Contending for the living

In the first of a new regular column for Red Pepper, Mike Marqusee finds hope for a new internationalism in the actions of South African dockworkers and their allies

May 7, 2009 · 8 min read

Something special took place in Durban in February – and though the media have rushed past, we should pause. In solidarity with the people of Gaza, dockworker members of the South African Transport and Allied Workers Union (SATAWU), refused to unload a ship carrying Israeli cargo. It was a local intervention in global politics, driven not by national, ethnic or religious affinity, but by principle, experience and common humanity.

The dockworkers and their allies in the Confederation of South African Trade Unions (COSATU) were heeding the call and lesson of their own history. They remembered that international support, including the refusal of dockworkers to unload South African goods, had been one of the pillars in the battle against apartheid (a legacy illustrated last year when a Chinese ship carrying arms to the Mugabe regime was turned away). They also remembered Israel’s military, economic, technological and nuclear collaboration with the old white minority regime.

Significantly, in explaining their action in Durban, union leaders and members stressed the similarity between Palestinians’ experience of Israeli rule and their own experiences under apartheid. Supporters of Israel object fiercely to this analogy; but they are on thin ground when it is being explicitly drawn by those with most authority to draw it.

The analogy is loathed not only because of the negative light in which it casts Israel, but because of the positive way out it offers Palestinians. Apartheid was overthrown, and international support – boycotts and sanctions – played a material role in that overthrow.

Those who dismiss international labour solidarity as a relic of a superseded age need to think again. True, far too often it’s empty rhetoric. But what we saw in Durban was international labour solidarity – not as a slogan or impossible ideal or bit of wishful thinking but as a living practice, a pointer to the future. Among much else, it exposed the selectivity and superficiality of the ‘universalism’ promoted by supporters of the ‘war on terror’. In a world of over-hyped spectacle, Durban was the real thing.

It was also the crest of a wave of global protest that followed the assault on Gaza. In Britain, students at more than 25 universities (at last count) mounted occupations demanding an end to ties with Israel and support for Palestinian education. Victories have been secured: scholarships for students from Gaza and in some cases cancellation of contracts with Israeli-based corporations.

The boycott and divestment campaign has, of course, a long way to go. The British government wants to see a significant increase in trade with Israel. And it is sobering to note that the US Congress voted to support Israel’s actions in Gaza by a majority of 390 to five.

Nonetheless, for the dockworkers, students and many others, Gaza epitomised basic divisions, basic choices. Between the powerful and the powerless; between the ‘war on terror’ and respect for human rights and human life; between western interests and the interests of the world majority. Perhaps most piquantly, the choice between passively standing by and actively engaging in the pursuit of justice.

Just as the international response to the horror of Gaza brings hope, it highlights the difficulties we face here in Britain in rousing opposition to the wars and occupations in Iraq and Afghanistan. Though British soldiers are directly engaged in both conflicts, it’s unlikely that at this juncture a demonstration focused solely on Iraq or Afghanistan would attract the numbers, feelings and focus of the Gaza protests. Withdrawal from both countries enjoys wide public support but it is passive. To the limited extent that these wars are visible in Britain, their course seems dictated by a confusion of forces beyond our control.

In Iraq, the British military role is now nearly negligible or seen to be so. The myth of the ‘surge’ is widely accepted; Obama is believed to be keeping his pledge to withdraw. The fact remains, however, that Iraq is an occupied country in a state of war. We have now learned that some 35-50,000 US troops will stay for another two years. Attacks on and by US forces and their Iraqi allies are a daily occurrence and will continue to be so. While power, water, sewage, hospitals and public services remain in many places at pre-invasion levels, the corporate invasion of Iraq is only just getting underway, with British companies in the lead.

Meanwhile, the eight-year-old war in Afghanistan grows bloodier, more costly, more futile. Obama has made this war his own. Here, he has declared, is the real frontline in the war on terror. Accordingly, tens of thousands of additional US and British troops will intensify and expand what is already a brutal war of counter-insurgency, in which the civilian population becomes the de facto enemy. Instead of taming resistance, the occupation spurs it – something it requires no PhD to predict.

We know far less about Afghanistan than about Palestine (partly because there is not an Afghan counterpart to the articulate Palestinian diaspora). We hear no one from ‘the other side’; we see them only at a distance, in stock footage of turbaned men with mules and kalashnikovs. In a typical recent BBC feature, talking heads tried to explain why the war seemed so intractable, why so many initiatives had failed. But unexplained and unexamined was the underlying fact – accepted by all – that resistance just keeps growing. No one asked why. No one asked who these people are or what they want.

As foretold, the overspill of the Afghan war into Pakistan has had dire results. Again, Obama seems wedded to an aggressive policy. The US military mount regular cross-border attacks, by unmanned drones or helicopter lifted special forces, targeting ‘terrorists’ and terrifying civilians in Pakistani villages.

That this crass violation of sovereignty goes largely un-remarked is a big part of our problem. Critically, the US attacks place Pakistan’s fragile democracy in an untenable position. It is seen as unable to protect its own people from violent assault by an ‘ally’. The worse than useless President Zardari has found himself cornered, under pressure from the US, from India since the Mumbai attacks, and from the Islamist insurgency within.

In response, the government has offered to institute Shariah law in the Swat Valley in the north west. It’s a disastrous concession in every respect, and strongly opposed in Pakistan. As election results have confirmed, the Pakistani majority (like so many others) is both anti-US and anti-Taliban. The ‘war on terror’ paradigm excludes and silences them – one of its basic flaws.

One of the attractions of Shariah law is that it promises relief from the corrupt, dysfunctional Pakistani justice system, under which the rich are beyond the law and the poor without redress. It is a false promise, but it highlights once again that it is the failure of the secular order on secular questions that fosters the politics of religious identity, and not only in the Muslim world. The quest for secularism will not prosper if it is conceived as a battle against religious ideologies and divorced from struggles for social justice – and against imperial occupations.

While there is a good deal of activity in relation to Iraq and Afghanistan in Britain, no one can doubt that overall the anti-war movement is becalmed. Part of the problem, as widely noted, has been the sense of impotence. In the absence of any electoral punch, what leverage can we exercise? There’s no simple recipe for success here. If there is one I certainly don’t have it.

But as the response to the horror of Gaza has shown, the chemistry that sparks protest is unpredictable. Gaza made many people – though still, of course a minority in the scheme of things – feel that they had to something now, not tomorrow, and the boycott and related demands were things they could do.

Common assumptions about the limits of human solidarity have become routinely and excessively pessimistic. It is taken for granted that our loyalties – our willingness to sacrifice – are confined to family and close friends, and beyond that, to ethnic, communal or national groups, somehow also assumed, like the family, to be ‘natural’ categories. Anything wider is weighed as too abstract, too remote, too theoretical to motivate human activity. In their uncompromising, far-reaching and at the same time concrete universalism and internationalism, the Durban dockworkers and their global allies have shown that this is not the case.

Why the column title? In 1792, replying in Rights of Man to Edmund Burke’s defence of established institutions in Reflections on the Revolution in France, Tom Paine wrote: ‘I am contending for the rights of the living against the manuscript-assumed authority of the dead.’

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