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Alex Callinicos

African Liberation Movements

(April 1973)

From International Socialism (1st series), No.57, April 1973, p.26.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’ Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

African Liberation Movements: Contemporary Struggles Against White Minority Rule
Richard Gibson
Institute of Race Relations – Oxford University Press

On few questions is the British Left, from the Tribune group to the anarchists, more united than on support for the liberation movement in Southern Africa. The form this support takes is a ready acceptance of the ANC alliance, embracing, apart from ANC in South Africa itself, ZAPU in Zimbabwe, SWAPO in Namibia, FRELIMO in Mozambique, MPLA in Angola, and PAIGC in Guinea, and fostered and encouraged in Britain, by the Anti-Apartheid Movement. To some extent this unquestioning support reflects perfectly creditable reasons: the duty of revolutionaries (and would-be revolutionaries) to offer unconditional support for national liberation movements, and a natural hatred for the regimes of Southern Africa. But it seems clear that there has been very little willingness to examine critically the record of movements, some of which – most obviously those in South Africa and Zimbabwe – have so far failed completely. So this book, written by a black American journalist who has worked in Africa for over 10 years, is to be welcomed. There are a number of constant themes running through it, although it reviews the history of each individual party in all the countries. Above all, Gibson criticises the leadership of the main liberation movements for pursuing reformist policies in no way relating to the reality of national revolution in Africa.

Gibson also attacks the distortion of facts about the liberation movements by western supporters of the ANC alliance. Not only are the successes of, say, FRELIMO and MPLA, exaggerated, but the existence of movements competing with and opposed to, the ‘official’ movements, like SWANU in Namibia, COREMO in Mozambique, and GRAE and UNITA in Angola, is ignored or else bitterly condemned.

The thread uniting the movements of the ANC alliance, and their active supporters in the rest of the world, is identified by Gibson as the backing of the Soviet Union.

In recent years, the key role of Moscow as the underwriter of the ANC alliance’s pretensions has been brought into focus through the bitter struggle of Russians to preserve their position as patrons of African liberation against the increasing inroads of the Chinese.

Not surprisingly this book has been met with considerable hostility in some quarters, indeed by near-hysteria on the part of the Anti-Apartheid Movement. Apart from charges of splitting and wrecking, Gibson has been accused of being arbitrary in his selection of facts. On the only subject where I have had access to independent sources of information, the split in ZAPU and ZANU culminating in the formation of Frolizi in 1971, in Gibson’s account seems reasonably accurate. However, there is indeed an evident bias at work. Gibson’s maoism is made obvious by his uncritical support for the Peking alliance and by his references to the Chinese example as the model for revolution in Southern Africa. There are very important reasons why any perspective of peasant revolution cannot in any circumstance succeed in southern Africa (apart from the theory of permanent revolution, of course). The essence of apartheid in both South Africa and Rhodesia has been legislation legitimising white seizure of the best land, the imposition of poll-taxes on the blacks and a system of pass laws aimed at controlling the movements of blacks in white areas. The object of these measures was to force the blacks off the land to work for settlers on their farms, in mines and in factories, in circumstances where they could neither compete with white workers nor in any way threaten white rule. The effect, combined with a soaring birthrate, has been to overturn the traditional system of subsistence farming which can no longer feed even those still on the land. On the other hand, there is a growing black proletariat in the towns and only by seizing control of the economies of South Africa and Rhodesia can these people solve the material problems of their situation. The dislocation of the old rural economy, and industrial expansion, means the burden of leadership lies on the shoulders of the urban workers; the increasing integration of the economies of southern Africa means that a successful revolution can only take place on a southern African scale.

South Africa’s role as the focus of western investment in Africa, backed by an interlocking network of foreign and ‘local’ multinational corporations means that a revolution in southern Africa can only be a direct revolution against western imperialism. It follows that even if a revolution in southern Africa were sparked off by the victories of guerillas in, say, Mozambique, it will only be carried through by the combined action of the proletariats of South Africa and Zimbabwe culminating in the establishment of workers’ states in those countries.

Merely to outline such a perspective is to pinpoint the vast problems involved: most obviously, how to build the leadership capable of bringing a workers’ revolution to victory in one of the most efficient police states in the world? Its merit is that it forces Marxists to go beyond the metaphysical affirmation of support for liberation movements split between the bankrupt policies of the ANC alliance and the irrelevancies of maoism, to an open-minded and critical debate of alternative strategies for revolution in southern Africa. In taking the lid off the politics of the liberation movements Gibson has performed a valuable service.

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