Kehinde Andrews writes that 25 years on from so-called ‘democracy’ it is time to abandon South Africa and build Azania.
By Kehinde Andrews
Twenty-five years since South Africa ushered in an era of so-called democracy I had the honour of visiting the country to discuss Back to Black: Retelling Black Radicalism for the 21st Century. I had visited South Africa seventeen years previously, spending three months working in a village, Ga Maria, in the Mpumalanga province in partnership with the Southern African Student Volunteers Organisation. More than anything else what I remember was how people in the village explained their lives had basically not changed since the end of apartheid. Poverty was rife and the farmer I was staying with still had to call the white man who bought his produce boss in order to make his sales. Seventeen years later it is indisputable that not much has improved, and there is strong case that the situation is actually worse today.
Ignore the BBC documentaries about white poverty (shame on you Reggie Yates), the stark reality is that over half of Black South Africans live in poverty, whilst the same is true for less than 1 percent of white people in the country. When I visited in 2002 they were ‘celebrating’ that the number of murders in the country had dropped below 20,000 for the first time in the democracy. But the number of killings last year again surpassed the 20,000 line. As people are struggling with grinding poverty, xenophobia has gripped the country with attacks against African migrants looking to escape destitution in their homelands. I witnessed all too many examples of the commonplace hatred of these ‘foreigners’ trying to jump the queue at the expense of the ‘natives’. Given the situation facing many South Africans it is not at all surprising.
As part of my visit I connected with the Centre for Social Change at the University of Johannesburg. My guides Cleopatra Shezi and TK Khumalo took me to the Freedom Park Township to see the latest informal settlement that had sprung up. Since coming to power the ANC have promised housing to all who need it, but we met people who had been waiting for years, some since 1996. In a desperate bid to force the government to house them, people occupy vacant land and set up informal settlements, made up of corrugated iron shacks. ‘Winchester Hills’ was the latest to spring up in Freedom Park and the conditions their shocked even some of the volunteers. In the sacks there is no electricity and residents share a tap and portable toilets between scores of people. We were shown a ‘long drop’, basically a hole in the ground with a seat made out of crates to stand in as a toilet. The residents who had put it together actually padlocked it closed, as it represented a luxury. I genuinely had difficulty falling asleep later that night thinking about the children sleeping in pitch black, cold tin shacks, listening to the rats run scratching around them, conditions that millions of people in the country are subject to. No one should be living like that, especially not in one of the most mineral rich countries on earth. But given the decisions that were taken up to 1994, this kind of poverty was inevitable.
South Africa from its very origins embodies racism. The border, the political structure, the economic inequality. We made a grave mistake in thinking that apartheid was the problem, rather than a problem. By negotiating and taking over South Africa as was, the ANC simply put Black faces at the head of a white system. As the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) make clear the land issue was never resolved. During my trip we drove hundreds of miles, and there is vast acres of empty undeveloped land, fenced off from the people. The whites who own it don’t need it, so just keep it almost like a trophy. But South Africa’s biggest problem is the racial global order that strips the assets from Africa, turning the richest continent on earth into the poorest. Even if at the end of apartheid all whites had left, South Africa would just be like every other African country, brutally exploited from afar by the West.
Unfortunately, no African government truly represents the people, they do the bidding of the wider interests that keep the masses poor. No example could be clearer than new president Cyril Ramaphosa’s role in the Marikana massacre in 2012. Ramaphosa, one of the richest people in the country, was a non-executive director of Loomin, the company who the mine workers were striking against. Before 34 unarmed protesters were gunned down, Ramaphosa demanded that ‘concomitant action’ be taken against the miners, who he called ‘plainly criminal bastards’. It is no wonder that the average South African has lost faith in the ANC. In fact, one of the things that will stay will stay with me from this trip is that South Africans talk about the government in the way that we talk about the government. There is no doubt that in the UK, especially under the Tories, the government is the enemy of Black people. But perhaps I was naïve in thinking that in a so called democracy in a majority Black country the government would be viewed slightly differently. It is no surprise that voter turnout was lowest on record in the recent poll, with six million young people not registering to cast a ballot at all.
Visiting university campuses it was obvious that many of the youth have lost faith in the system. There is a strong history of protest and every campus I visited, the University of Johannesburg, University of the Free State and Sol Plaatje University had recently had large student mobilisations. The #FeesMustFall protests that started in 2015 sent shockwaves across the world and galvanised student movements in the UK. But the response of the state is the ultimate reminder that the system is the problem. The University of Johannesburg actually banned student protests on campus, effectively removing their rights guaranteed by the constitution. I had assumed this was an apartheid mechanism, but no, it was in response to the 2015 uprisings. Students consistently complain about harassment from security guards and the university has four different security companies in operation.
Security dominates the landscape of South Africa. Gates, fences, armed security guards all in place to protect the wealth of the minority from the masses. If any place needs radical politics it is South Africa. With disparities in wealth being so stark and racialised the country is on the brink. It was the pressure from mass mobilisations, the armed struggle and the inability to contain the will of the people that led to the supposed ‘democracy’ in 1994. But 25 years later and the people are restless again, let down as they have been by the difference that has made no difference. Make no mistake: There will be a reckoning in South Africa. That was Malcolm’s warning in his famous ‘Ballot or the Bullet’ speech. If the people don’t get freedom then society is creating a ‘racial powder keg’ just waiting to explode. South Africa is faced with a choice of extremism or radicalism. The uncontrolled destructive rage of the masses, or a revolutionary movement that can truly liberate the people. One of the reasons for selling out to the apartheid leaders was the desire to avoid the violence of war. But as a result of not dealing with the issue there have been more murders in the country over the last ten years than there were deaths in Afghanistan and Iraq combined, or, were killed in the Hiroshima bombing during the Second World War. Listen to the whole Malcolm speech and it is chilling just how relevant it is to the situation in South Africa today, and as he explained ‘it’s freedom for everybody or its freedom for nobody’.
South Africa simply cannot provide freedom for Black people, because it was designed to do the exact opposite. Its founding documents, the Freedom Charter and Constitution may promise equality and land reform but they are more parody than concrete resolutions. Revolutionary politics are nothing new to South Africa, and certainly not foreign ideas. Selling out the interests of the state was not the only route in 1994. Groups like the Azania People’s Liberation Organisation (AZAPO); the Black Consciousness Movement and even the more radical elements in the ANC were urging for revolutionary change. At one point the South African struggle was part of a wider revolutionary Pan-African movement across the continent. I stayed in Kimberley for a couple of days on this trip, in the town that Robert Sobukwe was banished to, and died in, after being released from apartheid prison. Founder of the Pan African Congress of Azania (PAC) Sobukwe was considered the most dangerous leaders of the struggle. He was kept in solitary confinement on Robben Island so that he could not be a bad influence on the other prisoners. The PAC is still alive today, and the ideas of fundamental change more widely. What is abundantly clear is that South Africa must fall because it can never deliver freedom. We must engage in a revolution to build Azania as part of a global struggle for Black liberation.
Izwe Lethu i Afrika! (Africa is Our Land!)
Photo by Matt-80
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