Editor’s note: Because we don’t ban t-shirts in our own club, we are publishing a response to Azad Essa’s column “Like active virgins, BDS-SA’s activism is an oxymoron”. You can read the original column here, and Essa’s own response to comments he received on the column here.
Azad Essa’s attack on BDS (“Like active virgins, BDS-SA’s activism is an oxymoron”) reminds me of the observation of the late social and political commentator, Christopher Hitchens: “there are all kinds of stupid people that annoy me but what annoys me most is a lazy argument”. By SHUAIB MANJRA
Comical or callow were the first choice words to describe Azad Essa’s piece. Of course, “critique” would be a misnomer because that would entail a position carefully reflected, well-articulated and based on historical antecedents, if not theoretical prescripts. His attempt to look clever, claim a corner as a critical commentator or as a “pseudo-radical” is overridden by his puerility, purposive ignorance or wilful dishonesty. That the Daily Vox would afford such prominence to mediocrity is understandable as Essa is the executive editor of the online magazine. But why would the Daily Maverick do so?
In a sweeping condemnation of BDS-SA Essa musters all the trendy banalities he could including “career-activism” and “hackery”. Not only that, he also arrogates to himself a constituency when he pontificates: “But Desai and Co must know too that we aren’t fooled”. Granted, he may be using the royal plural. In a Freudian sense Essa projects his own middle-class guilt in condemning middle-class activism as some kind of guilt-balancing act, rather than seeing it for what it substantively is: a commitment by individuals against systemic oppression and promoting human rights and socio-economic transformation. He fetters such individuals by an historical accident wherefrom they inherit their class affiliation. As a simpleton he conflates class affiliation with class consciousness.
Essa is in deserved company amongst a range of liberals and reactionaries who have levelled such attacks against progressive activists using nebulous, but loaded terms such as “career activism” or “professional activists”. The subtext characterises such activists as being self-serving, seeking out causes to prolong their careers, using the subjects of their activism as cannon fodder, and raising large amounts of money to sustain their activism or bloated salaries. Of course in the main, none of this is true.
In a world of career politicians, career marketing men and women, career lobbyists and even career journalists, why does one want to begrudge activists who get paid for what they do albeit far less than what the market would determine and working under extremely difficult conditions. In confronting the behemoth of capitalism, political power, and its ideological and repressive apparatus, are poor communities supposed to engage these epic battles only with volunteers and amateurism? New forms of power demand new forms of resistance. We should rather celebrate our activists who take on causes to advance the cause of the oppressed and marginalised. Unlike career journalists, who write without responsibility or self-censor to protect their careers.
Essa works up a major sweat about BDS-SA coordinator, Muhammed Desai, exercising his option to a Virgin Active membership. For Essa that is too middle-class for a strugglista who by Essa’s definition should only be exercising working class options. No bourgeois accoutrements accepted (or is it excepted) in Essa’s world. No to temples of capitalism: Virgin Active, Cavendish Square, Sandton Mall, Gateway or even Truth Cafe. For him it’s probably spaza shops and township culture which pass as working-class proclivities. Many of the most radical and principled activists find no contradiction in visiting such places, unlike the ascetic Essa who harbours juvenile conceptions of progressive politics.
In a wonderful essay titled Gramsci and Us, published in Marxism Today in 1987, Stuart Hall characterises this dilemma in the light of Thatcherism; the relevance is evident if we transpose capitalism for Thatcherism:
“It really is puzzling to say, in any simple way, whom Thatcherism represents. Here is the perplexing phenomenon of a petty-bourgeois ideology which ‘represents’, and is helping to reconstruct, both national and international capital. In the course of “representing” corporate capital, however, it wins the consent of very substantial sections of the subordinate and dominated classes. What is the nature of this ideology which can inscribe such a vast range of different positions and interests in it, and which seems to represent a little bit of everybody – including most of the readers of this essay! For, make no mistake, a tiny bit of all of us is also somewhere inside the Thatcherite project. Of course, we’re all 100% committed. But every now and then Saturday mornings, perhaps, just before the demonstration we go to Sainsbury’s and we’re just a tiny bit of a Thatcherite subject.”
The Daily Vox executive editor’s gripe with middle-class activists and activism is not a new phenomenon. Historically those who consider themselves true revolutionaries have suffered such infantile disorders, described as such by none other than that other middle-class activist Vladimir Lenin, who was inspired by another middle-class theoretician, Karl Marx. Part of Lenin’s critique was targeted against those who criticised collaboration with those who they considered to the political right of them, or participation in what they termed bourgeois institutions such as parliament (where ironically workers were in some case voting for right wing parties). The point is that only those not involved in struggle engage in such irrelevant semantics or as that other famous middle-class revolutionary, Leon Trotsky characterised it: “These creatures are very much inclined to spout ultra-radical phrases beneath which is concealed a wretched and contemptible fatalism.”
Commitment to real change requires a broad progressive vision; defining and realising the aims and objectives of political struggle, working out a clear plan for the most effective strategy and tactics, forming broad coalitions with a range of constituencies to advance this struggle, and recruiting activists who have a certain consciousness, commitment and ability to collaborate within a collective. Of course some of these are developed within the crucible of struggle. The class extraction of individuals is meaningless – as conscious and committed activists hailing from the middle-classes have led and participated in many, if not most progressive revolutions in the world. On the other hand there is no higher virtue to simply being working class – which has produced its own fair share of reactionaries or who are too engaged in multiple jobs eking out an existence to participate in any of these campaigns. Essa seems to be trapped in an archaic paradigm, confusing class and consciousness, and I recommend he reads Goran Therborn’s insightful exploration of the changing dynamic of class and class struggles in Class in the 21st Century, published in the New Left Review (2012).
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Political and human rights struggles are a struggle for hegemony – challenging the narrative, the assumptions, and importantly the power that is both concentrated and diffused throughout society – and I daresay throughout the world. The site of this struggle is manifold and multi-levelled, depending on objective conditions – and may include Virgin Active or Woolworths. To assume that this is a one trick pony is a false analysis about the nature of power and consequently the nature of resistance. Anyone engaged in political struggle would understand that it is not a linear process that takes you from one point to the next, without deviations, contradictory impulses, strategic and tactical blunders, successes and failures, and incidents of indiscipline among your ranks. These are part of the dialectic of struggle. But only those disengaged from the dynamics of struggles would remain untainted and can preach any sense of puritanism or self-righteousness. In fact some use their self-righteousness to disengage from the very struggles they pay lip service to.
This is pithily expressed by, ironically a bourgeois President, Theodore Roosevelt: “It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.”
Politics after all is the art of the possible. In deciding tactics struggles are always going to be selective based on practical considerations, the ability to mobilise people, the odds of victory and the impact factor. Universal struggles begin with selective and local struggles. No movement can take on countless struggles without diluting its focus and effectiveness. Of course any struggle must ensure popular participation and participatory democracy.
Moving on from his obsession with class, Essa then inveighs about the limitations of this middle-class agenda with a sweeping statement: “Why is an understanding of systemic oppression and a true commitment to political change so limited in middle-class activist circles” he asks. The question says more about the groups within which Essa fraternises then about actual activists committed to such struggles. The activists that I work with combine political clarity, a superb strategic sense and an amazing sense of commitment, combined with an empowering ethic.
Let me provide a simple example: in the quest for safety, security, sanitation, housing and basic services for people living in Khayelitsha, would the cause be advanced any better if we stand on our soap boxes and condemn capitalism and call for a socialist society? What really advances the peoples cause is utilising the instruments available to ensure democratic participation in budgeting processes, for example, and using legal instruments, popular mobilisation and local empowerment to achieve a better quality of life for all citizens and holding the government to account on its constitutional obligations. That does not mean that we do not understand the fact that both capitalism and apartheid have given rise to this skewed social geography and the reproduction of poverty. These platforms are used to build social movements which will elevate, enhance and upscale our struggle based on organic leadership.
So on what basis does Essa assume that BDS-SA lacks a commitment to ending systemic oppression? BDS-SA is one among a few of pro-Palestinian advocacy groups, that does not have a membership, but draws its activists from a range of progressive organisations who are committed to local and international struggles and in transforming society. BDS-SA works in alliance with a number of progressive forces including trade unions, political organisations, progressive churches, and civil society groupings including COSATU, the ANCYL, YCL and COSAS. While we may not agree with the current state of these organisations we cannot discount their organic and progressive roots.
Essa’s third gripe concerns the merits of boycotting Woolworths. Of course this is a vexed issue. However it is a democratic decision arrived at by a broad coalition of Palestinian solidarity organisations after much discussion and debate. The decision is one based on an underlying logic, which Essa may be ignorant of. One can certainly question its merits, but it behooves activists and other constituents to advance leadership decisions. Without that any struggle will lack focus, coherence, leadership and impact; it will become a free for all and defeat the campaign and dent the broader struggle. That is not to suggest in any way that any strategy or tactics are not open to critique and discussion provided they are done within the appropriate avenues in an honest and engaged way – not sniping in a conceited, churlish and condescending way.
Woolworths may well have been an easy target compared to other large retailers. However a focused campaign cannot overwhelm itself by taking on too many targets at the same time. Paradoxically the very reasons Essa cites for Woolworths as not being an ideal target, actually makes it one. The reputational damage and disruption that Woolworths faced for procuring such a small part of their merchandise from Israel makes one think whether it was worth their while stocking such products. It tests the credibility of such companies who are wont to project an image of fair-trade, ethical practice and respect for human rights. Woolworths failed that test. Woolworths are obviously in a Gordian Knot: giving in to one constituency would only encourage others, they would argue in their boardrooms; and placating the pro-Palestinian constituency would alienate a large section of their affluent Zionist customer and shareholder base.
However, by simply focusing on one issue Essa misses the bigger picture. In political struggle, victory is not defined simply by achieving the set objective; in fact in some cases it is anticipated that victory would not be immediate, with the realisation that this would be a war of attrition. Boycotts against companies doing business with the Apartheid state in South Africa took decades to be effective. Admittedly the objective is to use these non-violent initiatives to pressure Woolworths to stop supporting Israeli companies and those who benefit from the occupation, in order to weaken the Israeli economy and strip it of any moral veneer. This would hopefully create the necessary pressure to force the recalcitrant Zionist State to ensure justice, restitution and human rights to Palestinians.
However there are constant and significant victories along the way, which we cannot ignore. This campaign has caught the public imagination and has created a specific narrative that has gone far beyond traditional constituencies. BDS has embedded itself significantly in the South African lexicon and in people’s conscience. Secondly it created a consciousness among many where none previously existed. Furthermore it serves as a passive mode of activism for many who lack the appetite for more vigorous activity. It mobilised a new cadre of activists who have played an important part in building the movement.
BDS tested its ability to launch, motivate and sustain this campaign. The role of social media in this campaign gripped the public imagination – particularly the Pharrell Williams spoofs. Importantly, The campaign created a consciousness regarding ethical shopping among communities; and last but certainly not least it changed shopping patterns among middle-class households, who sought out alternate sources of product, and in many cases procured them from smaller shops, hawkers, and street traders – doing exactly what Essa seems to encourage. I speak from personal experience. Furthermore, the action against Woolworths would force circumspection among other companies supporting Israel. Another significant victory cannot be ignored: Woolworths has unequivocally stated that they do not procure products from the Occupied Palestinian Territories.
In one of those statements that at first glance sound profound, but on closer inspection is pure nonsense, Essa claims that the Woolworths boycott is “exclusionary by nature because it has no chance of becoming universal”. Boycotting any specific store or product is going to be exclusionary; in fact boycotting Israeli products (Ahava or Soda Stream for example) is exclusionary since few people can afford to purchase them. If you shop at store A or use product B, then boycotting them would be exclusionary to those who stop at store X and use product Y. Universality is achieved by creating a consciousness towards ethical shopping and fair-trade including boycotting all Israeli products and institutions. Of course one cannot argue against the need for creating a popular and grassroots momentum for the campaign.
Ironically Essa’s paper the Daily Vox is exclusionary by its nature because of its language and content and is only accessible to middle-classes with internet access. In another contradictory impulse, while decrying the BDS boycott of Woolworths, Essa suggests action against Cape Union Mart and G4S. Cape Union Mart of course is a far more niche store than Woolworths and G4S generally protects the wealthy and their corporate assets: would boycotting them not also be exclusionary? Perhaps he is ignorant of the fact that BDS-SA has already issued a statement on the Cape Union Mart issue indicating that they are evaluating the principles regarding a boycott, and has long and successfully campaigned against G4S, including pressuring government institutions to exclude them from tenders.
I agree entirely with Camalita Naicker, whom Essa quotes at length, when she says that solidarity with Palestinians “must be rooted in the principles of equality, justice and freedom”, in non-racialism, and in solidarity with all people especially people who face oppression every day”. These principles are essential if our politics is to be driven by ideas, ideology and idealism – not by the politics of partisanship and identity. But her sweeping statement that BDS-SA does not conform to those principles is simply unsustainable, even if Essa chooses to quote her as an authoritative voice.
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Furthermore the canard of anti-Semitism that detractors seems to attach to BDS, by both its adversaries and its critics is disconcerting. I believe that there is no evidence of any embedded anti-Semitism within BDS-SA despite condemnable actions by individuals hailing from other fraternal organisations (the ANCYL and COSAS) in putting a pigs head in the food section at Woolworths (in the halaal section, by the way) or using the slogan “Dubula e juda” at Wits. These actions should be unequivocally condemned as being in bad taste and insulting to Jews and others but I need to be convinced that they are reflective of a broad anti-Semitism no less than the slogan “Shoot the boer” is reflective of widespread racism within the ANCYL. Others have argued otherwise and I am respectful of their positions.
Another wanton red-herring thrown at Palestinian solidarity is what-about-ery: what about this struggle, why don’t you take on this struggle, or issue a statement on this. No other struggle has had to endure as much what-about-ery as the Palestinian one – simply because it is a convenient distraction. Why can’t we simply engage the Palestinian struggle on its own merits as one of self-determination and enforcement of their national rights?
There is much more in Essa’s piece that is either patently erroneous or simply irksome, but without getting personal I will conclude with the telling words, ironically of another revolutionary Marx Groucho who said: “He may look like an idiot and talk like an idiot but don’t let that fool you. He really is an idiot.” That fits in perfectly with Christopher Hitchens abhorrence of the lazy argument.
Shuaib Manjra is a social activist involved in a range of NGOs. He writes in his personal capacity.