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An Interview with John S. Saul

[John S. Saul is professor emeritus of politics at York University in Toronto. He is the author of many highly-acclaimed books on the politics of southern Africa, including Recolonization and Resistance: Southern Africa in the 1990s, Namibia’s Liberation Struggle: The Two-Edged Sword, The Crisis in South Africa, and A Difficult Road: The Transition to Socialism in Mozambique. His new book The Next Liberation Struggle: Capitalism, Socialism, and Democracy in Southern Africa was just published by Monthly Review Press.]

Q1. Your new book is titled The Next Liberation Struggle: Capitalism, Socialism, and Democracy in Southern Africa. It’s a great title, and the idea that the next liberation struggle is about to begin, or has already begun, has great resonance in southern Africa itself. But the title might be too good. For many decades it was easy to say what the liberation struggle aimed to achieve and what liberation would involve. Is there a clear answer to the question of what the next liberation struggle aims to do?

A. It is difficult to be entirely optimistic, of course, or even to state clearly and realistically what we might hope to achieve in now seeking to bend the world away from the apparent imperatives of global capitalism. We’ve certainly come a long way down from the era of relative confidence that helped us to see “socialism” as the ready, even likely, outcome to popular struggles then underway, including at least some of those for “national liberation” in Southern Africa. I’m sometimes, in darker moments, even tempted to retranslate the old slogan “Dare to struggle, dare to win” dourly as “Dare to struggle, dare to whine.” Yet it’s not simply “pessimism of the intelligence, optimism of the will” that can keep us going. The vast majority of the world’s population are losers from the current system of global capitalism and while many of them will be tempted to embrace alternative visions of “betterment” — along more fundamentalist and xenophobic lines — rather than more left, “secular,” socialist solutions, there are signs that many struggles, though often small, localized and fledgling at the moment, are inclining towards a fresh reengagement against capitalism, world-wide and local, including, for example, in South Africa.

Q2. You’ve been writing about the politics of the southern African region for thirty years or more now. Thirty years ago there was a clear understanding on the left of the role of Africa in struggles for radical change around the world. That understanding seems to have crumbled, without anything really taking its place. Do you see this changing anytime soon?

A. There is, of course, a global movement to fight back against capitalist globalization that has made some headway and gained some salience, and there are Africans involved in many such networks: around many quite specific issues (e.g. water) and more general ones (e.g. the role of the IFIs and the WTO). In Africa itself, however, there is no doubt the kind of ebb in self-confidence that, paradoxically, parallels the further marginalization and exploitation of the continent that has come to characterize the present unipolar world. We’re back, in effect, to the period of the 40s and 50s when movements of national liberation were just beginning to be born to resist the crude workings of colonialism and white-minority rule. My present book certainly reflects the victories but also the fierce disappointments that those of us close to the anti-colonial/anti-apartheid movements have experienced over ensuing decades: those at the bottom have not seen their lives improve so very much, to put it mildly, however important a fresh measure of some greater political freedom may be. Still, the book also seeks to evoke a new phase: an emerging resistance from the bottom up to global capitalist control, resistance that is real (as shown, in my book, for South Africa, for example) but still has some way to go, nationally, continently, and globally. Not “soon” then, but “haba na haba, hujaza kibaba” (little by little, you fill up the measure) as they say in Kiswahili.

Q3. When your book The Crisis in South Africa (written with Stephen Gelb) came out in 1981, as a summer issue of Monthly Review, it was immediately at the center of debate among activists in the anti-apartheid struggle. Your writing continues to be consistently informed by a sense of strategic possibility; it’s not analysis for its own sake, but analysis as a guide to action. But it must be harder to make that connection between analysis and struggle in the present context. Isn’t the task now as much that of educating a new generation about the basic choices they will have to face?

A. I won’t quarrel with that. As I’ve just said, in some ways, in southern Africa, it’s a bit like “starting from scratch,” going back, analogically, to the moment after World War 11 with anti-colonial nationalism just beginning to accelerate. And this time without a “Cold War” to at least pose the possibility that there are a few choices (even if the Eastern choice offered a mere shell of what “socialism” could actually mean) that can give people in the South a little more room for manouevre! It remains important, therefore, to demonstrate, both analytically and in practice, the ways in which, especially in Africa, capitalism — as a named system — cannot work, a skepticism that is real enough but should perhaps be rather closer to the level of the presently “thinkable” than it has tended to be more recently. Moreover, this also demands reinforcement of the awareness that there can be, and are, alternatives and it is these alternatives that, as suggested in my book, Africans are beginning to feel their way towards: towards “the next liberation struggle,” as it were.

Q4. In recent years there has been growing mobilization around economic issues such as cancellation of the debt, highly unequal regulation of international trade, the role of international financial institutions. New alliances are created in the process between NGOs and movements in the global South. But space is also created for figures like Bob Geldoff to speak on behalf of Africa, as when he applauded the recent G8 moratorium on certain categories of debt. How do you see the future of these campaigns?

A.  Most often the “solutions” that are being conceived along the lines you mention are pretty shallow ones (and in any case are possible “changes” only very minimally on offer from the key makers of the global economy). What is needed, in the long run, is a dramatic challenge to the very structure of the present global system, a global revolutionary movement (whatever that might come to mean). As I’ve noted, we’re still some way from such a prospect.  But perhaps the “new alliances” you mention are a kind of step towards the mutual international enlightenment and rising consciousness that will eventually be necessary to complement (and protect) equally radical assertions at the national level in various parts of the globe. In this sense, even Geldof and company might wind up doing more good than harm: raising consciousness about inequality and inequity at a faster rate than they muddy it perhaps. But the future import of such campaigns will depend on much else happening in terms of struggle and resistance before they can amount to something that is genuinely and cumulatively positive.

Q5. Some US commentators saw the UN World Conference Against Racism, held in Durban in 2001, as an important step toward a global movement for racial justice. A few days after the conference ended, the planes brought down the World Trade Center in New York and for quite understandable reasons the WCAR and related issues fell off the agenda. Is there not a danger that issues of racial domination and inequality getting lost in the struggle against new forms of imperialism?

A. If I understand you correctly, I rather doubt it. Racism is real, of course, and must be resisted in its own right, but racial, national and religious definitions (and rationalizations) also tend to rise to the surface as class and capitalist-induced definitions of inequality are downplayed and ignored. This is part of Mbeki’s mischievous bag of rhetorical tricks in South Africa and Mugabe’s in Zimbabwe and even, in effect, of George Bush’s (in Iraq, if not in New Orleans!) The “other” is the problem, not us, and certainly not, heaven forbid, a class structure, world-wide and local, that simply reinforces and reproduces itself. It’s not a question of too much struggle against imperialism (whatever that might mean) then; rather, what is needed is a simultaneous struggle against both racism AND capitalist imperialism and increased clarity as to the dense interconnections of the two, both historical and contemporaneous. Incidentally, the relationship between class and race (and between class and gender, religion and ethnie/nation as well) is something I discuss more generally for the “global South” in another new book, Development after Globalization: Theory and Practice for the Embattled South in a New Imperial Age, soon out from Three Essays Press in India and Zed Press in the North Atlantic region of the world.

Q6. I understand you’re now working on a major history of The Thirty Years’ War for liberation in southern Africa — another great title, and a book you’re uniquely well-equipped to write. I’m sure it will be hugely illuminating to bring together the often divergent struggles in South Africa, Namibia, Zimbabwe, Angola, Mozambique, and elsewhere within a unified framework of analysis and narrative. But your current book, The Next Liberation Struggle, is surely a kind of rough draft for that history, or part of that history, with the larger process shown in a different light by bringing together your studies of different countries in the region?

A rough draft, if you like. But perhaps it’s best considered, in Sartre’s terms, as exemplifying the merits of the “progressive-regressive” method, one which seeks to provide a clear balance-sheet on the present state of things in the sub-continent (the present book) before dropping back, “regressively,” to reassemble the past (the next one), thereby setting the present-day variables in motion, dialectically, to better divine their contradictions and possibilities. But perhaps de Saussure’s terminology might work here too: the marrying of the “synchronic” and “diachronic” that he advocates, the synchronic being analogous to a chess game, the next move dependent on the presence and placement of the pieces presently on the board (this book), and diachronic (its sequel) analogous to a hand at bridge, the current move guided by the pattern of the past play of cards by the various players. Both are necessary, both illuminating. Perhaps, then, my next book will indeed make a diachronic contribution to the understanding of Southern Africa provided here and complement the present, synchronic one nicely. But whether I’ll then need to do a third book (!) to exemplify the fusing of “progressive-regressive” analyses and of the “synchronic” and “diachronic” angles of visions is not quite clear to me. And in any case: I should live so long!

Still, it is true that the struggle by Africans to overthrow white minority rule throughout the sub-continent in the latter half of the twentieth century was a heroic victory of world historical importance, overlooked and underestimated though the significance of that moment now may be. And it is also true that the denouement, the present southern African subservience to global capitalism, tends to be where we all now find ourselves. There is a lot to be learned, then, from southern Africa, both positively and negatively. And, of course, the struggle continues.

Q7. You have given so much to southern Africa through your work, and it’s a contribution that is richly appreciated in that region. But I’m sure that you’ve gained much from that engagement. The media often portray Africa as a charity case. But isn’t there also a sense in which the world is also the poorer for marginalizing a continent with such huge resources of community and solidarity?

A. Thank you for the compliment, but, yes, solidarity and shared struggle are their own reward, and I’ve learned vastly from my engagement with comrades and movements in the southern Africa and beyond. But you’re also correct more generally. The world continues to pay a heavy price indeed for the historical accident that saw Western Europe make the first breakthrough, via its emergent capitalism, to extraordinary material productivity, something which, in turn, encouraged it to conquer the rest of the world and subordinate the global South to Western purposes. The price paid has — thanks to the slave trade, colonialism, and now regimes all too often complicit with neo-colonial forces — been highest in Africa and remains so. However. to repeat and as the final chapter of my book indicates, Africans, like others elsewhere, are beginning, slowly but surely, to reground the struggle, which once brought national liberation, in new terms — “starting from scratch” if you like, but as part of a global movement that, literally, cannot afford not to win.


Andrew Nash was an anti-apartheid activist and taught at the University of the Western Cape in Cape Town, South Africa for twelve years. Nash is the editorial director for Monthly Review Press.


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