“There was something that started to worry me - there were searches … Then when you are a child you always think your father is very powerful, but when you see your father being harassed one day by other men you see that there is something wrong. You see that you miscalculated. Then you realise that, no, my father, there is other power that is beyond him - because when these police come at night they’re forcing, they kick the door - he doesn’t fight … So that was the worst humiliation that I experienced in my life when I grew up.” – The ANC Underground, Raymond Suttner
These words of MK veteran Matthews Ngcobo describing his father being humiliated before his eyes by the police, and the entire notion of his power within the family being undermined, came back to me as I watched the unfolding Nkandla saga. It was this sense of hurt and outrage that drove many people into acting against apartheid, themselves experiencing and witnessing the humiliation of others, drawn by hurt and compassion to make that pain their own, driven by the assault on the dignity of a parent, friend or neighbour. Many asserted their connectedness with that pain and demanded the right to dignity of all people. They asserted the universality of our freedom.
The Nkandla scandal can be tackled in a number of ways: accountability, constitutionalism, public spending and other questions related to governance. My concern here is with people who had at one stage been admired, been seen to represent admirable qualities or been attributed with or claimed to have them. It may be that they never possessed these qualities, but still, they were associated with them.
Let us be clear. Not everyone who is reputed to be a “struggle hero” was in fact one. There is a range of ways through which one can attain that reputation without justification. But it is important to emphasise that there were very, very many people who struggled long and hard in very difficult conditions in order to free South Africa. Some of them sit in the South African parliament today.
Whether this reputation has been justly attained or not, there is no doubt that the conduct of most ANC/SACP leaders and their fellow MPs has put strain on parliament in general in the past few months. But if their reputation has been justly won and safeguarded through self-sacrifice and struggle, how do they look themselves in the face today? How do they condone and support robbing the poor when their lives have been devoted to the opposite?
Alternatively, for those who walk in borrowed garments, how do they look others in the face if they have always been cowards and managed to conceal it then but not now?
That may be one of the biggest ironies: that people who appeared to act with bravery in danger and acquired reputations as respected freedom fighters have now chosen to demonstrate cowardice, indignity and dishonourable conduct at a moment of trivial danger compared with that which they once faced or are attributed with facing.
When you fight for freedom your sense of self-respect is very, very important. Drawn into a struggle in solidarity with the majority of South Africans who have been denied their dignity, some people chose to associate themselves, to offer their very lives in service of those who did not have the physical strength or courage to fight for themselves. They faced a brutal state. Many acted with honour and courage.
They took on the suffering of millions of others as their own, choosing to forego both material gain and personal safety in favour of becoming a freedom fighter.
These choices necessitated some level of personal transformation. Respect and self-respect are central to commitment to a cause. Respect for those who suffer unjustly. Self-respect in the sense that taking on the task carries great responsibility and means that one does some things and can never do other things. That is necessary if one is to maintain one’s self-respect, which is an integral part of fighting for dignity – one’s own and that of others.
The stress on respect and self-respect, then, is related to dignity; bearing oneself with dignity, continuing to hold one’s dignity in difficult situations. The struggle was aimed at restoring dignity to a people whose very humanity was being negated. The assault on dignity is often associated with the first phase of political awakening for many young cadres, just as it was for Matthews Ngcobo.
That sense of dignity was also part of the bearing that was expected of freedom fighters if they were captured and put on trial. The cadre was expected to stand proudly, with “head held high”, not to beg for mercy or throw him or herself on the mercy of the oppressors asking to be saved from punishment. Not everyone acted it out, but some paid heavy prices to act in fidelity with this.
That sense of dignity was why political prisoners generally refused to be treated as objects but insisted on being recognised as fully conscious human beings with some agency in prison. That is why Nelson Mandela and others refused to run or act in other demeaning ways demanded by their captors.
What is at work in all of this is not purely at the level of the intellect; it involves passion and compassion for oppressed people in general. This is what drove many people into the struggle. It may well be that many did an intellectual calculation and through cold analysis decided that there was only one way of resolving the impasse, and it demanded their participation. Through that participation some may have had the foresight to calculate that they might well thrive in the long run.
But when you find yourself alone in your cell, or with your captors, or being tortured, it is difficult enough to survive, let alone maintain the shreds of your dignity. They are shattered by torture if there is not an emotional investment in the struggle, a sense that this is not just something that makes sense but something that has been embraced into your being.
Many people who were arrested had heard of others who had gone before them; they knew what they could face and they still chose to be part of the tradition of those who maintained their self-respect, dignity and courage. (I am not speaking here of whether people should “never talk” or of giving 48 hours for comrades to disappear. I am speaking of a state of mind; pride in one’s self and one’s integrity and dignity as part of the fight to ensure dignity for all.)
It was this same sense of commitment combining logic and passion, logic and compassion that gave people the moral strength and power to live with danger and anxiety every day of their lives in Lesotho, Angola and other places of danger. It was also what strengthened those living on the edge of capture who risked their lives to attack enemy targets inside the country.
In short, the best of freedom fighters acted to realise themselves through compassion and solidarity with the suffering of the poor and wounded.
Amongst these are many who have now endorsed the Nkandla spending, spending money destined in many cases for the poor, but diverted to benefit the president. The reasons given to justify this are surely not ones that are convincing for many of these people. In voting for these actions they did what they cannot justify by their own reasoning, quite apart from whether it angers them or moves them emotionally.
Words like “betrayal” are inadequate because that can only capture what is entailed at an objective level. What I am probing is what this means for the self-image and self-esteem, the self-understanding of those who once genuinely devoted their lives to the struggle. What can make them act in a manner that repudiates their own understanding of life and their respect for the dignity and wellbeing of the oppressed, whose money has now been misappropriated?
What gave them strength to stand up to the “boers” (used as a common term to apply to all the oppressive forces, whether or not they were Afrikaans speaking) yet lets them now to cower before the enrichment of Zuma? What is so valuable that they derive from endorsing Nkandla that they repudiate lives devoted to acts of integrity and respect for others, types of living where their own self-respect was central?
What we see here is one of the hidden costs of the current political order: it requires demeaning conduct from people who were once proud; it requires callousness from those who were once compassionate; it requires them to dissociate from those with whom they were once in solidarity.
Raymond Suttner is a professor attached to Rhodes University and UNISA. He is a former underground operative and political prisoner. He writes contributions and is interviewed regularly on Creamer Media’s website Polity.org.za. He has recently published Recovering Democracy in South Africa (Jacana). His twitter handle is: @raymondsuttner.