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Engaging South African politics today presents ethical dilemmas

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Engaging South African politics today presents ethical dilemmas

Professor Raymond Suttner

10th June 2014

By: Raymond Suttner

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My politicisation and later involvement in the African National Congress (ANC) and South African Communist Party (SACP) did not begin with an understanding of power as a theoretical concept, nor was I conversant with high-powered analyses. 

I looked around me as a young white South African in Cape Town and saw the way black people were treated and thought this could not be right. Growing up as a Jewish South African, just after World War II, I encountered some anti-Semitism. I reasoned that if Jews objected to anti-Semitism, the way black people were treated could also not be condoned.

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My family were liberal-minded founder members of the Progressive Party, more politically aware than most people I knew.  Yet as I grew up I heard little if anything about the ANC or Communist Party although in 1962 I read Chief Albert Luthuli’s autobiography after he received the Nobel Prize.  I did not know the name [Nelson] Mandela until one day while waiting to catch the bus at the Cape Town parade I saw a notice warning people not to attend any meeting related to one Nelson Mandela, who was then operating underground.

At school I used to argue a fair amount about politics and my understanding and the positions I advanced related to my original core belief that all human beings be treated with dignity, enjoy basic rights to shelter and comfort.  I saw how whites lived and how some black people existed.  As one entered Cape Town there were ‘pondokkies’ (shacks) that still house people to this day.  While we were not wealthy I was very aware of the difference between my opportunities and those of black people.

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Without any broad theory I continued to act, as I believed a liberal should when I went to university and became involved in student politics.  Because of apartheid censorship I was not conversant with how liberalism (then found primarily in the National Union of South African Students and Liberal Party) differed from the ANC and its allies.

My road to the ANC-led liberation movement resulted from a growing sense that liberalism was not getting anywhere insofar as removing apartheid was concerned. When I went to study overseas in 1969 I decided to return and act effectively, which I understood to mean illegally.

What drew me to the ANC-led movement were not advanced theories (though I believe the Morogoro strategy and tactics document of 1969 represented very advanced analysis). I joined the liberation struggle because of the same ethical impulses that initially led me to liberalism.  As I learnt more I was impressed by the readiness of many to make great sacrifices and in some cases, offer their lives in order that South Africa be free. I was particularly impressed by the example of Bram Fischer QC, since I was then an academic lawyer and could see how he had risen to the top of his profession but chose to throw his lot in with the struggle.

Even as a liberal I believed in doing what I saw to be right and that I should be willing to make sacrifices as black people did, though I did not then appreciate the scale of sacrifice entailed. Consequently when I was recruited to work illegally I had already absorbed a willingness to offer myself in the cause of liberation. My state of mind remained what it had been as a liberal, though it was now applied in more dangerous conditions and with a different strategy.   I knew that the costs could be high and tried to prepare myself psychologically for the possibility of prison and torture that I did in fact encounter.

I mention my own story in order to indicate how I – like I think many others – came into the struggle, not as an ideologue nor as someone choosing between one or other philosophy, but because I believed that what the liberation movement stood for was humane and that it would address the way people were treated and listen to the cries of the homeless and the hungry.

At that time I understood the ANC to comprise people who represented compassion and integrity, people who had been drawn to leave whatever level of security and comfort they had in order to make all South Africans free.

Some of these people are now part of a government that bears responsibility for Marikana, denial of shelter and evictions in the middle of winter, denial of clean water and decent education to the poorest of the poor.  Some who bear responsibility for such actions were once very brave and selfless.  I struggle to understand how those who faced danger and hardship now relate callously to the extreme conditions experienced by others.

Freedom is never finally won. Consequently we need to constantly reinforce not only the institutions but also the values that motivated those who fought for freedom.  Clearly this cannot be left to the ANC alone.  It is important that a range of people in a range of sectors, including faith-based organisations, bend their efforts to recover our democratic values and institutions.

Professor Raymond Suttner, attached to Rhodes University and UNISA, is an analyst and professional public speaker on current political questions and leadership issues. He writes a regular column and is interviewed weekly on Creamer Media’s Polity.org.za. Suttner is a former political prisoner and was in the leadership of the ANC-led alliance in the 1990s. He blogs at raymondsuttner.com. His twitter handle is @raymondsuttner.

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