The Profits of Famine: Southern Africa’s Long Decade of Hunger

grain being loaded in Mozambique

In the first of two articles, OBA Executive Board member Raj Patel describes how IMF/World Bank policies, backed by the US, have led to a corporate stranglehold on the world food system, bringing malnutrition and famine to the countries of southern Africa. In the second, “Exploration on Human Rights,” he covers the response of the international peasant federation, La Via Campesina, and other social movements, to these conditions and their call for food sovereignty. Patel explores these and other topics in greater detail in his recently published book, Stuffed and Starved: Markets, Power and the Hidden Battle for the World Food System”.

“The Profits of Famine” first appeared as a Food First Backgrounder in the fall of 2002. “Exploration on Human Rights” was originally published in
Feminist Economics 13(1) January 2007, 87-116 and is attached below as a PDF document.


At the end of September, Colin Powell requested an altogether earthly intercession from Archbishop Jean-Louis Tauran, the Vatican foreign minister. The Secretary of State wanted the Vatican to persuade the Zambian government to accept U.S.-supplied genetically modified (GM) food aid. With a population under 10 million and with the vast majority of people earning under $1,000 a year, (1) Zambia is a mouse that has roared. In refusing to accept U.S. GM corn, and by dealing with its famine by sourcing grain from within the region, the Zambian government has sent a clear signal that it understands both why famines happen and that U.S. aid is part of the problem, not the solution.

By the end of 2002, a little under 15 million people will have faced starvation in Southern Africa. (2) Lesotho, Malawi, Mozambique, Swaziland, Zambia, and Zimbabwe are among the most severely affected. Thus, while the U.S. State Department blames the Zimbabwean government for the famine there, that explanation is clearly inadequate to account for a famine that has affected the entire region. For a meaningful explanation, we need to understand what a famine means, and put it into the context of a phenomenon that has affected the entire region–structural adjustment.

How to Define a Famine

Definitions of famine run a gamut. The World Health Organization (WHO), for example, declares a famine when “the severity of critical malnutrition levels exceed 15 percent of children aged 6 to 59.9 months.”(3) The U.N.’s Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) defines famine as “an extreme collapse in local availability [of] and access to food that causes [a] widespread rise in mortality from outright starvation or hunger-related illnesses.”(4)

These definitions focus on the threshold a situation crosses in order for chronic hunger to be officially declared acute. But this threshold is essentially arbitrary. For example, because rates of acute malnutrition have remained stable in most Southern African countries, the WHO has not yet declared a state of famine in every country.

Mike Davis, who has written on famine in recent history, points us away from this sort of threshold thinking: “We must acknowledge that famine is part of a continuum with the silent violence of malnutrition that precedes and conditions it, and with the mortality of the shadow of debilitation and disease that follows it.”(5) Famine does not arise spontaneously with the failure of a harvest season; rather it is the outcome of a system that places greater importance upon the market than upon those going hungry.

The Silent Violence of Malnutrition

It’s no wonder the people of Southern Africa are starving in 2002–they have been starving for over a decade. The Southern African Development Community reports that in Zambia in 1991, the chronic malnutrition (stunting) rate of children between the ages of 6 and 59 months was 39 percent.(6) Since then it has increased to (and leveled off at) about 55 percent. At the same time, acute malnutrition (wasting) rates have thus far remained stable at 4.4 percent in Zambia. In Malawi, the rate of chronic malnutrition has remained at 49 percent since 1990.(7) It is only acute malnutrition that has slightly increased over the same period, by 1 percent for a total rate of 6 percent. The United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) estimated in 2000 that 35 percent of the people in the famine region were undernourished, with 54 percent of Mozambique’s population undernourished.(8) Among those most vulnerable to chronic hunger are women, children, and the elderly. The UNDP reported in 2000 that 20 percent of children in the region under the age of five were underweight.(9)

In 2002, rampant Southern African hunger was tipped over the official “famine” threshold by two years of bad harvests. That’s one reason we’re now hearing news of it. Another likely reason is that some Southern African countries aren’t behaving as the U.S. would want them to, and the word “famine,” with the desperate urgency it conveys, helps put pressure on those governments. That sense of emergency also masks the question we must ask: why, even before the current food crisis, have so many people suffered for so long from chronic malnutrition?

The Ingredients for Hunger

Man-made famine isn’t new in world history. For example, an 1878 study published in the prestigious Journal of the Statistical Society found thirty-one serious famines in 120 years of British rule in India and only seventeen recorded famines in the entire previous two millennia.(10) The reason for the change? According to Mike Davis’ recent commentary, it happened because the British integrated the Indian food system into the world economy while simultaneously removing the traditional supports that had existed to feed the hungry in times of crisis–supports that were rejected as the trappings of a hopelessly backward and indolent society. And so, by the end of the 1800s, “Millions died, not outside the `modern world system,’ but in the very process of being dynamically conscripted into its economic and political structures. They died in the golden age of Liberal Capitalism.”(11)

This lesson was not lost on the first generation of African governments. At the beginning of the 1980s, African states had a very clear idea of what their economies and societies needed in order to flourish. In the Lagos Plan of Action,(12) heads of state called for a type of economic growth disconnected from the vicissitudes of the world market, relying on import-substitution policies, food sovereignty and trade within Africa, and, critically, a reduction in the level of external indebtedness that was systematically siphoning value out of Africa.

The World Bank disagreed, insisting in its Berg Report(13) that state interference in the smooth functioning of the market was precisely the cause of low levels of growth.(14) As most African governments were buried in debt, their futures mortgaged on declining commodity prices, the Bank’s plan prevailed.(15) Under the Bank’s regime, African nations are forced to produce foreign exchange-earning (i.e., cash) crops to pay off increasing debt, and find themselves importing more and more food. In a perfect, stable market, this ought not pose a problem: the farmer will grow an export crop in which she or he has a comparative advantage, and will use the cash to buy imported food, goods, and services. But in the real world, this model increases farming communities’ vulnerability to a number of risks:

1. Commodity price fluctuations and decline: Primary commodity prices have been falling consistently for thirty years, and have been exceptionally variable within this time frame. In part, the World Bank is to blame; its structural adjustment programs enforced the export of a few key commodities in high demand in the North, putting Southern countries on the receiving end of volatile and decreasing prices for their exports.(16)

2. Currency fluctuations: Southern countries have also suffered fluctuations in the currency market. Even the most efficient farmers are unable to buy food on the world market if their currency is undervalued. Yet this is what every economic model suggests will happen when countries follow World Bank recommendations to liberalize exchange markets: the currency will depreciate and require stabilization, which these countries, because of their debt burden and structural adjustment obligations, cannot provide.(17)

3. Loss of food sovereignty: The World Bank and the international aid community tend to use the term “food security” to talk about the availability of food and people’s access to it.(18) Since the 1996 World Food Summit, Via Campesina, the international farmers’ movement, has pushed for an alternative concept: food sovereignty, which it defines as “the right of countries and peoples to define their own agricultural and food policies which are ecologically, socially, economically, and culturally appropriate for them.”(19) The difference between these approaches lies in the issue of who controls access to food, seed, land, and the market. Movement towards a free trade economy takes control away from the majority of rural people. This is a fundamental issue of justice, dignity, and democracy.

Debt: The Tie that Binds

Vast debt was instrumental in forcing Third World governments to accept World Bank control. The level of debt is staggering. The Bank itself suggests that debt is “unsustainable” if it is above 5 percent of the total gross national product of a country.(20) Meanwhile, Zambia, for example, is paying three times as much in debt service as on health care.(21)

But the debt level isn’t the whole story. Debt is also a discipline wielded over Southern economies. High levels of external debt mean foreign creditors call the shots. And when countries with limited foreign cash decide which creditor gets paid and which has to wait, they always put the World Bank first. This special position gives the Bank considerable power. On behalf of itself and other creditors–and in return for an increased line of credit–it imposes conditions on the governments that owe it money. These conditions, though clothed in the language of impartial economics, are nevertheless political decisions. Ideas about interest rates, exchange rates, and the “appropriate” level of unemployment are always politically motivated,(22) and always justified by talking about untouchable, mysterious phenomena like “investor confidence.”(23) Governments transform their economies to make them “credible” places for investors to come, and to pull back capital that has flown the country in the wake of structural adjustment policies.(24) Investors who want to be “confident” about Southern economies essentially control those economies, overseeing outflows of resources and wealth that invariably make the lives of the people in those countries less democratic and less secure.

Trade: The Gift That Keeps on Taking

Within Southern Africa–where, for example, tobacco production has expanded by 50 percent per year over the past three years in communal, small-scale, and resettlement areas(25)–the most desirable land is continually used for export agriculture, and food production is sacrificed to boost agricultural production. After each year’s harvest the soil is often left unprotected, accelerating erosion.(26) And small farmers are pushed ever farther into marginal land. This marginalization is not trivial: it affects the African majority, who remain wage laborers and small-scale farmers without savings or capital to devote to expansion.

Export and foreign exchange-oriented trade has consigned most African farmers to shrinking returns. The declining real price of all primary commodities forces many farmers to sell what land they have to pay the debts their crop income can no longer sustain. Still, even until the 1990s in Southern Africa, government-run marketing boards protected farmers by assuring a fixed price for their crops, published in advance. Structural adjustment decreed the effective elimination of marketing boards in favor of private buyers. Now, in addition to enduring direct exposure to international market fluctuations, farmers are often unsure when private buyers will next appear, and are thus forced to sell cheap to the first trader.(27) Finally, many remote areas remain unserviced by private traders, who prefer to buy from a few large farmers near better roads.

The World Bank’s policies of increased trade, lower government spending on health and education, and increased debt have made poverty blossom. As Giovanni Arrighi, a scholar of the world economy, has noted: “In 1975, the regional GNP per capita of Sub-Saharan Africa stood at 17.6 percent of `world’ per capita GNP; by 1999 it had dropped to 10.5 percent.” (28) And in these countries, the removal of social supports to redistribute what little there is has rendered the poorest destitute.

Between 1996 and 2001, population living below the poverty line in Zambia rose from 69 percent to 86 percent. Twenty eight million people, or 51 percent of those living in Lesotho, Malawi, Mozambique, Swaziland, Zambia, and Zimbabwe, live below the national poverty lines.(29) And we know that the face of the poorest 10 percent is likely to be black and female:(30) since women are responsible for 70 percent of food production in Africa, the shift away from food production toward export production has been extremely detrimental to them.(31) Men’s leaving the farm for wage labor makes women responsible for all domestic responsibilities as well.

A Shortage of Food?

Famine is not caused by a lack of food, but by poverty.(32) For example, according to the World Food Programme (WFP) there are no shortages of food products in the markets in Lesotho. However, two-thirds of the population live below the poverty line and half are classified as destitute. Purchased cereals comprise 75 percent of annual food needs for Lesotho’s poor,(33) and over 70 percent of the households classified “very poor” in Lesotho have no cereal in reserve.(34) Rapidly escalating prices and vanishing incomes are a lethal combination. The people of Lesotho cannot afford to buy the food that is available.(35)

The situation is similar in Malawi where, in 2001, the IMF told the government to slash its strategic grain reserve from 165,000 metric tons (MT) to between 30,000 and 60,000 MT. The IMF advocated this on cost grounds, and because erroneous data persuaded them that the coming year’s harvest would increase stocks. A year later, when people were already beginning to die of starvation, the IMF denied disbursement of a $47 million tranche of loans to the Malawian government amid accusations of impropriety in the government’s efforts to mitigate the famine.(36) The government accused the IMF of causing the famine, while the IMF blamed the government for corruption before admitting that it had, perhaps, behaved insensitively. Horst Koehler, managing director of the IMF, said at a British parliamentary hearing:

[I]n the past we (the IMF) have not given enough attention to poverty and social safety nets when proposing structural changes. But structural changes are always accompanied by dislocation. We must live with permanent change in order to achieve economic growth in developing countries…[developing countries] should be able to produce food for themselves–and we should help them strengthen capacity to produce food.(37)

Meanwhile, thousands were starving, and grain was being stockpiled by speculators betting that the famine would drive up maize prices–behaving, in short, precisely as they ought in a free market with high demand and a tight supply.

Who Benefits from Famine?

It’s a continuing tragedy that still today, when we know what causes famine, we continue to witness it. Why does it persist? To answer this, we need to ask a still more painful question: Who benefits from famine?

Consumers in the U.S. and E.U. do well by having food and agricultural products that are cheap compared to the true cost of production. But the greatest beneficiaries are the transnational food corporations that market the food and control our food systems. Altria, the Philip Morris group of companies, which includes Kraft and Miller, made over $8 billion in profits last year.(38) In the past six months, Switzerland-based Nestle’ S.A. posted profits of a little under $4 billion on sales of $29 billion.(39) To put this in perspective, the entire gross domestic product for all six countries in the famine region was a little over $20 billion in 2001.(40)

These corporations depend on cheap inputs, such as the agricultural products grown in the Third World, to make their food processing profitable. In fact, with the decline of every currency in Southern Africa against the U.S. dollar and the oversupply (and hence falling prices) of primary commodities, food industry inputs have never been cheaper. And profits never higher.

The Role of U.S. Policy

Such profits would never be possible without the constant mentorship of the U.S. government. It has a twenty-year history of first generating hunger through macroeconomic policy that, while selling itself as “austere,” systematically enriches large corporations and impoverishes working families. Then the government hen-feeds the hungry with the surplus food this policy produces.(41) This two-step trick was perfected within the U.S. In 1981, Congress told the USDA to reduce the storage costs associated with its dairy support program. Simultaneous cuts in welfare provisions for the poor and the incipient recession provided a ready market for the surplus.(42) Now this discipline is being applied in Southern Africa as a way to force open markets for U.S.-produced GM grain.

The U.S. GM grain stockpile, created through the vast, ongoing subsidy of U.S. agriculture,(43) needs a home. This grain cannot be sold to the E.U. or Japan because of their embargoes on genetically modified food for human consumption. The figures for U.S. farm exports tell the story: U.S. corn exports to the European Union shrank from $426 million in 1995 to $1 million in 1999.(44)

Particularly while E.U. and U.S. negotiators are bickering over U.S. farm support in the run-up to the World Trade Organization ministerial in Cancun, Mexico, in 2003, explicit subsidies for agribusiness aren’t in vogue.(45) But food aid serves as a de facto means of product support and has an unimpeachable veneer of humanitarianism, and USAID spends over $1 billion a year buying American crops from agricultural corporations and shipping them to the starving. By insisting that this food aid be purchased from U.S. companies, Congress is able to support U.S. industry while appearing to help the Third World.(46) United Nations agencies (the WHO, the WFP, and the UNDP) have all lauded the safety of GM food. However, no independent scientific human trials of GM food have yet taken place. And scientists in Africa remain concerned at their inability to limit the sort of genetic pollution that resulted from GM contamination of corn in Mexico.(47)

In recent months, many countries in the region have protested a food aid arrangement that they see as a cynical ploy by the U.S. to dump its GM corn on a captive and starving market. However, discreet threats to slash nonfood aid budgets and suspend funding for other projects soon brought these countries into line. Except Zambia.

Glimmers of an Alternative in Zambia

The Zambian government has recognized that the problem is the lack of food available within the means of the poor. Their short-term solution is to reject the output of U.S. agribusinesses (which are subsidized at a rate of $1 million in taxpayer dollars per hour). Instead, they have purchased grain from domestic and regional suppliers and made it available to the hungry. This approach directly threatens U.S. business interests. But it has begun to feed the hungry in Africa. Of course, it needs to be supplemented by more enduring social change for the poor–investment in education and health, serious measures to tackle HIV/AIDS, and land reform are key issues, and ones that cannot be resolved with the vast debt that currently shackles the region. Yet bypassing the U.S. aid industry is a heaven-sent idea, because it gives governments of poor countries some control of their economies and their farming systems.

NEPAD: A Siren, Not A Savior

Zambia is something of an exception in Southern Africa. Its independent clarion call has been drowned out by the clamor about the New Partnership for Africa’s Development (NEPAD), a plan for completing the integration of African economies begun by structural adjustment policies. Proposed by South African president Thabo Mbeki, NEPAD has been heralded as the solution to Africa’s ongoing marginalization from globalization.(48) It calls for the privatization of social services, a further shift towards export oriented economic growth, and public private partnerships to increase the efficiency with which scarce resources are used. The thinking is that Africa’s integration into the global economy will alleviate widespread poverty, because Africans will be able to work in export industries, and thus buy food.

At the recent World Summit on Sustainable Development in Johannesburg, 50,000 protesters chanted “phansi NEPAD”–“down with NEPAD.” This is a conclusion that has been reached by hundreds of groups in Africa.(49) Patrick Bond, professor at the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg, attacks the lack of democracy in the NEPAD process: “During the formulation of NEPAD, no civil society, church, politicalparty, parliamentary, or other potentially democratic or progressive forces were consulted.”(50) Several groups, including the Economic Justice Network, Third World Network-Africa, the Secretariat of the Gender & Trade Network in Africa, and the Alternative Information and Development Centre, say this: “In essence, the document is an attempt to negotiate with Northern powers the terms of Africa’s integration into the world economy without challenging the systemic and structural dynamics by which globalization has further marginalized and created polarization within Africa, both within individual African countries and between them.” In short, NEPAD seems to be a plan for elites in Africa and elsewhere to mine the resources of the continent and its people. In fact, the reason many African countries are in such a parlous state is because they’ve been following NEPAD-like policies for the past twenty years. It is hardly likely that more of the same toxin will cure the continent.

Hope Eternal

This is a bleak picture. But there are spaces of hope, such as the recent development of soil fertility replenishment programs in the region.(51) These new methods rejuvenate the soil with leguminous tree fallows rather than with fertilizers that cost between two and six times more in Africa than in Europe and the U.S. Tens of thousands of farmers have adopted this practice with rapid success and increased productivity in their fields. This method far outshines the Green Revolution technology and high-tech innovations that have continuously failed in Africa.

Agroecology is only a small component in turning the tables for Africa. The grassroots spread of soil fertility programs is an example of how the active participation of local communities creates genuine change. Local communities in the U.S. can effect change, too. The WTO, IMF, and World Bank are controlled by the U.S. government, in the name of U.S. citizens. Yet these institutions hurt the poor around the world. Closing these three organizations, redistributing resources from rich to poor, and repaying debt to the global South – these are policies we could adopt today, if there were political will.

What You Can Do

Write to your elected representatives, challenge the myths in the mainstream media, and become involved in this struggle–because despite the World Bank, the IMF, and local elites, there is always hope for real social transformation. The answer will come from the relentless work and resistance of those oppressed. The African people have been left out of the solution to their problems for far too long and their anger will be heard. It is our responsibility to join that chorus.


1. World Bank, World Development Indicators 1999 (CD-ROM), Washington, D.C.: World Bank, 2002,

2. United Nations, “14.4 Million Face Starvation,” United Nations News Centre, September 19, 2002.

3. World Health Organization (WHO), “First Needs Assessment Situation Report,” WHO, July 2002,

4. Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), “FEWS Net Glossary,” FEWS Net,

5. M. Davis, Late Victorian Holocausts: El Nino Famines and the Making of the Third World, London: Verso, 2000.

6. SADC-FANR Vulnerability Assessment Committee, “Zambia Emergency Food Security Assessment Report,” August 2002,

7. SADC-FANR Vulnerability Assessment Committee, “Malawi Emergency Food Security Assessment Report,” August 2002, 8. United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), “Human Development Report 2002,” UNDP, 2002.

9. UNDP, “Human Development Report 2002.”

10. M. Davis, Late Victorian Holocausts: El Nino Famines and the Making of the Third World.

11. M. Davis, Late Victorian Holocausts: El Nino Famines and the Making of the Third World.

12. Organisation of African Unity, “The Lagos Plan of Action for the Economic Development of Africa 1980-2000,” Geneva: Organisation of African Unity, 1981.

13. World Bank, “Accelerated Development in Sub-Saharan Africa: An Agenda for Action,” Washington D.C.: World Bank 1981.

14. G. Arrighi, “The African Crisis: World Systemic and Regional Aspects,” New Left Review 15, May-June 2002: 5-35.

15. K. Danaher and A. Riak, “Myths of African Hunger,”Food First Backgrounder, Spring 1995.

16. B. Peters, “The Third World Debt Crisis–Why a Radical Approach Is Essential,” Round Table 354, April 2000: 195-204.

17. See R. Greenhill and A. Pettifor, “The United States as a HIPC*–How the Poor Are Financing the Rich,” a report from Jubilee Research at the New Economics Foundation, London, April 2002,

18. For a compendium of definitions, see the USAID policy determination of food security PD-19, April 13, 1992, at

19. See

20. G. Arrighi, “The African Crisis: World Systemic and Regional Aspects.”

21. UNDP, “Human Development Report 2002.”

22. World Bank, World Bank Development Indicators 1999.

23. I. Grabel, “Creating ‘Credible’ Economic Policy in Developing and Transitional Economics,” Review of Radical Political Economics 29 (3),1997: 70-78.

24. Capital flight, the phenomenon of money leaving one country in search of higher returns in another, prevents at least 25 African countries from being net creditors, instead of net debtors. This is an example of the sort of disciplining that financial markets can dole out to poorer countries. See Greenhill and Pettifor for more.

25. UNDP, “Human Development Report 2002.”

26. SADC-FANR Vulnerability Assessment Committee, “Zimbabwe Emergency Food Security Assessment Report,” SADC, August 2002, www.sadc-fanr.orgzw/vac/Zimbabwe%20Emergency%20Assessment%20Report.pdf.

27. P. Rosset and A. DeGrassi, A New Green Revolution for Africa? Not yet published.

28. G. Arrighi, “The African Crisis: World Systemic and Regional Aspects.”

29. UNDP, “Human Development Report 2002.”

30. World Bank, World Development Indicators 1999.

31. World Bank, World Development Indicators 1999.

32. K. Danaher and A. Riak, “Myths of African Hunger.”

33. SADC-FANR Vulnerability Assessment Committee, “Lesotho Emergency Food Security Assessment Report,” SADC, August 2002, www.sadc-fanr.orgzw/vac/Lesotho%20Emergency%20Assessment%20Report.pdf.

34. SADC-FANR, “Lesotho Emergency Food Security Assessment Report.”

35. World Food Programme (WFP), “Food Shortages in Lesotho: The Facts,” WFP, September 2002,

36. S. Devereux, “State of Disaster: Causes, Consequences and Policy Lessons from Malawi,” Actionaid,

37. S. Devereux, “State of Disaster: Causes, Consequences and Policy Lessons from Malawi.”

38. Fortune Magazine Online,

39. Nestle’ S. A., “2002 Half Yearly Report,”

40. World Bank, World Development Indicators 1999.

41. F. Lappe’, R. Schurman, and K. Danaher, Betraying the National Interest, New York: Grove, 1987.

42. M. Lipsky and M. Thibodeau, “Feeding the Hungry with Surplus Commodities,” Political Science Quarterly 108 (2), 1988: 223-244.

43. A. Mittal, “Giving Away the Farm: The U.S. Farm Bill,” Food First Backgrounder, Summer 2002.

44. USDA economic research service. See especially

45. Of course, this doesn’t stop the OECD countries’ subsidizing their agriculture to the tune of just under $1 billion a day. It just means that they’redoing it more discreetly. See

46. Food First, “Food Aid in the New Millennium–Genetically Engineered Food and Foreign Assistance,” fact sheet, December 2000, and “New FoodAid: Same as the Old Food Aid?” Food First Backgrounder, Winter 1995.

47. ETC Group, “Genetic Pollution in Mexico’s Center of Maize Diversity,” Food First Backgrounder, Spring 2002.

48. For original sources, see “New Partnership for Africa’s Development (NEPAD): Increasing food supply and reducing hunger: strengthening nationaland regional food security,” extracts from the NEPAD document Comprehensive Africa Agriculture Development Programme (CAADP),August 2002,


50. A. Juhasz, “NEPAD: Foothold for Corporate Globalization in Africa,” For more, see P. Bond’s 2002 edited volume Fanon’s Warning: A Civil Society Reader on the New Partnership For Africa’s Development.

51. “Environment: Seeds of Change,” The Guardian(London), July 10, 2002, and P. Sanchez, “Soil Fertility and Hunger in Africa,” Science 295, March 2002.


Pogroms: A Crisis of Citizenship

Reposted from Abahlali baseMjondolo on June 21, 2008.

The industrial and mining towns on the Eastern outskirts of Johannesburg are unlovely places. They’re set on flat windswept plains amidst the dumps of sterile sand left over from old mines. In winter the wind bites, the sky is a very pale blue and it seems to be all coal braziers, starved dogs, faded strip malls, gun shops and rusting factories and mine headgear. All that seems new are the police cars and, round the corner from the Harry Gwala shack settlement, a double story facebrick strip club.

But even here the battle for land continues. The poor are loosing their grip on the scattered bits of land which they took in defiance of apartheid more than twenty years ago. The state is, again, sending in bulldozers and men with guns to move the poor from central shack settlements to peripheral townships. In every relocation many are simply left homeless. It is very difficult to resist the armed force of the state but people do what they can. Officials are often stoned. In principle the courts should provide relief from evictions that are not just illegal but are in fact criminal acts under South African law. There have been notable successes but it is often difficult to get pro bono legal support, legal processes are slow and the evictions continue.

In the Harry Gwala settlement the poorest women are on their hands and knees searching for bits of coal to bake into lumps of clay to keep the braziers burning. S’bu Zikode from Abahlali baseMjondolo in Durban and Ashraf Cassiem from the Anti-Eviction Campaign in Cape Town are here to meet with the Harry Gwala branch of the Landless People’s Movement. These are all poor people’s movements that have been criminalised and violently attacked by the state. The meeting is to discuss strategies for holding onto the urban land that keeps people close to work, schools, libraries and all the other benefits of city life. This is what it has come down to. Militancy is about holding onto what was taken from apartheid.

Here in Harry Gwala forced removals started in 2004. That was also the year in which the Landless People’s Movement declared a boycott of the local government elections and were subject to severe repression, including the police torture of some activists. In August of the following year 700 residents marched on the Mayor demanding an end to forced removals and the immediate provision of water, electricity and toilets. Provincial Housing Minister Nomvula Mokonyane declared that the evictions “marked another milestone for housing delivery” and explained that “We are doing all this because we are a caring government and want to give you back your dignity”. The Municipality’s website responded to the march by noting that “Although there was an initial reluctance on the part of the Harry Gwala residents to move, the metro and the [private housing] company met them to work through any objections and give them reasons why such a move would be worth their while.” But in May 2006, when the Municipality tried to move ahead with the forced removals in earnest, it became clear that residents were determined to hold their ground. The Johannesburg Star reported that “police fired rubber bullets and bulldozed their way into the Harry Gwala informal settlement near Wattville after residents barricaded themselves in with burning tyres. Shots rang out and people scattered in all directions as metro police fired at them. Twelve people were injured and were taken to hospitals in the area.”

In Harry Gwala the evictions are remembered as a war. Now the settlement is recovering from a different kind of eviction, a different kind of war. It is to this that the discussion soon turns. The Freedom Charter adopted in Johannesburg in 1955 as the manifesto of the struggle against apartheid declared that “South Africa belongs to all who live in it.” But for two terrible weeks in May people unable to pass mob tests for indigeneity were intimidated, beaten, hacked, raped and burnt out of shack settlements and city centres across South Africa. The attacks began in the shack settlements around Johannesburg. In Harry Gwala the homes of two Shangaan families, one whom had come from Maputo in Mozambique and the other from Giyani in South Africa, were burnt and demolished. All that is left is squares of burnt earth. The local Landless People’s movement moved swiftly to condemn the attacks and to work with the local police, with whom they have often been in conflict, to stop them from spreading further. In the nearby Makause settlement, which is not organised into an oppositional movement autonomous from the state, things were far worse. Here the settlement is dotted with burnt out and demolished buildings. There is also a terribly empty 200 metre long strip where, in February last year, 2 500 shacks were unlawfully demolished at gunpoint by the state and the residents forcibly moved to a ‘transit camp’ 40 kilometres out of town.
In the second week the pogrom spread to the city centre and there were clashes at the Central Methodist Church, a well known haven for undocumented Zimbabweans, where residents successfully barricaded themselves in with piles of bricks for defence. In January there had been a much more damaging attack on the church. On that occasion the attack came from the police. They stormed in with dogs, pepper spray and batons and arrested 500 people. The church told the media that people were assaulted and robbed in the attack and that even those with documents were arrested.
In the second week the pogroms also spread to Durban, Cape Town and the small towns in the hinterland. In Durban the first attack was on a down town Nigerian bar and was followed by attacks on Rwandese and Congolese people living in city flats and then attacks on Mozambicans, Zimbabweans and Malawians living in shack settlements. In Cape Town it began with the Somali shopkeepers, who have been murdered at an incredible rate for years. The state has dismissed the clearly targeted nature of the ongoing killing of Somalis as ‘just ordinary crime’.

Some of the mobs were singing Jacob Zuma’s campaign song, Bring My Machine Gun. Some came out of shack settlements and migrant worker hostels linked to Inkatha. Some were just drunk young men. The most widely reported tests used to determine indigenity, such as seeing if people know the formal and slightly archaic Zulu word for elbow, were taken straight from the tactics that the police have used for years. The mob definition of foreigner always centred on foreign born Africans but in some instances Pakistanis and South Africans of minority ethnicities, especially Shangaan, Venda and Tsonga people, were also targeted. There are a number of credible allegations of police complicity in the pogroms but in some places community organisations were able to work with local police stations to bring the violence under control. There are many accounts of individual acts of brave opposition to the attacks by both South Africans and migrants. In the Protea South shack settlement in Johannesburg migrants were able to successfully organise themselves into self-defence units and to protect themselves with round the clock patrols. It is striking that in many, although not all, of the areas under the control of militant organisations of the poor that have been in serious conflict with the state there were no attacks at all.

After two weeks 62 people were dead, a third of them South African citizens, and figures for the number of people displaced ranged from 80 000 to 100 000. Some had fled the country and others were sheltering in churches, at police stations and in refugee camps. Conditions in the camps are often grim. Human rights organisations have issued strenuous condemnations and there have already been threats of collective suicide, clashes with the police and demands for the United Nations to take over management of the camps from the South African state.

Thabo Mbeki’s Presidency was, in the spirit of Pan-Africanism, animated by a vision of an African Renaissance that would finally redeem the world historical promise of the Haitian Revolution. On the first day of 2004 he resisted considerable international pressure and stood with Jean Bertrand-Aristide in Port-au-Prince to celebrate the two hundredth anniversary of that Revolution. Six months later Mbeki welcomed Aristide to Pretoria with an uncharacteristically warm hug on a red carpet. This followed Aristide’s kidnapping and removal to the Central African Republic by the American military on the last day of February. Aristide still lives in Pretoria.

Some saw these acts of solidarity as a concrete step towards Pan-African solidarity. Mbeki’s detractors on the left pointed to the voluntary adoption of a structural adjustment programme in 1996, or the decisive moves to bring popular politics under party control from 1990, to argue that he was merely Africanising domination. But others argued that he, in the spirit of realpolitik and mindful of the fate of Toussaint l’Ouverture, Bertrand Aristide and their revolutions, had made a tactical decision to use the wealth of South Africa to make his global battle against anti-African racism a bourgeois initiative secured by the technocratic management of the poor.

Most of the slaves that made the Haitian Revolution were born in what is now the Democratic Republic of Congo. Their revolution offered citizenship, black citizenship, to everyone who fought in it, including Polish and German mercenaries who deserted their posts to join it. Citizenship became a political question rather than a matter of indigeneity or ethnicity. But for those two weeks in May it wasn’t safe to be Congolese in many of the poor neighbourhoods in South African cities. There are still places where Aristide, whose excellent but French accented Zulu could easily mark him as Congolese or Rwandese, would be unwise to tread without security.
Contrary to much of the discussion in the media this state of affairs is not new. Indeed a month before the recent attacks 30 shacks were burnt and 100 people displaced from the Diepsloot settlement in Johannesburg. When the police eventually arrived their only response was to arrest twenty Zimbabweans for being undocumented. Migrants have been driven out of shack settlements in sporadic conflagrations since October 2001 when hundreds of Zimbabweans were hounded out of the Zandspruit settlement, also in Johannesburg. Three weeks before the attacks in Zandspruit the Department of Home Affairs had announced ‘Operation Clean Up’ in which people in the settlement were asked to support the Department in ‘rooting out illegal immigrants’. Between 600 and 700 people were rounded up and deported to Mozambique and Zimbabwe. When many of the people deported to Zimbabwe found their way back a few days later, and refused a demand to leave within ten days, they were driven out by their former neighbours.

The extreme hostility with which the post-apartheid state has responded to African migrants is well documented in numerous human rights and academic reports. Migrants to South Africa confront a notoriously ungenerous policy regime that is compounded by a bureaucracy and police force that are both systemically corrupt and prone to extorting money from migrants, documented or not, on the threat of arrest and deportation. There are many cases where South Africans have also been arrested and deported to countries they have never previously visited because they could not speak Zulu well, didn’t have the ‘right’ inoculation marks or were ‘too black.’ If the police suspect that someone may be an ‘illegal immigrant’ and she doesn’t have papers on her she will be detained in a holding cell and then sent to a repatriation centre to await deportation. If she is documented but doesn’t have papers on her she may still end up being deported as it is people picked on suspicion of being illegal that have to prove their legal right to be in the country. There is no burden of proof on the state. There is a right to one free phone call from the police holding cells and another from the repatriation centres but that right is routinely denied. Sometimes people whose presence in South Africa is perfectly legal just disappear. Their families only discover what has become of them after they have been deported. One consequence of this is that any one who thinks that they may be under suspicion has to carry their papers with them at all times. The similarity with the apartheid pass system has not escaped the notice of migrants.

The Lindela Repatriation Centre looms with a particular malevolence in the fears of migrants. Set in an old mining compound on the outskirts of Johannesburg its function is to hold illegal immigrants while they wait to be deported. The phrases ‘gross violations of human rights’ and ‘concentration camp’ role out with the word ‘Lindela’ in the language of human rights organisations as naturally as the word ‘criminals’ goes with ‘illegal immigrants’ in the language of the politicians, police and much of the popular media. Yet none of this resolute condemnation, much of which is undergirded by exhaustive empirical detail, has had any significant difference. Detailed human rights reports going back to 1999 describe routine violence, deliberate sleep deprivation, sexual assault, the denial of the right to a free phone call, appalling and appallingly limited food, a total lack of reading and writing materials, endemic corruption, unexplained deaths and extended periods of detention with out judicial review. There have been riots in Lindela going back to at least 2004. It is still hell. Senior people in the ANC Women’s League, including Nomvula Mokonyane, have financial interests in Lindela.

The state has not been alone in this. On radio talk shows, in newspapers and university lecture theatres it quickly becomes clear that the fears and stereotypes that white people projected onto black people under apartheid are now often projected, unapologetically, onto the poor in general and shack dwellers and migrants in particular. Things that can no longer be publicly said about black people can still be said about the poor, with and without papers. It is not unusual for middle class black people to take this up with enthusiasm. It’s been an open season for a long time. The fear and hostility of the old order have been redirected rather than overcome in the new order.

The most important attempt to theorise xenophobia in South African is a book by Michael Neocosmos called From ‘Foreign Natives’ to ‘Native Foreigners’: Explaining Xenophobia in Post-Apartheid South Africa. The book was published by Codesria in Dakar, Senegal in late 2006. Codesria do not have a distribution network equal to the quality of the work that they have published over the years and it has been more or less impossible to get a copy of the book in South Africa. But Codesria have put it online and a book that seemed to have fallen stillborn from the press is suddenly being widely read and discussed in the wake of the May pogroms.

Neocosmos rejects fashionable attempts to explain xenophobia in terms of postmodernity and globalisation and notes that it was in 1961 that Frantz Fanon described the kind of situation where “foreigners are called on to leave; their shops are burned, their street stalls are wrecked.” For Neocosmos, following Fanon and the work of the Ugandan scholar Mahmood Mamdani, the essence of the problem is in the structure of the post-colonial state.

Neocosmos, following Ernest Wamba-dia-Wamba in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, also takes Alain Badiou very seriously. He rejects the largely economistic understanding of politics that has typified influential sections of the academic left in South Africa in favour of a political understanding of politics. He argues that the debates on the academic left have largely been in favour of the state against the market and have tended to exclude any consideration for the agency of ordinary people. He sees in the statist orientation of this left a considerable complicity with the politics of liberalism which, in his diagnosis, can only see rights as something to be awarded and secured by the state.

His book gives a history of how apartheid denied South African citizenship to Africans and attempted, via the Bantustan system, to manufacture foreigners as a political and cultural identity. He also shows how this was continually challenged by popular democratic conceptions of citizenship. For instance Black Consciousness posited the lived experience of blackness as a principle of unity rather than ethnicity and so, against both the apartheid idea of ethnic Bantustan citizenship and the multi-racialism of the ANC, included Africans, Indians and people of mixed race in one non-racial political movement. Some trade unions, and in particular the National Union of Mine Workers, developed an understanding of citizenship based on place of work rather than place of origin. The mine workers’ union was even able to take this principle into the first moments of the post-apartheid state by securing citizenship for workers from Lesotho. And in the 1980s the United Democratic Front posited a citizenship based on opposition to apartheid which saw white and black people on both sides of its conception of the nation and its enemy.

For Neocosmos the radicalisation and democratisation of the popular struggles against apartheid in the second half of the 1980s, a process that in his analysis was forced on the leadership from below, created a new nation in struggle. He argues that the demobilisation and corporatisation of that politics, a process that began in 1989 and was more or less concluded by 1993, enabled a return to the exclusive power of the state to define citizenship.

In his view this was the worm that hid in the rose of the new democracy from the beginning. He points to the distinction in the constitution between citizens and persons and notes the consequent logic in frank statements by the ANC that it “can’t extend human rights to non-citizens.” But he is not replacing economism with legalism. He also argues that a considerable part of the motivation for the immediate commitment to the idea of ‘fortress South Africa’ was driven by an assumption that ‘hordes of foreigners’ would threaten South Africa’s aspiration to build a powerful modern state that could take its ‘rightful place on the international stage’. The continuities with apartheid thinking about South Africa as somehow outside of, superior to and endangered by Africa are clear. He also shows that the idea that the state could manage the poor by delivering basic services to a passive population led to an assumption that efficiency in this regard, and consequent gains in social cohesion, would be compromised by an increase in the number of citizens.

For Neocosmos the ANC “is unable to think beyond the confines of exclusion and control…Popular organisational and militant democratic struggles are no longer within its ambit of thought.” He acknowledges the work done by NGOs to catalogue the rights abuses suffered by migrants at the hand of the South Africa state and provides a harrowing overview. Some of the evidence adduced is particularly striking. For instance while many instances are cited of politicians ascribing crime to undocumented migrants and conflating the categories of ‘illegal immigrant’ and ‘criminal’ the fact is that 98% of people arrested on criminal charges in South Africa are legal citizens. Equally striking are the statistics for the numbers of Germans, Americans and British people who overstay their visas but are not arrested and do not end up in Lindela and are not deported. In the first months of 1996 the figure stood at 26 000. Neocosmos does not shy away from the strength of popular xenophobic sentiment but stresses that empirical research indicates that “popular attitudes towards foreigners are much more contradictory and not as systematically oppressive as in the case of state agencies.”

While he accepts the symptomatic observations of the human rights NGOs he rejects their diagnosis of the cause of those symptoms and their prescription for a remedy. In his view their extensive and detailed cataloguing of state and popular xenophobia has been undertaken in order to ensure that migrants are able to access their human rights, something which is “seen as the responsibility of the state under pressure from those same NGOs”. Human rights discourse is orientated around appeals to the state, not a popular democratic politics. It therefore lacks both the capacity to issue compelling prescriptions to the state and to undertake the practical work of engendering better modes of life within communities. All it can do is to make requests. Although he does not say this, it is notable that neither the advances in this discourse, nor its institutionalisation in formal civil society, have resulted in meaningful progress from the perspective of someone picked up by the police for being ‘too black’ or speaking Shangaan or French.

For Neocosmos “xenophobia and authoritarianism” are “a continuation of apartheid oppression” that are, in the end, a “product of liberalism”. He proposes, against the state centric politics of liberalism, a recovery of popular emancipatory politics. This argument certainly has much more going for it than most of the views bandied about after the May pogroms, many of which took the form of simultaneous recommendations for firmer police action, better state intelligence and more projects to educate the poor about human rights. With some modifications it may also be able to explain some aspects of the other forms of popular reaction that have been growing in intensity.

In recent months there have, in some areas, been public attacks on lesbians and women dressed in trousers or in skirts deemed too short. It is certainly the case that as poor women are expected to take over more and more of the work needed to keep families and communities going there is an implicit gendering to decisions about the price of water, the numbers of taps and toilets that are provided to shack settlements, the need for volunteers to take on cleaning work, the care of the sick and so on. But it is certainly not the case that, as with xenophobia, these kinds of attacks can credibly be said to directly follow the logic and practices of the state or to be in any way complicit with the law.

While racist arguments about culture are often still used to explain the attacks on women progressives tend to argue that they are due to a general economic disempowerment. There is certainly a systemic disempowerment consequent to the endless economic crisis that ordinary people must confront, even in boom times. But there is also a systemic disempowerment consequent to both the complimentary authoritarianism of technocratic state and NGO responses to poverty and the top down party control over most of the political spaces through which ordinary people can access the state. It is notable that these kinds of attacks on women have not occurred, and are in fact simply unthinkable, in places where grassroots movements in which women are strong have created a political space for the collective self empowerment of the excluded. The fact that these are not the only spaces in which these kinds of attacks are unthinkable does not diminish the record of democratic grassroots political projects in this regard.

As Neocosmos has noted in a recent essay the popular movements that have rebuilt a democratic grassroots militancy were able to successfully defend and shelter people at risk in the May pogroms and, on at least one occasion, confront attackers head on. There was not one attack in any of the more than 30 settlements where the largely Durban and Pietermartizburg based shack dwellers’ movement Abahlali baseMjondolo is strong. Despite being crowded into ever fewer bits and pieces of urban land, all of which remain under threat from a state determined to ‘eradicate shacks by 2014’, the movement was also able to offer shelter to some people displaced in the attacks. In a widely circulated and translated statement Abahlali baseMjondolo declared that “An action can be illegal. A person cannot be illegal. A person is a person where ever they may find themselves. If you live in a settlement you are from that settlement and you are a neighbour and a comrade in that settlement.” The Landless People’s Movement in Johannesburg and the Anti-Eviction Campaign in Cape Town were also able to mount some opposition to the pogroms. In Khutsong, a town to the West of Johannesburg where popular conflict with the state has probably been most acute, the Merafong Demarcation Forum was also able to ensure safety. All of these organisations have, in the face of considerable repression boycotted elections and sought to build a militant grassroots politics outside of the party structures beholden to the state.

There is a sense in which crises are confrontation with the real. Certain kinds of assumptions, claims and speculations that can survive without a direct challenge melt away in the face of this kind of shock. Others emerge on a firmer footing. Neocosmos’ book has come out of the crisis with a lot more life than it had in April. But if the May crisis has appeared to offer some support to his analysis that analysis should certainly be extended. One obvious way in which the critique of the politics of liberalism should be developed would be to consider the various ways in which the South African poor are also excluded from substantive citizenship and the desperate rivalries that this can produce.

With an entrenched unemployment crisis that excludes around 40% of people from formal employment now compounded by the sudden escalation in food and transport prices there’s not much disagreement about the depth of economic exclusion. Of course people do invent new modes of solidarity and survivalist communalism to cope but a dangerous desperation is also rife. Not everyone is in a position to confront the prospect of entering their 30s without ever having had a decent job with equanimity. For people bent on plunder anyone who is vulnerable, as undocumented migrants living under a hostile state most certainly are, is at risk.

Exclusion from substantive citizenship is also a question of space. The South African state is seeking to reverse the popular desegregation of cities achieved since the 1980s. There are major projects to drive the poor out of flats in the city centres in the name of creating ‘World Class Cities’. Centrally located shack settlements are also under attack from a full fledged programme to ‘eradicate’ shacks by 2014. While most cities have one or two well funded projects to upgrade centrally located shack settlements they are the exceptions that legitimate the rule. The fact is that the state is beating the poor out of the cities in the name of ‘slum clearance’, the precise phrase used by apartheid, and before that colonialism, for the same purpose. The poor are being driven out of urban spaces over which there is sometimes a considerable degree of autonomous self management into regulated and commodified contemporary versions of the peripheral apartheid township – a space separate in every way from the fantasy of world class cities but far enough out of town for this fact to be tolerable. An often politically innovative urban proletariat which appropriated urban land, as well as electricity and water, and often, although not always, turned it into a commons organised with a considerable degree of popular autonomy from state power is being recomposed into an individualized set of consumers safely warehoused on the urban periphery. The return to forced removals is a direct attack on people’s livelihoods, access to education and health care, desire for an urban life and identity as citizens. With regard to the latter it is worth recalling that the denial of the right to the city was a central part of the denial of citizenship to Africans under apartheid. Every successful eviction increases the already severe overcrowding in the spaces that survive and escalates competition for space that can take all sorts of forms including ethnic and racial conflict amongst South Africans.

Despite more than 3 years of vigorous protests by the grassroots left across the country against local party councillors and their ward committees the reality of political exclusion doesn’t have much elite currency. Civil society doesn’t always easily recognise that democracy isn’t only about elections and NGOs. People who appropriated or forged substantive rights to citizenship through the insurgent popular struggles of the 80s, or who were promised full social inclusion in Mandela’s image of the nation, now find that, what ever their identity documents may say, they have been excluded from a key aspect of substantive citizenship – the right to speak, to be heard and to co-determine their future. Developmental processes are overwhelmingly technocratic and expert driven and the party is, for the very poor, now a top down structure that is used more for social control than as a space for popular discussion. In fact in many shack settlements party structures are the armed enforcers of state discipline. Many of the thousands of popular protests over the last few years (often clearly misnamed as ‘service delivery’ protests by both the NGO left and the state) were aimed at trying to subordinate local party structures and representatives to popular power. It has been very striking that in many of these protests the people organising them have declared that they have returned to struggle because they have, again, ‘been made foreigners in our own country’. This crisis in the popular sense of substantive citizenship has expressed itself in some remarkable mobilisations that have united people with and without legal citizenship to struggle to democratise society from below. But in the absence of democratic organisation it can also take the terrifying form of a desire to assert one’s own citizenship by turning on the ‘real’ non citizens.

The popular democratic politics in which Neocosmos invests his theoretical hope is the practical politics that was able to defend and shelter people targeted in the May pogroms, and has previously, although covertly, offered the same protection from the state. It is a politics that moves from the bottom up and which the state and many NGOs, including those on the left, consider to be outside of professional civil society and its aspirations to manage the poor and, therefore, criminal. The police have been trying to beat it into submission since 2004.

Mbeki repressed the return of this politics and could travel to Haiti in his own jet. Aristide embraced this politics and was forced to leave Haiti in an American jet. But in Port-au-Prince and Johannesburg, against the odds, against the soldiers and the police, against the mob that have decided to become the police, against the expert and against the NGO it endures, fragile, wounded but alive.

Richard Pithouse, Durban.
16 June 2008

For Blacks in France, Obama’s Rise Is Reason to Rejoice, and to Hope

This came to me a few days after having visited the island of Réunion, a French département d’Outre-Mer in the Indian Ocean. Réunion is like Martinique and Guadeloupe, but also a bit different in terms of its history. Most of the information can be found by googling La Maison des Civilisations et de l’unité Réunionaise (MCUR). In the brochure I was given, the following words (by Paul Vergès, President of Réunion Island Regional Council, in 2007) capture in broad strokes what it is about In 2010 Réunion island will step into the 21st century by opening a unique place, the MCUR. It is unique both in its approach and ambition: offering a museum of the living present where individual and collective memories are heard and visualized, where present-time archives are in constant construction, where activities for all kinds of publics are organised alongside spaces devoted to exhibitions, meetings and exchanges; unique in its exceptional location, overlooking the Indian Ocean with a view of the city of Saint-Paul and the mountain; unique in its architecture, both bold and light, reconciling diversity and unity, with a true concern for climate change and designed to meet the challenges of energy-saving. Open to all, this museum and cultural centre will combine education and pleasure, culture and belonging, thinking and recreation”.

Further down in the same brochure, Françoise Vergès and Carpanin Marimoutou explain the aim of the MCUR: to highlight the specificity of the treasures of Reunionese society by naming and showing them as they unfold and have been unfolding through sounds and creations; the unpredictable, baffling, astounding mechanisms and consequences of creolization processes at work in the Indian Ocean world and Réunion Island; voices, memories, gestures, men’s and women’s practices, both personal and social, holy and profane, which are not considered “worthy of history” but “without which the earth would not be the earth” as Aimé Césaire put it.

I was invited to speak about Haiti and how to look at its history from 1804 to 2008 as the unfolding of the multiple possibilities of fidelity to the Event which put and end to slavery. It was a difficult exercice, especially for someone who does not consider himself an expert on the history of Haiti. I did my best to show on the one hand why fidelity to the Event had been obstructed, but, on the other hand, how it had been carried on by the ones, to quote Césaire again, “who are not considered worthy of history”.

The piece below is worth posting because it does show how deep, persistent emancipatory politics continue to be. It illustrates the point that everyone thinks and that it is up to everyone to be seized by the call to contribute, however little or insignificant it may seem, to the deepening and expansion of emancipatory politics.

The initiative taken by the team which surrounds Françoise Vergès and Carpanin Marimoutou will have consequences far and deeper beyond their island because it is seeking to heal people from all walks of life. For that initiative and to them, we say thank you and we promise to echo for healing betweem all members of humanity, between humanity and nature. So that the earth can be whole.–Jacques Depelchin

Reposted from The New York Times on June 17, 2008.

PARIS — When Youssoupha, a black rapper here, was asked the other day what was on his mind, a grin spread across his face. “Barack Obama,” he said. “Obama tells us everything is possible.”

A new black consciousness is emerging in France, lately hastened by, of all things, the presumptive Democratic nominee for president of the United States. An article in Le Monde a few days ago described how Mr. Obama is “stirring up high hopes” among blacks here. Even seeing the word “noir” (“black”) in a French newspaper was an occasion for surprise until recently.

Meanwhile, this past weekend, 60 cars were burned and some 50 young people scuffled with police and firemen, injuring several of them, in a poor minority suburb of Vitry-le-François, in the Marne region of northeast France.

Americans, who have debated race relations since the dawn of the Republic, may find it hard to grasp the degree to which race, like religion, remains a taboo topic in France. While Mr. Obama talks about running a campaign transcending race, an increasing number of French blacks are pushing for, in effect, the reverse.

Having always thought it was more racially enlightened than strife-torn America, France finds itself facing the prospect that it has actually fallen behind on that score. Incidents like the ones over the weekend bring to mind the rioting that exploded across France three years ago. Since it abolished slavery 160 years ago, the country has officially declared itself to be colorblind — but seeing Mr. Obama, a new generation of French blacks is arguing that it’s high time here for precisely the sort of frank discussions that in America have preceded the nomination of a major black candidate.

This black consciousness is reflected not just in daily conversation, but also in a dawning culture of books and music by young French blacks like Youssoupha, a cheerful, toothy 28-year-old, who was sent here from Congo by his parents to get an education at 10, raised by an aunt who worked in a school cafeteria in a poor suburb, and told by guidance counselors that he shouldn’t be too ambitious. Instead, he earned a master’s degree from the Sorbonne.

Then, like many well-educated blacks in this country, he hit a brick wall. “I found myself working in fast-food places with people who had the equivalent of a 15-year-old’s level of education,” he recalled.

So he turned to rap, out of frustration as much as anything, finding inspiration in “négritude,” an ideology of black pride conceived in Paris during the 1920s and 30s by Aimé Césaire, the French poet and politician from Martinique, and Léopold Sédar Senghor, the poet who became Senegal’s first president. Its philosophy, as Sartre once put it, was a kind of “antiracist racism,” a celebration of shared black heritage.

Négritude and Césaire are back. When Césaire died in April, at 94, his funeral in Fort-de-France, Martinique, was broadcast live on French television. The French president, Nicolas Sarkozy, and his rival Ségolène Royal both attended. Just three years ago, Mr. Sarkozy, as head of a center-right party and not yet president, supported a law (repealed after much protest) that compelled French schools to teach the “positive” aspects of colonialism. The next year, Césaire refused to meet with him. Now here was Mr. Sarkozy flying to the former French colony (today one of the country’s overseas departments, meaning he could troll for votes) to pay tribute to the poet laureate of négritude.

That said, as a country France definitely sends out mixed messages. “Négritude is a concept they just don’t want to hear about,” Youssoupha raps in “Render Unto Césaire” on his latest album, “À Chaque Frère” (“To Each Brother”). A regular short feature on French public television, “Citoyens Visibles,” hosted by a young actress, Hafsia Herzi, celebrates French artists with foreign origins.

At the same time, it’s against the rules for the government to conduct official surveys according to race. Consequently, nobody even knows for certain how many black citizens there are. Estimates vary between 3 million and 5 million out of a population of more than 61 million.

“Can you imagine if French officials said, ‘Well, we’re not sure, the population of France may be 65 million, or maybe it’s 30 million’?” declared a somewhat exasperated Patrick Lozès, founder of Cran, a black organization devised not long ago partly to gather statistics the government won’t.

When he sat down to talk the other morning, the first two words out of his mouth were Barack Obama. “The idea behind not categorizing people by race is obviously good; we want to believe in the republican ideal,” he said. “But in reality we’re blind in France, not colorblind but information blind, and just saying people are equal doesn’t make them equal.”

He ticked off some obvious numbers: one black member representing continental France in the National Assembly among 555 members; no continental French senators out of some 300; only a handful of mayors out of some 36,000, and none from the poor Paris suburbs.

To this may be added Cran’s findings that the percentage of blacks in France who hold university degrees is 55, compared with 37 percent for the general population. But the number of blacks who get stuck in the working class is 45 percent, compared with 34 percent for the national average.

“There’s total hypocrisy here,” Léonora Miano said. She’s a black author, 37, originally from Cameroon, whose recent novel “Tels des Astres Éteints” (“Like Extinguished Stars”) is about race relations as seen through the eyes of three black immigrants.

“For me it was really strange when I arrived 17 years ago to find people here never used the word race,” Ms. Miano said over coffee one afternoon at Café Beaubourg. Outside, African immigrants hawked sunglasses to tourists. “French universalism, the whole French republican ideal, proposes that if you embrace French values, the French language, French culture, then race doesn’t exist and it won’t matter if you’re black. But of course it does. So we need to have a conversation, and slowly it is coming: not a conversation about guilt or history, but about now.”

“The Black Condition: An Essay on a French Minority” by Pap N’Diaye, a 42-year-old historian at the School for Advanced Study of the Social Sciences, is another much-talked-about new book here. “We are witnessing a renaissance of the négritude movement,” Mr. N’Diaye declared the other day.

The surge in popularity of Mr. Obama among French blacks partly stems from the hope that his rise “will highlight our lack of diversity and put pressure on French politicians who say they favor him to open politics up more to minorities,” Mr. N’Diaye said. “We in France are, in terms of race, where we were in terms of gender 40 years ago.”

He laid out some history: French decolonization during the 1960s pretty much pushed the original négritude movement to the back burner, at the same time that it inspired a wave of immigrants from the Caribbean to come here and fill low-ranking civil service jobs. From sub-Saharan Africa, another wave of laborers gravitated to private industry. The two populations didn’t communicate much.

But their children, raised here, have grown up together. “Mutually discovered discrimination,” as Mr. N’Diaye put it, has forged a bond out of which négritude is being revived.

The watershed event was the rioting in poor French suburbs three years ago. Among its cultural consequences: Aimé Césaire “started to be rediscovered by young people who found in his work things germane to the current situation,” Mr. N’Diaye said.

Youssoupha is one of those people. He was nursing a Coke recently at Top Kafé, a Lubavitch Tex-Mex restaurant in Créteil, just outside Paris, where he lives. Nearby, two waiters in yarmulkes sat watching Rafael Nadal play tennis on television beneath dusty framed pictures of Las Vegas and Rabbi Menachem M. Schneerson. A clutch of Arab teenagers smoked outside. In modest neighborhoods like this, France can look remarkably harmonious.

“Césaire is in my lyrics, and I was upset when people misinterpreted what I wrote as anti-white because négritude is the affirmation of our common black roots,” Youssoupha said.

Ms. Miano, the novelist, made a similar point. “There is no such thing as a black ‘community’ in France — yet — partly because we have such different histories,” she said. “An immigrant woman from Mali and another from Cameroon view the world in completely different ways. You also shouldn’t think there isn’t racism among blacks in France, between West Indians and Africans. There is. But ultimately we’re all black in the face of discrimination.”

Then she smiled: “Too bad I forgot to wear my Obama T-shirt.”

Copyright 2008 The New York Times Company

Letter to the government of Brazil concerning the safe return of Lovinsky Pierre-Antoine

20 May 2008

Brazilian Ambassador to the United States
3006 Massachusetts Avenue, NW
Washington, DC 90008

Consul General of Brazil
8484 Wilshire Blvd.
Beverly Hills, CA 90211


It is time, after nine months of uneasy anxiety, that some authority charged in the name of the international community with responsibility for security in Haiti, advise the international community, that is, the international public, of its findings in regard to the scandalous kidnapping or disappearance of Haitian citizen and patriot, MR. LOVINSKY PIERRE-ANTOINE.

The date of MR. PIERRE-ANTOINE’S disappearance is well established. It is also known that he had been helping human rights delegations from two countries the USA and Canada, countries with famous courts and parliaments.

Please do not misunderstand this appeal. It has great hope in the United Nations as a peacekeeping agency and much hope in the evolution of democracy in Brazil, which holds a leading position in the United Nations Stabilization Mission in Haiti. My disappointment is therefore considerable. Every son and daughter of Haiti deserves the protection of the law and of special international arrangements. LOVINSKY PIERRE-ANTOINE is a son of Haiti, one who is well-known in the region and is becoming better known in the world. His international reputation is a standard of judgment of the peacekeeping force. Their reputation will rise or fall with his fortunes. In the present day world, news of violations is highly saleable.

The world knows of no position by the official agencies in Haiti, whether domestic or international, on this important instance of inhumanity. When this matter was raised from the floor at a Conference on Haiti’s children at a University in San Diego, USA, the Ambassador of Haiti to the USA made a spirited response. Not only did he establish the non-involvement of the government of Haiti in the kidnapping of LOVINSKY PIERRE-ANTOINE, but he effectively defended the government, assuring the audience that it had no hand in the unfortunate affair. No one had even suggested that it had. He said that Mr Pierre-Antoine was probably a rival candidate of some other person and hinted that in such circumstances disappearances have sometimes occurred. I do not have a record of his statement before the gathering, and I am open to any correction he or any other party may wish to offer.

All the Ambassador was able to do was to vindicate the Haitian government. But MR. PIERRE-ANTOINE’S lawyer was present and rose to rebuke the government for its silence and its alleged failure to exercise its national responsibility.

The government of Haiti being ruled out as complicit in MR. PIERRE-ANTOINE’S absence, the hemisphere to which Haiti has always been central turns its searchlight on that multinational force considered to be of vital assistance to a historically crippled domestic government, and on the leadership of that force, the Republic of Brazil, a major hemispheric partner. Their presence there leads the uninformed to presume that they are there to supply the kind of expertise and clout which cannot be expected of the government in Haiti’s present circumstances. In these times of secretly employed but widely known intrusive surveillance, satellite observation on land, sea and air, clandestine wiretapping and other equipment useful in both offence and defense, there is a credibility gap. The public is not inclined to believe that a few thugs in Haiti have so completely baffled the humane capacity of the leading States of the hemisphere.

This matter of the disappearance of MR. LOVINSKY PIERRE-ANTOINE must therefore be taken to the bemused population of the hemisphere and the world at present waiting with impatience for some word of encouragement from the United Nations and its peacekeeping forces.

These forces must be aware of the kidnapping and disappearance of Haiti’s first Prime Minister, TOUSSAINT L’OUVERTURE. The French regime of that time, a regime of soldiers, treated TOUSSAINT’S fate with a silence similar to that with which MR. PIERRE-ANTOINE’S kidnapping is now being treated. Is this French model the model for the UN troops and its officials?

Questions rush to mind. The hemisphere certainly and the international community wish to know what task force has been set up to track the disappearance of LOVINSKY and other persons, regardless of their political attachment, who may be less well-known but in similar circumstances.

It is possible to have wrong notions about what happened to LOVINSKY. It is possible to make statements and then find the need to revise them. Is it possible in an age such as this, known for invasive surveillance, for criminal secrets to be so well-kept?

In the military context of a peacekeeping force, silence for two weeks on the part of the Commanding Authority may be advisable, after it has made an initial statement of concern assuring the public of its active pursuit of the offenders. Silence for three weeks may be cause for concern, yet understandable if it had given the necessary assurances. Silence for nine months becomes its opposite, and is no longer silence but an eloquent confession of incapacity, or worse, lack of concern.

If a citizen of LOVINSKY PIERRE-ANTOINE’S prominence and popularity can be “caught up in the air”: then the fate of the unknown citizen in Haiti under the aegis of the United Nation’s force is not an enviable one.

Questions persist: When did the authorities first hear of this kidnapping? What specific steps have they taken? Who is keeping PIERRE-ANTOINE’S wife and their children informed? Are there no suspects? Is the kidnapping seen as self-inflicted? Have the suspects, if any, evaded the UN’s multi-national capacity? Were there secret landings of aircraft unknown to the official guardians? Was he spirited away in a small boat and have all suspects been called in? Has LOVINSKY PIERRE-ANTOINE been rendered? Where are the international media, famous for increasing effectiveness? Have state and media conspired not to investigate the fate of this man? Is he held by the forces of law and order, and if so where are his rights? If he is held, on what allegations or reasonable suspicion? Was this man, who was well known for his committed to non-violence and aimed to become a senator, suspected of planning to blow up the parliament?


I ask you to transmit this letter to your government in Brazil without delay. Out of respect for President Lula as an elected Head of State the author shall release it to the international media in the Region and in all continents not before the end of the second day of its dispatch to the Head Consulate Officer of Brazil in Los Angeles.

Yours sincerely,


United Nations Secretary-General
Congresswoman Maxine Waters
Amnesty International
Pax Christi
Global Women’s Strike, Los Angeles
Haiti Action Committee

**Mr. Eusi Kwayana is a distinguished elder from Guyana, known by many throughout the Caribbean region. He was central in bringing together Afro and Indo people in Guyana’s independence struggle.