Where do we look for a new form of collectivity for universal emancipation in South Africa?
If it’s necessary to build a new collective in place of notions of individual hope and collectives that suppress individuality supposedly in the interests of a notion of We, where does one look to for the human and organisational resources and visions for such a collective?
Many people born in 1990 when Nelson Mandela was released from jail or later never experienced - as they grew up - a liberation movement that was emancipatory. Their entire experience of the collective that formed the ANC /SACP/ Cosatu collective, has been of organisational dynamics that descended into looting, an organisation that supported a man who was controversially acquitted on a rape charge.
They supported a man who sang songs which represented phallic imagery while he was at that moment standing trial for rape, rape of a person who claimed that she regarded him as his uncle (“malume”). (See Raymond Suttner, “‘Power and ANC masculinities: the Jacob Zuma rape trial,’ 2009 Nordic review of feminism and gender studies, 2009.)
The experience that people of my own generation have had of liberation movements in South Africa as vehicles for a collectivity, as bearers of a unifying vision, of a unifying inclusive organisational vehicle for liberation, has not been undergone or witnessed by very many people who have now become adults.
For many their adult experience of the ANC is of the period of Zumaism, the so-called 10 “wasted years” and the continuation of wasted years in the period that has followed under President Cyril Ramaphosa.
We have a generation that has no experience of an organisation mobilising and organising all of the oppressed people and population as a whole, for universal freedom and for transformation of the lives of all those who were oppressed under apartheid.
They have never seen this. Their only experience of that same collective is in the period of its degeneration into a thieving organisation, an organisation of selfish people who have no political interest or sense of the need for politicisation.
They may rise to high ranks with little political understanding and have no sense of concern for the people who previously embodied the base of the ANC/SACP and Cosatu. (As said before, while I use blanket terms to characterise the ANC and its allies, it continues to house some with integrity who continue to work from within as being what they believe is the best way forward. I believe this hope is misguided, but respect that some have made a choice in good faith).
It may be that Cosatu is now reviving to some extent, but it too was involved in the rise of Jacob Zuma and continues to be fundamentally loyal to the ANC, although there have been times when it has refused to give a platform to leaders of the ANC.
We have no organisation at the moment that could form an alternative that is collective and unifying as an alternative to that of the privatisation of hope.
Looking back and forward
When I became involved in the illegal ANC-led liberation Struggle when I was 23, late in 1969, it was a very different situation. Granted I may have been naïve and some of my processes of commitment may not have been that of many who appeared to enter on a similar basis.
When one joined the ANC and SACP it was in my view (looking back, not words that I used then), akin to a Catholic priest taking vows of celibacy and poverty because you had to steel yourself for hardship. In working illegally if you were in the underground, or in MK, the very experience of politics was one that entailed sacrifice long before one was arrested. But one had also to prepare oneself for what would befall one, almost inevitably, if arrested by the apartheid police.
One had to be prepared for torture and for the possibility of death. When I recently wrote a chapter for a book of tributes to Father Albert Nolan, I called it “converging journeys towards the sacred”. This was because in my eyes, naïve as it may seem to very many people, in joining the ANC and SACP I undertook to give my life to the service of these organisations, which I saw as vehicles for achieving freedom for the people of South Africa.
I wanted to join myself - as a white - to the organisations of the oppressed who were almost entirely black people, ie, Africans, Coloureds and Indians. I saw this as a sacred cause. (See Raymond Suttner, “Converging journeys towards the ‘sacred’” in Mike Deeb OP, P Denis OP, M James OP, (eds) Reluctant Prophet. Tributes to Albert Nolan OP, 2023, pp 237-245).
I understood the ANC and SACP as having a vision for the liberation of South Africa which would result in a better life for all. In particular, at the time of my joining, the Morogoro Conference of 1969 had issued a strategy and tactics document which was of a very high quality for the time, speaking then into an atmosphere of despair and demoralisation, which was starting to set in even within the leadership of these organisations. (The Morogoro document is found at https://www.anc1912.org.za/national-consultative-conference_1969/national-consultative-conference_1969a/ ).
The Morogoro Conference documents and significant documents of the SACP as well gave a sense of hope, a sense that the apartheid regime was not immovable and that even though it might take a long time, it could be defeated in a “people's war”.
Perhaps some of these anticipated victories were unrealistic, specifically the military defeat of the apartheid regime, but nevertheless, the way it was framed, the way it was articulated as a long-term goal, did make sense and may still have made sense had opportunities for a negotiated settlement not presented themselves in the 1980s and 1990s.
How to frame We in 2023?
At the moment there is no political party that can be the bearer of a unifying, collective sense of hope, hope for a better future for all. The ANC and its allies have abandoned that, but most other parties, with relatively small followings, are attracted to individualistic notions of freedom and hope very much along the lines of free-market liberalism.
Insofar as there are bearers or potential bearers of a vision and organisational vehicle for universal hope, there are glimmerings in religious, caregiving and some professional organisations.
Although I cannot point to any organisational formation, it may be of value to outline as a basis for discussion some of the fundamental principles that may form the basis for such a new unified force/collectivity. I suggest (and some of these may seem banal or obvious, but in the context of debate that is not the case):
Every founding principle must be subject to debate and contestation - We need to recognise that all principles that we may advance -like democracy itself - bear contested meanings and implications that can change over time.
The need to break the pervasive demoralisation. This may be a tactical goal rather than a principle, but it is necessary to break the sense that there is an impasse with no way out of the multiple crises we now experience.
Aspire to political solutions that better the lives of all, especially the most oppressed and marginalised. The notion of solutions for individuals alone is antagonistic to social hope and commonalities and connections must be built between all residents of South Africa. This is where almost all alternatives to the ANC fall short.
The urgent need to address state collapse, preferably via pressure on the state itself but if necessary, via other resources. It is the duty of the state to address the crisis of governance and that on the roads, power, water, crime etc etc. But where the state is incapacitated or leaves people to fend for themselves, action by communities must be encouraged - as is seen in many cases of clean ups, hunger, filling potholes and attempts to step in with assistance where there are other gaps, adversely affecting people’s lives.
We need to entrench a culture and principle of non-violence. Violence as a means for resolving disagreements or settling problems may well be more entrenched in South Africa than non-violence. This has to change if we want to build community life and needs to be entrenched in whatever new organisations may be created.
Re-create a culture of debate. There is little serious political debate in South Africa. This is a relatively new phenomenon generated in post-apartheid political life. In the 1980s and earlier there was generally thriving debate, albeit limited by apartheid repression. That needs to be revived in order to discuss and find the necessary solutions.
Pressure needs to be exerted to professionalise the public service. There needs to be clarity on what constitutes professional expertise and the limits of the role of political heads in decisions on running of state departments and enterprises. This has been examined before but has generally not become practice in the public service.
An economic debate leading to agreement between key stakeholders needs to be generated in order to tackle critical questions as well as to map out a long-term growth and development path. Urgent attention needs to be given to unemployment, inequality and hunger among many issues.
What has been said above and in the previous articles on hope is primarily intended as a tentative attempt to contribute towards a way of understanding or paradigm that is inclusive and evokes a sense of hope for the future. It is tentative because I remain open to new ideas in a situation where we appear to face irresolvable crises.
This article is part two of a two part continuation of the earlier articles enquiring into the value of notions of hope for the current crisis in South Africa. Read Part One here.
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.