“… It’s important to emphasise that hope is only a beginning; it’s not a substitute for action, only a basis for it. ‘Not everything that is faced can be changed, but nothing can be changed until it is faced,’ said James Baldwin. Hope gets you there; work gets you through. “The future belongs to those who prepare for it today,’ said Malcolm X. And there is a long history of methods, heroes, visionaries, heroines, victories - and, of course, failures. But the victories matter, and remembering them matters too. ‘We must accept finite disappointment, but never lose infinite hope,’ said Martin Luther King Jr.”- Rebecca Solnit, Hope in the Dark. Untold Histories, Wild Possibilities, 2016 p. xviii
Apart from there needing to be a viable direction and plan to set the country on the road to reconstructing our democratic life, who can be relied on to do this, to ensure that whatever may be agreed on between distinct interested parties will be implemented? In my view, elections are not the route to go for this. The ANC may be in a terminal crisis. The death of a party can happen very quickly. If the ANC were to lose control of the levers of state, and other vehicles for patronage, it may not hold together and it no longer has a shared political consciousness to evoke enduring loyalty. Its leaders and followers could desert and move in more than one direction.
To address the way forward requires a state of mind which I will elaborate on, but also an alliance of forces which I can only outline in a limited way.
By a state of mind I mean that which I referred to in the previous article, the question of hope as we look around us in an atmosphere of despair, disillusionment, and all sorts of disengagement from South African politics. See earlier articles.
To activate hope we need to ask ourselves, within this dire situation, what are the areas of uncertainty that may be turned into emancipatory possibilities? Those who do not want change always emphasise that there is no alternative to the present or that continuity or unchangeability is inevitable, even though in present-day South Africa that may be less viable than in more stable societies with less glaring inequalities, violence and corruption.
Hope does not work with certainties, forecasting possibilities and outcomes in a specific, detailed manner. It is the human element that is required to turn possibilities into realities, and it operates in terrains that may change along the way towards one’s destination. The elements of hope may seem to be manifested in very limited glimmers of possibility - but that is how some great movements in history, including the defeat of apartheid, were initiated (here I am referring mainly to moments like the immediate period after the banning of the ANC and PAC in 1960).
Is the continued poverty of the oppressed people of South Africa, a certainty with which we have to live, that is, an unalterable fact of life? What are the factors that can be built on to remedy this? Is there any sign of organisation that can be developed or aspects of our history or that of other countries that we can draw on to give us confidence and hope that we can draw on as we act to achieve change?
One sign of stirrings that disrupt the sense of inevitability of suffering are the various cooperative ventures that have stepped in to do what the state ought to perform. What the biggest one, Gift of the Givers does is already replicated by smaller efforts in all provinces and that can be expanded.
But the space for hope goes beyond poverty relief and can also find spaces for action in our own immediate environments, where faced by neglect by government, many neighbourhood or civic initiatives have taken on cleaning their areas and fixing potholes and other activities that make homes safer and more attractive places to inhabit.
Are we doomed to be led by people who have no intention of performing duties in regard to the public that they are legally bound to do? Is this the way of life that must be? What are the signs of there being an alternative, generally and in more limited ways, in small and large scale?
A number of people have pointed to exemplary individuals like Chris Pappas, the mayor of Umngeni, who was mentioned in a letter of Ndileka Mandela, Nelson Mandela’s granddaughter, and also mentioned by others.
What I thought was interesting about what Ndileka Mandela wrote is that Pappas did his duty and didn't make a big song and dance of it.
He was determined to demand what was required of government, but also not to wait for government to deliver, which it should do, where urgent matters could still be addressed. (https://www.citizen.co.za/news/opinion/forget-colour-anc-get-the-right-person/). (I read a fuller letter by Ndileka Mandela but cannot trace it on X/Twitter, where it was posted).
But insofar as he did have powers in the local government, he used these to deliver what government was supposed to do but also involved people within his municipality in order to remedy the potholes and various other problems in the area.
When we look at an example like this, we need to ask ourselves not what party he belongs to, which is the DA, but what example he's setting and whether it is an example that should be emulated by many others and that can be done inside or outside of party politics. It may well be that this voluntary work should be remunerated, but it might well be done on a voluntary basis to start off.
But what is being advanced here in this letter of Ndileka Mandela is a particular pattern of behaviour that many people used to follow during the Struggle - and many people outside and to some extent inside formal politics still do act in this manner.
We need acts of generosity or acts of concern about our neighbours and others who live around them and who are vulnerable, so vulnerable that they may take their own life and that of their children, as mentioned in the case of at least two rural mothers and children. In other words, the generosity needs to extend beyond the visible because the most shocking zones are in rural areas or apparently invisible urban informal housing.
So we need to keep our eyes open about what is going on around us and not accept words like impossible or final, or this is it but look for the areas of uncertainty, what can be built, what represents an embryo, which may - with our intervention - develop towards something that is more fundamentally beneficial for the country.
Part of the way that oppression operates is to neutralise “dangerous memories”, memories that can be drawn on by people in order to ensure that they do not treat their present lot as given. And we know that it is not just charitable organisations but other organisations and individuals outside formal politics who are committed and do act to remedy or assist to alleviate the plight of the oppressed.
It may be that a number of religious sectors are re-emerging as active participants in the democratic struggle, this time for restoring what has been lost of the 1994 gains and also, to not simply return to 1994, but to augment those gains with what has been learnt in the last 30 years on issues like the environment and other areas that could be developed.
The same can be said for professionals and professional bodies that do not operate in a uniform manner, but often make important contributions to public debate and actions. In some cases, like health workers, they directly experience the impact of the failure to provide water and electrical power, often facing mortal dangers in carrying out their work.
Beyond these illustrative examples there needs to be an attempt to draw together, not necessarily as one but a range of organised forces, into a unified front to recover democratic rights and to rescue the oppressed from their plight, their continuing to be oppressed in post-apartheid South Africa.
As indicated before, it is in the interests of business to play a key role in such a configuration of forces and secure the society’s need and its own need - as the business sector - to operate in an environment where non-violence prevails, where there is an end to corruption and criminality, and to secure constitutionalism and the rule of law.
Those more directly affected by the oppression must, of course, be part of this. The unions have shrunk numerically and in power, but remain an important force for change and need to be part of such an initiative.
Social movements are few, but some are significant like the shack dwellers’ movement, Abahlali baseMjondolo, and Equal Education. Some NGOs recognise that the way they work with the oppressed must ensure that victories are not secured simply on their behalf, but with them. Notable in this regard, among others, are The Socio-Economic Rights Institute of SA (Seri), Section 27, Lawyers for Human Rights (LHR) and the Centre for Applied Legal Studies (CALS).
Building on what organisations exist and the gains that have been made - sometimes few, sometimes more substantial - we can explore openings in order to take the country closer to a resolution of its multiple problems.
(This article is part two of a series on Crisis, despair and harnessing hope).
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 handle on the X platform is @raymondsuttner.