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Betraying the liberation struggle: ANC ‘renewal’ is empty and we already have an alternative vision for South Africa


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Betraying the liberation struggle: ANC ‘renewal’ is empty and we already have an alternative vision for South Africa

Professor Raymond Suttner
Photo by Madelene Cronje
Professor Raymond Suttner

21st June 2022

By: Raymond Suttner


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The ANC has betrayed the oppressed people of South Africa, with whom it once enjoyed a close relationship of trust. Talk of renewal is empty, with the main features of the Zuma period continuing. But those who look to democratic reconstruction agree on a key element for that - the power of the Constitution, and that must be restored.

Why I speak of and how I understand betrayal is influenced by my reading of feminist theology and ethics and liberation theology, where a lot of emphasis is placed on the notion of connectedness.


Put into the context of the liberation struggle, the ANC formed a connection with the oppressed people of South Africa. Its leading figures and rank and file derived almost entirely from the oppressed.

Many grew up seeing their parents humiliated or their family moved out of their homes or other forms of repression and indignity. When they joined the ANC during the struggle, it sometimes derived from study and debate. But those who joined also had to prepare themselves for the dangers entailed and the possibility of arrest, torture and death.


In a sense, they put their bodies and their lives at the service of the struggle for freedom. And that struggle was the embodiment of what had meaning for them, a primary meaning in their lives.

When whites joined as freedom fighters, they went beyond acts of solidarity. They did not already have a connection with the oppressed people of South Africa. They had to establish that connection and in forming that connection, they did more than intellectually or morally identify with the liberation struggle.

They and their black brothers and sisters formed a bond, and it was partly based on understanding of the direction that the realisation of freedom had to take. But simultaneously, they embodied an emotional response to the experiences of the oppressed in the case of whites and in the case of those who emerged from the oppressed, they were in the struggle, because they continued to feel the pain of their mothers and fathers, brothers, and sisters and others who they did not know, who experienced apartheid, like their kinsfolk.

It was not simply an exercise in logic whereby one distinguished between right and wrong by virtue of certain theories that were drawn on. It was also a sense that one identified with and felt passion over the pain that the poor experienced under apartheid.

That could be witnessed in the way Chris Hani used to speak - accessible, explaining very complicated ideas in an idiom that all could understand. But there was also passion when he said, “We have always lived the ANC in our camps. We have dreamt about the ANC. There was no other life for us except the African National Congress. Let us make it a strong organisation. Let us build our [Communist] Party because it is the alliance of the ANC and the Party which made the army what it is.” (Extract from an undated speech of Chris Hani addressing an MK camp in exile, transcribed from a video given to me by Zeph Makgetla, formerly head of the ANC video unit.)

It was not an act of solidarity on the part of whites, as in “standing with” or “in support of” the oppressed but being with them in the same trenches. The notion of solidarity was less applicable to black people than to whites. Not every oppressed person took this step but those who did were determined to ensure a “better life” for all, no matter what it cost them

A small but significant number of whites threw themselves into the liberation struggle, and some like Bram Fischer, Ruth First, Rick Turner and Neil Aggett gave their lives during the struggle to free our country.

Something has gone “terribly wrong”. It is correct to suggest that the ANC (and its allies) betrayed the oppressed. The act of joining the ANC entailed a commitment, by forming a bond with the oppressed, linking the fate of the organisation with the people whose freedom and dignity it pledged itself to secure.

This connection with the oppressed during the post-apartheid period, notably in the Jacob Zuma presidency and the post -Zuma period, has been ruptured.

In the case of the rise of Zuma, it was known that there were credible allegations of corruption against him. In his rape trial the leadership of the whole ANC-led alliance danced and sang in his support while the complainant was battered in court, one of the most shameful moments in ANC/SACP/Cosatu history, for which little responsibility has been taken. In other words, individuals may now disassociate themselves from Zuma corruption but not admit anything wrong in their pillorying of the rape complainant Fezekile Ntsukela Kuzwayo, referred to as “Khwezi”.

In the notorious Nkandla “improvements”, money was diverted from what was intended for relief of poverty towards financing the luxurious home of then President Zuma.

Many people who were high in the ranks of the ANC/SACP and government leadership joined in defending the Nkandla spending.

In a sense, they turned their back on everything they had stood for in earlier years. In other scandals, it emerged that some who had been very brave at one point of their lives, engaged in stealing, in irregular tenders or a range of other malpractices.

Some who have not yet come before the courts who are alleged to have been involved in crooked deals were deployed in Lesotho with Chris Hani. And in Lesotho, people will know it was a life-and-death situation from day to day. A person could be a comrade who was with you and the next day wiped out by the apartheid regime.

Some who were in such situations have subsequently betrayed the ideals for which they stood in the struggle by stealing from the state, the state which was created to better the life of the poor. This is something we need to try to understand (not condone, just grapple with), for it was the state they had previously struggled to create. How did this happen to so many?

My use of the word betrayal is not as an emotive word. It is a description of a pattern of conduct by the ANC in general, and individuals, mainly in the leadership of the ANC, which is an accurate description of what happened in the Zuma and post- Zuma period. But my belief is that it was not a totally new phenomenon.

Abuse before Zuma?

I don't want to suggest that everything was in order before Zuma became president of South Africa. I think there is a problem with some of the statements of stalwarts and veterans in that they imply that if we turned the clock back to the “real ANC”, the “ANC that we know”, we will restore something that was pure and free of abuse. According to this version, all we need do is return to what existed at a certain point in time.

In the 1980s there were allegations of torture at Quatro, the ANC detention centre in Angola and other abuses. I didn't believe these at the time, because I thought that the persons who made these claims were not necessarily reliable.

About 20 years ago however, a man approached me. I knew him though we had not worked together. He wanted to speak to me. He didn't mind my recording it. I was already then doing interviews for a book I was preparing on the ANC underground.

But he didn't talk about that. He told me that one day he was arrested -without any reason that he knew of and taken to Quatro and was beaten up repeatedly. One of the people who was involved in the torture was, at the time of our discussion, a public representative. And he subsequently went on to be appointed to other posts.

The man who was tortured was released, and - as with his arrest - for no reason that he understood. He was so loyal to the ANC that when his wife asked where he had been, he said "I was on a mission.”

What I know about the person who was involved in torturing this man and continued to hold offices that were prestigious and entailed high earnings, is a pattern that I suspect may have been repeated. The ANC did not always deal with wrongdoers, especially if they were held in high regard or held high office.

The organisation may have calculated that it was better to suppress knowledge of the wrongdoing, which would undermine the standing of the organisation and the morale of its members, than to come clean.

Consequently, within the ranks of the ANC before the Zuma era we may have had some people who were already wrongdoers in practising torture against others. There were other malpractices which I've heard about which have been confirmed to me by people who witnessed these regarding the missions of MK where certain leaders asked MK operatives to take risks and do things for them in the country that were not part of their MK mission. This is what one hears, but it has never been officially addressed or confirmed.

Can the ANC renew itself?

From the time of Cyril Ramaphosa’s election as ANC and State President, there has been talk of renewing the ANC and the state, ridding it of corruption and other abuses. Without repeating what was written last week, there are more continuities with the Zuma era than ruptures and there remains a scandalous situation, begun in the Zuma period, where acts of criminality and illegality have become normative, enjoying in practice a higher status than the Constitution and the law of the land. (See: There is no sign of this changing, as the president himself may well have broken laws in the aftermath of the Phala Phala burglary.

Is there an alternative?

It is very common among governments that have overstayed their welcome to suggest that there is no alternative to themselves. It is usually the refuge of reactionary governments.

And people who do not see a way out of the present in South Africa often lapse into a mood of depression and disillusionment. This response engenders a form of paralysis regarding any alternative to that under which South Africans suffer.

The ANC's suggestion that there is no alternative to themselves may have an element of truth at an electoral level, even though that has been severely dented, and they are unlikely to receive 50% of the vote in the next election.

It is true that there is not yet a powerful force that can combine all those who suffer under post-apartheid oppression or have a roof over their heads or have a job or who cannot conduct their professions, their businesses, their studies.

It is true that there's not yet a powerful force that can combine all these people and make the power of their numbers and their weight in various sectors count in some organised formation.

But it's a start to know and say that what is happening today is unacceptable. But beyond that, we do have an alternative, we do already agree on key elements of the alternative.

We may not at this point in time have an organised force that can drive the alternative programme for the future of South Africa. But we do already have a Constitution that is widely accepted as the basis for regulating our lives and embodies the aspirations of all the oppressed and is generally accepted by most South Africans.

When one already has a unifying vision, one is by no means powerless!

This is not an exaggeration, because if you look at that Constitution it is comparable to human rights documents throughout the world. But it's also both universal and distinctly South African in the issues it covers.

So insofar as people are depressed or disillusioned, it's important that we encourage them and others who are suffering under the current situation or frustrated in trying to do their business as big or small capital or middle classes, encourage them by saying we already have a unifying vision, a programme for restoring our democratic life. That programme is the law of the land.

Unfortunately, under Zuma, and the successors of Zuma, that law has been jettisoned in many respects by lawlessness of the so-called representatives of the people. So, it's an important start that we have -this alternative that ought to be the prevailing norm, the Constitution of the country. Our task is to rally people behind that and other unifying questions with a view to ending the current destructive drift.

Raymond Suttner is an emeritus professor at the University of South Africa. He served lengthy periods in prison and house arrest for underground and public anti-apartheid activities. His writings cover contemporary politics, history, and social questions, especially issues relating to identities, violence, gender and sexualities. His twitter handle is @raymondsuttner.


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