Thursday, June 17, 2004

Remembering the Common Hood Soweto and Runnymede

The Soweto uprising began with school children going on strike against the government order that the language of instruction become Afrikaans.

I flew from Detroit, with one stop, to the University of Witwatersrand in Johannesburg to participate in an international conference, The Promise of Freedom and its Practice: Global Perspectives on South Africa's Decade of Democracy.

I arrived on the heels of students protesting the cut in university 'bursaries' forcing many to terminate their studies, especially the poorer students. When the university responded by calling in armed police, helicopters, and 'bouncers' from neighborhood gangs, some faculty remonstrated, "this seems very much like Bantu education in a different guise," they wrote the Vice Chancellor, alluding to the apartheid system of education that prevailed during the third quarter of the 20th century.

The difference now is that the IMF-imposed cutbacks, unlike apartheid, are truly pan-African, whose effect is the destruction of the independent university in the mother continent as a whole.

(The Committee for Academic Freedom in Africa has been ringing this alarm for years.) During a break in the conference I strolled down the hill from Wits (as they call the university), across Mandela Bridge, over the railway tracks (O so many!) and mini-bus yards, down the African street with its hawkers, colors, and fragrances, in order to meet the comrades of the Anti-Privatization Forum, the Landless People's Movement, Jubilee South Africa, and the Indymedia Center who were gathering at the Worker's Library in an anti-war coalition. They were to be evicted at the end of the month from that venue by the Johannesburg city council.

Molefi of the Education Rights Project explained that the anniversary of the Soweto student uprising on 16 June 1976 had ceased to be a day of resistance, and, under the new dispensation, had become a day of reconciliation named National Youth Day. Meanwhile, the bursaries are revoked, and the financial squeeze is even tighter in secondary and primary schools. The door to education is closing for the poor, despite the fact that the Freedom Charter, or Kliptown Charter of 1955, declared. The Doors of Learning and Culture Shall Be Opened!

The verb tense (found in the Bill of Rights or the Decalogue) we can call the noble intentional future rather than the mechanical temporal future, though there are powerful forces that would put the promise of free, equal, universal education into the past tense. "All the cultural treasures of mankind shall be open to all by free exchange of books, ideas and contact with other lands."

"Look," I said to Molefi, "Magna Carta was sealed on about the same day of the month as the Soweto uprising began, 15 June 1215." "But what have they to do with each other?" What, indeed! In my case they were two stops on a journey. They share something else--a notion of the commons.

The 16 June 1976 uprising began in Soweto, "the mother city of black urban South Africa," in Mandela's words. Phil Bonner and Lauren Segal of Wits History Workshop show how Hector Peterson was shot dead that day, with many hundred of others. "Don't Start the Revolution without Us" said a placard in another city. "The blood of the martyrs water the tree of the revolution," said the militants.

The Soweto uprising began with school children going on strike against the government order that the language of instruction become Afrikaans. One thing led to another, and by a mighty heave of the planet, by a combination of cultural politics and people's war, the children invented toyi-toyi, and Mandela was released from prison, apartheid came crashing down.

In fact it is the source of a vigorous debate, of memories and counter-memories.

As a leader of the African National Congress, and its armed organization, Umkhonto we Sizwe, Nelson Mandela was sentenced to life imprisonment at the Rivonia trial of 1964. The trial helped to destroy the power of the internal resistance to apartheid and the years of exile began. He spoke for four hours from the dock, saying in part, "The Magna Carta, the Petition of Rights, and the Bill of Rights, are documents which are held in veneration by democrats throughout the world."

Mandela was attracted "by the idea of a classless society, an attraction which springs in part from Marxist reading and, in part, from my admiration of the structure and organization of early African societies in this country. The land, then the main means of production, belonged to the tribe. There were no rich or poor and there was no exploitation." Earlier in 1964 he said that "in such a society are contained the seeds of revolutionary democracy in which none will be held in slavery or servitude, and in which poverty, want, and insecurityshall be no more.

It is the inspiration which, even today, inspires me and my colleagues in our political struggle." Thus he acknowledges the groundation of the African commons. Sifiso Mxolisi Ndlovu was a Form Two student at Phefeni Junior Secondary School (PJSS) in 1976.

He remembers that they had been on a go-slow from March; they heaped the Afrikaans text-books in front of the principal's door.

They boycotted classes, and sent emissaries to other schools, including the more celebrated Morris Isaacson High School whose student leaders were affliliated with various liberation organizations, including Black Consciousness. But in its origins the younger students at Phefeni were the vanguard.

They imagined something easy-going "whereby female students will wear our trousers or their fathers' trousers and we will wear our sisters' dresses--it would be like a Guy Fawkes thing" It was an English idiom of treason and carnival combined. The placards of the 16 June in front of ten thousand students said simply "O Hell with Afrikaans." Steve Biko explained that hell was part of European theology not African.

"In putting forward my counter-memories as a 14-year-old Form Two student at PJSS in Soweto I argue that it is these students themselves who were the actual champions of their own struggles, and very young students indeed." Commemoration is a contested activity in the creation of the social imagination. This practice involves a process of self-criticism and a renewal of identity. Therefore possibilities are opened for change in the basic terms of reference ." Yes, I think that he is right and we must do the same with Magna Carta.

Steven Biko was the guiding figure in the Black Consciousness Movement which arose after the banning of the black political parties in 1964. Biko's greatest essay was "Black Consciousness and the Quest for a True Humanity." "Black consciousness would be irrelevant in a colourless and non-exploitative egalitarian society." Even the liberals "see blacks as additional levers to some complicated industrial machines.

This is white man's integration--an integration based on exploitative values in which the poor will grow poorer and the rich richer in a country where the poor have always been black." "The most potent weapon in the hands of the oppressor is the mind of the oppressed." "As people existing in a continuous struggle for truth, we have to examine and question old concepts, values and systems."

"All people shall have equal right to use their own languages, and to develop their own folk culture and customs," said the Kliptown Charter. Ngugi wa Thiong'o wrote an essay Moving the Center: The Struggle for Cultural Freedoms "this literature was celebrating the right to name the world." The center was moving from Europe. " The history of struggle is maintained by the people's songs, poems, stories, anecdotes, remembrances, he wrote.

Bantu education said history began with the white invasion of 1652. The imperialists propagated the 'return to the bush' concept, where 'bush' equaled savagery. "A people without a positive history is like a vehicle without an engine." "Thus a lot of attention has to be paid to our history if we as blacks want to aid each other in our coming into consciousness."

Biko praises the culture of workers and peasants. The love of communication and the widespread intimacy of social relations arose at first from the village and then from the township. African songs are group songs. In the village community "there was no such thing as individual land ownership.

The land belonged to the people. Farming was based on joint efforts and shared labor; exchange was based on reciprocity and mutualism. A culture of defiance, self-assertion, and group pride and solidarity grew. "We believe that in the long run the special contribution to the world by Africa will be in this field of human relationship." That contribution has its dependence on the African commons, a material substratum.

Biko looked positively upon the Kliptown Charter, or the People's Charter of 1955. In 1955 a congress of the people met at Kliptown, "a multiracial village on a scrap of veld a few miles southwest of Johannesburg." The Charter was read aloud in English, Sesotho, and Xhosa. The people have been robbed of their birthright to land, liberty, and peace. "The People Shall Govern!" it exclaims. The national wealth shall be restored to the people. The land shall be redivided amongst those who work it. I emphasize the notion of reparations that are entailed in the charter, expressed here once again in the tense of grammatical nobility.

Steven Biko was imprisoned incommunicado. He was kept naked and manacled. What became clear in the Truth and Reconciliation Commission is that his torturers had received a signal from their superiors. Biko was killed in September 1977 during interrogation.

In 1996 Captain Jeffrey Benzien demonstrated to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission how to use the wet bag as a suffocating hood to torture prisoners. For the first time white South Africans witnessed on their TVs the routine torture of prisoners.

There is a dim memory that habeas corpus, the rule of law, the prohibition of torture, and trial by jury have found their origin in chapter 39 of the 63 chapters of the 'Great Charter.' Until 1215 innocence or guilt was determined by trial by fire and water; afterwards trial by jury--"lawful judgment of his peers"--replaced the tortures as a means of discovery of truth. This is part of the significance of chapters 39 and 40. 39. No free man shall be taken or imprisoned or disseised or outlawed or exiled or in any way ruined, nor will we go or send against him, except by the lawful judgment of his peers or by the law of the land. 40. To no one will we sell, to no one will we deny or delay right or justice.

Aelred Stubbs was banned from South Africa the year his friend, Steve Biko, was killed. Hewas Biko's posthumous editor. An Anglican vicar with the Anglo-Saxon first name of Aelred, named after a Cistercian monk who died about fifty years prior to Magna Carta, and whose last name of Stubbs is no less venerable it having been also the name of the Victorian constitutional historian who summed up Magna Carta in words unknown to Bush, "the King is, and shall be, below the law," and mistaken by the American Bar Association as I found out when I went to Runnymede, which I had done a couple days earlier.

My flight to Johannesburg had a twelve-hour lay-over at Heathrow airport, time enough for me to do some preliminary reconnaissance at Runnymede. Amid the tangle of companies, stations, stops, slipways that is the result of privatization of ground transport at Heathrow airport I eventually found the local bus I was looking for. I purchased a return ticket for £3.90 and caught the number 50 B bus at platform 5.

It was an utterly beautiful May morning when I discharged myself across from the royal castle at Windsor, shop awnings were just opening up, morning shadows were deep under the Jubilee arch at the train station, &c. I couldn't get a boat so early in the morning to take me down the Thames to Runnymede but Ali from Rawalpindi whose uncle lives in Detroit working at the GM plant in Hamtramck taxied me there.

Birdsong was loud and ringing across the meadows, a tweeter against the woofer of the roaring Boeings taking off from Heathrow. The chestnuts were blooming, and the hawthorne as well, lending the scene a shining light of loveliness. Such was the magic of the day thatit summoned up in me from the days of yore both nightmares of ruling class terror and dreams of bountiful, peaceful equality.

I lay me down in a fair field full of folk and dreamed dreamed, with the medieval Piers Ploughman, dreamed with the Christian in The Pilgrim's Progress, and dreamed with William Morris from the News from Nowhere.

The feudal critique begins with a dream by the side of a stream of the ruling class men in silk gowns swaying from side to side and making speeches, or Lady Fee married at the Castle of Strife and Senseless Chattering.

Piers the ploughman is devout: "For human intelligence is like water, air, and fire--it cannot be bought or sold. These four things the Father of Heaven made to be shared on earth in common."

Piers Ploughman was written in 1370. Three centuries later in 1670 John Bunyan wrote Pilgrim's Progress while in prison where he also made shoelaces for prisoners at the borders of Islam. Vanity Fair ruled over by Sir Having Greedy and Lord Carnal Delight who destroyed that commons of water, air, fire, and mind, submitting everything to the capitalist program of getting and enclosing. All religion he said was to visit the fatherless and widows in their affliction. He wrote of "an inheritance, incorruptible, undefiled, and that fadeth not away."

Advancing two hundred years to the William Morris dream of 1890, we have his anti-industrial dream, News from Nowhere. Having quarreled in their discussion about the Morrow of the Revolution the anarchist stormed out and sighed on the banks of the Thames, "if I could but see it! If I could but see it!" before falling asleep to dream the revolutionary green utopia.

I was pleasantly roused from these reveries, half expecting to see Rat at any moment carrying the bottles under his arms and Mole bringing the basket for a picnic on the commons. Instead, a young man working for the National Trust pulled up in a Land Rover, and identified himself as "a commoner," advising me to stay on this, the west side of the river if I intended to walk back to Windsor, as the other side was all private land. Could Toad of Toad Hall be far? Across the meadow I spied at the foot of Cooper Hill slope where the land meets the river meads, what I was looking for, namely, the American Bar Association's shrine to Magna Carta. "Could I walk across the field?"

He looked at my footwear, and pointed me instead to a narrow way. This landscape was dense with ruling class magic, and a few hours tramping about it, notebook in hand, was not going to discover but the most obvious of the secrets in this semiotic density.

It is a highly wrought landscape--an English utopia of Whig origins made awkward by nervous American memorializations, and weird exchanges of dirt.

The Queen of England gave an acre or so of sloping land here to the USA, and a JFK memorial put on it. There are fifty steps for the fifty states of the USA each one different to approach the JFK memorial designed by Sir Geoffry A. Jellico, CBE. A sign includes this bit, "the craftsmen were unable to comprehend this need for individuality, and could only complete their task when the steps were likened to the uneven appearance of a crowd at a football match." Welcome to England, the land of class snobbery!

The American Bar Association's shrine has lots of stars; stars on the ceiling, stars on the floor, and a star over the plinth in its middle. Cosmic, heavenly, I guess is the suggestion, or perhaps that inheritance, incorruptible, undefiled, and that fadeth not away. The words on the plinth surrounded by stars in this temple on the buttercup field used to epitomize Magna Carta are "symbol of liberty under law" which is not at all what Magna Carta does say.

Just the opposite (remember Stubbs): it is the King under law. The ABA has got the whole thing wrong, understandable for the Cold War in 1957 when they built it.

The thing is centered in an enclosure which includes an oak tree planted by the Duke of Gloucester, another by the Prime Minister of India in 1994. In the same year Her Royal Highness, Queen Elizabeth II, planted an oak, and they all seem to be flourishing after ten years.

In our age of the reclamation of the commons, the fetishism of the earth as private property, or indeed as anything else, is becoming increasingly ridiculous. The fetishism is at the base of patriotic fever.

This became clear to me as I read the sign at the foot of another young oakling. John O. Marsh, Jr., Secretary of the Army of the United States of America, in 1987 had planted it with soil that had been brought from Jamestown, Virginia, "the first permanent settlement in the new world." English settlement, they meant. Welcome to a bit of the USA, the land of genocide!
The American Bar Association misapprehends the significance of Magna Carta. This is not to imply that British monuments nearby are invariably more faithful to their subjects. At the fiftieth anniversary of Queen Victoria's coronation a railway bridge was constructed in Windsor called the Jubilee Arch, though it has utterly nothing to do with jubilee as reclamation of land, manumission of slaves, cancellation of debts, or reparations for wrongs done. The effrontery of imperialism is to monumentalize the people's struggles and invert their meanings.

In 1929 the Runnymede meadows were given to the National Trust by the widow, Lady Fairhaven. Two granite structures on either side of the road signified something big ahead. On one of these structures carved in four-inch capital letters are the words, illegible if you are driving, but impressive on foot,


Customs? Ancient customs, OK. But cherished customs? What do they have in mind? I have argued that the Americans did not understand Magna Carta, or rather, that if anyone followed its spirit, it was W.E.B. DuBois rather than Eleanor Roosevelt because DuBois put the emphasis on the 750 million colonial peoples whose lands were robbed of them leaving them in poverty whereas the UN Declaration of Rights which Eleanor Roosevelt hoped would join Magna Carta in worldwide esteem tended to slight the material issues of equality, those cherished customs.

The argument depends on a little knowledge of medieval history, and it does not at all depend on a coincidence in the date of 9/11. The text provided by the National Trust makes some of the argument.

John merely saw the document as a means of buying time and by mid- July 1215 he had asked the Pope to annul the document. Driven to revenge by autumn of the same year the Barons had offered the throne to Louis, the son of the King of France, and a bitter civil war ensued. However, the Magna Carta was not dead. Upon John's death in 1216, his 9 year-old son succeeded to the throne, as Henry III, and his minority council, appointed to govern in his infancy, resurrected the Charter. Henry's strength grew after victories over Louis and his supporters at Lincoln and Dover.. Support for Louis dwindled and in September 1217 [William Blackstone gives its date as September eleventh] he signed a peace treaty and withdrew to France. The defeat of Louis was used as an opportunity to re-issue the Magna Carta with modifications including a supplementary charter dealing with forest laws.

In 1297 the Magna Carta entered the statute book becoming the first constitutional in the world. One modification referred to widows: "she shall have meanwhile her reasonable estover of common." What did this mean? 'Estover' is Latin. The 17th century English jurist, Edward Coke, author of the Petition of Right, translated, "it signifieth housebote, hedgebote, and ploughbote." The Anglo-Saxon may seem equally obscure, until we say that these botes were quotas for fuel, fencing, and building. Technically, then, estovers referred to maintenance of production and preservation of subsistence.

The rest of the argument concerns direct appropriation. Chris Fisher, J.M. Neeson, E.P. Thompson comprise the interpretation of customary forest law formed by 'the Warwick School.' What we learn from their studies, respectively, of the Forest of Dean, Windsor Forest, and the forests of Nottinghamshire is that while feudalism had come to an end by two hundred years ago, the poor people who were necessarily the losers in the advent of capitalism retained with a firm grip their customary hold on various forms of timber and other usufructs of the forest. The miners of the Forest of Dean had the foresight in 1610 to write down their laws and customs "time out of mind".

When their customs were enclosed, the Book of Dennis was their constitutional writ, for when they were challenged in 1831 the Deputy Surveyor to the Chief Commissioner of Woods referred to "that little book which they consider their Magna Carta."

Written statute law had to come to terms with common custom, and it did so with the locution "from time immemorial" or from "the time when the memory of man runneth not." The customary uses are named; the names are unfamiliar to us privatized souls, the names may be subject to a variety of condescension--historical materialist, Monty Pyhtonist, sociological, or farcical, and good fun it is too.

Yet they spelled health care, shelter, even social security, and a comely table spread. Some might see them religiously as Bunyan did, relief for the fatherless and widows of affliction.

Pannage, chiminage, and agistments were protected in the supplementary forest charter. Pannage is to put the pigs in the forest in the autumn to feed on the nuts and mast. Agistment permits livestock some regulated forest pasture. Chiminage is use of forest paths without having to pay toll. Professor Isabel Hofmeyr of the University of Witswatersrand concludes her brilliant study of the African Pilgrim's Progress by asking us to remove the tollgates that separate the national and the international. She thus asks for a literary world with chiminage, and of course you immediately wonder, why stop there?

Karl Marx concluded Das Capital's magnificent chapter ten on the working day, "In place of the pompous catalogue of the 'inalienable rights of man' comes the modest Magna Carta of a legally limited working-day." One tradition is local, particular, antiquarian, modest; the other is universal, general, modern, and pompous.

The Kliptown Charter (1955) contains similarly modest provisions, such as, "there shall be a forty-hour working week, a national minimum wage, paid annual leave, and sick leave for all workers, and maternity leave on full pay for all working mothers."

It also abolished slavery, or unpaid labor, "child labour, compound labour, the tot system and contract labour shall be abolished." In the vine-growing agricultural districts of South Africa it had long been the form of exploitation to pay workers in "tots," or mugs, of wine rather than cash.

A modest, unpretentious memorial can be found at Runnymede with apparently nothing to do with Magna Carta. Two oral historians produced a book on sale at the Magna Carta tea-room of "the life stories of twenty-two ordinary people of Runnymede." It provides a microscopic view into the 20th century British working-class. So many of the lives born before or during World War I, so many suffered from childhood diseases, some were orphaned, other parents fostered children.

Ernie Holland had a 'bad war.' After it he could not stop shaking and weeping for decades.. Rose Vincent said, "Life seemed one long catastrophe." Many had the chiminage of war or empire, experiences in Burma, North Africa, Spain, Australia, New Zealand, Ireland, Naples, Poland, Canada. Many worked at Vickers, building Spitfires, Wellingtons, other weapons of war, the post-war engineering. Although there is one reference to a communal water well, the commoning experienced by this testimony was either of an emergency kind--survival during the Battle of Britain, in which the self-activity of ordinary people discovered sharing--or it was indirect and a result of the post-war welfare state.

Time after time the happiest moment, the "luckiest," was the acquisition of a council flat, housing, like news from nowhere. Of the twenty-two lives, fourteen are widows and they have their estovers by which I simply mean fuel, shelter, and nurturance are not wanting.

I hitched from Runnymede with Julian and his dog Max back to Windsor where traffic was completely blocked by the police as an anti-terrorist precaution while the guard was changed at the imposing and impregnable Victoria Barracks. Thus he had the leisure to point out to me a) the Royal flower gardens which were opened only two days a year and this was one of them, and b) the relatively large fields belonging to the Castle and which were planted with all sorts of organic and non-genetically modified plants. Having left the shade of the Runnymedge commons, in a twinkling I was to hear about the South African commons.

My visit to the Apartheid Museum on Gold Reef Road in southwest Johannesburg was on a warm winter afternoon. Welkom, my taxi driver, was born in Zimbabwe and returns when he can (or must) to visit his grandmother's village. He speaks eight African languages, in addition to English.

He explained that he learned them as a school-boy from the other kids in school. From him I first heard the clicking of Xhosa talk, which danced in my ear like the grace notes of a Chopin waltz. He discharged me to the sounds of the muezzin's call to the faithful to afternoon prayer sung out from a minaret near the museum.

My colleagues at Witswatersrand were so right--two hours was not nearly enough time to take in the powerful explanations of racial degradation (the photos, texts, videos) or absorb the impact of the engines of human exploitation (nooses, Casspirs, "hippos," and prison- cells) there on display.

The UN Conference against Racism, Racial Discrimination, Xenophobia and Related Intolerance met in Durban, South Africa, in the late summer of 2001. The UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Mary Robinson of Ireland, joined President Thabo Mbeki, the host of the Conference, and the delegates from Bulgaria and Thailand, in comparing the final declaration of the conference to the twenty-first century "Magna Carta."

Magna Carta does not contain clauses about schooling, education, books, language, or culture: certainly, it cannot compare to the specific grievance of the imposition of an oppressor's language upon popular instruction such as the decree from the Department of Bantu Education. Resistance to Afrikaans escalated bringing with it a train of others grievances from the apartheid system as a whole.

Although Magna Carta was written in Latin, it was read aloud in the churches in French and English translation. As we compare the Soweto uprising of 16 June 1976 with the Magna Carta of 15 June 1215 it becomes clear that while languages (Latin, Afrikaans, English, Zulu) need to be learned, language itself is not the subject which will help us compare them. What has been lost in each is the vernacular discourse of the commons.

Of course the Structural Adjustment Programs of the World Bank and the IMF destroy the actual commons of intelligence, water, air and fire. The destruction of the discourse of the commons, on the other hand, is left to Lord Turn About and his sychophants, Mr Two Tongue and Mr Any Thing.

That English has been the language for the consolidation of the neo-liberal global order is known. That counter-discourses of insurgent knowledge can be nevertheless formulated in English is also known.

What Alamin Mazrui has pointed out is that this can occur only in conditions of collective struggle and mass movement. The World Bank has provided figures indicating that the majority of students in African universities have been drawn from the ranks of the peasantry, the working class and petty traders. But the families of many of these students do not have the means to bear the rising cost of university education imposed by IMF's so-called cost-sharing formula.

Many of the poor have chosen to impoverish themselves even further by selling part of their subsistence plots or livestock, for example--than see their children locked out of the Academy.

A traditional commons of the sort that inspired Biko and Mandela and to which Welkom, the cabbie, returns, has been exchanged by these families for the university and its promise of "the cultural treasures of mankind."

The OED gives us examples of the use of the word "bursaries" from Canada, a 1907 English statute, and from 18th century Scottish practices all denoting free education, providing semantic agreement with Piers the Ploughman's notion that human intelligence cannot be bought and sold but must be shared on earth in common.

As for the 'promise of freedom and its practice,' the title of the conference in Wits, I'd conclude that before getting a new 21st century Magna Carta we should get the old one back, now with chiminage, widow's estovers, rule of law, jury, no torture, habeas corpus, the whole hog.

By PETER LINEBAUGH posted 17 June o4

Peter Linebaugh teaches history at the University of Toledo. He is the author of two of CounterPunch's favorite books, The London Hanged and (with Marcus Rediker) The Many-Headed Hydra: the Hidden History of the Revolutionary Atlantic. He can be reached at:


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