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(en) anarkismo.net: ZACF Reply to the Misrepresentation of the ZACF by American Journalists and on the Schmidt Affair - I. (1/2) executive summary

Date Mon, 22 Feb 2016 11:43:57 +0200

The following is the official statement of the Zabalaza Anarchist Communist Front (ZACF) of South Africa on the controversy that erupted around Michael Schmidt, a South African activist, several months ago. It follows a careful collective discussion process and research and comes several weeks after the last installment in a series of articles claiming to be an expose of Schmidt. As we are also committed to a number of ongoing workshops, activities and publications, our time was limited. It has two main aims: to outline our position on the claims made for, and against, Schmidt, and to respond to a number of false statements that have been made about the ZACF in the course of the developing Schmidt affair.

The statement opens with an executive summary, followed by a much more extensive discussion.

The statement was collectively crafted and issued by the ZACF: www.zabalaza.net

Questions and requests for comment should be addressed to zacf@riseup.net with a clearly-identifiable subject line (Please note that we will not be responding to questions, queries or claims from people using pseudonyms or otherwise concealing their identities. Organisational affiliation, if any, should please be stated).

* Please note that a much earlier draft seems to have leaked online, labelled “Consolidated ZACF statement v18.docx” at 84kb, dated 22 December 2015. Our documents go through a process of collective writing and criticism and fact-checking, so THIS version (the one you are reading now) is the correct one, with significant changes from earlier versions. All previous drafts are made null-and-void by this final version and have no standing whatsoever, and we will not enter into discussion of such drafts.


1. The Zabalaza Anarchist Communist Front (ZACF, or “Zabalaza”) is a small anarchist / syndicalist organisation in South Africa, dating back to 2003. It has a long history of militant work and publication, a majority black and working class composition, and connections in neighbouring countries. It was formed on May Day 2003 by independent collectives involved in student and township struggles and in the “new social movements” of the time. In line with its founding documents, the ZACF Constitution and Position Papers, the ZACF opposes all forms of oppression, including racial domination, national oppression, imperialism, the oppression of women and immigrants, and capitalism and the state (http://zabalaza.net/organise/theoretical-positions-of-the-zacf/).
2. We stand for the complete national and class emancipation of the black working class in South Africa through revolutionary struggle, and have a long track record as an organisation that’s political work and social base lie primarily with the black working class and its organisations (see e.g. www.zabalaza.net and www.saasha.net and www.facebook/zabalazanews). The anarchist and syndicalist movement in South Africa is very small, and the ZACF is a substantial and important part of this movement, not a minority strand.

3. In this statement the Zabalaza Anarchist Communist Front (ZACF) discusses the controversy that has surrounded accusations against former ZACF member Michael Schmidt, by the American journalists Alexander Reid Ross and Joshua Stephens and the America-based publisher AK Press. Schmidt left active work in ZACF in early 2009, and resigned in early 2010. The allegations are that Schmidt was, from at least 2002 to the present, a fascist and racist cadre infiltrating the anarchists – including ZACF. Schmidt argues that he has been misrepresented, that his track record and the evidence are at odds with the claims, and that fake right-wing statements he made as an undercover journalist investigating the white radical right have been misrepresented as his real views. Schmidt’s accusers claim these statements reflect his real views, and are part of a larger pattern of ongoing right-wing thought and action.

4. This is the second ZACF statement on the Schmidt affair, in the sense that ZACF was party to a statement issued by the global Anarkismo network on 29 September 2015, which currently comprises over a dozen revolutionary anarchist groups on five continents, most, historically, from the Global South. This statement did not take sides, but called instead for a careful evaluation of the case, the release of all evidence, and on AK Press to state that the accusations applied to Schmidt alone (not to everyone with whom he had been associated ( www.anarkismo.net/article/28576). This statement was not acknowledged by Reid Ross and Stephens, or AK Press. The gravity of the allegations does not justify a lack of fair process.

5. ZACF completely distances itself from any and all racist and fascist and white supremacist positions, and condemns them in the strongest possible terms.

6. ZACF completely distances itself from any offensive statements that Schmidt has made, regardless of the rationale for such statements. We are disgusted by what we have read, and by the number of these statements, and note that these statements are indeed deeply racist and sometimes fascist. The “manifesto” and blog posts attributed to Schmidt on the right wing website Stormfront and on his blog at strandwolf.blogspot.com (linked to a group he now admits to setting up named Black Battlefront) are horrifying. It is very difficult for us to reconcile these awful blog posts (and those of several related online personas) with our experiences of Michael Schmidt as an active and dedicated member of our organisation.

7. ZACF views the accusations against Schmidt with the utmost gravity. If the accusations are proven true, ZACF will denounce Schmidt and take all appropriate steps. If proven, the accusations would indicate activities and views completely at odds with the positions and practice and social composition of the ZACF, at odds with the class-struggle, anti-racist and anti-oppression anarchist and syndicalist traditions that ZACF champions, as well as manifest dishonesty on Schmidt’s part. And the ZACF would have been the primary victim of Schmidt’s activities. Schmidt, if guilty, must bear the consequences of his actions.

8. ZACF also wishes to put on record that Schmidt has not been a member or participant in ZACF for over five years, has played no role in the development of this statement, or in any proposals and points that this statement makes, and has not been shown drafts or asked for comment, and also that ZACF has not been lobbied by Schmidt – or anyone else – to make any particular statements on the Schmidt affair, 2015-2016.

9. It is our position that the Schmidt affair cannot be resolved through another round of online articles, social media debates or statements. Not only have the online debates become unproductive and polarised (see point 27) but so much information and analysis has been produced that it is very difficult for individuals and organisations to methodically process and evaluate all arguments made by both sides.

10. In terms of evaluating the charges against Schmidt, ZACF instead supports the 30 January 2016 Anarkismo proposal for an inclusive and international anarchist and syndicalist commission of inquiry, to examine the allegations against Schmidt, as well as Schmidt’s replies to the allegations, with accusers and accused and sources available to answer questions and provide materials to the commission. The proposal does not envisage an Anarkismo-controlled process. Nor would Reid Ross and Stephens, AK Press or Schmidt, decide on its composition. See http://anarkismo.net/article/29047

11. We believe there are real problems with some of the statements made by both the accusers of Schmidt against Schmidt himself, as well as in Schmidt’s responses to these accusations. These may be open to innocent explanations: we keep an open mind. The ZACF will make a formal submission to the proposed commission, and be available for questions and to provide additional materials to that commission. We have extensive archives and records, which back up our claims, for example, about ZACF history (see below).

12. ZACF will also consider itself guided by the findings and recommendations of the proposed commission. The ZACF will address all the allegations against Schmidt himself, as well as his defence, in a separate statement at the conclusion of the commission's investigations.

13. ZACF wishes to place on record that when similar accusations were levelled against Schmidt from 2011 onwards, we confronted and checked on Schmidt several times. He has always maintained the same basic defence as that he has presented in 2015. Given the evidence we had to hand, and given Schmidt’s record and status as a long-standing comrade, we felt that we had no real choice but to give him the benefit of the doubt. Historically we have critically accepted Schmidt’s explanation for what we felt was the lack of an alternative, but we recognise that an extensive case has now been made against Schmidt, and new evidence brought to bear. This new material and debate merits careful reflection and evaluation, but must be weighed up carefully against his own counter-case – honestly and fairly.

14. ZACF expresses its disappointment with Schmidt’s now-admitted non-disclosure of aspects of his claimed underground journalistic work to the ZACF, both during his tenure in the ZACF and when it previously spoke to him from 2011 onwards. ZACF is highly disappointed by Schmidt’s now-admitted failure to inform ZACF that he knew the identity of a National Intelligence Agency (NIA) spy moving in left circles.

15. We do not, in this statement, therefore discuss whether Schmidt is indeed guilty of all the charges that have been made against him by AK Press, and Reid Ross and Stephens. This statement is not a point-by-point discussion of evidence around Schmidt, and should not be misconstrued as such. It is detailed, not to bury issues in words, but because serious allegations need a serious reply.

16. ZACF rejects the version of ZACF history and politics contained within Reid Ross and Stephens’ articles. We realise well enough that ZACF was not the focus of the articles, and take it in good faith that we entered the conversation only by way of association, but we have to respond to what constitutes (even if unintentionally) a series of very serious, very damaging (and, as we show, false) allegations about our organisation. They were not irrelevant to it, or trivialities that can be ignored on the grounds that the focus was on Schmidt.

17. ZACF specifically rejects the following central claims put foward by Reid Ross and Stephens: that the ZACF considered a proposal for racial segregation in 2003 (untrue), that Schmidt successfully engineered the expulsion of black and township ZACF members in 2005 to whittle ZACF into a white group (untrue), that ZACF's organisational culture was deeply shaped by an allegedly racist and fascist Schmidt (untrue), that ZACF ignored evidence that Schmidt was involved with the radical right (untrue), that other ZACF members shared Schmidt’s alleged right-wing opinions (untrue), that ZACF opposed feminism (untrue), that a ZACF social centre and garden in Soweto was run on racist lines (untrue), and they speak of a “Schmidt-era” of ZACF lasting into 2009 (untrue). ZACF also rejects Reid Ross and Stephens’ claims about the “national” character of ZACF, claims about the 2007 ZACF congress, claims about ZACF financial practices, claims about ZACF organisational culture and standards, and claims that ZACF ignored a problematic document that Schmidt issued internally in 2008 called “Politico-Cultural Dynamics of the South African Anarchist Movement” (ZACF discussed and rejected the document, and Schmidt also formally repudiated it that year).

18. There is no evidence whatsoever that ZACF was subverted, before, during or after 2008 by any fascist or racist or radical white right agenda, by anyone whatsoever. We are not concerned here with the separate issue of what Schmidt might have done elsewhere, covertly or otherwise in this period, we are stating that ZACF was never influenced by these politics – and that Schmidt never openly pursued any such politics while in ZACF. Contrary to the impression given by Reid Ross and Stephens, ZACF has always strived to act decisively and in line with its revolutionary principles and approach. There was no transition from a so-called right-wing “Schmidt-era” of ZACF, to a new, transformed ZACF later: ZACF theory and perspectives never changed, and the black working class orientation of ZACF never changed.

19. This criticism of the articles is not a matter of “shooting-the-messenger,” but of demonstrating that the message (as regards ZACF) is wrong. It is essential to our honour as revolutionaries to challenge, on the basis of facts, the profoundly inaccurate Reid Ross and Stephens’ version of ZACF history and politics, to clarifying the record of the ZACF, this including Schmidt’s role in ZACF, and ZACF’s relations to Schmidt, when he was a member, and subsequently.

20. Reid Ross and Stephens’ inaccurate representation of ZACF is based on poor research and analysis, and serious factual and analytical problems, regarding not just ZACF but South Africa generally. Eurocentrism and an uncritical embrace by the two journalists of deeply problematic anti-left arguments associated with the South African state and ultra-nationalists, but rooted in the colonial geography of reason, are part of the problem.

21. No use was made of easily available ZACF source materials and archives, and the two journalists have failed to contact ZACF throughout the series to check facts or to provide right-of-reply to charges made. Their account of ZACF is almost entirely based on the views of one former member active for a relatively short period, outsider opinions, dubious inferences from an inaccurate document by Schmidt that was rejected by ZACF, and unsubstantiated and often demonstrably false assertions. The history of ZACF cannot be based on so few sources, especially given that claims made by these sources contradict a larger body of other evidence that has been ignored.

22. Silencing black and African voices, and the ZACF, has been central to the articles’ methodology. ZACF sources were ignored. Contradictory data and testimony was ignored. In particular this relates to one ZACF ex-member and founder member, comrade Mzamani Philip Nyalungu, who was made central to one article (in fact he is the only person we feel was insulted by name, besides Schmidt, in their seven articles.) His testimony, at odds with key claims by the journalists, was not cited, yet the testimony of two white ex-ZACF members was repeatedly presented as self-evidently true. This can be construed as racist: while Reid Ross and Stephens may argue that they have grounds to criticise Schmidt harshly, there is no justification for this treatment of a serious black working class militant.

23. Claims that we are unduly emotional about what we feel is an unjustifiable misrepresentation of the ZACF, that trivialise this misrepresentation, or that present ZACF as ill-informed or ill-motivated, reflect the same colonial and silencing outlook.

24. There was a double-standard throughout the discussion of ZACF, which placed ZACF in a subordinate position, and had racial overtones. Reid Ross and Stephens stated that they concealed the names of the sources cited to ensure their personal security. Yet they provided the name and residential information of a prominent, township-based, black working class ex-ZACF member, while diligently concealing the details of a white middle class ex-ZACF member, no longer even resident in South Africa. No account was taken of the often violently intolerant contexts in which ZACF operates, and how the claims made in the articles against ZACF place it and its members at risk. If Schmidt was a fascist, racist infiltrator who was allegedly sufficiently dangerous to require that sources be kept concealed for safety, as the journalists insisted, then their immediate responsibility was actually to inform ZACF of a potentially deadly security threat. This would have allowed us to take immediate steps for the security of our black working class base. This never happened.

25. The same double standard was evident in the contrasting treatment of AK Press and ZACF. ZACF believes it completely unacceptable that Reid Ross and Stephens informed AK Press of their investigations into Schmidt and pending articles, allowing it to avoid reputational damage with a pre-emptive public statement – yet did not contact ZACF in a similar manner.

26. The development of the Schmidt affair raises questions about the future of the anarchist movement in the Global South and elsewhere. Certainly if Schmidt is guilty there are grounds for serious concern, but we have in mind here other issues that are just as important. The absence of a proper right-of-reply prior to publication, for both ZACF and Schmidt, the neglect for the safety and wellbeing of a black ZACF founder member, the hostile and personalised tone of many claims in the articles, the trial-by-media that has taken place, and the serious inaccuracies in the story around the ZACF, are some of the problems.

27. The ZACF also expresses its serious concern about the venomous and polarised tone that online debates on the Schmidt affair have assumed. A vocal anti-Schmidt current dominates many forums by relying, not on substantive debate, but on innuendos and on labelling, with any disagreement with any part of Reid Ross and Stephens’ / AK Press’ claims treated as the work of fascists, racists, tools of Schmidt etc. In this climate, those with contrary views soon withdraw, rational debate is closed, and more nuanced views that do not fit a neat pro-/ anti-Schmidt position, are lost. This is not a constructive approach to any debate, regardless of the severity of the accusations.

28. A sectarian current has also used the Schmidt affair to attack the ZACF, Anarkismo, and the whole anarcho-syndicalist, revolutionary syndicalist and anarchist-communist mainstream of anarchism. The simple fact of the matter is that, if Schmidt is indeed guilty, he would have betrayed the basic principles of class-struggle anarchism, the ZACF he helped found, the anarchists he has worked with as a militant and as a writer, and the movement generally. Therefore it is false to assume that if Schmidt is guilty, that his views represent, or arise from, class-struggle or Platformist/especifista anarchist traditions.

29. We are appalled that the worst public caricature that has ever been made of the ZACF comes, not from the state, not from capital, not from other left groups, but from people who claim to be anarchists. This is not a sign of a healthy movement.

30. ZACF believes there are also serious North/ South power dynamics at play in the affair that need attention. Precisely because countries like the USA dominate media, knowledge production and publication globally, even obscure writers in the Global North have a louder voice than almost any in the Global South. This is the context that allows the tiny collective running the America-based publishing house AK Press, and two minor (although doubtless well-intentioned and sincere – we are not debating their personalities) American journalists, Reid Ross and Stephens, to propagate their views on a global scale. ZACF simply has no commensurate power, this being directly linked to its African basis.

31. This North/ South situation allows the views of ZACF and Anarkismo, representing far more people and countries than one American publishing cooperative and two American journalists, to be completely marginalised, power reinforcing the process of silencing the African and black and ZACF voices that we have mentioned. It allows AK Press to effectively ban from publication “Black Flame: The Revolutionary Class Politics of Anarchism and Syndicalism,” which was primarily authored by one-time ZACF member, comrade Lucien van der Walt, almost a decade ago, as part of a larger project with Schmidt. It allows Anarkismo’s efforts to democratise the AK Press space by taking responsibility, qualifying its claims, and carrying different views on the story, to be ignored. It allows Reid Ross and Stephens to say what they wish about ZACF from behind the secure walls of the dollar and the American legal system. And it allows the unedifying spectacle of two white Americans doling out advice on racial politics and “the deleterious effects of institutionalized power disparities” to African and black anarchist revolutionaries.

32. We reject the AK Press collective’s attempts to deny responsibility in this affair. By their own admission, they worked with Reid Ross and Stephens to investigate Schmidt, and collaborated with them in compiling evidence; and they have provided the main platform for the mass dissemination of Reid Ross and Stephens’ seven articles. They are as responsible as Reid Ross and Stephens for what the ZACF has endured.

33. All of this is far from the prefigurative, solidaristic and internationalist movement we would like to see change the world. To avoid similar situations in future, we advocate a code of conduct for anarchist or anarchist-identified writers and journalists, that measures be put in place to keep small collectives controlling massive resources – including publishers like AK Press – accountable to the movements they claim to serve, the development of a more inclusive anarchist press, in which voices from working class and peasant movements, from ghettoes, from townships, from labour movements, from the oppressed nationalities and classes, and from the Global South as well as the Global North, are central.

34. ZACF also believes that substantial sectors of the self-identified anarchist movement need to have some serious introspection about the political culture of venom, sectarianism, and McCarthyite-style paranoia, obsessed with ultra-fringe forces like “national-anarchism,” exposed in the Schmidt affair. This that often substitutes for, and certainly hinders, building a mass, sustained, organised anarchism and syndicalism rooted in the popular classes, in labour movements, in oppressed nationalities, and in actual revolutionary struggles. Approaches like those proposed by Anarkismo and ZACF – a cautious approach to serious allegations, the use of a commission – can play an important role in this process.

35. We do not object to debate, or to criticism or self-reflection. Nor do we object to the anarchist and syndicalist movement having open and frank discussions. We do not call for a unity based on ignoring differences or on silence. We welcome open and honest debate as an essential part of an effective political practice. But what we do object to are debates based on sectarianism, personal attacks, innuendos, labelling, and bullying, and a lack of sensitivity to power dynamics.

36. We wish to stress that we have no personal issues with either Reid Ross or Stephens, neither of whom we know. We have no objections to critique. And we note Reid Ross emailed us on 27 December 2015 to state, “You have only my deepest respect for carrying on your incredible work” and stated he was “deeply sorry” if the articles created problems for ZACF. He also stated, “It was always my intention to remove both your collective and Lucien [van der Walt] from the investigation in such a way that would prevent a kind of ‘witch hunt’ effect.” We appreciate this effort to reach out to us, and the sentiment contained in these statements.

37. But the fact remains that the articles have, whether intentional or not, promoted falsehoods about ZACF, created serious problems for ZACF, silenced and even lectured ZACF. Neither AK Press, nor Stephens, nor Reid Ross have admitted this publicly; AK Press cancelled “Black Flame,” of which comrade van der Walt was primary author, Reid Ross and Stephens slated that book in their articles and by implication comrade van der Walt, and the articles presented ZACF as fundamentally subverted by a fascist and racist agenda. This obviously creates problems for ZACF.

38. Although “Black Flame” has, like any book, various flaws, and is not a ZACF publication, we insist that it is a revolutionary anarchist classic that remains of enduring value. It is a non-Eurocentric South-centred text that, for the first time, places people of colour, the Global South and struggles against imperialism and racism at the very centre of the history, canon and movements of historic anarchism and syndicalism. Reid Ross and Stephens themselves concede the book asserts the “primacy of class struggle and workers’ movements” in a global anarchist struggle – and this is not a rightist or a nationalist position.

39. We therefore urge both Reid Ross and Stephens, as well as members of the AK Press collective, not to fire off a hasty response to what we have written, but to consider seriously and respectfully the problems they have created for ZACF, one of the main anarchist organisations in Africa. And to admit there is fault, and that there are errors in the articles and the process that created them. We have no personal issues with any of these parties: we are raising issues of principle and process that deserve due consideration and a respectful conversation. We urge them to avoid statements that trivialize what has been done to ZACF, and how it has been done, or that evade responsibility by suggesting our responses are unduly emotional or ignorant.

40. If they are deeply sorry for the problems they created, as Reid Ross stated in his e-mail to the ZACF, they should issue a public apology to ZACF and to comrades Nyalungu and van der Walt (approved by ZACF in advance), for the misrepresentations that have been made, and also make a clear public statement (approved by ZACF in advance) explicitly stating that the allegations that they have made against Schmidt refer to Schmidt alone, and not to any publishers, co-authors, editors, left organisations or currents with which he may have been associated. (To his credit, Reid Ross has suggested that he is amiable to the idea of such a statement although we note that it has not, so far, appeared. We note with appreciation a statement by Reid Ross published on 17 February ( http://alexanderreidross.com/ideological-influence-and-the-schmidt-affair/ [10]) in which he states that “some have implicated the wrong people, groups, or sets of ideas”, but do not feel this goes far enough in addressing our concerns and ameliorating the damage done to the political work, dignity and reputation of the ZACF, comrades Nyalungu and van der Walt or "Black Flame".)

…. / End of executive summary.
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