New reds challenge ANC and win skirmish

It was billed as a campaign to save the planet, but turned into a struggle for control of the revolution. Rian Malan reports.

When all the hot air has dissipated and the teeming delegates have returned whence they came, it may yet turn out that the defining moment of Johannesburg's World Summit on Sustainable Development took place at 4pm on August 31, when a truck with blaring loudspeakers rolled up to the summit's heavily guarded perimeter, trailing six thousand red flag-waving protestors in its wake. A handful carried placards denouncing the rape of nature, but the vast majority had something else on their minds; their T-shirts said, "Land! Food! Jobs!" and they were marching against the "imperialists" and "neo-liberals" whose "anti-poor policies" had made their lives miserable.

"A new movement has arrived in South Africa," thundered one of their leaders. "We will shut the government down if it doesn't do what the people want." The masses cheered. Heavily armed police listened impassively. Soldiers with machine guns watched from the turrets of Casspirs. It was all quite déjà vu but then again not, given that the main target of this demonstration was the government of Thabo Mbeki.

Main target? Greens and anti-globalisationists will scream that there were many other issues at stake, but one must call it as one sees it, and the so-called March of the Landless struck me as a local affair, a battle for control of South Africa's revolutionary tradition rather than an assault on multinational corporations in the name of mother nature. For a year prior to the summit, SA newspapers were reporting that Johannesburg was likely to be invaded by an army of anarchists and anti-globalisation fanatics bent on provoking street battles of the sort that convulsed Seattle, Prague and Genoa. But international protestors failed to show up in anything like the numbers anticipated, and storming the summit was left largely to their local allies, who clashed with police on three occasions in the run-up to opening day.

On August 17, 93 disgruntled ex-soldiers who wanted to present their grievances to parliament were arrested when they attempted to board a Cape-bound train without paying. Five days later, 77 militants from informal settlements were arrested outside the office of Gauteng Premier Sam Shilowa, where they had gathered to protest against forced evictions. On the night before the summit's grand opening, sympathizers attempted to march on Thabo Mbeki Square to demand the release of those jailed in the two previous incidents. Police stopped them five metres outside Witwatersrand University's campus with stun grenades. The left cried repression, but the government was unapologetic. "This summit is not a summit of anarchy," said Foreign Minister Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma.

According to police sources, none of the aforementioned protests were banned; the government simply insisted that marchers apply for permits, follow prescribed routes and behave themselves. Anti-summit radicals promptly applied for permission to launch a major march in Alexandra township, the running sore of shacks and open sewers that lies within sight of the gleaming citadel where world leaders were gathering. The protestors claimed that they wanted foreigners to witness the "obscene" contrast between shack-land and Sandton, but police suspected that their true objective was to block the M1 freeway, thus cutting off access to the United Nations zone and shutting down the summit. Government put its foot down: no such march would be tolerated. Radicals took up the challenge. Or as Dale McKinley phrased it: "We said, fuck it, we'll march anyway. If you want to smash us, try."

Aged 40 and prone to sporting a Black Panther or possibly Trotsky-inspired black leather jacket and matching beret, McKinley was born in Zimbabwe, educated in the United States and now lives in Johannesburg, where he works as a researcher and writer. As the summit neared, McKinley was drawn into a small circle of left intellectuals and organizers who, like him, were "trying to build a new left outside the ANC alliance, speaking to basic issues like water, electricity, jobs and housing". Some, like McKinley, were disillusioned ex-Communists. Others came from the UDF tradition. They wound up forming an umbrella group called the Social Movements Indaba (SMI), which in turn forged an alliance with the Landless People's Movement (LPM), an equally obscure body modelled on Brazil's Landless Worker's Movement, which has placed hundreds of thousands of peasants on farm land seized in extra-legal invasions. Barely a year old, but growing rapidly, LPM is generally seen as the brain-child of Andile Mngxitama, son of a farm labourer and Wits political science graduate.

Their collective aim, says Mckinley, was to deny the ANC the right to continue calling itself a "revolutionary movement" while presiding over a capitalist economy in which the rich grow richer while the poor slide back. "The government's initial response was arrogant dismissal," says McKinley. "They thought, 'We don't have to worry about these guys, they're just mosquitoes." The government was about to learn otherwise.

The SMI and LPM are slightly coy about their sources of funding, claiming that much of their money comes from supporters and T-shirt sales, along with the odd smallish grant from the Ford Foundation or War on Want. At the same time, they have links with the anti-globalisation campaign, the amorphous "movement of movements" that has matured into a formidable pressure group since its debut in Seattle, capable of generating "the largest petition in human history" (24 million signatures in favour of poor country debt forgiveness) and drawing sixty thousand delegates to its recent international conclave. Money from these various sources trickled down to South Africa, and next thing, a "Landless Peoples' Camp" sprang up in Shareworld, a bizarre, faux-Moorish village near Soweto, built as an entertainment centre in the eighties but now falling into ruin. From a distance the camp looked almost medieval - red flags and banners flying, smoke rising from open fires, armies of red-shirted women toiling over cauldrons of pap and vleis for thousands of peasants bussed in from all corners of the country.

Meanwhile, back in Braamfontein, leaders of the SMI were conferring with National Intelligence agents sent to broker a deal that would spare government the embarrassment of using force to block an illegal march. Two days short of D-day, compromise was struck: government would approve the proposed Alexandra-Sandton march route, provided that the radicals undertook to maintain discipline and avoid violence. Beyond that point, says the LPM's Andile Mngxitama, "it became a numbers game, with the government trying to make sure that nobody goes to march".

Unsubstantiable claims of phone-tapping and harassment aside, Mngxitama charges that the anti-summit movement was infiltrated by NIA agents bent on sowing "confusion and dissention" in the ranks. This would have been fairly easy, given the rich divisions on display. The landless faction and the socialists were at each other's throats over Robert Mugabe, a hero to the former, but a fascist dictator to the latter. Gender activists had reservations about the Palestinian Solidarity Committee, said to be riddled with Islamic fundamentalists who sprouted "reactionary crap." Most confused of all were peasants from the deep countryside, some of whom seemed very uneasy by the ideological wars raging over their heads. "We don't want to fight the ANC," one told me. "We are ANC. We just want the government must listen to us."

According to Mngxitama, the NIA "set up a permanent caucus in our own headquarters, encouraging people to break away". These efforts bore fruit on the morning before the march, when a woman identified only as Bonolo burst into a press conference to announce that she was "sick and tired of being manipulated by these people," by which she meant the intellectuals on the podium. "They have double agendas and hidden agendas," she cried. "They can't talk on our behalf! Call off this conference!" The organizers cringed. Bonolo went home to the Northern Cape, her delegation in tow. Delegations from the Free State and Eastern Cape followed suit. By the dawn of march day, 30 per cent of the landless had defected.

Even so, things were looking good for the New Left as protestors began to mass in Alexandra. There were two demonstrations scheduled for that Saturday - the "March of the Landless", a joint effort by the LPM and SMI, and a rival "march of the nice people", organized by mainstream NGOs who were taking part in the summit and whose efforts enjoyed the ANC's support and blessing. "We are mobilizing all our structures," said ANC spokesman Mike Sachs. Posters appeared on Alexandra's streets, exhorting residents to come to Alexandra Stadium to hear President Mbeki speak. Given that Alex was once an ANC stronghold, the response was depressing; at 9am on the big day, the stadium was empty. By the time Mbeki spoke, there were barely three thousand present, woefully short of the anticipated twenty thousand.

"We embarrassed them in their own back yard," crowed the SMI's Dale McKinley. "Their grassroots structures are decimated. Everybody is in government. On our side, although we are small, we are there almost every day. People see us. That's where the big change is. By 11am, they were trying to divert our buses to their stadium - 'Come here, this is the real march.' It was a sign of desperation. The government is running scared."

Hardly. The March of the Landless was itself no great shakes, drawing only six thousand protestors where twenty thousand were expected. Still, let's hand it to them - they outdrew the ANC by a factor of at least two to one, and earned their moment in the limelight outside the convention centre. "Today is a great day for the struggling masses," declared Trevor Ngwane, the dreadlocked charismatic chosen to deliver the SMI's main speech. "We have shown everyone that those fat cats sitting in the convention centre do not speak for us." Ngwane proceeded to issue scathing dismissals of Nepad as an imperialist plot to loot Africa and the ANC as "a government of the bourgeoisie. It is clear," said the mastermind of Soweto's free electricity campaign, "that putting people in parliament without taking over the factories, land and mines is useless because they betray us".

At more or less that moment, cabinet minister Essop Pahad arrived to receive the protestors' grievances on behalf of the president. Ngwane asked Pahad to raise his hand, then invited the crowd to join in the singing of a struggle song about impimpis, meaning sellouts or traitors. "Only ten years ago they were marching with us in the streets," declared Ngwane. "As soon as they get their fat cat salaries they turn around and cut off our water. All these people who still believe the ANC government will deliver, I am sorry for you." Pahad's grin acquired a slightly shit-eating aspect, and when he joined the radical leaders aboard their truck, more humiliation awaited: they declined to part with their memorandum and chased him away amid further cries of "impimpi" and "oppressor". A photograph of the incident appeared on the front page of next morning's Sunday World under a banner headline reading, "Voetsek!"

So what does this all mean? Watershed moments become clear only in retrospect, but it's hard to shake the feeling that we are entering a new era. Capitalism is on the defensive, Wall Street tumbling amid governance scandals and unassailable evidence of monstrous greed. Free market reforms have failed to deliver the poor from their misery, especially in Africa, and even the World Trade Organization now concedes that the terms of trade between the north and south are in some respects fundamentally unfair.

All this leaves Thabo Mbeki's government in an unenviable position, firmly committed to a Western-style capitalist system but presiding over a society where it has failed to yield significant benefits for anyone save the elite. Foreign direct investment is declining. Jobs are vanishing. As noted by Lawrence Schlemmer in the last issue of this journal, the number of South Africans living in absolute poverty has risen from around 50 per cent in 1989 to almost two-thirds today.

As far as the radicals are concerned, auguries are excellent for the formation of a new movement - "a different kind of politics," says Dale McKinley, "not the old liberation movement stuff. We're not interested in power. We want to transform the way politics happens, by hugely expanding the involvement of ordinary people" and "using mass action to pressurize the government". His comrade Mngxitama concurs, and lays out a plan of action. "Next year will be 'Year of the Landless'," he says, with his movement invading unused state land along with the private holdings of absentee landlords and abusive farmers. In 2004, an election year, the slogan will be "No land, no jobs, no vote".

I called a senior ANC member and asked if he was quaking in his boots. "Not at all," he chuckled. "The government has nothing to worry about." Political scientist Tom Lodge concurred. "The ANC seems quite good at picking up the left around election time," he said, "and that's what really matters". In his latest survey for the Helen Suzman Foundation, Lawrence Schlemmer found voter support for the ANC unshaken, some high dissatisfaction rates notwithstanding.

Myself, I couldn't help recalling a curious prophecy uttered by Thabo Mbeki a few years back, at the height of South Africa's delirious Rainbow Nation phase. "When the poor rise," he said, "they'll rise against all of us". I could never quite fathom what he had in mind, but I acquired an inkling on the day the landless marched on Sandton.