Category Archives: Connecting-the-Dots

In solidarity with Abahlalibase Mjondolo (AbM) 1

Dear Friends, Foes and all those in between,

Before May 2008, we only knew of Abahlalibase Mjondolo. (AbM), then
in May 2008, we met members of Abahalalibase Mjondolo, at the Kennedy Road Settlement. Each one spoke, expressing in various ways the meaning of emancipatory politics; and then, the next day, we met again with S’bu Zikode, the President of AbM.

After he described the situation in which they were living, we asked what was the way out. “Healing” he responded.

Given the coordinated attacks against the Kennedy Road Settlement of the AbM, given the silence from the authorities, given what the AbM have gone through before. Questions arise. These are questions, not affirmations, not speculation, not insinuations.

The questions are posed for those who have been silenced, arrested, killed
All in the name of an agenda which has deep roots in African history, spelled out over and over, like mantras:

Do not stand up against might
You might suffer irreparable damage
Justice is meant to sustain might
Ignoring this can lead to carnage
The poorest of the poorest have no rights
Other than paying homage
To the richest of the richest


What is the point of having the best Constitution of the world if it is powerless against police abuse, against politically organized crime, against justice turned on its head?

What is the point of having heroes and heroines in the past who stood up against injustices if the same heroes and heroines, now, in power, now hand in hand with the richest of the richest (RoR), pretend not to have heard about the injustices because they have only listened to the media owned by the RoR.

Why is it so hard for the heroes and heroines of the past to listen to the voices of their conscience? Why is it so hard to admit that it is time to move from truth and reconciliation commissions to healing?

To the Foes:
Remember not so long ago, the powerful described those who fought for justice as terrorists, criminals. Some among you, it is certain, do hear a voice telling them that what they are doing against the AbM is criminal.

You have been told the AbM are criminals. Think a bit, is it a crime to say, as the AbM keep saying: “we are poor, we deserve respect, we deserve to be treated with justice and dignity, we deserve access to electricity and water”?

Or is their biggest crime to have refused to go along with politics as defined by the party in power. Why should someone go a long with politics of self-annihilation?

Is it a crime to disagree with politics which state that you (the AbM) do not count, unless you submit to the dictates of the party in power. Else, you shall be hunted down till you submit.

(To be continued until the poorest of the poorest are treated with justice, respect and dignity)

Jacques Depelchin

Ending Africa’s Hunger

Raj Patel, Eric Holt-Gimenez and Annie Shattuck are a fellow, executive director and policy analyst, respectively, at Food First and have recently written Food Rebellions! Crisis and the Hunger for Justice. The article was first printed in The Nation (September 21, 2009) and was reposted from Raj’s blog, Stuffed and Starved. Raj is a member of the executive board of the Ota Benga Alliance, and we are delighted to present this excellent analysis of hunger in Africa.

More than a billion people eat fewer than 1,900 calories per day. The majority of them work in agriculture, about 60 percent are women or girls, and most are in rural Africa and Asia. Ending their hunger is one of the few unimpeachably noble tasks left to humanity, and we live in a rare time when there is the knowledge and political will to do so. The question is, how? Conventional wisdom suggests that if people are hungry, there must be a shortage of food, and all we need do is figure out how to grow more.

This logic turns hunger into a symptom of a technological deficit, telling a story in which a little agricultural know-how can feed the world. It’s a seductive view, and one that appears to underwrite President Obama’s vision for ending hunger. In an interview with an African news agency, he shared his frustration over “the fact that the Green Revolution that we introduced into India in the ’60s, we haven’t yet introduced into Africa in 2009. In some countries, you’ve got declining agricultural productivity. That makes absolutely no sense.”

In a squat beige Seattle office building, the world’s largest philanthropic organization has been thinking along the same lines as the president. The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, with an endowment of more than $30 billion, has embarked on a multibillion-dollar effort to transform African agriculture. It helped to set up the Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa (AGRA) in 2006, and since then has spent $1.3 billion on agricultural development grants, largely in Africa. With such resources, solving African hunger could be Gates’s greatest legacy.

But there’s a problem: the conventional wisdom is wrong. Food output per person is as high as it has ever been, suggesting that hunger isn’t a problem of production so much as one of distribution. It’s true that African soil fertility is poor, though, which might explain why President Obama feels that the continent needs a Green Revolution.

At best, however, the first Green Revolution was an ambiguous success. As John Perkins writes in his magisterial Geopolitics and the Green Revolution, it was instigated by the US government not out of a direct concern for the well-being of the world’s hungry but from a worry that a hungry urban poor might take to the streets and demand left-wing changes in the Global South. The term “Green Revolution” was coined by William Gaud, administrator of USAID in the late 1960s. Referring to record yields in Pakistan, India, the Philippines and Turkey, he announced, “Developments in the field of agriculture contain the makings of a new revolution. It is not a violent Red Revolution like that of the Soviets, nor is it a White Revolution like that of the shah of Iran. I call it the Green Revolution.” Steeped in the cold war, the first Green Revolution was designed to prevent any other revolutions from happening.

The Green Revolution appeared successful because the global quantity of food produced increased dramatically. From 1970 to 1990 the amount of food available per person rose by 11 percent, and more than 150 million people were lifted from the ranks of the world’s hungry. But most of that rise was driven by transformations inside China. Subtract China from the picture and the heyday of the Green Revolution saw global hunger increase by 11 percent. In South America, hunger grew by nearly 20 percent despite impressive gains in output driven, in part, by improved crop varieties. Those varieties required large landholdings in order to be economically efficient, which meant that the peasants working that land had to be kicked off. Those displaced peasants migrated to the hillsides and tropical forests, doubling the area of cultivated land–in other words, the increase in food came not only through technology but also simply by having food growing on a greater area.

Beyond the massive displacement of peasants, the Green Revolution wrought other social damage–urban slums sprawled around cities to house displaced workers, pesticide use went up, groundwater levels fell and industrial agricultural practices began racking up significant environmental debt. Today, because of the Green Revolution’s catastrophic economic and ecological consequences, even its strong advocates in India have recommended that up to 70 percent of farmers farm organically.

The architects of Africa’s new Green Revolution at the Gates Foundation are sensitive to these flaws. In an interview, Roy Steiner, deputy director of agricultural development, was well versed in the history, emphasizing that the Gates Foundation’s agricultural priorities are directed at small farmers (known as “smallholders”) and women. The past offered some salutary lessons, he said, because “if you look at the depletion of water tables and the overuse of fertilizer, a lot of that has to do with very poor policy choices. It pushed a certain mode of agriculture that we know now was an overuse.”

Nonetheless, the Green Revolution being prepared for Africa bears more than a passing resemblance to its predecessor. For starters, in the 1960s the push for a Green Revolution was accompanied by fears about national security and stability; the recent global spate of food rebellions, in dozens of countries from Egypt to Haiti to India, has made food a security concern once again. Furthermore, the first Green Revolution was made possible through the philanthropy of a billionaire American family–the Rockefellers; the second is bankrolled by Gates. This is not a superficial coincidence: the destinies of millions of the world’s poorest farmers are again being shaped by the richest Americans, and philanthropic choices are very different from democratic ones.

One of the most important choices involves the role of technology. At the Gates Foundation, Roy Steiner emphasized that “we believe in the power of technology.” It’s a belief with clout: about a third of the foundation’s $1.3 billion in agricultural development grants have been invested in science and technology, with almost 30 percent of the 2008 grants promoting and developing seed biotechnologies. Through a range of investments, the Gates Foundation is turning its faith into reality. This reliance on technology to address a growing political and social problem loudly echoes the thinking behind the first Green Revolution.

Why Africa Is Hungry and Knowledge Is Never Neutral

Some of the changes made possible by Gates’s funding are welcome. An African Centre for Crop Improvement has been set up at the University of KwaZulu-Natal in South Africa, which is designed to change the way African agricultural scientists work. Rather than carting them off to Europe or North America, where they learn about the pressing agricultural issues facing French or American farmers, the new center encourages African scientists to face African challenges while based in Africa. Other Gates investments are geared toward training more women PhDs and providing an infrastructure to source food aid locally.

These are valuable efforts, but one might pause to ask why the need for such philanthropic intervention arose in the first place. The faltering quality of African agricultural research institutions, and the decline in government spending on agriculture, is a result of the budget austerity imposed by international financial institutions, such as the World Bank, in the 1980s and ’90s. As Filipino scholar-activist Walden Bello has noted, Africa exported 1.3 million tons of food a year in the 1960s, but after being subject to international development loans and free-market fundamentalism, today it imports nearly 25 percent of its food. In a 2008 report, the Bank’s internal evaluations group lambasted the policies that led to this situation. What the Gates Foundation is doing is using its private money to fund activities that once were in the public domain and were, albeit imperfectly, under democratic control.

The preference for private sector contributions to agriculture shapes the Gates Foundation’s funding priorities. In a number of grants, for instance, one corporation appears repeatedly–Monsanto. To some extent, this simply reflects Monsanto’s domination of industrial agricultural research. There are, however, notable synergies between Gates and Monsanto: both are corporate titans that have made millions through technology, in particular through the aggressive defense of proprietary intellectual property. Both organizations are suffused by a culture of expertise, and there’s some overlap between them. Robert Horsch, a former senior vice president at Monsanto, is, for instance, now interim director of Gates’s agricultural development program and head of the science and technology team. Travis English and Paige Miller, researchers with the Seattle-based Community Alliance for Global Justice, have uncovered some striking trends in Gates Foundation funding. By following the money, English told us that “AGRA used funds from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation to write twenty-three grants for projects in Kenya. Twelve of those recipients are involved in research in genetically modified agriculture, development or advocacy. About 79 percent of funding in Kenya involves biotech in one way or another.” And, English says, “so far, we have found over $100 million in grants to organizations connected to Monsanto.”

This isn’t surprising in light of the fact that Monsanto and Gates both embrace a model of agriculture that sees farmers suffering a deficit of knowledge–in which seeds, like little tiny beads of software, can be programmed to transmit that knowledge for commercial purposes. This assumes that Green Revolution technologies–including those that substitute for farmers’ knowledge–are not only desirable but neutral. Knowledge is never neutral, however: it inevitably carries and influences relations of power.

The first Green Revolution spawned and exacerbated many social divisions, especially around access to land and resources, since the scale required by Green Revolution technologies meant that it was systematically biased against smallholders. The Gates Foundation is clearly aware of the importance of smallholder agriculture; but a leaked internal strategy document suggests that something else is more important: “Over time, this [strategy] will require some degree of land mobility and a lower percentage of total employment involved in direct agricultural production.” “Land mobility” is an Orwellian term meaning the land stays where it is but the people on it are driven off. The foundation stands behind this idea, saying that peasants will head to cities “because there are a lot of them who don’t want to be farmers [and] people make their own choices.”

This idea of choice is an integral part of the conventional wisdom about agriculture in Africa. At least until the financial crisis, it was true that young men tended not to want to remain in agriculture if they could avoid it; but that choice was conditioned, in part, by policies that underinvested in rural areas compared with urban ones. One of the consequences of the financial crisis has been to change that field of choices. For the first time in years, men who had migrated to the cities find there’s less opportunity in urban than in rural areas.

They’re returning to family land that has been farmed by women, who have developed rich knowledge about agriculture. The technologies that the Gates Foundation funds, like hybrid seed and synthetic fertilizer, require much less know-how than some of the diverse traditional systems managed by women. In many African cultures, women grow the majority of food, but men control access to cash. Rather than supporting and building on women’s agricultural knowledge systems, cash-based agricultural technology allows men with the economic wherewithal to displace women as farmers.

African farmers’ organizations have repeatedly rejected this high-tech approach to agriculture and instead are making their own choices. Since AGRA announced its plans in 2006, groups representing the largest farmer federations in Africa have come together in a series of meetings to organize support for African agroecological solutions to the food crisis.

Despite institutional neglect, ecological farming systems have been sprouting up across the African continent for decades–systems based on farmers’ knowledge, which not only raise yields but reduce costs, are diverse and use less water and fewer chemicals. Fifteen years ago, researchers and farmers in Kenya began developing a method for beating striga, a parasitic weed that causes significant crop loss for African farmers. The system they developed, the “push-pull system,” also builds soil fertility, provides animal fodder and resists another major African pest, the stemborer. Under the system, predators are “pushed” away from corn because it is planted alongside insect-repellent crops, while they are “pulled” toward crops like Napier grass, which exudes a gum that traps and kills pests and is also an important fodder crop for livestock. Push-pull has spread to more than 10,000 households in East Africa by means of town meetings, national radio broadcasts and farmer field schools. It’s a farming system that’s much more robust, cheaper, less environmentally harmful, locally developed, locally owned and one among dozens of promising agroecological alternatives on the ground in Africa today.

It was innovative ecological technologies like push-pull (and not traditional Green Revolution approaches) that were praised by a recent international effort to assess the future of agriculture. “The International Assessment of Agricultural Knowledge, Science and Technology for Development” (IAASTD), a report modeled after the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, took more than four years to complete and relied on the expertise of more than 400 scientists. It was adopted by fifty-eight countries in the global North and South (though not the United States, Canada or Australia). The IAASTD found that a focus on small-scale sustainable agriculture, locally adapted seed and ecological farming better address the complexities of climate change, hunger, poverty and productive demands on agriculture in the developing world. That report–the most comprehensive scientific assessment of world agriculture to date–recommended development strategies that are in large part the opposite of those backed by the Gates Foundation.

The Gates Foundation acknowledges the relevance of the IAASTD’s insights. But it continues to invest heavily in biotech solutions to the problem of hunger and gives short shrift to the agroecological approaches recommended by the report. What’s more, there’s empirical reason to doubt whether biotech can deliver what Gates is hoping for. Genetically modified (GM) seeds are expensive, proprietary and contribute to the corporate monopolization of the world’s seed supply. Despite extraordinary restrictions on research into the effects of GM products–the industry refuses to allow independent researchers to study patented seed–evidence is finally emerging of the significant environmental and health risks they pose, prompting the American Academy of Environmental Medicine earlier this year to call for an immediate moratorium on GM food.

Prestigious research organizations like the Union of Concerned Scientists have demonstrated that GM crops (which are legal for commercial use in only three African countries) do not increase intrinsic yields, and, in the developing world especially, can increase costs and risks to smallholders, with mixed, often negative effects on their incomes. Although the Gates Foundation has promised crops genetically engineered for drought tolerance, these crops have yet to outperform traditional varieties, according to an assessment by the Australian government. The foundation has also spent more than $111 million to “biofortify” (genetically engineer) crops to have a higher vitamin content, despite past technical and cultural failures that indicate a diverse diet goes much further than genetically engineered supplements in supporting good nutrition.

Africa’s New Poster Child: The Malawi ‘Miracle’

One place where the new Green Revolution has gotten a head start is the small East African nation of Malawi. After a severe drought in 2003, more than a third of the country needed food aid to survive. Bucking advice from the World Bank, the country began giving out vouchers on a large scale for subsidized fertilizer in 2005. The rains returned, yields rose, Malawi began exporting grain and the international community declared the hunger crisis over.

The Gates Foundation has been aggressively supporting the funding of fertilizer in Africa through grants to establish a network of private agro-input dealers. While the program doesn’t explicitly subsidize the price of fertilizers to farmers, it encourages national policies to increase fertilizer availability. If the problem for African farmers is soil fertility, funding fertilizer seems unimpeachable. A closer examination of the data raises some troubling questions, though. It isn’t clear whether it was the fertilizer or the rain that caused yields to increase. Worse yet, according to sources in Malawi, hunger has not abated at anywhere near the levels believed by the international development community.

Indeed, there’s reason to think that fertilizer subsidies may render societies more vulnerable to famine. Roland Bunch, a former agronomist at World Neighbors and author of Two Ears of Corn, a handbook on people-centered agricultural development, explains the problem. “The indirect effects of subsidized fertilizer are that farmers stop amending their soils with organic matter because it is easier to apply fertilizer. When the subsidies dry up–as they invariably do–farmers are left with soils that are so inert that they can’t even grow a good green manure to restore fertility. At that point, with neither chemical fertilizer nor green manures being feasible, we could easily witness a famine across Africa like nothing we have ever seen before.”

This is a concern echoed on the ground. Rachel Bezner Kerr, a professor at the University of Western Ontario, has been working in Malawi for more than a decade. She says that Malawi’s fertilizer subsidies are “masking food security problems for the long term.” Bezner Kerr works with a project in Malawi that takes a different approach to soil health by relying on local farmer experimenters. One village headman has, for instance, encouraged his village to adopt ecological agriculture, which not only improves yields but produces a diverse diet that has improved the health of the community’s children, at a fraction of the cost of Gates’s genetically engineered nutrition projects. Much like push-pull, the result of that project, which spread to more than 7,000 households, is that families–and the soil–are better off.

When asked about how AGRA affects projects like hers, Bezner Kerr says, “When farmers get vouchers [for fertilizer], they wonder, Why incorporate crop residues? If AGRA is putting all that money into fertilizer, it is taking away from efforts like ours.” Like Bunch, she’s concerned about the economic as well as the environmental sustainability of fertilizer giveaways. “What happens when AGRA leaves?” she asks.

Is Bill Gates Africa’s Latest Strongman?

The Gates Foundation responds to criticism of its funding decisions by saying that it is learning all the time, with a state-of-the-art system that will soon let the project officers seek feedback through the cellphones of more than 10,000 farmer stakeholders. It’s unusual in the world of foundations to have such a strong commitment to correcting mistakes. In its flexibility and openness to reform, the Gates Foundation seems ready to depart from the trajectory of the first Green Revolution.

Stung by widespread criticism over its Green Revolution approach, AGRA representatives have begun participating in public consultations with NGOs and African farm leaders. While this dialogue is an important step, the farm leaders are unhappy about being consulted so late in the game. The UN Special Rapporteur on the Right to Food, Olivier De Schutter, recently convened a dialogue on AGRA. There, Simon Mwamba of the Eastern and Southern Africa Small-Scale Farmers’ Forum expressed this frustration in no-nonsense terms: “You come. You buy the land. You make a plan. You build a house. Now you ask me, what color do I want to paint the kitchen? This is not participation!”

Nnimmo Bassey, director of Environmental Rights Action in Nigeria, suggests, “If the Gates and Rockefeller Foundations wish to extend the hand of fellowship to the African continent, they should move away from strategies that favor monoculture, lead to land grabs and tie local farmers to the shop doors of biotech seed monopolies.” This is feedback that can’t so easily be shot back to base through a cellphone.

The calls from African organizations to be able to set the agenda for their own agricultural development are heard only faintly in the United States. That’s largely because when it comes to African hunger, prejudices about the incompetence of African farmers and the marvels of biotechnology do a lot of the thinking for us. But the Gates Foundation isn’t a victim of poor reasoning. It actively promotes an agenda that supports some of the most powerful corporations on earth. Far more than the peer-reviewed IAASTD study, Gates’s strategy reflects another report, funded by the foundation itself: “Renewing American Leadership in the Fight Against Global Hunger and Poverty” from the Chicago Council on Global Affairs. Knocked out in a couple of months by a small team led by a Gates Foundation senior fellow and stacked with staff from institutions receiving substantial Gates money, the report, while rightly calling for renewed investment and education, again ignores the structural and political causes of Africa’s hunger, ascribing it to a technical deficit. The report concludes that the United States needs to “reassert its leadership” in “spreading new technologies,” because it will increase trade and “strengthen American institutions.” Worse, the council’s solutions–with classic Green Revolution hubris–ignore the successful endogenous solutions that have been spreading across the continent for three decades.

Rarely in the history of philanthropy has one foundation–or more correctly, one man–had this kind of power. When Obama made his remarks on the Green Revolution, one Seattle Times journalist suggested that “President Obama and other world leaders seem to be taking their cue from the Gates Foundation.” It’s not hard to see the paths through which the thinking in Seattle might have made it to Washington, DC. Many AGRA and Gates Foundation employees are former industry and government insiders. Rajiv Shah, a doctor with no previous agricultural experience who was headhunted by the Gates Foundation, is now at the Department of Agriculture, as under secretary for research, education and economics, and also chief scientist.

The foundation’s reach extends far beyond Washington. With billions committed to agricultural development, the Gates Foundation has a financial heft equal to that of a government in the global North. In 2007 the United States contributed $60 million to the system of international public agricultural research centers. Gates has pumped $122 million into the system in the past eighteen months alone and given a total of $317 million to the World Bank.

Africa’s Green Revolution has another similarity with the first Green Revolution: the technological preferences of the philanthropist shape the approaches on the ground. For the Rockefellers, that meant agricultural technology based on industrial chemistry and oil. For Gates, it’s about proprietary intellectual property. Africa’s Green Revolution is, in other words, just a new way of doing business as usual.

In its push for technological solutions, its distaste for redistributive social policy and disregard for extant alternatives–as well as in the circumstances that have made food an international security concern–this Green Revolution looks very similar to its predecessor. The biggest issue, however, isn’t one of commission but of omission. Just as in India, where peasant demands for land reform in the 1960s that might have led to more sustainable and durable progress (as such reforms did in China, Japan, Taiwan and South Korea) were ignored, African farmers advocating their own solutions to the food crisis are being marginalized. In particular, the vocally articulated demands–for agroecological alternatives, state support for farmer-led research, for land reform, for women’s rights in agriculture, and for sharing access to water–all fade into the background when Gates’s answers are amplified.

It will take a suite of policies, addressing both the technical and sociopolitical reasons for hunger in Africa, to make lasting change. Technologies for development need to be accompanied by other, political reforms, including canceling debt, removing food and agriculture from the World Trade Organization, investing heavily in farmers’ organizations and their proven sustainable agricultural technologies, and supporting the peer-reviewed approaches generated by the science of agroecology.

Models for this kind of change already exist. In Mali, peasant movements have successfully persuaded the government to adopt as a national priority the idea of “food sovereignty,” a shorthand for the democratization of the food system. Similar efforts are happening at regional and local levels in other countries. But for those initiatives to register in the United States, the conventional wisdom regarding the Green Revolution needs to be replaced. The tragedy here is not that Africa hasn’t had a Green Revolution but that the mistakes of the first may be repeated once more, and that one foundation has the power to make the rest of the world bend to its misguided agenda.

Back and Forth from Africa to Haiti to Gaza: Fidelity to Humanity

A poem linking Israel’s December 2008 to January 2009 siege of Gaza to Haiti.

First , not quite, but we have to start somewhere,
There were the Arawaks, the Caribs and the Amerindians
Then their land became known as Hispaniola,
As Saint Domingue, as the economic jewel
Of French overseas possessions
Thanks to Africans kidnapped, chained, shipped
Processed, codified, stamped as property
While always knowing they belonged
To no one but humanity
And through fidelity to humanity
Turned Saint Domingue into Haiti
Fraternity, equality and liberty
Their only motto

Defeating the obscurantist
Philosophers of the Enlightenment
For thirteen years, 1791-1804
Without support
From humanitarian abolitionists
Defeating the most powerful armies of the day
Spain, England, France
Fidelity to humanity
Their only prescription

Plan B was out of the question
Humanity had to prevail
But its sworn enemy had a plan B:
With lethal vengeance
Napoleon reinstated slavery
Take no prisoners, his motto
Severe, if necessary, capital punishment
Against the trespassers of
Nascent capital yet to be named
Capitalism the crusher of humanity

With exemplary brutality
Long before the birth of Gaza-upon-Mediterranean
Haiti was turned into the poorest nation
for having dared simply
To challenge and obsoletefy
The Black Code of Louis XIV
Rules of engagement against/for
Slaves balancing terror, torture, fear, death
Ensuring the endurance of slavery
beyond the monarchy
Thanks to self-proclaimed emperor
Napoleon Bonaparte the impostor

Plan B prospered so well beyond
Napoleon’s dreams of restoring slavery
We may all ask, maybe naively
Had he known his treatment of Africans
Would later inspire Hitler’s
Holocausting of the Jews
Would he have seen Africans
As humanity and not as property?

Not every French was/is a fan of slavery’s restorer:
Taubira Law of 2001 declares
Slavery a Crime Against Humanity
Could it be that France might
Be restoring Fidelity to Humanity?

But could it be too late when
Humanity or those who pretentiously
Speak for it refuse to know
The distinction between
Might and right;
Right and wrong;
Charity and solidarity

Could it be too late when
Survivors and/or their descendants
Of an unthinkable crime think
The best way to stand up for humanity
Is to slaughter/bomb humanity as deliberately
And brutally smart as possible?

Could it be too late when
Slaughtering humanity
Can be done with impunity
Thanks to a genocided past
As if anything can be traded, erased,
Commodified, genetically modified
To fit a globalised paradise
Where no one will know
The difference between
Except for those who vowed
Fidelity to humanity

Can’t we see the obvious consequences of
Relentlessly violating humanity
Now Palestinians, then Africans centuries ago
Today displaced, refugees, best fodder
For humanitarian missions
The modernized version of abolitionists
On a mission which has not changed:
Violate humanity,
Eradicate it if too vocal
But Sabra, Shatila can still be heard

Palestinians are full members of humanity
Homelessed in their homeland, denied existence
By all means, constantly searching
For the ultimate way
Of getting rid of them
Their annihilation will not be called
A Crime Against Humanity because,
By definition, it has been repeated forever,
It only happens at Auschwitz, and other
Concentration camps in a World War

Palestinians are like Native Americans
Whose land was taken, whose genocide
Refuses to be called a genocide
Palestinians, Africans interchangeable destinies
Torn from their land, thrown into ships,
Refugeed in strips of land
Enslaved, imprisoned, less than property
Therefore not fit to come under
A crime against humanity

Palestinians, Africans, in the same boat
When the unending story of negating humanity started
Like Africans they are being processed and branded
Fit to be fodder for humanitarian crisis because what is being done
Must not be called
A Crime against humanity

For fear of trespassing which taboo?

No one dares to call the slaughter of civilians
In Gaza by its proper name
A Crime Against Humanity

For fear of trespassing which taboo?

From the times of the Arawaks
Violating, torturing, liquidating
Humanity with impunity
Has led to greater and greater
Crimes against humanity
Franchised differently
Preparing the biggest holocaust
Humanity has ever known and,
When that unfolds, as before,
We shall hear the usual
Shameful lame lie
“We did not know”.

Jacques Depelchin
January 12, 2009

Approaching Brecht, by Way of Africa

I have not seen the play. I don’t like the title, but I do like what is being attempted and the idea that what women have gone through in Africa can be brought into a play. It is a step.

The next one, I think, will happen when plays are written straight from the lives or the stories (as Prof. Micere Githae Mugo once told me–see Silences in African History, p. 9) which “refuse to be written” because the young girl who could not do the assignment (of talking to a MauMau veteran) had been raped by the very person she was supposed to go and talk to. He had raped her after he came back from one of the concentration camps set up by the British under the MauMau. There, he had been tortured and, as a consequence, lost his mind.–Jacques Depelchin

Reposted from The New York Times on January 21, 2009.

SO many decades and productions have washed against the muddy wheels of Bertolt Brecht’s play “Mother Courage and Her Children” that the title has sunk deep into the ordinary and familiar. But when the playwright Lynn Nottage spoke the first two words of the title to Congolese women in the refugee camps of Uganda in 2004, she said, they repeated them in such a way that the words became woundingly new.

Ms. Nottage had traveled to Africa to research the brutalities and damage Congolese women had suffered in their country’s civil conflict, and incorporate her findings into an adaptation of Brecht’s 1939 work. Hearing the women, in French, speak the words “mother, courage” back to her — emphasis on “mother,” a sorrowful pride inflecting “courage” — “changed everything,” she said.

She called the new work “Ruined” and gave its seminal character the name Mama Nadi. Currently in previews at the Manhattan Theater Club’s Stage I on West 55th Street, it opens Feb. 10 under the direction of Kate Whoriskey in a co-production with the Goodman Theater in Chicago, which presented the premiere there this fall.

One of the first things Ms. Nottage was able to jettison by developing her own conception rather than staging a version of Brecht’s was the “kind of distancing Brecht strove for from his audience so he could engage it intellectually,” she said. “I believe in engaging people emotionally, because I think they react more out of emotion” than when they are “preached to, told how to feel. It was important that this not become a documentary, or agitprop. And that Mama Nadi is morally ambiguous, that you’re constantly shifting in your response to her.”

Seated in a cafe near the brownstone in Brooklyn where she grew up surrounded by the African and African-American art her parents collected, and where she still lives, Ms. Nottage, 44, talked about how the combination bar and brothel that the enigmatic Mama runs in a small mining town both shelters and exploits an increasingly close group of women. They have ended up there after being driven from their homes, communities, marriages and families by the rape, mutilation, torture and other forms of violence employed as weapons in a blatantly senseless war.

Under the watchful, wary eye of Mama (played by Saidah Arrika Ekulona), they keep paid company with a revolving assortment of regulars: soldiers and miners, a rebel leader and his archenemy, a slippery merchant-of-all-trades and a courtly, romantic traveling salesman. Several of the actors are cast in multiple roles.

That multiple casting was a necessity for a relatively modest production with epic aspirations, explained Ms. Nottage, who was awarded a MacArthur “genius” grant in 2007 for her achievements. But it was also an artistic decision that helped add to the play’s sad ambiguities and open-endedness.

Each character in a play by Ms. Nottage is always alive with personal details and individual specifics, said Jerry Patch, who first met her when she was a young playwright at the Sundance Theater Lab, and who recently became the director of artistic development at the Manhattan Theater Club. “Because of the scope and ambition of her plays she’s like a sculptor who refines and refines,” he said. “The poetry in her work is complex and compelling.”

The play’s undergirding of history, politics and warfare, all still unspooling in war-torn Africa, made character development even more daunting than in acclaimed period pieces by Ms. Nottage like “Intimate Apparel,” “Las Meninas” and “Crumbs From the Table of Joy,” which is set in the 1950s.

On the one hand, “the way the crisis was presented in the telling by these Congolese women was very different than we expected,” said Ms. Whoriskey, who accompanied Ms. Nottage to Uganda. “They don’t have the emotional energy to cry, or to express the tragedy of what happened except through a quieter story that is very specific, and even more terrible.”

On the other hand, Ms. Nottage said, she was intent on suffusing the play with the utmost authenticity when it came to the larger culture, including music and song. “So much writing about Africa is like pornography, depicting only the violence,” she said. “I also wanted to show the beauty, how gorgeous it is.”

She was helped in this by the fact that several of the cast turned out to be from immigrant backgrounds, and some even had firsthand experience of war zones in Africa. Kevin Mambo, who plays Commander Osembenga, was born in Zimbabwe, Ms. Nottage said, and “when I wanted a certain gesture, he could give it to me.”

The ugly realities of the crimes committed — and, in Ms. Nottage’s view, the exploitation of Africa’s natural resources by the West, which bears much of the responsibility for those misdeeds — have also taken their toll in rehearsals at times, with the normally outgoing and affectionate cast becoming “somber and quiet,” she said. “It has taken us all to some very dark places.”

Yet she says she thinks audiences will discover a surprising sense of hope in “Ruined,” nurtured by the connection she made as an African-American woman to the continent of her ancestry. “I have a photograph of me taken with some of the women in Uganda, and I’m wearing a dress I got in Senegal,” she said. “I literally can’t pick myself out in the picture.”

En cette fin d’année

Pour celles et ceux qui, envers et contre tout
Luttent dans un temps immortel que
Vivent les immortelles pulsions de l’humanité
Libérée des amarres séculaires visiblement
Et invisiblement ancrées dans l’esclavage
Dans une abolition avortée par la colonisation
Sous les couleurs de la civilisation
Préparant, le savions-nous,
Une triomphante globalisation

En cette fin d’année à la recherche
Immortelle de la liberté de l’humanité
Encourageons les courageuses et courageux
Prêts à savater les affameurs de la liberté
Enracinés dans leur mentalité
Haiti n’existe pas,
Vive Saint Domingue
Aristide n’existe pas,
Vive Papa Doc
Lumumba n’existe pas,
Vive le Gouverneur de la Colonie
République Démocratique du Congo n’existe pas
Vive la tutelle de l’ONU,
Préparant, le savons-nous,
Sous les couleurs humanitaristes,
La fin de l’humanité

En cette fin d’année
Souvenons-nous avec force de celles et de ceux
Qui rappellent,
L’existence de Haiti
L’existence d’Aristide
L’existence des Africains libres
De tous les fantômes du Congo
Refusant librement d’avaler
Les couleuvres de la globalisaton
Refusant le suicide de l’humanité

En cette fin d’année
Disons aux kidnappeurs de Lovinsky Pierre-Antoine
De le rendre à Michelle, à Stephane, à Olivier
Aux kidnappeurs de Haiti libre
De rendre la liberté à Aristide de circuler
Sans entrave dans toutes les Afriques,
Qu’il soit bienvenu partout sans être
Soumis à des règles de Résidence Surveillée

En cette fin d’année
Disons aux kidnappeurs déguisés de la RDCongo
De rendre le pays à celles et à ceux qui ont maintenu
La fidélité aux idées de Lumumba

Que cette fin d’année soit le début de la réalisation
de la fin de toutes les fins de calvaires
séculaires promises, toujours remises
Nous commençons à le savoir :
esclavagisme, colonialisme, apartheid,
Nous le voyons, renouvelés, modernisés
Post-modernisés dans la globalisation

Cette fin d’année grâce à la geste et aux gestes
Des Pierre-Antoine Lovinsky,
Michelle, Stéphane, Olivier, de Haiti.
Des Africains de partout
Des plus connus aux moins connus,
inspirent, aspirent, expirent,
Avec une fidélité patiente et persistante,
L’émancipation complète et totale
De la soumission à un système né
D’un double génocide qui,
Acte de naissance oblige,
Ne peut que se reproduire
Par des séquences génocidaires

En cette fin d’année,
Saluons les articulations multiples
Qui disent et font que ce système
Soit enterré une fois pour toutes
Sans sursis.

Hungry for a voice: The food crisis, the market, and socio-economic inequality

Reposted from Pambazuka News December 4, 2008. Jacques Depelchin is co-founder and Executive Director of the Ota Benga Alliance. An earlier version of the article was posted on this website as “The Food Crisis Is Not Just About Food.”
In an article exploring the history of socio-economic inequality, Jacques Depelchin calls for an interpretation of the current food crisis over the historical longue durée. As a direct consequence of an entrenched, centuries-old capitalist system, the author argues, the market as a ‘modernising’ force has consistently enriched the lives of a few while impoverishing a poor majority. Understanding the food crisis, Depelchin contends, rests first and foremost on re-considering humanity’s relationship to nature and championing historical narratives true to the voices and experiences of the global poorest of the poor.

In order to live, one needs to eat; and in order to live, one needs more than just food. In a world ruled by worshippers of the market, it has come to be accepted that principles of justice and solidarity shall take second place to everything else. Indeed, that is why one hears more and more often of the distinction between justice and social justice – as if calling for the former will not automatically cover those most affected by the growing disappearance of justice and equality.

Given the current mentality, dominated by greed, selfishness, and selfish charity, it is worth remembering a few cautionary principles: beware of the names given to a problem or a disease or a person without the consent of that person. Always remember the Arawaks and those who welcomed Christopher Columbus and his party on what Columbus called Hispaniola. The Arawaks soon died of hunger and disease after welcoming the Europeans. Always remember those who resisted the conquest of their land because they were defending much more than their land. To remember requires much more than mining memories and archives, it will take listening with loving attention to the voices which tend to be ignored, to poets, to those who did die of hunger, to those who would like to speak for themselves as they are, whoever they are (Pygmies, !kung, or Hazabe).

As Ernest Wamba dia Wamba has pointed out, at times like these it is crucial to hear the thinking of ordinary people (e.g., people living in forests or deserts), on how they have understood food security. For example, among the Kongo in the Democratic Republic of Congo, earth is a package of food and medicine provided by God so people can face hunger and illness. During slavery (in the USA), slave masters sometimes wondered how Africans survived without access to what the masters considered food. It did not occur to the latter that the Africans managed to invent more nutritious food than their masters.

The food crisis is not just about food, it is about understanding humanity and its relation to nature. How the issue is framed or problematised shall determine the process of rethinking and finding a solution which is satisfactory, primarily to those who have suffered the most from the predatory nature of the current and triumphant economic and financial system. For Wamba dia Wamba, ‘it is the destruction of Mother Earth and the building of walls between people and Mother Earth which is at the centre of the food crisis. In the process Mother Earth is transformed, sterilized and turned into the mother of profits for the rich. For the victims it is unconscionable that food should be destroyed in order to increase prices, make people suffer while generating huge profits for the destroyers of Mother Earth.’[1]


The current food crisis in the midst of a multiple crisis should provide a wake-up call for all those who are trying to provide solutions by focusing only on food. At first glance, there are at least two competing narratives; one set by those who have run the world and their allies, and the other by those who are expected to submit and accept the word of the self-appointed masters of the world. Formally speaking, the former set their own agendas, among other places via the G8 and the yearly Davos meetings. Those who are expected to submit are reduced to using the United Nations and its specialised agencies, and the World Social Forum. Soon the Security Council and its permanent members will be changed, but it will not matter since the G8 and Davos meetings have ensured that the decisions which do matter to them will no longer be taken within the UN system.

In other words, it is not only in justice, health or, more prosaically, air travel, that the class system has imposed itself; there is justice and health for the poor and justice and health for the rich. Indeed, if one looks more carefully, it is not difficult to detect that the super rich would like to separate themselves from the rest. But, no matter how hard they would like to distinguish themselves from the rest of humanity, there is only one humanity. Splitting it apart – as the atom was split – willl yield worse results than the process which led to Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Still, more than 50 years later, how many are willing, like Dwight McDonald, to see the dropping of those atomic bombs as the modernisation of Auschwitz and Dachau? Given what happened in the Second World War, (and, more importantly, in the centuries leading up to it), shouldn’t one ask if the current crises are the by-product of the same competition-to-death mentality which gave rise in several countries with the most advanced economies to political leadership that saw nothing wrong with getting rid of, once and for all, any racially defined group (be it Africans, Asians, Armenians, pygmies, Jews, Tutsi, Hutu)? Asking the question does not mean that one knows the answer. When one can see that the mindset of those genocidal times is still vibrant, it would be irresponsible not to ask questions like, who are the slaves, who are the Jews, who are the colonised? Asking these questions will help uncover, along the way, how poverty and hunger are created, who named them and why they are so named?

The mindset which has trampled humanity under different names – slavery, colonisation, holocaust, apartheid – has not retreated; it has grown like a cancer, destroying the living principle. At the same time, it passes itself off under names which disguise its lethal, predatory nature, such as bio-technology, which presents itself as promoting life when it is engaged in the process of killing, brutally, softly, and all the ways in between. Bio-technology is a misnomer; given the antecedents, its proper name should be thanato-technology: to live on planet earth according to death principles. The chain toward self-destruction has no end: to rape, to enslave, to colonise, to seek the final solution, to bantustanise, to ethnically cleanse a country. Humanity has yet to see the end of its genocidal tendencies and sequences. Under the previous submission processes, the responsibility could be traced back to some sort of state authority, but with submission to the market’s rules, responsibility and authority seems to be nowhere and everywhere.

Peoples and nations have been enslaved and colonised by other nations, but at the core of the process, the rules of the market have reigned supreme. The capitalist market has superseded all previous conquering, enslaving, and colonising mechanisms. Indeed, unlike the empires of old, the market (as guided by capitalist principles) has modernised (automated) the mechanisms of domination in ways imperial powers could never have dreamed of achieving. Through market mechanisms, a few former slaves or a few former colonised could become part of the ruling cliques, and in so doing move away from the miseries of hunger and poverty. In times when denunciations of corruption have become a perpetual mantra, the sweet murmurs of the market and the promise of greater wealth to be made through its labyrinths, gag and/or muffle the few voices trying to change course. Before trying to restrict the food crisis to the last few decades and to the usual culprits, one should revisit the histories of those who (since the inauguration of capitalism a few centuries ago) died of hunger in times when the words food crisis were not even uttered.[2] At least not in the manner one hears them today.

Increasingly, food is only accessible through the market, as is work, education, health, justice, birth, the right to exist, the right to breath clean air, and the right to drink to clean water. Everything which goes into making life worth living, into making a human being worth being a human being, is only accessible through mechanisms controlled by a few individuals, but above all by a mindset which is accountable to nobody. The market fundamentalists might say that this is an exaggeration, that they are just as interested in the above objectives as anyone else. As fundamentalists who have benefited from the market, understandably, their primary objective has been, is, and will be to maintain the prism of the market as key determinant in assessing life’s value. If the food crisis is not problematised from within this situation, the histories of those who were famished because of who they were (i.e., dispensable), then the exercise is more than likely to only provide solutions beneficial to the so-called discoverers of hunger and famine. Historically, the discoverers have never seen themselves, at least initially, as the possible and probable source of problems of a socio-economic nature which are now affecting more than 90% of the world’s population.

By discussing the current food crisis from the perspective of the last few decades, these very short-term analysts, consciously or unconsciously, are saying that the problem is momentary and conjunctural. It is neither and has been in the making for a very long time.[3] Sometimes, like now, the time span can be even shorter because of the emphasis on the concomitant financial, energy, and ecological crises. This essay would like to address the current food crisis from a perspective which goes back at least to 1491. As Ch. Mann has pointed out, 1492 as the starting point of a post-1492 narrative tends to give the impression that prior to 1492 there was nothing worth remembering. The dominant mindset which emerged out of the so-called discoveries emphasises only the positive aspects, to the exclusion of any aspect which might blemish its record.[4]

The term consciousness of evil is one which has been used to describe what happened during and after the Second World War. Fifty years later, one has slowly but irresistibly, slid into a situation leading to the eradication of people who stand in the way of the total and complete triumph of the will of the richest people of the earth. When Native Americans were driven out of their land, when they lost the material basis of their way of living, they died of hunger and disease. Centuries later, on a bigger scale, masses of people are being starved, while a few are stuffing themselves, to death.[5] Some, because they are not eating the proper food, others because they just overeat, excited, driven by never ending advertising campaigns. This killing, anti-humanity mindset has reached such a level of intensity that those who are its victims fail to grasp that they do not have to submit to it. All it would take is affirming humanity and the living principles.


From way back, if one is willing to listen carefully to the historical echoes of those who screamed against inhumanity, one can hear something like the following:

When people were punished through starvation they protested, but who were they? Slaves. They responded: We are not slaves, we are Africans who were enslaved. For having spoken they were killed.

The generic human being protested. The screams were heard, but she was a colonial subject. She was jailed, raped, sent to exile only for having spoken when she was supposed to keep silent.

The human being protested babies, children, old men and women. Protested. Followed by animals, birds, nature. Life protested against death. To no avail. The market must prevail, keeps prevailing, is kept prevailing. The most powerful so dictated.

The habit of not listening to human beings less powerful. The habit of raping with impunity. Led to humanitarianism, a discovery aimed at covering up crimes against humanity. By those who had refused to listen to humanity. And lost their humanity.

From Columbus to today, the discoverers have not changed. They changed tunes to reinforce their mindset, leading one to ask: was their discovery of humanitarianism a diversion or a negation of their own humanity?

Or are they saying there is a humanity? To be understood, represented, or defended – by them or their agents – through humanitarianism, charitably. And there is a humanity, a humanity against which no crime must be committed.

They discovered themselves as the best representatives of humanity. But they are disconnected from humanity. They have never known starvation. The only thing they understand is how to make money out of their discoveries. Whatever their names: land, slaves, colonies, poverty, misery, hunger.

The history has been known for a long time, but it keeps being pushed back, even when, one should say especially when, it manages to free itself from the shackles of the dominant mindset. An enslaved person who frees herself without waiting for the master’s abolition or a colonised people which decolonises itself before it is considered appropriate by the coloniser shall be ‘taught a lesson’. From Saint-Domingue/Haiti to Indochina/Vietnam, to Cuba, to Kenya, to the DR Congo, to Mozambique, the lesson has been drilled with all the means at the disposal of the dominant mindset: from extreme violence to extreme seduction. The objective is the same: to ensure that fear and/or shame will keep the descendants of those who tried the impossible (and succeeded) to never ever try again to free themselves. More on shame further below.


If the current food crisis is going to be resolved for the benefit of those who have been most affected by its unfolding, and in a way that those who have most suffered from hunger participate in the thinking of how to remove hunger, then the food crisis must be examined far and away beyond the rattling of statistical tables which reveal nothing more than the obvious – that the poorest of the poor[6] have been getting poorer and poorer for the benefit of the richest of the rich. For as long as humanity has existed the former have risen against the latter, but one must resist the temptation of accepting the idea that emancipatory politics will always fail. Closer to us in historical time, one must also resist the temptation of accepting the notion that thoughts expressed by highly educated intellectuals count more than the thoughts of uneducated or poorly educated peasants. Being uneducated does not mean that one is incapable of thinking. The Africans who overthrew slavery in Saint Domingue/Haiti thought better from within their situation than those who predicted that they could not possibly achieve such a feat. It is not difficult to imagine the slave owners (and the Enlightenment philosophers) saying to whoever would listen: what do the slaves know about freedom?

Yet, these were the very people who, having dared against all odds and all predictions of failure, left us with lessons on how to achieve freedom. But again, the lessons retold by the discoverers and their descendants and their allies shall always differ from the ones recounted, remembered by the so-called ‘discovered’ and their descendants and their allies. More often than not, one finds among the latter the most vociferous distorters of the histories and lessons emerging from battles against those who defend submission to the dominant mindset. For example, listening to the history of Haiti as recounted by C.L.R. James or, more recently, Peter Hallward is not the same as hearing it from Alex Dupuy.[7] The richest of the rich have multiple ways of enforcing their views, but so too do the poorest of the poor, provided they are convinced that they can.

For any human being, suffering can reach unbearable points. But at the same time, over and over in history, people have shown a heroic capacity to resist and rise above the most extreme forms of torture, especially when people are motivated by a political understanding of their situation disconnected from the idea that the way out can only be through the dominant mindset way of thinking.

Again if one looks at the history of Haiti, it is easy to understand why the slave and plantation owners would seek, by any means necessary, to prove that the Africans who overthrew slavery on Saint Domingue should never have tried: financial, economic, political, religious, cultural, and intellectual means were used to convey the message that the inhabitants of Saint Domingue would have been better off had they not risen against slavery. In a nutshell, everything has been done to ensure that other enslaved Africans (or any subsequent enslaving system) reconsider emancipatory politics as a viable option.

The history of Haiti is one of the most exemplary for both sides of the ideological fence separating emancipatory and consensual/submissive/abolitionist politics.


From the historical record, it is known that the turnover ratio of Africans in Saint Domingue was very high. Supply was cheap and less costly than seeking to improve maintenance. It was cheaper to get fresh bodies and use them to death. The demographic ratio was also favourable to the Africans, free and enslaved ones. From the beginning to the end of the 18th century, the number of Africans went from around 2,000 to about half a million. As in any such situation, a range of possibilities must have been discussed: improve the conditions of work/treatment, including better food; or get rid of the system altogether.

However, before going further in our examination, it is important to connect the history of Africans in Saint Domingue and Africans from one of their geographical points of origin: the Kongo Kingdom. Only 85 years (about three generations) separate two events related to the overthrow of slavery. On 2 July 1706, Kimpa Vita (some times known as Dona Beatriz) was burned at the stake for having tried to convince the Kongo King to put an end to the activities of the Portuguese slave raiders/traders. This was not just a one-person enterprise. Those who agreed with her denunciations rallied behind a movement known as the Antonian movement, so called because Kimpa Vita said that she had received her message from St Anthony. Little is known about the movement following the death of Kimpa Vita, but it is not unreasonable to surmise that memories of the movement survived and may have influenced those who, in 1791, in Saint Domingue, decided and vowed to end slavery. And, it would not be unfair to presume that, as a principle, humanity has genes which are allergic to any form of slavery. From within humanity there are always going to be those pushing for emancipatory politics.

The Africans who ended up in Saint Domingue lived in a most fearsome situation. In order to understand their determination to do away with slavery, one should try to understand what slavery was about.[8] The latter is almost impossible, regardless of the descriptions available either through historical, fictional, or cinematographic accounts.[9] The use of an entire continent as a hunting ground for enslaving people is the kind of trespassing of humanity which, because it has remained unacknowledged, opened the door to further trespassing, not just in terms of the number of people maimed, slaughtered, and raped but also because it further reinforced the mindset based on the notion that competition-to-death, by any means, is the most efficient way of organising any economy. One shall never stress enough that unless the enormity of what happened is eventually understood, it will be impossible to do anything with regard to the current challenges faced by humanity.[10]

Out of this mindset has grown a habit of minimising or erasing what the industrial enslavement of an entire continent has done. Such a process of slowly building a mindset aimed at minimising, muffling, or eradicating the efforts of those who, long before it was so proclaimed by the ‘discoverers’, stood up against a crime against humanity, ends up distorting any attempt to rise up against some of its most damaging consequences. This minimising of slavery and its consequences has been repeated at every subsequent transition (e.g., the end of the colonial period and the end of apartheid).

When the French government passed the legislation recognising slavery as a crime against humanity (Loi Christiane Taubira, 2001)[11], it was done in a way which was aimed at shielding those who collectively benefited from slavery. How else should one interpret the French government behaviour toward President Jean Bertrand Aristide (JBA) in 2004. The kidnapping was carried out by the American military in collaboration with the French and Canadian governments and their allies, including the Central African Republic.. The whole episode reminded one, more than 200 years later, of the kidnapping of Toussaint l’Ouverture.

It might be asked what is the meaning of this long detour into the history of Haiti for the purpose of confronting the current food crisis? It has to do with resisting the attempt to frame the food crisis from the perspective of those who want to benefit the most from it. In its most simplistic terms, the food crisis is being analysed and explained within the parameters put in place by a dominant mindset which has its deepest roots in how it organised the pauperisation of those who had defeated the biggest scourge of those times. Indeed it was more than a scourge, it was the embryo of what was to become known under globalisation two centuries later.

The Africans, then, understood their situation without political or charitable representatives. Their understanding and thinking of how to get out of their situation was arrived at through their own thinking and, certainly, without the help of the Enlightenment philosophers. 1789 had taken place and helped bring forward the idea, at least among some, that if the banner of Liberty, Fraternity and Equality was going to have any meaning, then it had to lead to the complete and total abolition of slavery. Massive efforts took place, not just from France, but also from England and Spain to try and reverse what the Africans had done. The abolition of slavery in French-controlled territories would not take place till 1848. A date which also coincides with the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. But as stated above, these rights apply differently whether one belongs to humanity (first class) or to humanity-existing-through-humanitarianism (second and third classes).

Will the food crisis be resolved according to the discriminatory perspective above or according to an understanding that there is only one humanity? In other words, will the question of how to eradicate hunger and poverty be posed by those whose dominant mindset has generated massive hunger and poverty, or will the poor and the hungry frame the questions and provide the answers without the humanitarian or charitable advice of the ‘discoverers’ of poverty and hunger?

It is not difficult to see that the food crisis is connected to other crises – economic, financial (the so-called credit crunch), and climatic change. It is also clear that all institutions have been mobilised, from those with apparently appropriate knowledge on the issue (e.g., the Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO), and government ministers) to personalities like the former UN Secretary General Kofi Anan, who understand the seriousness and gravity of the crisis. But when all of these specialists meet and discuss, the voices of peasants, the voices of those who do produce food, either for themselves and families or for corporations, are rarely, if ever heard. Moreover, how can people whose mindsets are responsible for the food crisis be expected to provide satisfactory answers? How can people who see nothing wrong in their mindset be expected to get rid of, or distance themselves from, the very way of thinking which has brought the inhabitants of the planet face-to-face with permanent disaster?

The fear at work in the minds of the above group is not the same as the one to be found among those who belong to the most vulnerable inhabitants of the planet. A mind which does not have to worry about eating three meals a day, nor about providing food for all members of its family, can be at peace while those who go hungry on a daily basis often resort to suicide as the solution to their daily miseries (Raj Patel, 2007). An inconvenient question arises which is not unlike the one which arose with regard to the HIV/AIDS epidemic: could it be that the richest of the rich would rather let the hungry die than discuss with them the best way to resolve the crisis?


In addition to fear there is shame. While psychologists have studied how to detect people who are lying, there has been little interest on trying to understand why and how, individually and collectively, human beings are eager to hide anything which might be shameful. The fear of having a shameful act revealed to all provides a powerful incentive to hide.[12]

How a segment of humanity has treated others in the past can lead to a sense of shame and the desire to ask for forgiveness. Unfortunately, one is not operating under conditions which are levelled: those who know from their own historical records that they have perpetrated shameful acts are not eager to bring them to the surface. What was done to Africans and to Native Americans by other people in the name of a way of thinking – an ideology, a religion – has been felt unevenly all over the world. In some cases, such as France towards Africans and slavery, it has been has acknowledged that slavery is a crime against humanity, but little has been done to reverse associated direct and indirect consequences. Indeed, a belated apology has often been used as the most efficient way of preserving the gains acquired through the crime.[13]

Once a taboo has been trespassed, it becomes extremely difficult if not impossible to overcome its direct and indirect consequences. With regard to food, in a world in which people should not go hungry, people do go hungry precisely because it has become acceptable, in a mindset dominated by a dictatorial free market system, that some people are going to die of hunger. The accepted norm, under the present mindset, is that hunger cannot be eradicated, regardless of the efforts. The fact that humanity has been able to eradicate certain diseases, including hunger, is not seen as the proof that hunger could be banned.


In their self-congratulatory march to the top, the richest of the rich have always feared what the poorest of the poor would or could do if they were to understand their own situations without outside interferences. Along the way, the former segment of humanity has resorted, directly or indirectly, to fearsome practices in order to submit and/or obliterate those they considered less than human.[14] The process of how Haiti has been impoverished following 1804 is pertinent to how to think about the current food crisis.

Haiti, for example, used to be self sufficient in rice, while the DR Congo used to export cassava and many other food commodities. Both countries now have to import thanks to a process which involved the World Bank economists and the US government’s common strategy of liberalisation. The process of turning self-sufficient economies into dependent ones has been documented ad infinitum.[15] Aid and charity complement each other as the remedy to the predatory extremes unleashed by the dictatorial rule of competition.[16]

Succeeding where success was not expected, as the Africans did in eradicating slavery, could have inflicted a serious blow to the system.[17] Those who had most benefited from slavery had to impose their own timing: it took another half-century for France to abolish slavery. Timing was crucial in order to tame those who had thought, back then, that slavery was indeed a crime against humanity. Again, as with abolition, the timing for the recognition had to be imposed by those who had most benefited from the crime itself. It was only in 2001 that France finally passed a law recognising slavery as a crime against humanity.[18]

While working in Mozambique between 1979 and 1986, I once had a poster against apartheid: ‘Apartheid is a Crime against Humanity’. Looking at it a visitor asked what it meant. I remained speechless, thinking it was self-explanatory. How long will it take for the South African government to acknowledge apartheid as a crime against humanity? Or, is it that, in the name of Truth and Reconciliation, the multiple roots of the crime shall be silenced?

From 1962 to 1974, the Front for the Liberation of Mozambique (Frelimo) succeeded, against all odds, in putting an end to Portuguese colonial rule. Such a success, as in Haiti, had to be reversed. The context, in Mozambique, was dominated by the Cold War. Frelimo had been supported by the USSR, the People’s Republic of China, Cuba, Vietnam, the German Democratic Republic, but also by people from Western countries like Italy, Holland and Sweden. As Henry Kissinger stated during a visit to southern Africa in April 1976, communism had to be defeated in the region.[19] Not long after that one of the most vicious civil wars aimed at what looked like a process of ‘teaching Frelimo a lesson’ began to unfold.

The consequences of the war have been so devastating that, in the name of the peace achieved in 1992, it has become preferable not to speak about the war. So much so that the silence around the civil war is now being extended to the war against the colonisers, as if that was the war which should never have taken place. Again, it is difficult not to think of Haiti and what the Africans did to slavery. Today’s elite in Haiti acts as if it wishes slavery had not been abolished, at least not in the manner it was done between 1791 to 1804. Today’s elite in Mozambique prefers to focus on how to become as rich as possible and as quickly as possible, and, it is possible that some of them might even be inaudibly saying to themselves that had it not been for Frelimo, they would be much better off today.[20]

Both Haiti and Mozambique are most talked about as very poor countries. Thanks to outside donors, anti-poverty programs do help the poorest of the poor overcome hunger and other problems. It is understandable that those who suffered the consequences of war (especially the civil war (1980–1992)) would rather not face that situation again. A question arises though: should the fear of what happened during colonial rule, or after, lead to the fear of politics – that is, thinking for oneself on how best to get out of a given situation? Moreover, should the fact that the Soviet Union and all its allies ‘lost’ the Cold War lead Mozambicans to the conclusion that anything which resembles, directly or indirectly, socialism and/or communism must be banished forever?

The process of enforcing only one way of thinking with regard to colonial rule and its demise has followed the same pattern as the one which has been observed in Haiti: everything must be done so that a different way of organising society, production, and distribution does not emerge. Differences will be acceptable if they are not antagonistic towards the dominant way of thinking.


When Aimé Césaire passed away recently it dawned on many people, including myself, that someone very special had lived among us who had not been heard or understood as he should have been.[21] This has happened before and will happen again. Later on, some shall describe him as a prophetic voice. He always insisted, without saying it in this manner, that he was not a politician and that his politics were in his poetry.[22] To a specific question by Françoise Vergès on the relationship between his poetry and politics he points out the following: ‘La poésie révèle l’homme à lui-même. Ce qui est au plus profond de moi-même se trouve certainement dans ma poésie. Parce que ce ‘moi-même’, je ne le connais pas. C’est le poème qui me le révèle et même l’image poétique.’ (Aimé Césaire. Entretiens, 2005:47) (‘It is poetry which reveals the human being to itself. What comes from deepest within myself can be found in my poetry. Because even this self of mine, I do not know. It is the poem which reveals it to me, even the poetic imagery. [My translation])

Using statistical data to demonstrate the insanity and the injustices behind the current food crisis will not make a dent in the consciousness of those who are responsible for it. For someone like Césaire – and Françoise Vergès is right to emphasise this point (Césaire. Entretiens, 2005:111-136) – the immensity of the wound inflicted by one segment of humanity onto another, through slavery and later compounded by colonisation, has never been assessed. Such an assessment is deliberately avoided because of the fear and shame of what would happen to all those who only know one truth, one history: the history, the truth of humanity seen through the eyes and the mindset of those who have enslaved, who have colonised. The resulting shock of discovering what had been hidden could be overwhelming to those who are unprepared.

From within this kind of historical narrative, the dominant mindset is bound to present access to food, health, education, and justice as something which is easily available to anyone provided it is so desired. To paraphrase Françoise Vergès, the dominant mindset (in France) is convinced that the 1848 abolition of slavery was France’s gift to the Africans. This paternalistic mindset is as deeply embedded today as it was in 1848. Enslavement to the dominant system is being carried out with different means, but the results are just as devastating on humanity as a whole. The direct and indirect consequences of slavery and colonisation have never been dealt with. As a result, one hears calls to the poor to change their attitude. It is very easy to promote the idea that the poor are poor because they want to be poor. Just as it is easy to accuse peasants of laziness. No one among the richest of the rich ever accuses the land stealer, the bankers, the speculators of being lazy, even though, most of the time, their robbing is conducted from comfortable offices.[23]

From Aimé Césaire’s poetry one has heard, but not yet learned, that living is an art. The food speculators, the financiers, the colonisers, the enslavers, and all those who have never seen anything wrong in their mindset, or in living as an accounting exercise, may praise our beloved Césaire and even quote from his poetry, but they will do so from within the accounting mindset, willing to accept him paternalistically, just as they accepted the abolition of slavery in 1848. As stated in the preamble, the food crisis is one of the multiple manifestations of humanity approaching a dead end.

More and more of humanity’s members are beginning to sense that when living principles determined by human beings are being superseded by principles anonymously determined by a deity called the Market, then something, somewhere, has gone wrong. When food, such as corn or maize, is being produced for reasons other than feeding people, then, surely, it is a sign that the segment of humanity which promotes such a diversion has modernised, exponentially, as with what happened during the Second World War. For the sake of defending or promoting a mindset, masses of people are being reduced to a status of non-existence.


The market, unfettered of any rules based on equality and fraternity between all segments of humanity, can only lead to annihilation of humanity. This is not a prediction. It is happening as surely as the melting of the ice caps at both poles, as surely as global warming is progressing. How does one reverse a mindset which has taken hold not just of the speculators, bankers, political, and religious leaders, but of ordinary people around the world? How does one defeat the deeply rooted tendency of thinking that the task at hand is impossible?

For one, the voices which have been saying the same things for centuries must be heard, and acted upon. It is not enough to say that humanity is one if, at the same time, one refuses to listen to some of the voices, regardless of the reasons. When the crisis is as serious as the current one, regardless of the angle from which it is tackled, is it not wise to acknowledge that every single member of humanity has a say. Should one not call and encourage the tiniest voices to rise? Isn’t the wisest course to accept, in the face of inconvenient truths, the inconvenient truths uttered for the past centuries by the poorest of the poor?

When confronted with the systematic denial of one’s humanity, there is only one possible course: to stand up against such a denial. It is crucial that resistance against the dominant mindset be conducted from within the principles aimed at a different mindset. It must be firmly grounded on solidarity. The only force to be used shall be the force of art, poetry, and science at the service of humanity.

Artists, poets, and scientists must eat too. Freedom by itself does not feed, but freedom with equality and fraternity can. Artists, poets, and scientists do not have to congregate in places designated by the market promoters. In such places, all voices shall be heard, provided respect for basic principles to be agreed upon by those who insist on the necessity to change the mindset. Among the principles, the following ones could be considered:

• Food producers and the poorest of the poor must be heard in their own voices
• The multiplicity of the voices calling for emancipatory politics must be accepted
• No representation shall be accepted
• Each voice must heard from where it is, as it is.

These are, by no means, the only principles one could highlight.


The transition from apartheid, even with the help of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC), has not lived up to its heralded promises. The recent (May 2008) pogroms against the poorest of the poor by other poorest of the poor has revealed the shortcomings of the TRC as a panacea, on the one hand, and on the other, has brought out very sharply the shortcomings of the African National Congress (ANC) as the governing party as well as the government with regard to educating and informing the population about the international support without which apartheid would not have been defeated. In that process of informing and educating, the role of ordinary Africans who risked their lives and generously gave all they could, should have been highlighted. This failure, however, must be shared by most African governments because of their common tendency to disregard the role of ordinary people in the making of their histories. The failure to inform and educate must also be shared by those who, during apartheid, remained silent and profited. As has been remarked, sometimes listening to what happened during apartheid in South Africa, it sounds as if everyone was a resistant to it.

As with all previous major transitions (from slavery to post-slavery, from colonialism to post-colonialism), the defeated side quickly reorganises itself with the objective of minimising losses. In that process they are helped by their previous enemies (now referred to as adversaries). As in Nkrumah’s famous motto, the defeated side is convinced that once the political kingdom has been seized, the rest will follow. Yet, in social and economic terms, they find themselves suddenly far from the very individuals and groups who have made it possible to seize the kingdom, and, much closer to their previous enemies whose main thinking was focused on how to keep the economy going as well as before. And, one might add, as fast as possible, if possible, faster than before.

In South Africa, the fear of the new government was to show that things in the country would from then on be different from what had happened in the rest of the continent. That fear led the ANC leadership to move away from the Freedom Charter, but even from creative principles to provide the poorest of the poor with genuine rewards and, more importantly, a say in transforming politics.

To have a say in transforming politics meant, among other things, as pointed out by the members of AbahlalibaseMjondolo, to speak for themselves and not be represented by politicians. The poorest of the poor who live in shacks in Durban, Johannesburg, and Cape Town see themselves as the ones who are really defending the principles contained in the Freedom Charter. Democracy means that everyone thinks, that everyone deserves respect and dignity. Freedom must mean that when decent housing, and decent living conditions are not provided for the poor, they are the best qualified to make sure that their voices are heard, clearly without translators or intermediaries, be they lawyers, municipality leaders, university lecturers, politicians.[24]

The similarities between what the poorest of the poor and peasants are suffering across the world call for a reinforcement of already existing links, and for greater sharing of the stories and histories of resistance against what Amit Bhaduri has referred to as the TINA syndrome (There Is No Alternative to globalization)[25]. This syndrome is not new. The imposition of colonial rule was presented as an altruistic exercise bringing civilisation to Africa. Forced labour was presented as an educational exercise.

Emancipatory politics must go hand in hand with emancipatory historical narratives and move away from narratives framed by the so-called success stories of globalisation told from the perspective of multinational mega corporations and financial institutions at their service.

Author’s p.s. 6 October 2008 – This essay was drafted sometime in June–July 2008. The question of naming remains as crucial as ever. The so-called financial crisis is not just about finances, banking, and credit. And it is not just about the deregulation of the banking industry. More and more it looks like a deregulation of all the principles which, one would have thought, have made humanity what it is. The reluctance to face history and humanity, as such, in all of its dimensions and complexities, is more entrenched than ever. Only Mr Market counts, but even it, or so it seems, has grown tired and would like to rest.

* Jacques Depelchin is a CAPES fellow at the Universidade Federal da Bahia.
* Please send comments to or comment online at


[1] Personal communication from Professor Ernest Wamba dia Wamba, 27 October 2008.
[2] At one time, during its triumphant emergence, the Roman empire tried to resolve its food crisis by conquering Egypt.
[3] Fernand Braudel, and many others since, have rightly insisted on approaching history from a long-term perspective. Unfortunately, such an approach has tended to favour the questions emerging out of the dominant narrative. In the issue of Pambazuka News 383 focused on the food crisis, the length of time was even shorter, being limited to the 1970s. If one is going to make sense of the food crisis today, but also try to understand other food crises in the past (e.g., the potato famine in Ireland in the 19th century), the framing of how the crisis has unfolded should be as deep and wide as possible.
[4] For example, Howard Zinn in his A People’s History of the United States: 1492 to Present can only go as far as providing an inventory of the slaughter of the Native Americans and the Africans. For him 1776 is still the event. And as the subtitle indicates, the starting point of his narrative is 1492.
[5] See Raj Patel, Stuffed and Starved, The Hidden Battle for the World Food System.
[6] The history of how the poorest of the poor reached this stage has been observed across the planet and for centuries and generations: from food producers, they were forced off their land and reduced to search for work in an environment in which there was only work for a few.
[7] C.L.R. James, The Black Jacobins; Peter Hallward, Damming the Flood: Haiti, Aristide and the Politics of Containment, Verso. 2007; see also Peter Hallward’s review of Alex Dupuy’s The Prophet and Power: Jean Bertrand Aristide, the International Community and Haiti, Rowan and Littlefield, 2007.
[8] The importance of this cannot be overstressed in view of the tendency within the dominant mindset to downplay the horrors of slavery. See J. Thornton, Africa and Africans in the Making of the Atlantic World, 1400–1800. Cambridge University Press. 1998.
[9] In His Black Jacobins, C.L.R. James did try. Fiction writers have tried, from Ayi Kwei Armah’s Two Thousand Seasons to Toni Morison’s Beloved. Haile Gerima in his movie, Sankofa, offered a harrowing view of what it was like. Still, when all is said and done, I would argue that no one, to this day and with my greatest respect for the above writers, has come any way near to measuring what slavery meant both individually and collectively. I have to assume that such measurement, not just in physical terms, shall one day be possible. This hope rests, in part, on the realisation that someone somewhere did achieve that impossible act, but that it has not been recorded in the form and/or in the place where it would get noticed. There are exceptions, most notably Aimé Césaire (2005)
[10] A point cogently made by Françoise Vergès in Césaire (2005).
[11] Its application officially began on 10 May 2004.
[12] In recent times, it has been possible to see how difficult it is to accept that people in very powerful positions can lie. In earlier times, Hitler and his acolytes found out that a lie repeated a thousand times became a truth.
[13] France, among the nations most involved in transatlantic slavery, has probably taken the boldest step by declaring, through the Loi Taubira, that slavery a crime against humanity. However, this bold step has triggered a sort of blowback against it, particular by historians. See Pierre Nora’s ‘Liberté pour l’histoire’ in Le Monde (10.10.08) and Christiane Taubira’s response a few days later: ‘Mémoire, histoire et droit’ in Le Monde (15.10.08).
[14] A few months ago (in May 2008), in South Africa, the poorest of the poor (so-called indigenous South Africans) went on a rampage against poorest of the poor foreigners. This has been the most recent and exemplary illustration of how entrenched the competitive mindset is. It also reveals the structural shortcomings of the transition from apartheid to post-apartheid founded on the erroneous notion that colouring the richest of the rich in black would radically transform the economic/financial tenets of apartheid days.
[15] One of the most interesting accounts has been given by John Perkins in his Confessions of An Economic Hit Man. See also Raj Patel, Stuffed and Starved.
[16] That it does not have to be so has long ago been proved. See, for example, Marcel Mauss’s essay ‘Essai sur le don’ (1924). And also the website of Revue du M.A.U.S.S.
[17] What was feared was the effect it could have on other Africans wanting to get rid of slavery in other parts.
[18] In 2006, 40 members of the French National Assembly called for the abrogation of the Loi Taubira.
[19] Glijeses, Piero. Conflicting Missions: Havana, Washington, and Africa, 1959–1976.
[20] Such inaudible murmuring may even come from the mouths of bona fide veterans of the armed struggle. See Duarte Tembe’s book on Samora (Maputo, 2000). And also the interview given to the weekly Savana (Ericinio Salema and Paola Rolletta) on 6 July 2008. It can be viewed at: Diário de um sociólogo
[21] Obviously there are exceptions to this deficiency. There is a difference between knowing someone was special and having understood the true worth of the person. See for example Daniel Maximin’s Préface to Césaire’s Ferrements et autres poèmes (Editions Points, 2008).
[22] Aimé Césaire, ‘Calendrier laminaire’, in Moi, Laminaire. In Anthologie Poétique, Paris, Imprimerie nationale, 1996, pp. 233-234; and Aimé Césaire, Nègre je suis, nègre je resterai. Entretiens avec Françoise Vergès. Paris, Albin Michel, 2005, pp. 47–50.
[23] There are exceptions. Karl Marx being the most prominent one with his reference to ‘coupon clipping capitalists’.
[24] In his most recent intervention, S’bu Zikode has made these politics very clear. See S’bu Zikode’s speech at the Diakonia Economic Justice Forum, 28 August 2008:

Scratching the surface: Pambazuka News and emancipatory politics

Reposted from Pambazuka News October 8, 2008.

As he salutes the ground covered in Pambazuka’s first 400 issues, Jacques Depelchin argues the publication should continue its work as a tool for emancipatory politics in the next 400 and beyond. Drawing in particular on the example of Haiti, Depelchin stresses that new emancipatory politics are being generated all the time, but their potential must be actively harnessed if governmental indifference and hostility is not to overcome the promise of healing histories.

Happy anniversary to the staff of Pambazuka News. What follows below is a sort of a long-winded happy anniversary card wishing you all the best, hoping that you will keep going, that you will chart new directions, that your energy will incite all generations and all people of the world connected directly or indirectly to Africa to come up with solutions to the multiple problems affecting Africans, and through Africans, humanity. It is my wish that we step out of this massive ongoing laundering system, which keeps extracting profits out of unspeakable sufferings, starting with violence against women, and against children. This violence is not new, and it looks worse when one looks at places like eastern DR Congo, but it has been going on for a very long time. For this massive suffering of women, the weak and the poor, there has never ever been what one could call a massive apology from men, the powerful and the rich. It is as if the rich are rich because they deserve to be rich. Not surprisingly, most of the history of humanity has been written from the perspective of power and violations of humanity.

Is it not strange that while slavery triggers thoughts of, and calls for, reparations, one very rarely hears of calls for reparations with regard to sexual violence. Slavery has been declared a crime against humanity, but when will sexual violence be declared a crime against humanity, and acted upon accordingly? Out of slavery emerged colonial occupation. In the case of the US, and the Caribbean, the wiping out of native populations, a genocide, led the triumphant globalisers of those times to look for an easy hunting ground for people to enslave: Africa became the prime provider of the most sought after resource of the day. In a nutshell, if one could condense the history of Africa, from the violence against women through enslavement, colonial and apartheid rule, would it be an exaggeration to see in it a massive, unrecognised, unacknowledged, laundering system? If slavery has been recognised as a crime against humanity why is it that the gains made from that crime are not returned to a fund for the healing of humanity? A healing fund for humanity is something completely different from reparations even though it does repair, but it must go further. How could one accept reparations in the very currency that gained legitimacy through a crime against humanity? That would be accepting the laundering exercise.

A healing fund for humanity would insist that it is not enough to declare sexual violence against women or slavery crimes against humanity, especially if, in the process, all such a declaration does is to give a sort of moral sheen to those who apologise, while they continue to enjoy to the maximum the consequences and the profits generated by the crimes. As one reads, feels and sees deeper into what happened to humanity through sexual violence and slavery, it is extremely difficult not to conclude that most of humanity has made a greater effort at forgetting what happened than trying to make sure of knowing what really happened. Tracing how the forgetting took place can be confusing. For example, for slavery (which included sexual violence against women), this effort occurred on both sides: on the side of those who were slaughtered physically, maimed psychically and, left to mend themselves; but also on the side of those who most profited from the crime, and some of the latter were actually related to those who were raided, herded and shipped. Kimpa Vita, daughter of a well-to-do family in the Kongo Kingdom did all she could to get the king to stop the raiding and selling. For her fearless denunciation of slavery, Capuchin missionaries countered with accusations of heresy, and had her burnt at the stake. One would think that figures like hers would have long ago been raised to the status African Liberation Heroines and Heroes. All histories, not just African, contain episodes which the descendants of the protagonists would rather not touch, out of fear, shame or both.

As a historian, I like very much what Pambuzuka News is doing, but I would like it to do even better. History is never completely known. In the case of African history, one should say histories, the surface has been barely scratched. It is not only because most of the archives are out of reach of most of the people who should be the first to know, it is primarily because the current political leadership in all African countries are not interested in knowing those histories. Worse, one sees ruling cliques literally turning their back to the history they actually contributed to bring about. One should stress, also, that this practice of moving away or against the history of one’s humanity is not peculiar to African ruling cliques. Most of the countries with a colonising past are not interested in pushing for better and greater knowledge of the complete and total history of all their people.

The study and recounting of histories that would honour and heal every single member of humanity is, with very, very few exceptions, far from the preoccupations of history departments in academia. Admittedly, revisiting fearful, shameful, dehumanising episodes (slavery, sexual violence against women, imperialisms, Nazism, colonial occupations, genocides, lynching, discriminating justice systems) of the history of humanity is not easy. In the current context, which only honours and reinforces laundered power, promoting healing histories of humanity would be considered political suicide by almost any ruler on the planet.

As Michael Neocosmos wrote sometime back in a comment on the 2007-08 Kenyan crisis, the objective of propagating and ruling by way of politics of fear is to instigate the fear of emancipatory politics. There is a connection between politics of fear, fear of emancipatory politics and fear of emancipatory healing histories of humanity. For example, but just in passing, the current global financial crisis has been given all kinds of names in the past few months, except the one name which it really deserves. However, in order to give it that name, one would need to understand the current crisis from a wider time span than the one used by most analysts. It has taken a few months to admit that it was comparable to the financial crisis of 1929. My view is that it is not. It is worse, but for that we must await another few months. The data are available, but remain unseen because those voices that count refuse to look at them. The histories are audible, visible, but will not be seen by those who have been trained not to see or hear the healing voices of humanity.

Will it be possible to hear more frequently the healing voices of those who are screaming for help, not because they are special, but because they are the voices of Pambazuka News? Will it be possible to hear the stories that the powers-that-be would rather keep silent? The examples are uncountable, but for the rest of this essay I would like to go back to Haiti. Haiti is Africa and yet, it is treated as if it is very remote from it. If Haiti was not mired in poverty, Africans (especially those with the means to do so) would be visiting, but why is Haiti so poor, after it had been the jewel of the French colonial empire during slavery? More recently in 2004, why was a democratically elected president in Jean Bertrand Aristide, kidnapped and sent to exile? In other words, what is it in Haiti’s history that, seemingly, keeps calling for such vengeful retribution from the former colonial power and its allies?

Still more recently (see Kevin Pina’s article in Pambazuka (26-08-2008), as well as the Open Letter by Madame Jean-Pierre (26-08-2008)), why has someone like Lovinsky Jean-Pierre been kidnapped, more than a year ago, and relatively so little been done to get him back to his family? When Africans (of all ages) are kidnapped, there is less concern and interest in the media controlled by the powerful, then when a white child is.

All of the above questions are related to African history, past and current. Starting with the last, Lovinsky Jean-Pierre’s biggest sin (from the point of view of the ruling clique in Haiti, and its supporters) has been to keep calling, persistently and vociferously, for the return of Aristide. And what was Aristide’s crime? To have responded as best as he could to the calls from the poorest of the poor in Haiti. His response was rooted in his understanding of the gospel and what he had learned from the solidarity of his mostly poor parishioners. The result of this process has been, in Aristide’s practice, liberation theology. But it also went further into an understanding of the unbroken connection of Haiti’s history from 1804 to today. In Haiti, emancipatory histories and emancipatory politics have been intertwined in a way that has remained indelibly seared in the conscience of its people.

The saddest aspect of this is how the South African government has colluded to do to Aristide what the powers that be wanted; to keep him under house arrest or something close to it. This is difficult to understand in view of the fact that then President Thabo Mbeki was the only African head of state present in Haiti on the 1 January 2004 bi-centenary independence celebration. From an interview he granted Peter Hallward (1), it seems that Aristide wanted to keep quiet and, thereby, demonstrated that the emancipatory politics of Fanmi Lavalas had more to do with the people of Haiti themselves than with Aristide himself. The lesson being shown in Haiti is that emancipatory politics, by definition, must be at a distance from the state. More importantly, organisation and leadership in such politics, if they are going to be emancipatory, have to rely on the principle that every one counts, everyone speaks for herself or himself. The relationship between Aristide and Fanmi Lavalas is an ongoing illustration of how emancipatory politics works.

Yet, in the most recent issue of the Brazilian edition of Le Monde Diplomatique, (August 2008) Christophe Wargny goes out of his way in order not to mention Fanmi Lavalas even though it is its members who have been targeted in the so-called stabilisation process of Haiti by the United Nations Stabilization Mission in Haiti (MINUSTAH) (2). It is as if the main objective of the writer (once a supporter of Aristide) is to deny, denigrate and/or erase the politics of self-reliance that have been transforming Haiti. Whatever advances had been made under Aristide, especially in the areas of health and education for the population, seemingly must not be mentioned. While he mentions the heavy price paid by the country over the years and centuries of brain drain, he deliberately does not mention what Aristide had initiated in order to stem the brain drain. It is a stunning exercise in silencing emancipatory politics and history in a single swoop. Aristide’s reliance on the self-reliant and self-confident popular politics seems to have been corroborated on 15 July 2008, when the population massively came out to commemorate his birthday, without anyone in particular calling for the march. The twin question of emancipatory politics and emancipatory histories should be at the core of the next generations of Africans battling to transform the current situation, for the better, for everyone. If all of us are willing to speak up and speak out for the ‘Wretched of the Earth’, if all of us are willing to put aside our fears, then, indeed, a new dawn for Africa and Africans will sooner than later arise.

The point is this: emancipatory politics and emancipatory histories are being generated all the time, but they will not be advertised by those who are not interested in them. As I understand it, the challenge to all of us is to make sure that Pambazuka keeps getting better at being the channel through which emancipatory battles will be waged. It is not the only one, but it is the one I know best. I look forward to the next 400 anniversaries.

(1) See the appendix in Peter Hallward, Damming the Flood: Haiti, Aristide and the Politics of Containment, Verso Press, 2007.

(2) Christophe Wargny, ‘Ainda muito longe a normalidade’, Le Monde Diplomatique Brasil, August 2003, pp. 28-9.

Jacques Depelchin is Executive Director of the Ota Benga Alliance.

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