The dirty price of a quick fix

The World Bank is yet again on the brink of providing a loan that will have only negative effects for the poor and the environment. South Africa faces a power crisis at the moment and it is looking to the parastatal Eskom, which in turn is looking to the ever-willing World Bank to provide a US$4 billion loan. This loan is primarily intended to finance the world’s fourth biggest carbon-emitting power plant and fund similar projects that will supposedly address the issue of power in South Africa. At the end of the month we will know whether or not the World Bank will go ahead with the contract – one that will reiterate its neglect for the poor, apathy for environmental issues and ongoing affair with big business. In South Africa and around the world the movement against this proposed loan is gaining momentum, and critics of the contract have been imploring the global loan sharks to cancel the deal because of the adverse effects that it would have on the already burdened region.

Whilst Eskom may claim that the new coal initiative is the only way to resolve the crisis, others have proposed much simpler solutions that the powers-that-be tend conveniently to overlook. In South Africa at the moment the 138 biggest corporations in bed with Eskom pay as little as a sixth of the price for their electricity as the average household does. Rectifying this unjust system, as recommended by economist Patrick Bond, would hugely assist efforts to deal with the power crisis. When in private hands, as we have seen so often in the past, services become far from public in their focus. And as if the situation for the poor communities couldn’t get any worse, Eskom have proposed a 35 per cent increase in costs every year for the next three years to help remedy the crisis. Average township household electricity bills are predicted by Eskom to rise from US$47 to an astonishing $132 over the next 3 years. The poor are being burdened with an electricity crisis that has been created by big business, whose insatiable appetites will be satisfied by the new power plant, for the time being. At the same time serious health concerns for those (obviously poor) communities surrounding the new power plant and new coal mines have been voiced, as well as the fact that Eskom is a struggling company that made huge losses last year. Through miscalculations the company lost almost half of the amount that they are requesting from the Bank.  

Moreover, at the climate summit in Copenhagen, South Africa was supposedly on the frontline of the movement of nations demanding genuine action on climate change, with its Government considering itself a champion of green initiatives. Over the last few weeks, however, their position has come under intense scrutiny as, aside from the effect the contract will have on the poor, it will seriously undermine efforts to address climate issues. In order to supply the new generators, Eskom intends to create 40 new coal mines. South Africa aims to reduce its emissions by 18 per cent by 2020, but if this new initiative goes ahead, that figure would seem to be increasingly illusive.

At the end of March the World Bank will state its position and the global movement campaigning to keep coal in the hole will see if they have done enough to deny a contract that will leave South Africa financially and environmentally indebted, whilst the poor foot the bill.

I Am A Rebel

Dennis Brutus

On 26th December 2009 the global anti-neoliberal, anti-capitalist movement lost a powerful and respected African voice in poet and activist Dennis Brutus. Last week we heard of the death of American historian and friend to Brutus, Howard Zinn, and with this came tributes from academics and freedom fighters everywhere, including the likes of Naomi Klein and Noam Chomsky. Likewise, the death of Brutus received tributes from many of those who knew him, as well as those who were simply inspired by his determination and dedication to causes that he had spent his entire life pursuing. Among those paying tribute were Amy Goodman (Democracy Now!), Sokari Ekine (fellow New Internationalist main siteger and voice behind the Black Looks blog) and the late Howard Zinn. After overcoming the sadness of his death, people worldwide dedicated the month of January to celebrating the life of Dennis Brutus.

Brutus’ activist path began under the rule of apartheid government in South Africa. One of his first endeavours was ensuring that a segregated South Africa did not take part in the Olympics, as they operated a ‘Whites only’ policy in international sports. Dennis campaigned against this in the early 1960s and saw its success when South Africa was eventually expelled from the Olympic movement in 1970. During this decade Dennis was ‘banned’ under the Suppression of Communism Act, fled over the border, was arrested, shot in the back whilst escaping police custody and eventually shipped to Robben Island where he carried out his sentence in the prison cell next to Nelson Mandela’s. Whilst imprisoned. Brutus spent time writing poetry and after his death left the world with 13 collections of his work. Towards the end of the 1960s Brutus was based in England, where he continued his campaign against the segregationist regime in his homeland. He then spent a large part of his life in the United States, never letting up on his dedication to activism and poetry. When Brutus returned to South Africa to witness the end of apartheid he was at a crossroads and could, like many who campaigned alongside him, have taken a seat in parliament and lived a rich life. Alternatively, he could have continued addressing the ills of the world and fighting relentlessly for a fairer society. As to be expected he chose the latter – campaigning against structural adjustment and the infamous culprits who force-feed it down the throats of developing countries, campaigning against the atrocities committed in Gaza, against racism, climate change, and all the while blessing us with his poetic accounts of our world. 

Throughout the month of January Patrick Bond, friend and director of South Africa’s Centre for Civil Society, wrote updates on tributes taking place worldwide celebrating Dennis’ life and work. From Philadelphia, Washington and New York to Benin, Zimbabwe, South Africa and the World Social Forum in Brazil. One of the final events to be held was here in Harare, the city of Dennis’ birth, where people recollected encounters, no matter how brief, with the man. The event was open to the public and had an atmosphere that encouraged people to step up and share their thoughts. He was touchingly likened by one Zimbabwean pro-democracy activist who had met him to Santa Claus, not merely because of his snowy beard but also because of the gifts he showered, and through his poetry will continue to shower, upon those who face similar battles with injustice. A film called I Am A Rebel, named after a poem of his, was shown and pieces were read from his collection of poetry to commemorate the life and beliefs of a true African rebel:

I am a rebel and freedom is my cause

I am a rebel and freedom is my cause.
Many of you have fought similar struggles
Therefore you must join my cause:
My cause is a dream of freedom
And you must help me make my dream reality.
For why should I not dream and hope?
Is not revolution making reality of hopes?
Let us work together that my dream may be fulfilled
that I may return with my people out of exile
to live in one democracy in peace.
Is not my dream a noble one
Worthy to stand beside freedom struggles everywhere?

Their guilt

Is not so very different from ours:
— who has not joyed in the arbitrary exercise of
or grasped for himself what might have been
and who has not used superior force in the
moment when he could,
(and who of us has not been tempted to these
things?) —
so, in their guilt,
the bared ferocity of teeth,
chest-thumping challenge and defiance,
the deafening clamour of their prayers
to a deity made in the image of their prejudice
which drowns the voice of conscience,
is mirrored our predicament
but on a social, massive, organised scale
which magnifies enormously
as the private deshabille of love
becomes obscene in orgies.

© Dennis Brutus

Voices from below

When I started blogging for the New Internationalist I hoped to give a voice to the characters in this Zimbabwean saga who find themselves overshadowed in the international arena by governmental actors. The ‘heroes’ and ‘villains’ of an African dictatorship. Often mainstream media can lead one to believe that those who will effect change in Zimbabwe, or those campaigning for it, are solely represented by the opposition party in parliament. One might be excused for forgetting that at a grassroots level there are networks advocating socio-political change in this Southern African state.

I know Biko from artistic circles. He is a local youth activist, gifted MC, poet and part of the Uhuru network, a local youth organization. As we stand in a car park in the midday heat ready to start the interview, his mannerisms and dress sense (including matching black beret) immediately speak of a person with revolutionary tendencies, a voice of the youth and its yearnings for a free society.  

Dikson: What youth projects are being run by Uhuru and other youth networks at the moment?

Biko: The Uhuru network is focusing on cultural activism, so we run a bimonthly community arts show. We are based in five communities; Highfields, Glenora, Glenview, Chitungwiza and Mbare, and we rotate the hosting of these shows in the various communities. At the shows we have our artists from the Toyi Toyi Arts Collective within the Uhuru Network as well as an open mic session, so that artists and young people in the area can find a platform for expression. Our second project is on the media side of things – a way of promoting media rights and freedom of expression. We produce a bimonthly community newsletter, we have contributions from community members and from Uhuru members. We edit the newsletter collectively and then distribute the publication into the communities. Our current campaign concerns transitional justice and good governance so, although we do have articles that speak to other issues affecting the communities. We have found that young people feel that the constitution-making process, which is taking place at the moment, is the best opportunity to address issues of transitional justice, so we’re getting into 2010 with the hope of accelerating our campaign for a democratic constitution. 

We also run a bimonthly film night where we show films/documentaries and discuss them afterwards. It is a project run by the Popular Education Collective with the aim of building awareness and consciousness as to the politics of Uhuru. We describe ourselves as an anarcho-communist organization and we try to build notions of anarcho-communist politics through these platforms. We find that the film screening is an extremely effective way to get the youth to engage in political discussion. We also run study groups where we circulate pamphlets from some of our partners, especially the Zabalaza Anarchist Communist Front in South Africa. It is by and large this selection of pamphlets that makes up the Uhuru library and provides the basis for political discussion. We have also been involved in recording and producing music, including a community radio CD, to express ourselves. We want to demystify the whole notion of community radio and we are hoping that in this new constitution there will be a framework whereby we can open up the airwaves and at some point establish a community radio station. These are the projects that we are running.

D: You’ve emphasized the new constitution-making process, something many critics of the regime are sceptical about, as they view it as a politically motivated distraction for the Government’s critics. Can you explain more about it and why you feel it’s an important process for you to be involved in?

B: As a result of the Global Political Agreement between the MDC and ruling Zanu PF there was an all-stakeholders conference convened in July where members agreed that they needed to create a new and more democratic constitution. So in the last six months the Constitutional Commission, which consists of members of the political parties and civil servants, should have been set up and started engaging with communities to hear people’s views as to what should be contained in this new constitution. However, what has happened as a result of the bickering between the MDC and Zanu PF is that the outreach process has not started. As recently as last week the Constitutional Commission and its various thematic committees were set up and we are expecting that from January to December 2010 the commission is going to be engaging the people. Hopefully towards the end of December the views gathered from around Zimbabwe will be presented to the drafting committee and then maybe sometime in January or February of next year we will have a constitutional referendum.

Our strategy is that in the five communities in which we operate in Harare we should be able to attend every constitutional outreach meeting and articulate each community’s demands. However, the most important thing for you to note is that that I am not very optimistic! We still think that Zanu PF and the MDC will seek to manipulate this process and come up with a constitution that suits the politicians and their parties. They have deep vested interests and we think that they dominate the Constitutional Commission. However, the reason we are aiming to participate in this process is that only through participation will we be able to use a blueprint of what was demanded in the meetings as a measurement against the final outcome. This is the only way we will be able to challenge what is finally decided in the constitution.

D: Youth have been used effectively by government in the past as a militarized tool to maintain power. How can this be addressed so that this generation is reintegrated into society?

B: We have names of people who have undergone militia training at the hands of government who have certainly been involved in political violence, because the process of recruitment was systematic. Only when we have a legitimate government, not this transitional authority, can we embark on a process of national healing, and one of its key components must be the rehabilitation of these young people. There are initiatives currently being run to help victims of violence, sexual abuse and torture, such as the Tree of Life programme, which a number of our membership have been through. However, we think that only through legitimate governance can these rehabilitative healing processes be done on an overt national level rather than on an underground level.

D: How do Uhuru and other networks keep in touch with global youth movements?

B: Our link has been primarily ideological and in the region our strength is mostly in South Africa, where we have been attending the Khanya College Winter School where we network with social movements. There we share a commonality of issues surrounding community service delivery. We have also built a solid link within the Southern African Solidarity Network; we belong to a community of practice called the Cultural Activist Network, where we maintain contact with groups mainly in South Africa. We are part of the global Indymedia collectives and Uhuru is also affiliated with the International Anarchist Federation which gives us a platform for international solidarity. We have been working with an organization called Kufunda Village and they belong to a network called the Berkana exchange, through which we have been able to meet comrades from Los Angeles, Oaxaca in Mexico and some movements in Canada. These are our links now, but we think we need to expand and concretize links globally so that we can have practical solidarity initiatives and enhance the voice of our struggle.

D: Whilst youth movements in Zimbabwe are focused on achieving basic freedoms, do we have a role in addressing wider global issues?

B: Wider issues such as climate change are important to us. However, we feel that it is the industrial players, the corporations, and the governments that sanction certain development paths. So it’s a bigger fight and a necessary struggle because we can see it affecting us here as rain patterns change and climate fluctuates. We are reliant on agriculture, so the change in climate affects us greatly. All the same, we have tried to address these issues at a community level due to our capacity. We are struggling with waste management, we have been advocating for recycling, we have a permaculture collective in the Uhuru network and we have been establishing organic urban gardens at disused community centres. However, we feel that our capacity and current political situation inhibit us from having much effect. What we need to focus on before we can join wider movements such as those addressing climate issues is ensuring freedom in Zimbabwe. We know a bourgeois government is not enough and the struggle will go on but we urge people to support us. Our New Year’s resolution is a people’s democratic constitution!

Corruption is Forever

The last time I was in Zimbabwe I had an encounter with a local arts and crafts vendor who has a stall in one of Harare’s bustling flea markets. On this occasion he seemed disinterested in flaunting his archetypal Zimbabwean sculptures of mothers cradling their young or the clichéd soapstone wildlife roaming his rickety tabletop. He had become involved in the burgeoning diamond industry that had sprung up in an area of the Eastern Highlands of Zimbabwe called Marange District, where there are significant deposits of high-value industrial diamonds. He spoke of the astounding profit margins available to foreign buyers and how well he was doing as a middleman in this new venture. Inevitably, with the diamond trade’s crimson history, these stones were not being unearthed at a co-operative mine where the benefits enriched the soil from which they came. Rather, they brought with them increased violence and corruption to a people that know hardship and injustice all too well.

The situation in Chiadzwa (the specific area where the mines are located) is riddled with illegality and violence. Firstly, at the time of the diamond rush in 2006, the mining rights had been privately owned by African Consolidated Resources (ACR). However their contract was ‘cancelled’ by Government which then effectively declared the mines a free-for-all, thus encouraging illegal mining and smuggling. What followed was an increased police presence and the formation of diamond syndicates that they ran with the illegal panners. This culminated in the gruesome events of November 2008, which received minimal international media attention. According to early reports, over 200 innocent miners were thought to have been gunned down. Some further examinations suggest that the number is closer to 400. This was a result of an Army operation known as ‘Harudzokwai’, or ‘No Return’, when soldiers descended on the mines without warning in helicopters and on foot shooting the fleeing miners. 

Aside from the murders and other atrocities, this was hugely illegal as, ordinarily, the military should not take charge of civilian operations. A report from Human Rights Watch explains how the decision had to have been recognized and approved by the Commander-In-Chief of the Armed forces: President Robert Mugabe. Earlier that year soldiers had rioted in the Capital and the military saw dwindling numbers in its ranks. It is widely held that control over the mines have served to quell falling recruitment numbers and bolster the ruling party. This is a reaction reminiscent of the farm invasions in 2000, when land was sacrificed in order to appease the protestations of disgruntled war veterans. The military and their political affiliates have subsequently used the forced labour of locals, including children, and created diamond syndicates of their own which have become scandalously lucrative. There have been numerous reports, including hundreds of eye-witness testimonies, confirming atrocities perpetrated by soldiers against locals including rape, torture, forced labour and murder. As to be expected, the Government is operating a ‘hear no evil, see no evil’ policy and the presence of soldiers is allegedly for the sole purpose of security.

Some international diamond suppliers have begun withdrawals of the Chiadzwa diamonds from their networks and the Kimberley Process, which was set up to quell the distribution of conflict diamonds, has been investigating the events in Chiadzwa. Yet one only needs to look over the border to a small town called Villa de Manica in neighbouring Mozambique where illegal trade and smuggling is flourishing. New houses have popped up, dotting the skyline with purples and yellows; not the most inconspicuous of shades. Dealers have come from West Africa, Angola and as far as Lebanon to gather diamonds and push them into the international market. The problem with diamonds is that once the rough stones have been polished it is impossible to tell where they were sourced.

Whilst the Government is willing to allow this precious asset to be syphoned out of the back door, or into their back pockets, there has been increased pressure from local and international organizations calling for transparency and correct management; two things seldom found in Zimbabwean governance. One of the key local groups investigating the unfolding events in Chiadzwa is the Centre for Research and Development, which has been extremely critical of Government’s approach to the situation. It is estimated that the Chiadzwa diamonds, if managed properly, could bring in US$200 million per month – an astonishing figure considering the abysmal state of the economy. It seems unlikely that Government initiative, as opposed to external pressure, this new year will bring much resolution to this grave betrayal of a country and its people. Numerous corporate and private court cases have emerged surrounding Chiadzwa. This, along with pressure from NGOs and the aforementioned international grumblings, are signs of the Government’s arm being twisted into addressing the situation to an extent. One of these cases was filed against the Government and won by ACR, who originally owned the land, yet this ruling élite is one with numerous charges held against it that it chooses to ignore. Until the rule of law is restored, and a legitimate government operates in Zimbabwe, dissenting voices will have to speak out against more of these miscarriages of justice perpetrated by Zimbabwe’s infamous ruling cartel.   

She Who Dares Wins

Being horrified by statistics and incidents that reflect the plight of the average Zimbabwean is all too familiar. In recent years, Zimbabwe has become a state infamous for breaking records. This is the country that brought us unparalleled hyper-inflation, unemployment approximating 90 per cent and the lowest life expectancy rate in the world. A country ruled by a deluded president in denial whose party, despite the façade that is the unity government, has complete control over proceedings.

Women of Zimbabwe Arise

Yet on 23 November the limelight shifted away from the abhorent activities of the state. WOZA (Women of Zimbabwe Arise) representatives Jenni Williams and Magodonga Mahlangu met President Obama in the White House to receive the Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights Award. Two years ago the New Internationalist recognized the worth of this women’s movement by awarding them a gold medal in our Human Rights issue. The organization was founded in 2002 in response to the increasing infringements on basic rights in Zimbabwe. WOZA, which now consists of over 75,000 members, is a strong voice for women’s empowerment and against the actions of a corrupt government. Since its creation the group has staged over a hundred demonstrations, with Mahlangu being arrested over 30 times. ‘I know I am not alone, the world is watching and one day Zimbabwe shall be a normal society – with the determination of the members of WOZA, anything is possible.’

On the day that the ceremony took place, I arrived back in Zimbabwe for the first time in two years. The decline over the last decade is vividly represented by potholed roads and uncollected heaps of rubbish. Any movement advocating human rights and justice has a massive struggle on its hands, operating in a country where the state ignores its obligations to its people and forcibly silences dissenting voices. Vendors on the side of the road do what they can to get by, some even selling the state-controlled Herald, a publication that exists with the purpose of unashamedly upholding the status quo. Yet whilst the streets speak of a collapsed state, last week Zimbabwe joined the rest of the world in embarking upon 16 days of activism against gender violence. The event was held at the Book Café in the centre of Harare, where female musicians and poets performed with a vigorous energy to a packed audience. During that same week a women’s film festival, open to the public, was taking place. This provided a space where Zimbabweans, notably women, witnessed obstacles faced by women from many different countries and cultural backgrounds. 

I met with Kuda Chitsike who is the Director of the Women’s Programme in the Research and Advocacy Unit (RAU) in Zimbabwe. As we sat in her office on the outskirts of the city centre, Kuda reiterated how severely women here are affected by the current situation. Whilst finding a job is next to impossible and domestic abuse is rife, she was eager to emphasize that ‘we should not forget that violence is perpetrated in the public sphere because of political association’. In a short film, Hear Us, co-produced by RAU, it is estimated that during the election period of May-July 2008 over 2,000 women and girls were raped, among other violations including abductions and torture. However, Kuda feels that this is probably a grossly underestimated figure. The problem in Zimbabwe is one of silence. Not only are women afraid to come forward for fear of stigmatization within their communities but, as with so many atrocities, the police force are part of the repressive machinery. As a result, a trip to your local police station would not only result in inaction on their part, but also the likelihood of, as has often been reported, being arrested for ‘disturbing the peace’, a charge favoured by Mugabe’s foot soldiers. Rather, it is the co-operation and action taken up by groups separate from the state that are dedicated to unearthing the many buried stories of gender violence. RAU, who work closely with the women of WOZA, have produced numerous reports to this effect and are in the process of conducting a survey aiming to highlight such travesties. 

Kuda told me about one of the screenings of Hear Us. After the film a woman stood up and shared her harrowing story of rape. She had never felt able to do so as she did not know where to go; however in this space she felt comfortable enough to speak. This exemplifies the vile miscarriages of justice perpetrated by the Zimbabwean state. Yet even more it shows how the women’s movement in Zimbabwe refuses to be silenced. During these 16 days of activism we can be inspired by their efforts to effect positive change in a lawless state. When I asked Kuda what it meant to the women of Zimbabwe for WOZA to receive such a prestigious accolade she smiled and said ‘success for one Zimbabwean women’s group is success for all of us’.    

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