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Being a revolutionary or pursuing an emancipatory path in the “15 wasted years” – Series final part 7


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Being a revolutionary or pursuing an emancipatory path in the “15 wasted years” – Series final part 7

Raymond Suttner
Photo by Madelene Cronje
Raymond Suttner

3rd July 2023

By: Raymond Suttner


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This series was conceived as an attempt to ask what it means to be a revolutionary in South Africa, starting around 1960 with the banning of the ANC and PAC. The focus has been mainly on the ANC which I know best, though reference has been made to the contribution of other organisations or trends, notably the black consciousness movement in the period leading up to the 1976 uprising and its continued insufficiently acknowledged presence.

I have taken the word revolutionary or revolution not to necessarily entail violence. Nor do the specific words need to be used to discuss this period or the organisations that feature. The words are perhaps synonymous with being a freedom fighter (a term viewed with equal contempt by some) or being someone working for emancipation from oppression or an emancipatory path to freedom.


I argued that the meaning of the word revolutionary must change as the South African context changes and in the parts of the series that precede this, the final part, I have considered the period of illegality up until the onset of democracy after 1994.

In the aftermath of democratic elections in 1994, the type of politics in which the ANC and its allies engaged was completely different from that of the liberation Struggle days (though, of course, struggle is supposed to continue and ensure ever-expanding freedom).


And most importantly, for the considerations that I have brought to bear in this series, the popular character of the ANC is no more. With the popular element, the ideological character of the ANC, the ANC as a place of debate, has also gone and the organisation has become depoliticised. This, in my view, may have started with the unstated transition from being a liberation movement to being a conventional political party orientated towards elections. (See part six of this series).

The idea of becoming a political party was not something that passed through a decision-making process. And it is not publicly acknowledged that the ANC has moved away from being a liberation movement. Some people may say it is still that, but the truth of the matter is that much of the advice that the ANC received after its unbanning in 1990, and what suited many people, was that the relationship between the masses, the people, and the ANC itself was not to be what it had been during the Struggle years.

There would be a certain distance between the ANC and its followers. But the ANC had to be elected and for that it needed its members and followers. Their role would no longer incorporate an element of independent action in determining their specific role where they were located. They became electoral organisers or observers of what was going on in politics, complaining or approving but in recent times more often complaining with little effect.

That was already in motion in the period of both Nelson Mandela and Thabo Mbeki, but the rise of Jacob Zuma exacerbated problems by, on the one hand, becoming leader of the ANC in the aftermath of a rape trial.

The trial was conducted on the side of Zuma’s defence and his supporters outside the court room, in a manner which repudiated gains that had been made in terms of gender equality, and manifested cruelty towards the complainant, Fezekile Ntsukela Kuzwayo, who used the pseudonym “Khwezi”. The case shocked many people. But not the leaders of the ANC-led alliance. Among the leadership of the ANC/SACP/Cosatu alliance were many who were known as feminists, but they were silent.

Zuma’s conduct was also militaristic in that every day after the court hearing, he and his followers would sing the song, Umshini wam, broadly meaning, “bring me my machine gun”. The machine gun is a phallic symbol, but in this case, it may also have evoked a certain resentment that some may have felt about negotiations, at the failure to have the supposed opportunity to defeat the enemy on the battlefield. This is something which in my view was not possible, but something which was not agreed on with adequate consultations, and the militarism of Zuma may have fed into the residual resentment and the continued high tolerance of violence. (See part five of this series and see also Raymond Suttner “Power and ANC masculinities: the Jacob Zuma rape trial,” 2009 Nordic review of feminism and gender studies, 222-236.)

The corruption of the Zuma period was already foreshadowed in the court case concerning his financial adviser, Schabir Shaik. Shaik, a member of a family that had played a significant role in the liberation Struggle, was convicted of fraud, and much of this related to his dealings with Zuma. Zuma was not in Shaik’s trial. However, when judgment was delivered, the court found that Shaik and Zuma were in a relationship that entailed passing of wealth to Zuma for reasons that could not be explained on a contractual or other legal basis. (For the extent of these handouts see Jeremy Gordin, Zuma. A biography, 2008, Chapter 9).

There were a whole lot of charges against Zuma that were formulated in relation to corruption in the arms deal and other factors when eventually brought to court. But on the eve of his ascendancy to the state presidency, the charges were dropped (against the opposition of prosecutors in the case, Wim Trengove SC and Billy Downer SC). But later in his presidency after litigation, the charges were reinstated. At this point in time that trial has not yet started due to delays initiated by Zuma.

The Zuma period was one where corruption was rife, on a scale that was different from individuals’ stealing or bypassing rules, but described as “State Capture”. The Gupta family - who had immigrated from India - through their contact with Zuma and others close to him had access to the state and sufficient influence to determine who would become directors general or CEOs and hold other important positions in the state.

People who were unsympathetic to the State Capture project were often dismissed or sidelined. Sometimes the Guptas knew about appointments before they were made or told those who were to become ministers that it was to happen.

The problem of the Zuma period was not simply that money was stolen. This money was stolen from the fiscus and was meant to better the lives of the people of South Africa.

The ANC had been an organisation which at the height of its popularity was very close to the sentiments of the oppressed. There was an almost familial link with the ANC where people would pray every night for the leaders on Robben Island, in exile, and those who were fighting the Struggle inside the country.

In the case of the spending for improvements to then-President Zuma’s home in Nkandla, that funding was diverted from that intended for poverty relief to make a palatial home for the president.

That this could happen was partly because of the general depoliticisation that developed in the ANC even during the Mbeki period, limiting the extent to which ANC membership signified debate and contestation over ideas and political direction, related, as suggested, to the organisation becoming an electoral party.

When the scandal of the Nkandla spending came to Parliament, many of the leading intellectuals of the ANC - some of whom are still in leading positions in government - lent the weight of their intellectual skills and understanding to defending the spending on Nkandla.


Nkandla is emblematic of betrayal that marked the entire Zuma period and continues under Ramaphosa. If the word revolution is used - and former President Thabo Mbeki uses the word “counter-revolution” to signify reversal of revolutionary gains - that would mean, by my reading, that it is the erstwhile revolutionaries, those who were trusted to bring about and safeguard the revolution and freedom, who have become “counter-revolutionaries” by betraying the hard-won freedom. (

The word betrayal needs to be used cautiously because it can appear to be sanctimonious in the eyes of other people. However, my understanding is that if we speak of betrayal, we presuppose commitment. That commitment was made by the cadres, leaders and members of the ANC towards the oppressed people of South Africa, (who remain oppressed today). They were joined together as one, the futures of the freedom fighters were tied to that of the oppressed people of South Africa. They were willing to give their lives to free South Africa. And that was why the ANC was loved by the people.

When the ANC stole money and, in the case of ANC intellectuals, rationalised the stealing of money, money meant to address the plight of the poor, that constituted a rupturing of the connection between the oppressed people and the ANC. And that was betrayal of the trust accorded to the ANC.

There was a large measure of resistance to the Zuma pillage in his later years by business, professionals, religious and various other public figures and there was a strong sentiment that he had to be removed. Cyril Ramaphosa, who had been his deputy president throughout much of this looting, became president of the country declaring it to be a “new dawn” and a period of “renewal”.

In fact, it has been a continuation of what has been called the “wasted years” of Zuma - instead of just 10, taking the five years of Ramaphosa to become “15 wasted years” - insofar as that is an adequate way of describing what has happened.

The period of Ramaphosa has also seen violence against the people during the Covid-19 outbreak, callousness in the way in which the state of disaster was managed at the expense of the people, callousness in how other disasters were managed, for example, the distribution of assistance to people in the wake of the KwaZulu-Natal floods, where those charged with distributing assistance stole some of the public goods for themselves. The then-Premier and Chair of the ANC in KwaZulu-Natal, Sihle Zikalala, had a water tank delivered to his home instead of it going according to plan to the most needy people in eThekwini. Zikalala, far from being shunned for his conduct, has been rewarded and is now a national minister.

As with the Zuma period, there has been widespread violence and corruption. Few if any people have been charged over assaults and killings during the Covid State of Disaster, some of which were captured on film. It has been extensively covered how the need to procure medical facilities to address the Covid pandemic led to extensive fraud, running into billions of rands. Exposure of these scams is dangerous, as seen in the assassination of whistle blower Babita Deokaran.

Disasters and abuse are everywhere - water pollution has led to a range of needs not being met for some who cannot access water tanks, where provided, or afford bottled water. There is also a cholera outbreak, whose cause and effects have not yet been adequately addressed.

How does one act out being a revolutionary/freedom fighter today?

These abuses need further elaboration, but at this point, we need to return and ask: If one is still a revolutionary, still a freedom fighter, someone fighting for an emancipatory route for South Africa, how does one pursue this in the “15 Wasted Years”, of continued pillage.

From the Zuma period into the present, with apparently no possibility of rebuilding the ANC into an organisation that cares for the people and no alternative political party electorally that can be looked to for an answer, what does one do?

My belief is that we need to build a new coalition of forces, not to displace electoralism, because elections are a hard-won gain, and people are entitled to continue to vote for people of their choice.

But there needs to be some form of organised power to buttress democratic rights, to ensure that there is pressure to ensure that these rights are realised and carried out by elected representatives, and that there is government in the interests of the people.

We need to build a new political alliance and that must comprise sectors that I and many others would previously not have counted on. I would put at the centre business as a key player, which is possibly the most powerful and coherent force in the country today. But it is also a player that has an interest in ending violence and corruption, an interest in opposing State Capture, and ending irregularity and ensuring that the law is observed.

That coalition of forces should also include professional people, faith-based people, people who perform charitable activities on a significant scale like Gift of the Givers, but also the very many people who are doing this on a smaller scale.

There are a range of popular organisations that are relatively small, with the exception of Abahlali baseMjondolo and the Amadiba Crisis Committee and one or two others. These must of course also be drawn into such a coalition and strengthened by developing other grassroots forces.

The unions are in crisis, but they need to be reinvigorated and still be part of this recovery. And there must be a way of drawing them in that ensures that they become party to a broad programme that is negotiated for this coalition.

The problem is not one of doctrine

The crisis that we confront today will not be resolved by repeating the words “neoliberalism” or “socialism” or “national democratic revolution”, or even by access to Marx, Engels, Lenin or if readers prefer John Stuart Mill or Edmund Burke and other texts that may guide their thinking.

The problem we face is not one of doctrine. It’s not one of returning to the original texts that were to guide us in performing transformation in the country and even the world at large.

The problem we face is one of callousness, of indifference, lack of empathy and compassion, not caring about the plight of the poor and the oppressed in the country.

The remedy for this is not to return to texts, but to a sense of responsibility, of solidarity, of mutuality - in other words caring for and about one another and not just averting one's gaze from the suffering of the poor in the country. We need to find ways of lending our weight towards remedying their conditions.

That was once what we would have expected from the ANC and the Communist Party and the trade unions. To a large extent that has now evaporated.

I’m not suggesting that no one in the ANC, SACP or Cosatu cares about the poor and the marginalised. But the overwhelming sense of political ethos and direction in the country today is one of coldness and complete lack of concern for those who are suffering. That must be remedied.

For believers, there can be some recourse to religious texts that can inform or buttress that compassion. For those who are freedom fighters, we have many examples of people’s lives to draw on. We have many examples of texts and statements and ways of living from the giants of other struggles and our own. The Walter and Albertina Sisulus, the Nelson Mandelas, the Ruth Firsts, the Chris Hanis and many others acted out their lives in a way that can guide us in the future.

That's not to suggest that any of or many of us can become the giants to whom I've referred, but we can learn from them. And we can learn from them beyond merely citing them dishonestly as if they are the inspiration for the wrongdoing that is being done, which has no intention of remedying the problem.

The solution lies in a change in how we relate to one another (admittedly, part of Marxist doctrine, Christianity and other doctrines) in the sense, that we care about one another and that what happens to other people becomes important to all of us.

The concept of ubuntu (derived from a proverb) is given more than one meaning, but it is often used to refer to mutual solidarity and we need to ensure that it is deployed to mean that, and not used by the same people who commit injustice.

We must ensure that words like ubuntu and others are given a meaning that is truly liberatory and transformatory and assists to lift people out of the poverty, the human-made poverty, the dehumanising conditions that comprise their daily lot.

That is where we must look -to ourselves and our own relationship to others, especially those who are experiencing pain - that is where we must search for a revolutionary role today.

Raymond Suttner is an Emeritus Professor at the University of South Africa and a Research Associate in the English Department at University of the Witwatersrand. He served lengthy periods as a political prisoner. His writings cover contemporary politics, history, and social questions. His twitter handle is @raymondsuttner.


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