It has been seven years since apartheid ended in the country where we live. It has been seven years since the open wound of colonialism was finally stitched closed on the continent of Africa. The defeat of political systems which for over 350 years created so much human degradation and racial violence against Africans, brought a moment of hope and a moment of rest for many of us who live below the Limpopo River. By 1994 the tireless exertions of the workers, the militance of the people in the townships, as well as the sacrifices of the gallant youth during the 1980s, finally had brought down the white-minority government. In the process, we had built strong, democratic organizations and elected individuals to lead us whom we trusted as honest and principled people. Of course, we still had to start building a new society ourselves. But we looked to our leaders for policies that would make this possible by redistributing the wealth held by a tiny group of families and corporations in South Africa. Who could blame us for wanting to beat our swords into ploughshares?
For a while we really hoped things would get better, even though we kept being told of delays and compromises and new economic plans to satisfy the West. We thought, “If not for us, then for our children.” But things started to go wrong. The important people—increasingly just appointed to lead us—we knew them not. Before elections they spoke many fine words, but by their deeds we saw that they no longer cared about us. When we looked around, we saw that many of our leaders had not struggled for freedom with us or suffered like we had. And even those who had been with us, started keeping their distance. We read the soft words they spoke to the rich men in our country, and soon we heard the harsh words they began speaking to us.
We were told to pay money or be thrown out of our homes, to pay school-fees or have our children prevented from learning. We were told that without money we would be given no water or lights and minimal medical care. They gave this an indigenous name, Masakhane, to pretend that they acted for our own good. But all the while, jobs were being cut by the hundred thousand and there was no money coming into our communities anymore. One day we woke up to learn that it was now the Government’s actual policy to lose jobs, to cut off the water of the indigent, to reduce child-care grants by half, and to evict with violence those who could not pay for a piece of land or a roof over their heads. Most shocking, as hospitals and clinics were closed down all over the countryside, we were told that “our” government would refuse us medicine for HIV/AIDS, even when it could prevent babies being infected by this terrible plague.
The leaders became unrecognizable to us. Even physically. They became bloated with gravy and their faces distorted behind the dark glass of their luxury cars. They seemed to be much happier overseas groveling in front of world leaders when, not long ago, we had all shared an understanding that it was the powerful in the West and the North that had an interest in our exploitation.
We are sad to report that, since 1999, things have become very bad in this country for Black people and the poor. The policies this regime is pursuing have caused outbreaks of serious diseases like cholera. Half of all Black children in rural areas go hungry every day and, although a few Black people in the upper echelons of the ANC have become fantastically wealthy, South Africa now has the greatest divide between rich and poor of any country in the world. Our President’s arrogance and cowardice have caused thousands of preventable AIDS deaths. The police shoot dead students again who protest against unaffordable fees and the closing down of unprofitable departments. Instead of a solution to the land hunger of our people, we have evictions of families living on land stolen from their forefathers, carried out with a brutality we never thought we would live to see again.
And so, reluctantly at first but now with a deepening fury, communities have started to resist. In Chatsworth and Mpumalanga in KwaZulu Natal, bloody battles have been fought against evictions and water cutoffs. The same has happened in Tafelsig on the Cape Flats. And in Bredell in Gauteng, landless people seized their birthright. They were defeated, but will always be remembered as the beginning of a movement for radical redistribution of land, away from those who do not need it and towards those who are desperate for any piece they can get. In Isipingo, the community has voted out of office all political parties, and elected instead a local council member directly accountable to them. In Soweto, people are trained to reconnect electricity and water and occupy the smart offices of the companies that urge service cutoffs. In Johannesburg, an anti-privatization group, which unites comrades from many different traditions of activism, is growing from strength to strength.
These local community struggles have shone a light not only by their courage in the face of the enemy, but also courage in the face of our own prejudices. It is supremely ironic, and tragic, that this government’s policies continue to barricade the poor into racial ghettoes to fight over neoliberalism’s crumbs while a few of the rulers share out the loot. The result, increasingly, is the creation of race hate. Nonetheless, our courage can free us. For example, in this city of Durban where colonial rulers encouraged divisions between Indian, coloured and African people, a sense of non-racialism is defiantly entrenched in the community organizations as we confront our common lot not as separate races, but as “the poors.”
Recently, we have come to understand more about the “global village,” and are ashamed about the role our government has chosen to play as an induna of the West. We wish to apologize to the people of Palestine, Harlem, East Timor, Congo, Chiapas, Algeria, Burma, Sudan, Iraq, the Dalits of India, the workers in Asian sweatshops, the women downtrodden in Afghanistan, the street-children in Sao Paulo, the political prisoners in the United States, the villagers in the Maluti Mountain Valley, the Aborigines in Australia, the immigrants of Europe and North America, and every other place in our world where injustice is perpetuated while the leaders of our country keep conveniently quiet, or even support your oppressors. We are learning about economic globalization too. We realize that while some wounds from the past have been sewn shut, many others have been torn open—on the body of the earth and on the bodies of human beings. Colonialism is dead but new overlords impose themselves. The World Bank, WEF, G8, IMF, and WTO. They are supported not only by lackey governments like our own but also by a legion of other forked-tongue abbreviations: NGOs, UNOs, USAIDs, and WCARs, of which we are all deeply suspicious, despite their pretense at caring for us.
But we don’t despair. We are encouraged by what we have read, heard on the radio, or seen on TV, about how our brothers and sisters in the North are bravely struggling to determine the character of the new world economy. Their ways of struggling are at once so different and so similar to ours. As our struggles merge, we are going to learn better and stronger ways of fighting against those who hurt us. We will not make the mistakes of the past, when all too often we trusted leaders or parties or nations or races to save us. We know now that only the freedom and justice we the people build together, has the strength to resist oppression.