Extraterritoriality, families of the disappeared, and a poem

Patrick Bond pbond at SPAMwn.apc.org
Sun Dec 19 02:33:38 MST 1999


Can the apparently purely personal (anguish) be the basis for the
political (social mobilisation around moral demands for reparations,
as part of a more universal critique of capitalist oppression)? I fear
you are too harsh, comrade, saying the madres are killing their
children twice. But I say so from only the experience of a small
anecdote. You can correct me if this is really no basis for judgment.

A month ago yesterday, several Plaza de Mayo madres came to
Soweto. They were travelling with a couple hundred other leading
Third World activists in the struggle for debt repudiation and
cancellation (not "relief" I am always reminded), at the very radical
Jubilee South summit meeting that convened for four days in late
November north of Johannesburg. The evening in Soweto began
with a typical Johannesburg highveld thunderstorm, full of drama.
The buses from the conference venue meandered slowly through
Soweto, where on a wet Saturday, people scurried from the football
matches and shopping back to their sometimes dry "matchbox"
houses and shacks. Finally, arriving an hour late at the Hector
Peterson Memorial, the buses unloaded.

Hector was the first youth killed by the army and police in the
Soweto uprising of June 1976, and was followed by an estimated
1000 others. If you've ever seen a photo of South Africa in revolt, it's
likely to have been Peter Magubane's award-winning Time
magazine snap of Hector's limp body, bleeding heavily, carried in
the arms of an unknown youth, with older sister Tiny Peterson
running alongside, as distraught as a little girl can ever be.

Tiny (now Sithole) is today the curator of this shabby, outdoors
grave-type memorial at the Y intersection of two busy, congested
two-lane roads, with several beached shipping containers nearby
selling struggle mementos and exhibiting Magubane's photos, just
a couple of blocks along the road from the traditional Orlando West
homes of the Mandelas, Archbishop Tuto and other struggle

The madres got off the bus with the other activists, and as the rain
began to fall again, they huddled in a crowd with their interpreter to
hear Tiny describe the events of June 16 1976. Tiny finished
abruptly; she has done this thousands of times for tourists but I
sensed that she knew that people here were different. "That's all,"
she said, as the rain picked up. But the madres began a brief
conversation through an interpreter. It ended with a stirring
embrace, the presentation of their memorial cloth, and this
unforgettable remark:

"What has the government done to compensate this loss you and
your family have suffered?"

"The old government, it did nothing. The new government -- it has
done nothing." (This last, with pronounced, firm, bitterness.)

(A few days later, it was announced, coincidentally, that the
families of documented victims of murder/torture between 1960 and
1994 will receive an average of R3 000 (US$480) each in
compensation from the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. This
has been widely derided as tokenism within the progressive
movement; "budget constraints" and sound macroeconomic
management -- as promoted by local capital, bureaucratic
compradors, and also forcefully by the IMF and World Bank --
prevent the allocation of more resources.)

The sense of injustice, and Tiny's daily confrontation with that
scene over the past 23 years, stayed with the crowd as they filed
into the pews at a nearby Anglican church. Awaiting them were a
dozen speeches and poems and songs by Sowetans, drawing
links between Third World debt, neoliberalism, local conditions like
privatisation and vicious housing-foreclosure actions by banks --
but also drawing links between the visiting activists' various
local/global campaigns and the quite intense social struggles
underway in Soweto (e.g., the worker/community fightback against
municipal services cutoffs and tariff increases related to World
Bank infrastructure programmes, and "bond boycotts" in which
people in a neighbourhood band together and refuse to pay their
home loans because of genuine grievances or affordability
constraints given SA's roller-coaster interest rates, and also gain
enough sheer physical strength and mass-action capacity to
prevent the sheriff from evicting them).

These struggles were all described with enormous charisma and
confidence, even though some of the (mainly black male) speakers
have been labeled "anti-government" and in a sense anti-ANC
(early on, we heard from a brilliant, courageous local politician --
the dreadlocked young organic intellectual Trevor Ngwane -- who
has fought Jo'burg's privatisation, and as a result was fired earlier
this month from his job as city councillor from Pimville, Soweto,
"for bringing the ANC into disrepute"). A radical youth poet
managed to evoke the extraordinary culture of township resistance
with an Mzwakhe Mbuli-style call to arms (the artist Mbuli -- icon of
1980s culture battles -- languishes in jail on bank robbery charges
which many view as a frameup). As the militant president of the SA
NGO Coalition, Mercia Andrews, stood up to mourn the many dead
in popular uprisings for social justice, from Soweto to Buenos Aires
and many other sites between and beyond, the township residents
and SA activists broke into a soft, moving song reserved for
funerals of "MK" cadres (the ANC's armed wing). The madres came
forward to embrace Mercia, and again draped their movement's
cloths over the church pedestal.

The next and final speaker was the formidable Dennis Brutus, a
poet, anti-apartheid leader (who broke rocks on Robben Island with
Mandela before leading the sports boycott against SA) and African
literature professor who was exiled at U.Pittsburgh for many years.
Dennis -- now one of the great gurus of the global social justice
community -- told the story of a demonstration 40 years earlier, a
few kms away in Johannesburg's Main Street, where he soon found
himself writhing on the ground, a police bullet having penetrated his
back shoulder blades and emerged out his chest. Looking up,
expecting to die, he saw the granite towers of the Anglo American
Corporation headquarters looming overhead, and swore revenge on
the smug white bastards looking out at the demo, men who had
arranged for such brutal security so as to systematically drain
black muscles, sweat, and blood -- and systematically
superexploit black rural women who reproduced and subsidised the
migrant mine/factory labour force without sufficient funds for
childcare, healthcare for their sick husbands/sons and pensions
(what normal capitalist reproduction often provided in non-apartheid
mode, which provided TNCs with the world's highest profit rates for
several decades thanks largely to supercheap labour).

It all climaxed with Dennis' call to end global capitalism's financial
terrorism, and all the associated class, gender, national and other
oppressive relations that flow so clearly from global to local and
back. As one element in this call, Dennis concluded his speech
with a personal strategy for globalising the campaign of the madres
and Tiny Sithole and so many other comrades: a movement for
reparations that he would kickstart with a claim to the SA
government for his own suffering, not on his own behalf, but to
establish a fund that would be used for meeting society's needs.

Dennis is hoping to join Jubilee Afrika comrades from London and
Accra in a reparations strategy conference in March (possibly in
Jo'burg). It may get postponed, but not cancelled. Some pan-
Africanist activists and intellectuals have already put out a paper
(which I haven't seen) documenting their demand for US$777 billion
from rich countries to cover payments for theft via slavery,
colonialism, neocolonialism and neoliberalism. This is then meant
to become more generalised, across the South, to establish the
basis for development processes not dictated from Washington. It's
a very political way of advancing the idea of reparations.

I think this strategy is good for consciousness-raising, popular
mobilisation, and if only just for making us remember. Who knows,
it may one day play some role in reconstituting an African power
base within international "civil society" -- the way the anti-apartheid
movement gave enormous prestige to our erstwhile radical
nationalist leaders in SA -- and perhaps would even elevate the
demands of a Southern progressive government aiming to
challenge global geo-economic-politics (if such arises again).

The sentiments and rationales here are about linkage of historical
and geographically-distant processes of oppression, about how to
humanise these, and about linking arms so that common enemies -
- here debt, but more generally neoliberalism and even, as the
Jubilee South summit resolved the next afternoon, "capitalist
globalisation" -- come more clearly into activists' view, and have a
tougher, morally superiour, courageous and popular opposition.

That was in part what the Buenos Aires madres brought to Soweto
and to the Jubilee South debt summit more generally last month
(two had also sat in on the workshop commission I attended on
debt repudiation strategies, and very eloquently contributed their
stories of resistance). The evening in Soweto was certainly the
most inspiring time -- of many, I can assure you, since my first visit
there in 1984 -- I've witnessed in that township, and our local
comrades concurred, soon forming their own Soweto chapter of the
Campaign Against Neoliberalism in South Africa as a direct result
(they have already had two well-attended, vibrant meetings). The
Gauteng (Jhb region) chapter of Jubilee 2000 then followed up with
a very strong strategy-tactics workshop last weekend, and there is
great energy to challenge the ANC government now to do more to
repudiate the inherited apartheid debt of about US$25 billion.

There was not a dry eye in the Anglican church after the singing
that wrapped up the evening's programme. Outside, the rain had
stopped and a spring calm had decended, and in the twilight the
Jubilee participants filed back onto the buses, wove their way back
through a Soweto they would never forget, and at the conference
centre tucked into a joyful braii, dance and long night's worth of
inspired caucusing and drafting sessions.

On 19 Dec 99, at 0:45, Néstor Miguel Gorojovsky wrote:
> Now, the disagreement of Louis has brought to debate another
> very thorny issue, that of the political action and meaning of
> groups like Madres de Plaza de Mayo, Abuelas de Plaza de Mayo,
> and H.I.J.O.S.  All these groups (particularly the first two -or
> three, since Madres has split in two) share two characteristics:
> (a) they struggle in order to give legal solution to the PRIVATE
> consequences of the murders and the kidnappings of the Years of
> Lead in Argentina. All of their action is CONCRETELY
> NON-POLITICAL, no matter how politicized may some of the leaders
> try to make their struggle look. In fact, the rift within Madres
> was produced because Hebe de Bonafini attempted to infuse the
> group with political consciousness.  The problem with this is
> that the Courts DO NOT attend political trials, only PRIVATE
> trials. You can not put a nail in the wall using a screwdriver.
> If you use a screwdriver you will -obviously- drive a screw in.
> Or get nothing done.
> So that, the whole action of these groups tends to fall into the
> limits of liberal democratism (individual vs. individual, the
> abstract right of each citizen against the State, etc.). Class
> struggle is, BY DEFINITION, put away of the action of these
> groups. The group in Madres that opposes Hebe de Bonafini calls
> itself "Linea Fundadora" (the Founding Line) which is absolutely
> correct. The Founding Line of the Madres was to look for a
> collective action of the relatives of the victims in order to
> obtain private reparations. The heroism and endurance of these
> admirable women, which I greatly respect, must not make us lose
> sight of the essential APOLITICISM of their concrete action, an
> apoliticism that, I repeat, goes beyond whatever will they may
> have and whatever intention they may, one by one, try to infuse
> into the movement.
> (b) they have, consequently, no explanation for what happened to
> their relatives. They crystalize their pains and suffering, in
> their struggle to have the desaparecidos put in clear, in their
> struggle to find out where are the bones of their beloved ones.
> Thus, they are an important piece in the whole set of
> institutions, deceptive action, and traits of culture that keep
> Argentinians far away from that essential activity that follows a
> defeat: to understand what we did not do well, where did we make
> blunders, why we were defeated. In this sense, and I know I am
> going to be cruel on the next line, THEY ARE KILLING THEIR
> RELATIVES TWICE. People murdered by the dictatorship would
> ashamed to discover that they are being treated as poor little
> kids with good ideas and feelings, who were killed because Big
> Man In Green Clothes is a born criminal.  They all knew they were
> acting politically, and what they would have been doing today
> (or, better said, what they would have been doing today IF THEY
> not to cry in the corners and ask for help from the imperialist
> Courts. They would have been working to explain their countymen
> and women what the hell went wrong, and how should we go
> now.
> I will stop here with this posting. I want to open a vigorous
> debate on this issue both on Marxism and L-I, but I want others
> to come to the fore, to criticize and to argue.
Patrick Bond
(Wits University Graduate School of Public and Development Management)
home: 51 Somerset Road, Kensington 2094, Johannesburg
office: 22 Gordon Building, Wits University Parktown Campus
mailing address: PO Box 601 WITS 2050
phones:  (h) (2711) 614-8088; (o) 488-5917; fax 484-2729
emails:  (h) pbond at wn.apc.org; (o) bondp at zeus.mgmt.wits.ac.za

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