Photo acknowledgement: Heidi Augestad
“We’re going to celebrate the fight-back, celebrate the resistance that is part of what this [Southern African] region is beginning to wake up to,” one comrade declares in the opening moments of the very first Permanent People’s Tribunal on African soil. The ‘resistance’ she speaks of is evident in the room – from the vibrant banners strewn across every inch of wall space proclaiming ownership of land and resources; reclaiming the struggles against corporate impunity and the violence it engenders; to the hundreds of people crammed into the room. We’re packed wall-to-wall, stomping our feet so hard the floorboards cough up dust and singing in unison (songs in Zulu, Shona, Portuguese, Xhosa, and occasionally a smattering of English), loud enough that the windows shake.
Within minutes, it was clear, this tribunal, hosted by the Southern Africa Campaign to Dismantle Corporate Power, was not just another NGO meeting. The ‘strange fruit’ of corporate impunity – rampant resource extraction at the expense of lives, livelihoods and the environment; land grabs and extractive industries that lead to displaced and fractured communities, pollution and land degradation; militarisation, and collusion between state and corporate interests that leads to human rights violations and other forms of violence – has created a crisis that is too urgent for that kind of hollow gathering.
The situation at hand...
On August 16 2012, South African police opened fire on a hundreds of men who had been on strike at a platinum mine at Marikana in South Africa’s North West Province, shooting 112 men, killing 34. Four years prior, about 1000 kilometres northward, the diamond fields at Marange became the site of a bloody massacre of over 200 Zimbabweans by the nation’s paramilitary police and army. ‘Operation Hakudzokwe’, which translates as Operation ‘You Shall Never Return’ was a full-scale initiative ordered by senior government officials, displacing thousands of people – many of whom continue to be ‘removed’ from Marange and the surrounding area to pave the way for government-owned and private mineral extraction activities. The ongoing human rights abuses, including rape and torture, taking place at Marange continue un-checked and mostly un-acknowledged by Zimbabwe’s state authorities and media. A further 400 kilometres north-east of Marange is the coal-rich area of Tete province in Mozambique, where the world’s second largest mining company, Vale, has displaced 716 families from the communities of Chipanga, Malabwe and Mithete and, aided by the state police, met any protests and denunciations with violence and repression.
These three cases, and thousands more, paint a bleak picture of the injustice, repression and violence that comes alongside the system of transnational corporations (TNCs). But, even in the face of this, people are finding new and old ways to challenge the ‘architecture of impunity’. This architecture includes instruments of neoliberal policy like the World Trade Organisation, free trade agreements, structural adjustment programmes, and International Financial Institutions like the IMF (International Monetary Fund) and the World Bank – all working together to drive a destructive ‘development’ model that kills. It kills people, kills their land, and kills their communities.
People resist with their voices and their bodies, by carving out spaces for organising, solidarity and dialogue across contexts, language and borders. The Permanent People’s Tribunal (PPT), a 37-year-old process, is one such space. Taking place in Africa for the very first time, the Southern Africa PPT tribunal held on August 16 and 17, was part of a broader movement against corporate abuse and drew over 200 activists from across the region to speak out against corporate impunity. Over two days, communities shared their testimonies on the destructive impact of TNCs, how they have been organising in response, and their demands for justice. WoMin-affiliated sisters from the communities of Somkhele and Fuleni shared how coal mining activities are affecting their communities, specifically women’s lives and livelihoods, given that women bear the brunt of providing food, clean water and other resources that people rely on for livelihoods and survival.
“For over a century, the mining lords have taken from us, they’ve taken from the bowels of the earth, from this region. Southern Africa is one of the richest mineral-rich regions of the world yet it is the poorest region. The mineral wealth is unbelievable yet we have unemployment of over 46%. It’s these issues that we are saying we’ve had enough of. It’s these issues that we’ve said we are fighting back; we are organising.”
In a bold political move, the SAPSN (Southern African People's Solidarity Network) People’s Summit, of which the tribunal was a part, made a deliberate and unprecedented choice to detach itself from the SADC Heads of State Summit. Usually, both events take place side-by-side, with civil society organisations seeing the heads of state gathering as a strategic opportunity to spotlight human rights issues and appeal to the oft un-tender mercies of governments to address them. But the last two or so decades have shown clearly that ‘change’ will not come from the Mswatis, Mugabes or Zumas. It’s going to come from the people.
The tribunal became a space for connection and building solidarity, reflection on our struggles and the challenges we face as well as a moment to strategise and take heart in the different ways comrades around the region are fighting back. M.P. Giyose (South Africa), of Jubilee South, opened the tribunal with some powerful words that shaped the spirit of the moment.
“We are not parallel to anybody – we are not ‘peacefully’ co-existing with capitalism. This is an alternative assembly. We are raising an alternative flag by saying we are here. Let me paint this picture of an alternative movement. Comrades, we must be aware that the enemy that we are fighting is not just capitalism. We are fighting capitalism as a world power: namely, imperialism. When our fight is so serious and […] we must then be organised. First, in our ideas. We must be clear what we are talking about. What is this alternative power we are referring to? It is the power of the working classes.…. When we raise the flag against those in power in your own country whoever they may be – we must not have any holy cows – comrades, I will not be happy with us being an alternative force if we keep repeating the idioms and songs of the past. The idioms and songs of the ANC [for example]. The working class has ideas, it is able to think and invent itself afresh, in a way of coming up with a new idiom. A new way of talking. It’s art, it’s music. When I hear the new art of the working class, I will begin to think that you have arrived. And we have arrived. So when I still hear the old songs, the old and tired things – I know that we are still far away.”
And it’s this same spirit that will carry the process – and it is a process – forward if this movement is going to dismantle corporate power, greed and oppression in all its guises. What new songs will this movement sing? What new idioms will this alternative vision of the world present? Something tells me that the people at the tribunal, their communities and others who are fighting against the tyranny of corporations are building the answer.
This blog was written by Maggie Mapondera.