Monday, 26 January 2015

No investigation, no right to speak?

No investigation, no right to speak?

Richard Pithouse

In January last year I was in Harare for a conference organised by the people around the journal Agrarian South: Journal of Political Economy. There were lots of interesting people and papers, and interesting visits to flourishing farms, but one of the things that really struck me was a paper by a Brazilian scholar who has worked with and on the MST in Brazil, as well as the Landless Peoples’ Movement (LPM) in South Africa.

It was one of those rare occasions where an academic says something that you know to be true but which is never spoken about on the academic terrain. He made the point that what has passed for knowledge about the LPM in the left part of the NGO and academic nexus in South Africa has often been driven by gossip - empirically incorrect and prejudicial gossip - rather than reality. He went on to offer a concrete demonstration of this.

The case of the LPM is no anomaly. I remember, some years back now, an American student who had learnt Zulu and was doing a PhD based on long term immersion in grassroots struggles in Durban, telling me that she sometimes felt that the dramatic differences between what she was experiencing on a day to day basis in a grassroots organisation, and how this organisation’s politics and practices were understood in the university, was driving her mad. As someone undertaking a PhD she was invested in the value of academic knowledge. But moving between the (left) academic space and the space constituted by a grassroots struggle had left her feeling that the academic space, at least in so far as it concerned itself with popular struggles, had very little interest in or connection to reality. Moreover the ways in which it was disconnected from reality did not amount to random errors of fact – they accumulated in a particularly direction, a direction that was prejudicial and in accordance with the general set of prejudices to be found with regard to people who are poor and black in middle class society.

When I think back to some of the rumours that circulated on the academic and NGO terrain when this same movement emerged in Durban in 2005 some can be explained as part of an unconscious expression of a desire to delegitimate organisation undertaken outside of the control of particular (elite) networks. For instance when it was said that what only appeared to be a progressive grassroots organisation was in fact funded by the World Bank (the movement in question had zero external funding at that time) this rumour had a similar function for the middle class left located in and around the academy and the NGOs, to the state’s rumour, at the same time, that the movement was funded by foreign governments ‘hell bent’, as it was always said, on undermining a national liberation movement. In both cases these rumours functioned to enable the emergence of a new social force to be delegitimated rather than engaged on the basis that despite appearances to the contrary it was ‘really’ an expression of the power of the enemy. This kind of fantasy has an obvious utility for an organisation or network that desires, consciously or not, to monopolise a political space – or the representation of a political space. But there was another rumour, bogus of course (reported to me twice from people at Wits) – that this movement had held a ceremony on the beach involving animal slaughter in which a white man was anointed as its king – that could have come straight out of Rider Haggard. Although this kind of rumour also works for a paranoid and sectarian left in the same way that the rumour of World Bank funding worked it does other things too. It is a straight up colonial fantasy, racist to the core, that implicitly casts the authorised left in and around the university (much but not all of it white dominated) as a modernising and civilising force and the idea of the autonomy of popular black politics, especially when it draws on practices and ideas that don’t come from Marxism and liberalism, as inherently problematic.

The Syriza victory has sent new energies crackling into the networks of people who hope for a progressive project to emerge here. Of course both the EFF and NUMSA are already trying to capture the support of grassroots political energies. I would argue that, so far, the EFF has done a much better job of reworking its initial discourse to connect to the actually existing form taken by popular struggles – its encouragement of urban land occupations is a good example of this. However it is early days, the political space is highly dynamic and nothing is cast in stone. But when the development of a progressive political force of real weight and consequence on the national stage takes the form, as it has done in Greece and Spain, and before that in Bolivia, Venezuela and Haiti, of the left finding ways to connect to popular struggles by opening itself, in terms of discourse and practice, to at least some of their energies, it is essential to move beyond the NGO and academic networks that have dominated most of the previous attempts to reconstitute the left in South Africa. All kinds of things are required to achieve this – but one of them is a decisive break with the politics of gossip. Mao’s old injunction, which became an important principle in some of the struggles in France in ’68, - 'No investigation no right to speak’ – might be a useful principle to adopt as we move forward. This is not, of course, a recommendation for any kind of censorship. But I am arguing that it is imperative to, as a political principle, draw a clear distinction between forms of discourse in the NGO and academic nexus that refer to grassroots struggles and activists and are rooted in experience, and have a credible claim to empirical accuracy, and those that are rooted in a set of assumptions, and have no credible claim to empirical accuracy.