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Monday, March 28, 2011


Judith Baker, an old and good friend, is currently working in Southern Africa in a program she has had a great deal to do with creating that teaches teachers how to teach writing. Judith is an old leftie, and one of the truly good people in the world. She was in South Africa when I received my honorary degree, but was unable to come to Cape Town, as she had planned, because of her commitments in the rural areas. I feel very deeply the disproportionality between the bits I do, for which I received an honorary doctorate, and the enormous amount she does, for which she receives very little public recognition.

Earlier today I received a circular email she sent to a number of friends about political and ideological issues in Southern Africa. She has agreed to allow me to post it as a guest blog. I am sure you will find it interesting. Here it is:

"This is a musing on political ideology in Africa, so don't feel obligated to read further if that does not interest you. I've been talking with several people including an astute activist from Zimbabwe who has lived all over Africa and been involved with many of the anticolonial leaders over many years. I have been struggling to understand the appeal of people like Mugabe in Zimb, Qaddafi in Libya and others, particularly the leadership in Rwanda and Uganda with whom you may be less familiar, and in South Africa which is of course actually democratic despite a certain level of neoliberal economic madness and corruption. In Zimb, the ruling party is Zanu PF, Mugabe's party. My friend feels that the reason Mugabe actually has a large following is that he does project a credible ideology of returning land and industry to 'the people' and taking it from previous colonial [white] owners. This 'Africanization' ideology resonates strongly with a fairly large portion of the Zimb population, while the opposition does not have as powerful a message, and is also much more influenced by Western and neoliberal economic policy which is even more suspect than it might have been before because of the economic isolation imposed on Zimb. Mugabe blames Zimb's problems on the world economic boycott, particularly the lack of access to credit. Now one thing which has bothered me very much about the US left's political philosophy is that we have a hard time dealing with the critical issue of credit/borrowing. But we all have mortgages and we oppose the balanced gov't budgets that restrict social spending, so we know that credit is a huge issue for those who want to live well, especially for the poor. Mugabe has made his point about the economic blockade, and it wins him many followers. However, my other informed activist friends say very clearly that if that were the actual Mugabe rather than the smoke screen dictator, this ideology might be meaningful, even if limited. However, the real Mugabe is a billionaire and his circle of power is a circle of others who want to take his place, not as an ideologue or leader but as billionaires. The wealth that comes from diamond mining and from mineral concessions in southern Congo [where Zimb forces have been involved many times in exchange for supporting Congolese politicians] never gets discussed much less distributed or used for the common good. When the govt does something which looks really good, for instance over 10,000 young people are given scholarships to study around the world, it is always for 'supporters', never for 'the people' at large. Brook says this is not a system of support for Mugabe but rather an old fashioned 'patronage' system of buying support and controlling and demonizing opponents. Our friend says that though it is so, the Zanu PF activists believe in it very strongly, even apart from their support of the man Mugabe - they 'own' it. Indeed, my friend says that whenever a crime is committed in Zimb, the police solve it quickly as popular support for the justice system is very high and that this makes living in Zimb feel safe and comfortable. However, the very same police officer will come to you and say, look I am watching you, so don't do anything questionable - meaning politically opposed to Zanu PF. He reports feeling very unsafe in Johannesburg or Nairobi where crime is very bad. But he is safe in Harare unless he criticizes Mugabe or joins the opposition. The older generation of African activists was very interconnected - they studied at major hotspots like Univ of Dar es Salaam, Makerere in Uganda, Fort Hare in South Africa - they read Steve Biko and all the anti-colonials like Fanon, Nkrumah, etc - they interacted with Black Liberation leaders and Civil Rights leaders in the US - and for an old person like me, they provided ideological leadership and controversy and a forum to discuss ideas. Those who remain activists work on AIDS and economic development and education, etc, but feel cut off and isolated to a large extent. They also, in my experience, tend to be bitterly disappointed by those who have inherited or taken over their governments. In short, they are like us - working hard on issues, but have no 'ism' or unifying theory or philosophy - and thus nothing with a name to pass along to the next generations. But unlike us, a lot of that generation became the post-colonial government and power structure, so that whole piece needs a separate examination. As for Libya, I think Obama will get a lot of credit from progressive Africans for his support of a multinational response to Qaddafi's threats against the rebels. We'll see later if that will turn into something else, but I think people feel that Obama has genuinely tried to involve Africans in this, has listened to them, and has, unlike Clinton and Bush, actually supported people who asked for support. I have no idea whether this will turn out to have been the right thing to do or not. I wish I could see the future, but having seen anti-colonials turn into dictators, and knowing little about the 'rebels' themselves, I would not venture a guess. What I will say, however, is that IF some of these rebels begin to engage philosophically and ideologically with the world community, we should also engage. Wherever there is a forum where we can talk about what we believe and how we should work to achieve change, we should be there in some way. I don't think we have an 'ism' with which to proselytize, but I do think we can be a legitimate member of the discussion."

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