Anarchism, ethnicity, and culture: red and black on the Dark Continent

Part three in a series of articles discussing the anarchist movement as it relates to non-European peoples and cultures.

In African Anarchism: the history of a movement, Sam Mbah and I.E. Igariwey state the following case;

To a greater or lesser extent, all of […] traditional African societies manifested “anarchic elements” which, upon close examination, lend credence to the historical truism that governments have not always existed. They are but a recent phenomenon and are, therefore, not inevitable in human society. While some “anarchic” features of traditional African societies existed largely in past stages of development, some of them persist and remain pronounced to this day.

This is backed up by Jason Adams. In his previously cited work, Non-Western Anarchisms: rethinking the global context, he argues that although “anarchist thought as an ideology did not in any substantial way reach much of the African continent until the mid-20th century,” tribal “communalism” can be  “understood as a non-Western form of anarchism, uniquely and specifically within an African context.”

These facts echo the work of Peter Kropotkin. In 1902, he wrote Mutual aid: A Factor of Evolution, which makes the case that “there is in Nature the law of Mutual Aid, which, for the success of the struggle for life, and especially for the progressive evolution of the species, is far more important than the law of mutual contest.”

Returning to Adams, we can see that “elders in the tribal community are recognized as leaders on the basis of experience, but not as authorities with access to any form of a legitimate use of coercion, per se.” “In particular the Igbo, Niger Delta Peoples, and Tallensi are well known for being marked by anti-authoritarian, directly democratic social formations,” which “organized primarily around the supreme authority of mass village assemblies in a form of direct democracy, tempered with the advice of the council of elders.”

However, this “primitive communism” soon gave way to “the hegemony of either capitalist-imperialist nation-state systems or post-colonial “African socialist” sytems throughout the region.” The stateless organisation of African tribes was artificially overridden “with the Berlin Conference of 1884-1885 in which Europe carved Africa up into nation-states, placed over and between the stateless societies that had formed the basis of decentralized continental social administration in the past.” “These colonial nation-states facilitated the extraction of natural resources to the benefit of European elites, destroying, displacing, dividing and undermining stateless societies.”

Though the African resistance to colonialism was led by “African socialists,” for various reasons it soon fell into the grasp of state- and global capitalism;

In many African nation-states, the anti-colonial movement was led by “African socialists” such as Muammar Gadhafi of Libya, Gamel Abdel Nasser of Egypt and “negritude socialists” such as Senghor. The one thing most of these had in common was that they were very quickly co-opted and subjugated to the interests of Western capital. But while such African socialisms were largely controlled by a Marxist orientation, shaped and guided by outland capitalist interests, not all were.After Nigeria gained independence in 1960, it implemented a nationwide collective farming system based on a synthesis of elements of traditional African communalism and the Israeli Kibbutzim system. Likewise it can be seen that Gadhafi’s well-known “Green Book” was as influenced by his reading of Bakunin as it was by his reading of Marx. His concept of jamarrhiriyah was also quite similar to that of the Nigerian collective farming system. But far more exemplary than either of these is the theory and practice of Julius Nyerre’s Ujamaa system. In this system, where capitalism is opposed as much as “doctrinaire socialism,” a renewed form of African communalism became the basis of postcolonial Tanzanian society. Unfortunately the Ujaama system ultimately failed as a result of a rapid degeneration into state control over the peasantry under the watchful tutelage of the World Bank (p. 77). On the African continent, Tanzania was by no means alone in this development, which curiously occurred as often in the “socialist” nation-states as it did in the capitalist nation-states.

Anarchist influences gained a foothold in many places across the Dark Continent, even at one point influencing the African National congress (ANC). It was also instrumental in black syndicalist organisation, and the first moves to equalise labour rights between different racial groups. However, as elsewhere, counter-revolutionary “Communism” soon gained dominance.

So, is anarchism dead in Africa?

Not entirely. An Irish anarchist called Chekov travelled through Africa in 2000, and his travel diary is a useful document of the struggles that continue in the region. In Africa, neo-liberalism and anarchism, he notes the following;

There has been considerable opposition to many of the neo-liberal reforms in Africa. This opposition has normally come from community groups or independant trade unions. African anarchists have formed part of this resistance. In Nigeria the anarcho-syndicalist Awareness League was involved in the general strike against fuel price rises which succeeded in forcing the government to reduce the price significantly. Nigerian anarchists have also been establishing a small radio station to promote their ideas.

In South Africa anarchists have actively opposed the government’s neo-liberal GEAR plan since its introduction in 1996. Most recently anarchists have been working in the Anti-Privatisation Forum (APF). The APF is an alliance of left wing activists, some radical unions and mass-based community groups such as the Soweto Electricity Crisis Committee whose constituency is numbered in millions. It was established to campaign against the privatisation of services in the government’s IGOLI 2002 plan for privatising Johannesberg’s municipal services. South African anarchists are committed to fighting privatisation every step of the way in the APF. They also write, publish and distribute anarchist literature through Zabalaza books and Bikisha media collective.

The Pierre J Proudhon memorial computer has a useful resource page on African anarchism, including a listing of organisations by region. South Africa has seen the bulk of vital struggles, with shack dwellers movement Abahlali baseMjondolo and Western Cape Anti-Eviction Campaign are two of several groups which use direct action to resist in favour of the poor and oppressed.

As with the Middle East, Africa suffers from the fact that reactionary opposition to western imperialism has become far more prevalent than revolutionary opposition. Its case is more promounced in the fact that these reactionary positions are not only in power to a large extent, but working hand-in-glove with the west and/or shackled to the neo-liberal economy through the International monetary Fund and World Trade Organisation.

One particulary potent example of this is Nigeria. There, according to Amnesty International, “decades of pollution and environmental damage, caused by the oil industry, have resulted in violations of the right to an adequate standard of living, including food and water, violations of the right to gain a living through work and violations of the right to health.” And “the government of Nigeria has given the oil companies the authority to deal with matters that have a direct bearing on human rights, without adequate oversight – and oftentimes without any oversight.” In this case resistance, in the form of theft and sabotage, is the only option left to the people.

But how can these acts of resistance, often sporadic, become a mass movement to liberate Africa? No solid blueprint exists, but as always there is a lesson in history. The Ujamaa model, before Tanzania degenerated into state control and heavy World Bank debt, is a key idea, recognising that “in Africa land was always recognized as belonging to the community,” and that “the concept of land as a marketable commodity” was a foreign one promoted by “the class of parasites.”

However, as Ashanti Alston told an audience at Hunter College in New York, history also offers negative lessons about where such resistance can end up;

I was encouraged by things I found in Africa—not so much by the ancient forms that we call tribes—but by modern struggles that occurred in Zimbabwe, Angola, Mozambique, and Guinea-Bissau. Even though they were led by vanguardist organizations, I saw that people were building radical, democratic communities on the ground. For the first time, in these colonial situations, African peoples where creating what was the Angolans called “popular power.” This popular power took a very anti-authoritarian form: people were not only conducting their lives, but also transforming them while fighting whatever foreign power was oppressing them. However, in every one of these liberation struggles new repressive structures were imposed as soon as people got close to liberation: the leadership was obsessed with ideas of government, of raising a standing army, of controlling the people when the oppressors were expelled. Once the so-called victory was accomplished, the people—who had fought for years against their oppressors—were disarmed and instead of having real popular power, a new party was installed at the helm of the state. So, there were no real revolutions or true liberation in Angola, Guinea-Bissau, Mozambique, and Zimbabwe because they simply replaced a foreign oppressor with an indigenous oppressor.

Solidarity is needed, then, with movements based upon non-hierarchical and anti-authoritarian principles. Thus far, the shack-dwellers’ collectives in South Africa are perhaps the only viable example of this. However, it is with good reason that imperial planners have always feared “the threat of a good example.” Anarchists everywhere have a responsibility not only to their own struggles and to solidarity with others, but to documenting these struggles and making sure that those “good examples” spread.


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