In perverse echoes of the voyage of the SS St. Louis, a shipment of Chinese arms headed for Zimbabwe has been sent back to the motherland today, after circling the Cape of Good Hope for more than a week. The An Yue Jiang, which bore three million rounds of assault rifle ammunition, 3,000 mortar rounds and 1,500 rocket-propelled grenades--all destined to serve the whims of Robert Mugabe—was stopped cold on the docks of Durban ten days ago. Happily, civilian workers orchestrated this harbor blockade, and their union stood behind them when the ruling party did not. It’s an encouraging signal of grassroots organizing and, unlike the 1939 catastrophe, demonstrates South Africans’ keen attention to the principle of combating “injustice anywhere.” As one union organizer rightly put it: "This is a great victory for the trade union movement in particular and civil society in general in putting its foot down and saying we will not allow weapons that could be used to kill and maim our fellow workers and Zimbabweans to be transported across South Africa."
Hear, hear. But in celebrating, let’s recall that such a just, nonviolent resolution is harder than it looks. For a tense moment, the South African port workers found themselves standing up to three authoritarian forces at once—China, Zimbabwe, and ruling party leader Jacob Zuma, who made haste to set up clearances as though this were typical cargo. And though Mozambique, Namibia and Tanzania gamely refused to abet the armament, earlier this week, AFP reported that longtime Mugabe ally (and Chinese trading partner) Angola would welcome the ship.
So in essence, China could have done as it pleased; that it did not highly recommends the methodology of shame that has been put to good use regarding Chinese action in Darfur last year and is a winning strategy for this year's Olympic games. Most tyrants, of course do not shame easily (cf. Mugabe and the rumblings of a power-sharing agreement); the real agency therefore lies not with the protesters, but with we onlookers, regarding and amplifying such resistance in ways history has taught us are all too rare.