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Liberation and Ethics. Is there a connection?

Raymond Suttner
Photo by Ivor Markman
Raymond Suttner

5th April 2016

By: Raymond Suttner


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It is no exaggeration to suggest that the legitimacy not only of President Jacob Zuma and the ANC, but also the notion of the liberation struggle itself is in shreds. For some of us, it was unthinkable that such an alliance of forces could degenerate into a moneymaking, lawless and violent operation represented by people who were prepared to trample on the values that we understood the movement to embody. Certainly, this did not happen overnight. The process leading to the present state of affairs has been long in the making.

In this context, many people like myself are forced to reflect on the choices we made some decades back and what it is that we were seeking then, what we saw to be required of us. Did we have an adequate perspective, and if we find we were right in what we did and believed then, was this shared by others or were we naïve?


I was born into apartheid South Africa and was aware that being white meant that my world was radically different from that of black people. It was a world of privilege. Given this background, what did it mean for me to become part of the struggle to liberate South Africa and to build a democratic society in which all people were equal?

Grappling with what this meant also entailed preparing myself to become something different from what I had been before, to transform myself. I had to be ready to leave one form of existence and join my fate with the oppressed people of South Africa. I had to demand no less from myself than cadres drawn from the oppressed people did of themselves. It was more than association with an idea of fighting for freedom. It was being willing to take steps that could and did actually result in experiencing repression that was normally associated with being a black person. Was I ready for this? How would I acquire the discipline required to conduct illegal activities and to withstand the torture and imprisonment that I knew would come my way?


It was essential to be prepared. I had seen how some people had associated themselves with this movement (and they were, of course, not only white people), but who, when confronted with repression, found ways of withdrawing or even betraying the struggle. I needed to become capable of withstanding blandishments or coercion so that I could remain connected to what I understood to be a long tradition of resistance, even if it meant facing death, as had others before me.

Joining the struggle then, over 45 years ago, entailed choices that needed to be clearly understood because of the consequences that would follow. It also entailing preparation, entering a long journey, continually learning and trying to apply these insights to the tasks allotted to me.

At the same time as readying myself for what lay ahead, I understood that I was not simply associating myself with the struggle of the oppressed as an outsider bringing specialised skills deriving from my privileged background. I would be part and parcel of the common struggle we waged together, as whites or blacks, to free our country.

In so doing, I did not see myself losing - though I did forfeit some career opportunities - so much as having the opportunity to regain my full humanity by linking myself with the fate of the majority of South Africans. There was nothing automatic about this process. It required a lot of soul-searching and self-examination, and changing of traits in my personality that I came to see as incompatible with the type of comradeship and humility that was needed to play this role.

Some who are not or have never been in “the struggle” find the use of the term “comrade” amusing or embarrassing. Indeed, some of those who use the appellation conduct themselves towards other people in a manner that does embarrass many who have been involved in struggle. Literally, it refers to a fellow soldier or associate; it connotes shared values and objectives and working together towards these in one or other struggle for freedom.

That is precisely why in contemporary South Africa those who are outside (and some who are part of) the ANC and its allies often use the term mockingly. This is because those who are “comrades” depart so far from any practice that may be considered one of solidarity with others.  Nor do they perform service for the oppressed or the greater good, or act in other ways that may be admirable or exemplary. “Comrade” is seen in many instances as a code for claims by elites who enjoy the spoils of power, and privileges deriving from connections. The notion of being a comrade has paradoxically become, in many instances, a term connoting exclusivity, creating barriers against those in whose name the struggle was fought.

Yet this and other words, associated patterns of conduct and qualities that these are supposed to convey do connote something that has been lost. They refer to a notion of how individuals, when in a relationship of comradeship, ought to relate to one another, a notion of caring and solidarity. Whether or not one uses the word “comrade”, such values need to be recovered if we want to build a society where we care about one another

I became a freedom fighter and a Communist after pestering a man I knew over many months in the late 1960s and early 1970 to introduce me to the ANC and the SACP when I should have been focusing on preparing for a degree at Oxford.

At the time, I understood the opportunity to play a role in the struggle as an honour and I was concerned that I should do nothing to forfeit the trust I attributed to recruitment as a member. 

Some may read this with a smirk, immediately alluding to Stalin and Gulags and deaths under Mao and Pol Pot. But we should remember that the SACP, while it had its rogues, embraced heroic figures like Bram Fischer, Josie Mpama/Palmer, Moses Kotane, JB Marks, Chris Hani and it now appears also Walter Sisulu and Nelson Mandela. Many were widely admired then, not only by Communists, but also by people like Chief Albert Luthuli, whose trust in Kotane was greater than any other person with whom he worked. 

No doubt I was romantic about notions of revolution and revolutionaries, then reading my fair share of revolutionary novels depicting cardboard characters without any trace of human weakness, but single-mindedly dedicated to the “common good”.  When I did eventually find myself within a collective of political prisoners, almost all of whom were Communists, it was a rude awakening to find that far from having the qualities I had imbibed from my readings and self preparation, many of them had personality traits that one found amongst all other sections of the population, and ones that were in many cases very irritating and made living together for years extremely difficult.

Nevertheless, amongst this collective we adhered to a code of conduct governing our relationships with the authorities and amongst ourselves. In general and for many years the patterns of these relationships, which were essentially comradely in the sense of sharing tasks and consulting over matters that could affect other prisoners, were followed in a community that practised “primitive communism”. In general, there was no thought of any individual gorging himself alone on the little pleasurable treats that came his way.

Despite our different personal traits, we were a highly politicised community. We were denied newspapers, apart from those we managed to smuggle in, but we held intense political discussions. There were assumptions about our relationship to politics that did not need to be articulated. We were there precisely because our politics entailed praxis, unifying our understanding and our actions in order to prosecute the struggle against apartheid and, being white people, through our identification with the oppressed majority, from which we did not come.

In my periods outside of prison and after release I realised that many of those with whom I related in struggle did not possess the traits of dedication that I had expected of all who were in the struggle. Indeed, those who formed the leadership of the UDF, ANC and SACP, of whom I became a part, were a very mixed bunch. Some were very cold and calculating. While in prison, I assumed that we shared an underlying empathy with the poor. In retrospect, I wonder whether there ever was that feeling, and indeed whether there was more in the way of calculation, even while in prison.

I came to see that there were many who bore the name of the ANC and SACP, but who embodied quite different personalities and ethical systems. I gradually came to understand that behind the outward unity represented by programmes and emblems, there could be very different values and motivations driving the various comrades or “comrades”.

By the time of the election for the first democratic parliament, I was already disabused of any notions of commonality shared by all who were in the SACP and ANC. 

The passion that I had expected to share and find more broadly, though it was there in people like Chris Hani, was generally pretty limited. This absence manifested also in an embryonic rupture of the ANC and SACP connection with the masses that followed after they became the government. My understanding, which I have articulated only in recent times, is that members of a liberation movement and its allies are connected with the oppressed and take their burden on as their own. It is clear that this is no longer the case, notably with the endorsement of Nkandla by ANC MPs and leaders, even though the monies used included diversion of funds meant for poverty reduction and intended for the communities with whom I had assumed the liberation movement to be connected.

The question I ask now, in 2016, is: When did this start? Am I mistaken or naïve in thinking that the rupture is relatively recent? Or has it always been the case that many who wear the garb of liberation and revolution have made an intellectual or business calculation that brings them there? Was I naïve in thinking that there was a sense of passion, compassion and connectedness in the thinking of many of those with whom I worked?

I grapple with the choices I have made because I have now to go backwards, to try to reconnect with where I began. I am sure many South Africans are doing the same. Whatever our earlier journeys, the pressing question is: What do we do now?   Whatever the challenges of the present, which pile up on top of long-standing historical challenges that have barely been touched on here, one thing is clear - we need to listen more, and to meditate carefully on the options we face. We cannot afford to rush headlong into it and to indulge outrage at the expense of methodical and sustained evaluation of potential forms of organisation and struggle.

This is essential for a future that may take us closer to meaningful freedoms for all people in our society. This will not happen overnight. I retrace my political footprints to make sense of the past, the assumptions I and many others made. I go back there, look deep within myself and around me once again. I believe I must learn a new language of emancipation for the present and enter into communion with others to claim our freedom. Even now. Especially now.

Raymond Suttner is a scholar and political analyst.  Much of his life was spent in legal and illegal 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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