Opinionista Ayabonga Cawe 31 March 2016

The Peasants Revolt, 2.0: Will we listen to the Wild Coast voices this time?

Some of the most pristine land and coastline in Africa was sold, we are told, for an inebriating pittance, never to be returned to them. There are deep-rooted reasons why the ancestral people of the Wild Coast are long inured to resisting things imposed upon them by the greedy or self-interested.

The recent death of Amadiba Crisis Committee Chair Bazooka Radebe has rightfully received attention the world over. Beneath the many resigned and solemn messages of condolences to the Radebe family and solidarity to the Amadiba Crisis Committee came a sobering reminder; money often matters more than human life.

Rumours and speculation abound as to who would’ve placed a bounty on Bazooka’s head. Was his death the outcome of taxi rivalry, or the machinations of the interests behind the proposed mining of titanium on the Wild Coast? Only time and the wheels of justice will tell.

What Bazooka’s death reminds us of are two related issues. First, that the notion of “public participation” and “prior consent” of communities in mining-affected areas often has very little scope for dissenting views. Where such dissent emerges it is seen as unreasonable and counter to the development efforts of the community. This is not surprising in a country built on violent extraction of people and natural resources for profit.

Second, once “mining is the sine qua non for development” is challenged and alternatives presented, the contest of ideas around how “development” should be pursued is often deadly. These two issues, read alongside each other, present interesting insights into how mining interests across the continent often have little disregard for human life and the land on which such life is lived. No community knows this better than the people of the Wild Coast of the former Transkei. The area is littered with a rich political history, similar to that of many resistant communities in the peasantry across South Africa. Govan Mbeki in his book Peasants Revolt notes this rich history:

South African peasants have a long history of resistance to oppression. They know what it is to be crushed by the armed forces of the whites, to be imprisoned without trial, banished to desolate parts of the country, and banned from normal social contact… Since the enforcement of the Nationalist Party’s policies by harsh and frequently violent means, peasant resistance has been widespread and organised. Africans have resisted forcible removal from their homes to new territory. They have opposed the imposition of Bantu authorities, the extension of passes to women, and schemes for the rehabilitation and reallocation of land.”

Many of those involved in the resistance of the Amadiba Crisis Committee to the planned mining of their ancestral land are descendants of many heroes and heroines who were involved in the Mpondoland Revolt, not too far from where Bazooka was killed last week. The revolt was an important setback to the tribal authorities that the National Party government wished to impose on the people.

The Mpondoland Revolt was one of the most successful, albeit heavily punished, acts of defiance by the African people in the history of the liberation movement. Ikonga, or the “Mountain Movement”, as it was referred to, had the ability not only to organise the African peasantry behind a political programme aimed at ousting imposed authorities, but was instrumental in catalysing the peasantry to “reimagine” alternative ways of governing themselves and relations among each other. Govan Mbeki highlights the emergence of this form of “people’s power”:

As area after area came under the influence of the movement, informal peoples’ courts arose, and they administered a popular justice as a promise of the democratic way of life that the peasants would one day have… the setting up of these peoples’ courts probably did more than anything else to show the peasants what a difference it would make to run their own machinery of administration in keeping with the democratic goals that they had set for themselves.”

This experience of extensive repression alongside growing consciousness and self-reliance is an important heritage that the people of Mbizana and the Wild Coast generally have bequeathed to our people.

The life of Bazooka is a contemporary reminder of this. It is therefore not surprising that the area of Mbizana is also home to two of the most prominent leaders of the liberation movement, Oliver Tambo and Nomzamo (Winnie) Madikizela-Mandela.

This area has also been victim to some of the crudest displays of governance paralysis and corruption. There are many anecdotal accounts, often alleging that the land on which many holiday homes of the affluent, in places like Mbizana, Mzamba, Morgan Bay and Haga Haga among others, were bought for the price of brandy or whisky from the Transkei elite. Some of the most pristine land and coastline in Africa was sold, we are told, for an inebriating pittance, never to be returned to them.

Capital has never been afraid to co-opt elements of the African peasantry to pursue its aims often through force, religion, money and in many instances alcohol. A sobering realisation, reminding us of the words of the great Xhosa poet Krune Mqhayi:

Hay’ kodw’ iBritan’ iNkulu – Yeza nebhotile neBhayibhile; Yeza nomfundis’ exhag’ ijoni; Yeza nerhuluwa nesinandile; Yeza nenkanunu nemfakadolo. Tarhu, Bawo, sive yiphi na?

(Despite your claim to greatness, Great Britain, you came with a liquor bottle in the one hand and a Bible in the other; you came with a preacher in the embrace of a soldier; you came with gunpowder and bullets; you came with cannons and rapid-fire rifles. Dear Father, to what shall we listen?)

Therefore when the Amadiba Crisis Committee was formed in the early 2000s, in response to overtures by Australian mining interests to mine their ancestral land, it was largely from an informed historic perspective and an understanding that their claim to themselves and their being was closely related to how much they were willing to fight for their birthright.

What we can discern from the history of Mbizana, its present, and the recent death of Bazooka Radebe is that in addition to the historic importance of resistance there is a realisation that the state and the democratic order may not be as strong a safeguard to the vulnerability of the community to dispossession. More important, the comrades of the Amadiba Crisis Committee have developed a steely resolve which, as Mbeki wrote more than 70 years ago, in a different context, is often an outcome of great loss:

…the people do not bear sufferings, such as they bore when the army occupied the Transkei, without becoming steeled in their determination to regroup, re-examine their methods of struggle, develop new ones, and retain the spirit that seeks forever for freedom”.

The struggle continues in Xolobeni, as one of the Amadiba Crisis Committee’s leaders, Nonhle Mbuthuma, indicated earlier this week:

We’re going to continue forward, no matter if we lose some soldiers on the way.”

The unfolding events present important cases in the South African context, of a collision between liberal western notions of rural and social “development” based on extraction, accumulation and nonsatiation confronting the articulation of alternatives from below. That such alternatives from below need to be coerced and intimidated into silence through the threat or actual use of the lethal force of arms is telling but not surprising. It is also a collision between conflicting ideas of what the “land” means or should mean, a discussion which has at its centre the need to reclaim the sociological importance of land to the African peasantry. As social theorist Archie Mafeje observed;

Collective land rights in sub-Saharan Africa are jealously guarded by solidary landholding groups, and any socially unsanctioned transfer inevitably leads to conflict, if not actual violence. This is one of the basic principles that eludes free-marketeers and government land reformers.”

We must ask, is the prospecting for resources and the operating of a mine a “socially sanctioned” transfer of land by the people to the MRC? If so, why are poor African peasants willing to lay down their lives to prevent the start of drilling, as we saw prior to Radebe’s death?

More important, why should the people of the Wild Coast place hope in mining, when for centuries it has broken their familial and social fabric through migrancy and other means?

With many of their kith and kin leaving to return in body bags, as was the case after Marikana, why then would mining under their noses be any different? The social (human and environmental) cost of mining the Wild Coast for the Amadiba community far outweighs the envisaged “benefits”.

As Nonhle Mbuthuma, paraphrasing the words of her late grandfather (a veteran of the Mpondoland revolt), reminds us:

He told me to never let go of our land, that it would sustain us for much longer than money… He said that once we lost our land it would be gone forever.”

It is a realisation borne of experience, defiance and unending resistance, and these are lessons which for the people of Mbizana: hold true beyond the two-decade shelf-life of an Australian-financed mine. Is anyone willing to listen? DM


In other news...

South Africa is in a very real battle. A political fight where terms such as truth and democracy can seem more of a suggestion as opposed to a necessity.

On one side of the battle are those openly willing to undermine the sovereignty of a democratic society, completely disregarding the weight and power of the oaths declared when they took office. If their mission was to decrease society’s trust in government - mission accomplished.

And on the other side are those who believe in the ethos of a country whose constitution was once declared the most progressive in the world. The hope that truth, justice and accountability in politics, business and society is not simply fairy tale dust sprinkled in great electoral speeches; but rather a cause that needs to be intentionally acted upon every day.

However, it would be an offensive oversight not to acknowledge that right there on the front lines, alongside whistleblowers and civil society, stand the journalists. Armed with only their determination to inform society and defend the truth, caught in the crossfire of shots fired from both sides.

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