Vijay Prashad

Vijay Prashad is an Indian historian, editor and journalist. He is a writing fellow and chief correspondent at Globetrotter. He is an editor of LeftWord Books and the director of Tricontinental: Institute for Social Research. He is a senior non-resident fellow at Chongyang Institute for Financial Studies, Renmin University of China. He has written more than 20 books, including The Darker Nations and The Poorer Nations. His latest books are Struggle Makes Us Human: Learning from Movements for Socialism and (with Noam Chomsky) The Withdrawal: Iraq, Libya, Afghanistan, and the Fragility of U.S. Power.

Writing About a Joy That Invades Jenin

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Israel calls its latest military campaign Operation Break the Wave, a lyrical description of a brutal reality. This year, 2023, will be the seventy-fifth year after the Nakba, the catastrophe of 1948 when Israeli troops illegally removed Palestinians from their homes and tried to erase Palestine from the map. Since then, Palestinians have resisted against all odds, despite Israel’s formidable backing by the most powerful countries in the world, led by the United States.

Operation Break the Wave started in February 2022 with the assassination of three Palestinians in Nablus (Adham Mabrouka, Ashraf Mubaslat, and Mohammad Dakhil) and continued with terrible violence along the spine of the West Bank, spreading into brutalised Gaza. On 26 January 2023, Israeli forces killed ten Palestinians – including an elderly woman – in Jenin and in al-Ram, north of Jerusalem, and then shot at an ambulance to prevent it from assisting the injured – a clear war crime. The Jenin massacre provoked rocket fire from Palestinian resistance forces in Gaza, to which the Israeli Air Force responded disproportionately, shooting at the densely populated al-Maghazi refugee camp in the centre of Gaza. The cycle of violence continued with a lone Palestinian gunman killing seven Israelis in the illegal settlement of Neve Yaakov in East Jerusalem. In reaction to that, the Israeli government has put in place ‘collective punishment’ systems – a violation of the Geneva Conventions – which allows the state to target the gunman’s family members, and the Israeli government will make it easier for Israelis to carry firearms.

The Israeli government launched Operation Break the Wave in response to habbat sha’biyya (‘popular uprisings’) that have begun again across Palestine and express the frustration generated by Israeli pressure campaigns and the near collapse of economic life. Some of these uprisings took place not only in the West Bank, East Jerusalem, and Gaza where they are more common, but amongst Palestinians living inside the 1948 Green Line of Israel. In May 2021, these protestors gathered under The Dignity and Hope Manifesto and called for new agitations, a ‘united Intifada’ which unites Palestinians in exile, inside Israel, and in the Occupied Territories. These moves and the gains of Palestinians in the United Nations system indicate a new dynamism within Palestinian politics. Most recently, on 31 December 2022, the UN General Assembly voted 87 to 26 to ask the International Court of Justice to provide an opinion on Israel’s ‘prolonged occupation, settlement, and annexation of Palestinian territory’. The new phase of Israeli violence against Palestinians is a reaction to their achievements.

In the midst of all this, the Israeli people voted Benjamin Netanyahu into office to form his sixth government since 1996. Already, Netanyahu has been Israel’s prime minister for over fifteen of the past twenty-seven years, as he heads into another seven-year term. His government is fiercely far-right, although from the standpoint of the Palestinians there is steady continuity in Zionist state policy, whether the government is led by the far-right or by less right-wing sections. On 28 December 2022, Netanyahu defined his government’s mission with clarity: ‘The Jewish people have an exclusive and unquestionable right to all areas of the Land of Israel. The government will promote and develop settlement in all parts of the Land of Israel – in the Galilee, the Negev, the Golan, Judea, and Samaria’.

Netanyahu’s maximalist standard – that the Jewish people, not just the Zionist state, have the right to the land between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea – is not something that has appeared precipitously in this government’s statements. It is rooted in Israel’s Basic Law (2018), which says, ‘The land of Israel is the historical homeland of the Jewish people, in which the State of Israel was established’. This legal manoeuvre established Israel as the land of Jewish people, not a multinational or multi-ethnic territory. Furthermore, every administrative definition of the ‘State of Israel’ asserts its control over the entire territory. For example, Israel’s Central Bureau of Statistics has, since at least 1967, inaccurately counted any Israeli living to the west of the Jordan River, even in the West Bank, as an Israeli, and official Israeli maps show none of the internal divisions produced by the 1993 Oslo Accords.

Israeli state policy, rooted in a settler-colonial mentality, leaves no room for a Palestinian state. Gaza is throttled, the Bedouins in an-Naqab are being displaced, Palestinians in East Jerusalem are being evicted, and illegal Israeli settlements in the West Bank are growing like a plague of locusts. Netanyahu’s governmental partner Otzma Yehudit (‘Jewish Strength’) is willing to conduct Palestinicide in order to create a Jewish-only society in the Levant. The promise of Oslo, a two-state solution, is simply no longer factually possible as the Palestinian state is eroded and contained. The idealistic possibility of a binational state – made up of Israel and Palestine with Palestinians given full citizenship rights – is foreclosed by the Zionist insistence that Israel be a Jewish state, an ethnocentric and anti-democratic option that already treats Palestinians as second-class residents in an apartheid society. Instead, Zionism is in favour of a ‘three-state solution’, namely expelling Palestinians to Egypt, Jordan, and Lebanon.

In 2016, the United States and Israel signed their third ten-year Memorandum of Understanding on military aid, which runs from 2019 to 2028, and under which the US promises to provide Israel with $38 billion for military equipment. This aid is unconditional: nothing in the agreement prevents Israel from using the equipment to violate international law, kill US citizens (as it killed Shireen Abu Akleh, a reporter), or destroy humanitarian projects funded by the US government. Rather than mildly rebuke Israel for its ethnocidal policies, US President Joe Biden welcomed Benjamin Netanyahu, his ‘friend for decades’, to assist the US in confronting illusionary ‘threats from Iran’. Furthermore, just after Netanyahu’s government deepened Operation Break the Wave, the US military arrived in Israel in force to conduct a joint military exercise called Juniper Oak, the ‘largest and most significant exercise we have engaged in’, according to Pentagon Press Secretary Air Force Brigadier General Pat Ryder. Backed to the hilt by the US and nonchalant about condemnation from international bodies, the Israeli state continues its fatal project to erase Palestine.

Maya Abu al-Hayyat, a Palestinian poet living in Jerusalem, wrote a beautiful poem called ‘Daydream’, which settles into a rhythm of Palestinian life and geography defined by little towns in the West Bank. There are children playing, women dancing, life where life is denied by an occupation that has lasted for generations and generations, where the screams of the occupied mimic the loud alarm of the Palestine Sunbird, the national bird.

I’ll write about a joy that invades Jenin from six directions,
about children running while holding balloons in Am’ari Camp,
about a fullness that quiets breastfeeding babies all night in Askar,
about a little sea we can stroll up and down in Tulkarem,
about eyes that stare in people’s faces in Balata,
about a woman dancing
for people in line at the checkpoint in Qalandia,
about stitches in the sides of laughing men in Azzoun,
about you and me
stuffing our pockets with seashells and madness
and building a city.

My pockets are filled with rage and hope, an expectation that our struggles of solidarity alongside the Palestinian people will prevail, because the ‘process of liberation is irresistible and irreversible’.

Who Can and Who Will Save Democracy?

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Democracy has a dream-like character. It sweeps into the world, carried forward by an immense desire by humans to overcome the barriers of indignity and social suffering. When confronted by hunger or the death of their children, earlier communities might have reflexively blamed nature or divinity, and indeed those explanations remain with us today. But the ability of human beings to generate massive surpluses through social production, alongside the cruelty of the capitalist class to deny the vast majority of humankind access to that surplus, generates new kinds of ideas and new frustrations. This frustration, spurred by the awareness of plenty amidst a reality of deprivation, is the source of many movements for democracy.

Habits of colonial thought mislead many to assume that democracy originated in Europe, either in ancient Greece (which gives us the word ‘democracy’ from demos, ‘the people’, and kratos, ‘rule’) or through the emergence of a rights tradition, from the English Petition of Right in 1628 to the French Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen in 1789. But this is partly a retrospective fantasy of colonial Europe, which appropriated ancient Greece for itself, ignoring its strong connections to North Africa and the Middle East, and used its power to inflict intellectual inferiority on large parts of the world. In doing so, colonial Europe denied these important contributions to the history of democratic change. People’s often forgotten struggles to establish basic dignity against despicable hierarchies are as much the authors of democracy as those who preserved their aspirations in written texts still celebrated in our time. 

Over the course of the second half of the twentieth century, a range of struggles developed against dictatorial regimes in the Third World that had been put in place by anti-communist oligarchies and their allies in the West. These regimes were born out of coups (such as in Brazil, the Philippines, and Turkey) and given the latitude to maintain legal hierarchies (such as in South Africa). The large mass demonstrations that laid at the heart of these struggles were built up through a range of political forces, including trade unions – a side of history that is often ignored. The growing trade union movement in Turkey was, in fact, part of the reason for the military coups of 1971 and 1980. Knowing that their hold on power was vulnerable to working-class struggles, both military governments banned unions and strikes. This threat to their power had been evidenced, in particular, by a range of strikes across Anatolia developed by unions linked to the Confederation of Progressive Trade Unions (DISK), including a massive two-day demonstration in İstanbul known as the June 15–16 Events that drew in 100,000 workers. The confederation, established in February 1967, was more militant than the existing one (Türk İş), which had become a collaborator with capital. Not only did militaries move against socialist and non-socialist governments alike that attempted to exercise sovereignty and improve the dignity of their peoples (such as in the Congo in 1961, Brazil in 1964, Indonesia in 1965, Ghana in 1966, and Chile in 1973), but they also moved out of the barracks – with the bright green light from Washington – to quell the cycle of strikes and worker protests.

Once in power, these wretched regimes, dressed in their khaki uniforms and the finest silk suits, drove austerity policies and cracked down on any movements of the working class and peasantry. But they could not break the human spirit. In much of the world (as in Brazil, the Philippines, and South Africa), it was trade unions that fired the early shot against barbarism. The cry in the Philippines ‘Tama Na! Sobra Na! Welga Na!’ (‘We’ve had enough! Things have gone too far! It’s time to strike!’) moved from La Tondeña distillery workers in 1975 to protests in the streets against Ferdinand Marcos’ dictatorship, eventually culminating in the People Power Revolution of 1986. In Brazil, industrial workers paralysed the country through actions in Santo André, São Bernardo do Campo, and São Caetano do Sul (industrial towns in greater São Paulo) from 1978 to 1981, led by Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva (now Brazil’s president). These actions inspired the country’s workers and peasants, raising their confidence to resist the military junta, which collapsed as a result in 1985.

Fifty years ago, in January 1973, the workers of Durban, South Africa, struck for a pay rise, but also for their dignity. They woke at 3 am on 9 January and marched to a football stadium, where they chanted ‘Ufil’ umuntu, ufile usadikiza, wamthint’ esweni, esweni usadikiza’ (‘A person is dead, but their spirit lives; if you poke the iris of their eye, they still come alive’). These workers led the way against entrenched forms of domination that not only exploited them, but also oppressed the people as a whole. They stood up against harsh labour conditions and reminded South Africa’s apartheid government that they would not sit down again until class lines and colour lines were broken. The strikes opened a new period of urban militancy that soon moved off the factory floors and into wider society. A year later, Sam Mhlongo, a medical doctor who had been imprisoned on Robben Island as a teenager, observed that ‘this strike, although settled, had a detonator effect’. The baton was passed to the children of Soweto in 1976.

From Tricontinental: Institute for Social Research and the Chris Hani Institute comes a memorable text, The 1973 Durban Strikes: Building Popular Democratic Power in South Africa (dossier no. 60, January 2023). It is memorable in two senses: it recovers an almost lost history of the role of the working class in the fight against apartheid, in particular the Black working class, whose struggle had a ‘detonator’ effect on society. The dossier, beautifully written by our colleagues in Johannesburg, makes it hard to forget these workers and harder still to forget that the working class – still so deeply marginalised in South Africa – deserves respect and a greater share of the country’s social wealth. They broke the back of apartheid but did not benefit from their own sacrifices.

The Chris Hani Institute was founded in 2003 by the South African Communist Party and the Congress of South African Trade Unions. Chris Hani (1942–1993) was one of South Africa’s great freedom fighters, a communist who would have made an even greater impact than he did had he not been assassinated at the end of apartheid. We are grateful to Dr Sithembiso Bhengu, the director of the Chris Hani Institute, for this collaboration and look forward to the work that lies before us.

As this dossier went to press, we heard that our friend Thulani Maseko (1970–2023), chairperson of the Multi-Stakeholders Forum in Swaziland, was shot dead in front of his family on 21 January. He was one of the leaders of the fight to bring democracy to his country, where workers are at the forefront of the battle to end the monarchy.

When I reread our latest dossier, The 1973 Durban Strikes, to prepare for this newsletter, I was listening to Hugh Masekela’s ‘Stimela’ (‘Coal Train’), the 1974 song of migrant workers travelling on the coal train to work ‘deep, deep, deep down in the belly of the earth’ to bring up wealth for apartheid capital. I thought of the Durban industrial workers with the sound of Masekela’s train whistle in my ear, remembering Mongane Wally Serote’s long poem, Third World Express, a tribute to the workers of southern Africa and their struggles to establish a humane society.

– it is that wind
it is that voice buzzing
it is whispering and whistling in the wires
miles upon miles upon miles
on the wires in the wind
in the subway track
in the rolling road
in the not silent bush
it is the voice of the noise
here it comes
the Third World Express
they must say, here we go again.

‘Here we go again’, Serote wrote, as if to say that new contradictions produce new moments for struggle. The end of one crushing order – apartheid – did not end the class struggle, which has only deepened as South Africa is propelled through crisis upon crisis. It was the workers who brought us this democracy, and it will be workers who will fight to establish a deeper democracy yet. Here we go again.

Newsletter of Tricontinental: Institute for Social Research.

Burkina Faso Ejects French Troops

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On January 18, 2023, the government of Burkina Faso made a decision to ask the French military forces to depart from the country within a month. This decision was made by the government of Captain Ibrahim Traoré, who staged the second coup of 2022 in Burkina Faso in September to remove Lieutenant Colonel Paul-Henri Sandaogo Damiba, who had seized power in a coup d’état in January. Traoré, now the interim president of Burkina Faso, said that Damiba, who is in exile in Togo, had not fulfilled the objectives of the Patriotic Movement for Safeguarding and Restoration, the name of their military group. Traoré’s government accused Damiba of not being able to stem the insurgency in the country’s north and of colluding with the French (alleging that Damiba had taken refuge in the French military base at Kamboinsin to launch a strike against the coup within a coup).

France entered the Sahel region in 2013 to prevent the southern movement of jihadist elements strengthened by the war in Libya, prosecuted by the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO). In the past few years, anti-French sentiment has deepened in North Africa and the Sahel. It was this sentiment that provoked the coups in Mali (August 2020 and May 2021), Guinea (September 2021), and then in Burkina Faso (January 2022 and September 2022). In February 2022, Mali’s government ejected the French military, accusing French forces of committing atrocities against civilians and colluding with jihadi insurgents. Burkina Faso has now joined Mali.

The ejection of France does not mean that there will be no NATO countries in the region. Both the United States and Britain have a large footprint from Morocco to Niger, with the United States trying to draw African countries into its contest against China and Russia. Regular trips by U.S. military leaders—such as U.S. Marine Corps General Michael Langley (commander of U.S. Africa Command) to Gabon in mid-January – and by U.S. civilian leaders—like Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen to Senegal, South Africa, and Zambia—are part of a full-court press to ensure that African states forge closer ties with the United States and its allies over China. The designation of Russia’s Wagner Group—which is said to be operating in the Sahel—as a “transnational criminal organization ” by the United States and the U.S.-Africa Leaders Summit, held in mid-December, are both attempts to draw African states into a new cold war.

Almost half of the Burkinabé population lives below the poverty line, and “more than 630,000 people are on the brink of starvation,” in the country, according to the UN. The country is, however, not poor with its gold export reaching $7.19 billion in 2020. These gains do not go to the Burkinabé people but go to the large mining companies. Ejection of the French military will not be the answer to these deep-seated problems faced by Burkina Faso.

When the People Have Nothing More to Eat, They Will Eat the Rich

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On 8 January, large crowds of people dressed in colours of the Brazilian flag descended on the country’s capital, Brasília. They invaded federal buildings, including the Congress, Supreme Court, and presidential palace, and vandalised public property. The attack, carried out by supporters of former President Jair Bolsonaro, came as no surprise, since the rioters had been planning ‘weekend demonstrations’ on social media for days. When Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva (known as Lula) was formally sworn in as Brazil’s new president one week prior, on 1 January, there was no such melee; it appears that the vandals were waiting until the city was quiet and Lula was out of town. For all its bluster, the attack was an act of extreme cowardice.

Meanwhile, the defeated Bolsonaro was nowhere near Brasília. He fled Brazil prior to the inauguration – presumably to escape prosecution – and sought haven in Orlando, Florida (in the United States). Even though Bolsonaro was not in Brasília, the Bolsonaristas, as his supporters are known, left their mark throughout the city. Even before Bolsonaro lost the election to Lula this past October, Le Monde Diplomatique Brasil suggested that Brazil was going to experience ‘Bolsonarism without Bolsonaro’. This prediction is supported by the fact that the far-right Liberal Party, which served as Bolsonaro’s political vehicle during his presidency, holds the largest bloc in the country’s Chamber of Deputies and Senate, while the toxic influence of the right wing persists both in Brazil’s elected bodies and political climate, especially on social media.

The two men responsible for public safety in Brasília – Anderson Torres (the secretary of public security of the Federal District) and Ibaneis Rocha (the governor of the Federal District) – are close to Bolsonaro. Torres served as the minister of justice and public security in Bolsonaro’s government, while Rocha formally supported Bolsonaro during the election. As the Bolsonaristas prepared their assault on the capital, both men appeared to have abdicated their responsibilities: Torres was on holiday in Orlando, while Rocha took the afternoon off on the last working day before the coup attempt. For this complicity in the violence, Torres has been dismissed from his post and faces charges, and Rocha has been suspended. The federal government has taken charge of security and arrested over a thousand of these ‘fanatic Nazis’, as Lula called them. There is a good case to be made that these ‘fanatic Nazis’ do not deserve amnesty.

The slogans and signs that pervaded Brasília on 8 January were less about Bolsonaro and more about the rioters’ hatred for Lula and the potential of his pro-people government. This sentiment is shared by big business sectors – mainly agribusiness – which are furious about the reforms proposed by Lula. The attack was partly the result of the built-up frustration felt by people who have been led, by intentional misinformation campaigns and the use of the judicial system to unseat the Lula’s party, the Workers’ Party (PT), through ‘lawfare’, to believe that Lula is a criminal – even though the courts have ruled this to be false. It was also a warning from Brazil’s elites. The unruly nature of the attack on Brasília resembles the 6 January 2021 attack on the US Capitol by supporters of former US President Donald Trump. In both cases, far-right illusions, whether about the dangers of the ‘socialism’ of US President Joe Biden or the ‘communism’ of Lula, symbolise the hostile opposition of the elites to even the mildest rollback of neoliberal austerity. 

The attacks on government offices in the United States (2021) and Brazil (2023), as well as the recent coup in Peru (2022), are not random events; beneath them is a pattern that requires examination. At Tricontinental: Institute for Social Research, we have been engaged in this study since our founding five years ago. In our first publication, In the Ruins of the Present (March 2018), we offered a preliminary analysis of this pattern, which I will develop further below.

After the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991 and the Third World Project withered as a result of the debt crisis, the US-driven agenda of neoliberal globalisation prevailed. This programme was characterised by the state’s withdrawal from the regulation of capital and by the erosion of social welfare policies. The neoliberal framework had two major consequences: first, a rapid increase in social inequality, with the growth of billionaires at one pole and the growth of poverty at the other, along with an exacerbation of inequality along North-South lines; and second, the consolidation of a ‘centrist’ political force that pretended that history, and therefore politics, had ended, leaving only administration (which in Brazil is well-named as centrão, or the ‘centre’) remaining. Most countries around the world fell victim to both the neoliberal austerity agenda and this ‘end of politics’ ideology, which became increasingly anti-democratic, making the case for technocrats to be in charge. However, these austerity policies, cutting close to the bone of humanity, created their own new politics on the streets, a trend that was foreshadowed by the IMF riots and bread riots of the 1980s and later coalesced into the ‘anti-globalisation’ protests. The US-driven globalisation agenda produced new contradictions that belied the argument that politics had ended. 

The Great Recession that set in with the global financial crisis of 2007–08 increasingly invalidated the political credentials of the ‘centrists’ who had managed the austerity regime. The World Inequality Report 2022 is an indictment of neoliberalism’s legacy. Today, wealth inequality is as bad as it was in the early years of the twentieth century: on average, the poorest half of the world’s population owns just $4,100 per adult (in purchasing power parity), while the richest 10 percent owns $771,300 – roughly 190 times as much wealth. Income inequality is equally harsh, with the richest 10 percent absorbing 52 percent of world income, leaving the poorest 50 percent with merely 8.5 percent of world income. It gets worse if you look at the ultra-rich. Between 1995 and 2021, the wealth of the top one percent grew astronomically, capturing 38 percent of global wealth while the bottom 50 percent only ‘captured a frightening two percent’, the authors of the report write. During the same period, the share of global wealth owned by the top 0.1 percent rose from 7 percent to 11 percent. This obscene wealth – largely untaxed – provides this tiny fraction of the world’s population with a disproportionate amount of power over political life and information and increasingly squeezes the ability of the poor to survive.

The World Bank’s Global Economic Prospects report (January 2023) forecasts that, at the end of 2024, gross domestic product (GDP) in 92 of the world’s poorer countries will be 6 percent below the level expected on the eve of the pandemic. Between 2020 and 2024, these countries are projected to suffer a cumulative loss in GDP equal to roughly 30 percent of their 2019 GDP. As central banks in the richest countries tighten their monetary policies, capital for investment in the poorer nations is drying up and the cost of debts already held has increased. Total debt in these poorer countries, the World Bank notes, ‘is at a 50-year high’. Roughly one in five of these countries are ‘effectively locked out of global debt markets’, up from one in fifteen in 2019. All of these countries – excluding China – ‘suffered an especially sharp investment contraction of more than 8 percent’ during the pandemic, ‘a deeper decline than in 2009’, in the throes of the Great Recession. The report estimates that aggregate investment in these countries will be 8 percent lower in 2024 than had been expected in 2020. Faced with this reality, the World Bank offers the following prognosis: ‘Sluggish investment weakens the rate of growth of potential output, reducing the capacity of economies to increase median incomes, promote shared prosperity, and repay debts’. In other words, the poorer nations will slide deeper into a debt crisis and into a permanent condition of social distress. 

The World Bank has sounded the alarm, but the forces of ‘centrism’ – beholden to the billionaire class and the politics of austerity – simply refuse to pivot away from the neoliberal catastrophe. If a leader of the centre-left or left tries to wrench their country out of persistent social inequality and polarised wealth distribution, they face the wrath of not merely the ‘centrists’, but the wealthy bondholders in the North, the International Monetary Fund, and the Western states. When Pedro Castillo won the presidency in Peru in July 2021, he was not permitted to pursue even a Scandinavian form of social democracy; the coup machinations against him began before he was inaugurated. The civilised politics that would end hunger and illiteracy are simply not permitted by the billionaire class, who spend vast amounts of money on think tanks and media to undermine any project of decency and fund the dangerous forces of the far right, who shift the blame for social chaos away from the tax-free ultra-rich and the capitalist system and onto the poor and marginalised.

The hallucinatory insurrection in Brasília emerged from the same dynamic that produced the coup in Peru: a process in which ‘centrist’ political forces are funded and brought to power in the Global South to ensure that their own citizens remain at the rear of the queue, while the wealthy tax-free bondholders of the Global North remain at the front.  On the barricades of Paris on 14 October 1793, Pierre Gaspard Chaumette, the president of the Paris Commune who himself fell to the guillotine to which he sent many others, quoted these fine words from Jean-Jacques Rousseau: ‘When the people shall have nothing more to eat, they will eat the rich’.

The Winds of the New Cold War Are Howling in the Arctic Circle

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In 1996, the eight countries on the Arctic rim – Canada, Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Norway, Russia, Sweden, and the United States – formed the Arctic Council, a journey that began in 1989 when Finland approached the other countries to hold a discussion about the Arctic environment. The Finnish initiative led to the Rovaniemi Declaration (1991), which established the council’s precursor, the Arctic Environmental Protection Strategy.

The main concern for these governments at the time was the impact of ‘global pollution and resulting environmental threats’ to the Arctic, which was destroying the region’s ecosystem. There was little understanding of the scale and implications of the polar ice cap melting (consensus about that danger was amplified by the research of scientists such as Xiangdong Zhang and John Walsh in 2006 and the Fourth Assessment Report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change in 2007). The Arctic Council’s remit was later expanded to include investigations on climate change and development in the region.

More recently, at the 2021 ministerial meeting of the Arctic Council in Reykjavík (Iceland), Russia took over as the organisation’s rotating two-year chair. However, on 3 March 2022 – exactly one week after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine – the other council members began to boycott meetings in protest of Moscow’s involvement in the group. In June 2022, these seven countries agreed to ‘implement a limited resumption of our work in the Arctic Council on projects that do not involve the participation of the Russian Federation’. In essence, the council’s future is at stake.

Yet, geopolitical tensions in the Arctic did not begin last year. They have been simmering for more than a decade as these eight countries have jockeyed for control over the area – not to stem the dangers of climate change, but to exploit the vast deposits of minerals, metals, and fossil fuels that are present within the 21 million square kilometres of the Arctic Circle. The region is estimated to contain 22% of the world’s undiscovered oil and natural gas (although extraction from this region remains expensive). Far more lucrative is the mining of rare earth minerals (such as neodymium for capacitors and electric motors and terbium for magnets and lasers), whose value across the Arctic – from Greenland’s Kvanefjeld to Russia’s Kola Peninsula to the Canadian Shield – is estimated to be at least one trillion dollars. Each member of the Arctic Council is racing to establish control over these precious resources, which, until now, have been locked beneath the melting ice.

Because more than half of the Arctic is made up of international waters and the continental shelves of these eight countries (i.e., landmass that extends into shallow ocean waters), its regulation largely falls under the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), which is ratified by 168 parties. According to the UNCLOS, the sovereignty of a coastal state extends to its territorial sea, defined as the area within 12 nautical miles from the low-water line of their coast. States also have the right to create an ‘exclusive economic zone’ within 200 nautical miles of that low-water mark, where many of these resources are located. As a result, exploitation of the Arctic’s resources is mainly the domain of the council’s member states and is largely outside of multilateral control. However, the UNCLOS does constrain individual state sovereignty by declaring that the deep seabed is the ‘common heritage’ of humanity and its exploration and exploitation ‘shall be carried out for the benefits of mankind as a whole, irrespective of the geographical location of States’.

The UN created the International Seabed Authority (ISA) to implement the UNCLOS treaty. In Kingston (Jamaica), the ISA’s legal and technical commission is developing a mining code to regulate exploration and exploitation of the international seabed area. It is worth noting that one fifth of the commission’s members are from mining companies. While there is no possibility of enacting a global moratorium on deep-sea mining – even in the Arctic, despite the 1959 Antarctic Treaty effectively banning mining on that continent – a mining code that favours mining companies will not only increase exploitation, but also increase competition and the risk of conflict between major powers. This competition has already intensified the New Cold War between North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO) states – led by the US – and countries such as China and Russia and has led to the rapid militarisation of the Arctic.

Every member of the Arctic Council has already created military bases on the Arctic rim, with the race to dominate the region accelerating after 2007, when Russian scientists symbolically placed a titanium flag on the Arctic seabed, 4,302 metres below the North Pole. Artur Chilingarov, the Russian explorer who led this geographical expedition, said that he was motivated by science and a concern for climate change and that ‘the Arctic must be protected not in words, but in deeds’. Nonetheless, the Russian geological expedition was used as a pretext to expand militarisation in the region. For decades, the US has had a military presence deep inside the Arctic Circle, the Thule Air Base in Greenland, which it developed in the 1950s after Denmark – the colonial ruler over Greenland – joined NATO. Other Arctic littoral countries, too, have long had military forces that traverse the ice and snows of the north, a presence that has grown in recent years. Canada, for instance, is building the Nanisivik Naval Facility on Baffin Island, Nunavut, aiming for it to be operational in 2023. Meanwhile, over the past decade, Russia has renovated the Nagurskoye air base in Alexandra Land and the Temp air base on Kotelny Island.

The Arctic Council was one of the few multilateral institutions to facilitate communication between the powers in the region. Now, seven of them have decided to no longer participate. Five of these abstaining members (Canada, Denmark, Iceland, Norway, and the US) are already part of NATO, while the remaining two (Finland and Sweden) are being fast-tracked into the organisation. Increasingly, NATO is replacing the Arctic Council as a decision-making authority in the region, with its operations based out of the Centre of Excellence for Cold Weather Operations in Norway. Since 2006, this hub has brought together NATO allies and partners for biannual military exercises in the Arctic called Cold Response.

In May 2019, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo went to the Arctic Council meeting in Rovaniemi (Finland) and accused China of being responsible for environmental destruction in the Arctic. Although China has launched a Polar Silk Road project, there is no real evidence that China has played a particularly deleterious role in the northern sea lanes. This hostile comment towards China and similar sentiments about Russia’s role in the Arctic are part of the ideological battle to justify the New Cold War. Less than a month after Pompeo’s speech, the US Department of Defence released its Arctic Strategy (2019), which focused on ‘limiting the ability of China and Russia to leverage the region as a corridor for competition’ (a mood repeated in the US Air Force’s 2020 Arctic Strategy).

In October 2022, Reykjavík hosted its annual Arctic Circle gathering, attended by all of the major powers, except Russia, which was not invited. Iceland’s former President Ólafur Ragnar Grímsson, who was embroiled in the 2016 Panama Papers corruption scandal, chaired the keynote speech given by the Dutch Admiral Rob Bauer, chairman of the NATO Military Committee. Bauer said that NATO must have a more muscular presence in the Arctic in order to check Russia as well as China, which he called ‘another authoritarian regime that does not share our values and undermines the rules-based international order’. China’s Polar Silk Road, Admiral Bauer said, is merely a shield behind which Chinese ‘naval formations could move more quickly from the Pacific to the Atlantic, and submarines could shelter in the Arctic’.

During the discussion period, China’s ambassador to Iceland, He Rulong, rose from his seat to say to the NATO admiral, ‘Your speech and remark are full of arrogance and also paranoid. The Arctic region is an area for high cooperation and low confrontation… The Arctic plays an important role when it comes to climate change… Every country should be part of this process’. China, he continued, should not be ‘singled out [from] the cooperation’. Grímsson closed the session after He’s intervention to muted laughter in the hall.

Absent from most of these discussions are the indigenous communities who live in the Arctic: the Aleut and Yupik (United States); the Inuit (Canada, Greenland, and the United States); the Chukchi, Evenk, Khanty, Nenets, and Sakha (Russia); and the Saami (Finland, Norway, Russia, and Sweden). Though these communities are represented by six organisations on the Arctic Council – the Aleut International Association, the Arctic Athabaskan Council, the Gwich’in Council, the Inuit Circumpolar Council, and the Russian Association of Indigenous People of the North, and the Saami Council – their voices have been further muted during the intensified conflict.

This silencing of indigenous voices reminds me of Nils-Aslak Valkeapää (1943–2001), the great Saami artist, whose poetry rattles like the sound of the wind:

Can you hear the sounds of life
in the roaring of the creek
in the blowing of the wind

That is all I want to say
that is all

The Brazilian Hard Right Are Already a Political Cliché

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On January 8, 2023, large crowds of people—dressed in colors of the Brazilian flag—descended on the country’s capital, Brasília. They invaded the federal building and Supreme Court and vandalized public property. This attack by the rioters had been widely expected since the invaders had been planning “weekend demonstrations” for days on social media. On January 1, Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva (known as Lula) was formally sworn in as Brazil’s president, but during his inauguration there was no such melee. It was as if the vandals were waiting until the city was quiet and when Lula himself was out of town. For all the braggadocio of the attack, it was an act of extreme cowardice.

The man whom Lula defeated—former Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro—was nowhere near Brasília. He was not even in Brazil. He fled before the inauguration—to escape prosecution, presumably—to Orlando, Florida, in the United States. But even if Bolsonaro was not in Brasília, Bolsonaristas—as his supporters are known—were everywhere in evidence. Before Bolsonaro lost the election to Lula on October 30, 2022, Le Monde Diplomatique Brasil suggested that Brazil was going to see “Bolsonarism without Bolsonaro.” The political party with the largest bloc in the Chamber of Deputies and the Senate in Brazil is the far-right Liberal Party, which served as the political vehicle of Bolsonaro during his presidency. The toxic right-wing stain remains both in the elected bodies and on social media.

The two men responsible for public safety in Brasília—Anderson Torres, secretary of public security of the federal district, and Ibaneis Rocha, governor of the federal district—are close to Bolsonaro. Torres was a minister in Bolsonaro’s government and was on holiday in Orlando during the attack; Rocha took the afternoon off, a sign that he did not want to be at his desk during the attack. For their complicity in the attack, Torres was dismissed from his post, and Rocha has been suspended. The federal government has taken charge of security, and thousands of “fanatic Nazis,” as Lula called them, have been arrested.

The slogans and signs that pervaded Brasília were less about Bolsonaro and more about the hatred felt for Lula, and the potential of his pro-people government. Big business—mainly agribusiness—sectors are furious about the reforms proposed by Lula. This attack was partly the result of the built-up frustration felt by people who have been led to believe that Lula is a criminal—which the courts have shown is false—and partly is a warning from Brazil’s elites. The ragtag nature of the attack resembles the January 6, 2021, attack on the U.S. Capitol by supporters of former U.S. President Donald Trump. The illusions about the dangers of a communist U.S. President Joe Biden or a communist Lula seem to have masked the animosity of the elites to even the mildest rollback of neoliberal austerity.

Socialism Is Not a Utopian Ideal, but an Achievable Necessity

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In May 2021, the executive director of UN Women, Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka, and the UN high representative for disarmament affairs, Izumi Nakamitsu, wrote an article urging governments to cut excessive military spending in favour of increasing spending on social and economic development. Their wise words were not heard at all. To cut money for war and to increase money for social development, they wrote, is ‘not a utopian ideal, but an achievable necessity’. That phrase – not a utopian ideal, but an achievable necessity  – is essential. It describes the project of socialism almost perfectly.

Our institute has been at work for over five years, driven precisely by this idea that it is possible to transform the world to meet the needs of humanity while living within nature’s limits. We have accompanied social and political movements, listened to their theories, observed their work, and built our own understanding of the world based on these attempts to change it. This process has been illuminating. It has taught us that it is not enough to try and build a theory from older theories, but that it is necessary to engage with the world, to acknowledge that those who are trying to change the world are able to develop the shards of an assessment of the world, and that our task – as researchers of Tricontinental: Institute for Social Research – is to build those shards into a worldview. The worldview that we are developing does not merely understand the world as it is; it also takes hold of the dynamic that seeks to produce the world as it should be.

Our institute is committed to tracing the dynamics of social transcendence, and how we can get out of a world system that is driving us to annihilation and extinction. There are sufficient answers that exist in the world now, already present with us even when social transformation seems impossible. The total social wealth on the planet is extraordinary, although – due to the long history of colonialism and violence – this wealth is simply not used to generate solutions for common problems, but to aggrandise the fortunes of the few. There is enough food to feed every person on the planet, for instance, and yet billions of people remain hungry. There is no need to be naïve about this reality, nor is there a need to feel futile.

In one of our earliest newsletters, which brought our first year of work (2018) to a close, we wrote that ‘it is easier to imagine the end of the earth than to imagine the end of capitalism, to imagine the polar ice cap flooding us into extinction than to imagine a world where our productive capacity enriches all of us’. This remains true. And yet, despite this, there is ‘a possible future that is built to meet people’s aspirations. … It is cruel to think of these hopes as naïve’.

The problems we face are not for lack of resources or lack of technological and scientific knowhow. At Tricontinental: Institute for Social Research, we believe that it is because of the social system of capitalism that we are unable to transcend our common problems. This system constrains the forward movement that requires the democratisation of nations and the democratisation of social wealth. There are hundreds of millions of people organised into political and social formations that are pushing against the gated communities in our world, fighting to break down the barriers and build the utopias that we require to survive. But, rather than recognise that these formations seek to realise genuine democracy, they are criminalised, their leaders arrested and assassinated, and their own precious social confidence vanquished. Much the same repressive behaviour is meted out to national projects that are rooted in such political and social movements, projects that are committed to using social wealth for the greatest good. Coups, assassinations, and sanctions regimes are routine, their frequency illustrated by an unending sequence of events, from the coup in Peru in December 2022 to the ongoing blockade of Cuba, and by the denial that such violence is used to block social progress.

In his introduction to philosophy in 1997, the German Marxist philosopher Ernst Bloch wrote, ‘I am. But I don’t have myself. And only therefore we become’. This is an interesting statement. Bloch is reformulating René Descartes’ ‘I think, therefore I am’, an idealist proposition. Bloch affirms existence (‘I am’), but then suggests that human existence does not flourish due to forms of alienation and loneliness (‘But I don’t have myself’). The ‘I’ – the atomised, fragmented, and lonely individual – does not have the capacity to change the world alone. To build a process towards social transcendence requires the creation of a collective ‘we’. This collective is the subjective force that must strengthen itself to overpower the contradictions that stand in the way of human progress. ‘To be Human means in reality to have Utopia’, Bloch wrote. This phrase resonates deeply with me, and I hope that it touches you, too.

In the new year, we at Tricontinental: Institute for Social Research will reflect at length on the pathways to socialism and the barricades that seek to prevent the world’s billions from going beyond a system that extracts their social labour and promises greatness while delivering the barest minimum of life’s possibilities. We walk into this new year with a renewed commitment to the simple postulate, socialism is an achievable necessity.

Newsletter issued by Tricontinental: Institute for Social Research

Which Government Does the United States Recognize in Venezuela?

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On January 3, 2023, Shaun Tandon of Agence France-Presse asked U.S. State Department spokesperson Ned Price about Venezuela. In late December, the Venezuelan opposition after a fractious debate decided to dissolve the “interim government” led by Juan Guaidó. From 2019 onward, the U.S. government recognized Guaidó as the “interim president of Venezuela.” With the end of Guaidó’s administration, Tandon asked if “the United States still recognize[s] Juan Guaidó as legitimate interim president.”

Price’s answer was that the U.S. government recognizes the “only remaining democratically elected institution in Venezuela today, and that’s the 2015 National Assembly.” It is true that when the U.S. government supported Guaidó as the “interim president” of Venezuela, it did so because of his role as the rotating president in that National Assembly in 2019. Since the presidency of the National Assembly rotates annually, Guaidó should have left the position of “interim president” by the end of 2020. But he did not, going against Article 233 of the Venezuelan Constitution of 1999, which he cited as the basis for his ascension in 2019.

Price said, “The 2015 National Assembly has renewed its mandate.” However, that assembly was dissolved since its term expired and it was replaced—after an election in December 2020—by another National Assembly. The U.S. government called the 2020 election a “political farce.” But when I met the leaders of Venezuela’s two historic opposition parties in Venezuela in 2020—Pedro José Rojas of Acción Democrática (AD) and Juan Carlos Alvarado of Comité de Organización Política Electoral Independiente (COPEI)—they told me that the 2020 election was legitimate and that they just did not know how to overrun the massive wave of Chavista voters. Since the members of the new assembly took their seats, the 2015 assembly has not set foot in the Palacio Federal Legislativo, which houses the National Assembly, near Plaza Bolívar in Caracas.

In essence, then, the U.S. government believes that the real democratic institution in Venezuela is one that has not met in seven years, and one whose political forces decided—against the advice of AD and COPEI—to boycott the 2020 election.

Meanwhile, in early January 2023, Venezuela’s President Nicolás Maduro spoke with veteran journalist Ignacio Ramonet. Maduro told Ramonet that he is “prepared for dialogues at the highest level and with relations of respect.” He hoped that “a halo of light” would reach the office of U.S. President Joe Biden and allow the United States to put its “extremist policy aside.” Not only did Ned Price refuse this olive branch, but he also said that the U.S. approach to “Nicolás Maduro is not changing.” This is an awkward statement since members of Price’s own government went to Caracas in March and June of 2022 to meet with the Maduro administration and talk about the normalization of oil sales and the release of detained U.S. citizens.

Meanwhile, Tandon’s question hangs over the White House.

The Hope of a Pan-African-Owned

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The United States government held the US-Africa Leaders Summit in mid-December, prompted in large part by its fears about Chinese and Russian influence on the African continent. Rather than routine diplomacy, Washington’s approach in the summit was guided by its broader New Cold War agenda, in which a growing focus of the US has been to disrupt relations that African nations hold with China and Russia. This hawkish stance is driven by US military planners, who view Africa as ‘NATO’s southern flank’ and consider China and Russia to be ‘near-peer threats’. At the summit, US Defence Secretary Lloyd Austin charged China and Russia with ‘destabilising’ Africa. Austin provided little evidence to support his accusations, apart from pointing to China’s substantial investments, trade, and infrastructure projects with many countries on the continent and maligning the presence in a handful of countries of several hundred mercenaries from the Russian private security firm, the Wagner Group.

The African heads of government left Washington with a promise from US President Joe Biden to make a continent-wide tour, a pledge that the United States will spend $55 billion in investments, and a high-minded but empty statement on US-Africa partnership. Unfortunately, given the US track record on the continent, until these words are backed up with constructive actions, they can only be considered empty gestures and geopolitical jockeying.

There was not one word in the summit’s final statement on the most pressing issue for the continent’s governments: the long-term debt crisis. The 2022 UN Conference on Trade and Development Report found that ‘60% of least developed and other low-income countries were at high risk of or already suffering in debt distress’, with sixteen African countries at high risk and another seven countries – Chad, Republic of the Congo, Mozambique, São Tomé and Príncipe, Somalia, Sudan, and Zimbabwe – already in debt distress. On top of this, thirty-three African countries are in dire need of external assistance for food, which exacerbates the already existing risk of social collapse. Most of the US-Africa Leaders Summit was spent pontificating on the abstract idea of democracy, with Biden farcically taking aside heads of state like President Muhammadu Buhari (Nigeria) and President Félix Tshisekedi (Democratic Republic of Congo) to lecture them on the need for ‘free, fair, and transparent’ elections in their countries while pledging to provide $165 million to ‘support elections and good governance’ in Africa in 2023.

Most of the debt held by the African states is owed to wealthy bondholders in the Western states and was brokered by the International Monetary Fund (IMF). These private creditors – who hold the debt of countries such as Ghana and Zambia – have refused to provide any debt relief to African states despite the great distress they are experiencing. Often left out of conversations about this issue is the fact that this long-term debt distress has been largely caused by the plunder of the continent’s wealth.

On the other hand, unlike the wealthy bondholders of the West, the largest government creditor to African states, China, decided in August 2022 to cancel twenty-three interest-free loans to seventeen countries and offer $10 billion of its IMF reserves for use by the African states. A fair and rational approach to the debt crisis on the African continent would suggest that much more of the debt owed to Western bondholders should be forgiven and that the IMF should allocate Special Drawing Rights to provide liquidity to countries suffering from the endemic debt crisis. None of this was on the agenda of the US-Africa Leaders Summit.

Instead, Washington combined bonhomie towards the African heads of government with a sinister attitude towards China and Russia. Is this friendliness from the US a sincere olive branch or a trojan horse with which it seeks to smuggle its New Cold War agenda onto the continent? The most recent US government white paper on Africa, published in August 2022, suggests that it is the latter. The document, purportedly focused on Africa, featured ten mentions of China and Russia combined, but no mention of the term ‘sovereignty’. The paper stated:

In line with the 2022 National Defense Strategy, the Department of Defense will engage with African partners to expose and highlight the risks of negative PRC [People’s Republic of China] and Russian activities in Africa. We will leverage civil-defense institutions and expand defense cooperation with strategic partners that share our values and our will to foster global peace and stability.

The document reflects the fact that the US has conceded that it cannot compete with what China offers as a commercial partner and will resort to military power and diplomatic pressure to muscle the Chinese off the continent. The massive expansion of the US military presence in Africa since the 2007 founding of the United States Africa Command – most recently with a new base in Ghana and manoeuvres in Zambia – illustrates this approach.

The United States government has built a discourse to tarnish China’s reputation in Africa, which it characterises as ‘new colonialism’, as former US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said in a 2011 interview. Does this reflect reality? In 2017, the global corporate consulting firm McKinsey & Company published a major report on China’s role in Africa, noting after a full assessment, ‘On balance, we believe that China’s growing involvement is strongly positive for Africa’s economies, governments, and workers’. Evidence to support this conclusion includes the fact that since 2010, ‘a third of Africa’s power grid and infrastructure has been financed and constructed by Chinese state-owned companies’. In these Chinese-run projects, McKinsey found that ‘89 percent of employees were African, adding up to nearly 300,000 jobs for African workers’.

Certainly, there are many stresses and strains involved in these Chinese investments, including evidence of poor management and badly designed contracts, but these are neither unique to Chinese companies nor endemic to their approach. US accusations that China is practicing ‘debt trap diplomacy’ have also been widely debunked. The following observation, made in a 2007 report, remains insightful: ‘China is doing more to promote African development than any high-flying governance rhetoric’. This assessment is particularly noteworthy given that it came from the Paris-based Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development, an intergovernmental bloc dominated by the G7 countries.

What will be the outcome of the United States’ recent $55 billion pledge to African states? Will the funds, which are largely earmarked for private firms, support African development or merely subsidise US multinational corporations that dominate food production and distribution systems as well as health systems in Africa?

Here’s a telling example of the emptiness and absurdity of the US’s attempts to reassert its influence on the African continent. In May 2022, the Democratic Republic of the Congo and Zambia signed a deal to independently develop electric batteries. Together, the two countries are home to 80 percent of the minerals and metals needed for the battery value chain. The project was backed by the UN’s Economic Commission for Africa (ECA), whose representative Jean Luc Mastaki said, ‘Adding value to the battery minerals, through an inclusive and sustainable industrialisation, will definitely allow the two countries to pave the way to a robust, resilient, and inclusive growth pattern which creates jobs for millions of our population’. With an eye on increasing indigenous technical and scientific capacity, the agreement would have drawn from ‘a partnership between Congolese and Zambian schools of mines and polytechnics’.

Fast forward to the summit: after this agreement had already been reached, the DRC’s Foreign Minister Christophe Lutundula and Zambia’s Foreign Minister Stanley Kakubo joined US Secretary of State Antony Blinken in signing a memorandum of understanding that would allegedly ‘support’ the DRC and Zambia in creating an electric battery value chain. Lutundula called it ‘an important moment in the partnership between the US and Africa’.

The Socialist Party of Zambia responded with a strong statement: ‘The governments of Zambia and Congo have surrendered the copper and cobalt supply chain and production to American control. And with this capitulation, the hope of a Pan-African-owned and controlled electric car project is buried for generations to come’.

It is with child labour, strangely called ‘artisanal mining’, that multinational corporations extract the raw materials to control electric battery production rather than allow these countries to process their own resources and make their own batteries. José Tshisungu wa Tshisungu of the Congo takes us to the heart of the sorrows of children in the DRC in his poem, ‘Inaudible’:

Listen to the lament of the orphan
Stamped with the seal of sincerity
He is a child from around here
The street is his home
The market his neighbourhood
The monotone of his plaintive voice
Runs from zone to zone
Inaudible.

South Africans Are Fighting for Crumbs: A Conversation With Trade Union Leader Irvin Jim

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In mid-December, the African National Congress (ANC) held its national conference where South Africa’s President Cyril Ramaphosa was reelected as leader of his party, which means that he will lead the ANC into the 2024 general elections. A few delegates at the Johannesburg Expo Center in Nasrec, Gauteng—where the party conference was held—shouted at Ramaphosa asking him to resign because of a scandal called Farmgate (Ramaphosa survived a parliamentary vote against his impeachment following the scandal).

Irvin Jim, the general secretary of the National Union of Metalworkers of South Africa (NUMSA), told us that his country “is sitting on a tinderbox.” A series of crises are wracking South Africa presently: an unemployment crisis, an electricity crisis, and a crisis of xenophobia. The context behind the ANC national conference is stark. “The situation is brutal and harsh,” Irvin Jim said. “The social illness that people experience each day is terrible. The rate of crime has become very high. The gender-based violence experienced by women is very high. The statistics show us that basically people are fighting for crumbs.”

At the ANC conference, five of the top seven posts—from the president to treasurer general—went to Ramaphosa’s supporters. With the Ramaphosa team in place, and with Ramaphosa himself to be the presidential candidate in 2024, it is unlikely that the ANC will propose dramatic changes to its policy orientation or provide a new outlook for the country’s future to the South African people. The ANC has governed the country for almost 30 years beginning in 1994 after apartheid ended, and the party has won a commanding 62.65 percent of the total vote share since then before the 2014 general elections. In the last general election in 2019, Ramaphosa won with 57.5 percent of the vote, still ahead of any of its opponents. This grip on electoral power has created a sense of complacency in the upper ranks of the ANC. However, at the grassroots, there is anxiety. In the municipal elections of 2021, the ANC support fell below 50 percent for the first time. A national opinion poll in August 2022 showed that the ANC would get 42 percent of the vote in the 2024 elections if they were held then.

Negotiated Settlement

Irvin Jim is no stranger to the ANC. Born in South Africa’s Eastern Cape in 1968, Jim threw himself into the anti-apartheid movement as a young man. Forced by poverty to leave his education, he worked at Firestone Tire in Port Elizabeth. In 1991, Jim became a NUMSA union shop steward. As part of the communist movement and the ANC, Jim observed that the new government led by former South African President Nelson Mandela agreed to a “negotiated settlement” with the old apartheid elite. This “settlement,” Irvin Jim argued, “left intact the structure of white monopoly capital,” which included their private ownership of the country’s minerals and energy as well as finance. The South African Reserve Bank committed itself, he told us, “to protect the value of white wealth.” In the new South Africa, he said, “Africans can go to the beach. They can take their children to the school of their choice. They can choose where to live. But access to these rights is determined by their economic position in society. If you have no access to economic power, then you have none of these liberties.”

In 1996, the ANC did make changes to the economic structure, but without harming the “negotiated settlement.” The policy known as GEAR (Growth, Employment, and Redistribution) created growth for the owners of wealth, but failed to create a long-term process of employment and redistribution. Due to the ANC’s failure to address the problem of unemployment—catastrophically the unemployment rate was 63.9 percent during the first quarter of 2022 for those between the ages of 15 and 24—the social distress being faced by South Africans has further been aggravated. The ANC, Irvin Jim said, “has exposed the country to serious vulnerability.”

Solidarity Not Hate

Even if the ANC wins less than 50 percent of the vote in the next general elections, it will still be able to form a government since no other party will attract even comparable support (in the 2019 elections, the Democratic Alliance won merely 20.77 percent of the vote). Irvin Jim told us that there is a need for progressive forces in South Africa to fight and “revisit the negotiated settlement” and create a new policy outline for South Africa. The 2013 National Development Plan 2030 is a pale shadow of the kind of policy required to define South Africa’s future. “It barely talked about jobs,” Jim said. “The only jobs it talked about were window office cleaning and hairdressing. There was no drive to champion manufacturing and industrialization.”

A new program—which would revitalize the freedom agenda in South Africa—must seek “economic power alongside political power,” said Jim. This means that “there is a genuine need to take ownership and control of all the commanding heights of the economy.” South Africa’s non-energy mineral reserves are estimated to be worth $2.4 trillion to $3 trillion. The country is the world’s largest producer of chrome, manganese, platinum, vanadium, and vermiculite, as well as one of the largest producers of gold, iron ore, and uranium. How a country with so much wealth can be so poor is answered by the lack of public control South Africa has over its metals and minerals. “South Africa needs to take public ownership of these minerals and metals, develop the processing of these through industrialization, and provide the benefits to the marginalized, landless, and dispossessed South Africans, most of whom are Black,” said Jim.

No program like this will be taken seriously if the working class and the urban poor remain fragmented and powerless. Jim told us that his union—NUMSA—is working with others to link “shop floor struggles with community struggles,” the “employed with the unemployed,” and are building an atmosphere of “solidarity rather than the spirit of hate.” The answers for South Africa will have to come from these struggles, says the veteran trade union leader. “The people,” he said, “have to lead the leaders.”

This article was produced by Globetrotter.

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