Friday, 20 August 2010


[Benjamin Zephaniah with Dan Glazebrook,

picture courtesy and copyright of Linda Oliver]

Benjamin Zephaniah interviewed

by Dan Glazebrook exclusive for

Sons of Malcolm

PART TWO: The international crisis

"I really do think that we have to find a new way of fighting capitalism; the old interpretations of Marxism are not happening but there has to be something on an international level. If I had my way I would kind of get some people together to form a new party, and I have two leaders in mind for this party, but I know they wouldn’t want the job. One is Arundhati Roy and the other is Noam Chomsky."

Benjamin is very familiar with the use of the “terrorist” label to demonise legitimate struggles, and was a long-standing campaigner against apartheid in South Africa. He is also prominent in the campaign for Palestinian self-determination, and I ask him where he stands on the boycott of Israel. “Me personally, if I go to buy something and see it’s from Israel, I don’t buy it. But sometimes they do tricks, with fruit drinks for example: if its got more than one country’s produce in it, it doesn’t have to say where its from, it just says ‘more than one country of origin’. So they make it 99% from Israel and get 1% from somewhere else. It’s what the South Africans used to do, they used to make it 99% South African, ship it to Israel and put 1% in from Israel and then send it to England. I think Israel should be completely isolated.

The way that the west goes on about Iran’s nuclear weapons: we should be down on Israel about theirs! Israel should be accountable for all their atrocities and war crimes in Gaza; certainly from the last war, and probably in the wars before that as well. I just think it’s a terrorist state – it was built on terrorism and it was founded on terrorism. Those politicians in their suits, Labour and Tory politicians who say terrorism doesn’t work: well, it works in Israel! They’ve done terrorism and they’ve got a country run a group of terrorists that won! That was successful! Its an example of where it actually was acceptable; they terrorised the British and locals and eventually just declared a state and got it. Having said that, I am all for a two state solution – but if Israel is going to call itself a country and take its place in the family of nations and all that bullshit, then its got to be accountable, just like everybody else. So a consumer boycott and a cultural boycott is one thing, but there should be a diplomatic boycott until they get their house in order. Did you see what happened with Ziggy Marley? He was going to do a gig in Jerusalem, but he doesn’t know the difference between Israel and Palestine, so he dressed up in Arab headwear and arrived in Tel Aviv looking like Yasser Arafat! The Israelis were horrified!”

What I really want to get out of this interview is some idea of where Benjamin sees any positive political developments in the world today. What were his thoughts, for example, on the election of Barack Obama?

“I think after George Bush, it would have been a relief to get Mickey Mouse elected, I don’t think it could have got any lower. But Barack Obama? When he was elected I think for a couple of days I celebrated: in my lifetime I didn’t think I would see a black president elected in the States. But I remember Thatcher being elected, and I don’t think that was a great triumph for feminism, and so I don’t celebrate for very long just for the fact that Barack Obama is black: I do it for a day or so and then say, right what does he stand for? I think he is trying to do, in his own small way, some good things. But he’s still a politician, he’s still going to do all the compromises that politicians do and he’s got blood on his hands. He shouldn’t be in Afghanistan, and whatever they say they are still in Iraq. I don’t think he should have got the Nobel prize for peace when he was at war, and then go and collect the Nobel peace price and talk about why war is necessary. That’s twisted. So he’s not good, but I think trying to get healthcare for poor people doesn’t make him a Stalinist, like some people are trying to make out…”

How about the current crisis of capitalism? Is there a movement against capitalism developing? How should we organise in the face of this crisis?

“Well, China are so capitalistic it’s amazing. You can be sitting in a club and ask a girl, what do you want to do with your life and its “I want to meet a rich guy, get married to a rich man, have more money, have a baby and make more money, and that’s it..” A long time ago you used to get Marx and Engels pictures all over the place, but now you don’t get any of that. You get Mao, but you don’t get Maoism, you just get Mao the picture and the father and all that stuff.”

But materialism is a very seductive force isn’t it?

“Yeah. A girlfriend of mine spoke to me this morning and said she had a phone installed and she went and bought another phone, and she said after she bought it, she came away thinking she just spent so many hundreds of pounds and she was there listening to this guy saying – its got this function and that function and you can do this and you can do that and she thought all I want to do is make a call – she got drawn in – she was hypnotised by it..”

“I think that people should always be challenging capitalism, and even more now that we’ve seen it fail in such a big way. So what I am going to say is not an excuse - I’m going to be fighting capitalism as long as I live - but I do believe in the end it really will eat itself. All we are seeing at the moment is that it has bitten off its own hand. Brian Eno put it really well: you’ve got capitalism, this big animal, and when it’s sick you bring in socialism to fix it! You get the government to come in and help fix it up and then they go away again. But I really do think that we have to find a new way of fighting capitalism; the old interpretations of Marxism are not happening but there has to be something on an international level. If I had my way I would kind of get some people together to form a new party, and I have two leaders in mind for this party, but I know they wouldn’t want the job. One is Arundhati Roy and the other is Noam Chomsky. Those are the kind of ideas we want out there, about the way the media is controlling us, about they way we can tell our own stories, the way we can take control of our own lives, about the way that the real criminals operate. Arundhati Roy campaigns against the man who was the head of the company that put all the poison in Bhopal: she wants him arrested as a terrorist. Those are the kinds of things that we want people to be talking about.”

So leadership is important then?

“Unfortunately - and I say unfortunately, because I don’t think it should be necessary - but I think we need an inspirational figure to come forward – its not going to be Benjamin Zephaniah, and its probably not going to be anyone any of us can mention. A lot of people imagine that the suffragettes was some massive big movement, but no – it was a small group of people and in fact when it started, I think it was quite a middle class group of people sitting having a cup of tea and biscuits, saying ‘I think we should have the vote – don’t you think we deserve to vote?!’ But it was their dedication - it was a small group of dedicated people. One of my favourite sayings is that you can kill the people but you can’t kill the idea, it will spread and spread and spread.”

Zephaniah’s dream party is clearly a million miles away from the turgid banality-fest of the recent election campaign. What did he make of that spectacle?

“One of the reasons why I’m not interested in the election is that it’s all about money, it’s all about rescuing this economy. We all need money: I had to pay money to get here and to get back home, I’m going to get paid to do a gig tonight and someone’s going to ask me for money for my electricity, so we’ve all got to be realistic, we all need money. But to be driven by money alone…I used to have this wonderful children’s programme in the 70s, this Saturday morning slot called “Poems of the last man on earth” and the idea was that the seas have been polluted, the skies are polluted, no one is around, no one has survived, there’s no fish, there’s no animals, there’s only me, so I’d walk into a bank and there’s all the money in the world but what’s the point?! I’ve got no one to spend it with, there’s nowhere to spend it.

The truth is there should be a law outlawing petrol to come into effect in the next five years – completely outlaw it and find another way of doing things, because of what its doing to us. But if car sales drop by 1/2 % people panic! It’s a news item – they may lose so many jobs and the politicians have got to answer for those jobs and so on. But I’m looking at the campaigners and I’m thinking, what are they saying about us – the air we breathe? You know, the planet we live on – what are they going to do about that? Its all about money: “we can save you some money – come on vote for us”. So I may not agree with everything they say, but almost as a protest I just feel I’m going to vote for the green party. One of my criticisms of the green party was that they are a one issue party and I think they are developing out of that. In many ways they have adopted a lot of the old labour principles, they’ve kind of adopted now. But I’m not very party political because whoever gets in I’m still going to be doing the stuff that I do afterwards.”

Is voting still an important action then?

“Well, deep down, really deep down, I’m a revolutionary; I feel that this whole thing should be torn down and started again. But I just haven’t got enough people with me! And for what we have now, I would urge people to use their vote - even if that means spoiling it because the system is so stacked against us”


Dan Glazebrook can be contacted at:

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