Abahlali baseMjondolo Slum Dwellers Movement — One Year Later

September 27, 2010: We have just read your report on One Year After the Attacks on the KRDC.
You all deserve many thanks and many congratulations. Most of all for having
survived attacks which, clearly, were meant to wipe you off the physical
and political map. On both grounds, your report provides ample evidence.
Thank you so much for describing in detail what happened and how you
organized your resistance. Your physical and political survival make us proud
to be in solidarity with you. For making us proud we must thank you too.

Dear Mondli Mbiko, Coordinator, Kennedy Road Development Committee in
Dear Mzwake Mdlalose, Chairperson of the Kennedy Road Development
Committee in Exile and Deputy President of AbahlalibaseMjondolo
Dear Bandile Mdlalose AbahlalibaseMjondolo Secretary General,
Dear Maikelo Ndabankulu, AbahlalibaseMjondolo Spokesperson

Dear Sisters and Brothers,

We have just read your report on One Year After the Attacks on the KRDC.
You all deserve many thanks and many congratulations. Most of all for having
survived attacks which, clearly, were meant to wipe you off the physical
and political map. On both grounds, your report provides ample evidence.
Thank you so much for describing in detail what happened and how you
organized your resistance. Your physical and political survival make us proud
to be in solidarity with you. For making us proud we must thank you too.

You make us proud because, through the report you have given us all invaluable
lessons not just in politics, but also in the little things of everyday life which, even
the ANC used to know how to do, but, somehow, seems to have forgotten. Your
report teaches us lessons of empathy with those who suffer, solidarity with the
weakest. Your report reminds us of so many other lessons taught by so many
people who, like you, are resisting dehumanizing treatment in other parts of
the planet. Truly you are showing how to reclaim the commons, history, Africa,
humanity. That is, for us, in these times, when humanity is facing challenges it
never faced before, your greatest lesson.

You make us proud because, through your non violent actions and reactions, you
are showing the superiority of your approach to politics, an approach to politics
which says that everyone counts, especially the poorest of the poorest, especially
the weakest of the weakest. Your report shows how solidarity works, what it
means for leaders to be at the service of people, with humility.

However, we would like to share a word of caution. Our common history tells
us that every time the weakest and the poorest have managed to win a battle,
those who have lost will come back with withering vengeance. Just look at
what the people of Haiti and Palestine are enduring, on a daily basis, simply
for having done what they were not expected to achieve. And so, the more
you are successful at what you are doing, i.e. showing those who claim to know
better that they have lost touch with the people, the harder they will come
back at you. They shall resort to multi faceted violence. They cannot bear the
idea that you, of all people, who are not supposed to know politics better than
they do, can possibly be their mentors. Even though your behavior is full of
humility, they feel humiliated. Humiliated arrogance may, at times, depending
on circumstances, explode with atomic force.

You all seem to have a great gift: giving the greatest of lessons on democracy,
justice, dignity, solidarity, without appearing to do so. With humility, dignity
and respect, without calling them names, or insulting them, you are asking the
government officials to listen to you.

Again congratulations and many thanks for being who you are, for helping us
learn how to reclaim humanity, history, Africa, the commons.

Haiti, Aristide, Fanmi Lavalass: Being a call to reclaim history, humanity, Africa, the commons

Haiti, Aristide, Fanmi Lavalass:
Being a call to reclaim history, humanity, Africa, the commons.

A call to foes
who plug their ears hoping
not to hear their conscience’s call
for fidelity
with Haiti

A call to friends
Wringing their hands
Waiting to follow the brave
Sufficiently outraged
To risk everything
To make humanity
in Haiti

A call to those
In between, soooo
Comfortable on the fence
Looking at suffering
Enjoying the spectacle
Of a family seeking
to reconnect with
all of its members
from South Africa
to Haiti

Is it not time to stop the 200 years and more of suffering of the people of Haiti? Isn’t more than 200 years of solitary confinement enough punishment for doing what humanity was in greatest need of: Equality, Freedom, Justice, Dignity? Is it not time to stop and think about how best for humanity to become one again? Is it not time to end –select your words— the solitary confinement , exile, résidence surveillée, relégation, of Jean-Bertrand Aristide in a country freed from apartheid?

Following the earthquake on January 12, 2010, emergency alarm bells went off in the military/political power centers of the world. In the minds of the most powerful governments, i.e. those who got together to make sure that President Jean-Bertrand Aristide be taken out of Haiti, the first order of business was to secure/maintain their order on the island. Securing an order that for more than two centuries has been framed by constant punishment of those (and their descendants) who managed to break free from the rule imposed by the Code Noir issued in 1685 by the French Monarchy. That Code rationalized the Africans to be movable property (biens meubles), i.e. not human beings. It was a way of legalizing the beginning of a never ending crime against humanity which can also be seen as a splitting of humanity which, to this day, has not ceased.

Between 1792 and 1794, the Convention declared the end of slavery. Then, came Napoléon Bonaparte and the vengeful restoration of slavery everywhere. How virulent that process was, has been described in many books, among them CLR James’s Black Jacobins and, more recently Claude Ribbe, Le Crime de Napoléon. Following the failure to reinstate slavery in the place which had gotten rid of it without permission, France and its allies forced Haiti to pay compensation for the lost of property (the slaves and the sugar plantations).

Jean-Bertrand Aristide, his team and supporters, mostly the poorest of the poorest –Fanmi Lavalass—insisted that there be restitution, i.e. the compensation which had been paid from 1825-1826 through 1947 had to be given back to Haiti.

The case of Aristide’s kidnapping (in April 2004) and subsequent imprisonment in South Africa, and the latter’s shameless opposition to his return to Haiti following the earthquake on January 12, 2010 is one of the most heartless crimes ever conscientiously and consciously committed by the so-called Western community on people in danger. It is like the collective raping of a people in the process of healing. It is like a repetition of the splitting apart that wrenched the Africans from their land, their families in order to feed the insatiable predatory monster in the process of being born across the Atlantic.

How wrenching the history of Haiti has been cannot be imagined by those who see themselves as the descendants of those who asked for compensation. The violators managed to pass themselves as the victims of what has, since May 10 2001, been recognized by the French National Assembly (Loi Taubira) as a Crime Against Humanity. Pierre Nora, a famous historian, protested the passing of that law. Pierre Nora’s logic is not unlike the professor who, in graduate school, reminded me that historians could not apply the morality of 20th century to what happened in the 19th century. At the time, I could not think of the obvious answer, i.e. the Africans, back then, did not consider themselves as objects, but as human beings, as fully part of humanity, but since the Code Noir was the instrument for reducing them to objects, historians are supposed to submit to that legal document as if that document superseded what the Africans considered themselves to be.

For the past five centuries, the mindset which has grown hand in hand with capitalism has blinded humanity to one of its fundamental tenets, namely that it is one and that its splitting apart must stop. What is at stake in Haiti is much bigger than how the jailers of Aristide and their allies would like to frame the issue.

But before calling on them to correct their ways, one should attempt to explain to ourselves and to them what has been happening to the commons, history and Africa. This is crucial for the simple reason that the so-called political and military leaders of the world have always looked at Africa, and its history as an extension of the commons, i.e. to be enclosed at will for the purposes of benefiting the specialists of enclosing. Keeping in mind that the enclosure movement has moved far beyond land and see to assault what was once considered sacred: humanity’s conscience.

It is important to draw the attention of these masters of the enclosing process to how those who are being enclosed have seen, felt the process. Long before the splitting of the atom, humanity began to be split apart and became one of the most enduring roots of capitalism, a predatory system that is unaware of how predatory it is.

Africans from Africa (Kimpa Vita and the Antonins), on the way to the ships, on the ships themselves (Ayi Kwei Armah’s Two Thousand Seasons), in the Caribbean, in the Americas, refused to enter the equation being prepared for them to be fodder for something which is now called globalization. The knowledge of how that history has unfolded is still embryonic, at best.

Questions arise

Why the vindictiveness against Haiti, against Aristide, against Fanmi Lavalass? What is it in the contemporary history of Haiti that frightens the ever modernizing enslavers?

What happened between 1791-1804 in Saint Domingue was not supposed to happen. The dominant mindset was certain that slaves could not think outside of what they were expected to be: slaves. However, a good half of them, at the time, had been born in Africa: free. They did not need to learn about freedom from the philosophers of the Enlightenment. Therefore, when the Africans resolved to free themselves and organized themselves accordingly, they achieved the unthinkable, the improbable, the forbidden.

For more than two hundred years, the descendants of the revolution which went beyond the French Revolution have never forgotten what had been achieved through commitment, organization, determination, emancipatory politics. At the same time, for more than two hundred years, the descendants of those who were defeated have vowed to crush any person, and/or group of persons who might appear like carrying on in fidelity with the spirit of 1791-1804. The descendants of the ones who committed crimes against humanity have vowed to keep Haiti as a source of the cheapest possible labor available to the US. Poverty must be maintained at all costs so that people would be willing to work at any price that might be offered.

In order to demonstrate that the action of 1791-1804 was wrongheaded, the current leaders of the most powerful nations are determined to keep hammering away at the following lesson: Challenging power shall always be punished with the greatest severity. In cases where victory was achieved (as in 1804) the punishment shall be incalculably harsher.

According to such a view, Haiti shall get poorer and poorer and the richest nation on earth (for now) shall get richer and richer. The shameful inequality based on an even more shameful history of repeated crimes against humanity will continue smashing (as in the linear accelerators) the small matter we call humanity’s conscience. One day what is left of it shall be pulverized just in the same way that human beings were pulverized in Hiroshima and Nagasaki. This experiment has been under way for the past 5 centuries. Now and then carriers of humanity’s conscience rise up. Like Aristide, like Fanmi Lavalass, like Pierre-Antoine Lovinski, the rule is “smash them”.

If the final act being programmed, i.e. the annihilation of humanity, is going to be stopped, then allowing Humanity to be one in Haiti could help suspend the looming fatal end of humanity.

Following the earthquake, if common sense and solidarity had prevailed, Jean-Bertrand Aristide would have come back because at times like these, one would have expected those who had engineered his kidnapping and subsequent incarceration in South Africa might have relented and allowed the Haitian people to be one again.

It is never too late for common sense and solidarity to re-emerge, but, for that to happen, there will have to be the kind of worldwide mobilization that brought about the formal end of apartheid. The cancer of apartheid without a formal capital has continued to spread. This is the only conclusion one can reach if one is going to explain how the South African government accepted to be the post apartheid Robben Island for Aristide, with the apparent silent acceptance of all the African leaders.

Surely, in fidelity to those who did say enough is enough back in 1791-1804, one can do better than just watching and/or wringing our hands hoping for a happy ending.

Une lettre ouverte

Une lettre ouverte
Aux gens de partout, aux dirigeants de la planète, aux dirigeants de l’Afrique,
À celles et à ceux qui sentent
qu’il y a quelque chose qui ne va pas et qu’il faut faire quelque chose

Pour que cesse la fission
de l’humanité
Pour que cesse le carnage conduit de main de maître
Pour en finir, une fois pour toutes
–nous l’avons entendu—
avec Mai 1968, et, efficacité
exige, avec ce qui reste de 1789,
dans la France qui s’appelle
liberté, égalité, fraternité

Pour que cesse
La punition
Sans fin des Africains,
crève-la-faim punis
pour avoir oser mettre fin
au Code Noir à Saint Domingue

Pour que de l’Afrique générique de
Himalaya aux Andes,
s’étalent les clairières
De la conscience de l’humanité

Pour que les mots
esclavage crime contre l’humanité
Ne fanent dans l’enfer des bonnes intentions
Qu’advienne guérison
sans hésitation
sans humanitarisme
sans charité
avec solidarité

De cette humanité dont la fission
Avait encouragé la fission de l’atome
Encouragé les génocides en chapelet
D’un 20ème siècle enraciné séculairement
Dans la liquidation des Arawaks, des Geronimo
Zumbi, Arménie, Namibie, Bas-Congo, Ota Benga,
Auschwitz, Kolyma, Nankin, Hiroshima,
Nagasaki, Palestine, Cambodge, Rwanda

Que cesse la fission de l’humanité
Par guerres sournoisement silencieuses
Que cessent la fission
Par modification génétique
D’une humanité exsangue

Que cette lettre lancée
A la mer de l’internet reste un témoignage
Des voix qui se sont élevées
S’élèvent et s’élèveront contre
L’anéantissement de l’humanité

Sans cesse des voix crient
Vers les oreilles génétiquement bouchées
Par les descendants de ceux
Qui ont tout fait pour punir les Africains
Des îles, de la route triangulaire
Pour avoir libéré le siècle des Lumières
De l’obscurantisme.

Au nom des Africains de Saint Domingue
Conscience de l’humanité rejetant
La définition de biens meubles

Que cette lettre soit gardée
Par les archivistes de la conscience de l’humanité
Pour que les mots
échos tremblotant faibles
de la lueur presqu’éteinte sortie
des Cahiers d’un Retour
à l’humanité natale

Pour qu’un peu d’humanité revienne à Haïti

Pour que Jean-Bertrand Aristide revienne
A son pays natal
Pour que Haïti puisse guérir de la fission fatale
Commencée il y a des siècles

Pour que les Haïtiens les plus riches en biens meubles
Ouvrent un regard de solidarité libérateur des œillères des richesses

Pour que les descendants des inventeurs de l’esclavage atlantique
Aient l’humilité de reconnaître le crime commis durant des siècles
De reconnaître l’obligation de restitution
De l’argent arnaqué sous prétexte de compensation
De l’obligation de restituer Aristide à ses parents
De ne pas répéter le crime de Napoléon d’avoir envoyé
Toussaint mourir de froid et de faim dans le Jura

N’est-il pas temps de guérir des blessures séculaires
Dictant aujourd’hui l’esclavage nucléaire
Conduisant à la pulvérisation de l’humanité
Avec toutes les précautions humanitaires
D’usage en ces temps qui cherchent
Par tous les moyens de faire disparaître
Haiti et Fanmi Lavalass
Dans les oubliettes de l’histoire

Est-ce trop demander aux descendants
Des bénéficiaires des ravages humanitaires
de l’esclavage atlantique de demander pardon
en ramenant Aristide à sa maison natale
et que de ce pardon naisse un début de guérison
de l’humanité

Une humanité comateuse
d’un crime systématiquement
nié par les responsables pourrait renaître
et retrouver le chemin du pays natal

Un pays inventé, découvert, construit
Chantant, pleurant, criant, murmurant
Vive la raison du plus faible
Que vive la vie
Que vive la solidarité

Que cesse la collaboration criminelle
Entre les geôliers commanditaires

Que cesse la prison domiciliaire
Que cesse la relégation
Que cesse les méthodes qui rappellent la colonisation
L’apartheid, l’esclavage une histoire
Moderne qui mène tout droit
A la bastille de la globalisation

Ou bien faudrait-il comprendre que le rêve éveillé
des fossoyeurs inconscients de l’humanité
serait la réalisation
d’une histoire à rebours pour
Que l’humanité noire et son histoire disparaissent à jamais
Dans un cosmique trou noir

L’humanité éveillée se demande
Si la résidence surveillée d’Aristide en Afrique du Sud
N’est qu’une modernisation du Jura de la faim, du froid
De la solitude qui mit fin aux jours de Toussaint l’Ouverture

L’humanité éveillée se demande
Pourquoi emprisonner Aristide dans le pays qui a fait
Mourir Robert Sobukwe en l’isolant
Et de son humanité natale
Et de ses compagnons de Robben Island

Dans son crépuscule
L’humanité solidaire
Rétif à l’humanitaire
Aspire expire le désir
D’une humanité une
Haïti retrouvant Aristide retrouvant
Fanmi Lavalass retrouvant
Liberté, égalité, fraternité
point final à l’impunité
Du crime contre l’humanité

Food Rebellions: Mozambicans Know Which Way the Wind Blows

[A version of this article appeared in The Observer, Sunday September 5, 2010.]

It has been a summer of record temperatures – Japan had its hottest summer on record.[1] Same with South Florida and New York.[2] Meanwhile, Pakistan and Niger are flooded, and the Eastern US is mopping up after Hurricane Earl. None of these individual events can definitively be attributed to global warming, as any climatologist will tell you. But to see how climate change will play out in the twenty-first century, you needn’t look to the Met Office. Look instead to the deaths and burning tyres in Mozambique’s ‘food riots’ to see what happens when extreme natural phenomena interact with our unjust social and economic systems.

The immediate causes of the protests and in Mozambique’s capital, Maputo, and Chimoio about 500 miles north, are a 30-percent price increase for bread, compounding a recent double-digit increase for water and energy.[3] When nearly three quarters of the household budget is spent on food, that’s a hike few Mozambicans can afford. So far, the death toll hovers around ten, including two children. The police claim that they had to use live ammunition against protesters because ‘they ran out of rubber bullets’.[4]

Deeper reasons for Mozambique’s price hike can be found a continent away. Wheat prices have soared on global markets over the summer in large part because Russia, the world’s third largest exporter, has suffered catastrophic fires in its main production areas. These blazes, in turn, find their origin both in poor fire-fighting infrastructure and Russia’s worst heatwave in over a century.[5] On Thursday, Vladimir Putin extended an export ban in response to a new wave of wildfires in its grain belt, sending further signals to the markets that Russian wheat wouldn’t be available outside the country.[6] With Mozambique importing over 60% of the wheat its people needs, the country has been held hostage by international markets.[7]

This may sound familiar. In 2008, the prices of oil, wheat, corn and rice peaked on international markets – corn prices almost tripled between 2005-8.[8] In the process, dozens of food-importing countries experienced food riots, one of which claimed the political scalp of Haiti’s Prime Minister Jacques Edouard Alexis.[9]

Behind the 2008 protests were, first, natural events that looked like an excerpt from the meteorological section of the Book of Revelations–drought in Australia, crop disease in central Asia, floods in South East Asia. These were compounded by the social systems through which their effects were felt. Oil prices were sky high, which meant higher transport costs and fossil-fuel-based fertilizer prices. Biofuel policy, particularly in the US, shifted land and crops from food into ethanol production, diverting food from stomachs to fuel tanks. Longer term trends in population growth and meat consumption in developing countries also added to the stress. Financial speculators piled into food commodities, driving prices yet further beyond the reach of the poor. Finally, some retailers used the opportunity to raise prices still further, and while commodity prices have fallen back to pre-crisis levels, most of us have yet to see the savings at the checkout.

So, is this 2008 all over again? The weather has gone wild, meat prices have hit a 20 year high, groceries are being looted, and heads of state are urging calm. The general view from commodities desks, however, is that we’re not in quite as dire straits as two years ago. Fuel is relatively cheap and grain stores well stocked. We’re still on track for the third-highest wheat crop ever, according to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations(FAO),[10] so even without Russian wheat, there’s no need to panic.

While all this is true, it misses the point: for most hungry people 2008 isn’t over. The events of 2007-8 tipped over 100 million people into hunger, and the global recession has meant that they have stayed there. In 2006, the number of undernourished people was 854 million.[11] In 2009, it was 1.02 billion – the highest levels since records began. The hungry aren’t simply in Africa. According to one survey, over Christmas 2009 in the United States, 57 million Americans weren’t sure where their next meal was coming from.[12] Among those hardest hit by these price rises, in the US and around the world, were female-headed households.[13] The relations and structures of power that produce gender aren’t exempt from the weather, after all.[14] That’s why 60% of those going hungry are women or girls.[15]

Not only are the hungry still around, but food riots have continued. In India, double-digit food price inflation was met by violent street protests at the end of 2009. The price rises were, again, the result of both extreme and unpredictable monsoons in 2009, and an increasingly faulty social safety net to prevent hunger.[16] There have been frequent public protests about the price of wheat in Egypt this year, and both Serbia and Pakistan have seen protests too.

Although commodity prices fell after 2008, the food system’s architecture has remained largely the same over the past two decades. Bill Clinton has recently offered several mea culpas for the international trade and development policies that spawned the food crisis. Earlier this year, he blamed himself for Haiti’s vulnerability to international price fluctuations. “I did that,” he said in testimony to the US Senate. “I have to live every day with the consequences of the lost capacity to produce a rice crop in Haiti to feed those people, because of what I did. Nobody else.”[17] More generally, Clinton suggested in 2008 that “food is not a commodity like others… it is crazy for us to think we can develop a lot of these countries [by] treating food like it was a color television set.”[18]

Yet global commodity speculators continue to treat food as if it were the same as television sets, with little end in sight to what the World Development Movement has called “gambling on hunger in financial markets.” The recent US Wall Street Reform Act contained some measures that might curb these speculative activities, but their full scope has yet to be clarified. Europe doesn’t have a mechanism to regulate these kinds of speculative trades at all.[19] Agriculture in the Global South is still subject to the ‘Washington Consensus’ model, driven by markets and with governments taking a back seat to the private sector. And the only reason biofuels aren’t more prominent is that the oil they’re designed to replace is currently cheap.

Clearly, neither grain speculation, nor forcing countries to rely on international markets for food, nor encouraging the use of agricultural resources for fuel instead of nourishment are natural phenomena. These are eminently political decisions, taken and enforced not only by Bill Clinton, but legions of largely unaccountable international development professionals. The consequences of these decisions are ones with which people in the Global South live everyday. Which brings us back to Mozambique.

Recall that Mozambique’s street protests coincided not only with a rise in the price of bread, but with electricity and water price hikes too. In an interview with Portugal’s Lusa News, Alice Mabota of the Mozambican League of Human Rights didn’t use the term ‘food riots’. The protests are far more subtle and politically nuanced. In her words, “The government … can’t understand or doesn’t want to understand that this is a protest against the higher cost of living.” The action on the streets isn’t simply a protest about food, but a wider and more political act of rebellion. Half of Mozambique’s poor already suffer from acute malnutrition, according to the FAO.[20] The extreme weather behind the grain fires in Russia transformed a political context in which citizens were increasingly angry and frustrated with their own governments. Although it’s hard to read it outside the country, that’s a story well known within countries experiencing these food rebellions.

Yesterday, I reached Diamantino Nhampossa, the Coordinator of the União Nacional de Camponeses Moçambique – the Mozambican National Peasants Union. “These protests are going to end,” he told me. “But they will always come back. This is the gift that the development model we are following has to offer.” Like many Mozambicans, he knows full well which way the wind blows.

[UPDATE FROM Mozambique: The protesters have scored a victory. The government has agreed to reel back the increases on bread and water, though the electricity price hikes remain in force, and the government will have to make cuts ‘elsewhere’. ]

[1] http://www.google.com/hostednews/afp/article/ALeqM5jejeLCKDLGD9Ael1Wdi-AIQQf4sw
[2] http://cityroom.blogs.nytimes.com/2010/09/01/its-official-hottest-summer-ever/
[3] http://www.google.com/hostednews/afp/article/ALeqM5gJ6PTteGMk_JCbJrgfRnFeBLHtWA AFP puts it at 17% – Guardian at 30%, as do most other news sources.
[4] http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2010/sep/02/mozambique-bread-riots-looters-dead
[5] http://www.ft.com/cms/s/0/47086656-9d75-11df-a37c-00144feab49a.html andhttp://www.ft.com/cms/s/0/f61cbbd8-a225-11df-a056-00144feabdc0.html
[6] http://www.ft.com/cms/s/0/5f6f94ac-b6bc-11df-b3dd-00144feabdc0.html
[7] My calculations using FAOSTAT for 2007 suggests Mozambique imports 64.4%, but the Independent has the figure at 70%. www.independent.co.uk/news/business/news/now-meat-price-surge-raises-fear-of-food-inflation-2069227.html
[8] http://www.unctad.org/en/docs/gdsmdpg2420093_en.pdf
[9] http://www.reuters.com/article/idUSN1228245020080412
[10] http://www.bakeryandsnacks.com/Financial/Wheat-volatility-leads-to-surge-in-global-food-prices-finds-FAO
[11] http://www.fao.org/publications/sofi/en/
[12] http://www.frac.org/pdf/food_hardship_report_2010.pdf
[13] http://www.fao.org/publications/sofi/en/
[14] http://www.unifem.org/partnerships/climate_change/facts_figures.php
[15] http://www.wfp.org/hunger/stats?gclid=CLazjMb47aMCFSFugwod5A8H1A
[16] http://www.dawn.com/wps/wcm/connect/dawn-content-library/dawn/news/business/18-india-faces-food-price-discontent-violent-protests-am-06
[17] http://www.democracynow.org/2010/4/1/clinton_rice
[18] http://www.fao.org/news/story/0/item/8106/icode/en/
[19] http://www.wdm.org.uk/sites/default/files/hunger%20lottery%20report_6.10.pdf