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Freedom is a constant struggle

Raymond Suttner
Photo by Ivor Markman
Raymond Suttner

25th April 2016

By: Raymond Suttner


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They say that freedom is a constant struggle

They say that freedom is a constant struggle


They say that freedom is a constant struggle

Oh Lord, we've struggled so long


We must be free, we must be free

(20th century freedom song from Mississippi, providing the title of Angela Davis’s most recent book, Freedom is a constant struggle)

“What is happening to our movement?”  yet another South African asked us during a Sunday lunch out with my wife, Nomboniso Gasa.  We found, as is often the case that our answer was not what he needed. He wanted an easy answer, perhaps the name of a person who, once he becomes president, will fix the “movement” and by extension, South African politics. We suggested processes that seek to understand the problems of our society and ways of achieving possible solutions both in the immediate and the long term. 

Every day, South Africans protest against state authoritarianism and brutality, poverty and misuse of public funds.  He asked:  “What are you guys saying? Why are you quiet?”  We were taken aback by this question. We tried to explain that we engage different aspects of emancipatory politics on a daily basis. Our acquaintance told us of public letters calling for “Zuma to go”, and which of those moved him the most. Given how powerful he found some of these letters, he did not understand why we still had Zuma at the helm?  Most importantly, he did not understand why we were not “speaking out”.  The answers we had given him simply reinforced his despondency.  He is not alone. We meet many such people every day.

Long after that brief conversation, the question of what is happening in South Africa will remain important as it was before. The constitutional judgement on Nkandla was exhilarating, but followed by a sense that Zuma is not about to leave the presidency very soon, or has no plans to go and may well have various counter-plans that will see more of the downhill journey on which we find ourselves located as “passengers”.  There may be more plunder of public resources for personal benefit, more undermining of state institutions that are meant to ensure the rule of law and safeguard the public good. 

Obviously there are many who do not want things to remain as they are, or to get worse, though what they see as being wrong may vary according to their location in society. How they experience the present will be very different if they have a roof over their heads, access to clean water, electricity or adequate education for themselves and their children.

In other words, if one experiences the plunder of the present from a position of relative wealth, its effects are different from that on a person who has no job or a poorly paid one that is meant to fend for more people than can be supported. It will be very different from that of a person who has no car and has to travel to work (if employed) every day for long distances in unsafe taxis or other forms of public transport. How one experiences the present from a position of poverty entails a different layer of problems that may be known only statistically, if at all, by very many people and not part of the life experience of the more wealthy, who are still predominantly white.

Our acquaintance is one of many who want to see changes and want things to change quickly. That is why there have been numerous calls for Zuma to go made by a range of organisations and individuals. Though it is unclear what will happen after he goes, some are prepared to work for that. Others were themselves involved in the rise of Zuma or object only to aspects of the current rule of lawlessness, militarism, hyper-patriarchy, patronage and corruption. Consequently some are asking for a new leader, but not necessarily the removal of the key structures and relationships within which Zuma and the mini-Zumas at provincial and local level have thrived.

There are still many others, ordinary citizens, some fairly influential in their work places or other sites of civic activity, who want Zuma to go but do not see themselves playing a role in bringing this about or in regenerating South African democracy, with all the difficult questions that need to be debated and worked on.

Many have particular individuals in mind, who, should they take the reins of power, are assumed to be able to rectify what is wrong and create the stability they believe is needed. These are individuals who are attributed qualities of efficiency and who have had the experience that would make South Africa a “winning nation”.

But the problems of South Africa cannot be put at the door of any one man, even so venal a politician as Zuma. There are problems of inequality and landlessness and lawlessness and poverty and inadequate education and roads and provision of basic needs like water and electricity that predate Zuma and are not directly related to his patronage and corruption.  Admittedly, the patronage and corruption may well have made many of these problems worse, in that those who have been awarded tenders to provide services on the basis of clientelism or corruption may do work that is inadequately monitored and thereby worsen the problems.

Let us be clear about the problems we confront. They are not ones of efficiency alone, though it may well be that with more expertise in some facets of decision-making - particularly where cronies have been appointed - some problems could be addressed more effectively.  The problems of South Africa are very similar to those encountered at the onset of democracy: questions of inequality related to race and class; that those who were poor in 1994 are predominantly still poor today; and that those who were denied access to many of the good things of life remain poor and mainly black. This is despite the significant number of black people who have had the opportunity to become relatively wealthy, that there has been a rise of a black middle class and a relatively small black capitalist class alongside the overwhelming mass who remain poor.

There are also problems that were there in 1994, which have resurfaced in the last year and been made more visible. Here one thinks of education. While it has been most dramatic in its effect on universities throughout the country, it is not a problem restricted to higher education. What the student protests have made visible in the last year is that admission of black people in large numbers has not been on an equal basis to white students.  Black students enter universities under very different conditions from most white students. They have difficulty entering in the first place, even if they qualify, because of fees that exclude them. They may not have resources to find adequate accommodation or any accommodation. They may study under conditions that are in other ways very disadvantageous, without a home environment that makes study possible, without funds for books or access to computers or electricity or food.

We need to be clear that what is raised in relation to higher education is also applicable in access to health care, the police services and the courts, amongst other places, where black people and the poor find themselves at a disadvantage.

This is by no means a full list of the inequalities that continue to exist in South Africa. These are not the primary reasons why some want to see change. Those who do not experience poverty often do not see it as their concern until a strike or some other “disturbance” disrupts their own lives with a blocked highway, uncollected refuse or some other inconvenience. 

That is not to suggest that all who are privileged are indifferent to the plight of the poor. The long history of South African oppression and resistance shows many examples of people from privileged communities linking their lives with those of the oppressed and that continues to be the case today.

There are many other critical areas where people experience oppression. Despite the constitution placing great stress on gender equality and freedom from assault, rape remains a pervasive scourge in all communities, affecting women and to some extent men. So, too, the specific targeting of women who do not conform to heterosexual norms and are LBGTIQA people.

This last week has seen the paralysis of Rhodes University where a list of alleged sexual offenders was circulated.  Authorities have not been able to respond to the satisfaction either of those named without “due process” or to the experiences of women at Rhodes. The women at Rhodes say, repeating a more general complaint in the country at large, that universities and South African society in general remain unsafe places for them. It appears that universities, like police stations have not proven sufficiently receptive to those who experience abuse and Rhodes University has thus far failed to find an adequate language to satisfy their complaints. 

The Zuma presidency has an indirect relevance to the Rhodes protests. Insofar as the President’s conduct, as leader of the country, represents a role model for men, he represents a validation of those who are militaristic and unsympathetic to the rights and claims of women. 

Let us assume widespread agreement that there needs to be change, change that will not only see the removal of Zuma, but also of the systems that enable graft and various abuses that occur with impunity and often with violence. Assuming there must be change, this is not something that many see themselves playing a role in bringing about.  They are waiting for the ANC to remove Zuma, or for others to do so.

What is becoming increasingly clear is that the ANC no longer has a strong desire to address the wellbeing of the poorest of the poor.  It seems unlikely that the ANC has the capacity for self-regeneration or that it can be relied on to remove Zuma or even under another leader to defend and advance democratic life in South Africa.  Nelson Mandela (like Angela Davis later), borrowing from Jawaharlal Nehru, first Prime Minister of independent India, once said that there is “no easy walk to freedom”.  He again referred to freedom as a journey in entitling his autobiography, “Long walk to freedom”. We need to understand that freedom was not finally won in 1994, not simply because there have been reverses, but because what freedom means is not static and can be enriched and enlarged by the input of all of us, from the various places where we are situated.

In the period before 1994, there was a part of liberation discourse that rejected “statism”; that is, that we as the people of South Africa, should not look to the state alone to deliver our freedom and our social benefits. Thus Mbhazima Shilowa, when General Secretary of COSATU said in 1993:

      “South Africa’s tradition of a strong and vibrant civil society needs to be re-asserted. We must not replace apartheid statism, and top-down rule, with a new form of statism.”

We have a role, indeed a determining role to play in a flourishing democracy. That is why the Reconstruction and Development Programme (RDP) spoke of a people-centred and people-driven process.

Gains that facilitate the conditions within which democratic life can operate can be made through court cases. But democratic political gains can only be made by the people themselves or those who act on their mandate. We need to claim our own role in the unfolding drama of recovering and enhancing South African democracy, wherever we are located.  In the period of popular power in the 1980s, the impetus for change came primarily from black communities and those who were amongst the working class and the poor.

Today, we all need to demand our constitutional and democratic rights, our rights to clean government and the meeting of our basic needs, wherever we are, in faith-based communities, in business, in professions, as students, teachers, police and other state officials who want to live and work with integrity.

John Berger once said that waiting is characteristic of being a prisoner.  We must end the waiting and find ways of acting to reclaim and rebuild what is ours.

Raymond Suttner is a scholar and political analyst.  Much of his life was spent in the struggle against apartheid and in building the new democratic order.  He served lengthy periods as a political prisoner and under house arrest.  Currently he is a professor attached to Rhodes University and UNISA and he has authored or co-authored Inside Apartheid’s Prison (2001), 30 Years of the Freedom Charter (1986) 50 Years of the Freedom Charter (2006), The ANC Underground (2008) and most recently Recovering Democracy in South Africa (Jacana and Lynne Rienner, 2015). He blogs at and his twitter handle is @raymondsuttner


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