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ANC legacies? Retrieving and deploying emancipatory values today

Professor Raymond Suttner
Photo by Ivor Markman
Professor Raymond Suttner

5th July 2016

By: Raymond Suttner


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For many decades and for many people, the name “ANC” conjured up selflessness, sacrifice in the service of the oppressed people of South Africa and the meaning of freedom itself. People bent every effort to link themselves with the message of the ANC. They risked police attention and possible arrest by listening to the ANC broadcasts on Radio Freedom, beamed from Lusaka and other African states in the period of illegality. They read any scrap of paper or document or listened to any message broadcast from the ANC in exile, for the organisation represented their hope for freedom. It enjoyed great legitimacy and authority in the imagination of very many South Africans.

Despite longstanding loyalty, the ANC has now come to represent something very different in the eyes of many of those who previously attached so much weight to what it said and the ideas it advanced. Remnants of the liberation ethos are sometimes invoked in order to link the ANC to the heroes of the past.


In reality, insofar as the ANC associates itself with the values of the liberation struggle, it is through its role as the leading party in government. In this context, the ANC-led government positioned itself as the deliverer of “a better life for all”, and as the party that is committed to improve the lives of the majority of the South African people. This represents a paradigm shift away from a movement that worked together with people as direct actors in the cause of liberation with meaningful participation in the decision-making and processes concerning their lives and future. 

The notion of the ANC-led government as the deliverer of services has rendered people passive recipients of the promised “better life”.


Increasingly, it has become evident that the ANC-led government is unable or unwilling to honour the commitments made to the people. In these actions or omissions, it has failed to address or has attacked the wellbeing of the poorest of the poor, which is paradoxically their own core electoral constituency. This is not due to a lack of resources, but rather to a combination of factors including an inability to reconcile what the ANC-led government professes to be its commitment to the people of South Africa, especially the poor, with its mal-governance, which has resulted in the political and social crises of our times. In consequence, reports of widespread protest have become a common feature in daily news. 

The government has failed in its response to community anger, to discuss problems in the context of shared values enshrined in the constitution. In fact, the ANC-led government has undermined the constitution and rights-bearing legal system. It has been seen to attack the very principles for which the freedom struggle was waged.

It has drowned the struggles of the people of Marikana in blood. With stark insensitivity, it has never made an unqualified apology to the nation or to the families of those who lost lives in Marikana or admitted what it has done or named it for what it was - a massacre.

Shortly after 1994, a conscious effort was made to demilitarise the police. They have now been remilitarised, and not only through reintroduction of the language of militarism. Their licence to “to shoot to kill” has been used literarily against those who demand a life with dignity, as well as in less politically charged contexts. There has been a significant number of extra-judicial police killings and those seeking remedies often face missing files and dockets and other attempts to cover up criminality.

The ANC-led government has not hesitated to contract and employ former apartheid-era security police and other operatives of that period as consultants or to appoint them to high office in, for example, Crime Intelligence, whose head General Richard Mdluli, is currently suspended and facing charges. Many have shown themselves unworthy to wear the uniform of the police service of a democratic state. 

There was a time when people would point to the exemplary character of leaders of the ANC as models of conduct for others to follow. Many of today’s leaders cannot be that. How many conduct themselves in a manner to which one can point and say to a child “that is how you should be when you grow up”?

If the ANC and its allies are no longer credible models of integrity, it is not surprising that many people doubt whether the struggle did in fact comprise the heroism with which it is conventionally celebrated by the ANC and beyond. We now know that there was a place called Quatro, in Angola, where people were tortured and that other abuses were committed elsewhere. There is also a growing record of other deviations from the tasks of liberation towards personal enrichment and other irregular objectives.

Some have long predicted that the struggle was or would become abusive. The liberation struggle has always been a species of criminality in the eyes of those who kept “clean” by playing no part. But often, with very little evidence, they demonised what was done by the ANC, the UDF and others who joined to free South Africa.

In truth, the liberation struggle was primarily a story of young and older lives put to the service of freedom. Some have not lived to see the fruits of their efforts. Many selflessly gave all in order that we could be free. 

The honourable legacies of that period have been outweighed in the minds of many in present-day South Africa by the activities of scoundrels. The delegitimation of the ANC and the struggle has created a moral vacuum. In place of the values that participants in the struggle imbibed and to which they encouraged other participants to adhere, space has been opened for modes of conduct that are neither people-centred nor responsive to communities and their longings.

Whatever else may be said of the struggle, it cannot be denied that it comprised political activities standing in a relationship to communities. Issues were taken up that mattered to people living under oppressive conditions. The ANC’s military wing, uMkhonto we Sizwe (MK), chose targets that represented institutions and authorities that had been especially harsh to local communities. Thus, one of the first attacks by MK was on a police station in Soekmekaar because of its connection with forced removals.

The UDF focused its struggles on injustices committed against communities and, with variations depending on the strength of organisation and the powers of repression, continually referred back to these people, whose cause was represented.

A limited number of new social movements like Abahlali baseMjondolo have emerged in the vacuum and stay in close touch with their members. This type of development needs to be encouraged and advanced more widely.

At an ideological level, many offer commentary and advice through various media, but operating as independent individuals. What is absent from much commentary and needed today is some injection of liberatory, emancipatory and empowering values in the broadest sense. They are needed also in relationship with and bearing a sense of responsibility to the communities about whom they are writing. 

Are there not values from the struggle that need to be retrieved, albeit with some reinterpretation in the light of what we have learnt and how our understandings may have been enriched? These struggle values refer generally to all those who contributed towards a collective strength that was pitted against the apartheid regime, whatever their political tendency and whether they were political organisations or faith-based or civic bodies, organised labour or other sectors. What are these values? How can they help build a bridge between those with voices and the voiceless? These are some of the values that come to mind:

Selflessness. There was a belief in joining the struggle that one’s own needs should and would be subordinated to the broader needs of liberation, affecting many, many individuals beyond oneself. This notion of selflessness could be taken to mean erasure of the self. But the way many understood this was as a way of realising the individual in a deeply divided society through joining his or her life to the suffering of the poor and oppressed communities from which most cadres would have derived. The individual understood self-realisation socially, through an interrelationship with others, as being connected to what was wider than his or her own individual needs.

While commitment of the individual to the collective was not intended to erase the individual and his or her needs, the rigours of struggle did often mean that individual needs for inter-personal love and emotional fulfilment had to be postponed or were never realised. (Che Guevara and others have talked about a distinct conception, that of, “revolutionary love” and “love for the people”, driving freedom fighters. See discussion in Raymond Suttner, The ANC Underground, Jacana and Lynne Rienner, 2008, pages 138-142).

But the connection to the collective was enriching in a society that was riven by division. By joining the wider collective struggling for freedom, an individual was able to break from the shackles of apartheid group divisions, join others in a wider emancipatory quest and in so doing free himself or herself in some respects. In some ways, this involvement helped make people into “whole” human beings in a society intent on fragmentation and division.

Humility. The struggle for freedom demanded humility. One had to learn from the oppressed in order to join with them in freeing themselves. One could not assume one knew what they needed, but had to hear this from their own lips and understand it and insofar as one advanced a vision, express it in their own idioms. The liberation struggle was not a place for “know-it-alls”.

Modesty was needed because no matter how many university degrees one may have acquired or how many books one had read, there was a knowledge one did not have. It was held only by those who experienced oppression first hand, sometimes in places whose names do not appear on maps. They could teach those willing to learn what they (the oppressed) had in their heads and had learnt over time.

But modesty was a quality that was encouraged more widely in that inflated egos were inimical to working together with others. And working together was what was needed then, as it is needed now.

Listening.  Humility and modesty were manifested through listening to the oppressed. It is said of all the great leaders that they spent time listening to people. Leaders would take time before offering advice because the consequences would not be borne by the person offering the advice, but by those who acted it out.

Respect for other human beings. The oppressed people were not merely those in whose name one acted, but human beings who were owed respect. It was precisely the denial of respect for their humanity by the apartheid regime that was one of the reasons why liberation movements existed.

Responsibility. When acting out their role in relation to those who were suffering, whether from poverty, police or other forms of oppression, freedom fighters had to act with responsibility. They had to be aware that what they did ought to make a positive difference to their lives and that they had to be accountable for their actions

Popular self-empowerment. Increasingly, the ANC came to emphasise the importance of self-empowerment, of communities taking on tasks that would contribute to their own freedom. They were encouraged not to rely on the ANC or its army to do this, but to find ways of demonstrating their own power.

These are some of the values that one can derive from unpacking the ethos of the struggle against apartheid, at its best.  These values may still have meaning and significance for us, today. These emancipatory qualities could be retrieved and built on through connections with people in communities and with organisations that are linked with communities. Interpretation and analysis informed by such connections would be more meaningful and could better help empower communities to alleviate and remove the various forms of oppression currently experienced.

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 professor attached to Rhodes University and UNISA and his most recent book is Recovering Democracy in South Africa (Jacana and Lynne Rienner, 2015). He blogs at and his twitter handle is @raymondsuttner


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