There was a time when the word “revolution” was frequently used by cadres and activists in the Struggle against apartheid. It was nevertheless controversial, with different understandings of the meaning of the word. How one understands revolutionary or emancipatory or liberatory consciousness and practice before 1994 and in various phases that followed, especially after 2006, cannot be the same as the 1980s, and needs to be reconsidered.
It is, I believe, important to reclaim much-abused and ridiculed words like revolutionary and freedom fighter, though I am aware that for many people they bear connotations that are contentious.
Being a revolutionary in changing times
The word revolution was referred to recently within the context of “National Democratic Revolution (NDR)”, by former President Thabo Mbeki and is used very often by the ANC, SACP and Cosatu. (On Thabo Mbeki’s reference to NDR and “counterrevolution”, see: https://www.dailymaverick.co.za/article/2023-03-30-thabo-mbeki-lashes-anc-for-blocking-phala-phala-inquiry-and-andre-de-ruyters-damning-claims-about-eskom/ and my previous comment on this: https://www.polity.org.za/article/what-do-we-do-when-erstwhile-liberators-become-counter-revolutionaries-2023-04-24).
In reading Raymond Williams’s classic, Keywords, one sees that the word revolution has had complex origins and remains contested. When one looks at conventional dictionaries the word is treated with caution and often referred to as having connotations of the use of violence or often referring to a single extraordinary act that brings about dramatic change in one or other country.
That single decisive moment was also part of Marxism-Leninism and the idea of seizure or transfer of power as a decisive event after which everything else would follow. It is part of much national liberation literature. I believe this approach is wrong because power is not a thing that can be grasped and simply used in one or other way, but comprises a series of relationships where there may be contention over what direction ought to be taken. (See Nicos Poulantzas, State, Power, Socialism, Verso books, 1978, pp 257-8 and Raymond Suttner, “Strategic debate: Ensuring stable transition to democratic power”, African Communist, no 131, Fourth quarter, 1992, pp 29-37, reprinted online in the O’Malley archives: https://www.nelsonmandela.org/search#/search?search_terms=Raymond%20Suttner&search_type=omalley&result_size=10&search_offset=0&advanced_search=0).
The word revolution is not the only word that can be used, in many contexts, and it can often be substituted by words like freedom or substantial or fundamental change, or emancipatory activities or goals and similar words.
But if one is using the word revolution, I don't think we need to apologise, and it can refer to transformation that is non-violent but nevertheless represents significant and fundamental change or opens up processes of substantial transformation. It can refer to any process that represents qualitative and quantitative change in what has existed up to a particular moment in time, signifying progress in opportunities for freedom, (though opponents may well characterise it as retrogressive). It relates to events but, in my view, primarily to opportunities that may unfold, depending on how power is deployed by contending forces.
In the case of South Africa, I would argue that the transition of 1994 was a revolutionary change or in the words of the ANC and SACP of the time, a “democratic breakthrough”. It was not a finalisation of any revolution, because no revolution is ever finalised. It ought, as with democracy or freedom, to be a continuous process, of broadening and deepening the gains that people make in changing their lives, from one of oppression to one of freedom. “Democracy is a constant struggle”, in the words of an African-American spiritual, that Angela Davis takes as the title of one of her books. (Freedom is a constant struggle. 2016).
And freedom has different meanings, over time, for a range of reasons. It may well be that Marxist definitions refer to a revolution entailing a change in the mode of production. It is for those who wish to see this happen, to engage/struggle with contending forces to win that interpretation of the meaning of any revolution or the character of the freedom it embraces. The same holds for other goals that may be described as revolutionary by their advocates.
The word “freedom fighter” seems to also be controversial, though it was widely used to describe those actively involved in national liberation struggles and viewed with contempt by some opponents. I would be proud to be described as a freedom fighter and a revolutionary, one who played a role in the liberation struggle. That now entails a responsibility to act in an honourable manner in the service of the oppressed people and to achieve ever-expanding freedoms. There is nothing to be done about its controversiality, except to act ethically and demonstrate the required qualities in our actions.
Why content of freedom and revolution is never finalised.
One of the reasons why the content of revolution and freedom is never finalised (unless it is stalled or undermined or reversed, as is the case in South Africa today) is that scientific changes in the world make it feasible to provide more for the people on Earth than had been possible at earlier times, and only becomes conceivable as science advances, making it possible to provide for all those who may lack the means to exist with dignity and good health.
In earlier periods of history, human beings could not easily acquire the means of survival from their environment, or where they did develop means of sustenance, these were fragile. Little could be done in the face of natural disasters that destroyed crops, shelter and other facets of human existence.
Over centuries science has advanced sufficiently for us to meet most of what is needed for all to live with dignity and without hunger, to be provided with adequate shelter, healthcare and other basic needs. Humanity now has the capacity to achieve what was previously impossible and improve the quality of people’s lives and reduce damage to their health.
Our Constitution operates on the basis that no one should be left hungry in a country that can fill everyone’s stomach, or face the elements when shelter can be provided, or drink contaminated water where there are resources to provide clean water.
Since science has made it possible to meet “basic needs”, whether or not this is done, has become a social and ethical question. It is related to how resources are distributed. Even though there is enough for all, whether it is accessible is affected by the extent to which acquisition of wealth by some negates provision of basic needs to others. In South Africa this is affected by both the inequalities of capitalism (though versions of social democracy have mitigated this) and diversion of funds intended for poverty relief through corruption, as seen, especially, in the last 15 years.
Bond between the freedom fighter/revolutionary and the oppressed
Those who joined the liberation struggle formed a bond with the oppressed, not merely to have a political understanding of the forces ranged for and against apartheid. Cadres and activists often invested emotionally in the achievement of freedom. They unified their understanding with a passion to act in order to free us all.
What is striking about the times in which we live is the absence of this compassion and it being displaced by cynicism and callousness, towards the oppressed, who sometimes fall under bullets fired in post-apartheid rule.
1994 a revolutionary rupture that needed to unfold further.
In 1994 South Africa experienced a very substantial change when there was a transition from apartheid, a social order, where black people were treated as inferiors and rightless human beings in the land of their birth, and for the first time given rights in a democratic order. Thinking of the discourse of the apartheid era, black adults, especially Africans, were infantilised, called “boys” and “girls” and for the first time, in 1994, given the right to vote, referred to as universal adult franchise.
In my own case, I am now writing as someone who is outside of the organisations with which I worked to pursue emancipatory goals. Along with many others I believed in good faith that this course of action and these organisations were, in fact, pursuing objectives that were important for freeing the people of South Africa.
I don't think that the ANC and SACP were always the debased, decadent and corrupt organisations they are today and I think there were very many people who risked or lost their lives fighting for the freedom that was achieved in 1994. It is now being undermined, (generally) not from the beginning of 1994, but in the last 15 or so years, and continuing as I write.
But nevertheless, that to which many of us devoted much of our lives and continue to do - in different ways - has been worth it and will never be debased in my eyes in that the goals remain valid - to free all the people of South Africa to have every man and woman walking with their heads held high. Many still believe in that and will try to find ways to recover that ethos.
In the remainder of this series of articles, I discuss what it means to be a revolutionary at different phases of our history, to have a revolutionary consciousness and act on it, what it meant in the 1980s and before that, what it meant during negotiations and in the early years after 1994. I also ask what it means in the present period of decadence and corruption, and in a very limited way, how we act out that revolutionary consciousness and revolutionary practice today.
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.