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Revitalising democratic life

Raymond Suttner
Photo by Madelene Cronje
Raymond Suttner

22nd September 2021

By: Raymond Suttner


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On various campaign visits to communities in recent days, the ANC and Cyril Ramaphosa himself continue to provide evidence to many who were likely to be the ANC’s constituency in the past that they are no longer fit to govern the country. This does not necessarily translate into losing elections, but it signifies a lack of trust.

Residents in Nomzamo, Soweto (named after Nomzamo Winnie Madikizela-Mandela) were angry because they felt the ANC only cared about them when it is time for elections. The community complained of a lack of electricity, and the presence of the police for Ramaphosa's visit when they were not there to protect the community when needed at other times.


Ramaphosa doesn't seem to have learnt from his repeatedly being “shocked” at what comprises the daily experience of people. According to the report, Ramaphosa responded to the community that electricity would be "priority number one", as a result of his visit. “We told Eskom to solve the electricity issue urgently. Next week they will send a contractor. I want them to get on it next Tuesday. I told them that I want a report that will be sent to the premier and the mayor.”

If he did not receive the report, he would return to brief the community, he said. Then, adopting what appears to be a patronising tone, he said to them, "Do you promise that you will look after the electricity, please do not lose hope. I will personally supervise, that they will solve this issue.”


There seems to be very little self-reflection. If people in many parts of South Africa, especially townships of the oppressed, remain without electricity, water, housing, toilets, accessible healthcare and a range of other basic needs, the ANC knows about this. Yet, on an election campaigning visit the president undertakes to make it “priority number one” in one part of Soweto. He is himself conscious of this perception when he writes in his weekly letter: “Citizens often complain that in the lead up to elections, ward councillors, candidates and officials are energetic, interacting with communities and listening to their concerns. However, once elections have passed, they either disappear or it becomes difficult to reach them.”

The Soweto campaigning is perhaps an extreme example of the insensitivity of the ANC leader and the ANC as an organisation, but it is not out of character, given that many of the gains that were made after 1994 have proved unsustainable, and have not been taken further than the initial steps. Some of the failures to provide water, housing and other basic needs in almost every province relate to corrupt deals where contractors were paid but the service was not provided or only partially met.

Communities understand very well that the ANC, which once was prepared to offer everything, including the lives of its leaders and members to make the country free, is no longer that type of organisation. They understand that an organisation that derived from the most oppressed people of South Africa, whose leaders and members very often themselves suffered oppression, has now become indifferent to the plight of these very same people.

People who were themselves pained by the oppression that others experienced, that their parents experienced, or others that they didn't even know experienced, are now indifferent to the continuation of that oppression against black communities today.

It is not a simple matter to explain the transformation of a movement that once offered everything for the oppressed into one that has become primarily concerned with holding onto power and positions and deriving personal benefits.

At one level, we need to understand what it is that has made people who at one point of their lives faced great danger, imprisonment and torture, who were passionate, who were not just intellectually committed but emotionally committed to the Struggle, have now gone cold. It is not easy to explain this, especially knowing what these people represented at an earlier period.

ANC campaigning appears to be a drive to remain in power for its own sake, not with a view to using that power to improve the lot of the poor unless that action to remedy hardship happens to coincide, at a particular moment, with gathering votes. To some extent, it is true that the ANC has support because it has provided the people of South Africa with some important elements of a better life, in particular through social grants that rescued many people from absolute poverty. The onset of Covid and lockdowns (and thieving of resources) has however made the need for welfare and jobs even more insecure.

Now that it has lost interest in its own constituency, some representatives have tried to convince the poor that the grants they receive and other social welfare will not be secure if the ANC is no longer there. And many people do believe that and research has shown that it has influenced some voters up till now.

But ANC indifference to the plight of the most vulnerable and poorest in the communities is now so obvious that it is without apology. In this context, the ANC may still win elections, but it is no longer something beyond question.

What this means for those who still want to see South Africa become a country where people are able to realise their capacities and their needs to the fullest extent, is that we need to build afresh. We have to build on the basis of some of the reasons why the ANC once enjoyed support. We have to build organisations that are moved by and embody the pain of the oppressed as their own. That is what drove Nelson Mandela, Albertina and Walter Sisulu, Lillian Ngoyi, Ahmed Kathrada, Chris Hani, Ruth First, Joe Slovo, Bram Fischer and very many others.

It is crucial to devise a range of programmes and develop a vision. But what is also essential is that those who are charged with realising that vision must actually see these programmes as actions for achieving a goal that they share with the masses as part of the thoroughgoing emancipation of the people of South Africa.

When we consider what is being lost through the betrayal of the promise of liberation, it would be wrong to focus only on corruption or illegality, important as these are. The betrayal of the promise of liberation is not simply something that is measurable in terms of laws, constitutions, or money. The notion of liberation and involvement in liberation entailed a range of connections between people, embodied in words like compassion, solidarity and similar conceptions (though these specific words may not always have been used) through which people joined with others to achieve the freedom of individuals, and the people as a whole.

We must fully acknowledge the importance of law and the Constitution as a form of defence preventing robbing of the poor and the fiscus of what could be used to benefit the people of this country, a role that the legal system generally did not play prior to 1994.

But when we consider how we regain our freedom, it is important that we do not restrict it to strengthening legality and other formal processes, important as these are.

If we want to secure our freedom or regain what freedom we had, and security in the future, it requires a state of mind that we have to embody in our actions and our relationships with one another.

More than this, those who continue to experience oppression cannot realise the freedom that was envisaged before 1994 if they remain passive recipients of “service delivery” or non-delivery. What many envisaged in the pre-democracy period was the active subjectivity of the people, their involvement in the steps needed to give content to their freedom. That was their best guarantee of their own freedom. That was and is not understood as an alternative to the vote, but an augmentation of the power of the people in the sense of their being present in many ways to ensure their lives are improved.

Those are sentiments of almost 40 years ago. Should we not try to revive some of the precepts of the period of popular power in order to make every one of us direct actors in our present and future existence? Those principles have not simply disappeared, and continue to exist in street committees in some townships and organisations like Abahlali baseMjondolo and Equal Education. It is important that we find a way to empower people at every level to be active subjects in democratic life.

Raymond Suttner is an emeritus professor at the University of South Africa. He served lengthy periods in prison and house arrest for underground and public anti-apartheid activities. His writings cover contemporary politics, history, and social questions, especially issues relating to identities, gender and sexualities. His books include Inside Apartheid’s Prison (2 ed 2017), The ANC Underground (2008) and Recovering Democracy in South Africa (2015), all published by Jacana Media. His twitter handle is @raymondsuttner. He is currently preparing memoirs covering his life experiences as well as analysing the political character of the periods through which he has lived.


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