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The Dance of the Undead

erstellt von Peter Waterman zuletzt verändert: 17.09.2012 21:15
Not only at Marikana, Not only in South Africa...

Peter Waterman

The term undead describes beings in mythology, legend or fiction that
are deceased yet behave as if alive. A common example is a corpse
re-animated by supernatural forces by the application of the deceased's
own life force or that of another being (such as a demon). Undead may
be incorporeal like ghosts, or corporeal like vampires and zombies.'

Introduction [1]

I can still remember my fury and frustration after hearing of the Sharpeville Massacre, 1960. I had attended Communist student conferences with the charismatic Albie Sachs. And I took part in Anti-Apartheid protests in the UK along with Kadar Asmal. Both, regrettably, eventually found their homes in the problematic post-Apartheid regime in South Africa.

I also have recognise responsibility for my longtime commitment to three global movements that in Marikana have been exposed as naked under their empty rhetoric, within their uniforms, behind their flags – now co-responsible for their very own Sharpeville.

Before expanding on this I have to say that my involvement with and knowledge about South Africa has, over the decades, been only for certain periods and - except for the post-Apartheid years - at a distance. Both before and after the end of Apartheid, it has been primarily with or through movements of international solidarity, mostly those of labour. But because of a cosmopolitan Jewish Communist background and involvement with a range of South Africans involved in social struggles there, South Africa has always been on my mind.

Confronted, August 2012 with the Marikana Massacre, I could not but recall this poem of W.H. Auden, about the August of the Soviet invasion that I experienced in Prague, 1968.

The Ogre does what ogres can,
Deeds quite impossible for Man,
But one prize is beyond his reach:
The Ogre cannot master speech.

About a subjugated plain,
Among its desperate and slain,
The Ogre stalks with hands on hips,
While drivel gushes from his lips.

The Three-Party Alliance – and the MEC makes Four

The South African state is governed by a tripartite alliance of three 20th century (or earlier) movements with emancipatory claims, projecting each its own utopia:

  1. The African National Congress promising a utopia of national citizens (‘the people shall govern’);
  2. Cosatu promising a labourist utopia (more recently, full employment and ‘quality jobs’);
  3. A Communist Party promising ‘to end the system of capitalist exploitation and establish a socialist republic based on the common ownership of the means of production [2]

But there is a very real fourth party to the alliance. This is the Minerals, Energy (and Financial) Complex (MEC), the one that has best survived and most benefited from the end of Apartheid. And whilst invisible in the Tripartite Alliance, and the Constitution, its vampire role has been dramatically revealed by the Marikana Massacre.

Now, when an irresistible force meets an immovable object, something’s got to give. In this case the force has been 21st century capitalism, red in tooth and claw. And the immovable objects in the Tripartite Alliance have revealed themselves as extremely mutable.

The nature, process and outcome of the transition from Apartheid have been well identified by critical writers in South Africa, in such phrases as ‘Elite Transition’ (Patrick Bond) ‘Lost in Transformation’ (Sampie Terreblanche on the MEC), ‘Coup by the Connected and Corrupt’ (Mark Heywood on the undermining of the Constitution), ‘Gaining Influence, Losing Power’ (Sakhela Buhlungu on Cosatu), ‘The end of the anti-apartheid democratic labour movement’ (Khanya Journal on Cosatu), ‘A Vanguard of ANC Factionalism’ (Dale McKinley on the SACP). For all of these and a multiplicity of other voices, check the frequent compilations on Marikana posted on the invaluable South African Debate List.

Some features/tendencies of 21st century capitalism

If national, labour, communist and labourist utopias are running out of any conceivable emancipatory potential, this is because of the ongoing capitalist revolution. It is mostly identified in terms of globalisation and neo-liberalism (actually palaeo-liberalism). To these features we have to add informatisation, financialisation, tercerisation and precarisation. Allied with these are

  • The combination of political democracy and social fascism (Boaventura de Sousa Santos);
  • The emptying out of even that political democracy, as shown by the speed of state bank bail-outs (too big to fail) at the cost of the poor (too weak to resist);
  • Increasing commodification, the relationship between human beings being ever-more that of the cash nexus, signified by the increasing conversion of the citizen into a consumer (following 9/11 the US President urged a traumatised population ‘to go shopping’)
  • The failure to even slow ecological devastation, with radical action systematically stymied at inter-state conferences, this accompanied with an the increasing flow of ‘greenwash’;
  • Increasing waves of ethnocentrism, racism, xenophobia;
  • Increasing local, national, international violence, where the implicit justification is the 19th century colonial one: ‘The difference is that we have got the Gatling gun and they have not’. And, of course, there are those international courts in The Hague, concentrating on the small-scale African or Balkan criminals, whilst unable to touch the big British and American ones.

Not only in South Africa

The present crisis of capitalist civilisation may be sharper and more dramatic in South Africa than elsewhere. This is obviously due to the equally dramatic replacement of the Apartheid state by a liberal-democratic/social-liberal one. And to the relative novelty, fragility and contradictions within and between the three parties named. The result? Political democracy and social fascism indeed!

However, the crisis striking the three identified parties is not unique to South Africa:

  • In the South, consider the case of Brazil, where the working-class composition of the Workers Party was transformed into one of the rising middle class. The CUT (trade union) and Worker Party President, Lula da Silva, has combined significant redistribution (Bolsa Familia) to the poorest of the poor with neo-liberal economic policies. But the income differentials continue to rival those of South Africa. And meanwhile we witness the Rise and Decline of Brazil’s New Unionism (Jeffrey Sluyter-Beltrao 2010).
  • In the East – the Communist homeland - we witness either, 1) the seriously illiberal democracy of a Russia in which the former state-controlled unions are hamstrung by their devotion to tripartism and crippled by privatisation and deindustrialisation, and where power rests with ex-KGB apparatchiki (Soviet origin of the Machista Prime President), favoured oligarchs and a state-subservient church, or 2) The self-transformation of the Chinese Communist party and state into a corrupt authoritarian industrialising capitalist regime, presiding over state-subordinated trade unions – whilst labour and popular protest movements rival those of South Africa.
  • In Western Europe we have seen the collapse of mass Communist and Social-Democratic parties, the crisis of trade unions wedded to social-partnership and the capitalist welfare state, crippled by privatisation, precarisation, anti-labour legislation, and outsourcing. Whilst most-clearly evident in semi-peripheral Greece and Spain, the poverty and anti-labour legislation in these countries is leaking upstream to the social-reformist heartland.

Is another South Africa (and world) possible?

The undead do not die. These corpses can be ‘re-animated by supernatural forces by the application of the deceased's own life force’. This supernatural is, in South Africa, actually social - the inertial force of what exists over what is yet to be born.

What is, however, surely demonstrated by the dance of the undead in South Africa is the necessity for another emancipatory movement, with another kind of utopia. Confronted with dystopia, we are condemned to being utopian (Sousa Santos again).

This means the re-imagination of emancipation, this time without the illusion that capitalism, state-ism, industrialism, modernisation, developmentalism, represent or allow for human flourishing, for a reinvention of Ubuntu, [3] for rights granted also to Pachamama (Mother Earth in the Andes), of emancipation as the overcoming of all forms of alienation (the destruction of previous rights and powers, the denial of present capacities and future human possibilities).

Invisible or emergent in South Africa well before Marikana (as elsewhere) are social protests, movements, networks, writings that propose such elements of human emancipation as

  • the democratisation of democracy (recognising this as something that must spread and deepen or shrivel and die),
  • the protection and expansion of the commons,
  • useful (as distinguished from ‘decent’) work, requiring the surpassing of wage-slavery
  • the active acceptance (not passive tolerance) of sexual minorities,
  • an equal dialogue of civilisations instead of a war of Gatling gun wielders against the Others,
  • global solidarity movements owned by those addressed (not their jet-setting leaders)
  • universal disarmament, beginning with unilateral acts,
  • consumption serving human needs and ecological flourishing,
  • the real - rather than token, commoditised or fetishised - emancipation of women,
  • the emancipation of cyberspace
  • (fill as required)

The undead do not commit suicide. They have not only their own ‘life force’ but their own – conservative or reactionary – utopias.

Within the left and labour movements of South Africa (and elsewhere) this utopia is a backward-looking one, the explicit or implicit reference of which is a 1970s Sweden (idealised). This unexamined utopia is universalised and projected onto the world stage. It is here best represented by that Mecca of ‘social partnership’, the International Labour Organisation (another Tripartite Alliance, in which the self-subordination of unionised labour is signified by the century-old 75% voting power of state and capital). The dream, however, of a Global Neo-Keynesianism does not take account of 1) why it has run into the ground in its North-West European homeland nor, 2) whether it could possibly be hoisted to the global level, nor 3) of the self- and us-destructive nature of capitalism, whether Keynesian or Friedmanite.

Is another emancipatory movement possible?

Marcos is gay in San Francisco, Black in South Africa,
an Asian in  Europe, a Chicano in San Ysidro, an anarchist in Spain,
a Palestinian in Israel, a Mayan Indian in the streets of San Cristobal,
a Jew in Germany, a Gypsy in Poland, a Mohawk in Quebec,
a pacifist in Bosnia, a single woman on the Metro at 10pm,
a peasant without land, a gang member in the slums, an unemployed worker,
an unhappy student and, of course, a Zapatista in the mountains.

Marcos is all the exploited, marginalised, oppressed minorities
resisting and saying 'Enough'. He is every minority who is now beginning
to speak and every majority that must shut up and listen. He is every
untolerated group searching for a way to speak. Everything that makes
power and the good consciences of those in power uncomfortable — this is
Marcos. (Subcomandante Marcos [Rafael Sebastián Guillén Vicente] 1997)

Expressed poetically (and individualistically), from the mountains of South-Western Mexico, this is a powerful evocation and prescient expression of the new emancipatory movement(s) that have spread worldwide a decade and more later. They have their often momentary, weak or inchoate expressions in South Africa. And as Naomi Klein commented on this text later, it expresses an anti-elitist notion of leadership: ‘we are the leader we’ve been looking for’.

Trade unionists and other labour vanguardists may be disappointed that he didn’t mention them, or employed workers, at all! But maybe this will provoke them to reflect on an organisational form and occupational status that today provides no privileged emancipatory role. Trade unions, for that matter, can today only effectively defend themselvesw within and under capitalism insofar as both the union organisation and class-category re-invent themselves in the light of what Marcos here suggests. In so articulating themselves primarily with the other exploited and alienated, they may contribute to the construction of an emancipatory movement that has learnt from the limitations and disappointments of the traditional nationalist, communist and trade union movements.

Note that the sense of intersectional [4] solidarity expressed by Marcos is also internationalist. It suggests the interdependence of those identified.

Such an understanding is to be contrasted with that of at least the SACP and the ANC, whose complicity with the Soviet invasion of its Communist ally, Czechoslovakia, 1968, was at least implicitly justified by the prioritisation of national liberation over and against solidarity with workers and peoples subject to Soviet imperialism. Cosatu and its predecessor, Fosatu, having been born after (and actually despite) ANC-SACP domination of the anti-apartheid movement in general and the union movement in particular, supported the Polish workers against the Communist-Military Dictatorship of Jaruzelski, and, more recently, has taken dramatic action against Chinese Communist arms shipments to the authoritarian regime of Mugabe in Zimbabwe. Cosatu has also shown itself willing to openly debate its international relations. The possibility therefore still exists of Cosatu breaking out of the iron cage of traditional union elite inter-nationalism and contributing to a new kind of global solidarity unionism (Waterman 2012).

Conclusion: beyond Marx

Communism is for us not a state of affairs which is to be established, an ideal to which reality [will] have to adjust itself. We call communism the real movement which abolishes the present state of things. The conditions of this movement result from the premises now in existence. (Marx 1845)

Karl Marx, the 19th century prophet of emancipation and international solidarity, based on industrial capitalism’s production of its own gravediggers, the industrial proletariat, got this wrong. [5] As he did about the conditions for this movement being then in existence. Where, however, this passage speaks to us today is in its declaration that emancipation is not a state of affairs (or an affair of states?), that it is not an ideal (preached on behalf of the exploited by intellectual or political vanguards). Nor, given its embodiment in states (mostly collapsed due to their oppression of workers and peoples), in ideas (mostly archaic dogma in the mouths of those substituting for the workers, the people). It does however, provoke us to ask whether the premises for a global (holistic as well as worldwide and cyberspatial) movement are not now in existence. And then to address ourselves to, identify with and take part in ‘the real movement that abolishes the present state of things’. And this not only in South Africa.


[This is not a detailed bibliography but a list of resources, including relevant books, that should be useful to those interested to follow up the essay. PW]

Bond, Patrick. 2000. The Elite Transition: From Apartheid to Neoliberalism in South Africa. London: Pluto. And

Buhlungu, Sakhela. 2010. ‘Gaining Influence, Losing Power: Cosatu’s Contested Future’, Chapter 8, A Paradox of Victory: Cosatu and the Democratic Transformation in South Africa. Scottsville: University of Kwazulu-Natal Press.

Crenshaw, Kimberlé. 1993. ‘Mapping the Margins: Intersectionality, Identity Politics, and Violence Against Women of Color’. And

Harvey, Ebrahim. 2007. ‘Whither the Congress of South African Trade Unions?’.

Heywood, Mark. 2012. ‘Coup by the Connected and Corrupt’. Mail and Guardian. August 31.

Khanya Journal. 2012. ‘Editorial Statement: From Ficksburg to Marikana: South Africa’s Post-Apartheid Democracy on Trial!

Macpherson, C. B. 1962. The Political Theory of Possessive Individualism : From Hobbes to Locke. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Marcos, Subcomandante. Marx, Karl. 1845. The German Ideology.

McKinley, Dale. 2012. ‘The Struggle of Memory against Forgetting: How the SACP Has Become a Vanguard of ANC Power Factionalism’.

Sluyter-Beltrao, Jeffrey. 2010. Rise and Decline of Brazil’s New Unionism: The Politics of the Central Única dos Trabalhadores. Basel: Peter Lang.

Terreblanche, Sampie. 2012. Lost in Transformation: South Africa's Search for a New Future since 1986. Sandton: KMM Review Publishing Company.

[1]I here expand on my comments at the final panel of the African National Congress 100th Anniversary Conference, held at the International Institute of Social Studies, The Hague, September 10, 2012. It was a useful and mostly critical academic event. I had been tempted to call for a two-minute silence that I am sure would have been accepted by the overwhelming majority of conference participants. It could have turned a critical academic analytical event into a global civil society or social movement one.
[2]The major 20th century movement missing here is the Social-Democratic (now social-liberal), incremental, one, often in office but never in power, and today represented by a congeries of left-neo-liberal parties, promising, at best, a return to or revival of some Swedish Utopia of the 1970s, now on a world scale. We should also not forget the literally reactionary apocalyptical religious social movements, nor the political-populist movements – ‘right’ or ‘left’ - both with their explicit or implicit utopias, the latter represented at Marikana and in South Africa more generally by the charismatic Julius Malema.
[3]The Ubuntu notion, that I am who I am because of other people, would seem to be in polar opposition to the liberal bourgeois notion that I am who I am despite other people – ‘the political theory of possessive individualism’ (C.B. Macpherson 1962). An emancipatory ontology might require a synthesis or surpassing of the suggested opposition.
[4]‘Intersectionality’ (Kimberle Crenshaw 1989) is a Black feminist concept from the USA. Despite its apparent blandness, it undermines the notion of a homogenous ‘woman’ (or ‘worker’?) and argues the interdependence of the multiple forms of oppression.
[5]In South Africa, followers of Marx (plus Lenin and/or Trotsky) nonetheless continue to prioritise both ‘point of production’ struggles and formation of a workers’ party. See the otherwise quite 21st century critique of Cosatu and analysis of the new social movements by Ebrahim Harvey (2007). The party model he recommends is, significantly and unfortunately, that of the Brazilian PT!

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