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What do we do when erstwhile liberators become ‘counter-revolutionaries’?


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What do we do when erstwhile liberators become ‘counter-revolutionaries’?

Raymond Suttner
Photo by Madelene Cronje
Raymond Suttner

24th April 2023

By: Raymond Suttner


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In former President Thabo Mbeki's, recent letter to ANC Deputy President Paul Mashatile there were copious references to “counter-revolution” and “national democratic revolution”. Many people who read this may have thought this was quaint and old fashioned.

I myself do not at this time use either phrase extensively. However, I do believe that the Struggle that we were engaged in against the apartheid regime was a revolutionary struggle by which I do not understand simply the use of force, which did become a significant part of the liberation Struggle.


I see a revolution, and one that may become progressive in the case of national liberation, as one that seeks to achieve a better life for all, the overturning of all oppressive structures and creation of conditions where human beings can realise themselves to the fullest extent.

That I believe is what many of us had in mind when we joined the Struggle and decided to throw our lot in with the dominant liberation movement, the ANC and its allies, which we saw as embodying the aspirations of the oppressed people of South Africa.


If one speaks of revolution (and we can also use other words like emancipation or liberation) it is not illegitimate to speak of counter-revolution as signifying a force or forces or activities that aim to subvert the progressive aims of the revolution as defined above, enhancing liberty, enabling people's talents to be realised.

Obviously, any form of authoritarianism, and use of violence (except in very limited grounds of self-defence), and a range of other anti-social activities like destroying public goods and attacking schools or health facilities would constitute counter-revolution, especially when it happens under a truly democratic government or a government pursuing emancipatory goals. This is particularly the case in a state like ours that now has a constitutional order guaranteeing the rights of all.

When Mbeki uses these phrases - national democratic revolution (NDR) and counter-revolution - he does not define them. I am not prepared to simply dismiss the notion of national democratic revolution. However, every element of these concepts or visions and strategies - in the case of NDR - needs to be engaged with and problematised because all three of the words national, democratic and revolution have more than one meaning and if one is advocating the notion of national democratic revolution, one should be clear as to what it comprises.

Likewise, if one is using the concept of counter-revolution it must not be allowed to be used as a way of battering legitimate opposition, guaranteed under our Constitution. 

What is the meaning that one is attributing to those three words, national, democratic and revolution, and what are the most emancipatory meanings that can be advanced? And indeed, is the notion of a national democratic revolution serviceable in the 21st century? All three of these words can have meanings that entail ever-enhancing freedom and also more restrictive interpretations. If the notion of NDR is meant to remain relevant the words ought to be part of a debate. (See Raymond Suttner, Revisiting National Democratic Revolution (NDR): the ‘national question’, 2011-2012 (unpublished), available on request).

When Mbeki refers to counter-revolution as if its meaning is obvious, it is not clear what or who he has in mind, although some observers have suggested that he has the DA in mind.

What I would suggest however, is if there was a revolution, or a revolutionary process, decisive steps were set in motion from 1990, ones that required a number of further actions to realise its potential with an unfolding of liberty over the decades that followed. That process of unfolding emancipatory and democratic factors has not been completed.

And in fact it has been reversed in many cases and the counter-revolutionary force, if that is what it means, has been the organisation that was the main factor in setting the emancipatory process in motion, the ANC.

The problem that I have with the intervention of Mbeki in this regard, is that because he does not define these terms, there are some “no-go areas”. There is an assumption that the existence of the ANC is automatically justified and automatically represents the progressive future of this country. In fact, the history of the ANC at least for the last 10 to 15 years, points to it being the counter-revolutionary force in this country, if one is to use the term, a force that reverses the gains that were made in the early years of democracy.

At this very moment the Gauteng provincial government is withdrawing funding from non-profit organisations (NPOs), currently caring for people, young and old with a range of disabilities. ( The funds allocated to NPOs is being redirected to other projects and the care facilities will in some cases need to be shut down, leaving people - young and old - unable to care for themselves, often unable to wash, clean or cook for themselves, without caregivers. Some warn of a new Life Esidimeni tragedy, where 1400 patients were farmed out to unsuitable facilities with disastrous, and indeed for 144 people, deadly consequences, in 2016.  ( and (behind paywall: ).

But it ought also to be noted that any cash shortages in Gauteng derive to a significant extent from millions of rands stolen in recent years- especially in the health and social welfare sectors and not yet recovered.

Rethinking revolutionary/emancipatory consciousness and practices in the present

I personally believe it is important to retain the notion of a revolutionary or emancipatory consciousness and practice as referring to motives and actions that were selfless and had in mind an unwavering commitment to better the lives of the majority of the people of South Africa who were oppressed under apartheid.

If that is the case, if that is a legitimate definition of revolutionary or emancipatory consciousness and practice, how does one apply that consciousness and practice in the post-1994 period, where as I've suggested, the one-time leading force for emancipation, the ANC and its allies, have in fact, undermined the very freedom that they helped bring about and acted as Mbeki would say of others, as a counter-revolutionary force?

What it means to have an emancipatory consciousness and practice in this period requires a different methodology from simply analysing legislation, nation building, social cohesion, State Capture and questions like that.

What I believe is necessary now and was at the core of the self-sacrificial element of the revolutionary spirit, the revolutionary consciousness. the revolutionary practice, was and is to have empathy and compassion for the poor, for their suffering. It was a willingness to offer one's life to the service of the poor and marginalised.

The notions that I am raising here were among the considerations that I had to engage in when I  joined the liberation Struggle in the late 1960s. I had to ask myself whether I was willing and ready to undergo the sacrifices, and whether I was prepared to encounter the repression that could well be and was in fact my lot once I was captured by the apartheid forces. That was the case with many others, some of whom offered their lives for our freedom.

In order to conduct this self-examination, I had to have a certain state of mind or subjectivity, but also a sense of empathy with the plight of the poor to the point that I was willing to identify my life with that of the oppressed people and join my future with theirs.

If that is the case what does it mean to have a revolutionary or emancipatory consciousness in the current period when the forces that were the forces of revolution and democracy have now become the forces for suppressing that democracy? How does one categorise their suppressing that freedom, whether it's manifested in lawless attacks on the homeless, attacks on people in wheelchairs, waiting to get medical attention or Sassa grants and lawless xenophobic attacks on vulnerable people from other countries?  

When one confronts this situation, the revolutionary consciousness that I believe many of us had at the time of the onset of democracy can no longer be put in service to the ANC and its allies. Our solidarity must be with the people against whom they are exerting repression and oppression.  Our solidarity and support must also go to those who are stepping in, in a number of parts of the country, to do voluntary work that ought to be done by the state. 

Until we have found a way of revitalising broader democratic life, our energies and support need to be directed towards a range of democratic forces located in several different sectors who contribute towards filling the gap left by the irresponsibility of the current state order.

If that is the case, to pursue freedom and democracy or to be a revolutionary in the present period, to have a democratic or emancipatory consciousness, to have revolutionary or emancipatory practice, is to act in support of or extend solidarity in whatever way one can to those who are the oppressed people in South Africa. These are the same people who were oppressed under apartheid and that means, acting against the erstwhile liberators, the ANC and its allies.

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.


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