by Jacqueline Holloway
On Monday, 9 March, the Neil Aggett Labour Studies Unit (NALSU) and the International Labour Research and Information Group (ILRIG) presented a one-day workshop in Makhanda, taking place at the AMAZWI Museum of South African Literature.
“An Alternative to a World in Crisis: the Rojava Revolution, the Kurdish Freedom Movement and Prospects for South Africa’s Incomplete Liberation” had two speakers from the revolutionary zone of Rojava, Ercan Ayboga and Rohash Shexo.
Their discussion centered on how ordinary people in Rojava have been building an alternative to neo-liberal capitalism.
This alternative offers a model of a democratic, egalitarian and ecologically sustainable post-capitalist society. Ayboga and Shexo are both parts of Rojava’s system of ‘democratic confederalism’ which involves a system of participatory democracy, common production, ecological sustainability and women’s liberation - most importantly, it does not rely on the state at all.
The Rojava zone is a non-state, non-racial, non-sectarian, and anti-sexist system of self-governance from the bottom up, and is based on communes, assemblies and cooperative production of the people.
Ercan Ayboga is a co-author of Revolution in Rojava and is an environmental engineer and activist; he is politically involved in the Mesopotamian Ecology Movement, particularly in the struggles of water.
He focused mostly on the ecological aspects of the Rojava Revolution and Democratic Confederalism, but he also provided a little bit of background. It is not unknown that the Middle East has been a hub of political conflict in the last few decades. For the Kurdish people, oppression and marginalization have been an ongoing struggle for decades; this is where the Rojava revolution had its beginnings.
[ABOVE: "Democratic confederalism proposes a democratic nation rather than a nation state. More society, less state,” Ercen Ayboga says in his presentation.]
Up until the end of World War I in 1918, the Kurdish people lived under the Ottoman Empire - a vast empire that expanded across the Middle East and most of North Africa. In 1914, they sided with the Axis.
Four years later, in 1918, the Allies defeated the Ottoman Empire. Britain and France proceeded to break up the empire into new states known today as Turkey, Syria, Iraq, Palestine, and Lebanon. The Kurdish people were spread across the four states of Turkey, Syria, Iraq and Iran. They hoped to be given their own state by the Allies, but they were politically betrayed.
The Kurdish people continued to face inhumane oppression across these four states, though they had been displaced and had no choice but to stay there. To this day, the Turkish state still denies the existence of seventeen million Kurdish people dwelling there.
Their language has been banned in schools and government institutions, similarly as in Syria and Iran. The Turkish state believed in the pure ethnicity of the Turks, and thus had an ethnic cleansing of the Kurdish villages, towns and neighbourhoods, as well as nemerous massacres. By the mid-1990s, 3, 000 villages had been diminished, and the official figures of the Turkish state reflected that 378, 335 Kurdish people had been displaced and were now homeless.
In 2015, 2018 and 2019, Kurdish villages were attacked and destroyed by the Turkish military, under the command of the president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan.
In 1962, thousands of Kurdish people had their citizenship revoked by the Syrian state; they were denied the rights to employment, property, education and marriage. In northern Syria, the state seized land from the Kurdish people to turn them into a landless source of cheap labour.
In Iraq 1986-1989, the state under the control of Saddam Hussein committed genocide against the Kurdish people, their villages were destroyed and between 50, 000 and 180, 000 people were murdered.
Finally, in Iran, the Kurdish people are continually being oppressed by the state. They are denied their rights to employment and education. Those who protest against this oppression oftentimes face persecution and arrest.
Ayboga explained the origins of Rojava. The revolutionary Rojava Zone was started by the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), which was created by poor students, who based it around the proletariat character of revolution by Karl Marx.
The party’s political headquarters are in Syria and it follows democratic confederalism. He further elaborated that democratic confederalism has three main points: a radical democracy, the complete liberation of women, and sustainable ecology.
Ayboga also went on to explain the essential communal economy in democratic confederalism.
The economy is based on meeting people’s needs rather than profit, which is called communalism. A crucial part of communalism is that the economy must be ecologically sustainable - it aims for ecology to recover and not to be used for capitalist exploitation.
The economy also aims to reduce waste and to ensure the natural world is not exploited.
“What we mean with this goes beyond the classic environmentalist approach, it means there's a new relation with the defence of all plants and animals […] we aim to develop a new view where we find a proper balance with the planet,” Ayboga says.
The second speaker was Rohash Shexo, who is a part of the Kongra Star Women’s Organisation of Rojava & Northern Syria and sits on the diplomacy committee of the Kurdish Women’s Movement.
She focuses on the anti-patriarchal aspects of the Rojava Revolution and democratic confederalism, as well as the struggle for women’s liberation and gender equality.
Kurdish women have not only faced oppression because of their ethnicity, but also because of their gender.
Democratic confederalism views self-organisation as a vital part of achieving freedom. As part of this, all-women councils are crucial; they are self-organized structures of women that organize themselves in communities.
This is where Kongra Star comes in: “It is a confederation of women’s organizations based on the voluntary union of all free democratic institutions, organizations and individuals, and it organizes itself in the form of commune, assembly, co-operative, academy, and so forth,” Rohash Shexo tells us.
Kongra Star seeks to improve the lives of women at a local level. To do this, they aim to challenge the patriarchy and gender-based violence, to improve women’s education, to promote women’s activism and expand women’s leadership.
Twice a month, Kongra Star visits every neighbourhood in Rojava so they can educate people on the agenda of the revolution.
They also have 26 educational academies across Rojava that focus on political education, as well as offer courses in computer use, language, first aid, health, art, and culture.
They run a very important course called ‘women’s science,’ which aims to challenge the patriarchal monopoly over knowledge and to promote the vision of a good life consistent with the communal-council system.
Shexo went on to elaborate on the defence of the Rojava revolution.
“It is primarily based on democratic militia; we have two types of a militia. One is the general militia, the People Protection Units (YPG) and the other is woman’s only militia, the Women’s Protection Units (YPJ),” she says.
[ABOVE: “The people of the Rojava have fought off many dangers over the course of eight years. These included the forces of ISIS and the Turkish state,” Rohash Shexo tells us in her presentation.]
These militias are made up of volunteers, and the officers are elected and can be recalled by members; they are mostly made up of Kurds but there are a few Arabs and international volunteers.
In 2015, the YPG founded the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) which includes people that are conscripted, but they are only responsible for setting up checkpoints - only volunteers in the militia fight on the front lines.
We can draw on many parallels between the Rojava zone and South Africa, which is the motivation behind hosting this workshop.
First, there was an entire ethnicity being oppressed and denied basic human rights.
The struggle for women’s liberation is also very relevant to South Africa since gender-based violence is an unyielding problem in South African society.
While South Africa’s transition was centred on establishing a democratic, equally representative parliament and a new legal framework, Rojava’s road of democratic confederalism involved a participatory democracy, common production, ecology and women’s liberation.
[ABOVE: The audience were encouraged to asked Ayboga and Shexo questions, to find links between the Rojava Revolution and South Africa’s struggle for liberation.]
The event at AMAZWI aimed to draw in interested people and ‘grassroots’ groups, as a part of the larger process of renewal and change in South Africa.
The Rojava revolution is one of the most important revolutions of the 21st century, as the events in this region have signalled a post-capitalist alternative for a world that is in crisis.