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Breathing new life into the struggle for change in Africa

This article is over 15 years, 6 months old
Activists spoke to Claire Ceruti from Keep Left in South Africa about the potential for a new left
Issue 2036

In the 1960s and 1970s, Africa was symbolised by both colonial devastation and the national liberation struggles that swept the colonisers’ regimes away.

The presence at the World Social Forum (WSF) of so many activists who are as disenchanted with their own governments as they are angry at those of the West illustrates how the hopes for liberation have been betrayed. But it also shows that a new generation of African left wing activists is beginning to emerge.

Now there is a chance to build a new movement that can go far beyond the limits of the old national liberation struggles.

‘I think the potential is great but to realise it we need a programme of action to keep up the pace,’ says Wangui Mbatia from Kenya’s People’s Parliament.

‘The agenda of the left contains many issues that will have people rallying – land, housing, employment, trade, and even immigration. People here have enormous difficulties moving across borders.

‘We have to convince people that there is an alternative – neoliberalism is not the only ideology.’

There is recognition that Africa has a special history, but it is combined with a growing sense of the continent being part of a world that is being tortured by capitalism.

‘It’s encouraging to know that it’s not just Kenyans fighting for a better world,’ says Nais Karia, a Kenyan activist.

‘We’ve been talking about all the issues here at the WSF – employment, leadership and so on. But it was nice to hear that young people across the world are fighting for the same rights. We Kenyans are not very different from young people anywhere else.’

‘We need to build networks of activists and left publications that can spread across geographical boundaries.’


Africa’s national liberation movements failed to free ordinary people, in part because they did not break free of the international economy, says Papi Molefe, a South African activist:

‘We have to understand solidarity beyond supporting each other, and look at how the international economy operates and moves beyond national borders.’

Bush’s ‘war on terror’ is driving that point home. Wangui told Socialist Worker how the US is sponsoring Christian fundamentalists in Kenya. ‘They are creating a rift between Christians and Muslims that did not previously exist,’ he says. And the war in Somalia is a key issue for the left in Africa.

The failure of the governments that emerged from the movement for national liberation has put a new kind of left politics on the agenda.

Nkosiphendule Kolise of the South African Communist Party says, ‘I don’t think government officials ever put their feet in the slums. We cannot rely on them – we need to find a new and better solution to what is taking place. That is what can unite us.’

The old movements relied on guerilla armies, elections of ‘big men’ and the passivity of the masses. The new movements that are emerging hold the promise of ordinary Africans liberating themselves.

However, it is not automatic that this kind of politics will dominate the new movements. Because of Africa’s dire poverty, it’s easy for even the most left wing NGOs to slip into the role of ‘saviour of the masses’.

The movement against neoliberalism in Africa is rightly tied up with the fight to change our own governments. Some activists think that the left should use elections as part of an attempt to gain control of African governments.


Nais Karia, a Kenyan activist, says, ‘We need to change the way our leaders are elected, and out of the process of fighting for that change, we will have a mass of people coming together to put good leaders into power.

‘We need to change the monotony of the same people – who have already ruined our economies – being constantly re-elected.’

‘People are aware that we need to change a lot of things to stop government corruption,’ agrees Wangui. ‘We need to actively take part in national campaigns to elect those with left wing views into government.’

So even people who are involved in militant campaigns that involve mass action can, at the same time, look to elections to deliver political change. The danger in this strategy is that we can end up giving up our power as a class to yet another individual saviour.

Nevertheless the left will have to be prepared to relate to electoral campaigns against corruption and for democracy as part of our attempts to continue linking them to mass activity.

The new left in Africa should seek the broadest possible opposition to neoliberalism and corrupt governments. ‘What should occupy us is not our differences but how to defeat regimes that are an obstacle to our goal of socialism,’ says Nkosiphendule.

But it is also crucial to bring socialist perspectives to these struggles. Motsumi Marobela, a socialist from Botswana, described the openness to socialist ideas at the WSF. ‘The response to our ideas and the people buying our leaflets and newspapers have been a great boost for us,’ he said.

‘Building a broader left in Africa requires that we also build a socialist core. A new left must be one that is capable building an anti-war movement in Africa.’

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