Tuesday, 5 September 2017
A colour photograph for sale in a Johannesburg store shows an eerily calm scene: under a beautiful deep blue, cloud-flocked sky, the gleaming silver of a sleek aircraft parked on a sandy field, a red fire extinguisher standing by its nose-wheels, with an identical aircraft standing in the background.
The place is Tinian Island in the Pacific Ocean group of the Marshalls, the plane is a Boeing B-29 Superfortress bomber and it has “Enola Gay” written prominently on its nose. The image is signed in blue pen “Dutch Van Kirk Navigator Hiroshima – Enola Gay – 6 Aug. 1945.” The aircraft in the background is “Bockscar,” which dropped the bomb on Nagasaki.
In a week in which Donald Trump and Kim Jong-un traded threats of nuclear annihilation, a new exhibition in Johannesburg recalls the obliteration of Hiroshima and Nagasaki with a loss of some 226,000 lives.
The Atomic Bomb and Human Rights Exhibition at the Johannesburg Holocaust & Genocide Centre has at its epicentre the story of Sadako Sasaki, who was two when Hiroshima was incinerated and who died of the resulting leukaemia ten years later – her habit of folding origami paper cranes becoming a global symbol of the anti-nuke movement.
In honouring South Africa as the only country to have voluntarily dismantled its nuclear weapons, Kazumi Matsui, the mayor of Hiroshima, in a message for the exhibition’s opening, noted that although the “absolute evil” of the nuke which destroyed his city in 1945 had resulted in deep hurt that still persisted today, now, 72 years later, “there are approximately 15,000 nuclear weapons in the world,” most far more powerful than the Hiroshima bomb.
Public knowledge of the South African nuke programme only emerged very incrementally following President FW de Klerk’s bombshell announcement in Parliament on 24 March 1993 that the country had developed “a limited nuclear deterrent capability” but that it had been “dismantled and destroyed.”
Details were deliberately vague and it was only a decade later, in 2003, that more information was revealed when former atomic war-chief Lt Gen Jan van Loggerenberg, former Armscor research-and-development head Dr Hannes Steyn and former Atomic Energy Corporation (AEC) head Dr Richard van der Walt released their book Armament and Disarmament.
That book sketched the programme’s development from the initial decision to build nukes in 1978 until the project was wrapped up in 1991. Its primary new contributions included how the SA bomb – a gun-type device in the tail section that would fire a uranium projectile into an enriched-uranium core in the nose section – were tightly controlled via a parallel system of half authorisation codes required to be matched in order to allow the removal of a tail and a nose from separate armoured safes at the secret Advena facility near Pelindaba. More rules determined how the sections would be united and the nuke armed.
In an interview with me in 2004, van Loggerenberg revealed that they had developed all-terrain launch vehicles for nuke-tipped missiles “to ensure survivability from possible pre-emptive strike” and to make it very hard for enemy reconnaissance to pinpoint the launch site.
The latest book on what they call “the bomb in the bushveld,” The Bomb, is by former AEC nuclear physicist Nic von Weilligh and his daughter Lydia von Weilligh-Steyn in which for the first time, the individual devices are properly identified. Starting in 1979, a “300 series” eventually developed into five pre-production models – two of which were of such high quality that one, 305, was retained as a training device called Hobo after its warhead was removed and integrated into the first production model called Cabot in December 1982 – “a Christmas gift for PW Botha.”
A production series of true nuclear weapons then started with the completion in November 1979 of Video – later renamed Melba and used as a demo model – plus Cabot, 306 which was upgraded into an active device, and the “500 series” of live nukes produced between 1988 and 1989, giving a total of six operational fission weapons with yields of 10-18kt, equivalent to the Hiroshima bomb’s 15kt.
The authors relate a scary tale of what happened when Video was hidden in a disused coal mine outside Witbank – Advena not yet having been built. Arriving with the nuke at 3am one night, Dr van der Walt decided to have wheels of the nuke’s trolley removed “to make it more difficult to steal”. One of the builders of Video recalled: “I started unscrewing the nuts on one wheel in the dark…The mine was pitch-dark… Then I saw that I was busy trying to unscrew a split rim. If it had blown out it would have taken my head off.”
The authors are equivocal on the famous incident of 22 September 1979 when a US spy satellite picked up the telltale double-flash of a nuclear detonation over SA’s Prince Edward Islands possessions – despite corroborating seismic and fallout evidence that a 3kt device had been detonated, probably an Israeli missile test fired from Overberg in the Cape with SA observing.
But The Bomb’s real new revelation is that the apartheid state wanted more than six operational nukes. In November 1986, a new nuclear weapons deterrence strategy was approved by Defence Minister Magnus Malan and President PW Botha that called for one demonstration model, three gun-type nuclear weapons that could be delivered by ballistic missiles, and three “boosted” versions (with a yield five times larger) that would be delivered by medium-range missiles, plus another seven weapons which could be delivered by aircraft.
And a massive new facility was planned to produce weapons-grade plutonium and other heavy metals – aiming at thermonuclear fusion bomb with a yield of around 100kt that would be delivered by intermediate-range ballistic missile. But In the 1986 strategy’s worst-case scenario, of SA facing a losing war, the nukes would have not been used strategically against enemy capitals like Luanda, but rather tactically in support of naval and ground forces. So despite possessing six Hiroshima-type atom bombs, the apartheid war-chiefs stopped short of a “Hiroshima solution” to win the Bush War.
* Post-script: my own book, Drinking With Ghosts, has a chapter on the apartheid nuke programme, but The Bomb adds more valuable detail.
Friday, 18 August 2017
A Review of Philip Hoare, The Whale: In Search of the Giants of the Sea
Probably one of the saddest contemporary books in natural history, The Whale relates how Homo sapiens, driven by a need to light his lamps and bulk out his womenfolk's skirts, hunted cetaceans. Despite the fact that cetaceans are possibly the nearest competitor to human intelligence in our world, the slaughter started with precious few attempts to understand them - except to understand how to kill them.
If the UN Convention on the Crime of Genocide could be applied to cetaceans, as a species we'd pretty much stand guilty, for almost *all* of our knowledge of whales comes from hunting them to the brink of extinction and it has only been since the 1960s that this has more generally been agreed (Japanese and Norwegian whalers excepted) to be a rather bad idea.
Whales are pretty weird by evolutionary standards, having walked out of the oceans at some point as smallish otter-like creatures, who at some point abandoned the shores and reverted to the waves, losing all but the vestiges of their newly-acquired limbs and fur. There are some sub-species of cetaceans that thankfully we have never even seen alive - knowing them only by the very rare washed-up corpse. Tragically, there is one whale that we know to be the last of its genus because its unique, haunting, lonesome whale-song has remained unanswered in the depths of the Bering Sea for decades.
Amid this tragedy, however, Hoare brings a beautiful and intimate storytelling style that starts out as a exploration of why and how an unknown Yankee hack named Herman Melville (keen to challenge Nathaniel Hawthorne as author of "the great american novel" - a perennial obsession of obscure US writers, it seems) came to write Moby-Dick - along the way exploring how the tale of a real "great white whale" entranced and horrified 19th Century seafarers.
Hoare spends time in Nantucket for which Basque whalers set out from the Bay of Biscay in at least the 16th Century - but by some early accounts way back in the 14th Century - to hunt their prey. I guess at least back then the whales had a better chance of survival than the whalers in their fragile boats. He tracks the development of whaling from a survivalist pursuit of meat to a vanity of scrimshawed teeth and whale-boned corsets, to a black-hearted massacre driven by the greed for oil, to a very belated turn to conscience and conservation.
Along the way, he also brushes up against some of the other denizens of the deep - in particular the arch nemesis (and tasty meal if its dinner-plate sized suckers come unstuck) of the sperm whale, the giant squid. This is the "kraken" of lore if at least one eyewitness account cited by Hoare is credible, of a giant squid running some 100ft long, alongside a ship under sail, though current scientific estimates put it at a mere 43ft maximum (or the larger females, that is). Then again, bear in mind that we know so little about them: the giant squid was photographed in the wild for the first time only in 2004.
It is often forgotten that whales are not only those monstrous leviathans of the abyss with car-sized hearts, but also include much smaller species including the "smiling" dolphin, the feared orca, and the narwhal - its tusk a single extruded tooth with thousands of nerve-endings that is more likely a navigational and mating tool than a weapon. Not that we should get all cute about cetaceans: Free Willie aside, even dolphin are smart, pack-hunting carnivores and are sometimes given to gang-banging (take that, you hippies!).
Yet for any of you who has held their breath as Sea Shepherd's vessels have clashed with Japanese whalers and factory ships, Hoare underlines that cetaceans are the transmitters of knowledge (if not "culture" as we narrowly understand it) to their their offspring, and the consummate navigators of the world beneath the waves that makes up most of our planet. When we are finally gone I hope that ours becomes a planet of the whales once again.
Thursday, 17 August 2017
A LITTLE OF THAT HUMAN TOUCH: Journalists look at the process, reporters at the event; we need more journalists writes Michael Schmidt, Op-ed, The Star, 30 August 2012
In all the angst and soul-searching wrought by the Marikana Massacre – despite some jaded commentators trying to reduce it to a mere “incident” – the description of the clash that has been most noticeably absent is “class war”.
We South Africans are so accustomed to the almost ritualistic dance of burning tyres and toyi-toyiing crowds, then the arrival of an armoured phalanx of police, then an inevitable escalation through megaphoned warnings, to rubber bullets, to live ammunition and, sometimes, corpses, that we can’t see the class war for the teargas. In much the same way as most journalists refused to talk of insurrection in the late 1980s in preference to the depoliticised term “unrest,” so in the democratic era, we talk of “protest” and not class war.
Poloko Tau’s commendable on-day reportage in The Star on the killing by police of his contact among the striking rock-drillers, the strike leader that he only knew as “the man in the green blanket” immediately emphasised for me how rare it is to have our journalists even bother to build such contacts in stricken communities, before the smoke rises on the horizon.
Cardboard-cutout renditions of extremely complex conflicts cuts both ways. Who after all recalls that in the 1976 Soweto Massacre, the leader of the police contingent Theunis “Rooi Rus” Swanepoel lost his right eye to a bottle in the fray, which might have precipitated the shooting; or that student leader Tsietsi Mashinini was himself stoned by the students for demanding that they back down? It is telling that we do not know the actual sequence and detail of one of our most hallowed sufferings in more accurate detail. Likewise, in the polarised narrative over Marikana, the details of the police deaths are either totally ignored by those backing the strikers, or upheld as a justification for slaughter by those backing the police.
Most journalists were rooting the origins of the massacre in the strikers taking to their Wonderkop redoubt barely a week before the bloodshed. But I recall noting that there was “trouble at t’ mill” down at Lonmin at least a year ago, and I had a gut feeling back then that it would all end in tears, though few journalists kept their finger on the pulse in the intervening months. In fact I worry that most of our journalists (those who analyse conflict as process) have been supplanted by reporters (those who simply report on conflict as isolated events). For one thing, I have seen little reportage over recent years of the surreptitious remilitarisation of our police – civilianised at great cost in the wake of apartheid.
Myself and Canadian photographer David Buzzard were the only two journalists on the scene of the Christmas Day Massacre at Shobashobane on the South Coast in 1995 when 19 ANC-aligned villagers were butchered by an Inkatha impi; and I was the only journalist who returned a decade later to report on the aftermath. I employ a process I call “forensic meditation” in returning to the scene of a massacre; walking the paths of the killers to their termini, re-interviewing victims and perpetrators, reconstructing the details and teasing out discrepancies. My forensic meditation on Shobashobane in 2005 resulted in a partial confession from former IFP warlord Sipho Ncobo, by then serving as mayor of the area. I have been 2km down the Implats platinum mine, on the stopes where rock-drillers sweat in 55°C heat, the air thick with the bite of ammonia. I’ve yet to see our journalists walking the paths of the rock-drillers they are reporting on.
Scott Peterson was one of few journalists in Rwanda during the “100 Nights” Genocide back in 1994. What he produced out of an incredibly complex tale was not just harrowing eyewitness reportage of the infernal interahamwe bloodletting, and went far beyond reporting on the Genocide as process not event, but resulted, in his book Me Against My Brother, in one of the best structural analyses of how the slaughter was rooted in the convergence between the interests of Agathe Habyarimana’s Akazu (Little House) inner circle and their extremist Zero Network, of the meddling French post-colonial state, and of the Rwandese Catholic hierarchy. In other words, structural analyses of the interests served by massacre penned by journalists are far too rare.
It was left to Leonard Gentle, director of the International Labour Research and Information Group, to write that “The drill workers at Lonmin… were Xhosa-speaking and brought from the Eastern Cape into an area where most people speak another language, Tswana. This was a conscious move by the company to heighten exploitation in the mines. Add to this the toxic mix heavily armed mine security, barbed-wire enclosures, and substandard informal housing—and a picture of institutionalised violence emerges.”
A decade after the Genocide, I sat at a fancy restaurant overlooking the velvety hills of Kigali at night, drinking with the top military brass of the Rwandese Patriotic Front. One salient thing struck me about them: having forcibly ended the Genocide when France and the United Nations proved unwilling, they believed with a frightening certitude that they were on the side of the angels regardless of what they did – something I encounter in the ANC elite regarding their role in ending apartheid; that they are incapable of doing wrong, or at least that all they do is sanctified in the blood of their martyrs. This sense of semi-divine mission, combined with the ethnic divisions and institutionalised violence of which Gentle speaks, in support of mining multinationals, not only replicates apartheid logic but is a dangerously volatile mix.
In July last year, I had the privilege to interview one of the world’s most intriguing guerrilla fighters. As a youth, Octavio Alberola plotted the invasion of Cuba with Fidel Castro, and became a member of Defensa Interior, the Spanish exile anarchist underground council tasked in the 1960s with assassinating Spanish dictator Generalissimo Francisco Franco. Today he has become deeply involved with breaking what in Spain is called the “Pact of Silence”: the unspoken backroom deal whereby Spanish society remained mute about the abuses in the aftermath of the Spanish Revolution when Francoist forces are believed to have killed some 200,000 people. It is only in recent years that mass graves have been uncovered and Alberola is driving a campaign to have the ersatz “criminal” sentences of those massacred expunged so their remaining widows can be pensioned.
I have come to believe that there is a similar “Pact of Silence” in Southern Africa – all the more potent, as in Spain for it being unspoken. And there is no case that more glaringly demonstrates this than that of the Operation Dual Massacre that is almost unknown – despite it being apartheid South Africa’s biggest war-crime. It was accepted as true during the failed Dr Wouter Basson prosecution that between 1979 and 1987, some 200 captured members of the South-West African People’s Organisation (SWAPO) were drugged, flown in a Cessna from an airstrip at Etosha Pan, naked and bound, to a location about 100 nautical miles off the Skeleton Coast, where they were dumped into the ocean from an altitude of about 3,6km. A lawyer friend of mine who worked on the Truth and Reconciliation Commissions told me he believes the reason SWAPO has not gone after the known death-flight perpetrators is that SWAPO has atrocities of its own that it fears would be brought to light if it pursues this (and in fact a Dutch human rights group has attempted to bring charges before the International Criminal Court). The implication is that perpetrators on the apartheid and liberation movement sides of the line are colluding in suppressing the truth.
But somewhere out there are 200 families wanting to know that happened to their sons and daughters. Some day the dam will break – but those families are unlikely to ever have any bones to bury. In contrast, this May, the bones of Alberto “Pocho” Mechoso, the long-lost brother of another interviewee of mine, Juan Carlos Mechoso, a former guerrilla with Uruguayan resistance movement Revolutionary Popular Organisation – 33 (OPR-33), were found in a drum on the seabed off Argentina where he had been kidnapped, tortured and “disappeared” during the Dirty War in 1976. There were seven other drums of human remains alongside his. The only reason the Mechoso family can finally find closure after 36 years of agony is that Argentina has a proactive prosecutorial authority that has undone secrecy pacts and those they protect with impunity.
Western and African heads of state last week hailed as a great leader the dead Ethiopian dictator Meles Zenawi whose forces in 2005 murdered 193 pro-democratic protestors, injured 800 more, and jailed 40,000. To my mind, only elite-class interest can explain this cynical, deliberate act of forgetting. Our journalists need to explore the class function of our police – who are themselves poorly-paid and work in atrocious conditions – in support of the elite’s structural interests. And those interests are terrifyingly inhuman: during the Xenophobic Pogroms of 2008, the inactivity of the police for the first week of the killings made it seem as if the elite was curious to see how far such a fire could burn before they were forced to put it out; after all, divisive ethnic violence has proven a ready fall-back for regimes in crisis in Africa. Divide-and-rule remains the rule for minorities – and elites are always minorities.
A review of James MacKinnon, Dead Man in Paradise, Faber and Faber, London, UK, 2007.
Seldom does a work of historical investigation manage so delicate a balance between poetic nuance and forensic judgment, but it is even rarer for a journalistic probe into the mysterious death of a family member four decades ago in a foreign country to manage to illuminate the nature of an entire people and country, an illumination all the more powerful for its inability to penetrate, and yet at least to delineate, certain recalcitrant shadows.
The only book I know to do something similar is Martin Pollack’s The Dead Man in the Bunker (1998) in which he pursues the truth about his long-dead father’s hidden past as an SS officer, which reveals almost more about the roots of anti-Slavic racism among Germans living in the borderlands of what became the Third Reich than it does about his own family.
The Dominican Republic is a country that has, unlike my own South Africa, or the more directly comparable Chile or Guatemala, not undergone the flawed-yet-purgative process of a sort of “truth and reconciliation commission” after emerging from decades of authoritarianism. South Africa’s commission was blessed by being covered by a radio journalism team lead by the poet Antjie Krog, which resulted in her harrowing book Country of My Skull (1998).
But for want of such an official inquiry exhuming its skeletons, the Dominican Republic, that forgotten Caribbean land of caudillismo, exquisite fruits, genocide, and crystal waters, at least has the interlocution of Canadian journalist James MacKinnon’s breathtaking true tale of his dogged search, stumbling in poor Spanish, for the truth behind the weird murder of his uncle, Catholic priest Arthur MacKinnon, at the height of the popular revolution that broke out in April of 1965.
With a robust passion for the Dominican downtrodden, Padre Arturo was a natural mark as a trouble-making “red” for cold warriors like General Elias Wessin y Wessin, the tank brigade commander whose forces battled the youth of the revolution in the capital Santo Domingo until the US, fearing a second Cuba, landed Marines in May 1965 and the clock stopped.
But what then to make of the fact that in June 1965, alongside Arturo’s bullet-riddled body were two more gunned-down corpses – one a uniformed police lieutenant and one a plain-clothed police corporal – and while the dead cops are suspected of assassinating the priest, it appears that an army soldier may have gunned the cops down in turn, insuring 39 years of silence, in a country that harbours its silences?
Who killed who, who gave the orders if there were orders, and why? Amid the suggestions of a political plot with a “blush of communism” lurks a possible motive of a cuckolded lover. But in a country struggling to come to terms with its past, nothing is as it seems and few answers are straightforward.
MacKinnon has an amazing eye for detail and a poetic sense of mood, plot, pace, dialogue and of place: “I can see the fires on the slopes as farmers clear the underbrush. In between them are valleys filled with flame trees, all of them ferociously in bloom. The canopy of flowers is the same colour as the embers that glow from the earth.”
What he has produced is a tour de force in what I term forensic meditation, the painstaking reconstruction of a scene of damage and loss, sifting through the evidence to strip away the layers of accumulated obfuscation, restoring its original simple brutality to the scorching light of the Caribbean sun, and in doing so, revealing many truths about themselves to the Dominican people.
The Polish anarchist movement suffers from a uniquely distorted history. Although it honourably defended the Jews in the Warsaw Ghetto - two Anarchist Federation of Poland (AFP) militants being later hailed as "Righteous Among Nations" for such work - and took up arms against the Nazis in the Warsaw Uprising of 1944, it has often been mischaracterised by historians as tainted by either nationalism or Bolshevism. The roots of the problem lie in the bizarre fact that in 1930, the regime of military strongman Józef Piłsudski united several unions into what was intended as a yellow government-friendly union centre: nationalists, independents, socialists including a small faction of the Polish Socialist Party and a workers’ faction that had broken with the Second International, and the 40,000-strong anarcho-syndicalist General Worker's Federation (GFP, formed four years earlier at the same time as the AFP) were merged to form the Union of Trade Unions (ZZZ).
The ZZZ's programme, according to historian Rafał Chwedoruk, “was a compromise between radical syndicalism and reformism, even solidarity,” the latter presumably meaning solidarity with the regime. Nevertheless, Chwedoruk noted that "the syndicalists became more and more socially radical in the era’s economic crisis. They supported and organised many strikes. The syndicalist wing dominated the ZZZ… It was a large centre (170,000 members) and had influence within certain industries (esp. in Schliesen in central Poland) – in construction, metal industry, military undertakings etc. The ZZZ declared for the class war… [yet] had a small parliamentary group..." Chwedoruk argues, unconvincingly, that Polish syndicalism was a strange hybrid, a “unique political doctrine” straddling “the border of national-Bolshevism and anarcho-syndicalism,” and “a weird mixture of nationalism, syndicalism and anarchism”. It is not clear whether this is because he appears to take the ZZZ as an undifferentiated whole, or whether it is because of the common error of counting as "syndicalist" those like the Zet youths under the sway of non-syndicalist radicals such as the proto-fascist Georges Sorel.
The ZZZ was clearly a mixed organisation including conservatives clustered around Stanislaw Cat-Mackiewicz, editor of the journal Slowo (Word), but it also embraced a significant anarcho-syndicalist current centred on the likes of tobacco worker Ignacy “Morus” Głuchowski (1892-1944), AFP militant teacher Władysław Głuchowski (1911-1941), former prisoner of the Russian Okhrana secret police Stefan “Szwed” Szwedowski (1891-1973), and agronomic draughtsman Tomasz “Janson” Alfons Pilarski (1902-1977). Many would come to play leading roles in the anti-Nazi resistance: Pilarski, a member of the anarcho-syndicalist Free Workers' Union of Germany (FAUD) in Silesia from 1919-1933, had even helped form the anti-Nazi anarchist Black Ranks militia in 1929 before being forced to flee Germany in 1933 under threat of execution for high treason. From 1931 to 1939, the ZZZ established itself as a powerful force on the labour front, and expressing an interest in joining the anarcho-syndicalist international, the IWA: the anarcho-syndicalist current within it was represented at the 1938 congress of the IWA in Paris in 1938 by Pilarski. The conservative unions - including the military munitions factories - later split off the ZZZ, putting it more firmly under anarcho-syndicalist control.
After the Nazi invasion in 1939, some 4,000 ZZZ members formed the clandestine Polish Syndicalist Union (ZSP) which built an armed wing, the 104 Company, which by some accounts rose to 600 insurgents, while AFP militants formed the Syndicalist Organisation "Freedom" (SOW) which had its own armed wing, the Syndicalist Brigade. Both units liaised with the Committee to Protect Jews and the mainstream Home Army (AK), ran supplies into the Warsaw Ghetto and smuggled Jews out, and fought the Nazis before and during the Warsaw Uprising. The anarchists and syndicalists even continue fighting for four days after the AK surrendered to the Nazis on 2 September 1944 - and their remnants went on to fight in other formations, helping to drive the brown plague from Poland. It is time that the Polish movement be restored to its proper, honourable place in history as a solidly anarchist, anti-fascist fighting force; I trust the sections on Poland in my forthcoming book Wildfire will serve to do just that!
Sunday, 30 July 2017
The civil war precipitated in 2014 by a revanchist, imperialist Russia in the eastern Ukrainian oblasts of Donetsk and Luhansk – ironically once part of the Makhnovist revolutionary heartland – and the mobilisation there of openly neo-fascist armed forces has raised the critical question of how the Ukrainian anarchist synthesist and platformist formations have responded to the crisis. Despite intense KGB repression, the anarchist movement in the USSR and its colonies and satellite states began reviving underground in the 1970s, gathered momentum as protests escalated in the late 1980s, and when the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991 and lost its former colonies including the Ukraine, that collapse precipitated a flowering of anarchist organising. However, the promise of glasnost for a freer society has been tarnished by what seems to be an inexorable rightward drift of the Russian state and society driven by the old KGB elite in cahoots with robber-baron oligarchs and reactionary politicians. This has been reflected socially in the rise of neo-fascist, neo-Stalinist and national-bolshevik movements, intense racism against ethnic non-Russians, homophobia and other plagues. Not least, the Russian state has moved to bloodily suppress secessionist movements (as its predecessor state had in Hungary in 1956 and Czechoslovakia in 1968), especially with the Chechen Wars of 1994-1996 and of 1999-2000. In a private conversation in 2005, a Russian intelligence agent told me in no uncertain terms that Russia under former KGB lieutenant-colonel Vladimir Putin fully intended to recover all of its lost colonies, a political position termed revanchism.
Against this backdrop, the anarchist movement in the former USSR has had a hell of a time fighting for its existence. Today, probably the largest – though synthesist – new anarchist organisation in the former Soviet Empire is the Autonomous Action (AD) network, which by 2010 had sections or at least members in the cities of Belorechensk, Chelyabinsk, Irkutsk, Izhevsk, Kaliningrad, Kazimov, Kolomna, Krasnodar, Moscow, Murmansk, Novgorod, Novorossisk, Rostov-on-Don, St Petersburg, Sochi, Tyumen, Volgograd, Voronezh, Yaroslavl, and Yoshkar. There is also an AD section in Armenia (the Autonomous Action - "Breakthrough" Group, AD-GP) and supporter groups in Belarus, Lithuania, Kazakhstan and Ukraine. The Revolutionary Union of Anarcho-Communists (AKRU) and other groups in the Moscow area joined the AD in 1991. In south Russia in 2003, the more hardline Federation of Anarcho-Communists (FAK) was founded, apparently from an AD split, in the cities of Rostov-on-Don, Taganrog, Krasnodar and Stavropol, with the journal Protest at its mouthpiece. There are also unaffiliated anarcho-syndicalist unions springing up in places like Kazakstan such as the Alma Ata Anarchist Alliance (AAAA) and Libertarian Almaty, in Siberia such as the Siberian Confederation of Labour (SKT), which split from the KRAS in 1995 with the aid of the Swedish Central Workers’ Organisation (SAC), growing to 6,000 members by the year 2000, and the Anarcho-Syndicalist Confederation of Irkutsk (ASKI) founded in 2007, and in Ukraine, the Anarchist Federation of Eastern Ukraine (AFEU), and the Revolutionary Confederation of Anarcho-Syndicalists – “N.I. Makhno” (RKAS), which was founded in 1994 and had attained 2,000 members by the year 2000; the SKT and the RKAS supported the independent revolutionary International Libertarian Solidarity (ILS) founded in Madrid in 2001, which was the seedbed of the anarkismo.net project established by ILS member organisations in 2003.
The neo-Makhnovist RKAS continued to grow, though its organisational discipline horrified synthesist anarchists such as those from the declining anarcho-syndicalist International Workers’ Association (IWA), one of whose correspondents characterises it as a “platformist party and psychosect” . But the critique is revealing in that it makes it obvious that the organisational practice of the RKAS derives directly from the historical Makhnovist movement, the 1918-1921 Revolutionary Insurgent Army of the Ukraine (RPAU in its Cyrillic acronym). For example, the RKAS established “a small General Confederation of Labour of Anarcho-syndicalists” (CGT-AU), formed defensive ideological-paramilitary Black Guard squads, trained in martial arts, and co-ordinated its activities via an Organisational Bureau (Orgbureau): “The structure of the Orgbureau includes the Secretary General and his deputy, the international secretary, the editor of the central press organ (the newspaper Anarchy), the commander of the ‘party’ militia - the Black Guard, the finance director, the Head of [the] Media Centre of RKAS and the representative of [the] ‘workers’’ union created by RKAS.” Thus the Orgbureau performs roughly the same function as did the RPAU’s Military-Revolutionary Soviet, and is linked to the anarcho-syndicalist CGT-AU and RKAS co-operatives in Donetsk and Kiev (the potential seedbeds of future soviets), while the Black Guard in turn has its own territorial unit and command structure: the writer quotes RKAS Secretary General Sergei “Samurai” Shevchenko as stating “the creation of self-defence force organization (something like a ‘party’ militia) is a very important area of our organic development. Thus the Black Guard was conceived as a force ([a] federation of territorial units in sections with a common leading staff) on the basis of ideology, the constant training of personal combat skills of fighters and teamwork... as well as a consistent practice in street conditions.” This appears to replicate the military unit structure and General Staff (Shtarm) of the RPAU.
And in echo of the RPAU’s Culture and Propaganda Soviet, the KultProSoviet, the RKAS has its own Anarchist School and its own paper for political education and propaganda – Shevchenko explicitly states the organisation’s objective of creating “a communal-family subculture”: the RKAS Congress of 2010 stated: “One of our main objectives is to create RKAS's own subculture of anarcho-syndicalism, based on the principles of brotherhood, unity and clanism”; the IWA critic seems to hint that such “clanism” means ethnocentrism, but the original Makhnovists also drew on libertarian elements of the clan traditions of both Zaporizhzhian peasants and of the Don Cossacks to legitimise their movement. The claim that RKAS’ ranks include a confused melange of ‘counterculturalists,’ ‘insurrectionalists,’ adherents of ‘anarcho-capitalism’ and even nationalists” would seem improbable, given its stress on internal ideological coherence; and the only proof of the presence of “nationalists” in its ranks offered is a single member seen wearing a T-shirt saying “I am Russian,” which is surely tolerable for an ethnic minority within a Ukrainian-majority movement. Somewhat like the disciplinary functions of the RPAU’s Commission for Anti-Makhnovist Activities (KAD), the RKAS also has its “Arbitral Tribunal” which arbitrates on members accused of breaking the organisation’s codes. Some of this may be considered organisational overbuild, but with RKAS sections and supporters in Ukraine, Russia, Bulgaria and Georgia, and with anarchist-communism having prefigurative praxis at its heart, it would seem unduly harsh to criticise the RKAS for borrowing their organisational structure directly from the most successful libertarian communist mass movement of their country’s history.
In 2011, the Donetsk city sections of the RKAS split away to form what they called the International Union of Anarchists (MSA), which today claims organised “Local Council” sections in Ukraine, Russia, Belarus, Latvia, Spain, and Israel/Palestine, and links to organisations and individuals in Germany, Kazakhstan, Lithuania, France, Sweden, Tunisia and Syria . The MSA is mistakenly viewed by the IWA writer as an RKAS initiative, rather than a splinter and is criticised as an attempt to establish a “rival international” but there is nothing in anarchist ethics that prevents the development of parallel structures based on free association and federalism. According to its website, the MSA’s stated goal is the elimination of the state, hired labor, inequality, and private property, along with the widespread replacement of commodity-money relations with relations based upon principles of mutual equality and fraternity. This is to be achieved through the collaborative planning of self-managing teams of workers, tenants and consumers, along with the implementation of business activities in accordance with the principle of “from each according to his ability, to each according to his needs in the economic empowerment of society...”.
The MSA’s founding Memorandum of Association (2011) states that, “Denying the possibility of anarcho-communist revolution in single separated countries, and for the further coordination of actions of anarchistic organisations, we create the MSA.” The founding organisations such as RKAS “act due to their own memorandums, taking into account historically based sociologically-cultural traits” but are co-ordinated by a “Council” which reviews applications for membership (all active members have to be in consensus about a new member joining). “In case of need, the Council initiates preparations, discussions and approves decisions, actions, documents (programmes, memorandums, methodical recommendations), publishing and other kinds of activity, which are universal inside of MSA and made by all participating organisations. All controversial cases must be solved by negotiations; arbitration is possible by demand.” The MSA Programme, posted online in April 2014, aims at “an activity directed at creating a self-governing social system based on freedom, equality and cooperation. The purpose of [the UIA] assumes the destruction of the state, statism, social hierarchy, coercive (administrative) powers, the existing capitalist system, and all types of discrimination, coercion and exploitation. We recognise the preparation and implementation of a social revolution based on anarchist doctrine as means of achieving this goal.” [Texts slightly edited for clarity – Michael Schmidt].
Shevchenko's take on the MSA splinter is naturally severe, claiming that using the excuse of “anti-authoritarianism,” the splinter group “freed themselves from the 'dictatorship of the RKAS Organisational Bureau,' which had made them go to mines and factories and distribute [the RKAS] Anarchy newspaper, deal with trade unions and cooperatives, and build a well-disciplined Black Guard, [and] freed themselves from RKAS conference decisions, which put forth really constructive socio political tasks...” He claimed by June 2014 the anti-organisationists had effectively disappeared: "... where are all these new, unimaginable anti-authoritarian units, the creators of which weakened RKAS systematically and broke the anarchist movement into pieces by their arrival, thus not giving it any opportunity to organise itself into a strong, mass political organisation? Are they still sticking stickers, drawing graffiti no one wants, playing football and going to concerts?... This is the way naughty children behave, arranging holidays of disobedience and riots for the sake of their petty insults and games.... the old illnesses of being anti-organisational, destructive and irresponsible, which are brought to the level of a virtue and which undermine any constructive work. Anarchists, due to such absolutely absurd mistakes, have thus failed to establish the organisation. And all the attempts to establish the organisation within the framework of the RKAS project have given rise to a real Crusade against 'authoritarianism and extremism'. Both the situation in February 2013 and the current one have clearly shown all the helplessness of that amorphous form of infantile, subcultural anarchism, no matter what name it gave itself in the face of real historical events."
The IWA writer notes that the RKAS Congress of 2011 “decided to solve the questions about the division of responsibilities along the way, through horizontal and vertical connections within the organisation”: this is upheld as being evidence of “vertical structures” in the organisation, but at most it points to a very Makhnovist-like blend of vertical linkages where needed (military command-and-control), and horizontal linkages where needed (the submission of the militia to broader formations). In line with this, Shevchenko’s vision of a post-revolutionary society recognises the need for administrative and educational functions: “Do you think, there will be no teachers, directors or leading managers in an anarchist society? Just the vector of relations will change. Power over other people will be substituted by regulation of processes, and privileges will be replaced by a voluntary responsibility.” The RKAS practice of “entryism” into and recruiting among the “reformist-bureaucratic Independent Trade Union of Miners,” or the “anarcho-capitalist” Union of Anarchists of Ukraine (SAU), a weird registered political party that contests elections, is obviously controversial, but is hardly an unknown syndicalist tactic, that of capturing members of mainstream organisations for the revolution – and by the early 2000s, RKAS militants lead strike committees and workers’ councils on the mines of the Donetz Basin as their forebears had done during the Ukrainian Revolution. The organisation went through a slump in 2004 but was reformed with vigour in 2007, publishing a Programme of the RKAS which echoed the famous IWW Preamble in its recognition of only two, mutually hostile, classes – the bourgeoisie and the proletariat, though the boundaries between them "are not resistant (hereditary) and clearly drawn" – the results of which class structure was the "inequality of men in the actual possibilities to satisfy their needs (material and spiritual); [that] the vast majority of people can have no influence on decisions that touch on the main areas of private and social life; [and] the inevitability of wars, economic crises, unemployment, etc., etc,"
"So, the real and only alternative to the state-capitalist order is the stateless socialist society," which the RKAS defined as "a Soviet order (= Soviet system) according to our expectations [that] is no power of any party, not a 'party parliament', but the most perfect constructive form of stateless socialist self-management, which practical implementation took place in the experience of the Makhnovist movement (1918-1921) and the Spanish Revolution (1936-1939). Meetings of residents and factory workers freely choose their environment, their institutions of territorial and economic self-management – Councils – as exclusively technical and coordinating bodies, whose members in its activities, in the decisions of the running of meetings of their constituents, are accountable towards them, all privileges are stripped away and representatives may be recalled at any time and replaced. The inner life of each such territorial and economic unit is determined solely by its participants. Representatives of local Councils unite in a City Council or – in rural districts – in an economic County Council. In the scope of an area these Councils form a Federation; the union of Federations formed on the territory of the whole country, the national Confederation. The duties of the county, city, regional and national associations of Councils consist in the coordination of economic and social life in the necessary questions – primarily the planning and realisation of the national distribution of raw materials, energy, finished products, etc. The decisions of these associations are developed due to free agreements of representatives, representing the union of the local units; they affect only common problems. The economy of socialism, which is managed in the interests of all members of society, and not the owner and not even the collective farm level, must say goodbye to the chaotic, disorganised economy of capitalism, of its aspirations to profit at any cost, with its undue waste of forces and resources, including competition." This is classic anarchist horizontal federalism, run on directly democratic principles, and RKAS proposed to achieve this vision through a conventional Platformist focus on specific anarchist organisations engaging in daily activities acting as a revolutionary gymnasium, through which immediate gains build class confidence and capacity for self-management and the ultimate, transformative "Social Revolution," which it defined as a mass proletarian expropriation of the state and capital, rejecting any transitional state or "dictatorship of the proletariat" in favour of self-managing society in their own right.
The nameless IWA correspondent went further in their accusations, however, reporting that public debates took place between RKAS militants and “neo-fascists” in the city of Voronezh, adding the news of the “participation of its [RKAS] representatives [in the] Kiev Congress of National-‘Communists’ and National-‘Anarchists’ in the summer of 2012”. But this may merely demonstrate that RKAS was unafraid to debate its positions with all political factions in order to win the battle of ideas and create militants – in its Programme, the RKAS position was explicit, that its militants undertook to "fight against nationalism in all its manifestations, against fascism, militarism, clericalism and other anti-human movements and phenomena." Hardly the position of an organisation friendly to national-Bolshevism or national-anarchism. Again, let’s not forget that the original Makhnovists, while driven by specific anarchist-communist cores, were a hetereogenous organisation of the revolutionary left: and here is perhaps the only confusion in their structure, between mimicking Makno’s specifically anarchist-communist GAK organisation of tendency, and the mixed organisation of class of the Makhnovists themselves.
The most severe test of the modern Ukrainian anarchist movement's tactics, strategies and politics came in 2014 with the invasion of the Crimea by Russian forces, cloaked as "separatists" who wanted reunification with Russia, and the south-east of the country's descent into a low-level civil war as a result. The descent of parts of Ukraine into fratricidal war was precipitated by massed public demonstrations in Maidan Nezalezhnosti (Independence Square) in the capital Kiev, starting in November 2013, against President Viktor Yanukovych's geopolitical reorientation away from the European Union towards Russia's Customs Union. The demonstrations quickly escalated - provoked by swiftly-passed anti-protests laws - into demands for his resignation, and by February 2014, pitched battles were being fought between government forces and pro-European integration protestors occupying the Maidan and several key government buildings. According to an analysis by Kirill Buketov of the Global Labour Institute , “the Maidan,” as the movement itself became known - in echo of “the Square,” referring to Tahrir Square in Cairo, the heart of the Arab Spring uprising in Egypt in 2011-2012 - was overwhelmingly participated in by apolitical people, with a tiny fraction of 7% comprising “politicals” ranging from anarchists to nostalgic Stalinists and “right-wing ultras.” These last were a thorn in the side of the anarchists, forcibly preventing them from establishing a defensive Anarchist Squadron, Buketov stated, though this defeat seems to have turned them towards involvement in the Student's Assembly, which became “fully controlled by the anarchist students’ union Direct Action, and all of the Assembly’s slogans were social ones. Socialist agitation was under way at the Assembly, there were lectures, socially relevant films were shown.”
Direct Action is on comradely terms with the Autonomous Workers' Union (ACT) , formed in 2011 by anarchist and libertarian Marxist members of Direct Action; it currently does not have the critical mass necessary to establish a true union structure, but is a revolutionary syndicalist initiative that by April 2014 had locals in Kiev (about 25 members) and Kharkiv (about 15 members). Despite the ACT's links to the Maidan's Student's Assembly, Buketov's report points to a deeper problem with the Maidan movement, that it was overwhelmingly middle-class: “The weakness of the Maidan was insufficient involvement of trade unions and the working class. Only 5-7% of all Maidan participants could be categorised as workers, which, come to think of it, is natural: participation in a public protest is extremely complicated for workers” because as breadwinners, their priority is retaining their jobs. So, it is quite logical that the bulk of the protest movement was formed by students, pensioners, office clerks, civil servants, small entrepreneurs, etc. Furthermore, none of the Kiev left bothered to start agitation in workplaces, to try to bridge the protests and the workers’ community. The free trade unions’ call for a general political strike just hung in midair." An ACT member said in an interview that "social issues regarding the workers’ rights are not on the agenda at all. The working class, as a class, does not take part in these events at all. The workers naturally do take sides, but they are not organised in class-like organisations, in unions, as such they just don’t participate in these events. And they have good reasons for this, because both sides just talk about the cultural, political issues, which don’t have any direct connection to [the] needs of an average worker."
But far more severe problems loomed for the Euro-integrationist project of the Maidan, sometimes called Euromaidan because of its stance: firstly the swift rise to dominance of right-wing extremists within and outside its ranks; and secondly, the unfolding West-versus-Russia imperialist battle over spheres of influence that used Ukraine as a battlefield and its people as their cannon-fodder. In a January 2014 interview, RKAS' Shevchenko noted that “The Maidan militants consist mainly of activists of the so-called Right Sector [a 10,000-strong Ukrainian ultranationalist-fascist paramilitary coalition]... On the street, extreme nationalists and neo-Nazis rule. They have an unique opportunity to get a baptism of fire and be tempered in battles with the police. They set the tone of 'the revolutionary Maidan.' They are followed by the common people. The rightists organise, unite, throw slogans and conduct a strategy. And they get support from most citizens who came to the Maidan and who, at the beginning, wanted 'just' to express their dissatisfaction with the current government. In the evening of January 19, the Maidan split into 'the legals' [around the parliamentary opposition] and 'the illegals... the radicals leading the street fighting...” Buketov noted that "despite a large number of the left involved in the Maidan there was practically no coordination among them. Having joined the protests later than the right-wingers, the left instantly rushed into the thick of it and did not have time to create their own organisational structures – unlike the Right [...] Sector which managed to do that."
In Kharkiv, however, the ACT announced that as of February, it had been working within the Co-ordinating Council (Koordrada) of the city's Maidan. The ACT Kharkiv described the Koordrada (KR) as “a free association of all public organisations actively involved in Euromaidan. [The] Koordrada... is a horizontal structure in which all issues are resolved by consensus... 95% of it consists of liberals and the moderate right and left viewpoints. No Right Sector... nor ultra nor parliamentary parties are in Koordrada (in this respect, Kharkiv is an exception). Currently, KR is engaged in trying to create an independent media, while it attempts to rebuild Maidan [via] veche (popular assemblies)... Another direction of the KR in which anarchists take part are discussions with 'Antimaidan': they are for the Russian language, [but] against conflict with Russia, and against [the right-populist parliamentary party] Svoboda, etc. And the people who come to Antimaidan are from two sides - the Communists, and pro-Russian activists [an ACT member said the Communist Party of the Ukraine "for many years has had nothing to do with communism, its political programme and agenda [can be] rather described as conservative"]. Pro-Russian sentiment exists among the masses here, but it does not prevail. Further developments will depend on the behavior of Russian and Ukrainian troops. In the case of more or less peaceful developments, KR will perform independent grassroots building, pressuring authorities and trying to reduce their powers." However, peace was not forthcoming and the ACT soon inevitably found itself fighting the Antimaidan when the latter attacked the Kharkiv Maidan.
As veteran IWA activist Antti Rautianen said in May 2014 , although the Kharkiv Maidan insertion was in his view the "most successful anarchist intervention," the conflict with the Antimaidan saw "anarchists... fighting side by side with liberals and fascists. I do not want to criticize the Kharkiv anarchists; after all they made, perhaps, the most serious attempt among Ukrainian anarchists to influence the course of events, but this was hardly the fight, and these were hardly the allies, they wanted. And so, comes the point when desertion becomes imperative, and that is when civil war begins. As of now, it's still too early to make any final assessment of the anarchist attempts to influence Maidan, but after the beginning of a civil war, Maidan will no longer play a role. From now on, assembly will gradually turn to the army, and assault rifles will replace Molotov cocktails. Military discipline will replace spontaneous organisation." And this brings us to the rapid militarisation of the crisis in Ukraine. The toppling of the pro-Russian Yanukovych government precipitated Russia's military invasion, then annexation, of the Crimean peninsula. Rautianen claims that “none of the fears of 'fascist takeover' have materialised. Fascists gained very little real power, and in Ukraine their historical role will now be that of storm-troopers for liberal reforms demanded by the IMF and the European Union — that is, pension cuts, an up to five times increase in consumer gas prices, and others. Fascism in Ukraine has a powerful tradition, but it has been incapable of proceeding with its own agenda in the revolutionary wave. It is highly likely that the Svoboda party will completely discredit itself in front of its voters. But anyone attempting to intervene, anarchists included, could have encountered the same fate — that is, to be sidelined after all their effort. During the protests, anarchists and the 'left' were looking towards the Right Sector with envy, but in the end all the visibility and notoriety, for which they paid dearly, was not enough to help the Right Sector gain any real influence."
And yet, with the openly ultranationalist and white supremacist Azov Battalion of about 500 volunteers, formed under the aegis of the Ukrainian Ministry Internal Affairs and armed with tanks and heavy weapons sponsored by Ukraine’s third-richest oligarch, Igor Kolomoysky, Governor of the Dnipropetrovsk Oblast, engaging in open combat with Russian-backed separatists, concerns have been expressed about the role such fascists will perform in Ukrainian public life after the crisis is over. Ukraine has a strong fascist minority, that usually draws inspiration from the Organisation of Ukrainian Nationalists (OUN) and the Ukrainian Insurgent Army (UPA) which collaborated with the Nazis and participated in anti-Semitic genocide during World War II (the latter used a red-and-black flag, divided horizontally, which must not be confused with the anarcho-syndicalist red-and-black, divided diagonally). Clearly, the crisis has escalated into a partial civil war in at least the Donetsk and Luhansk Oblasts, with over 2,000 deaths. Much of the heaviest fighting has been taking place in the city of Donetsk and Shevchenko reported in his June 2014 interview that RKAS, already weakened by the anti-organisationist faction and the 2011 MSA split, decided to tactically dissolve and go underground: "As far as RKAS... is concerned, it does not exist anymore in the quality you have known it until now. Officially, but tacitly, RKAS was disbanded and its nucleus made the switch to illegal operations. Why did this happen? It happened because in the form RKAS had existed up to date, it did not meet the requirements of the time being. Though, in the same way, the whole anarchist movement – both in Russia and Ukraine – does not meet the requirements of today; and RKAS being a part of this movement hasn’t managed to overcome all those vices, which make the contemporary 'anarcho-movement' be not of the moment. All these years we’ve tried to create an effective project in the medium [term] where the project of such a kind was doomed to failure. RKAS was such a project. And time showed us the complete futility of our attempts.... Coming back to the fate of RKAS, I can say that its disappearance is just a tactical step. Perhaps, RKAS will re-emerge in a new capacity, taking into account all the mistakes and being modernized according to the situation; perhaps we will create something brand new or a couple of variants. But the spirit of RKAS and the idea of that kind of anarchism which we have been trying to achieve for more than 20 years now, will live on. We are not surrendering and we are not disappearing. For now, we have dissolved in time and space. For a little while."
The ideological confusion that crippled the RKAS, lead it to fail its sternest test – the Maidan uprising and the civil war over eastern Ukraine. Shevchenko is unsparing in his analysis: "I firmly believe that any social revolution is possible only in the presence of two factors. These are: massive public demand for radical change and the political organization of anarchist of the revolutionary wing, which will be able to organize and direct the process of change and consolidate its results. If the first factor is more or less present, and activity by the population has increased, the subjective factor is still absent. Political revolution is taking place. And political forces and those who are called the big bourgeoisie – or with a modern twist, the oligarchs – will take advantage of its results. But if we are talking about social revolution, then there is no serious demand for it, people, even if they see the changes, they see these changes only within the framework of purely political changes. And even those timid shoots of anti-authoritarian social revolutionism, which are not supported by a strong anti-authoritarian revolutionary organisation, will be crushed by the political agenda of the bourgeois and nationalist parties. I have already talked about the absence of anarchist organisation. This is the main problem of the modern anarchist movement and the cause of its collapse against the background of current developments. The things that are happening now in Ukraine and the fact that anarchists here have been unable to use the situation because they denied common sense for years and were enthralled by subcultural, anti-organisational illusions, provides much food for self-analysis. And it confirms all the conclusions and efforts which supporters of the project called 'RKAS - N.I. Makhno' attempted to carry out. The fact that it failed says a lot and answers the following question: 'Is it possible for anarchists to hope now to switch the activity of the masses to the plane of the social revolution?'. The organisation is a very important medium for the existence of ideas. It is an incubator, a school, a mutual aid society and a productive platform for ideas and projects; but most importantly, it is a tool of realising those ideas, it is an instrument of influence and an instrument of struggle. It cannot be replaced with affinity groups. Read Makhno, Arshinov, Volin, Bookchin, finally, and everything becomes clear. Anarchists now, like in 1917, have missed a unique opportunity to head the process."
Thursday, 27 July 2017
We have seen several curious reversals of the usual pecking order in world affairs regarding Africa’ status of late, not least of which have been the spectacle of Portugal begging for aid from its former colony Angola, and of European citizens relocating back to their former colonies, fleeing economic crisis in Europe for poorly-paid jobs in the African hinterland .
But there is a longer-lived and more secret relationship between Africa and Europe that overturns the conventional view of African presidents being corrupted by European aid-with-strings-attached; this is the phenomenon of la valise, “the suitcase” system of millions sent over decades by African dictators to corrupt the European political process. Seeing as how language differences divide common understanding between Francophone Africa and Anglophone Africa, the two largest colonial-language blocs, it is worth us here in the English-speaking part of the continent to examine this phenomenon so entrenched in Francophone African affairs – and now apparently spreading. The Center for French and Francophone Studies at Duke University in North Carolina hosted a debate on la valise on 5 October 2011 called “The Colonies Pay Back: Culture and Corruption in Franco-African Relations,” and this article comprises extracts from that debate.
Post-Colonial France, the “Suitcase Republic”
Philippe Bernard, the outgoing Le Monde correspondent for Africa, initiated the debate by noting that Robert Bourgi, Gaullist French President Nicolas Sarkozy’s unofficial advisor, had in September 2011 accused former socialist President Jacques Chirac and his Prime Minister Dominique de Villepin, who were in power from 1995-2007, of having received enormous bribes in the form of suitcases stuffed with cash, from five West and Central African states – the Congo, Burkina Faso, Senegal, Ivory Coast, and Gabon – to fund Chirac’s campaign. In a later interview with Canal+, Bourgi claimed that the 1988 campaign of far-right candidate Jean-Marie le Pen of the National Front, had also been partly funded by the valise. Chirac and de Villepin have denied Bourgi’s claims.
According to the Telegraph’s retelling of the tale, Bourgi claimed in an interview with Le Journal du Dimanche that he had personally “transported ‘tens of millions of francs’ each year, with the amounts going up in the run-up to French presidential elections – an intimation the cash was used to fund Mr Chirac's political campaigns. ‘I saw Chirac and Villepin count the money in front of me,’ he said. He alleged he regularly passed on bank notes from five African presidents: Abdoulaye Wade of Senegal [in power 2000-2012]; Blaise Campaoré of Burkina Faso [1987-today]; Laurent Gbagbo of Ivory Coast [2000-2011]; Denis Sassou Nguesso of the Congo [1997-today] and Omar Bongo of Gabon [1967-2009], whom Mr Bourgi called ‘Papa’. Together, he alleged they contributed £6.2-million to Mr Chirac's successful 2002 presidential campaign. A sixth leader, President Obiang N’Guema of Equatorial Guinea [1979-today] allegedly was the last member to join the cash donor club,” until, Bourgi claimed, a nervous de Villepin brought the system to a halt in 2005. Bourgi claimed he had personally run the valise system for 25 years and in exchange, the African dictators were granted huge reductions in their debt to France once their sponsored candidate attained office in the Elysée.
Bernard said he believed the system had arisen out of the notion of “France-Afrique, the confusion of French and African interests. It has been a public secret since [African] liberation in the 1960s: in 1960/61, deals were signed that France will use its power to defend the [African] regimes and France will have exclusive access to African raw materials and the right of France to intervene militarily in case of threats to African national security. In the 1980s, the Gaullists [then in opposition against François Mitterand’s Socialist government] were similarly accused – that a percentage of Gabonese oil revenues were allegedly used to finance their campaigns – but proof and public testimony was lacking.”
Professor Stephen Smith, former Africa editor of Libération, and Bernard’s predecessor at Le Monde, recalled rumours that “money smuggled in by Africans to the French Prime Minister’s office in djembe drums. The office has no air-conditioning, so the thought of him standing there with his sleeves rolled up counting it all is amusing.” On a serious note, however, Smith recalled that in 1971, at the very start of a reign that only ended in 1993, it was said that the first President of Ivory Coast, Félix Houphouët-Boigny, had donated “bags of money” to the conservative Georges Pompidou government. There was, Smith said, “a long contuinuity of the practice from the Gaullists [Charles de Gaulle was in power 1959-1969] to [the rightist Republican Valéry] Giscard d’Estaing [1974-1981], a continuity of conservative governments,” who had been propped up by la valise: “This amounts to a post-colonial ‘informal state,’ not on paper, but in practice.”
Remember that this period – the Fifth French Republic – was brought into being in 1958 by the crisis in France precipitated by the Algerian Liberation War. So we have half a century of African dictators, installed and propped up by French military power, who in turn propped up with African oil and other revenue, a string of conservative sister regimes in France – although Smith said that the valise system in the six countries also worked via French companies working in parallel in the former colonies: one paid the French conservative Gaullists; the other paid the French socialists and communists. Given France’s strategic position within Europe, its influence only matched by Germany and Britain, anyone able to buy the French Presidency in effect purchases huge influence in Europe itself – so progressive politics on both continents appear to have been bedeviled by these secret transactions.
Smith said that his first newspaper scoop on the secret practice regarding the shadowy character of Bourgi, was in 1995 for Libération when he wrote about the unprocedural write-off of Zaïrean dictator Mobutu Sese Seko’s debts: Mobutu “raised his little staff and I was afraid he would hit me! Robert Bourgi earned €600,000 from Mobuto to put out the fire – and he earned €1-million to stop a book that I was writing.”
Bourgi’s “accounting is pristine; he deals only in cash, so there is little to prove.” The bribe money was later deposited in South African or Lebanese bank accounts, Smith claimed. The reach of Bourgi’s unofficial power was considerable: Smith claimed that when Sarkozy wanted a rare photo-opportunity with South Africa’s now-reclusive and elderly Nelson Mandela, Bourgi simply phoned up “Papa,” Gabonese President Omar Bongo, who persuaded the old man to agree to fly to Paris for the meeting in 2007.
The Suitcase System Expands
Prof Achille Membe, a specialist in post-colonial Africa, responded that the valise system was one of “mutual corruption” that has “shackled France and Africa for decades”: “The relationship is not only corrupt in terms of money… It’s a deeper form of cultural corruption that has emasculated somewhat African civil societies. In terms of the future, France still has military bases in Africa and can kick out a Gbagbo. But when France has to pay a heavy price [for intervention], it will think twice.”
Bernard said that as France’s grip on the African continent started to be eclipsed militarily (by the USA in particular ), in terms of the Francophone African CFA currency which is linked to the embattled Euro, in terms of French companies losing their exclusive relationships with African regimes as the International Monetary Fund took the reins in many countries and as Chinese, Brazilian and Indian investment poured into the continent, Sarkozy wanted the “network of go-betweens” such as Bourgi, who had “operated as a parallel diplomat,” to end.
Smith agreed that France now made more money from its relations with Anglophone Africa – South Africa and Kenya in particular – than it did from its former colonies, but warned that “now you’ve got a multiplication of the French exceptionalist models: China’s Africa relationship is as corrupt as the French; the French preserve and privilege has now become globalised.” Membe added that in his view, the waning of the French star in Africa – despite French remaining a dominant African language, and despite the existence of an African Diaspora literati in France – was that France itself “has entered a process of re-provincialising,” of monocultural conservatism and retreat from world affairs.
Membe said that “Robert Bourgi’s ‘revelations’ weren’t revelations in Africa. In Francophone Africa, this hasn’t been perceived as a scandal” because the prevailing cynicism about Franco-African relations was underscored by a long-term trend of the decline of the importance of France to its former colonies: “Geography is no longer centred on Paris… Robert Bourgi and others are the last spasms of a dead proposition, something that is on its knees, no longer historical but anecdotal… France will become a parenthesis.”
But it is very far from clear whether the valise system has indeed come to an end and lost its ability to shape African history. Smith said that Sarkozy’s own reputation was in doubt as he had written off 40% of the debts of Congo and of Gabon – whereas Chirac had capped the write-offs at only 8%, so suspected payments to Sarkozy would have been “a good investment by African leaders.” If Sarkozy is also involved, then Bourgi’s end-game in speaking out about the valise system after 25 years – and claiming it ended with Chirac – is clearly not aimed at tarnishing Chirac, who is a dying man and a spent political force, but rather to threaten Sarkozy while he is still President, forcing him to allow Bourgi to retire smoothly, without fear of prosecution, aged 67, to his newly-purchased mansion in Corsica.
Smith said the roots of the system lay in the fact that “when Europeans came to Africa, they ‘unbuttoned’ themselves,” initiating the corrupt relationship. But it takes two to tango, so what of the agency of African leaders themselves? “If I was an African leader today,” Smith admitted, “I’d still ‘invest’ in France because the United Nations, IMF etc will turn to France when they need assistance in Africa – despite it having lost leverage as a one-stop centre – so African leaders’ choices will still count.”
It is clear the suitcase system will continue, although likely spreading to include several newly invested powers – the USA, China, Brazil, India and South Africa – and ironically, with continental growth at 5.5%, peripheral Africa’s ability to influence and corrupt political affairs in the metropole may well even increase.