to his superior, the civilian mission commander, who, under a fresh AU mandate, orders implementation of peace-keeping operations – and aid, development and human rights organisations begin to flood into the hinterland. In only three days, the “Battle of Carana” is over.

Key equipment of the African Standby Force 

1. Armoured fighting vehicles (AFVs): Instead of being tracked like main battle tanks, AFVs are not as heavily armoured, but with their multi-wheeled design are capable of crossing rough terrain – dense bush, sand, rivers, etc – at higher speeds of around 50km/h. The sole ASF example – referencing the top five African armed powers according to Global Fire Power’s 2015 rankings – is the South African-made Rooikat AFV.  

2. Armoured personnel carriers (APCs) and infantry fighting vehicles (IFVs): APCs are used to transport infantry into the battlefield in safety, but also perform command-post, signals, ambulance, mine-clearance, and reconnaissance roles. They are mostly defensively armed with smaller canon and machine-guns. In contrast, IFVs perform an offensive role and so are more heavily armed, are often used in phalanx to penetrate enemy defences and can serve in anti-tank and anti-aircraft roles. ASF examples include the Egyptian-made 4x4 Fahd APC in service with the Egyptian and Algerian armies, and the Soviet-made BMP-1 amphibious IFV, carrying eight soldiers, used by the Algerian, Egyptian, Ethiopian, and Nigerian armies.

3. Artillery batteries: Infantry explosive weapons used to give advancing troops the ability to suppress enemy positions prior to direct engagement, especially those not available to line-of-sight fire as they are usually fired in a parabolic arc: mortars come in a variety of calibres from light troop-carried 37mm to heavy towed 240mm weapons; howitzers can be light and towed, or heavy and self-driven; and unguided rockets are similarly used, but are sometimes fired by line-of-sight while missiles are guided to their targets – both also have anti-aircraft applications. ASF examples include the Egyptian-made Helwan UK-2 120mm mortar which fires nine rounds a minute, the South African G6 self-propelled gun which can lob 155mm shells up to 67km, and the Egyptian Sacr-45 multiple rocket launcher which can simultaneously fire 12 rockets up to 70km.

4. Attack helicopters: These choppers are used in a ground-attack role in close support of ground forces to achieve air superiority over the enemy. Lightly armoured to protect them from small-arms fire from the ground, they are usually armed with rockets and high-speed multi-barrel rotary canon to destroy enemy ground positions. ASF examples include the South African Rooivalk, and the Soviet-made Mi-35 Hind helicopter gunship in service with Algeria, Ethiopia and Nigeria.


Wednesday 18 July 2018

The Rojava Revolution (extract)

Today marks the 82nd anniversary of the outbreak of the Spanish Revolution on 19 July 1936 - and the 6th anniversary of the outbreak of the Rojava Revolution in 2012, a libertarian communist revolution that is still challenging Ismamist fascism, domestic despotism and Western imperialism in an area that is today larger than Belgium, with a population of some 4,6-million. Here is an extract from my forthcoming book, In the Shadow of a Hurricane, detailing the dawn of that Revolution:

The insurrectionist Social Rebellion (SI) has been directly involved in fighting against the retro-fascist Daesh (Islamic State) terrorist organisation and defending the Rojava Revolution, the libertarian socialist experiment in directly-democratic horizontally-federated free councilism, in the three westernmost cantons of Rojava – the mountainous olive-growing Afrîn Canton to the west, and the flat, wheat- and cotton-growing contiguous cantons of Kobanî, and Cizîre (or Jazîre, which has a significant oil industry) – which declared their autonomy in 2013, and which has in part taken inspiration from the ideas of US libertarian socialist and theorist of free municipalism Murray Bookchin,  foregrounding ecology and putting women in charge, sharing all levels of counter-power with men, from city councils to armed forces. Bookchin’s ideas, along with those of autonomist Marxists like Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri and left communists like Rosa Luxemburg, influenced Abdullah Öcalan, incarcerated leader of the formerly Marxist-Leninist Kurdish People’s Party (PKK) in the Kurdish region of eastern Turkey, who had transformed his party into a “democratic confederalist” organisation, with a mirror-image Democratic Union Party (PYD) founded in the Western Kurdistan (Rojava) region of northern Syria in 2003. The PYD in Rojava drew on three inspirations for the new structures it helped set up: the “democratic confederalist” theories of its jailed leader Abdullah Öcalan; the principles of dual women-and-men delegates at all levels of counter-power that had been formulated by the PKK’s all-women’s army, the YAJK, during the guerrilla war in North Kurdistan (Turkey) from 1984; and the PKK’s DTK practice from 2007 of establishing popular city neighbourhood and village Councils in which all residents of the areas it had controlled in North Kurdistan could participate and wield decision-making powers that were then executed by recallable teams of twinned female and male delegates. In 2005, an umbrella women’s organisation, the Ishtar Union (YI), its name drawn from that of an ancient Mesopotamian goddess, was founded to fight patriarchy and build women’s institutions. In other words, the PYD drew on both revolutionary feminist counter-culture and directly-democratic councillist counter-power – defended by force of arms – for its inspirations. Knapp, Flach and Ayboga write in the first book-length study of the Rojava Revolution: “Within a matter of months, a functioning council system was in place in Rojava’s cities, large and small [the cantons of Afrîn, Kobanî, and Cizîre where the PYD has a strong presence], and in [Shahba Canton centred on the city of] Aleppo” which lies between Afrîn and Kobanî where the PYD was not dominant.  These early Councils were not ubitquitous, initially tending to be centred on Kurdish and Ezidi neighbourhoods and not Arab, Turkmen, Armenian, Syriac, Circassian and Chaldean ones, and with few operating in rural areas – but that would soon change.

As Knapp and his colleagues write, even though under the Ba’athist dictatorship of Bashar al-Assad the councils were illegal, by 2011, “the council system was sufficient to constitute a vibrant structure parallel to the state without being in direct conflict with it.” This pre-existing Council network would prove to be critical to establishing counter-power in Rojava. On 15 March 2011, the pro-liberation fervour of the Arab Spring infected Syrian society when protests over the jailing by police of two young graffiti artists snowballed into nationwide protests against Assad’s regime. In July, dissident veterans of the Syrian security forces, mostly of the majority ethnic Sunni Arabs, formed the Free Syrian Army (FSA) which drew financial support from the Gulf States and Turkey; civil war erupted across the country, but in Rojava, the Kurdish PYD was determined to stay out of the war which it knew would result in a high civilian death toll, widespread infrastructural damage, and probable military intervention by imperialist forces. This proved to be a prescient and prudent decision as, its hands tied with the FSA insurgency and a rapidly evolving war in which radical, Islamist-fascist forces such as Islamic State also emerged, the Syrian regime just didn’t bother with the illegal PYD-initiated Councils. Within weeks, armed popular Self-Protection Units (YXG) – initially created by youths often associated with the Revolutionary Youth Movement (TCŞ), a pre-war anti-Ba’athist force – had been formed, drawing support from the PYD. As a result, Rojava became a relatively peaceful refuge for civilans of diverse ethnicities fleeing the fighting: the population of Afrîn soared from 400,000 to 1,2-million, that of Kobanî from 200,000 to 400,000, and that of Cizîre to 1,37-million (giving the Rojava free zone an initial total population of 2,9-million, comfortably comparable to the Manchurian Heilongjiang free zone of 2-million). Meanwhile, the city neighbourhood and rural village Councils held illegal People’s Assemblies to determine what should be done: with the experience of two decades of the PYD having preached democratic confederalism among the peoples of Rojava, many assemblies adopted the model with relative ease and in August 2011, the PYD formed the People’s Council of West Kurdistan (MGRK) to promote the establishment of Councils across Rojava and to act as an umbrella body for the Councils which would send women and men as mandated, recallable delegates to it. Like the Makhnovist umbrella KBOP before it, the MGRK is a multipartisan, progressive, directly-democratic organ, “open to all peoples and all democratic parties,” in Knapp et al’s words. Elections were held across Rojava and 300 delegates were elected to the MGRK representing its contributing Councils; the Movement for a Democratic Society (Tev-Dem) consisting of 33 out of the 300 delegates (excluding Aleppo) was established to co-ordinate the MGRK’s work and those of the eight Commissions it created for Women (organised in their own right as Women’s Councils), Defence (the YXG, TCŞ youth units, and the all-volunteer Asayîş safety patrols), Economics (production, supply, public enterprises, and Co-operatives), Politics (external diplomacy, inter-party liaison, and municipal administration), Civil Society (employees and employers organised by trade/profession), Free Society (social assistance to youths, families of those killed, and other vulnerable groups), Justice (based on Peace Committees, with separate committees run by women which rule on sexist offences), and Ideology (education, media, culture, language, and art). With the exception of the Women’s Commission, which is exclusively for women, any resident of any ethnicity can join the Tev-Dem delegates on any commission whose work they are interested in, in order to contribute as they see best. As Knapp et all put it, “In the summer and fall of 2011, the state was still running – although poorly – the economy and public services [in Rojava]. Beleagured by the war, it could not handle everything. So the MGRK gradually filled in the gaps and the neighbourhood councils took on more tasks.” Although, they argue, even the PKK experience of Councils in North Kurdistan was insufficient preparation, as people increasingly turned to them for assistance in all areas of life, the Councils evolved, expanded and started to develop new capacities to meet fresh expectations and “they gradually became a real alternative to the state, especially in matters of justice, infrastructure, and security.” In October 2011, sixteen smaller Kurdish parties coalesced and formed the Kurdish National Council in Syria (EKNS) and on 11 July 2012, they signed a power-sharing agreement with the PYD, establishing the joint Supreme Kurdish Council (DKB) as a co-ordinating liaison body. Meanwhile, as Knapp et all write, “By the spring of 2012, hundreds of thousands of people were flocking to the neighbourhood meetings, eager to participate, in numbers greater than the venues could accommodate.” A de facto dual-power situation had been created, comparable to that of the parallel national government and revolutionary soviets in 1918 Ukraine.

The scene was set for a dramatic, full-blown revolution and over the night of 18-19 July 2012 – by serendipity on the 76th anniversary of the outbreak of the Spanish Revolution – the FSA launched assaults on Damascus and Aleppo; in a move intended to pre-empt the Turkey-backed FSA from establishing footholds in Rojava, the YXG seized control of the roads leading into Kobanî city (Ayn Al-Arab), a city of more than 100,000 residents, many of whom, as MGRK supporters, then seized pre-determined state institutions, took down the regime’s flags and ran up PYD flags. A mass of people gathered outside the local Syrian Army base and a delegation informed the soldiers that if they surrendered their arms, including heavy weaponry, their safety would be guaranteed; the soldiers surrendered without a fight, some returning home, and others crossing into Turkey to join the FSA. State buildings were taken over by the people and socialised for tasks of importance to the community; the death penalty was abolished (in this, the Rojavans have proven kinder than the Makhnovists, though this was possibly because their actual seizure of power was almost bloodless), the prisons were emptied of political prisoners, and the Asayîş protection patrols negotiated with neighbouring communities the fate of non-murderous criminals who were usually released under supervision to perform community service; only those convicted of murder, torture or terrorism would in future be jailed for up to 20 years, while those convicted of abusing women faced a minimum of six months behind bars. Former PKK commander Xebat Derik was influential in reorganising the YXG as the more professional People’s Protection Units (YPG) which was soon buttressed by many of the tens of thousands of Syrian female and male Kurds with extensive experience fighting the right-wing Turkish state in Northern Kurdistan in the 1990s-2000s. Knapp et all write that “many fighters with a Rojava background… joined the YPG… Over the next days, as the revolution spread from Kobanî to other cities and villages of West Kurdistan, they were welcomed joyously and the people threw rice at them.” In the city of Dêrîka Hemko (Dêrîk), in eastern Cizîre Canton, many of the regime’s military outposts were similarly bloodlessly disarmed and dispersed, arms were distributed to the people who formed new YPG and Asayîş units, and posters of Assad were torn down and replaced with PYD emblems; only in the town of Girziro was there some resistance, with the local battalion holding out for twelve days while helicopters bombed the revolutionaries, but after only a handful of deaths including the battalion’s commanding officer, the Girziro garrison also surrendered. In western Afrîn Canton, crowds surrounded all regime institutions and forced a peaceful surrender; a handful of security agents held out briefly, but after a two-hour gun-battle surrendered with only three wounded. The Revolution was successful and almost entirely bloodless in three unconnected zones of Rojava centred on the cities of Afrîn, Kobanî and Dêrîka Hemko. Not under PYD control were Shahba Canton centred on the city of Aleppo and the region around the city of Girê Spî between Kobanî and Cizîre Cantons, while government troops remained in the cities of Hesekê and Quamişlo in Cizîre, the latter of which has a population of which about 20% supported the regime; they were left unmolested and the city’s airport remained in government hands (being defensive rather than offensive in nature, the YPG usually fought only when attacked). Although initially the MGRK’s delegates were able to work across Shahba which lies between Afrîn and Kobanî because it was mostly in the hands of the FSA and of the Jabhat Al-Akrad militia associated with the YPG, Kobanî and Cizîre were in initially not linked because the intervening Girê Spî zone was not liberated territory; as a result, in practice, the MGRK though nominally a Rojava-wide body tended to initially operate mostly in zonal silos. Yet the Council system spread rapidly across Rojava in the wake of the Revolution, and proved so popular that two new layers were added to the system: a grassroots first-tier “Commune” layer that in the cities consisted of the residents of individual streets, around 30-200 households, and in the rural areas, entire villages, which sent mandated delegates – in women-and-men teams – to the second-tier Neighbourhood or Villages People’s Councils; and third-tier District People’s Councils (with their own Tev-Dem co-ordinating committees) covering entire cities and surrounding rural lands, to which the Neighbourhood or Villages People’s Council delegates reported and which in turn sent mandated delegates to the regional umbrella fourth-tier MGRK. Political parties and NGOs are only present at the upper two tiers, and in what might prove to be a fatal political error – echoing that of the CNT-FAI in the Spanish Revolution – despite its majority on the ground, the PYD is not proportionately but rather equally represented by the other parties, though this concession has won over many other ethnic parties. At each of the four tiers, where the capacity exists, Commissions were established to cover the eight main areas of revolutionary activity – and co-operate acoss cantons in horizontal networks, especially the Economics Commissions which continued setting up Co-operatives to run a democratised, ecologically-friendly, people-centred economy (this initiative had begun before the Revolution on 10 June 2012, when the Ishtar Union decided to establish Women’s Economic Commissions in each Rojavan city to promote the creation of Co-operatives). Each body meets at least once a week to debate the community’s most pressing issues, from food supplies to curbing domestic violence. In each centre, two government buildings were socialised and converted into a “People’s House” and a “Women’s House” that are guarded and open 24 hours a day for Commission meetings, other popular engagements, and for residents to raise any issue. In the liberated parts of Rojava, the District Peoples’ Council’s Politics Commissions set up “People’s Municipalities” by taking over the control of all of all municipal functions in the cities and countryside; these administrations were purged of regime sympathisers and reactionaries, and dual female-male leaderships and democratic decision-making over municipal development was submitted to District Peoples’ Councils for popular approval. District Peoples’ Councils were set up in Afrîn, in Kobanî, and in Serêkaniyê, Qamişlo, and Dêrika Hemko in Cizîre Canton. In the cities of Qamişlo and Hesekê in Cizîre, where the state remained in charge in some suburbs, the District Peoples’ Councils built new municipal buildings of their own. Taxation has been abolished, but fees of between US$1-2/month per household are levied by the People’s Muncipalities for water provision, rubbish removal and other services; poor families are exempted. The embargo imposed on liberated Rojava imposed by Turkish, Ba’athist, and rebel forces means few staff are employed and their pay is low, that despite perhaps 100,000 tons of wheat being produced in Kobanî and Cizîre Cantons each year, the majority that is not locally consumed cannot be sold abroad for foreign exchange, and although Cizîre produces significant quantities of oil, its MGRK Councils had to figure out a way to refine it into diesel in large quantities (this was previously done in state-controlled Homs) – but this had been achieved by the summer of 2013.

Members of the International Freedom Battalion, a mixed anarchist and communist foreign volunteer formation defending the Rojava Revolution, after the liberation of Tel Abayed from Islamic State.


Meeting Mandela

I met Nelson Mandela on several occasions, but unfortunately do not have scanned the photographs I shot of him in Durban in the 1990s, so here is a picture I shot of his prison cell on Robben Island in 2009. Its chilly austerity in the Cape winter is painfully obvious.

Perhaps because like most South Africans classified as "white" (though I am of mixed race), I did not grow up in the Chartrist tradition, perhaps because I preferred the radicalism of the Pan-Africanist Congress of Azania to the vague leftism of the African National Congress, or perhaps because I simply instinctively distrust the hagiography surrounding mainstream heroes, Nelson Mandela was never "my guy". But in this centenary of his birth, and having listened to Barack Obama's speech in Johannesburg yesterday, attempting to roll back the reactionary wave that is washing over the world, I thought it would be interesting to publish this section from my book A Taste of Bitter Almonds: Perdition and Promise in South Africa (BestRed, Cape Town, 2015) in which I recall an unintentionally funny meeting between Mandela and myself.


The funeral service of SACP stalwart Govan Mbeki – father of
President Thabo Mbeki – is winding down. Oom Gov, as he was
known, died in the city last week aged 91, and his remains were
borne here in a coffin on a howitzer carriage draped in the national
flag. The carriage was accompanied by the slow-marching National
Ceremonial Guard in their antiquated emerald-green uniforms,
carrying bolt-action rifles with their all-white paint jobs a little worn.
I’m now the Sunday Times’s Eastern Cape bureau chief – a grandiose
title for a job that involves running a tiny office on the roof of The Eastern
Cape Herald’s building in Port Elizabeth, together with 77-year-old
sports reporter Mel Channor and freelance photojournalist Marc
Pradervand – so I’m covering the funeral. The pomp and ceremony
are a far cry from the modest affair that Mbeki himself had envisaged
in the weed-ridden Zwide Cemetery, which has been cleaned up
by community volunteers for his burial. Instead it resembles a state
funeral, with flags across the city, which years ago named its main
road after Mbeki, flying at half-mast, and thousands of the poor and
the powerful – from township residents and MK veterans to former
Zambian president Kenneth Kaunda and Lesotho’s prime minister
Pakalitha Mosisili – paying their last respects.
At the funeral Grandson Karl Mbeki read out a letter from Walter
Sisulu, who apologised for not being able to attend the ceremony.
Sisulu, who is now 89, recalls in the letter how he and Mbeki first
met in the 1930s and that they had ‘many differences of opinion’,
citing as an example that during the Rivonia treason trial (which
resulted in them being jailed), Mbeki ‘insisted the national executive
[of the ANC] had approved the Mayibuye Plan’ – the famous plan to
wage an armed struggle. Sisulu describes both Mbeki and himself as
‘stubborn’ and says that the argument went on for years behind bars
on Robben Island. But in the letter, Sisulu says he felt only ‘pride and
great sadness’ at the passing of his ‘age-mate, comrade and friend’.
Karl Mbeki, who spoke on behalf of the Mbeki family, then read a
touching poem he had written about a visit to his grandfather on
Robben Island when he was 14, and the old man 72. The poem ends
by saying that despite Mbeki’s grim surroundings, ‘strength radiates
from behind his glasses’.
Former president Nelson Mandela, who is now 83 years old, paid
tribute to Mbeki, calling him ‘one of the truly great sons of Africa’
and ‘a man of magnificent character’ who was ‘a monument to the
intellectual strength of [the] struggle’. Mandela said he owed much
to Mbeki senior’s ‘decisive mind’. ‘We are not only bidding farewell
to an individual,’ he said. ‘We are losing a piece of ourselves.’ Deputy
President Jacob Zuma, speaking on behalf of the government, said
that ANC leaders ‘regarded Mbeki’s generation... as our fathers’ and
described his death as ‘the end of an era’. President Mbeki maintained
a steely calm throughout the proceedings.
Now that the ceremony is over, Mandela walks slowly down the
steps from the stage and, shadowed by his bodyguards, strolls along
the front row of invited guests who are mostly MK veterans, shaking
hands one by one and exchanging pleasantries. I’m hovering about,
just watching for any interesting interactions, when I somehow get
in the way and before I know it, Mandela is shaking my hand, his
rheumy eyes locking with mine briefly before he moves on. Then,
out of the blue, Eastern Cape Premier Makhenkesi Stofile, who is
not a small man, swoops down on the towering yet frail Mandela
and, grabbing him by the elbow, turns the surprised old man about
on his heels and steers him straight back towards me. Beaming with
enthusiasm, Stofile points at me and tells Mandela, ‘Do you know
who this is? This is Michael Schmidt of the Sunday Times!’
I’m as floored as Mandela is; he certainly looks a little bewildered
to be propelled into engaging with me. We both give embarrassed
smiles and, seeing that the introduction seems to require it, shake
hands again and ask after each other’s health, before the world’s
most famous elder statesman can make good his escape.


Saturday 14 July 2018

Deepest Black: Defending the Anarchist Mass-line

By the end of this year I should be ready to publish Deepest Black: Defending the Anarchist Mass-line, a book centred on four case studies of anarchist-communist organisations that built mass popular organistions hundreds of thousands strong and defended them by force of arms: the Anarcho-Communist Group (GAK) of the Ukraine over 1918-1921, the Bulgarian Anarchist Communist Federation (FAKB) over 1919-1948, the Korean Anarchist Communist Federation (HMYG) over 1929-1945, and the Uruguayan Anarchist Federation (FAU) over 1956-1976. This is my draft introduction.

INTRODUCTION: On Anarchist-Communist Mass Organisations under Conditions of Armed Struggle

From the 19th Century stereotype of the anarchist as “a ragged, unwashed, long-haired, wild-eyed fiend, armed with smoking revolver and bomb,” to the 21st Century trope of the anarchist as a black-ski-masked, army-booted punk in torn denims, sporting multi-hued hair and hurling a Molotov cocktail, anarchism has always been presumed to be armed and dangerous – not to mention an individualistic revolt against the bourgeois order. But as innumerable studies have shown, although extreme individualists over the past 15 decades since its emergence as a distinct political trend did stretch the truth by identifying as anarchist, and the broad anarchist movement did include a virulent minority insurrectionist tendency – dedicated to precipitating the revolution though catalytic armed actions – by far the larger majority of anarchists built mass organisations of the oppressed classes, from rent-strike committees, neighbourhood assemblies, and resistance societies, to rank-and-file worker networks, directly-democratic consultative bodies, and huge syndicalist trade unions. Such mass movements developed dense networks of interlocking social and industrial initiatives that ran the gamut from theatre troupes, newspapers, and universities, to prisoner-support groups, collective farms, and city-administering councils. And because mass anarchist organisations – numbering in the tens of thousands to the millions – posed the most implacable assault on imperialist capitalism and all its hierarchy of social ills, such as sexism and racism; in other words, because it directly contested vertical bourgeois power with its own horizontal proletarian counter-power, these diverse and multi-layered movements at some point had to develop their own armed forces to defend their ranks and to take the fight to capital and the state. 

The topic of this book is thus mass anarchist organisations, often centred on a key initiating organisation, but rapidly diversified into a plurality of organisations, that formed their own armed forces. I have selected organisations that self-identified as “anarchist-communist” – a designation that is somewhat meaningless in that it has shifted over time, but which here is taken to mean the fundamental economics of “from each according to their ability, to each according to their need,” the political expression of which is Mikhail Bakunin’s statement that “liberty without socialism is privilege, injustice… [yet] socialism without liberty is slavery and brutality.” I have also selected four key struggles of the anarchist movement, only one of which is readily known by historians and anarchists themselves, that of Ukraine: I have included Bulgaria, Manchuria, and Uruguay. The movements in Ukraine and Manchuria managed to establish large-scale revolutionary projects encompassing millions of people and huge swathes of territory, and fought vanguard actions against imperialism, and bolshevism, while the movements in Bulgaria and Uruguay operated in sub-revolutionary conditions, lived “within the shell of the old” state, and fought rearguard actions against imperialism, and fascism. In terms of geographic spread, one example comes from the Far East, two from Eastern Europe, and one from Latin America – regions hosting significant anti-imperialist contestations – while the time period extends from the 1903 Macedonian Revolt, well beyond the defeat of the Spanish Revolution in 1939, to the rise of a fascist dictatorship in Argentina in 1976.

The kernel of this text originated in a pamphlet I wrote in 2008, which was published in English in Johannesburg, South Africa, as Bulgarian Anarchism Armed, and which the following year was more professionally published by comrades in São Paulo, Brazil, in Brazilian Portuguese. Originally intended as a series, it fell onto the back-burner as I threw my efforts into other anarchist initiatives, especially into researching and writing In the Shadow of a Hurricane, which has taken 18 years so far and which, when published, will be the most comprehensive overview in any language of anarchist movement history globally since the 1860s. So when the time came to update and complete the series, I had become aware of so much new information that had become available via key new academic papers, especially regarding the sorely understudied cases of Manchuria and Uruguay, that it made sense to consolidate the whole into a single book – and so to draw collective conclusions from all four of these fascinating examples of mass anarchism in action, establishing and defending the gains of a proletariat under its own free-associative, horizontally confederal self-management.


Friday 6 July 2018

Internet & Ideology: Against the Nationalist Fragmentation of Cyberspace & Against “Astroturf Activism”

By Michael Schmidt, South Africa, September 2012

The Arab Spring redrew the battle-lines between over the control of information between the statist/capitalist elites and the popular classes – raising questions of increased restriction and surveillance, and of the limits of cyber-activism.
In some ways this battle is often mischaracterised as being a narrow debate between cool intellectual property technocrats and wild-eyed free-use pirates, or as being a political dispute between authoritarian regimes and free speech activists, with no wider relevance to society. 
But it is clear that what is at stake is the global ideology (and exploitative practice) of corporatist enclosure versus that of the creative commons; in other words, it is more even than a universalist human rights concern, but is rather an asymmetrical war between the parasitic and productive classes over a terrain of power/wealth-generation known as the knowledge economy.
A gathering of journalists, media development experts, and online activists (among others) at the Highway Africa media and technology conference in Grahamstown, South Africa, in September 2012 grappled with the paranoid responses of many states to the supposedly social media-driven Arab Spring, but failed to grasp the nettle of the class nature of the statist/capitalist threat.

Nationalist fragmentation in Russia?

One of the keynote speakers was young Alexey Sidorenko of Russian website Teplitsa and author of “New Media Tools for Digital Activists” who spoke about the sea-change that had taken place in Russian cyberspace before the Arab Spring. Before 2011, he said, the old state-controlled legacy media was being bypassed as an information source by the “free blogosphere,” citing the fact that the audience of the website had outgrown that of the leading TV station, Channel 1.
This reflected a shift in trust from the legacy media to the internet, especially among 12 to 34-year-olds, 96% of whom were connected today, making Russia the second-most connected European nation after Germany.
Before the Arab Spring, the Russian authorities, whether retread “communists,” robber barons, or neo-liberals, had viewed the internet with suspicion, but had largely restricted their assaults to the harassment of bloggers (largely by the hacking of their sites, or by swamping the sites with requests in order to stall them – DDoS attacks).
Worryingly, however, they had not only been covertly running “deep-packet inspection” (DPI) surveillance of online content, but had also begun overt prosecutions of internet “extremism” which, Sidorenko said, outlawed the dissemination of some 1,500 prohibited works, including classic 19th Century texts on Islam, or radical thinkers of socialism (including anarchists of course), or nationalism – “but which includes literary and oppositional works”.
In the Arab Spring era, although electoral fraud to the Russian national parliament, the Duma, had continued at similar levels to the 2008/9 period, internet-based evidence of this fraud had rocketed, with the result that sites such as Karta Narusheniy (Map of Violations) and 23 other anti-corruption sites became so popular that they were frozen by DDoS attacks, presumably originating from the state. 
Internet activists responded, however, by mirroring the websites’ content and in December 2011, a 23-year-old activist managed to mobilise demonstrations of tens of thousands of protestors against the cyber-attacks, protests which lasted well into May this year.
The state in turn responded with a three-pronged counter-attack: firstly, they put criminal libel – only decriminalised in 2011 – back on the statute books; secondly, they introduced the blacklisting of internet service-providers (ISPs) whose users posted content the censors found unacceptable; and lastly, they cynically foregrounded child protection as a major issue to be addressed online, creating the possibility that state agents by planting a single item of child porn on an oppositional site could threaten to shut down the entire ISP – and so forcing many ISPs to protect themselves by actively censoring user content.
Sidorenko said there were worrying signs at the international level too, where there were several proposals by the likes of Iran to create and police “national sovereignty in national internet sectors” – which, he feared, could “create isolated, hermetic net islands,” in other words, the replication across the world of the amputated model employed in Belarus or China currently.
“This will lead to an erosion of internet integrity and global interconnectedness, the result of a push by authoritarian regimes who will suppress free speech online as they do in traditional media. My question is how we as media activists can prevent this colonisation, this fragmentation, of the internet.” 
Sanctions against authoritarian regimes who embarked on online and mobile truncation would not work, however, he said, citing the case of the Belarus dictatorship, an ossified Stalinist regime, which had purchased surveillance software through a third party despite sanctions: “Sanctions can’t keep up with technological innovation.” 

Nationalist fragmentation in China

Sidorenko predicted that the big internet companies would readily kowtow to such proposals: we presumably all know about the “Google Wall of China,” whereby the internet giant struck a deal with the red corporatist state to restrict the socio-political functionality of the internet. But what are conditions like in China currently?
Where there is a will, there is a way, and journalists and activists in China have laboured in Kafkaesque conditions to work around the hermetic status of their cyber-island – where internet penetration stands at a population-proportionately whopping 38% (compared to 13% in Africa).
Professor Yuen Ying Chan, director of the Journalism and Media Studies Centre at the University of Hong Kong, sketched a similar picture of digital ascendancy as in Russia, with some online writers having more followers than the multi-million readership of the largest Chinese daily newspapers.
The authorities, apart from creating their own policed versions of Western social media such as Weibo (the “Chinese twitter”), had both human and mechanical censors which trawled Weibo and other internet content for outlawed content. 
Ironically, this data-mining was now being used by journalists and activists themselves. For example, Yuen said though the state had outlawed political reportage on rising “communist” leader Bo Xilai who was axed from his post, journalists used data-mining to map his business relationships in Hong Kong and further afield – because there is a loophole in the legislation on business reportage (and in “communist” China, the convergence between party power and business interests is intense, with the media sector being the third-largest tax revenue earner for the regime).
Still, the lesson is obvious: not only is a “hermetic island” very tough terrain for social, economic and political activists to operate in, but the exact same data-mining processes used by activists can and will be turned on activists themselves by the authorities to gather information sometimes deemed treasonable and punishable by death.
As Niels ten Oever, a fiery Dutch freedom of expression activist who has worked on projects in some very tough regions – Ethiopia, ex-Somalia, and Afghanistan – warned, social media has transformed us into “communications exhibitionists, standing naked at the window, exposing ourselves without knowing who is looking.” 

The Arab Spring & “Astroturf Activism”

Of course, on the rare occasion that it goes down to the wire, as it has in Syria, one wants the whole world to be watching as the sheer deluge of publicity offers some degree of protection or at least of validation of one’s war against the parasitic elite (not that class war is the entire Syrian story).
But, sub-Saharan African activists warned, that cut-and-paste social media solutions, even from the Arab Spring, might not work in other contexts.  Abiye Teklemariam, a Reuters institute fellow from Ethiopia, said an oft-repeated question of why there had been no echo of the Arab Spring in sub-Saharan Africa usually ignored the fact that all the North African regimes had been complacent before a Tunisian vegetable-seller set himself on fire, so similar uprisings could perhaps occur in the south; objective conditions in several southern dictatorships made it possible.
But, he warned, sub-Saharan political activists had often totally misunderstood the use of social media in North Africa as a tool to organise, quietly and for perhaps at least a decade before the uprisings – rather than as a tool to merely mobilise demonstrations in the short-term. In Egypt, for example, Facebook was only used to mobilise the first Tahrir Square protest; the authorities shut it down the next day; from then on, the people organised the protests on the ground.
“There was a perception of Facebook as a magic tool to create revolutions; [sub-Saharan African] activists started overpromising on this basis, and this led to a decline in the public’s trust in activists when they failed to deliver,” Taklemariam said.
“There has also been a rise of Astroturf activism. The original social media was linked through networks of trust, but governments and political parties started creating Astroturf groups and started calling actions, but people soon realised these groups were fake, which had the effect that mistrust started bleeding into the real groups.” 
I need to add that the failure of South African political activist groups to understand the necessity to prepare the groundwork by organising within poor communities for years – as the Zabalaza Anarchist Communist Front (ZACF) of South Africa has done – rather than relying on ersatz internet mobilisations was what lead to the embarrassing displays of Astroturf activism in attempts to mimic (without real grassroots organising) the Northern “Occupy” movements at the Johannesburg Stock Exchange and in Cape Town.
As in Russia, before the Arab Spring in Africa, statist repression was offline only; even if bloggers were targeted, they were targeted by physical assault, rather than by cyberwar. Earlier this year, I met young Egyptian blogger-dissident Kareem Amer and his girlfriend, Egyptian nude blogger-dissident Aliaa Maghda El-Mahdy. Amer said that it was ironic that, having been jailed for four years for blogging against the Mubarak regime, it was only after the regime was toppled that he and Aliaa had had been forced to flee into exile by the insecure conditions of the Arab Spring itself. So even within the Arab Spring countries, repression had merely shifted form.
Admire Mare, an activist, researcher and the director of the Zimbabwe Youth Empowerment and Information Dissemination Trust, who blogs at “Scribbles from the House of Stones,” also asked whether social media could be used for change in southern Africa as it had in Moldova, the Philippines, Indonesia, Iran and Spain – as well as North Africa and Syria: “Is such a revolution possible here?”
He said the battle-lines had been clearly drawn between the partisans of the “technology of surveillance and repression” and the “technology of freedom” – but he warned that social media can’t be automatically assumed to be a democratic space as it was “a profit-driven project,” vulnerable to hostile data-mining, and owned by digital elites: “We need to look at how activists can creatively appropriate this technology. Cut-and-paste models can’t be applied; we need to adapt to local contexts.”


Radio Freedom 2: Freeing the Zimbabwean Airwaves

Radio Freedom presented at Wits University's annual Radio Days Africa summit today, and this forms the station's second podcast: a 40-minute panel presentation by Radio Freedom's Taurai Mabhachi, Zimbabwean political analyst and free press activist Dr Dale McKinley, and Michael Schmidt of the Professional Journalists' Association. A video of the discussion is online here.