Friday, 1 July 2011

Benjamin Basara: the Zande communist

Last Sunday the Sudanese Communists organized a farewell ceremony for their South Sudanese comrades in the headquarters of the party in Khartoum, one of them, Abraham Ngor, survives since three months the hospitality of the Southern security forces in Upper Nile state.  
In Lenin’s depiction states are tools of class domination, and as such are instruments of the structural violence that fractures the social body, the claims of national cohesion notwithstanding. In the new state of South Sudan, baptized as it is with the blood of a recently officially mythologised struggle for independence stretching back to the ‘Turkiya’, the sanctioned lines of division are ethnic or tribal in nature. The communists of the new South face the duty of coaxing the Marxist overdetermination, to use Althusser’s terminology, and the nature of its articulation in a socio-economic field sustained by the ideology of ever re-invented tribal communities. In its leftist heydays the Sudan People’s Liberation Army/Movement (SPLA/M) phrased its war against Khartoum in the language of domestic liberation from a class enemy that justified its domination with the claim of cultural and racial supremacy.  These two elements in the discourse of the SPLM, class and race, translated in immediate political terms into the choice between the struggle for a ‘new’ united Sudan or an independent South Sudan respectively. The twist however is that the SPLM viewed South Sudan as an essential whole, safe from Marx’s economic determination in the last instance, and unvisited by the ghost of class differentiation. Even Joseph Garang, the Communist Party’s Southern hero, glossed over such a possibility. While he did identify the client capitalist class in the North, the grand Jellaba of the modern age, in alliance with imperialism as the enemies of South Sudan, and thereupon suggested that the liberation of the South should be pursued in common struggle with the working class of Sudan at large and its vanguard, the Communist Party, Jo, part from his criticism of the “perplexity” of Southern intellectuals, made no attempt at conceptualising the social divisions within the South. According to Jo there are two contradictions at work in “the Southern provinces”, a primary contradiction between all of the Sudanese people and imperialism, and a secondary contradiction between the people of the South and the Northern exploiting classes.
Unwelcome as it may be today in the fever of a new state Jo’s primary contradiction freed from the mystification of the second deserves to be revisited to account for the forces that drive the integration of South Sudan, as a territory and a political entity, into the global capitalist reactor. The praxis of one particular South Sudanese communist, Benjamin Basara, may serve to illuminate such a purpose. Basara joined the ranks of the Anti-Imperialist Front (AIF), by all means the most successful organisation that the Sudanese communists had ever forged, back in the early 1950s during his service as a health inspector in Maridi. Basara refashioned the agitation of the AIF against the poll tax, cattle fines, forced labour, the inequality of wages between Northerners and Southerners and the restriction of education in the South, all hallmarks of the British policy in South Sudan that the post-colonial state largely approbated, in the Zande vernacular. The combination of bicycle and Zande pamphlet in the hands of a dedicated Basara soon became a force to reckon with. Almost singlehandedly he managed to organize a cell of militant workers in the gins of the Equatoria cotton schemes in Anzara. On 26 July 1955 the Anzara workers went on strike; a fierce confrontation ensued between the forces of the state, at the time run by the first Sudanese self-rule cabinet but still under British governorship.
While few recognize Basara today as a figure of South Sudanese liberation the commission of investigation into the 18 August 1955 rebellion in Torit did not fail to identify the Anzara strike and its prominent agitator, Benjamin Basara, as a warning instance of the “troubles” to come. The report stated that communist elements led by an Egyptian physician and a Zande health inspector distributed subversive pamphlets written in the Zande language. The physician, wrongly identified as Egyptian by virtue of his light skin colour, was the Sudanese Mustafa el-Sayed, and the health inspector according to el-Sayed’s account of the period in his recently published biography was Benjamin Basara.  

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This work by Magdi El Gizouli is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.