‘Life in a struggle that continues!’

By John Saul

The following interview, carried out expertly by my friend David MacDonald of Queen’s University was, several years ago, to have appeared a part of a Festschrift then being prepared in my name. But, as Duke Ellington once said ironically of a similarly failed honour in his twilight years, he was still just too young to yet be famous. Nonetheless, I’m happy to have the interview disinterred by Leo Zeilig here for the inaugural issue of roape.net and hope it may be of interest. In fact, it seems, to me, quite fitting since I was actually onboard as an author in the very first print issue of ROAPE (‘African Peasants and Revolution’) in 1974. Indeed, with one brief hiccough, I’ve been an editor of one sort or another of ROAPE since the very beginning. I also think ROAPE has stuck pretty successfully to its mission as a radical voice in African Studies and I’m proud to have been a part of it over all these years, including as an active participant in this new venture that seeks to keep ROAPE even more on top of events and ever-present in the fight for humane and equitable outcomes both on the continent and more widely.

Icon(oclastic): An Interview with John S Saul

John Shannon Saul has come a long way from a North Toronto childhood – at John Ross Robertson Public School and Lawrence Park Collegiate – to an on-going political and intellectual practice well to the left on the Canadian and international political spectrums. Africa has been key here, with periods spent teaching, writing about and participating in attempts to realize profound social, political and economic change – liberation and socialism – in Tanzania, Mozambique and South Africa.

And these were also years of active engagement on the left in Canada, working, in particular, as an activist in the southern African/anti-apartheid solidarity movement: seeking to raise committed consciousness amongst Canadians as to the human importance of on-going struggle there. Such a commitment has also involved challenging the social and economic structures – capitalist and imperialist – that so often moved “official Canada” to support the “wrong side” in southern Africa during the years of white dictatorship. Moreover, such structures, Saul has argued, have led Canada to participate to the more recent “recolonization” (by capital) of that region.

An author of note (some 20 volumes over the years and a vast number of academic and popular articles), an editor (This Magazine, Southern Africa Report), an activist (notably with the Toronto Committee for Southern Africa (TCLSAC)), Saul remains committed to anti-imperialist/anti-capitalist work in Canada, Africa and elsewhere.

David McDonald: You’ve been involved in liberation struggles in Southern Africa for a long time.  When and why did you first get involved? 

John S Saul: I first went to Africa to teach in Tanzania from 1965 to 1972. Those were exciting times; the years of the Arusha Declaration and of the heyday of Tanzanian socialism. I myself became involved, as did many others, in the struggles for change that then took place throughout the society – principally, in my case, in efforts to move the University too in a more socialist-relevant (in terms of pedagogy and academic practice) direction. True, as things transpired, I was soon to be fired for such activities by Canada’s External Aid, my original employer, but I was then strongly encouraged to take up a local contract. This I did quite happily for a number of years (although, as the contradictions inside Tanzania deepened, I was eventually to find that contract terminated as well). But I had learned a great deal and written a lot  (especially with Giovanni Arrighi and Lionel Cliffe) during my years in Dar and had made many close friends, both Tanzanians and expatriates.

In addition, Dar es Salaam during those years was the key centre for the various liberation movements engaged in struggle in the white-ruled territories further south – and I got to know them all. This was especially true with respect to Mozambique’s Frelimo for I was soon working with them on their English language publications – while learning a great deal more, as I went along, about what was happening in southern Africa more generally. Then, in 1972, and as I prepared to leave Dar, Samora Machel, Frelimo’s President, came to see me and invited me to travel with a group of Mozambican guerillas deep into their country to see for myself the liberated areas there and to gauge the meaning of Frelimo’s struggle. When I got back to Tanzania from this “long march” Machel then asked me to speak out, when I returned to Canada, about Frelimo’s efforts and about what I had learned. Looking back, I can see that my life-long involvement in the struggle for liberation in southern Africa, and in encouraging Canadians to also take it seriously, was grounded both in this direct experience and in Samora’s request.

DM:  In retrospect, the late 1960s and early 70s were particularly fertile years for progressive scholarship and activism in Africa.  Were you aware, at the time, of how momentous this period was, and how did it shape the way you saw yourself as a scholar-activist? 

JSS:  You’re right, it was a fertile moment indeed. In Tanzania, in Mozambique, in southern Africa more generally, you felt that you were swimming with the tide of history for a change, and not merely against it. There were people – I think in particular of Cabral, Eduardo Mondlane, Samora Machel – and movements – Frelimo certainly – in which you could ground both your hopes and your writing, as a comrade in revolutionary change as well as a careful scholar: a ‘scholar activist,’ as you say.

Of course, we were well aware of counter-trends: Frantz Fanon’s Wretched of the Earth became a particularly resonant point of reference in both my teaching and writing during these years, especially his powerful Chapter 3, “The Pitfalls of National Consciousness.”  We also knew – as I would discover at closer hand when I returned to Canada in 1972 – that western countries and global capitalism itself did not wish such revolutionary aspirations in southern Africa well: indeed Frelimo was to invite me, of all unlikely people, rather than the Canadian government, to come to Maputo on behalf of our now active Toronto Committee for the Liberation of Southern Africa (TCLPAC) in order to represent the Canadian people at Mozambique’s independence day celebration in 1975 – precisely because Canada had been on the wrong side, the side of Portuguese colonialism, during their struggle!

In short, in a whole host of ways we did know that something momentous was afoot, part of a promising global shift towards socialism and genuine independence that was even more clearly exemplified by Vietnam’s historic victory. And we basked in it and took inspiration from it – even though, momentous as it was, the ‘moment’ of triumph also proved to be transitory. To be honest, we didn’t quite grasp just how fleeting such ‘victories’ would prove to be…or just how strong the forces pulling southern Africa back into the orbit of ‘recolonization’ actually were.

Despite this, there’s no doubting that these instances of genuine accomplishment – like the on-going struggles for freedom that, beyond 1975 and well into the 1990s, continued in Zimbabwe, in Namibia and in South Africa itself – shaped many us profoundly. Cumulatively, living this history helped lock me personally firmly into the role of  ‘scholar-activist’ – ever more committed to an anti-capitalist/anti-imperialist politics, to a closely-linked intellectual practice as both teacher and writer, and to the genuine liberation of Africa. As I still am.

DM:  Can you expand a bit on the ups and downs of the past 50 years of struggle in the region: What would say have been the biggest successes (sustained or otherwise) and what have been the biggest disappointments?

 JSS: The past 50 years have seen both successes and disappointments, the biggest success being, without question, the removal, by armed liberation movements and by dramatic popular mobilization, of the parasitic – ‘evil’ seems not too dramatic a word for it – grip of racist rule as defined by the dominance of whites in firmly institutionalized positions of power (apartheid and the like). Of course, things have not yet turned out quite as many of us had hoped they would in terms of the attendant realization of class and gender equality and the establishment of genuine democratic control by the poorest of the poor in the region. Yet this, in political and cultural terms, was a great triumph – and one that, due to genuinely heroic efforts by the people of southern Africa, occurred rather against the odds.

One must hope that some memory of the accomplishments of the “thirty years war for southern African liberation” (1960-1990) survives, however, for it could be one resource useful to any attempt to spawn a “next liberation struggle.” And, make no mistake: this is what is desperately needed presently in southern Africa. Indeed, to return to the question asked, the “failure” of the region’s liberation struggles, once their leaders had come to power, to make any very dramatic difference, economically and in many other ways, to the lives of the vast mass of the population there constitutes the greatest single disappointment of recent years, both for residents of the region as well as for any committed outsider who would wish the peoples of southern Africa well. Put simply, in fact, the region has been recolonized by global capital in the wake of its ostensible liberation and the grim results – in terms both of continuing poverty and exploitation by capital, both global and local, and of an absence of any meaningful popular empowerment – are all too evident.

DM:  The neoliberal turn of the African National Congress (ANC) in South Africa has been one of these disappointments.  Mainstream analysts tell us that the ANC had no choice but to become market-friendly – given the collapse of the Soviet Union and the potential for white, reactionary revolt – and yet there seemed to be a period in the early 1990s where a more transformative politics seemed possible.  What, if anything, do you think could have shifted the balance at that time?

 JSS: The simplest answer would be that the ANC leadership had come, primarily, to represent aspirant black middle-class elements (a tendency never, from the outset, far from the surface of the movement in any case) who saw little advantage, to themselves, to lie in the pursuit of more egalitarian and socialist policies. The Soviet Union argument is a bit of a canard here because, although that country had been close to many in the ANC leadership, it exemplified no real socialist alternative anyway, entirely hostile to the kind of democratic empowerment of the mass of the South African population that could alone have dissuaded the ANC leadership from taking the line of least resistance towards global capitalism.

That said, it is obviously true that great pressure springing from the global capitalist system was also crucial. As were both “white” mining, financial and commercial capital players within the country itself and the full range of additional black aspirants, from within the state and private sectors (the Black Economic Empowerment set), to personal economic advancement. To deflect these various pressures would have required a great deal more commitment to popular mobilization and continuing struggle to realize a broad-scale liberation than the ANC (including, I’m sorry to say, Mandela himself) was interested in.

For starters there was probably more room for active popular empowerment, egalitarian policies, and defiance of imperial dictate – in the honeymoon period of possibility that existed after first overcoming apartheid at any rate – than the ANC ever conceived of availing itself of. The questions then multiply: Did the ANC elite become just too comfortable in their own novel power and privilege? Were they simply tired of struggle? Or perhaps too nervous about the risks involved in defying a generally hostile world? Or what?

For the fact is (as Rusty Bernstein has argued) that, either due to mere class opportunism or to failure of nerve, they turned their backs on genuine mass politics (running down rather than further enabling any independent and on-going UDF [United Democratic Front] initiative, for example) – and on real popular liberation. They thus settled comfortably for SA’s becoming, in Neville Alexander’s chilling characterization of the country’s post-apartheid landscape, “just another country,” one marked by the acceptance, on the part of the ANC, of extreme inequality and of a very soft landing indeed for both global capital and the new African elite.

DM:  And what of the other members of the Alliance – Cosatu and the SACP.  What is your take on their acquiescence at that time?

JSS: On the COSATU side, with liberation the union made a fateful miscalculation – a failure, encouraged by the ANC, to cast its lot with various grass-roots organizations still struggling within “civil society” but instead to link itself ever more closely to the party in power. But this absorption – oh, so tempting, even for a movement that had been so crucial to the resistance to apartheid inside South Africa – into a (not terribly effective) proximity to power was also being reinforced by sociological and organizational trends. An increasingly high percentage of workers in South Africa were marginalized, semi-employed and/or informally-employed and certainly not organized (within COSATU or any other union body). Increasingly, COSATU (and its leaders!) has found itself the organization of a kind of labour aristocracy, incapable of reaching out to the vast mass of the unorganized and the marginalized in both the urban and rural areas in order to build the left force that the ANC has refused to become.

The SACP, for its part, was, historically, a pretty Stalinist outfit, important though its links to the Soviet Union had been in getting the ANC favoured status as a movement to be armed and otherwise assisted. Neither the Soviet Union nor the SACP directed the ANC of course, but the SACP did have an important role in shaping the ANC’s form of “radicalism,” albeit one of a distinctly Stalinist, vanguardist and not particularly left character: much more rhetorical than real, as events would soon show. At the same time, the SACP was also imprisoning itself within a nationalist movement problematic – where it still finds itself. It has a certain radical base, and some of its members are now mildly left-wing Ministers (under Zuma). But the party is chiefly to be thought of as just one more agent of ANC power, wielded from above.

In short, both COSATU and the SACP remain players within post-apartheid South Africa, but players who have been primarily defined by their short-sighted opportunism: definitely, at the moment, part of the country’s problem rather than part of its solution!

DM:  Where does this leave the struggle for more radical liberation in South Africa today?  What are the potential rupture points, who can pry them open, and how might things be done?

 JSS: Living now far from the frontline, I’ll refrain from offering too precise a recipe as to the most effective and appropriate form of on-going struggle. Nonetheless, some facts are clear. There are vast numbers of people who are dissatisfied in South Africa and with good reason. This discontent can all too easily curdle, as we have seen, into crime, xenophobia, violence against women and the like in the absence of a convincing and resonant counter-hegemonic socio-economic imaginary and a movement that can give such an imaginary full expression. In other words, the challenge for the aggrieved is to craft increasingly effective long-term vehicles that give clearer and more sustained political voice to their grievances and through which they could press them ever more forcefully and appositely.

Of course, one has already seen many such positive expressions of protest, the apparent building blocks of a counter-hegemony so to speak. I felt, for example, that I saw something of this for myself as early as 2002 when I had the opportunity to join many thousands (20,000 plus) of demonstrators, representing the Anti-Privatization Forum, the Landless People’s Movement and the like, as we marched from impoverished Alexandra township to affluent Sandton to protest against the ANC (it was then hosting in Johannesburg a World Summit on Social Development) – although, unfortunately, at the time, such protest could not long sustain itself at that high level. But I also felt the same kind of oppositional energy to be close at hand when I was invited to speak, in Cape Town and under the banner of the Municipal Services Project, to a large and impressive workshop of activists from the townships and rural settlements in 2007. It was difficult, in fact, not to sense that the initiatives those comrades represented were the seeds of something much broader in the making.

Even more striking are the statistics of fledgling resistance to the present system’s severe defaults – as expressed in short-falls in housing, electricity supply, water and sanitation, in the lack of availability of meaningful skill-training and of jobs, and in the massive inequality that is now twinned so dramatically to wide-spread corruption. “Service delivery protests,” as they are termed, are rampant, said to be at a rate that is among the very highest in the world – and the level of very real anger is also marked. True, such anger has still not found its voice as a firm, coordinated and proto-hegemonic political force. Nonetheless it is around such issues, and with the further release of these palpable popular energies, that the dispiriting stalemate and profound sense of anti-climax that has come to define post-apartheid South Africa might really be beginning to be “pried open.”

DM:  As you note, much of this new resistance is being led by social movements and community groups, often in conflict with unions that are seen to be too cozy with the ANC.  Some commentators see this as a healthy move away from restrictive ‘class’ politics that open up of a broader potential for counter-hegemonic action and dialogue, while others are concerned that it runs the risk of losing coherent analytical punch and practical force.  What are your thoughts on this?

 JSS: I think that, despite some small risk of a possible loss of focus and clout in the formula you first suggest, it is indeed time to get away from any too rigid a preoccupation with exclusively class-derived concepts of revolutionary agency – not least with regard to southern Africa. Of course, Marx had good reason to emphasize the role of the working class in divining potentially revolutionary contradictions within a capitalist mode of production: it was the most exploited (at least in the technical sense in which he deployed the word) and is also brought together as a potentially self-conscious class by the very capitalist dynamic of concentration and centralization that has also defined its exploitation. It is not surprising that Marx’s formulation has served as the staple of left thinking and action for generations.

Yet there is a vast multitude beyond the ranks of the organized working class (and their work-places) who also live, in southern Africa, in teeming urban and peri-urban settings where social inequality is at its most extreme. There is a whole range of legitimate urban grievances – service delivery (health, housing, electricity, water, education and so much more) and unemployment, for starters – that are on the agenda and that people are seeking to deal with directly at the grass-roots and on their home ground. And this is not even to begin to speak about the more desperate situation in many of the rural areas – from where people are teeming to the cities!

Here I’ll throw in a favourite quotation of mine, if you’ll permit me, one that is entirely apposite I think.  It’s from a book by Ken Post and Phil Wright and it hits the mark directly:

The working out of capitalism in parts of the periphery prepares not only the minority working class but peasants and other working people, women, youth and minorities for a socialist solution, even though the political manifestation of this may not initially take the form of a socialist movement. In the case of those who are not wage labourers (the classical class associated with that new order) capitalism has still so permeated the social relations which determine their existences…that to be liberated from it is their only salvation. The objective need for socialism of these elements can be no less than that of the worker imprisoned in the factory and disciplined by the whip of unemployment. The price [of capitalism] is paid in even the most “successful” of the underdeveloped countries, and others additionally experience mass destitution. Finding another path has…become a desperate necessity if the alternative of continuing, if not increasing, barbarism is to be escaped.

Yes! But bear in mind too that “the working class,” even when so broadly and inclusively defined, is cut across by fissures and hierarchies and divisions (along lines of race, ethnicity and gender, to go no further afield) that can impede its self-consciousness and its collective practice. Moreover, self-evidently, such identities can also speak to grievances and demands that are entirely “real” in their own right and therefore cannot be glibly reduced and subordinated to the rigid terms of a slogan like “class struggle.”

Yet such identities and the grievances they give rise to cannot stand alone either. For they are best understood as festering most flagrantly within the selfish, unequal and individualistic ethos of a capitalist society. I’d say that the bearers of such identities – alongside feminists, environmentalists, anti-racists, activists around issues of sexual orientation and the like – must join into a broader community-in-the-making and within a universalizing project of anti-capitalist transformation. That’s what the best of militants in South Africa and beyond are beginning to do even as we speak.

Note, too, one other corollary of this kind of approach to “movement building.” For the inevitable tensions and differences of emphasis between the bearers of such diverse goals and purposes will not then simply disappear, even under the umbrella of a broadly shared socialist purpose. In short, no “vanguardist edict” can cancel out the necessity that such a project be a firmly democratic one. This enlarged definition of “class struggle” underscores the pressing need for more open methods of negotiation of both the means and the ends of revolutionary work than has characterized most past socialist undertakings. This will be true both in mobilizing the forces to launch revolutionary change and in sustaining the process of socialist construction in the long run. Hard work plus genuine democracy then – but South Africans have a future to win.

DM:  How does one operationalize this democratic process/practice in South Africa, where there is a dominant party that claims left-wing credentials yet marginalizes any radical thought and action, a union movement and communist party that shows few signs of progressive resistance, and a fragmented and under-resourced set of social movements, particularly in rural areas?  When compared to Latin America, South Africa seems a long way from any sustained anti-capitalist realization.  What is your practical advice to people working on the ground? 

JSS: A very tough question. You can see why I’ve chosen to become an historian in my old age, primarily seeking to trace the evolution of the “thirty years war” (1960-1990) for southern African liberation both in the region itself and, as a world-wide liberation support/anti-apartheid movement, more globally. In fact, I feel myself (as I said previously) to now be just too far from the nitty-gritty of struggles on the ground in southern Africa to any longer have a real “right to speak” on such pressing contemporary matters.

That said, I do feel the way you summarize the current situation is accurate, albeit quite bleakly phrased. But at the same time it’s a bit like the futility and disempowerment many of us, both in the region itself and beyond, felt some fifty years ago – after Sharpeville and the like. To argue that the Portuguese, the Rhodies and the Nats could all be defeated: now that really seemed fanciful. But, of course, it wasn’t.

Moreover, it ain’t over yet – that’s what I would want to say to people on the ground (who don’t really need me to tell them this, in any case). True, some would argue that there are too many on the left in South Africa who merely “wallow” in a “sell-out” narrative regarding the ANC and what has happened in the past 20 years in the country. But I’m not convinced that this is the true. In fact, most of the skeptics (skeptical, to be clear, regarding the actual liberatory content of “liberation”) whom I know well are largely correct in their negative evaluations of what has occurred in South Africa.

More importantly, most such skeptics are also, in fact, actively involved simultaneously in the kind of painstaking work – within “civil society” and the interstices of the system (from the Treatment Action Campaign to the Anti-Privatisation Forum) – that gives promise of real human betterment and substantive change. At minimum, such work is immensely helpful and healing – on very many fronts – to ordinary people in the present difficult moment. But one senses that it is also sowing the seeds of the kind of more general challenge to the status quo – “radical reform,” in the militant sense of that concept forged by Gorz and Kagarlitzky – that promises, cumulatively, to be substantively revolutionary. Here, in short, is the basis for the necessary “next liberation struggle” in South/southern Africa that I have evoked in the title of a recent book of mine.

True, it is certainly the case that such instances of resistance as continue to manifest themselves in southern Africa haven’t yet begun to “add up” into a forceful counter-hegemonic movement (as they apparently have begun to do in some parts of Latin America, for example). The ANC still lives, for popular consumption, off its liberation history and its “struggle credentials.” And, as I said earlier, COSATU and the SACP are far too comfortable with their “insider” status to help in overcoming the fragmentation of the left and in facilitating any efforts by others to wage, publicly and entirely confidently, full-fledged anti-capitalist struggle. And these are problems, to put it mildly.

But this is simply to say, trite but true, that “the struggle continues.” Myself, perhaps I’m just too Irish to quit. More generally, though, we must take hope from the fact that the numbers (made up of the vast and swelling ranks of the exploited and the marginalized) are, potentially, on our side, the revolutionary side, in southern Africa – and more globally as well! Here’s the basis for what I once called, in South Africa, a possible “small-a alliance” of popular forces (as distinct from the “big-A alliance” of the ANC, the SACP and COSATU):  a genuine and increasingly effective movement in the making, what the late Fatima Meer was no doubt anticipating when she spoke of the need for a “South African Social Forum” separate from and opposed to the wielders of established power. Of course, the other side (“imperialism” and its local hench-men) is trying too, but the stakes – in terms of human decency, equity and equality – are simply too high for us, here or there, to merely walk away from the table.

 DM: And what of other countries in the region, where social and class forces are very different and where many nations remain under the (sub)imperial thumb of a re-energized South Africa?  Do you see similar potential for ‘small-a’ alliances?  If so, where, and what is the potential for a broader regional (or even pan-African) anti-capitalist movement in the next 10-20 years?

 JSS: For the moment South Africa seems the most promising site for the genesis of a counter-hegemonic political project – and we’ve already discussed just how difficult it is to see anything transformative happening anytime soon even there. Elsewhere in the region the prospect for a renewed challenge to the debilitating stranglehold of global capital and its local ‘puppets’ (a term I don’t feel comfortable in using but, under the circumstances, it’s difficult to think of an alternative) is even less immediately promising.

For example, I’ve recently felt forced to write extremely pessimistically of Mozambique in whose national left experiment I had once invested many of my own hopes. And Zimbabwe, so bedeviled by the horrors perpetrated by Mugabe and his cruel coterie of ZANU followers (and by the support this gang receives from countries like South Africa, Mozambique…and China), has seen the high hopes once placed in the more promising kind of opposition originally offered by the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) there forced to wither. Angola, Namibia: not pretty pictures either, as other contributors to the volume of Africafiles I’ve just referred to soberly attest.

As for myself, I’ve also written both an article a year or two ago on what I called “the strange death of liberated southern Africa” and another on the far too narrow notion of “liberation” that we have been content to settle for – national and racial liberation (up to a point), but not also a parallel liberation in class, gender and other terms. In evaluating the liberation struggle in southern Africa in these broader terms, the results of the “liberation struggle” must thus be seen as having been very mixed – and I speak as one who devoted a great many years to liberation support and anti-apartheid work both in the region itself and also here in Canada.

But as I’ve already told you, I’ve now become a card-carrying historian and consequently have felt constrained to hand in my crystal ball and to return my “prognosticator-of-the-future” badge. That doesn’t mean I no longer care about future outcomes and, in fact, the “next 10-20 years” that you mention does seem like a long time, with the situation – in terms of inequality and sheer penury, of disease (AIDS, for starters) and malnutrition, of environmental despoliation – just too drastic for us to easily imagine that people, especially in the global South, will passively accept their “fate.”

Dare to struggle, dare to win: I quite simply don’t feel I/we have got any other choice, as trite as that cliché sounds and as bleak as things look right now. But I’ll keep any of the dark thoughts about the future that occasionally assail me to myself, if you don’t mind. Instead, I’ll hope to continue to hear more hopeful ones both from engaged activists on the ground who are seeking to assist more positive things to happen there and also from other contributors to this volume who, more actively than I am now able to do, are taking the pulse of the theory and practice of the moment.

DM: Let’s return, then, to the 1970s, and your role in creating awareness about, and activism against, repression in Southern Africa from your home base in Canada.  You were instrumental in the establishment and continuation of the Toronto Committee for the Liberation of Portugal’s African Colonies (TCLPAC) (later the Toronto Committee for the Liberation of Southern Africa (TCLSAC)), and an editor of Southern Africa Report (from 1985-2000).  What impact did these organizations and publications have on the anti-apartheid struggle in Canada and on Canada’s official (or unofficial) policies towards oppressive regimes in the region?

 JSS: I’ve actually written quite a bit on this (as have others), including in my own memoir, Revolutionary Traveller, and also in a long report I’ve recently done about the North American front of struggle for a research project, sponsored by the region’s own Southern African Development Community, on the world-wide liberation support/anti-apartheid movement. It’s very difficult to tell our precise impact on western policy, of course. What we can say at minimum, perhaps, is that our efforts and those of other like-minded militants across Canada communicated to and reinforced the confidence of the liberation movements in the region itself by demonstrating that they were not without friends and supporters in Canada and other imperial centres (whose elites otherwise tended, for commercial and investment reasons, to back white power).

That said, we also ruffled the feathers of the right people, corporate and governmental, here in Canada with our campaigns that targeted government complicity with racial rule and corporate “investment in oppression.” We hosted the liberation movements in Canada, we wrote and publicized the situation, through various media, a lot, we held endless meetings (including our popular “Cinema of Solidarity” series), and we mounted what we felt to be imaginative assaults upon such things as government support for Portugal through NATO, Canadian banks and their unconscionable loans to apartheid, Gulf Oil Canada’s exploitative involvement in Angola, the Hudson’s Bay Company and its pursuit of karakul pelts in Namibia, and Canadian mining companies like Falconbridge in a variety of regional settings. We know, for example, that, in retaliation, Gulf Oil infiltrated a corporate spy into our TCLPAC ranks during our public campaigns against the company in the 1970s, and though we caught and expelled him pretty quickly who knows how many others may have sought to follow in his wake; we were extremely open and transparent (and “penetrable”) in our activities after all. Who knows? Just last year, for example, when I finally managed to extract the CSIS file on TCLPAC/TCLSAC from the National Archives it was, quite legally but entirely immorally, stripped by the government of well over 50 percent of its contents – for “security reasons,” it was said, albeit 30 or 40 years after the fact! What remains does speak, furtively, to moments of governmental infiltration by individuals (names not revealed!) into our ranks, but who knows what else was on those whited-out pages!

It was the successes of the movements in the region itself that made the main running, of course. Soon the Mulroney government – though, fixated on “terrorists” and “reds,” it remained extremely reluctant to give any aid and comfort to the liberation movements themselves, including the ANC – was faced with the reality of the latter’s success, the parallel success of wide-spread popular resistance in the townships and beyond, as well as some continuing embarrassment at home (we liked to think). At that point, “official Canada” began to distance itself from apartheid (well before Reagan, before Thatcher, who were both more racist than Mulroney could ever be), becoming a prominent cheerleader for “liberation as recolonization.” Our government now readied itself, in short, to egg on Canadian corporations to join in on the suffocating embrace of the “New South Africa” by the global “Empire of Capital”: business and exploitation as usual, hold the racism please.

So, by the end of the thirty years war for southern African liberation it was clear that we, in the region and beyond, had won a significant victory. And yet it was also a pyrrhic one: difficult, in short, to know whether to cheer or to cry, especially as the modesty of the ANC’s intentions once in power became apparent. In Toronto we did keep our own magazine, Southern Africa Report/SAR, going until 2000 hoping to be an active part in any on-going struggle in southern Africa that might be forthcoming. But, to most Canadians, the initial appearances of liberation were more graphic than was the sober reality apparently. Though many militants from the anti-apartheid days did move on to other fronts of the global justice struggle, the movement in Canada for equity and equality in southern Africa had, like apartheid itself, simply melted away.

DM: What does this say about the Canadian political psyche?  Although blatant racism mobilizes anger and resistance, more complex debates over the nature of capitalism seem increasingly difficult to sustain in a popularized way.  What can we do in Canada today to generate better and more widespread understandings of ongoing inequities in South(ern) Africa?

 JSS: National political psyches: I’m not sure I know how to think about those. But the problem you allude to is a real one, nonetheless – and I’m afraid it’s not just germane to understanding our responses to southern Africa. For starters the situation in most of the Global South is the real issue here. And yet the truth is that for many – most? – Canadians the gross inequalities that define the gap between the world’s rich and the world’s poor seems to be fielded as being, at best, the unavoidable “common-sense” of the market-place and, at worst, a matter of mere indifference. The fact is that we’re very far from being self-conscious members of a real global community, one built on empathy and mutual caring and respect, and the results of this you can see quite clearly – if you care to look.

Mind you, the same is true even closer to home. Canada itself is a pretty unequal society, and becoming all the more so all the time as our local chapter of “the architects and beneficiaries of the system of global greed” distinguishes itself ever more sharply in terms of income and life-style from the “creatures” set below it in the social hierarchy. My son is the executive director of a community food centre in West Toronto and he lives such contradictions every day. His organization is doing good work and helping make some difference but he would love to make the accessibility of good healthy food for all a matter of right, not market-defined privilege – and not a matter of mere “charity” either. He finds it difficult enough work to make such points here; how much more difficult it is at the global level.

Of course, this global picture is the subject of much hand-wringing amongst the “caring classes” – and even lefties can sometimes get discouraged. Thus a friend with a shared commitment to Africa writes to me recently that (if I may quote) “I don’t see how the South can ever liberate itself in the absence of a new socialist project becoming powerful in the North and I don’t see that happening until people are hurting and see no prospect of meeting their personal needs under globalized neoliberalism, and until a new left movement with a serious attitude to organization and democracy (to both, that is) emerges to displace the social democratic collaborators with capital.” His conclusion: “All of which means that very much against my will and my nature I feel very pessimistic.”

As noted above, I’m not quite so inclined towards pessimism, although I can understand this kind of response. And my correspondent may also understate the will and the scope for local action, at once radical and transformative, in the Global South itself. But at least this letter has the virtue of bringing the problem right back here to our own doorstep. We must, of course, continue, to support southern Africans in their efforts to help themselves by all means; many of us spent a lot of time over the years doing just that and we need make no apologies for having done so. But we must also continue to work to challenge and to change the global system from the centre, beginning right here in Canada too: work, in short, for equity and for the continuing viability of the global environment!

Unfortunately, our own national government refuses to hear the terrible tidings about injustice and ecological vulnerability and about the very real inability of “the market” to magically deliver fair and mutually beneficial social outcomes. What we actually need, I continue to think, is the more self-conscious challenge to the workings of the market – a real not rhetorical project of socialism – mounted by popular majorities committed to social and economic justice. I sense that many Canadians, old and young, are beginning to wake up to the pressing environmental challenges that face us…and, perhaps, they are also becoming more aware of the many other weaknesses and dangers of our market and dominant-class driven system. So much depends on many more people doing so, both here in Canada and elsewhere.

DM:  I note the phrase “I continue to think,” when you talk about the need to resist the logic of the market.  Your commitment to this goal has been noteworthy in an era of trendy shifts in academia.  What has changed for you intellectually since the 1960s and what remains the same.

 JSS: I sense a whole other interview coming on, since this is, in itself, a very big question. But fortunately it’s also something I’ve written about elsewhere (most recently in “Is Socialism a Real Alternative?” in Studies in Political Economy, 2010) so I’ll try to be brief. To begin with, my understanding of the logic of global capitalism that I first began to articulate with Giovanni Arrighi and others in my Tanzania days has remained, to the present, pretty much the same in broad outline. I simply see no reason to think of global capitalism as being developmental in any expansive and egalitarian sense of the word, but rather as having been and remaining primarily parasitical and hurtful in Africa. In short, “delinking” the central dynamic of the economy of “Third World countries” from the global market-place is crucial, as Samir Amin emphasizes.

Note, please, that this is not some simple-minded plea for autarky. There are, of course, useful and societally profitable external links an economy in the global South can and must avail itself of. But such links will not automatically make developmental sense in any sound and democratically meaningful sense unless these links are subordinated to a new internal logic for the economy concerned. And this must mean the primacy of conscious collective intervention that overrides any apparent “market logic” (a false, if seductive, quasi-logic that actually favours the strong in the world economy over the weak). This in turn would allow for crafting an internally-focused, not externally-focused, economy for the country concerned, one that links the city’s productive activities and consumer needs to the productive activities and consumer needs of the countryside in an ever expanding set of exchanges – thus providing the basis for a “socialism of expanded reproduction,” as Clive Thomas has effectively characterized it. Am I just being stubborn by sticking to my last on this and other economic and social fronts? Well, the fact is that capitalism just hasn’t worked for the vast majority of the world’s citizens, and shows no signs of doing so. The socialist goal and vision therefore remains for me, in this and other particulars, the preferred option.

Of course, the socialist vision has itself taken a ferocious pounding, especially by the end of the twentieth century. And this has been not only the work of imperialism. For there have certainly been severe weaknesses in the so-called socialist camp itself. Here I do feel that, in my own negative take on the Soviet Union and its progeny, I was pretty consistent. But I was much too soft on vanguardism – as exercised, for example, in Mozambique (a country I thought I knew well). For there is no evidence that vanguards can be trusted for long anywhere, however benign their original intentions may have been. Leaders (for they have a role) simply have to be controlled democratically – from below, by the very populations in whose names they claim to speak. In short, socialism has to be profoundly democratic (although, at the same time, it must also be genuinely socialist, something that “social democrats” have forgotten time and time again – to our cost).

In short, I’m no less a socialist but ever more of an unqualified democrat than once I was. But I’ve adjusted my thinking on other fronts too. For example, I’m more open to expanding the definition of potential revolutionary agents along the lines I’ve suggested in quoting Post and Wright to you above: to include peasants, yes, but, especially, to embrace, in Africa, the full range of urban-dwellers, well beyond the organized working-class. And I’m even less inclined to reduce resistances based on gender, race, religion, ethnic and anti-authoritarian political demands to their presumed “class belongings” but to see them as making rightful claims to expression and to redress in their own terms. They can, of course, give rise to political expressions of both right and left provenance. So just how they can be encouraged to intersect with class/socialist projects is a matter of creative political work – and negotiation and democratic interchange as well.

It also underscores the need to move away from mere revolutionary rhetoric and incantation as well – though not away from the cause of genuinely radical and structural change. Here I’ve found the thinking of Gorz and Kagarlitzky on “structural reform” especially suggestive and I’ve tried to expand on it elsewhere. Two points here, however. Firstly, any reform, to be “structural” in the sense I’m seeking to evoke, must be understood by those who press for and achieve it not as a single, self-contained event but, as a step taken, self-consciously, as part of a longer term struggle for genuinely radical transformation. Secondly, the organization and empowerment of the popular elements that prove necessary to realize any such short-term campaigns of would be “structural reform” can also be seen as contributing to the broader and more general self-organization that will prove necessary to the undertaking of even broader struggles for transformation in future.

Moreover, such an emphasis of popular engagement and genuine empowerment once again implies a democratic process of revolution-making – a process that, as I have argued, can only have long term positive effects. At the same time, one mustn’t be naïve: the side of resistance to revolutionary change – the dominant class, its military and its external backers (as in many of the struggles against white power during the initial years of liberation struggle in southern Africa) – will often play pretty violent hard-ball indeed. Then the escalation of confrontation may sometimes, of necessity, pass beyond the boundaries of anything like “structural reform” – with, unfortunately, long-term costs to socialist and democratic outcomes that, even if the “good guys” win, can be very severe.

Of course, the cost, human and political, of any such necessary escalation is one of the main reasons we in Canada and elsewhere in the West fight so hard (as we did during the stormiest days of the war for southern African liberation) against the state and corporate structures and class interests prevalent here that have so often put our governments on the wrong side of struggles for freedom in the global South – and continue to do just that. But this all evokes issues that demand continuing reflection on my part, and, no doubt, lots more to say in due course.

DM: And finally, what is next for John S Saul?  Your works in progress suggest no quiet retirement!

JSS: I wouldn’t hope for the latter certainly; in fact, once you have tasted the bittersweet fruit of knowledge as to the way the world actually functions there is no retirement you can easily permit yourself from the class struggle. Now, of course, my prevailing mode of struggle is through my computer (used as a glorified typewriter) – for as long, at any rate, as my physical and mental faculties remain sufficiently intact to permit me to form comprehensible sentences and coherent arguments. Such is my lot – and I ain’t complaining.

Along such lines I last year produced a memoir Revolutionary Traveller (from Arbeiter Ring in Winnipeg) – a memoir that was actually in large part a story of the southern African struggle and of our efforts here in Canada to support it. And I’ve just finished Liberation Lite: The Roots of Recolonization in Southern Africa for India’s Three Essays Collective and Africa World Press, a book that reflects on the aftermath of the southern Africans’ victory over colonialism and on the region’s future prospects. Meanwhile, wearing my present cap as “historian,” I have, at various stages of gestation, three more books I’d like to complete by the time I’m 80: a history of South Africa for James Currey; a recounting of what I call “the thirty years war for southern African liberation, 1960-1990,” for Cambridge UP; and an evaluation of the world-wide, southern Africa-focused liberation support/anti apartheid movement, once again for Arbeiter Ring. After that, he said jokingly (gallows humour!), we’ll see.

For my wife and kids also take priority, and, as befits my age, so do my four grandchildren, all of them here in Toronto at various ages and each a source of endless delight. I like to read, too, dozens of thrillers, but I also revel in George Eliot, Conrad, James, and Robertson Davies, Richard Ford, Colm Toibim, David Eggars and Jane Gardam, among many others. And I’m forging on with my Proust, determined to finally conquer it during my eighth decade.

In addition, I listen to a lot of jazz, go to the opera, Stratford and Soulpepper theaters, and watch an endless number of old movies at Cinemetheque and on TV – from Stanwyck to Mitchum and Gabin, Randolph Scott to Eleanor Powell and Olivia de Havilland, and including such favourite directors as Michael Powell, Lang, Anthony Mann, Michael Haneke, Hawks, Oshima and Budd Boetticher – and various classic TV dramas on video: Six Feet Under, Lost, Homicide, The Wire. I didn’t stop playing basketball until I was 70 either (it was at about the same time that I taught my last class at York), and, while I haven’t found an equivalently satisfying form of exercise, I do still watch the game with immense enjoyment (including my grandson’s team, coached by my son!). In short, there is life after retirement: it is called life in retirement – and it’s also, for me, life in a struggle that continues!



  1. A fascinating and inspiring interview. For a much younger generation of people interested in class struggle and resistance in Africa (and indeed elsewhere, anywhere!) it downplays just how hard it must have been for people like John (and others linked to Roape) to maintain a firm belief in not only the need for a socialist society but the ability of working class people and peasants to continue to change their world for the better. For all of us today, I think it is worth just re-emphasising this section of the interview:

    “But at the same time it’s a bit like the futility and disempowerment many of us, both in the region itself and beyond, felt some fifty years ago – after Sharpeville and the like. To argue that the Portuguese, the Rhodies and the Nats could all be defeated: now that really seemed fanciful. But, of course, it wasn’t.”


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