Friday, 10 April 2015

Something lighter on statues ...

Had enough of the normal debates on statues? Follow the link for a poem on statues and which employs the sms language so widely used by the youth.

Frank Meintjies 

Racism and the debate around statues

I have listened closely to debates around the statues in our country on various media platforms. In many of these is very little mention of racism. There is talk of statues being ‘offensive’. A great deal is said about ‘history and heritage’. There is also reference to notions such as ‘inclusion’ and ‘social cohesion’.

But if we want just and sustainable solutions to this issue, we need to discuss racism and call it by name. From there, we can jointly find the road to a more through-going transformation. At UCT, even though a full discussion of racism was not held, it was easier to find a workable resolution because the UCT vice-chancellor openly acknowledged that racism (both past and current) afflicts the institution. Max Price realises that listening to the students and dealing with exponents and heroes of white superiority is the least that UCT can do.

But for wider society, and the broader issue of these landmarks, it is difficult to get wide agreement (including larger numbers of white people) because many do not see that removing the busts of these past champions of white superiority is the least that society can do. It is therefore imperative to make racism a focal point of current discussions.

In the rest of this article, I will discuss racism as well as issues of racist oppression memory work. Thereafter I return to the debate around the removal of statues in the context of the need to oppose and root out racism.

It is true that ‘racism’ is sometimes used to refer to discrimination by one person against another based on colour or ethnic origin.

In this article, it is used in the sense used by Ashok Ohri, Margaret Legum and Basil Manning, renowned anti-racist workers in South Africa and Britain. Racism in this sense is an ideology of group supremacy, is practiced over generations and enters the culture of both the oppressed and oppressor. It entails denial on a massive scale of resources, opportunities, dignity.

In our case, white racism has led to systematic human rights abuses and denial of rights that will affect us for generations to come. Black people suffered immense loss – including the loss of lives.

In relation to racism and memory work, a critical step in transformation is acknowledgment by perpetrators and those who benefitted. Verne Harris and Chandre Gold, in an official paper for the Nelson Mandela Foundation state that dealing with oppressive past requires “people to take responsibility for violations done in their name”.

They also take a tough line on perpetrators. In this regard they say that “a blanket amnesty for the perpetrators of violation can never be justified” and could lead to “resilient cultures of impunity, lack of accountability, and societal rage.”

In current debates, some like Steve Hofmeyr and Sunette Bridges, would not like to foreground racism. Such people want to chain themselves to their heritage – but what are they saying about racism and allegiance to a system declared a crime against humanity?

Others are calling for “negotiations” on the issue of statues. Some, including a spokesperson for the Freedom Front Plus, have called for keeping all the old statues and simply adding ones that depict liberation heroes. Can you imagine the scenario: five old-guard statues and five statues of anti-apartheid activists in every town, and double that in each city? Can you imagine if such an approach were used in Germany after the end of Nazism? This is exactly what we get if we try to sidestep the racism issue.  

A few white people have called on those demanding the removal of the statues concerned to consider the biographies of the particular “hero”. “How many people did Rhodes kill,” one caller to a radio station asked this week, demanding that the offending statue be left alone. This caller fails to realise that the campaign to dethrone “old guard” statues is actually a drive to end “denial”; to bring home to South Africans the hypocrisy of claiming to be free of racism and yet glorifying those who crafted, propagated and entrenched the system of domination.

Finally, some in the white community believe that removing the offending statues is a sign to white people that they have no place in South Africa. But the opposite is true. People like Max Price and other progressive white people know that this is not about some kind of reversal of white-black racial discrimination. Many of those who support the idea of bringing down the stone figure of Rhodes would welcome statues of, for example, Beyers Naude, Helen Suzman and Liberal Party stalwart Peter Brown. In this regard, as statues go, the dividing line is the distinction between champions of an evil system and those who fought against it.

Despite our fights, white and black people can face the future together. But a basic requirement is acknowledgement of racism and taking responsibility for what happened in the past.

Frank Meintjies

Tuesday, 7 April 2015

Vavi's dismissal: a new phase of political change & realignment

The dismissal of Zwelinzima Vavi foreshadows another huge dip in the decline of COSATU – a federation that has split into two camps, become a feeble voice in national affairs and recently parted ways with one of its most powerful industrial unions.

Many ardent progressives, democrats and supporters of the trade union movement are saddened by the turn of events.

In commentary, one cannot help but repeat certain points made in the past. At the same time, new perspectives about the consequences come to the fore.

It is best to see the COSATU split at this stage through several connected observations – and to let readers draw a picture of where things might be headed based on their needs and interests.

Firstly, we need to note that the split is between those who see COSATU as an equal partner in the alliance and those who want COSATU to be obedient to the ANC on political matters. In terms of the latter view, Cosatu is free to express its views, but once the father body takes a decision, the federation must fall into line.

But a sober view would realise that an alliance between a political party and a trade union federation will always involve tension and robust debate. There will never be agreement on everything, especially as (in this case) the ANC is a broad church and federation embraces socialism.

On joining the alliance, COSATU managed internal critics to the marriage by insisting on the right to differ and space for continual discussion of socialist imperatives. On both sides, skilful and astute leadership facilitated the building of a strong alliance, tensions notwithstanding.

But in recent years, some influential in both the ANC and COSATU have displayed a desire for all-out ANC control of COSATU. They have become greedy for control. This group includes those in COSATU who see trade unions as a stepping stone to positions in the ANC and political office.

Leaders like ANC general secretary Gwede Mantashe opposed this total control agenda; he challenged moves by his comrades to crush troublesome voices in Cosatu and equally opposed threats by anti-alliance unions to withdraw from COSATU. Mantashe appealed for balance, but was in the end left on the sidelines by an influential few who were champed at the bit to bounce NUMSA and Vavi out of the federation.

From Mantashe’s reaction, it is clear that some union leaders – in a bid to ingratiate themselves with the ruling party – want to be more ANC than the ANC itself. These role-players would do well to listen to Mantashe's comments about COSATU, issued last week: “In their rush to hurt each other, these leaders in Cosatu may find there will be nothing left of it”.

The split in COSATU will weaken the other alliance partners and the alliance itself. The Communist Party stands to lose massive ground. The party sees itself as influencing the mass of workers to support the ANC in elections. In this regard, it sees itself as working politically – especially near elections – to persuade the worker bodies in society to formally support the ANC.

A split in COSATU will thus have an adverse affect on the party’s influence in the ANC. In addition, the Alliance will be weakened, especially if Vavi throws his weight behind another political party, or if large numbers of workers change their political allegiances in response to Vavi’s dismissal.

Emerging political formations – those hoping to build an additional political voice to the left of the ANC – appear to be happy about Vavi’s dismissal. Almost all of them have tried to recruit him to their cause. These formations need Vavi not just to strengthen their popular appeal, but also to help in strategy formation. Left groups are often afflicted by narrowness and simplistic understandings of the link between national liberation and class issues. Vavi would help them build a broad base and identify campaigns that will have broad societal appeal.

But, for now, none of them know which way Vavi will go. Sources claim that Vavi will shun the role of alternative political leader – that he is more likely to lead a move to build a new federation, one that unites Numsa, the seven pro-Vavi COSATU unions and various other labour bodies.

Even if Vavi does not join any of their initiatives, leaders of the new left-leaning forces welcome the developments. They feel it signals a new phase in their bid to exert a leftward pull on the political system. As they see it, untold thousands of workers, angered by Vavi’s dismissal may look for new political homes and may turn to these new role players.

And Cosatu? The days ahead look cheerless for COSATU. If the federation continues in the mode it has up to now – inward looking, largely silent on national affairs, struggling to raise subs from member unions and limited policy impact  – its decline will accelerate. In the light of such challenges, taking a decision to dismiss Vavi is akin to a non-decision – to fiddling while Rome burns.

For workers, meantime, there is still no let up to the pressures they face. In the last few years, workers share of national income has declined and, as Dennis George of Fedusa has pointed out, this has decreased workers’ spending power and led to greater inequality. As Stats South Africa reported in 2010, half of all workers earn less than R2500 a month. At the same time, we have seen the rise of informal and vulnerable workers – an estimated one third of the workforce are employed as casual workers. Such workers earn low wages, are denied basic benefits, have no trade union representation and are deprived of the chance of advancement in their lives. In this context, the latest shenanigans in Cosatu constitute a further setback to workers.

No-one knows exactly what will happen – for example mass-level responses, new alignments and other breakaways – as a result of Vavi’s dismissal from Cosatu. But we can be sure of this: more flux and change in the political landscape which in turn will fuel shifts in voting patterns in future elections.  

Frank Meintjies