What Comes After Nationalism?

There are a number of recent cases in the last decade where Africans have managed to push the conversation beyond liberal reforms as a political goal or did not spent all their energies on the politics of nostalgia; i.e. to harken to a simpler time of national liberation or charismatic leaders.

Young people, a generation with no memory of colonialism, but living through the effects of Structural Adjustment, globalisation, authoritarianism and neoliberalism, are at the heart of this new politics. The short-lived Egyptian revolution is one example. So were the events in Tunisia that led to the fall of Ben Ali. Then there is OccupyNigeria, #RevolutionNow in Nigeria and #WalktoWork in Uganda.

Senegal’s pivotal 2012 elections also stand out. There, a youth movement were crucial to the electoral defeat of Abdoulaye Wade. So was the 2014 Civic Broom movement to sweep away dictator Blaise Compaore’s government. The ongoing protests in Sudan and Algeria and the rise of political figures like Bobi Wine and Stella Nyanzi in Uganda, or the Mathare Social Justice Centre in Kenya can also be viewed as part of this new kind of politics.

There’s also the diaspora: The American congresswoman Ilhan Omar, probably the most exciting African politician now taking on Empire; her daughter, the climate rights campaigner, Isra Hirsi; the Somali workers who took on Amazon in Minneapolis-St Paul; the footballer Demba Ba, or Zohran Kwame Mamdani, running for New York State Senator as a Democratic Socialist, among others.

But it is perhaps in South Africa where some of the most interesting developments around imagining a different kind of politics has taken place.

There it has been remarkable to watch the political capital, built over a century of popular struggle, get squandered as the governing ANC became more preoccupied by leadership battles and corrupt dealings. The ANC seemed to forget its supposed historical mission to transform what is still a deeply racist and classist society.

The first wave of movements challenging this status quo was in the early 2000s when a number of social movements emerged to jointly challenge then-President Thabo Mbeki’s disastrous AIDS policies and the effects of the government’s neoliberal economic framework on people’s access to housing, affordable electricity and water supplies, quality education, and land reform. These movements challenged the government through court cases, defiance campaigns, and breaking the law.

They included groups that moved evicted residents back into their houses or illegally reconnected water and electricity supplies that had been cut by local authorities for non-payment. But these movements, with the exception of the AIDS movement, which saw the ANC
as its ally and not its enemy, never managed to grow national profiles or sufficiently shake the status quo; on the latter, the post-apartheid deal between white capitalists and black resistance fighters to govern South Africa as a free-market capitalist country.

It is, however, the newer wave of protests which deserves our attention. More coordinated nationally, it happened between 2015 and 2017. They came from students at the country’s universities. They used hashtags: #FeesMustFall and #RhodesMustFall. This group were beneficiaries of the ANC’s policies to open up access to higher education. So it was ironic that it was them who challenged the ANC’s hegemony. Crucially, these student protests that engulfed campuses, while limited by their narrow base and focus, gave a glimpse of what it could look like if the black majority turned on the ANC.

Their critique was deep-seated. It was a mix of representational and class politics. They questioned the terms of the post-apartheid settlement premised on racial reconciliation at the expense of a material reckoning with South Africa’s racial and class apartheid; they also rejected the ANC’s version of history. They reminded South Africans that it was the ANC government that oversaw the murders of Marikana (where 34 miners, demanding equal pay and benefits were mowed down by police); that South Africa’s problems are no longer specific to the apartheid legacy, but are the global issues of poverty and inequality, labour rights, corporate responsibility, and the behaviour of multinational corporations. They harken to Steve Biko’s Black Consciousness Movement, which filled the void inside the country in the late 1960s when the ANC was beginning its long exile. These students and their supporters demanded that colonial and apartheid public symbols be taken down.

Crucially, they demanded free, public higher education and an end to what is known in South Africa as “outsourcing,” that is the policy by universities to privatise campus services like cleaning, catering, and campus security. One consequence was the loss of benefits like a tuition discount for the children of campus workers.

In a break with past liberation politics, they challenged the patriarchal nature of post-apartheid politics and the widespread oppression of women, especially black women, in South Africa.

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Written by How South Africa

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