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Freedom day and the question of non-violence

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Freedom day and the question of non-violence

Photo by Ivor Markman
Raymond Suttner

24th April 2017

By: Raymond Suttner

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It is exciting that at this time, when we mark Freedom Day, we are witnessing the revival of mass popular action, manifested in marches and other forms of organised political activity in defence of our freedom. This includes informal groups composing songs and dances, writing slogans on garbage bags and posting these with slogans on trees, in at least one of the streets in Johannesburg (which I have seen).

This graffiti and the protests relate mainly to corruption and the related question of state capture and most of the debate around removing Jacob Zuma relates to corruption and the need for integrity in any leader of the country or the ANC.

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Mass activity and popular organisation are important because one of the features of democracy that seemed to have fallen by the wayside after 1994, is that of the popular, that we, as members of the public have the right and duty to engage in political activities of a range of kinds. In the 1980s and early 1990s many people did not see their political role being confined to periodic voting.

But it is important, in wanting to remove Zuma that we are clear about what it is that he represents and what needs to be put in his place, what must be remedied to give ourselves another chance to recover the freedom we cherish.  It would be wrong to restrict the problems to corruption and the more dangerous version of graft, that of “state capture”, where state sovereignty is ceded to a family who is able to influence the course of our lives.

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At this moment it is tactically correct to mobile people around corruption as something that readily captures people’s imagination. But in focusing on one feature of the threats to democracy, important as this is, we need to keep in mind the broader character of South African society, where there are other manifestations of anti-democratic conduct.

One of the questions that are neglected, in my view, is the question of violence and non-violence as a principle. My focus here is on physical violence. I recognise the importance of discussing multiple forms of violence, including that continued denial of the basic needs of people in South Africa is also a form of violence, although it may appropriately be referred to as structural violence. It is, nevertheless, a form of violence, although not normally entailing a physical attack.

It is appropriate to return to the use of force in public life and in our daily lives, not only because it bears a crucial relationship to the possibility of freedom but also because this year marks the 50th anniversary of the death of Chief Albert Luthuli, South Africa’s first Nobel Peace Prize winner.  He was committed to non-violence and peace, but also recognised that certain conditions made resort to force, especially in self-defence necessary and justifiable. 

But once those conditions that made the use of force necessary, were removed, one could infer that the principle of non-violence needed to be restored, as an unconditional principle –from which only limited exceptions- could be permitted.

It is also necessary to return to this question because of the role of the MK Military Veterans Association (MKVA) in continually threatening violence against opponents of President Zuma, and indeed recently attacking DA protesters who caused them no harm.

Peace and non-violence have been insufficiently grounded-as principles- in South African public life and in the consciousness of the South African people. That is one of the reasons why the violence of political life and South African life in general is not sufficiently foregrounded in public discourse. Insofar as it is mentioned, it tends to be in the context of exceptional cases, like the Marikana massacre or the killing of Andries Tatane in front of television cameras, rather than as a practice that suffuses our lives.

The rise of Jacob Zuma was linked with violence of a range of types. First there was the violence of the rape trial –where a judgement that was unsatisfactory in many respects, found he was not guilty of raping Fezeka Kuzwayo (Khwezi). Outside the courtroom there were threats of violence against the complainant and when Zuma emerged from court every day he sung a militaristic song (which also bears phallic connotations) umshini wam, meaning roughly “bring me my machine gun”!

Shortly thereafter Zuma was elected president of the ANC and the organisation fought the 2009 elections with him as its leader. That election campaign saw violent attacks on the breakaway COPE movement. 

Political violence has continued as in attacks against some opponents of ANC-led government at various levels, like the shack dweller movement, Abahlali baseMjondolo in KwaZulu-Natal, whose makeshift shelters are often demolished and many of whose leaders have been attacked and murdered. Amongst many others there has also been the killing of the Pondoland Wild Coast community activist, Sikhosiphi “Bazooka” Rhadebe, who had resisted attempts by mining companies to access its titanium-rich Xolobeni coastal dunes.

To this day violence remains a major feature of South African life in general and political life has possibly become significantly more violent in recent years and some of its features have changed. 

The most significant change in the character of political violence has been the emergence of extensive intra-ANC violence.  For more than two decades violence raged between ANC (and the UDF, mainly before the ANC’s unbanning) and Inkatha supporters in KwaZulu-Natal as well as on the Witwatersrand.  Now many of the IFP warlords have been absorbed into the ANC and together with the ANC’s own warlords, killings have become a regular practice. This was seen in the local government elections in August 2016 and in the aftermath, councillors have been killed but also town managers and other officials of local government.

This is not to suggest that violence against ANC opponents has disappeared. The violence has entered the parliamentary chamber with the introduction of special security, from the South African Police Services deployed into parliament in order to remove members of the Economic Freedom Fighters, through the use of force. Although parliamentary officials unsuccessfully attempted to block television coverage, this violence is now practised in full view of the public.

Another worrying features of current political life is that a significant element within the student movement that emerged in the #Feesmustfall protests, believe that resort to violence, even when unprovoked, is legitimate. Violence is not theorised as a practice whose adoption needs to be justified and debated. There is a correct uncovering of structural inequalities that in many ways amount to commission of violence against vulnerable people. But there is not a careful and responsible discussion of when the use of physical violence is a legitimate resort. It is often depicted as redemptive and purifying.

If the country were led by people more committed to peace and non-violence it would be easier to reduce the levels not only of political violence but also of violence generally experienced by many people in the country. Insofar as the leaders themselves are politically intolerant and this is part of South African political life that too enhances the level of public tolerance for violence.

Unfortunately there is not significant inter-generational dialogue, from which earlier student cohorts used to benefit. My sense is that one of the legacies of the last 10 years is that the delegitimisation of the Zuma-led ANC has extended to delegitimisation of the struggle in general. This has meant that there are not many people from older generations, who are respected by the students, and who can bridge inter-generational gaps and act as a form of legitimate restraint.

When I say that we need to ground and foreground the principle of non-violence it is because there can be no freedom without peace. One of the reasons why there was a negotiated settlement, which has come under fire by some who are insufficiently aware of the conditions of the time, was that continued killing is not a route to a free country. In South Africa it is almost invariably the poor who experience injury or die whether in criminal violence or political violence, which is also usually criminal in a technical sense though it may relate to political affiliations.

How do we address the problem of violence?  At the moment there are few role models of a type that can help arrest the tendency to resort to violence.
There are very few heroes whose lives ought to be emulated by young people and this is one reason why violence may be seen as legitimate, since leaders practise it. We need to advance a new version of leadership, especially applicable to men since men perpetrate most violence. 

Throughout South Africa, across all population groups there is extensive resort to violence to resolve disagreements. We need to find ways of encouraging the resolution of differences between people through argument, debate and reasoning rather than superior force.

Freedom and violence cannot coexist because violence implies imposing one’s will on another. By its nature it denies the full freedom of the Other. Peace and non-violence need to become part of our discourse and instilled in people from their early years. That will make an important contribution towards consolidating democratic life.


Raymond Suttner is a scholar and political analyst. Currently he is a Part-time Professor attached to Rhodes University and an Emeritus Professor at UNISA.  He served lengthy periods in prison and house arrest for underground and public anti-apartheid activities.  His prison memoir Inside Apartheid’s prison will be reissued with a new introduction covering his more recent “life outside the ANC” and will be published by Jacana Media late in May. He blogs at raymondsuttner.com and his twitter handle is @raymondsuttner

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