Africa: ‘There is fire here’

Issue: 107

Peter Dwyer

Towards the end of the 1980s and early 1990s strikes, riots and demonstrations forced 19 one-party states in Africa to institutionalise a democratic opposition. But the headlong rush into neo-liberalism and continued structural adjustment policies somewhat de-֊legitimised the ‘birth of democracy’. The 2002 United Nations Development Report shows how between 1990 and 2001 living standards fell in Angola, Brunei, Burundi, Cameroon, Central African Republic, Chad, Congo, Djibouti, Gabon, Guinea-Bissau, Kenya, Madagascar, Niger, Nigeria, Rwanda, Sao Tome and Principe, Sierra Leone, Zambia and Zimbabwe.

This fuelled political instability and armed conflicts, but also gave rise to a new deepening and widening of popular struggle in the late 1990s. Workers and trade unions together with a variety of popular forces fought regimes hanging on to power in Burkina Faso, Burundi, Cameroon, Chad, Central African Republic, Comoros, Congo, Cote d’Ivoire, Gabon, Ghana, Guinea, Kenya, Lesotho, Madagascar, Mali, Mauritania, Nigeria, Swaziland and Zaire. In 2001 alone there were popular and working class resistance (strikes, demonstrations, protests, walkouts, etc) in Benin, Cameroon, Central African Republic, Congo-Brazzaville, Congo, Cote d’Ivoire, Djibouti, Gambia, Kenya, Lesotho, Mozambique, Namibia, Niger, Sierra Leone, Swaziland, Zambia and Zimbabwe.

These were often what might be called working class struggles; but some grassroots movements, particularly those rooted in the rural areas, took on the dimensions of ethnic, tribal and religious struggles, albeit equally concerned to overthrow the existing regimes.

The most explicit ‘anti-neoliberal’ campaigns are in South Africa. Since the election in April 1994 (and subsequent re-elections in June 1999 and April 2004), the ANC’s ‘long walk to freedom’ has metamorphosed into a quickstep to neo-liberalism with what is effectively a home-grown structural adjustment policy that has met with anti-privatisation strikes and protests. Organisations like the Anti-Privatisation Forum have emerged organically from a need to defend working class communities under attack from housing evictions and water and electricity cut-offs.

Explicit anti-capitalism is much less evident in the other major sub- Saharan economy and society, Nigeria. But traces of it can be found, particularly in the opposition to multinational corporations (MNCs) such as Shell International, and the struggle of the Ogoni people. Widespread demonstrations broke out as the price of fuel was doubled in December 1998 and January 1999 under pressure from the IMF. Nigeria’s trade unions allied with Lagos residents in a mass strike aimed at reversing another IMF-man-dated oil price increase, which led to the doubling of transport fares in June 2000. This last had the effect of cutting short a visit by US Treasury secretary Larry Summers. These were not simply ‘bread-and-butter’, economic strikes, but intensely political actions.

Strikes and protests took place in Mali in March 2001 in response to the IMF-inspired deregulation of petrol prices, and there were strikes in Mali and Cote D’Ivoire against the privatisation of Air Afrique at the behest of the World Bank.
Social forums in Africa

There exist a range of groups steadfastly campaigning, with few resources, against neo-liberalism. They include campaigns around HIV-AIDS by the Treatment Action Campaign in South Africa, debt and social forum activists in Zimbabwe, ongoing campaigns against Shell in parts of the Nigerian Delta and campaigns aimed at World Bank projects including the Chad-Cameroon oil pipeline. In April 2005 a small but well organised Anti-Privatisation Forum based in Accra forced British multinational Biwater to pull out of the bidding for Ghanaian water. Jubilee South (debt) groups exist in Malawi, South Africa and Zambia.

Africa-wide social forums took place in Mali in 2001 and Ethiopia in 2002. They were the first substantial conferences since the era of liberation to combine progressive NGOs and social movements from all parts of the continent, and were followed by African Social Forum sessions in Johannesburg (August 2002) and Addis Ababa (January 2003). The first ever Southern Africa Social Forum (SASF) in Lusaka, Zambia, on 9-11 November 2003, brought together several hundred activists from social movements, trade unions, NGOs, churches, women’s organisations and other groups. Most attendees were from Zambia and Zimbabwe, with a significant presence from South Africa and small numbers from Namibia, Botswana, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Angola, Malawi, Mauritius and Swaziland. The demonstration that launched the forum had the unifying global slogan of ‘Now is our time’ and a Zimbabwean song which says that ‘the drum is beaten in the morning, at the start of the battle’ – the battle against capitalism. There were differences between the more moderate NGOs who seek to lobby governments to lessen the impact of neo-liberalism and radical social movements that seek to challenge the structure of the global economy. But the forum was an important step forward for linking up Africa-wide resistance.

The World Social Forum in Africa in 2007 offers the potential to consolidate these initiatives and to draw into them more radical activists from African social movements, so not allowing the priorities of more moderate NGOs to dominate.