Non-Alignment 2.0


This text is part essay, part book review. Given the global hysteria around the latest proxy war, non-alignment (and by implication, the Non-Aligned Movement) re-surfaced in public discourse, among other occurrences in a statement by a S.A. govt. spokesperson, which clarified that non-alignment isn’t the same as neutrality. The statement also characterised the Ukraine conflict as one between neoliberal imperialism and “conservative nationalism.”

The book in question is Revolutionary State-Making in Dar es Salaam(free download). It provides a compelling glimpse at the Cold-War-era ferment in and around that city. Whereas Ghana’s Nkrumah famously advised Africans to seek first the political kingdom, his fellow NAM founder, Tanzania’s Nyerere, espoused rural self-sufficiency as a priority for independence, under the banner of ujamaa or “African socialism.”

The NAM characterised the main dichotomy in the world as between imperialists and anti-imperialists, rather than communists and anti-communists, as the prevailing hegemonic view had it. China was a NAM member*. This was more reasonable at the time; it’s now flagship of the ever-more-assertive Eurasian bloc, and while technically still communist, has actually trumped the capitalists of the rest of the world at their own game.

The Russian Federation, the other heavyweight in Eurasia, has adopted capitalism while retaining vast state-owned enterprises. Theoretically it contains many nations, bound together by Russian language & culture, along with their own in the case of the non-ethnic-Russians. Of course both Russia & China were empires and arguably, still are. Certainly many citizens of the South African neocolony experience the still-contested Russian co-option of the compradors who rule us into a huge debt in return for nuclear reactors, as a neocolonial intervention like all the others by more “traditional” powers. Our other options for decarbonisation have been wrecked as a result. Of course, no other empire has hundreds of military bases worldwide, than the US, nor does any use its currency as a weapon...yet.

Be that as it may, China can no longer meaningfully be called non-aligned, as it has become one of the poles of alignment. The SA govt position referenced earlier fails to acknowledge this. However, non-alignment isn’t only a property of states; civil society and indeed individual citizens are free to redefine it and espouse it. Which is what this essay is doing.


Several factors make Tanzania particularly interesting when considering the fate and options of Africa. Arab (and to a lesser extent, other Asian) seafarers started visiting and trading with East Africa well over a millenium ago. The monsoon winds enabling this extend as far as northern Mozambique, and that’s exactly the furthest south where one finds people speaking that Arab-Bantu creole, KiSwahili (“the language of the coast”). The Arab presence culminated in the royal court of Oman relocating in 1804 to Zanzibar, which was ruled by Sultans until the revolution of 1964. At its peak, the Omani regime fostered classical plantations on the islands and even the coastal strip of the mainland, using slave labour to grow spices for export. Slaves themselves were a major export (most having been captured on the mainland) until the British ended the trade, making Zanzibar a protectorate in 1890.

Another global input into the making of Tanzania was German colonisation of the mainland portion (plus what are now Rwanda, Burundi and a part of Mozambique). Unlike earlier European colonisers, who depended on co-opted elements of indigenous leadership to maintain control, the power assymmetry between an industrial nation using steam ships, trains & machine guns, and local societies already destabilised by the slave trade was such that after a few rebellions led by chiefs, the Germans abolished the system of chiefs and imposed direct rule. Although their rule was ended by WW 1, after which the new British overlords re-introduced chiefs, the fact was that these were blatantly chosen and appointed by outsiders - whereas in areas where chiefdoms had been continuously present, their co-option by colonialists appeared more legitimate.

These factors enabled a type of nation-building unique among Africa's former colonies (here, Ethiopia isn't considered a former colony as it was only briefly invaded). Newly independent Tanganyika was able to make KiSwahili not only an official language, but (eventually) the practical lingua franca not only of everyday life, but public bureaucracy. It was also able to downplay other indigenous languages and ethnic elites. By contrast, take for example South Africa with its vaunted constitutional recognition of (most) indigenous languages and cultures: it has in practise lapsed into using English as lingua franca, and is still largely dominated by families whose members either implemented or collaborated with colonialism and apartheid, many still defending their ethnic fiefdoms - whether commercial or "traditional."

Ujamaa involved ambitious experiments with collective village projects, and was able to play off rival superpowers to minimise the strings attached to development assistance, most notably the Tan-Zam railway built by China. However as the Cold War progressed towards a decline of communism, neoliberalism was able to take root in Tanzania just as in most of the world.

Dar es Salaam

“The Home of Peace” was part of an Arab-dominated coast (Ottoman naval assistance had helped end the Portuguese disruptions of the 17th & 18th centuries), until Germans invaded in 1885. They eventually made it their capital until their 1914 retreat (eventually surrendering to British & South African forces in 1918). Under British rule, Dar was proclaimed a preferential zone for immigration from the Raj, leading to a large Indo-Tanganyikan population, some of whom predominated in trading and later, light industry.

Dar remained national capital during early independence, including the unification with Zanzibar to become Tanzania after the Zanzibar revolution. Though inland Dodoma was eventually made capital, Dar remained the premier city and main port.

The Cold War was hot in parts of Asia, Africa & Latin America, as the frustrated superpower military establishments acted out what they couldn't in their own countries, due to the risk of nuclear "Mutual Assured Destruction." Tanzania was fortunate to remain peripheral to the proxy wars (it sent a few soldiers into the eastern Congo for a while). But as the book recounts, Dar was a hotbed of diplomatic and geopolitical intrigue - it even hosted Che Guevara undercover. Liberation movements challenging "white" rule in South Africa, Namibia, Rhodesia & Mozambique had headquarters there; the Organisation of African Unity based its Liberation Committee there, which disbursed resources to the movements.

Frelimo's founder Mondlane was assassinated there by parcel bomb, a fate familiar to South Africans of the anti-apartheid ilk. He and his work are little-known outside of Mozambique. In his book "The Struggle For Mozambique" he recounts that on the same day as the notorious Sharpeville Massacre in South Africa, around 300 unarmed protesters were killed by Portuguese soldiers in rural Mozambique; no journalists were around and it never made headlines.

Frelimo's relationship with Tanzania was complicated by the fact that the colonially-drawn border between them bisects the large Makonde population (renowned inter alia for wood-sculpting), members of which were wont to migrate to and fro when it suited them. Portuguese counter-insurgency experts destabilised Frelimo by fostering tension between its southern and northern constituencies, a strategy that worked so well that it was continued by the Rhodesians after Mozambique's independence, and the apartheid regime after Zimbabwe's independence. Even today it appears that the Cabo Delgado insurgency has external influence.

Intra-Frelimo conflict as well as tensions with the Tanzanian host community resulted in accusations of collaboration with the Portuguese secret service in Mondlane's assassination, and his widow complained of unsatisfactory investigation by Tanzanian authorities.

From 1966, when Ghana suffered a coup, Dar was the uncontested intellectual capital of pan-Africanism, as well as a rear base for liberation movements operating in the frontline states. Besides attracting anti-imperialist scholars from far and wide, East Africa and especially Dar, produced a crop of its own.

The Frontline States

As "white" regimes went down one by one, the "frontline" shifted. The case of Portugal and its colonies is fascinating; the Portuguese empire was "backward" compared to those of the other European powers, since no serious attempt at granting self-rule (however cosmetic) was made in its colonies. Then, when change came, it came first within the metropole. The explanation is that the Carnation Revolution was driven by junior officers sick and tired of futile colonial wars. Eventually people may get their heads around what this represents: liberation struggles in colonies actually triggering a revolution in the "home" country!

So, from 1975, Mozambique and Angola became available to host operations of ZAPU, ZANU, the ANC and SWAPO. This made them targets. In the case of Mozambique, this mostly took the form of destabilisation, already mentioned above, by supporting the dissident movement Renamo. After Zimbabwe's independence, this eventuated in the Komati Accord, where the apartheid regime agreed to stop supporting Renamo if Frelimo stopped hosting ANC operations. In the case of Angola, though, things were more complicated.

Cuba got involved from 1975 when, faced with multiple onslaughts from rival Angolan movements (which to some extent were "Western" proxies), and a direct invasion by apartheid forces based in occupied Namibia, the MPLA government called for help. While the MPLA and Cuba were to some extent Soviet proxies, they went beyond mere puppetry. Many Cubans are descended from slaves captured in Angola, and the Cuban expeditionary force was more aggressive towards apartheid forces than the USSR wanted it to be. Over about 15 years it lost about 2200 dead; only a fraction of the losses of Angolans and Namibians, but still a high price. What eventually settled the matter was the international arms embargo against apartheid South Africa, which could manufacture or smuggle all but the most strategically important items in that war: fighter jets and advanced radar. Angola's ability to source these, and to operate them with Cuban help, directly led to the end of the war, and to Namibia's 1990 independence. That peace process, with its UN-supervised elections followed by multi-party democracy, is widely acknowledged to have served as a warm-up for South Africa's own settlement.

Given the crucial role of the arms embargo (it saved thousands, perhaps tens of thousands of lives), a little-known fact relating to it (found in the book) is relevant here: in 1970, British prime minister Heath wanted to resume arms exports to the apartheid regime, and was prevented from doing so by a threat by Nyerere, that Tanzania would withdraw from the Commonwealth. Asante sana, Mwalimu.

Although the ANC had military camps in Angola, few of its members played much part in the conflict, an awkward fact for its militarist- triumphalist faction. Nonetheless, it regularly salutes the role of frontline states in ending apartheid, for example when trying to restrain xenophobic mobs. And its debt of gratitude to Cuba is the source of many attacks by opposition parties.

The Ukraine Era

The stakes are higher for both blocs than in other proxy wars. From the US-NATO point of view, Europe (especially Germany) had to be prevented from becoming symbiotic with Russia, as epitomised by the Nord Stream pipelines. This would undermine global hegemony. From the Russian point of view, NATO had to be prevented from being able to make a pre-emptive strike at Russia's strategic nuclear deterrent facilities. Loss of supremacy vs. loss of sovereignty. China, of course, knows that it would be the US's next target and, by appearing neutral, sent a clear message of support for Russia.

What we are seeing is the US-NATO empire over-extended. After all the thinktank schemes to over-extend Russia (well, it worked with the USSR in Afghanistan didn't it?), the empire has fallen into its own trap. Its current leadership seems totally habituated by three decades of acting with impunity, enjoying air superiority and easily satisfying military logistics with a smaller industrial base than during the Cold War. Now suddenly it finds itself fighting a "near-peer" which is better prepared, and has better weapons in some categories at least.

Most distressing of all to the hegemons is that the hitherto magic weapon of sanctions, so effective at such a low cost against the likes of Cuba, Venezuela and Iran, not only failed against Russia, but actually hastened the fruition of the BRICS dream of de-dollarisation. We're now entering the "last throw of the dice" phase where protests over legitimate grievances in Iran, China & Mongolia (a crucial corridor between Russian gas & oil fields, and the Chinese market) are being fanned into would-be regime-change operations (Russia having already snuffed out similar).

What's surprising to a casual observer, is that so many "western" pundits are surprised. It's as if they assume Russians & Chinese don't read English, because they have laid out their plans where their intended targets can study them, starting from the 1990s plan for a "New American Century."

Most interesting to the student of geopolitics is the behavior of lesser powers. Outside of the G7, the whole sanctions thing went down like a lead balloon. Most governments, if they have to choose between China and the US, prefer their largest trade partner. And China favours Russia in this. Doubling down, the EU is trying to impose a price cap on Russian oil. This, just as it enters what looks to be a disastrous winter on the home front, as well as dramatic on the Ukraine front.

The Information War

Students of media also have a feast laid for them on the world stage. Whereas back in the day CNN and its ilk could provide the international assent/condonement needed for invasions etc., nowadays viewerships are plummeting and online dissent grows stronger when censorship is noticed.

Russia and China are obliged to be fairly upfront about censorship, while corporate platforms have their more subtle, algorithmic methods. But the constant efforts to obtain "backdoor" access to citizens' communications (whether using anti-terrorism or child protection as stalking-horse) betray rising panic in the halls of power. And the massive chilling effect of the public pillorying of Julian Assange is unparalleled even in North Korea: where else, when else has the treatment of one publisher so dramatically changed the behaviour of so many journalists and publishers?

In analysing and strategising within the bourgeois communication and media landscape a most useful concept is that of internal contradiction. When classical liberal charters etc. were first drawn up by privileged men, there was no need to explicitly exclude the rest of humanity since in the minds of those men, it went without saying that rights such as freedom of expression were irrelevant to marginal people like women, slaves and the poor, who were illiterate and occupied their whole lives with mere survival and/or reproduction. The contradiction between proclaiming universal rights, and denying them to the majority, only became obvious later.

When later generations of the marginalised mobilised, demanded and obtained inclusion in the category "all men," it wasn't immediately critical, since for example, freedom of the press also required ownership of presses. Now that the rabble can actually own a Wordpress (or other web tool), the gatekeepers of the bourgeois order have to contrive ever more contorted grounds for exclusion, the latest being "disinformation."

Of course deliberate disinformation has always existed, but its practitioners include those who most rail against it. Ultimately, the tedious process of dissecting sources is the only way to build a reliable foundation; when certain sources are censored, there's your red flag. The revolutionary innovation of WikiLeaks was that it introduced direct access to source documents, undermining the power of gatekeepers who curate what is made available to the masses. Hence the virulence of the attack on it.

The relevance of all this to the topic of non-alignment is that WikiLeaks has demonstrated non-alignment with any government, but alignment with ordinary citizens of the world. To paraphrase that loathsome toad Pompeo, such publishing is the intelligence agency of the masses, made possible by the contradictions of "liberal" capitalism.

Citizen Non-alignment

In the dark days of the Cold War, as politicians vied for hawkishness, the concept of "citizen diplomacy" arose. Immersed as we now are in telecommunications, even those who remember those days tend to forget how isolated people were from those far away. Phone calls were expensive. Sure, there was a strong culture of letter-writing, occasionally even sending voices on cassettes. But the gap between that and actually meeting the people was so great that arranging such meetings became a priority, given the looming spectre of nuclear holocaust. The analog networks that sprang up strangely prefigured today's digital ones: volunteers indexed by location offering to meet and/or host travellers.

Of course transnational solidarity between civil society is nothing new; from the Communist Internationals to lower-profile but better-resourced rightwing internationals, it's been done. But in most cases, there was/is a specific class allegiance and/or alignment with one or more super-powers, or at least a grand cause. The old forms of communication fostered secretariats etc. and the expense of global travel fostered ponderous funding bureaucracies. Now we have the chance to devise something more agile and resource-efficient.

Collective, distributed intelligence implies a fractal "forking" of positions on issues. Whereas in an analog world, this easily leads to the ripe-for-caricature splintering of the People's Front of Judea from the Judean People's Front seated a few metres away in the public square, in a fully digital world birds of a feather flock effortlessly together, worldwide.

We don't yet have access to a fully digital world. Many have little or no internet access; language barriers still remain higher than they should be, given the amount of "A.I." being touted. But let's build the road as we travel it. Community WiFi networks are part of building the road. Free/open-source digital tools are, too. Collaboration on these provides a good on-ramp for flocking together, a.k.a. activism.

Here's a great starting-point: the Non-Aligned Technology wiki.

So much for global politics. Personal politics - related to sex & reproduction - (which of course also informs "national" and international politics) is by definition non-aligned, but takes on wider significance when global forces seek to influence local policies. For example US funders making financial "aid" conditional on local adherence to the funder's preference: we will help you buy HIV drugs if you stop offering abortions. Given that the emerging "multipolarist" movement features rampantly patriarchal governments such as that of Russia, non-aligned citizens with internationalist tendencies may well stand in solidarity with like-minded citizens of countries where such rights are eroded. Without, of course, succumbing to the temptation to accept dubious funding to do so.


It came to my attention that not only is China not a member of the NAM, it never has been; instead, it's been an observer there since 1992. I don't feel this much impacts the above narrative, so I'm merely adding this correction, rather than stealthily correcting the text as some would.