What type of politics do we have and what do we need for every citizen to feel that he or she belongs in this country and contributes to the shape of its present and future? In this phraseology one is speaking of a politics where we do not simply wait for government to do things, to “deliver.” This is not a deep philosophical question that must be posed to scholars of Plato and Aristotle but concerns our own existence and how we make government and fellow citizens relate to one another in a meaningful and constructive manner.
It becomes more urgent to revisit such questions in the light of our emerging, haltingly, from a period where our present and future has been stolen from us by forces who have robbed what belongs to us and diverted it to private benefit. It is needed in the light of the violence of the past and the present and the need to remedy this if we want to build a country where all live in peace with one another. It is needed in the light of some with power of various types, not just state power, defining cultural norms in ways that suppress identities of some or freeze the meaning of others in ways that constitute patterns of oppression and barriers to self-realisation.
It is important that we do not assume that what we have, the predominance of party politics and contesting elections as the only possible way of political self-realisation. That way of pursuing politics consigns us, the citizens to a relatively passive role, in between periodic moments of voting. That is not to say that electoral politics need be conducted in only one way, with efforts geared only towards electing representatives. The emergence of the Jeremy Corbyn phenomenon in the UK constitutes a recovery and rebuilding of the popular element within the Labour Party, now the largest or one of the largest parties in Europe. The election of Corbyn as leader was condemned by some leaders of Labour as choosing someone who was “unelectable” in the sense of becoming a future Prime Minister of the UK. The way in which Labour has fared since then has proved this to be wrong in the sense that Corbyn could well win elections, based on a massively expanded Labour Party membership that sees itself as an activist base.
More importantly for what is being considered here, is that the Corbyn phenomenon, like the movement around Bernie Sanders in the US and the Podemos movement in Spain, represent the resurgence of popular politics. Along with this reinvigoration of conventional party politics we have seen the emergence of a range of social movements that have entered powerfully into public discourse and practices. Here one thinks of #BlackLivesMatter and #MeToo, originating in the USA but finding resonance in other countries, including South Africa.
Of course, in South Africa, we have a range of new organisations related to the #FeesMustFall movement but there are others less prominently in the public eye like Abahlali baseMjondolo, Equal Education and the Rural Women’s Movement. We have a well-established trade union movement, which is regrettably divided and weakened and civics which are generally not as strong as they were a few decades back. Many people engaged in protest activities aimed at the resignation of Jacob Zuma. Regrettably, this did not, as far as I am aware, lead to any enduring social movements.
During the struggle against apartheid a range of organisations built unity, often painstakingly organised in a range of locations and sectors, in order to defeat the divisive and oppressive practices and ideologies of apartheid.
There were diverse notions of unity and these were contested not only with the oppressors but also amongst the oppressed and their allies. There was not one anti-apartheid struggle or one liberation struggle, although the ANC emerged as the numerically pre-eminent force in that struggle. That was a time when the ANC enjoyed considerable moral sway because of the trust it had earned through sacrifices made in order that all could be free. That was a time when the ANC had a cohesive presence, representing definite ideas of what was envisaged for the future and operating with agreed strategies and tactics.
The way the struggle was conceived understood people to operate in a range of sites of action. Some pursued struggle through mass action, where that was not suppressed. Some engaged in legal struggle where there were loopholes that could be exploited or where rights came under threat that could be combatted by attempting to seek protection from courts. Some worked in secret underground work and many of these were engaged in armed struggle. There was not one underground or armed struggle, although the ANC’s MK was the strongest. Some engaged in international solidarity work, either in seeking that support from South Africa or as residents of other states finding ways to assist those living under apartheid
The post-apartheid period raises the notion of unity in the same way as before but also in different ways. With the consolidation of the ANC as the dominant force after 1990 and the leading force in government, the popular aspect of the ANC base was downgraded, for many conceived the primary role as being to ensure that the organisation won elections. What was primary, gradually became the almost exclusive way of conceiving ANC led politics, for most branches saw themselves existing to ensure ANC electoral victories.
In recent times there has been much talk of preserving unity within the ANC, whose power and support is now under threat. What is the character of the unity that exists or is sought? Is it ideological unity? Or ethical unity? Or is it unity in order to see the passing of legislation or other actions of government? There was a time when there was a fairly clear idea of what was understood by being in the “Congress movement”, that is being part of the ANC-led movement. It was a notion of cohesion binding a range of people who shared values and understandings.
That unity and cohesion has taken a battering with the omnipresence of corruption not only in government but also within the ANC itself, from the lowest levels where membership is often “bought”, to the top, where corruption has been more lucrative.
If we wish to realise an emancipatory politics that encompasses the popular at the centre, that is, not merely electoral politics but the involvement of all who have interests that they wish to see advanced, defended and realised in the current situation -then we have to conceive our politics differently from the past, not only the politics of the ANC but also extending wider than the notions of politics of formations like the UDF.
The type of unity that was built to defeat apartheid needed to offer a solid, united and apparently homogenous bloc of opponents to batter the enemy. In the present we cannot simply stress unity as an undifferentiated goal in order to realise our political aspirations. In the 24 years since the onset of democracy and ever since the unbanning of organisations in 1990, a range of interests some of which did not find organisational expression or adequate expression within liberation movements or liberation alliances have manifested themselves as important presences within the way in which politics is conceived.
At this moment there is considerable contestation over expropriation of land as one of the ways of addressing continued inequalities. Here as well, those without land need to be understood as being located in a range of ways, with different needs, identities and resources that have a bearing on why it is that different claimants need land and how best such redistribution needs to be effected.
That process cannot be resolved by legislation or parliamentary processes alone. It would be very important if this were seen as one way of opening up the space for democratic debate and contestation.
But the scope of the political needs to go beyond bread and butter issues and also understand that people see themselves in a range of ways that were not adequately appreciated in earlier periods. The first clause of the Freedom Charter reads, “The People Shall Govern!” and to realise that aspiration, a range of efforts were made towards aggregating, bringing together as one, all the components who were understood to comprise the people. What we now need is to aggregate but also disaggregate, understanding the range of different ways in which people see themselves and experience life today.
It is undoubtedly true that the immediate focus of government and citizens must be to defend and strengthen public institutions, from the level of the government but also as citizens, to not collude in any way in the irregularities that have become so widespread.
This is essentially action to recover what has been damaged and lost at the level of state functioning. But the concern of this article is mainly with how we revive our political life and our democratic imaginations.
Any emancipatory project must focus not only on building democracy in a broad sense, but it must understand the “people” in all the ways they manifest themselves and with all the problems they encounter, as black and white, different components within these, comprising not only ethnic identities, but diverse genders and sexualities. A politics that does not tackle the violent masculinities that characterise our society is often an intimidatory politics and the ones at the receiving end are often those who do not conform to heteropatriarchal notions of gender and sexuality.
South Africa, especially ANC-led politics and broader civic involvement in public life needs to be repoliticised -to debate issues that matter to people’s lives. But it also needs to be a politics which simultaneously unifies and recognises that which is different, drawing the various strands of people into the project of (re)building our democracy.
In order to achieve this there need to be efforts to strengthen popular organisations. There are limits to what a president or cabinet can do to correct the wrongs of the past or even drive some necessary policies related to the present. Connections need to be made between those who are located outside of government and what is happening in government. Being located outside in one or other organisation can provide impetus towards facilitating a route that can lead to an emancipatory outcome, that can benefit all South Africans.
Raymond Suttner is a scholar and political analyst. He is a visiting professor and strategic advisor to the Dean of the Faculty of Humanities, University of Johannesburg, a professor attached to UNISA and (until the end of March) Rhodes University. He served lengthy periods in prison and house arrest for underground and public anti-apartheid activities. His most recent book Inside Apartheid’s prison was reissued in 2017. He blogs at raymondsuttner.com and his twitter handle is @raymondsuttner