Saturday, April 19, 2008

Dockworkers, doctors, and democracy

Photo from the Sydney Morning Herald: the Chinese ship, and South African church members protesting its cargo.

The dockworkers of Durban, South Africa, did what their government wouldn't: stopped a shipment of arms from China to Zimbabwe, including 3 million rounds of ammunition for AK-47s, rocket-propelled grenades, and mortar rounds. The arms would help the doddering dictator Robert Mugabe try to hold on to power, after an election that appears to have not gone well for him.

The Durban dockworkers refused to unload the arms. Then an Anglican archbishop filed a motion in court to stop the shipment. When the court affirmed the motion, the Chinese ship pulled up anchor and headed for Mozambique--or was it Angola?

Whichever port it heads towards next, the Chinese ship will likely eventually find a port, and a road to deliver its bullets. Nonetheless, the collaboration between the church and the unions exposes the banal exchanges of money, bullets and bureaucratic documents which move violence around the world. Mugabe sends money (though surely not in his own currency, which he has made worthless). The Chinese send bullets. The South African government signs the papers which allow the bullets to move from its ports to landlocked Zimbabwe. Stopping the bullets for a few days or weeks may or may not influence the outcome of the struggle in Zimbabwe, but it does help highlight who may share responsibility for the violence of that struggle.

The collaboration recalls some of the proudest moments of the fight against apartheid in South Africa, when the church and the unions led the struggle in the streets while much of the African National Congress leadership was in exile or prison. It also reminded me of a moment closer to home, when dockworkers in Oakland, California, refused to unload a South African ship's cargo as a protest against apartheid. At that time, they were supporting the work of the African National Congress as well as the Congress of South African Trade Unions in their collective struggle for justice and democracy.

This time, though, the unions and officials of the African National Congress were on two different sides of the question. COSATU members refused to unload the Chinese ship, while African National Congress government officials had already cleared the cargo to cross South Africa on the way to Zimbabwe, and the president of South Africa continues to coddle Mugabe.

The dockworkers' refusal to unload the cargo illustrates a broader political principle. In Zimbabwe, the ruling party was able to assert its primacy above all other political organizations. In South Africa, even those who have been fiercely proud members of the African National Congress also remained part of other organizations, like churches and unions, and these organizations remain an active and vital part of the political landscape. (In fact, they've helped change the leadership of the ANC, and President Mbeki's faction appears to be on the way out.)

When people in South Africa split their loyalties--voting for the ANC, but marching in a COSATU or Treatment Action Campaign march, and supporting an Anglican archbishop who speaks truth to power--their nation's politics, their own interests, and the well-being of the entire region are better served.

Thinking about the dockworkers' choice, it seems to me that in this election season, we should choose our candidate wisely, and then join an organization that also reflects our values but stands ready to oppose our chosen candidate. This is how we create the checks-and-balances of true democracy--not just by courts and legislatures, but by votes and protests, and by support and opposition by issue rather than by allegiance. Democracy is formal and informal; it involves the dockworkers refusing to unload the cargo, and the Anglican church going to court to stop it, and an independent judicial system willing to fairly judge the motion.

I've often been disappointed with myself during my medical training that I have not as been politically active as I think I should be. The dockworkers are a reminder of why a vote is not enough. My excuse this year is internship, which is my excuse for a lot of things; but that excuse will be over at the end of June. And then I will need to think about what I can do to make the world a better place, and to do my small part in exposing its violence.

Doctors sometimes convince ourselves that we are taking our own stands for what is right when we refuse to order a useless study, or fight for a medicine that an insurance company seeks to deny. But these actions are the quiet battles that take place inside the industrial process of healthcare delivery. Unlike the dockworkers, we actually conceal the violence of the system when we make private phone calls to soften its blows. Sometimes we should be ready to choose our times when we simply refuse to unload the ship.

I don't know which times these would be. The work of doctors and dockworkers is very different. Our struggles are rarely as clear-cut as stopping a shipment of arms to someone who will use them to kill civilians and suppress democracy. And a leader of a grassroots healthcare workers' movement could not in good conscience make this classic dockworkers "just try to fight us" threat:

Randall Howard, general secretary of the South African Transport and Allied Workers Union, said the dock workers had no intentions of allowing the Chinese cargo to be unloaded. "If they bring in replacement labor to do the work, our members will not stand and look at them and smile," he said.

Still, if the nature of who we are and what we stand for forbids busting heads for political gain, we can do more than vote and make quiet phone calls. What this will be for me, I'm not sure. But I'm in a mood for change, and I'm pretty sure that Obama won't be enough.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

"Dockworkers of the International Longshore and Warehouse Union have decided to stop work for eight hours in all U.S. West Coast ports on May 1, International Workers Day, to call for an end to the war in Iraq."
Note also that the guns and ammunition intended for Zimbabwe are now on the way back to China; the ship was not unloaded.