Anarchism in South Africa An interview with Michael Schmidt of the ZACF - by Alternative Libertaire - AL

The ZACF is one of the most active libertarian formations in the southern part
of the African continent. In order to better understand its history, its
intervention in southern African society and the fights which it impels and
supports, we interviewed one of its militants, Michael Schmidt.

--- Alternative Libertaire: Could you tell briefly in which conditions/context and how Zabalaza,and then the ZACF, were built? ----

Michael Schmidt:

The roots of what becamethe ZACF are to be found in the anti-apartheid struggle of the late 1980s and early 1990s, with the formation of two semi-clandestine anarchist federations, one in Johannesburg and another in Durban, within the anarcho-punk movement. So the initial conditions were one of low-intensity civil war between the white and black nationalist organisations, and the organised anarchists took a strong
stand against neo-fascism, nationalism and military conscription. From this came
the Workers' Solidarity Federation in 1995 (a year after the first democratic

The WSF was the first national anarchist organisation and developed
a more comprehensive platform of positions on race, class, gender, imperialism
etc, most of which remain the ideological foundation of the movement today. The
WSF had a significant number of trade union & shop-steward members and was 50/50
black and white. It was dissolved for tactical reasons in 1999 as the ANC began
to move rightwards and trade unions became difficult to operate in.

In the interim before the ZACF was founded in 2003, we ran the independent Workers'
Library & Museum (working-class meeting-place) in Johannesburg and the Zabalaza
Books propaganda unit. The rise of the radical new social movements from about
2000 saw us help found the Anti-Privatisation Forum, and later form the ZACF to
participate directly in social movement activism. So in practice, we have moved
from semi-clandestinity to syndicalism to social activism, depending on
objective conditions within the working class.

Alternative Libertaire: What are nowaday the main struggles/actions they are
involved in?

Michael Schmidt: Today, our main private activity is internal political
education and strategy sessions, while our main public activity is what we call
"Red & Black Forums". These are public workshops which give an
anarchist-communist analysis of events. Previously, they used to be small
affairs attended by a handful of anarchists and some friends. Today we sometimes
get as many as 70 working-class people to a meeting, in poor areas as far away
as Sebokeng, south of Soweto. The other big difference is that now instead of us
inviting people to a meeting, we are often invited ourselves to give two-day Red
& Black Forums in townships and squatter camps such as Orange Farm. Other than
that, we participate in demonstrations relating to Iraq, Palestine and South
African labour struggles - and have mounted campaigns against repression in
Oaxaca and prisoners in Spain or Germany. We also have members living under the
dictatorship in Swaziland and we give them regular practical and ideological
support. The same goes for our anarchist comrades living under dictatorship in
Zimbabwe: the ZACF helped run a public solidarity campaign for the youth of
Zimbabwe in Johannesburg last December.

Alternative Libertaire: What are in your point of view the political/social
emergencies now in South Africa ?

Michael Schmidt: The two biggest political/social emergencies in South Africa
(and southern Africa more broadly) are no doubt a) gender violence, and b)
HIV/Aids. The slowness of the government in coming around to admitting that HIV
causes Aids has strengthened grassroots activist organisations such as the
Treatment Action Campaign, which uses a combination of lawsuits and street
demonstrations to force the government's hand. The ZACF has no specific HIV/Aids
policy (a failing of ours), but has been very pro-active in interrogating its
own male members' behaviour towards women. We do, however, have too few women in
our organisation. Violent crime, especially against women and children, has
reached epidemic proportions especially in poor areas, and is often falsely
blamed on Africans from other countries. Millions of refugees, from Somalia, the
Great Lakes, DRC, Zimbabwe etc now live in South Africa, which means that
xenophobia is increasingly used by the populists to divert anger from the
indigenous comprador ruling class. But at base, these social distortions of
crime are the result of extreme poverty in our region - which capitalism will
refuse to solve because it relies on a cheap labour pool to feather its nest.

Alternative Libertaire: What are ZACF links with social movement (even if the
last one is in the state you described)?

Michael Schmidt: The nature of our links has changed significantly over the
years. In the WSF days, most of us were unionised and several like myself were
shop-stewards. Today the climate has changed (my own union has collapsed and I'm
not unionised, but am considering joining a Trotskyist-run union). So our first
links to communities were through organised workers, but now our contact is
directly with communities. But the social movements have proved more fruitful.
We have done a little work with, for example, supporting sweat-shop workers in
Soweto, but most of our work has been more within poor communities. We tried to
set up community food gardens in Motsoaledi (a squatter-camp in Soweto), in
Dlamini (a formal housing area in Soweto) and in Sebokeng. The one in Motsoaledi
still continues - and has a popular community library and creche attached -
whereas the one in Dlamini was destroyed by ANC Youth League thugs and the one
in Sebokeng never took off. These projects are about teaching working-class
autonomy: that the poor have enough skills, if they use them collectively, to
solve their own problems outside of the state which cares so little for them. We
have direct links into the prisons (and a network of jailed guerrillas) through
our Anarchist Black Cross / Anti-Repression Network and have done significant
prison-support work. In a wider context, through the Anti-Privatisation Forum,
we became well-known to various struggling urban communities, and also to the
100,000-strong Landless People's Movement (LPM). Although the social movements
have achieved much, they are currently in a state of retreat - often because of
the bad politics (sexism, opportunism, vanguardism etc) of the Trotskyists and
left populists who dominate the leadership of many organisations. But we believe
the anarchists, plus the autonomists and some Stalinists have been honest,
decent activists and so are recognised by the social movements as trustworthy
(we rate militants by what they do, not so much by what they say).

Alternative Libertaire: What about Cosatu?

Michael Schmidt: Cosatu remains important to us because it is the country's
largest working-class formation, with about 1,8-million members. It is about to
embark on a massive (@1-million public sector unionists) general strike (May 30)
over wage increases. They will strike alongside Fedusa, Nactu and independent
unions, which is an important show of unity for union federations previously
divided by ideology, now united as workers. Cosatu's ideologues believe that
starting in 2002, they managed to reverse the rightward, neoliberal drift of the
ANC, but this has yet to be seen in terms of ANC policy. However, Cosatu has
from about a year ago, started making overtures to the social movements saying
we must work together. This is both because union membership is changing because
of creeping casualisation, and because of the great layer of unemployed (40% of
the working population by union estimates) that can also be mobilised if we work
together. The ZACF is in favour of a convergence of these forces - so long as it
remains along class lines and the social movements are not compromised by
working with a union federation allied to the ruling party (there are many
factions within Cosatu that are deeply critical of the ANC). The ZACF has been
discussing the possibility of establishing syndicalist cells within existing
trade unions in at least two areas: the University of the Witwatersrand and at
Independent Newspapers.

Alternative Libertaire: What are the main problems the anarcho-communist stream
is confronted with in South Africa?

Michael Schmidt: Our biggest ideological challenge is the dominance among the
popular classes of the ANC's black nationalist ideology which peddles the myth
of the "National Democratic Revolution". Fortunately, over time, segments of the
popular classes (especially the unemployed and the farm-labour tenants) have
come to see that this "Revolution" was about the ANC enabling the survival of
white capital's exploitation in exchange for a few seats at the feast for black
leaders. Also, we have deliberately called ourselves the Zabalaza (Struggle)
Anarchist Communist Federation to try to establish a true grassroots communism -
and to distinguish it from the SACP's weak social-democratic version. But still,
the SACP has huge numbers and resources compared to us. Which takes us to our
biggest practical challenge: extreme poverty. Even many of our own members face
hunger on a daily basis and the organisation is not wealthy enough to feed them
(hence the food-garden idea, but it has been plagued with problems like
community members wanting to turn it into a small business). We are not a
charity, but a political organisation. Still, it is hard to operate in such
conditions. The working class, so impoverished, becomes prey to fly-by-night
religious sects, labour brokers, loan-sharks, and political demagogues who
promise them "a better life" (the ANC slogan).

Alternative Libertaire: You say the anarchist message is starting to spead: how
do you notice this process?

Michael Schmidt: We notice this whenever we run into a black person in a
township who describes themselves as anarchist despite having never met us. We
notice it by the great interest that our Red & Black Forums generate, and by the
invitations we have been receiving to hold such Forums in poor areas (we have
even had an invitation to speak to a radical miners'union in the far northern
Limpopo province of South Africa). We also notice it by the presence of actual
anarchists in Zimbabwe, Swaziland, Kenya and Morocco - and by the people who get
in contact with us from Sudan, or Uganda, or the Democratic Republic of Congo or
Nigeria wanting anarchist materials. Lastly, we notice it by the noticeable
presence of so many African trade unions (nomatter how mainstream) at the I07
syndicalist congress in Paris. Clearly, African workers are looking for a
socio-political model that is not corrupt like the "African socialism" they know
too well.

Alternative Libertaire: What are the connections with other anarcho-communist or
anarchist organizations in Africa and "in the world"?

Michael Schmidt: Historically, the Workers’ Solidarity Movement (WSM, Ireland)
has been our most consistent supporter, and their solidarity has been
considerably added to over the years by practical and ideological support from
the likes of the SAC (Sweden), CGT (Spain), CNT (France), FA (France), WSA (USA)
and ART (New Zealand). We have also established close ties in recent years with
NEFAC (USA/Canada), FdCA (Italy), CIPO-RFM (Mexico), OCL (Chile), FAG & FARJ
(Brazil), FAU (Uruguay), AKI (Turkey), OAE (Greece), ACT (Lebanon) and others.
Practically, we have oriented ourselves towards the "social insertion" practice
of the Latin American "especifista" organisations. We are proud to count as our
comrades anarchist activists from the MLCE (Cuban exile), Pakistan, Iran, Iraq
and other places that are very tough to organise in. In Africa, we have lost
touch with the Awareness League (Nigeria), though we hear that it is still
operating in the north, but still have contacts with Brahim Filali (Morocco) and
the Wiyathi Collective (Kenya). The situation in better in the south with a ZACF
presence in Swaziland and with good relations with anarchists among the Uhuru
Network in Zimbabwe. As for Alternative Libertaire, we work alongside you in the
anarkismo.net project (and met your militants at Autre Futur in Paris in 2000)!
We also hope to establish closer relations so that AL can keep us informed on
developments in Francophone Africa, while we tell you what is going on in
Anglophone Africa.

Interview carried out by the International Secretariat of Libertarian Alternative


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