When Angela Davis delivered the annual Steve Biko Memorial Lecture last week she engaged with important issues about how we relate to legacies, experiences, heritages, forms of struggles and ideas of freedom. Many of these tell us how various sections of society, especially the youth and older people who were involved in previous struggles, interact with one another. It also bears on how we treat our own earlier experiences in relation to that of the present, and how those who struggle today evaluate struggles of the past and the experiences that “veterans” of these struggles draw on.
It is important that Davis showed solidarity with the various contemporary struggles – for free education, for gender equality, for freedom to exist and pursue a range of identities as human beings as black, gay, lesbian, trans, queer, differently abled, immigrant, women, men and others, many of which do not enjoy recognition and respect or adequate respect and protection in South Africa (and many other societies).
Davis made it clear that we stand where we are, with the freedom that we enjoy, because of the struggles of previous generations. Equally, she was clear that the freedom we have produced is not the freedom that activists of the past imagined, alluding amongst other things to the militaristic response to protests in post apartheid South Africa, and the unfinished business of racism, militarism, heteropatriarchy and incarceration in the United States of America.
The freedom we have, or even the freedom we sought in earlier generations of struggles (speaking in my case as a person with an ANC/SACP background), may also not be the freedom or adequately encompass the notions of freedom of the present generation of activists. They are exercising their right to imagine new freedoms that they believe need to be part of how we understand being fully human.
Equally, the masculinist character of leadership and struggle organisations - something that did not always go unchallenged in the past – is being strongly challenged by the current generation of activists, albeit with a push back of patriarchal cultures and violence of some of the students and in some university structures.
It is also important to note, as Davis indicated in reference to the 1956 women’s march, that many of today’s struggles do not operate on a clean slate. We could refer even to the earlier anti-pass march in Bloemfontein in 1913 (and other protests), when the women declared “…we have done with pleading; we now demand!” Large numbers of these women were held in very harsh conditions because they refused to pay fines.
This is an example of what Davis calls “standing on the backs” of previous generations of activists. There is no doubt, too, that the issues being raised today go well beyond that which was articulated during the struggle against apartheid, notably the elaboration of the now constitutionally entrenched freedom of sexual orientation. That right was not part of the thinking of the ANC prior to 1988, apart from pockets of LGBTIQA people, who were generally invisible, and at a relatively late stage, the members of the ANC constitutional committee drawing up constitutional proposals.
Davis is correct when she says those who are classified as veterans, who bear knowledge and experience of earlier struggles, should not impose these as forms of unquestionable and timeless insights for the present or future generations. Every person is entitled to and indeed must make their own readings of conditions they encounter at different times and strategies and tactics they consider appropriate. Of course, given changed conditions, this cannot be the same understanding as that of very different times.
But what is our responsibility towards the past, as veterans and as recently engaged young people? My view is that we need to have humility and demonstrate it in our relationships with one another. Those who wish to see an ever-unfolding freedom in South Africa are indebted to the student movement for puncturing myths of post-apartheid freedom, if we are indeed in a post apartheid condition. Notable is the myth that access to education implies that the previously white universities have in fact been opened to all. They have been opened, but as the protests demonstrated very powerfully last year, entry depends on financial resources and there is inequality in access to accommodation and other resources needed to study, including transport and food.
The students also highlighted the unreconstructed curricula, surviving from the apartheid and colonial eras. They also showed solidarity with workers servicing the universities, many of whom were outsourced and paid poverty wages.
In raising these issues the students were often met with repression that many of us thought we would never see after 1994, (although we had a foretaste of this in Marikana, and in the attacks on immigrants, shack dwellers and others). They faced this with courage in conditions that were different on various campuses. The resort to violence was not always the same and some universities had less media attention to their plight than the more “prestigious” universities.
Partly because of the differences in conditions encountered, but also because of variations in ideology, the student movement has never been a monolith. There are now deep fissures. Some of these go to the root of the gains that they have made compared with previous movements, notably in relation to the prominence of women as leaders and actors who claim their rights. There have been gains also in relation to women’s right to walk in freedom in any part of South Africa without fear of rape or any other violence. We know that that right is violated not only by individuals in authority like lecturers or people outside of campus but also from within the student movements.
My belief is that in addressing many of the issues that trouble the student movements today, they could benefit from the experience of previous generations of struggles, how they were organised, the victories they won, the defeats they suffered, how they recovered or tried to recover. In short, as Angela Davis said, insofar as the current generation stands on the shoulders of a previous generation of political actors, the lessons of that history need to be learnt. Just as we cannot erase categories of actors like women and the disabled and LGBTIQA, equally there are serious consequences attached to erasing what went before the present struggles. If the present generation do not study these struggles, are they not destined to repeat previous errors or to learn from the lessons of previous victories?
What is striking about the present is that there is very little in the way of inter-generational dialogue because many of the young people do not acknowledge or respect the struggles that precede the present, or the insights of those who were involved in those struggles. This may partly relate to the delegitimisation of the current ANC for its corruption and use of violence as an organisation and as leader of government. But there is a general absence of inter-generational dialogue, which used to be a significant feature of anti-apartheid politics. This is not new. Intergenerational solidarity and tensions have been present in most political struggles.
It is not for the veterans to impose their insights, when they have not been asked their opinion. But do the young people owe any respect to the legacies of previous generations? I do not mean that deference ought necessarily be shown, in the sense that some of us did feel that we owed deference or considerable, albeit not unconditional, respect to the Mandelas, Tambos, Sisulus, Ngoyis and many other exemplary revolutionaries of the past.
Even if one does not show deference, one needs to acknowledge and learn from what went before. When one enters a terrain of struggle, one may gain from forming some or other evaluation of what preceded one’s involvement. When I became involved in the liberation struggle, I studied the various generations of resistance from the early beginnings before Union, through the petitioning of the early ANC, to the Defiance Campaign, armed struggle and the negotiations. What I learnt from this study was the considerations that guided choices of struggle, what was possible when and how and what errors were made and how these could be avoided in the future. This had notable application to the use of force, something that arises in much of current discourse amongst the youth. The ANC was very slow to take up arms, even though people were ready to fight a decade before MK was formed. They believed that certain conditions needed to be fulfilled before they could undertake that form of struggle with mass support. Even then, there are people who still criticise that choice or the way it was implemented.
There are important issues that still confront the student movement, but the students are less unified than they were a year ago. Even then that unity was unstable. Would it not be beneficial for the students to share ideas with some older people, in the light of their experiences in earlier times? It is for the young activists to choose who they want to hear or engage with. It is entirely up to them.
For such interactions to yield results, there needs to be an agreement on terms of engagement and objectives. My suggestion would be that the first task would be to share ideas and understandings of contemporary South Africa. Are we free and how do we understand freedom? What do we need to achieve to be more fully free? What steps can be taken by students, but also what possibilities are there of alliances with other sectors in order to take these goals further? These dialogues may have implications not only for students, but also for freedom in South Africa at large.
Raymond Suttner is a scholar and political analyst. He is a former political prisoner for activities in the ANC-led liberation struggle. Currently he is a Part-time Professor attached to Rhodes University and an Emeritus Professor at UNISA. His most recent book is Recovering Democracy in South Africa (Jacana and Lynne Rienner, 2015). He blogs at raymondsuttner.com and his twitter handle is @raymondsuttner