Reading Walter Rodney in occupied Azania

The revolutionary work and activism of Walter Rodney was celebrated in Cape Town as workers and students gathered to read his work in the context of neocolonial capitalism in Azania. Joseph Mullen writes about a weeklong event in June which marked 50 years since the publication of Rodney’s How Europe Underdeveloped Africa.

By Joseph Mullen

Two days of tragedy marked the beginning and end of a week of celebration in South Africa, entitled “Walter Rodney: Anti-Imperialist Politics Today”. We commemorated the 50th anniversary of How Europe Underdeveloped Africa on 13 June, the date of Walter Rodney’s assassination in 1980, when a neocolonial government silenced a revolutionary individual and 16 June, the beginning of the 1976 Soweto Uprising in South Africa, when a settler colonial regime began killing young people across the country.

In both events, revolution was suppressed with egregious violence, but over 40 years later, the revolutionary spirit represented by Walter Rodney and the youth of Soweto was resurrected in Cape Town as workers and students gathered to read Rodney in the context of neocolonial capitalism in Azania.

Rodney’s mighty spirit has been resurrected by the Walter Rodney Peoples’ Public Revolutionary Library, a collective started in 2019 formed by student activists from Pretoria to fill the gap. The week’s events, put together by the Library and the Tshisimani Center for Activist Education, sought to take Rodney’s analysis and show that “South Africa is still the way Rodney predicted”, as comrade Nyikiwa Mabunda of the Library said. As the comrades went around to introduce themselves, they announced that “Walter Rodney lives”, and that “Rodney is in the room with us today.”

The proceedings began with two films from University of the West Indies Mona Professor Matthew Smith. We first watched “The Past is Not Our Future”, reflecting on Rodney’s days as a student. The audience included many students from across the country who had participated in the influential student movements of the past few years, such as Fees and Rhodes Must Fall (the latter originating in Cape Town itself). We learned how Rodney participated in the anti-apartheid protests that began when he was studying in Jamaica in the early 1960s, and how Rodney’s travels brought him to Cuba during the early revolutionary years, an under-examined aspect of his own intellectual development. Much of the discussion revolved around Rodney’s instruction from a professor that, “There is no such thing [as a revolutionary intellectual]. One can be an intellectual or one can be a revolutionary. You can’t combine the two”.

In the second film, this statement was explored further, as Smith’s “Disturbance 1968” showed Rodney’s decision to throw himself into the popular struggles of Jamaica’s working people and the uprising of Jamaican students in reaction to his banning known as the “Rodney Riots”. As we watched students fight police and bulldozers destroying shantytowns, one could not help but be reminded of the Soweto Uprising in 1976, or the Must Fall movement of the past few years.

Comrade Vusi “Oldman” Mahlangu introducing Matthew Smith’s films.
Comrade Vusi “Oldman” Mahlangu introducing Matthew Smith’s films.

On the second and third days, teach-ins were held on Rodney’s life and his thought in his 1972 classic How Europe Underdeveloped Africa (HEUA), led by the comrades from the Library. They consistently embodied Rodney’s revolutionary intellectual pedagogy. As Vusi Mahlangu said, “[Rodney] didn’t only write… or organize lectures. He also actively partook while students were having protests, unlike the modern bourgeois academia that sit in their offices somewhere and only direct us when we want to do Fees Must Fall”.

The desire among South Africa activists to relate Rodney’s analysis of imperialism, underdevelopment, and capitalism to conditions for South Africans was the very application of Rodney’s critical pedagogy of “Groundings”. Rodney’s desire “to go anywhere that any group of Black people were prepared to sit down and listen” informed the approach of participants from the Walter Rodney Library. The event included many learners from the townships around Cape Town such as Khayelitsha, and generally from outside of the academic ivory tower. One attendee, Andre Naidoo, asked the organizers to remember that illiteracy continued to be a problem in South Africa, and that Rodney’s ideas would have to be made practically understandable.

The comrades from the Library did just that. They took Rodney’s writings and turned them into a teach-in (as opposed to teaching), following Rodney’s ‘groundings’ approach with a hefty dose of a “shop steward voice”, as comrade Vusi put it, to ensure Rodney’s words could be heard by all.

As we began to read HEUA on day three, there was a clear desire to relate everything he wrote to the lived experience of South Africans. When we read Rodney’s statement in HEUA that “it would be an act of the most brazen fraud to weigh the paltry social amenities provided during the colonial epoch against the exploitation, and to arrive at the conclusion that the good outweighed the bad”, my comrades could summarize this in an understandable manner by simply pointing to former Democratic Alliance (and Mayor of Cape Town) Helen Zille’s 2017 assertion that “those claiming [the] legacy of colonialism was ONLY negative” ought to be grateful for “our independent judiciary, transport infrastructure, piped water” and ask themselves if they would “have had a transition into specialized health care and medication without colonial influence?”.

With respect to transport infrastructure, the comrades frequently pointed to “Pit to Port” infrastructure throughout South Africa’s extractive mining industry to prove Rodney’s analysis of “development by contradiction”. Phethani Madzivhandila of the Library told me, “the white settlers would take the N1 National Highway home with them at night and put it back up in the morning if they could”. Now, even more comprehensive evidence can be added to the analysis. Take the “energy racism” of Eskom’s current load-shedding, as Nyikiwa Mabunda pointed out, one can compare the constant power outages in Soweto to the consistent power in Sandton, Africa’s “richest square mile”. Participants could reject the supposed benefits of colonial development easily and concur with Rodney that “the only positive development in colonialism was when it ended”.

Nyikiwa also noted Rodney’s analysis of income inequality and its pertinence to South Africa today. Rodney wrote in HEUA about his interaction with a “young Ugandan” who “put it in a very personal form when he said that the per capita income of his country camouflaged the fantastic difference between what was earned by his poor peasant father and what was earned by the biggest local capitalist”. Rodney extended this analysis to South Africa to prove the poverty of colonial developmentalist logic, as he wrote, “South Africa boasts of having the highest per capita income in Africa; but as an indication of how this is shared out, one should note that while the apartheid regime assures that only 24 white babies die out of every 1,000 live births, they are quite happy to allow 128 African babies to die out of every 1,000 live births”. The failure of statistics to match the reality of the situation led Rodney to conclude that “gross inequalities of land distribution, property holding and income… are camouflaged behind national income figures”. Today, South Africa continues to boast one of the higher income per capita figures but as the Library comrades pointed out, today South Africa has the highest GINI coefficient in the world and is the most unequal society in the world. It is virtually unchanged from Walter Rodney’s analysis fifty years ago.

The significant change in the context of South Africa after apartheid’s formal end has been the growth of the neocolonial comprador bourgeoisie. “We changed just the face of capitalism from a settler capitalist to a native capitalist”, Vusi said. Rodney once wrote that “in politically independent African states, the metropolitan capitalists have to ensure favorable political decisions by remote control. So, they set up their political puppets in many parts of Africa, who shamelessly agree to compromise with the vicious apartheid regime of South Africa when their masters tell them to do so”. Today, the only change is that political puppets of Western imperialism run South Africa.

During our week of discussion, we were asked to look no further than the Marikana massacre in 2012, the epitome of post-apartheid brutality against workers. When discussing Marikana, it was impossible to ignore the role of the comprador class. “What we have today is the consolidation of the comprador bourgeoisie who are assisted by the metropolitan bourgeoisie in the exploitation of the workers. The murder of the workers at Marikana… is the hallmark of what most African countries went through. We went through armed struggle against structural racism to the state of neocolonialism”, comrade Phethani said.

The invocation of Rodney to understand the current contradictions of South Africa, with an aspirant Black bourgeoisie increasingly allied to the needs of the settler minority against the native working class, led to a consistent debate throughout the week about the “Primary Contradiction”. Rodney’s position on the matter is part of Chapter 3’s conclusion in HEUA. He summarized his thoughts by saying that “oppression of African people on purely racial grounds accompanied, strengthened and became indistinguishable from oppression for economic reasons”. He quotes C. L. R. James, “noted Pan-Africanist and Marxist” in saying that “the race question is subsidiary to the class question in politics, and to think of imperialism in terms of race is disastrous. But to neglect the racial factor as merely incidental is an error only less grave than to make it fundamental”.

Throughout the week, the comrades from the Library showed us that one of the most valuable aspects of Rodney was his own experience of the need to hold race and class as inseparable and anyone who privileged one over the other as misguided.

Some participants were equally frustrated with “Eurocentric Marxists” and “Black Capitalists” and strove to find the dialectical answer in Rodney’s writing. When one attendee put himself forward as a “skeptic of Marxism” and asked why race was not still the central point of analysis in South Africa, rather than the dogmatic approach on questions of race found in Euro-Marxist circles, Phethani explained that “it might have been easy during apartheid to organize solely on the basis of race but now we are in a different epoch, and we need different tools of analysis. We must not allow race to be pushed to the front in a way that demobilizes the unity of the working class”.

Rodney’s political development was a story of the same struggle to find synthesis. He was at one point told he was “Babylon” by Rastafarians for his academic posture and focus on socialism, which to them smacked of a certain Europeanness. As Rodney put it, “many … present the debate as though Marxism is a European phenomenon and black people who are responding to it must of necessity be alienated because the alienation of race must enter into the discussion. They seem not to take into account that already that methodology and ideology have been utilized, internalized, domesticated, in large parts of the world that are not European”. But Rodney encountered in equal measure the scorn of Euro-Marxists, class reductionists who begged non-white comrades to forsake the problem of racism.

Debating Rodney’s legacy

As Chinedu Chukwudinma notes in his Rebel’s Guide to Walter Rodney which was the book studied for the second day of the event and the subject of a book launch on the fourth, “Rodney accused the British left of neglecting the fight against racism. He resented the paternalism, the silent and sometimes open racism he encountered from some of them”. Rodney’s ability to forge a theory not weighed down by reductionism led the Library comrades to call him the “greatest Pan-African Marxist”, a testament to Rodney’s synthesis of race and class, of Marxism infused with Black Power.

One of Rodney’s great values was his lack of dogmatism. As Rodney wrote in the collection of lectures, now published as a book, The Russian Revolution: A View from the Third World, “it is always in the interests of bourgeois scholars to take Marxism as expressed in a rigid and dogmatic manner, because such dogma is then easily shown to be false when it is tested against experience”.

We were constantly reminded that the most important challenge was combatting what Rodney called “Education for Underdevelopment”. As Rodney pointed out in HEUA, European and colonial education (particularly under apartheid) was “not an educational system designed to give young people confidence and pride as members of African societies, but one which sought to instill a sense of deference towards all that was European and capitalist”.

When discussing with younger attendees, many of whom were completely new to Walter Rodney, the accuracy of this analysis was borne out. On the third day, attendees were asked to begin by describing what the word “development” meant to them, and which countries they thought were developed. One noted that if she could, she would leave South Africa for the more developed France. She noted that Paris was free of the “gangsterism” she experienced in her township, and that she would have a much nicer life there. The pedagogical work of Rodney allowed the flaws of this deeply instilled Eurocentric view of development to be easily challenged.

As we sat in small groups to read Chapter One of HEUA, Rodney’s introduction to the concept of development was greeted by comments like: “This guy is sharp” and “He’s very clear”. One attendee, Lunga, who offered to read aloud for the group, reflected that the typical view of progressive social development was disconnected from reality in South Africa, saying that he was told “feudalism, colonialism, and capitalism improved our lives”, but had come to conclude from reading Rodney that “we were just introduced to the Western way of living”. He noted in contrast that “Rodney’s view of development is centered on the human being”.

When we studied Rodney’s later chapters, it became clear why Rodney’s analysis of imperialism has lasted so long as a popular and accessible framework. South Africans who have been dominated by the extractivist mining industry for so long know better than anyone the reality of imperialism’s role on the continent. When Rodney wrote that imperialists “collected fabulous dividends every year from the gold, diamonds, manganese, uranium, etc. which were brought out of the South African sub-soil by African labour” and that “huge fortunes were made from gold and diamonds in Southern Africa by people like Cecil Rhodes”, imperialism turns from an academic phrase to a concrete face of oppression and exploitation.

The desire to tear down and decapitate the statue of Rhodes is recontextualized as a vital anti-imperialist and anti-capitalist action. When Rodney writes of the imperialist super-profits from South Africa, we can point to a company like LonMin (short for “London Minerals”) who employed Marikana workers in 2012. No clearer explanation is needed of imperialism and the super-exploitation of South African workers than the killing of 34 mineworkers at Marikana, who dared protest for a salary higher than their pittance of US$6,000 a year.

One of the most revealing moments of the week with respect to how Rodney is being read in South Africa was when comrades Phethani and Nyikiwa interacted with Chukwudinma to respond to his 2019 article “Towards a Full Understanding of Walter Rodney”, where he argued against Rodney’s view that “whenever internal forces seemed to push in the direction of African industrialization, they were deliberately blocked by the colonial governments acting on behalf of the metropolitan industrialists” with the counter-claim that “South Africa remained a notable exception that contradicts Rodney’s views that British colonialism always stifled industrialization and failed to create a powerful working class. The emergence of industry in South Africa created one of the strongest labour movements in the world that was key to the defeated of apartheid”.

Chukwudinma’s framing of Rodney’s view as a “concession to Africa nationalism” proved unpopular, and after panelist and Marxist author Molaodi wa Sekake initiated a debate on the subject by raising the article and calling the claims problematic, we engaged in a comradely debate.

This debate has no easy answer, but to see students of Rodney in the Global South contextualizing his thought to their conditions and applying it to debates is the necessary continuation of his legacy. The analysis of South Africa cannot be informed without understanding settler colonialism. As comrade Vusi put it, “Occupied Azania is where you can see the legacy of settler colonialism most clearly”.

Participants in the week’s events engage with Chinedu Chukwudinma over Zoom.

How this changes the analysis of capitalism, imperialism, and development in South Africa/Azania is highly relevant to the prospects for revolution there. Rodney insisted on a non-dogmatic approach to understanding distinct national and continental conditions. He argued in his piece “The African Intellectual”, that “it can still be affirmed that the African Revolution cannot afford to draw on Marxist theory in its dogmatic Stalinist or even Trotskyist form. But, conversely, it should be equally clear that Africans can benefit from mankind’s ideological heritage just as we can build on the universal technological heritage”.

Rodney’s ability to draw on the universal revolutionary inheritance of humanity, and at the same time emphasize the particularity of African conditions, is what is leading to a growing popularity of his work in occupied Azania. For example, Rodney’s analysis of the Russian Revolution in particular focused on the similarities of Russia to the Global South, as he wrote, “looking at Russia in the nineteenth century was almost like looking at Tanzania today”. This is not just because of the size of the proletariat or peasantry, but also because, to Rodney, “before 1917, industry in Tsarist Russia was not merely capitalist, it belonged to foreign imperialists”. Therefore, there was an element of anti-imperialism in the Bolshevik Revolution, as Rodney says, “the accuracy of Lenin’s analysis has subsequently been borne out by the revolutionary process in Asia, Africa and Latin America”.

This made the ‘Russian model’ a possible path to follow for the Global South in rejecting imperialism and capitalism simultaneously. But for Rodney, colonialism offered yet another particularity that would justify a more specific study of conditions rather than a dogmatic importation of the Russian model. As Rodney wrote, the “transformation of the USSR from an agrarian country into an industrial power” was an inspiration to follow, but Rodney could still conclude that “the African continent will in time produce other examples … of socialism”.

But Rodney was not a dogmatic bourgeois nationalist willing to blindly embrace any instance of “African socialism”.  His later analysis of the failures of Julius Nyerere’s socialism, as brought out in his recently rediscovered 1978 Hamburg lectures “100 Years of Underdevelopment in Africa”, again shows a lack of dogmatism and an ability to evolve in his analysis. Where Rodney had once praised Nyerere’s Tanganyika African National Union (TANU), he now wrote that “my feeling is that in spite of all the rhetoric, TANU has not been transformed, that it remains a nationalist party under the control of the petit bourgeoise… incapable of providing the basis for sustained socialist transformation”.

Rodney observed workers demanding the rights they had supposedly won under the government’s Mwongozo policy, “a charter of workers’ rights, reviving the radical aspect of the government’s ujamaa or socialist policy”, which had not been implemented. He notes a “very important instance” wherein “workers actually took over [the Mount Carmel Rubber Factory] and they didn’t take it over from the government, they took it over from a private owner… And they said we can run this factory… They locked out the management and they were running the factory. And this caused the greatest excitement and fear on the part of the bureaucracy”.

Rodney was driven to this conclusion on the future of Tanzania: “if workers were running one factory, then maybe they will run another and another. And this doesn’t look too good for the economic wing of the bureaucracy… their whole rationale of production as a class would disappear if there was workers’ control… so they moved to crush those initiatives”.

The repression of the working class after the ostensibly anti-imperialist national liberation movement led Rodney to conclude that “it is important to recognize that it fits within the general pattern, which we have been discussing so far by which the colonization process ended through an alliance of classes… but within this alliance the workers and the peasants never really had hegemony”.

If we simply remove “TANU” and replace it with “ANC”, how far off is the analysis?

If Rodney was still alive today, and had been around for the celebration of his 80th birthday this year, what would he have made of the post-apartheid situation, where a “national liberation” party kills workers who dare to ask for more justice?

Rodney wrote in his lecture on the Russian revolution that the “aspect of Marxism which lays claim to universal validity [is] its method—the scientific method of dialectical materialism. Like any other scientific method, it produces results on being applied to a given set of data or conditions”. South Africa today can be subjected to the same analysis Rodney was beginning to apply to Tanzania. Indeed, it seems Rodney’s nascent analysis of the failures of bourgeois power in Tanzania would be sorely needed in the first few decades of bourgeois democracy in South Africa.

In conclusion

Though Rodney was stolen from the people who needed him, his analysis and his writings last to be applied to the conditions of occupied Azania. During dinner on the fourth day, I overheard Vusi explaining to anyone who would listen about Rodney’s groundbreaking analogy of Russia in 1917 and Tanzania in 1961, and the similarity of their class composition and status as “backwards” nations. This comparison was revolutionary because it demonstrated to listeners that the development of socialism was not only possible in Africa and the Global South (as many orthodox Marxists had doubted), but also part of the universal revolutionary heritage.

South Africa today, where the failures of the capitalist settlement have been revealed, there is a strong desire to take a revolutionary path that links the struggle against imperialism and the national bourgeois in a single movement for socialism. As comrade Vusi put it, “the national liberation struggle [did not] dismantle capitalism”. The comrades were left to conclude that “a capitalist is a capitalist. Exploiters are exploiters. The workers and youth must crush all of them”. The mounting contradictions of post-apartheid society leave little room for any other conclusion.

As the week concluded, participants from outside academia reflected on its revolutionary significance. Simphiwe Jikijela, a worker from Khayelitsha, told me: “it was the first time I heard of Walter Rodney and his life… the way it was presented to me, it was easy to understand. There was nothing complicated about the presentation during the four days of learning”. Simphiwe said the most powerful lesson from Rodney was “how he fought for the Black working class”. As working class Black South Africans find this inspiration in Rodney, I concur with Chukwudinma, who recently wrote that “the significance of Rodney’s politics will grow in proportion to the new radical working-class movement that emerges today”.

When I asked the comrades of the Walter Rodney Library what the next steps for reading Rodney in Azania were, I was told that readings taking place in the urban center of Cape Town, or in the academy, were not enough. “Rodney should be taken to where the working class is… take these gatherings to Khayelitsha”, Vusi said. Rodney’s legacy is being resuscitated. “I want to be the next Rodney”, comrade Phethani told us and surely South Africa today can produce a new Walter Rodney. The conditions of neo-colonial occupation, super-exploitation, and racial capitalism in Azania are ripe for a spirit like his to come and turn the world upside down.

Joseph Mullen is based at Cornell University and a member of the Cadre Journal, a group focused on anti-imperialism.


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