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How meanings of revolutionary/emancipatory consciousness and actions need to change over time: Part two


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How meanings of revolutionary/emancipatory consciousness and actions need to change over time: Part two

Raymond Suttner
Photo by Madelene Cronje
Raymond Suttner

29th May 2023

By: Raymond Suttner


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As indicated in the first part of this series, the content of the notions revolutionary consciousness and activity are not static ( Their meanings may change over time. To have a revolutionary or emancipatory consciousness and what constitute revolutionary or emancipatory activity do not mean the same thing, as conditions that prevail in South Africa (or anywhere else) change.

This ought to be obvious, but much discourse is ahistorical and intended to elevate and legitimate specific movements by grotesquely claiming a “revolutionary” character for the organisations. It is an attempt to link the organisations nationally and internationally to previous revolutionary moments and movements, notably the Cuban revolution in many cases.


Whatever the motives of those who simply attach the label “revolutionary” to themselves, it obviously cannot mean the same thing in 1960 as in 2023, with conditions completely changed.

In later parts I return more fully to the application of this way of understanding in different phases of South African political developments, like negotiations, early democratic rule and the Jacob Zuma/Cyril Ramaphosa period.


Forms of revolutionary consciousness and personal commitment-limitations that may be agreed on

It is important to also understand that one may have a range of forms of revolutionary consciousness/orientations/commitments, in the sense that one may - in a general sense - be devoted to a particular struggle, but decide that one will commit oneself to serving it within certain limits.

One may need to set limits – subjectively - because of the consequences that are attached to such a link and fear or a range of factors, depending on the level of danger and other demands and conditions that may arise. That limit arises when one decides whether or not one is ready to face arrest, torture, jail, and other unpleasant consequences of one’s choices.

It may be that someone understands the struggle intellectually, understands what it is to be a revolutionary, agrees with and supports the strategy and tactics for achieving certain goals. But that person may say, unlike some who are prepared to put their bodies on the line and to die, or to devote everything to it, “I think I do not have what it takes to do this”. Or the person may be unsure and say that s/he prefers to avoid a commitment that the person will be unable to carry out. Or it may be that the person says, “there are various things that make me unsuited to the level of danger and the level of hardship that may well befall me if I commit myself to revolutionary activity”, such as underground and/or armed struggle.

If one accepts that there is that distinction in the levels of commitment and that there is a difference between having a revolutionary consciousness and acting it out, it may well be that in the time of illegality, some people may be fully committed to the struggle for freedom at the level of understanding, but decide that because of their own subjective state of mind, they should act it out as an intellectual or in some other role, without committing more extensively, as in participating in illegal activities or in any site of danger.

Or alternatively, they may act outside the country and fully support the struggle by their writings or other actions and make a contribution to the weight of revolutionary doctrine and strategies and tactics and assist in exerting pressure on the regime, but without facing the danger of someone doing this inside the country. That is not to say that acting for the ANC and its allies was without danger outside the country. There were many MK martyrs in neighbouring states and also Dulcie September in France and bombings of offices in the UK. This list is incomplete.

There are other variations, setting limits on one’s commitment. Someone may, for example, have had family commitments which set limits on what s/he could do. They may have fully supported the struggle and offered support. But may still have said: “I will put myself at the service of the struggle, subject to the times that I've allocated in agreement with my partner and family, to whom I have a range of responsibilities”, or something similar. That must be respected instead of coercing a person to do what they believe they cannot or are not ready to do.

I respect that choice to limit one’s readiness to undertake some activities and that was respected on the battlefield, by Chris Hani - who did not force people to infiltrate the country when they were not ready. Before people crossed the border he would ask them whether or not they were ready for what might lie ahead, whether they perhaps had some unfinished business that might affect their performance in MK missions. He did not want people to fear being called a coward and did not want to risk any person’s life, by compelling them to do that for which they were not ready. (Interview with Dipuo Mvelase, 1993, available on request).

Changing context

But that distinction between revolutionary consciousness and revolutionary action has another meaning that is not sufficiently articulated. If one continues to be a revolutionary, if one continues to have a revolutionary consciousness, and the conditions change, what happens?

That same consciousness, that same willingness to put one's life at the service of the people to a greater or lesser extent, is in relation to conditions that may not persist, that may then require different qualities and actions from revolutionaries, in the new conditions.

When I got involved in illegal activities in the late 1960s, early 1970s it was necessary to connect with the ANC and SACP. In the first place, that connection itself was illegal and I wanted to be part of that movement and serve in its ranks. Having established the link, there was an agreement as to what I should do. I wanted to go back to the country and undertake work that would contribute to a revolution or to the overthrow of the apartheid state.

At the same time, it seemed then to be a very long-term goal, possibly not to be realised in my lifetime. The ANC’s 1969 Strategy and Tactics document, adopted at Morogoro in Tanzania seemed clear and coherent but it did not promise speedy results. (See

Preparation for revolutionary tasks

Now, that same orientation, which many others, especially black people had undertaken, meant that I had to prepare myself. I had to be sure that I was ready to undertake what was required from me, if I were to become a revolutionary where the consequences could be very severe. I had to try to assess my own qualities and the extent to which some of these needed to change or where I needed to acquire new habits and approaches in my interpersonal relations in order to do what I thought the work would require.

That does not address the danger and assaults I would encounter. I spoke to as many people as I could who had been detained and tortured, though there were limits since what I planned to do was secret. But what I learnt prepared me for what I did in fact encounter when I was detained. I had read enough or heard enough to find myself in a situation that was very hostile/terrifying, but nevertheless had a degree of familiarity that made it possible to cope when I was arrested and tortured. It was possible to retain some level of agency even in the worst conditions. (See Raymond Suttner, Inside Apartheid’s Prison, 2 ed, 2017, Jacana Media, chapter one and ‘Re-thinking and re-remembering Prison. Reification, Agency and Liminality’, Psychology in Society. 39 December, 2010, 3-20.

That is not to suggest that there will not be surprises. One needed to try to be ready for what had not happened to anyone else. In my own case, once I was convicted I looked forward to speedily meeting up with the other prisoners.

But that did not happen. To my surprise, after sentencing I continued to be in isolation, this time in what used to be death row in Pretoria Maximum Prison. I was interrogated after conviction, with teams from Cape Town and Pretoria, something I have never heard happen to anyone else. One of the interrogators was the notorious Spyker van Wyk from Cape Town. I never knew when they would arrive or when they had stopped interrogating me. My lawyers had also not heard of such a thing but believed it was within the rights of the police. (See Inside apartheid’s prison, Chapter 10).

I was there for five months before I joined the others in Pretoria Local, often terrorised by a Sergeant Arlow who would always just stop short of assault, but giving the impression that it could well happen. This period left me shaken and even when I joined the others it took time to regain my confidence.

Consequences of not preparing

Some people did not prepare themselves adequately and when they were captured, they found themselves in circumstances for which they were not ready, which they did not expect. They ought to have expected and prepared themselves because to get involved in a revolution means that you must take all the steps to prepare yourself so that when you're caught or if you're caught, you do nothing that disgraces the organisation or yourself as a representative of that organisation. Obviously, some things cannot be anticipated, but one still ought to try to have a generalised preparation for a very unpleasant experience.

A dramatic example was that of Breyten Breytenbach who was arrested more or less the same time as me, in 1975, but in Johannesburg or Pretoria, while I had been in Durban, but he was in Pretoria Maximum Prison - death row - at the same time as me (but strictly separated from one another).

At the time I looked forward to serving my sentence with him. We exchanged a few covert messages and I was a little puzzled by what he appeared to be saying. I only heard later of his renouncing what he had done, apologising to then Prime Minister BJ Vorster and other conduct for which I do not at this moment have the documentary evidence. (Until the 1980s political prisoners were not allowed access to newspapers and I only heard about his trial when the late David Rabkin and Jeremy Cronin joined us but have not at this point had access to some of what I heard happened in his two trials).

He joined us for a day – when I was with the others - and we heard about it the day before and decided that whatever he had done, we would not try to censure him but try to rebuild his dignity that he had lost in his apparent attempts to secure “mercy”. He was given a haircut by John Matthews (who built the platform at the Congress of the People, where the Freedom Charter was adopted in 1955), but left the next day for Pollsmoor - apparently at his own request - with no attempt to discuss anything at all with us.

Breytenbach’s lack of preparedness for what he undertook had negative effects on other people who were also arrested, some of whom were put in a situation where they were called as state witnesses, in a series of events that were apparently not conceived with sufficiently serious intent.

Police “tricks”

It was standard practice for the police to threaten to arrest one’s whole family, or lover, or similar. They told me they were holding my mother and were going to arrest everyone in my diary. I just said they must do what they believed was necessary, even though none of those people were involved in my activities.

One had to avoid being fooled by police strategies. Some people found the claim that someone very close was being held as a form of pressure that created so great a level of anxiety that it broke their resolve. Obviously, that someone else, someone especially close should suffer as a result of one’s activities is something that we find very stressful.

But one needed to try to keep calm and know that police do terrible things but also threaten to do things that are meant to have an effect on the detainee, without actually carrying out the threat of arresting one or other person. One ought - through adequate preparation - to have known this and not to have fallen for the trick.

Code of conduct: defiant and without apology

Long before I was detained I knew there was a code of conduct for freedom fighters in detention, in court, and as a sentenced prisoner. In that situation one ought to have known that one does not beg for mercy. One does not give away one’s comrades. And if one is forced under extreme duress to say some things, one tries to limit the damage as much as possible. And as the rule more or less was one then did one’s best to give the others with whom one may have been involved 24 or 48 hours to get out of wherever they were, and in the time I was involved, it was to leave the country.

One also understood that if a trial were to follow, being a witness for the state against one’s comrades was not allowed (though it is hard to judge harshly those who did so in the Breytenbach trial, when the accused had already more or less repudiated what he had done). Generally, one had to refuse and be prepared to face five years minimum sentence if necessary for one’s refusal to testify.

If one went to court as an accused, I was told, “you know what to do” and I took that to mean that I should make no apologies, be defiant and say that I regretted nothing, which I did (following as best I could the long line of exemplary leaders).

Some people allowed their counsel to plead in mitigation that they had been misled or other forms of denial of their own agency in committing acts against the apartheid state. One is already in trouble, so why deny one’s own agency?

Conditions of Struggle altered after this period.

Now, that is the situation when those of us who call ourselves revolutionaries/those committed to thoroughgoing emancipation operated initially. But in the phases that followed, conditions under which revolutionaries had to operate altered, with the balance of forces changing and some significant blows being delivered against apartheid regime targets. What it meant to be a revolutionary had to be constantly re-examined in changing conditions - there was no dogmatic rule book to follow.

In Part 3 I will consider the period of ungovernability and popular power, an insurrection, and coexisting secret steps to secure a negotiated settlement.

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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