International Press Freedom Day was celebrated on May 3. New Era spoke to Brian Ashley, Managing Editor of Amandla!, a magazine started in October 2006 on the crest of a resurgence of civil society activism in South Africa, with intent to reflect more in-depth views from the southern African region and the rest of the African continent.
By Catherine Sasman
Why was the Amandla! magazine established?
We have quite a rich tradition of independent popular organisations and movements, be it labour or social movements, non-governmental organisations, and so on. However, there has been a dip since the end of apartheid. Subsequently, we see a kind of revival, a renewal – but I would have to say this guardedly and quite cautiously. There is a lot of hope among those that were disappointed with the [Thabo] Mbeki period characterised by a presidency that was really aloof and removed from the people. That period saw policies imposed that have led to greater poverty and high levels of inequality.
One of these policies was the introduction of the Growth, Employment and Redistribution (GEAR) strategy adopted by
But the GEAR policy was introduced under the Mandela presidency.
Yes, it was. But Mbeki was already the real person in charge. There had since been some departures from the GEAR policy in the sense that there had been some shifts in some micro-economic reforms that are really directed at ways to make business cheaper in South Africa and expanded public investment programmes.
The government is trying to use the 2010 World Cup to roll out investment in infrastructure in a period that it is dealing with a collapse of infrastructure.
The energy crisis is a very good case in point. Similar problems are emerging in terms of the water infrastructure. For example, some weeks ago there was a report of 80 children that died from contaminated water in the Eastern Cape.
Part of it has got to do with the tremendous weakness of local governments, the lack of resources and lack of capacity at those levels.
There is the superficial analysis that Mbeki is the cause of the problem rather than see some of the structural aspects of it.
Amandla! wants to go deeper into such issues to find out why some of these problems emerge.
The magazine is mostly focussed on South Africa and South African issues, but we are very interested in Africa and particularly the southern African region.
But to do that we would, for example, not just argue that Zimbabwe’s Movement for Democratic Change’s (MDC) Morgan Tsvangirai is a knight in shining armour, but investigate the MDC’s economic policy programme.
Things like these have to come to the fore and not simplistic illusions that one thing will sort out the other.
It is, for example, incredible to see how South African capital is lining up waiting for a post-Mugabe regime to come in to purchase valuable assets that exist in Zimbabwe, under the guise of a recovery programme.
These are the things Amandla! tries to bring to the fore.
What is the tradition of the magazine?
We come in the tradition of some of the progressive publications that existed in the late 1980s and early 1990s. There was a very important journal called New Era, and other publications such as the Work in Progress, and the New Nation that were part of the arsenal of alternative media that grew up in the struggle against apartheid.
It is unfortunate that the end of apartheid did not see the flouri-shing of that media but rather saw its demise, particularly when reconstruction begs for a critical media interested in seeing a plurality of alternatives that could critically engage in what the government was doing. When looking back on the last 14 years, one can see how important that would have been.
South Africa probably has the biggest concentration of independent media in the sub-region. Are you saying that there was nonetheless a vacuum for critical media there?
Newspapers are mostly linked to big commercial media presses with two dominating: the Independent Media Group and Naspers. They do not just dominate the productions, but also all the production chains. It is a huge problem to get Amandla! into bookshops because these work through distribution agencies linked to the media giants.
But surely the media environment there cannot be as unyielding as you are suggesting?
It is. There are, of course, smaller independent presses, no doubt. But then quality and pricing are being compromised because the big companies are printing on economies of scale.
We are forced to – and we do use – the smaller more community oriented presses. But still, distribution is everything.
Amandla! is distributed through individual distributors who in one way or the other identify with what we are trying to do. The majority of our publication is being distributed at public forums and labour union meetings, for example. A smaller number goes through the bookshops. There are a much-reduced number of independent bookshops.
This is simply a microcosm of the problems of South Africa. When you multiply that in terms of access to other elements, you will see that the economy remains incredibly monopolised.
White capital has attempted to co-opt black emerging capital that becomes junior partners to big capital. This has been relatively successful so there are very few authentic black firms that have made it in businesses producing goods.
Most black capital is financial capital such as share options in unbundling of big companies, schemes and equity options and so on. Black capital is therefore extremely vulnerable to the debt leverage financing schemes they are based on. There has been a relative decline of black ownership on the Johannesburg Stock Exchange; not an increase as one might have expected 14 years after the end of Apartheid.
Similarly, in terms of access to land, there are two components of land reform. One is restitution where people that have lost land under apartheid are able to make claims. The other is land redistribution and land reform, which is to bring about more equitable ownership of land. Well, less than four percent of land has been redistributed in 14 years.
This gives you a sense of the problem; it creates a sense in which the problem remains perceived through the prism of colour or race. It gives the impression that Government is up against this very selfish elite – which is part of the truth but it is not all the truth – because the emerging [black] elite has very much facilitated this process and did not want to see more a far-reaching process that would destabilise the situation.
When the charter for black economic empowerment in the mineral sector was announced, for example, that envisaged a 25 percent of a change in ownership within 10 years, the Johannesburg Stock Exchange collapsed within a day because money flew out of the country.
This is the kind of pressure capital is able to exert on any far-reaching reform programmes the government may come up with. In my view, you have to face such situations, with greater controls over capital limiting the amount of money you can take out of the country. But on the contrary, what we have seen since the end of apartheid is the lifting of regulation of the financial sector. We have seen a massive outflow of capital; South Africa is a net exporter of capital, while the whole GEAR programme was predicated on drawing in foreign investment to grow our economy.
There is a reluctance to confront this very pernicious kind of capital and business sector.
Amandla! is trying to interrogate this paradigm, where it is viewed that foreign investment is going to grow our economy, as if foreign investments do not invest for particular reasons related to the bottom line.
What do you foresee for a possible Zuma period?
Investment in hope is directed around Jacob Zuma. Again it is something we need to interrogate. We, for example, have to ask what is the history of Zuma? Did he not support all these programmes when he was the deputy president? Has he not in a fairly cynical way when he was charged with corruption mobilised the kind of discontent that is obviously there and channeled it very skillfully by making alliances with various sectors of society?
He made huge promises and created massive expectation on the changes he is going to bring about. But he will certainly be incapable of meeting those expectations.
He said to the labour movement that jobs will be created, but then elsewhere he says there is no economic policy. Which Zuma do you believe? The one who says there will be changes or the one who says there won’t?
He can manage the popular forces easier than he can manage big capital. I suspect that substantial changes in the economic policy are no longer on the cards. This is a critical issue because we are dealing with very high levels of unemployment partially as a result of choices we made in terms of economic policy.
The very rapid trade liberalisation undertaken in South Africa has pushed out millions of workers from industries.
A new labour pattern has emerged where big business increasingly is dependent on informal, casualised workers. There is a very small core of workers in the formal sector that has decent trade union rights, and so on.
Amandla!, which is pro-labour in a sense, tries to have an independent, autonomous voice in spite of the fact that we have biases towards particular sectors and movements.
What are your biases?
We are anti neo-liberalism, meaning that we are against the notion that capital can regulate itself. A number of issues of Amandla! focussed on the financial crisis, pointing out that capital is in crisis. What does it do? It runs back to the State to be bailed out. There were the big bailouts in the US, in the UK and recently in Switzerland.
We would be typically very critical of the growth paradigm that says all we need is to concentrate on economic growth. We would typically ask what the nature is of such economic growth. We would favour a completely different paradigm. We would say it is redistribution. That in itself would facilitate growth.
Another dimension of Amandla! is not to leave discussions at the level of critique, but also look around the world for alternatives. We know it is easy to make a critique but not as easy to put forward alternatives.
And then, of course, it is important to cover flashpoints from the world, again not from a simplistic point of view, but we would probably situation Amandla! in an anti-imperialist framework.
What would you look at in southern Africa?
We are looking at impulses of shared concerns. It is to critically look at the post-independence, post-national liberation politics and pose the question what is a progressive post-liberation object, without necessarily having the answer but to engage with people to take part.
Who is your target audience?
It is a multiple audience. It is aimed at progressive intellectuals across the board, and activists in popular organisations. There is a certain part of the magazine that also appeals to decision makers.