Thursday, 24 May 2018

The Sulphurs of Santiaguito

Santiaguito Volcano, Guatemala © Michael Schmidt 1996

The Sulphurs of Santiaguito: Reflections on the Guatemalan Civil War

Michael Schmidt, 2013

Smoky cloud rolled down from shrouded crown of the volcano Santiaguito, chilling my skin, as yellow-rimmed fissures hissed stinking sulphur across the rutted track. Far below, on the slopes, Mayan peasants in fuchsia blouses, looking for all the world like giant frangipanis, hacked at the mud with hoes. A dented pick-up truck had just dropped myself and my companion high up in the mountains of Guatemala. 
An ethereal peace seeped through the scene - Santiaguito was dormant after all, its last bout of bad behaviour having been the 1902 leveling of the nearby mountain city of Quezaltenango - but as so much with this troubled land, all was not as it seemed. 
It was early 1996, at the bitter end of a drawn-out 36-year civil war, the longest in Latin America's gore-spattered history, and somewhere someone was always dying. The newspapers were full of luridly illustrated ways to die - none of them related to the war. Some guy had been decapitated and there sat his head, life-size and on the front page, with bits of grass stuck in his hair and his eyelids glued shut by a sash of dried blood. Or two lovers who had committed suicide by means of a shotgun. A full-colour photograph showed the ruins of their skulls collapsed together, their brains spattering the wall behind. A passenger jet had just gone down off Cuba and the TV footage showed sailors wielding boat-hooks, gaffing the bloated corpses like tuna and dumping them on the deck of a trawler. The fact that two of them were Polish MPs be damned. 
It was easy to die in Guatemala in those days - but just as easy to live as if you weren't in the right place at the wrong time. And so I floated like Neptune in a huge square stone-lined pool, topped up by a piping hot spring gushing from the black breast of the volcano, fringed with ferns, at Fuentes Georginas, a rare gem set in the rainforest. 
Stone lips drooled cooling jets of water down into lower pools where flagged pathways wound around tree-ferns into the forest. Whenever I tired of the heat in my bones, I could slither up a rock like a iguana and steam into the cool air while sipping a Cuba Libre: rum & coke. 
I could have overnighted in one of the whitewashed, tile-roofed cabins clinging to the volcano-side. But instead we returned that evening to the hospedaje where we stayed, down a side street in Quezaltenango, built inward-facing around those cool courtyards that Central Americans favour - perhaps in reflection of their own aversion to the grim reality outside. 
When we arrived, my companion's German boyfriend told us that his hike into the same mountains that day to visit another, more indigenous and promisingly colourful Mayan settlement had met with disaster. 
"We got there and the whole village was just smoking ruins." he said, aghast. "There were all these soldiers walking around and we kinda nervously asked them what happened. They told us 'There was a sickness here - so we burnt it out'." 
The notoriously vicious Guatemalan army - nicknamed the "spotted ones" because of their camouflage - had in the 1980s adopted the practice of targeting Mayan communities suspected of supporting the guerrilla insurgency. On occasion, they had been known to round everyone up, women and children included, corral them in the church, throw in a few grenades and burn the entire town to the ground. In this twisted scorched earth policy, every goat, dog and chicken was slaughtered. In that decade alone, some 200,000 people were killed and 400 Mayan villages obliterated. In February 1996, this war-by-proxy, fought against innocents, was still on. 
I'd recently discovered that my paternal great-great-grandmother was Mayan and had been married to the Belgian consul to Guatemala. Which was why I had decided to venture into the war-zone - and partly why this tale of butchery hit a raw nerve. I'd naively expected my trip to be an emotional journey of reconnection. But the bonds I found that still bind me to Guatemala were not the kind familial ones I had expected. Rather they were like the vicious twist of barbed wire that binds the wrists of the condemned. 
In one of those rooms with five rows of plastic seats and a video machine that passed as movie theatres throughout much of Guatemala, I saw a movie called La Hija del Puma (The Sister of the Puma). It dramatised just such a massacre and was being clandestinely circulated by architecture students from the university in Guatemala City. 
Barely a month previously, under a weeping sky, I had picked my way through a thorn thicket on a muddy hillside in Shobashobane, KwaZulu-Natal to find the maggoty body of a man hacked to death on Christmas Day for the crime of living in an ANC village surrounded by IFP villages. There was another woman, face-down, the back of her scalp already chewed off by mangy dogs. And Kipha Nyawose, the ANC leader, had had the dubious honour of being disembowelled (to release the spirit) while at the same time having his penis cut off in insult. The stench of their corpses still permeated my sinuses and I left the movie theatre in tears, choking out to the fifty-something American hippie: "I've just come from there! I know what they mean." Her glazed incomprehension infuriated me and I stormed out. 
But back in Quezaltenango, I walked the other side of the invisible line that tourists cross in war-zones, purchasing Mayan carpets woven in lustrous burgundy and oxblood, eating American-style pizzas and watching a Spanish-dubbed Sigorney Weaver go shit-kicking in Aliens: el Regresso at the local bug-house. 
Known by the Mayans as Xela, the city is a big centre for Spanish-language studies and the bars, cafes and restaurants were crowded with students, mostly Americans, apparently oblivious to the fact that their government had largely funded the genocide. 
The conflict had also drawn certain species of war whores: scruffy journalists trying to look like James Woods in Salvador; funereal strong-men of indeterminate criminal affiliation in black chinos and shiny waistcoasts, probably concealing switchblades; weary aid workers trying to work in besieged Mayan towns; lazy UN observers of a ceasefire which had not yet happened; chatty Catholic priests on sabbatical; edgy CIA agents who never spoke at all; and fat pederasts with a nose for the cocaine trail. 
War tourism leaves a taste in my mouth as metallic as old blood. None but the most mercenary can seriously indulge in such tastes. But having myself travelled to Guatemala from a tour of Zapatista-held Chiapas (on a spine-hammering 300km bus trip that cost only six quetzales), perhaps I wasn't so innocent either. 
Wierd conversations were not in short supply. Like trying to explain to an earnest young girl from a progressive Dutch Reformed university in the American Midwest that in South Africa, her "Dutch Deformed" faith lay at the root of the calvary of apartheid. So, how does one live as a foreigner in the midst of such unrelenting, yet undeclared pain? 
I distracted myself by paying a visit to one of the marimba schools for which the city was famous. And I went to the creepy and dusty "natural" history museum which seemed to boast more than its fair share of freaks: six-legged goats and such. 
In the earthquake-wrecked old capital of Antigua Guatemala, another bus journey eastwards down the spine of the mountains, I watched a Japanese tourist and a Mayan flute-seller perform an impromptu flautist's duel in the main square. There was a chill in the air and the shadows were lengthening from the ruined cornices of Conquistador-era churchs, but the square was full of off-duty civil servants, Mayans - like a mother and her tiny girl-child dressed in matching cobalt traditional wraps - who sold crafts to coach-loads of day-trippers up from Guatemala City. The lanky Japanese youth selected a pan pipe from those on offer and began to play. The Mayan joined in with gusto, the two sounding for all the world like a Panic version of that song about the contest between the devil and the fiddler. The jaunty notes drifted over the gloomy square, providing an otherworldly sound-track to the shadowed landscape. 
While I ate a hearty breakfast of chili con carne in a cozy family-run restaurant, looking out through the wrought-iron railings and bougainvillea at the cobbled streets, a milkman allegedly tried to assassinate new President Alvaro Arzu by ramming him with a truck while he was out horse-riding. The milkman may have only been drunk, but was shot dead anyway. 
Just before I arrived, two British girls had been executed at a roadside. Neither robbed nor raped. Just shot in the head and left for the political vultures to swap blame for the atrocity. 
This was after all the country where their version of Archbishop Tutu was later bludgeoned to death with concrete blocks in his own driveway. But as this maelstrom happened around me, I was sitting at the Sunset Bar on the beach at Panajachel, a tiny town, several hours by bus to the south-south-east of Xela, a Guatemalan version of Goa that was nick-named Gringotenango because of its population of faded gringo drop-outs. 
Built on a spit of alluvial land stretching into Lake Atitlan, a cold and very deep volcanic caldera which sported millionaires' mansions on one shore and the palm-frond huts of dugout-paddling fishermen on the other. 
The blonde barmaid turned out to be a cousin of Icelandic elven siren Björk and played me some of the latter's rare and unreleased blues cuts, then, knowing I was African treated me to Juluka's Scatterlings of Africa. As I nursed my cold Gallo beer alone with her at the bar, I reflected that I was in some ways also a scatterling of Central America, even though trawling through phone-books had failed to turn up any trace of my diluted bloodline. But I had found another blood-tie: that which unites nations which have suffered under the shadow of death-squads; that which unites those who have walked through the slaughterhouses of their handiwork. Now, in 2003, I've just read that General Rios Montt, the CIA-backed "Pinochet of Guatemala", whose regime spearheaded the genocide in the 1980s, has just had his legal restriction on making a play for the Guatemalan presidency revoked. 
An earthquake takes place in my heart and the stench of death is in my nostrils once again. Suddenly I'm back on the sulphurous slopes of Santiaguito, knowing this time that unheard and unseen, beyond the mists, people are dying. 


Sunday, 29 April 2018

Anarchist Movement Periodic Table

In finalising my world-spanning anarchist movement history, In the Shadow of a Hurricane: Global Anarchist Ideological and Organisational Lineages, I had to develop several new conceptual frameworks, one of which was my Six Waves (originally Five Waves) periodisation which theorises that the fortunes of the movement, being fundamentally proletarian in nature, rose and fell in waves that approximated the fortunes of the oppressed classes in general. These waves are: First Wave 1868-1894, initiated by the consolidation of mass-line revolutionary anarchism in the First International, a period that incorporates the Cantoalist Revolt; the Second Wave of 1895-1921 initiated by the formation of the French CGT and which embraces the Mexican, Russian and Ukrainian Revolutions; the Third Wave of 1922-1949 initiated by the founding of the IWA, which embraces the Manchurian and Spanish Revolutions; the Fourth Wave of 1950-1975 initiated by the Latin American resistance and which incorporates the Cuban Revolution; the Fifth Wave of 1976-1991 initiated by the reconstitution of the Spanish CNT and which embraces the Iranian Revolution; and the Sixth Wave of 1992-2016 initiated by the collapse of the Soviet Union and which embraces the Rojava Revolution. 

Above is part of a "periodic table" of the movement that I drew up to indicate when the movement arose (initial dates), suffered repression (pale-coloured blocks), and disappeared if relevant (white blocks). At a glance, you should be able to see that in many countries / territories, the 1930s-1980s were a bit of a dead zone - but also that other regions experienced organisational continuity, defeating the conventional anarchist historiography that claims the movement died on the barricades of Barcelona in 1939. For one thing, the Far Eastern and Latin American movements in particular survived WWII pretty much intact and in fighting spirit, while those in Europe had been devastated by Nazi-Fascism and had to rebuild from scratch. In its full extent, this table has helped me get a bird's eye view of the evolution of the movement internationally so I will probably get it replicated in the book itself to likewise assist my readers' understanding.


Factions in the Spanish Revolution

Because my forthcoming thousand-plus-page magnum opus, In the Shadow of a Hurricane, is an organisational-ideological history of the anarchist movement rather than a romantic narrative, I have had to try and navigate the complex Spanish labyrinth. I am currently doing a comprehensive rewrite of the Spanish Revolution and its aftermath, and four indispensable sources have proven to be Stuart Christie, We! The Anarchists: A Study of the Iberian Anarchist Federation (FAI) 1927-1937, The Meltzer Press / Jura Media, UK / Australia, 2000, Augustín Guillamón, Ready for Revolution: the CNT Defence Committees in Barcelona 1933-1938, AK Press / Kate Sharpely Library, UK, 2014, and Augustín Guillamón, The Friends of Durruti Group: 1937-1939, AK Press, UK, 1996, on the preparatory period and the Revolution itself, and Chris Ealham, Living Anarchism: José Peirats and the Spanish Anarcho-Syndicalist Movement, AK Press, UK, 2015, on the exile Spanish Libertarian Movement. 

Assisted by these works and as a guide to my rewrite, I have drawn up a lengthy table (first page above) to chart how the various anarchist factions evolved during the Revolution and afterwards, based on their relative positions at various congresses, plenums etc.In part this helps track the exceptionally damaging and in fact counter-revolutionary position taken by the CNT and FAI leadership which destroyed the Revolution from within and which so poisoned the atmosphere of the post-Revolution exile movement. Hagiographers of the FAI be warned - I am following these excellent historians in damning the FAI at higher committee level as an actively counter-revolutionary organisation which by 1937 was degenerating into a conventional bourgeois political party while naturally commending the honourable resistance of revolutionary anarchist groups within and outside the FAI. But my preliminary conclusion at this point appears pretty bleak: that even the Friends of Durruti signally failed in their revolutionary task to root out - by shooting if necessary - the traitorous CNT-FAI leadership and to consolidate the revolutionary proletarian forces. All of which is pretty much why I far prefer the intransigent Makhnovists!


African Anarchist Movements: Race, Class and Liberation

I have just completed a new 13,000-word pamphlet, African Anarchist Movements: Race, Class and Liberation, which provides a comparative analysis between the anarchist / syndicalist movements in early 20th Century Egypt and South Africa, then briefly sketches the movements in nearby Tunisia and Mozambique before detailing the post-war movement in Morocco, Algeria and Tunisia with an emphasis on the Algerian Liberation War, and concluding with anarchist organisational perspectives from Senegal in the 1980s, from Nigeria in the 1990s, from Morocco in the 2000s, and from South Africa and Egypt in the 2010s, bringing this little study full circle. I am hoping this pamphlet will encourage further study into African anarchist / syndicalist movement history - especially regarding Senegal, Tunisia, Morocco, Angola and Zaire (DRC). I will be asking some leading liberation movement lights from Egypt, Morocco, Tunisia, and Algeria to provide introductory commentary and will then get it formally published in Sweden, with plans for Arabic and Berber translations - so stay tuned!


Tuesday, 17 April 2018

Her Apocalypse

Here's a song I wrote in Dhaka, Bangladesh, today: while looking down from an 11th-floor cafe at the monsoon sweeping over the city, a half-naked young woman ran through the traffic, apparently very disturbed. I tried to imagine what had distressed her so... Meanwhile on another rooftop a girl and mother delighted in the rains: their saris soaked to the skin, they danced about and rearranged the pot-plants in their aerial nursery...Everywhere at some instant, the moment of one person's exaltation is the moment of someone else's apocalypse...

Her Apocalypse

Her hair is wild but her eyes are quiet
her mouth a permanent scream
she runs the streets of Dhaka 
                                                chasing the skirts of the monsoon
The elephants with the blunted tusks
                                                           shuffle restlessly in the gloom
the rickshaws flee the frightening sky
she weaves through traffic
                                           a detonation in her heart
Was she the girl who smoked at school
                                                               behind the bicycle-sheds
did she feed the black beaks of the wild crows
did she steal her boyfriend's motorbike and crash it?
Or was her birth the cataclysm
                                                  the steaming streets her collision
was her apocalypse a lightbulb-naked public thing?
Her hair is wild but her eyes are quiet
her mouth a permanent scream
she runs the streets of Dhaka
                                                chasing her apocalypse
chasing her apocalypse, her apocalypse
her apocalypse, her apocalypse...


Friday, 23 March 2018

Nostalgic Tribalism or Revolutionary Transformation?

Nostalgic Tribalism or Revolutionary Transformation?

Introduction to Stephen P. Halbrook's Anarchism & Revolution in Black Africa

Stephen P. Halbrook wrote this article, which forms part of our African Resistance
History Series, in 1971 at a time when he was completing his PhD in philosophy at
the Florida State University (attained in 1972). It appears that Halbrook went on to
become a leading legal figure in defence of the American constitutional right of its citizens
to bear arms, basing his arguments on Switzerland’s “armed neutrality” stance
during the Second World War. He has written extensively on the issue, but it is not
easy to determine at a glance whether his defence comes from a Right- or Left-wing
perspective as both camps in the US have embraced the right to bear arms for
defensive reasons and Halbrook speaks in the “neutral” tone of the lawyer.
Nevertheless, if Halbrook subsequently defected from libertarian socialism to the
Right, we would say we’d had the best of him while he was with us.
And that best, perhaps reflected in this pamphlet, is flawed by two interlinked
hopes that the indigenous insurgencies of the Mau Mau of 1950-1962, the liberation
struggle of the African Party for the Independence of Guinea and Cape Verde
(PAIGC) of 1963-1974 in Guinea, and the Biafran Secession from Nigeria of 1967-
1970 had – not unreasonably given the euphoria of the era – raised in his mind for
more libertarian socialist outcomes.
His one flawed hope was to overzealously apply libertarian socialist intentions and
even programmes to the actors in these insurgent dramas. This is least excusable
in terms of the Mau Mau Uprising because it was sufficiently far in the past for
Halbrook to have gotten a better grasp of its nature – although to be fair, the full
extent of the brutality of the British colonial regime and of the Mau Mau resistance
itself has only recently been adequately documented. (1) Nevertheless, for Halbrook
to hail the Mau Mau as “the expression of centuries of anarchism” was both ahistorical
and a misinterpretation of the true mobilising intent of the historicising of the likes
of Mau Mau leader Jomo Kenyatta and PAIGC leader Amílcar Cabral. The mere fact
that the Mau Mau slogan “Land and Freedom” echoed that of the Mexican,
Ukrainian, Spanish and other anarchists, or that a PAIGC leader extolled the virtues
of the peasantry electing their own removable, non-hereditary leaders is insufficient
proof of their libertarian socialism.
There is in addition – and this is remarkable for a writer supposedly hailing from the 
anti-statist tradition – no understanding of the imperialist interest and role played
by the suppliers of arms and other support to the rebels: the USSR, Cuba and China
supplied the PAIGC, while Biafra was clandestinely supplied by France, Portugal,
white Rhodesia and apartheid South Africa (against an unusual Cold War triumvirate
of British, American and Russian backing for Nigeria). She who pays the piper calls
the tune, so the Stalinist funders of the PAIGC determined in it an authoritarian tendency
to the same extent as the ethnic separatist funders of Biafra determined in
parts its narrow ethno-nationalist outlook. It begs the question of in what way these
realpolitik positions could be considered genuinely liberatory by Halbrook.
Halbrook’s other, closely linked, flawed hope was to assume that an ill-defined
“anarchism” was fundamental to many traditional African cultures – stating wrongly,
given that anarchism only arose as a modern, internationalist, mass-based practice
in the First International in 1868, that “Black Africa has a centuries old anarchist tradition,”
and uncritically echoing Kenyatta’s statements about the historic libertarian
practices of his own tribe, the Kikuyu (against whose ethnocentric, patrimonial rule,
in part, the 2008 Kenyan Uprising was tellingly aimed). Whether the Kikuyu indeed
once in the distant past had a system that could be equatable to a libertarian social
order as anarchists understand it – democratic decision-making power decentralised
through horizontal federations of councils of recallable delegates – is debatable (and
the same goes for whether the Balantes of Guinea or the Ibos of Nigeria can make
a same claim).
Despite the apparently remarkable and worthy communitarian nature of Kikuyu
society as spelled out by Barnett and Njama  the other experts cited by Halbrook  
they and he do not appear to critique the inescapable, non-free-associative basis of
this tribal system, nor of its ageist hierarchy, so common to African traditional cultures,
or its enthnocentrism, and do not appear (in Halbrook at least) to discuss ownership
of land, livestock, goods and services, landlordism and other aspects of what
was still a feudal economy however one may appreciate some progressive aspects
of its social organisation.
Lastly, as with much sentimental outsider support for nationalist politicians like
Aung San Suu Kyi of Burma today, or Nelson Mandela of South Africa in the past,
there is a marked shyness to engage in any substantial critique of either the leadership
cult that is so assiduously cultivated by their supporters, or of the exact form of
economy and class society envisaged by the “liberators” after their despised enemy
is supplanted. These errors-by-omission are commonly committed by the statist
Left, but also recall the rose-tinted view of national liberation struggles by, for example,
a faction of the Love & Rage Revolutionary Anarchist Federation’s pro-national
liberation stance on the Zapatistas in the 1990s (which contributed to the RAF’s dissolution)
and by much of the International of Anarchist Federation regarding Cuba
in the 1960s (against the legitimate protests of the Cuban Libertarian Movement in
The cellular structure adopted by the Mau Mau rebels, the “bottom-up” decision-making
process of the PAIGC, and the voluntaristic “people’s army” form of Biafran
resistance were in my view less related to libertarian tradition than to the obvious 
demands of clandestinity – and the loyalty given by their irregular fighters to individual
charismatic leaders is not in itself indicative of libertarianism; for fascist militancy
makes similar claims. Similarly, it is a stretch of the imagination to claim for Biafran
leader Chukwuemeka Ojukwu the right to assume the mantle of the great Ukrainian
anarchist revolutionary Nestor Makhno on the basis that Ojukwu consulted with an
assembly of “all the professions” – including no doubt, the businesses and the parasitic
classes (Makhno’s RIAU was by contrast controlled policy-wise by mass
Congresses of Peasants, Workers and Insurgents and it is out of this directly-democratic
experience that the “platformist” political line is derived).
Yet on these slender bases, the evidence of the nationalists Kenyatta, Cabral,
Ojukwu and a few other admirers, Halbrook believed traditional culture could provide
a communalist model for political action in the era of decolonialisation, centralising
national liberation struggles and import-substitution-industrialisation modernisation.
He is far from alone among anarchists in this rather romantic view of the relationship
between African national liberation struggles and tribal societies – and I’m not even
considering the so-called primitivists here, whose anti-modernist tendency is at complete
odds with the progressive, industrial origins of the anarchist movement. In
Zambia in 1998, the late Wilstar Choongo of the Zambian Anarchist and Workers’
Solidarity Movement (AWSM) related to me in some detail the anti-authoritarian tendencies
of his own tribe, suggesting this could advance the anarchist cause. (2)
Similarly, Sam Mbah and I. E. Igariwey, of the anarcho-syndicalist Awareness
League in Nigeria, in their ground-breaking African Anarchism (1998) (3) argued for
anarchic tendencies in the “stateless” (in the modern sense) societies of the Ibo,
Niger Delta people and the Tallensi, stating: “To a greater or lesser extent, all of [...]
traditional African societies manifested ‘anarchic elements’ which, upon close examination,
lend credence to the historical truism that governments have not always
existed. They are but a recent phenomenon and are, therefore, not inevitable in
human society. While some ‘anarchic’ features of traditional African societies existed
largely in past stages of development, some of them persist and remain pronounced
to this day.”
Despite these societies being decentralised, having communal production systems,
participatory decision-making and a relatively flat social hierarchy, they cannot
in any real sense be called anarchist. Rather it is best to describe them as communalist
with some marked libertarian practices. It appears likely that Mbah and
Igariwey were forced to fall back on communalist examples to legitimise the
Awareness League trade union (4) simply because, though they were aware of early
1990s anarchist organisations in South Africa, they were unaware of the significant
syndicalist trade unions in southern Africa and north Africa in the 1910s / 1920s. (5)
The resistance of, for instance, the Zulus during the Bambaata Rebellion of 1906
against the imposition of hut-taxes by the British was indeed among the last of a long
series of anti-colonial actions aimed at preserving traditional culture, and at preventing
the enclosure and outright theft of tribal lands and the impression into bonded
servitude of the black majority – but they were also last-gasp reflex actions of a peasantry
that was rapidly being eclipsed by modernisation (in South Africa at least, where 
they have been reduced to a minority unlike the rest of Africa). And much as
one might dislike it, anarchism with few exceptions arose in industrial (not craft or
peasant) environments – such as the Witwatersrand during the emergence of organised
black labour in the late 1910s and early 1920s, not among the Sekhukhuneland
or Pondoland peasantry, regardless how communitarian or insurgent their traditions. (6)
While anarchists can and should indeed build on any traditional libertarian conventions
within the society in which they live – ably demonstrated by the successful
anarchist penetration of the indigenous population in Bolivia, or of agricultural labourers
in Bulgaria, from the 1920s to 1940s – tribal societies also tend to have strongly
sexist attitudes, ethnic chauvinist practices and demagogic power-structures
enforced by fearful superstition and brute force. These reactionary tendencies are
at least as strong as the communalist tradition and we find similar contestations
between vertical and horizontal power in traditional tribal structures in Asia, the
Americas and Europe. Also, the communalism of many African tribal societies is not
at all ruled by the anarchist concept of free association: one is forced by one’s ethnic
origin, tribal loyalties, locality and family ties into the communalist mode, with no
choice in the matter other than self-imposed exile (which then renders one vulnerable
as an unacceptable outside in another tightly-knit communalist, or even hierarchical,
exclusivist enclave). Let us also not forget that slavery among African tribes
was (and remains somewhat) widespread, the institution only being formally outlawed
in Mauritania in 2007. (7)
None of this, however, detracts from the clear existence of a real and unalloyed
historical anarchist and syndicalist movement in Africa, so present in organisations
such as People’s Free University and the International League of Cigarette Workers
and Millers of Cairo (Egypt) and the Revolutionary League (Mozambique) in the early
1900s, the Industrial Workers of Africa and Indian Workers’ Industrial Union (South
Africa) in the late 1910s / early 1920s, and the Algerian section of the General
Confederation of Labour – Revolutionary Syndicalist in the 1930s. And let’s not forget
the fact that the former Durruti Columnists who seized the honour to be the first
to liberate Paris in 1944 came together in exile in Chad, nor the old post-war anarchist
strongholds of Tunis and Oran, nor the anarchist cells in the Canaries, Egypt or
None of this makes it into Halbrook’s analysis (but then there was precious little
study of such movements at the time he wrote, and he could not have been aware
that within a decade of his paper, new anarchist and syndicalist organisations would
rise in Africa: in Senegal (Anarchist Party for Individual Freedoms in the Republic,
1981), Sierra Leone (Industrial Workers of the World, 1996), Nigeria (Awareness
League, anarcho-syndicalist from 1991), South Africa (Anarchist Revolutionary
Movement, 1992, Workers’ Solidarity Federation, 1995, the ZACF, 2003, and others),
Zambia (Anarchist Workers’ Solidarity Movement, 1998), and Swaziland
(ZACF, 2003).
Materials from and about these movements are available to a greater or lesser
extent on the Internet so I will not detain the reader with an analysis of them. Suffice
to say that Halbrook’s flawed work raises more questions – including the red herring 
of “libertarian” nationalism – than he answers, but as these debates are still somewhat
skewed by wishful thinking, especially among the African anarchist Diaspora, it
is worth reading with a critical eye. (8)

Michael Schmidt,
Zabalaza Anarchist Communist Federation, March 2008


1. More than 1-million suspected rebel sympathisers were put in concentration camps, a bestial strategy the British had perfected during the South African War of 1899-1902. Starvation and disease killed thousands, while 1,090 were hanged by the colonial regime. Despite the common use of summary execution and torture by white British and black Kings African Rifles proxy forces, no official was ever prosecuted for any atrocity. The Mau Mau on their side killed only 32 whites – but some 1,800 fellow Kenyans. See Histories of the Hanged: Britain’s Dirty War in Kenya and the End of Empire by David Anderson (Weidenfeld & Nicholson) 2005 / Britain’s Gulag: The Brutal End of Empire in Kenya by Caroline Elkins (Jonathan Cape), 2005.

2. The AWSM was founded in 1998 by Choongo, an anarchist librarian at the University of
Zambia (UNZA), and young members of the youth of the UNZA – Cuba Friendship Association and of the Socialist Caucus. The anarcho-syndicalist Workers’ Solidarity Federation of South Africa was instrumental in establishing the AWSM, but it appears to have collapsed the following year with Choongo’s death by meningitis. His obituary is at:

3. African Anarchism: The History of a Movement by Sam Mbah & I. E. Igariwey (See Sharp
Press), 1997. The authors have allowed an identical version, African Anarchism: Prospects for the Future to be published online by the ZACF, and it is available at:

4. A mini-biography of Mbah by the Institute for Anarchist Studies in 1999 said he was born in 1963 in Enugu, Nigeria, and “embraced anarchism shortly after the collapse of the Soviet Union while studying at the University of Lagos. Like many radicals, he entered a period of deep political reflection after the breakdown of the Eastern Block, one that prompted him to re-examine his previous Marxist commitments and ultimately led him to the anti-statist, anti-capitalist politics that is anarchism. North American publications such as The Torch and Love and Rage were especially important to this process. Mbah currently makes his living as the Lagos correspondent for Enugu’s Daily Star newspaper. He is also very active in the Awareness League, an anarchist organisation committed to the libertarian transformation of Nigeria. The Awareness League is active in political education, various social campaigns, and environmental protection. It presently has 600 members and eleven branches throughout the country [down from a high of about 1,000 members in 15 states during the dictatorship, but including its own radio station]... Mbah cited two Nigerians when asked to recommend other African authors he finds particularly sympathetic to anarchism: Ikenna Nzimiro and the late Mokwugo Okoye.”

5. The IWW, Revolutionary Syndicalism and Working Class Struggle in SA, 1910 – 1920, by
Lucien van der Walt (Bikisha Media Collective), online at the Zabalaza Books site.

6. For an account of the Sekhukhuneland Revolt, read A Lion Amongst the Cattle:
Reconstruction and Resistance in the Northern Transvaal, by Peter Delius (Ravan Press) 1970 / (Heinenmann), 1997.

7. See the BBC report at: 

8. A far better critique than Halbrook’s will shortly also be made available in this series: Africa, Nationalism and the State, by Sam Dolgoff (1982?). Dolgoff demonstrates the demagogic attitudes of African “liberators” like the neo-fascist Gamal Abdel Nasser of Egypt and the megalomaniac Kwame Nkrumah of Ghana.


The New American Imperialism in Africa

This article was first published in 'Zabalaza: a Journal of Southern African Revolutionary Anarchism', No. 8, November 2006. At that time, Zabalaza was the English-language sister journal of the French-language Afrique Sans Châines. The article was replicated on the pan-African progressive website Phambazuka in February 2010 with the following introductory commentary which I think is still relevant today: "Michael Schmidt reveals the alarming extent of American military expansion in Africa. This article was written four years ago [now 11 years!], but still holds strong relevance today in the context of United States Africa Command (AFRICOM). Schmidt describes three avenues that the US is taking to increase its military foothold in Africa in pursuit of its ‘War on Terror’: ‘piggybacking’ off already strong French military presence, creating an unofficial ‘School of the Africas’ in the guise of the African Centre for Strategic Studies, and with its Africa Contingency Operations Training Assistance (ACOTA) programme ‘aimed at integrating African armed forces into US strategic (imperialist) objectives’. Schmidt places blame beyond the US, however, and uncovers the role that African countries, particularly South Africa, are playing in strengthening US military presence through ‘secret pacts’. In light of all this, Schmidt concludes with a warning: ‘It would be naïve to think that bourgeois democracy… will protect the working class, peasantry and poor from state terrorism.’"


Michael Schmidt*


Former colonial power, France, has maintained the largest foreign military presence in Africa since most countries attained sovereignty in the 1950s and 1960s. While France reduced its armed presence on the continent by two thirds at the end of the last century, it continues to intervene in a muscular and controversial fashion. For example, under a 1961 ‘mutual defence’ pact, French forces were allowed to be permanently stationed in Ivory Coast and the 500-strong 43rd Marine Infantry Battalion is still based at Port Bouet next to the Abidjan airport.

When the civil war erupted in Ivory Coast in September 2002, France added a ‘stabilisation force’, now numbering some 4,000 under Operation Licorne, which was augmented in 2003 by 1,500 Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) ‘peacekeepers’ drawn from Senegal, Ghana, Benin, Togo and Nigeria. In January 2006, the United Nations extended the mandate of Operation Licorne until December 2006.

Piggybacking off the French military presence in Africa, however, are a series of new foreign military and policing initiatives by the United States and the European Union. It appears that the US has devised a new ‘Monroe Doctrine’ for Africa (the term has become a synonym for the doctrine of US interventions in what it saw as its Latin American ‘back yard’).

Under the George W. Bush regime’s War on Terror doctrine, the US has designated a swathe of territory – curving across the globe from Colombia and Venezuela in South America, through Africa’s Maghreb, Sahara and Sahel regions, and into the Middle East and Central Asia – as the ‘arc of instability’, where both real and supposed terrorists may find refuge and training.

In Africa, which falls under the US military’s European Command (EUCOM), the US has struck agreements with France to share its military bases. For example, there is now a US marine corps base in Djibouti at the French base of Camp Lemonier. More than 1,800 marines are stationed there, allegedly for ‘counter-terrorism’ operations in the Horn of Africa, the Middle East and East Africa, as well as for controlling the Red Sea shipping lanes.

But the US presence involves more than piggybacking off French bases. In 2003, US intelligence operatives began training spies for four unnamed North African countries. These are believed to be Morocco and Egypt and perhaps also Algeria and Tunisia.

It is also conducting training of the armed forces of countries such as Chad. In September 2005, Bush told the United Nations Security Council that the US would train 40,000 ‘African peace-keepers’ to ‘preserve justice and order in Africa’, over the following five years. The US Embassy in Pretoria said, at the time, that the US had already trained 20,000 ‘peace-keepers’ in 12 African countries in the use of ‘non-lethal equipment’.

And now, while the US is downscaling and dismantling military bases in Germany and South Korea, it is relocating these military resources to Africa and the Middle East in order to ‘combat terrorism’ and ‘protect oil resources’.

In Africa, new US bases are being built in Djibouti, Uganda, Senegal, and São Tomé & Príncipe. These ‘jumping-off points’ will station small, permanent forces, but with the ability to launch major regional military adventures, according to the US-based Associated Press. An existing US base at Entebbe in Uganda, under the one-party regime of US ally Yoweri Museveni, already ‘covers’ East Africa and the Great Lakes region. In Dakar, Senegal, the US is busy upgrading an airfield.


Governments with whom the US has concluded military pacts with include Gabon, Mauritania, Rwanda, Guinea and South Africa. The US also has a ‘second Guantanamo’ in the Indian Ocean, where alleged terror suspects who are kidnapped in Africa, the Middle East or Asia can be detained and interrogated without trial. This ‘second Guantanamo’ comprises of a detention camp, refuelling point and bomber base situated on the British-colonised Chagos Archipelago island of Diego Garcia, an island from which the indigenous inhabitants were forcibly removed to Mauritius.

In South Africa’s case, while it is unlikely that there will ever be US bases established – the strength of South Africa’s own military, SANDF, makes this unnecessary – in 2005, the country quietly signed on to the US’s Africa Contingency Operations Training Assistance (ACOTA) programme, which is aimed at integrating African armed forces into US strategic (imperialist) objectives.

South Africa, by signing on to ACOTA as the 13th African member, effectively joined the American War on Terror. ACOTA started life as a ‘humanitarian’ programme run by EUCOM out of Stuttgart, Germany, in 1996. After the 9/11 attacks, however, the Pentagon reorganised ACOTA and gave it more teeth.

Today, ACOTA’s makeup is more obviously aggressive than defensive. According to journalist Pierre Abromovici – writing, in the July 2004 edition of Le Monde Diplomatique, about rumours that South Africa was preparing to sign ACOTA a full year before it did so – ‘ACOTA includes offensive training, particularly for regular infantry units and small units modelled on special forces… In Washington, the talk is no longer of non-lethal weapons… the emphasis is on “offensive” co-operation’.

The real nature of ACOTA is perhaps indicated by the career of the man heading it up, Colonel Nestor Pino-Marina. He is, according to Abromovici, ‘a Cuban exile who took part in the 1961 failed US landing in the Bay of Pigs… He is also a former special forces officer who served in Vietnam and Laos. During the Reagan era he belonged to the Inter-American Defence Board, and, in the 1960s, he took part in clandestine operations against the Sandanistas. He was accused of involvement in drug-trafficking to fund arms sent to Central America’ to prop up pro-Washington right-wing dictatorships.

Clearly, Pino-Marina is a fervent ‘anti-communist’ – whether that means opposing rebellious states or popular insurrections. He also sits on the executive of a strange outfit within the US military called the Cuban-American Military council, which aims at installing itself as the government of Cuba should the US ever achieve a forcible ‘regime-change’ there.

The career of the US ambassador, Jendayi Fraser, who concluded the ACOTA pact with South Africa is also an indicator of US intentions. Fraser, Bush’s senior advisor on Africa, had no diplomatic experience. Instead, she once served as a politico-military planner with the joint chiefs of staff in the Department of Defence and as senior director for African affairs at the National Security Council. According to Fraser’s online biography, she ‘worked on African security issues with the State Department’s international military education training programmes’.


The programmes that Fraser mentions include the ‘Next Generation of African Military Leaders’ course run by the shady African Centre for Strategic Studies based in Washington, which has ‘chapters’ in various African countries including South Africa. The Centre appears to be a sort of ‘School of the Africas’ similar to the infamous ‘School of the Americas’ based at Fort Benning in Georgia. In 2001, it was renamed the Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation (WHINSEC).

Founded in 1946 in Panama, the School of the Americas has trained some 60,000 Latin American soldiers, including notorious neo-Nazi Bolivian dictator Hugo Banzer, infamous Panamanian dictator and drug czar Manuel Noriega, Argentine dictators Leopoldo Galtieri and Roberto Viola whose regime murdered 30,000 people between 1976 and 1983, numerous death-squad killers, and Efrain Vasquez and Ramirez Poveda who staged a failed US-backed coup in Venezuela in 2002.

Over the decades, graduates of the School have murdered and tortured hundreds of thousands of people across Latin America, specifically targeting trade union leaders, grassroots activists, students, guerrilla units, and political opponents. The murder of Archbishop Oscar Romero of Nicaragua, in 1980, and the ‘El Mozote’ massacre of 767 villagers in El Salvador, in 1981, were committed by graduates of the School. And yet the School of the Americas Watch, an organisation trying to shut WHINSEC down, is on an FBI ‘anti-terrorism’ watch-list.

So Africa should be concerned if the African Centre for Strategic Studies has similar objectives, even if the School of the Americas Watch cannot confirm these fears? There is more: we’ve all heard of the ‘Standby Force’ being devised by the African Union (AU), a coalition of Africa’s authoritarian neo-liberal regimes. But the AU has also set up, under the patronage of the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe – which also covers North America, Russia and Central Asia – the African Centre for the Study and Research of Terrorism.

The Centre is based in Algiers in Algeria, at the heart of a murderous regime that has itself ‘made disappear’ some 3,000 people between 1992 and 2003 (according to Amnesty International this is equivalent to the Pinochet dictatorship in Chile, but it is a fact ignored by the African left). The Centre’s director, Abdelhamid Boubazine told me that it would not only be a think-tank and trainer of ‘anti-terrorism’ judges, but that it would also have teeth and would provide training in ‘specific armed intervention’ to support the continent’s regimes.

Anneli Botha, the senior researcher on terrorism at the Pretoria-based Institute for Security Studies, said though, that only ten per cent of terrorist attacks in Africa were on armed forces, and only six per cent were on state figures and institutions, though the latter were ‘focused’. She warned that a major cause of African terrorism was ‘a growing void between government and security forces on the one hand, and local communities on the other’. Caught in the grip of misery and poverty, many people are recruited into rebel armies even though few of these offer any sort of real solution.

The Centre in Algiers operates under the AU’s ‘Algiers Convention on Terrorism’, which is notoriously vague on the definition of terrorism. This opens the door for a wide range of non-governmental, protest, grassroots, civic, and militant organisations to be targeted for elimination by the new counter-terrorism forces. It would be naïve to think that bourgeois democracy – which passed South Africa’s equally vaguely-defined Protection of Constitutional Democracy from Terrorism and Other Related Activities Act into law last year – will protect the working class, peasantry and poor from state terrorism.

* Michael Schmidt is a Johannesburg-based journalist and political activist.