Response to general crisis: Social hope and collective action for change in South Africa – Part one

20th November 2023 By: Raymond Suttner

Response to general crisis: Social hope and collective action for change in South Africa – Part one

Raymond Suttner
Photo by: Madelene Cronje

When we talk about hope in a political context, one is referring to hope for change that will be transformative, not merely in our individual lives, but affecting every one of us. In other words, in a situation like the current crisis in South Africa, many people despair and have a sense that government and the state will not be able to deliver a better life or an adequate life for very many people in this country. How should this be addressed? I have no blueprint but explore some of the alternatives there may be.

Privatisation of hope

For those with means, one of the ways of resolving this is to take their children out of public schools and put them in private schools or when meeting medical needs, those with means tend not to go to clinics of varying quality, but see private doctors - sometimes paid by medical aid, sometimes supplemented by private means where doctors have contracted out of medical aid.

Given the scale of the collapse of the state infrastructure, notably power, water, roads and transport, and the threat of violence that is widespread, some have the choice to emigrate to a country which has not got problems of the type that we have in this country or has more resources to meet everyone's needs, in spite of having similar problems.

Ronald Aronson, in his book, We refers to this as the “privatisation of hope”, where realisation of hope is seen as an individual project or objective, whereby one tries to find a way of meeting the needs of oneself, or oneself and those who are closest to one. (Ronald Aronson, We, University of Chicago Press, 2017, chapter 5 and generally).

That is obviously not engagement in a social project, led by a social movement. One is not then involved in transforming society as a whole, but in addressing one’s needs within what is possible for one as a private individual, to meet the needs of oneself and one’s loved ones or those in one’s family, through the means that are at one’s disposal - mainly financial means it would seem.

The financial means also sometimes enable individuals to acquire qualifications and experience that also translate into social capital. This makes individual social mobility and entry into jobs in South Africa and potential jobs overseas easier.

Crisis of society not simply frustrated hopes of individuals

As has been said previously the current crisis, or the multiple crises in South Africa, are not incidental injustices or absence of that which is rightfully part of what individuals are entitled to expect in their lives. We are confronting a generalised collapse of governance - at the level of constitutionalism, where there is little sense of state commitment to legality, where indeed “wrong is right” in the minds of many whose wrongdoings go unpunished. (see Raymond Suttner ).

Equally, and partly connected to widespread wrongdoing, the state no longer functions - or functions with low levels of effectiveness - in many areas of our lives, with collapsing infrastructure, deriving from lack of investment in and stealing from key state entities, notably in relation to provision of electricity and water, the educational system at every level, healthcare, protection from crime or from harassment by police and other public authorities.

There is also widespread hunger, often starvation, increasingly recognised as a national crisis. ( ). And right now there is a crisis of huge proportions affecting transport of goods through ports, with long delays and potential barriers facing imports and exports. (See:, behind paywall).

No political party appears to have the will, vision or organised base to address a crisis of this character, which reaches into almost every aspect of our lives.

Privatisation of hopes and aspirations vs collective action for social hopes to be realised

If we are addressing the crisis prevailing in the country, what this brings to the fore is the need to revive the resources and capacity for collective action and collective movements. This is something that seems to have fallen into discredit with the collapse of the Soviet Union and most of its allied states, and in South Africa and in other parts of Africa, the collapse of national liberation movements as bearers of aspirations that met the needs of most of the oppressed people of the country. These aspirations, voiced and advanced by liberation movements, were cast as social and universal aspirations aiming to address what was lacking in the lives of all people in the country, but primarily that of all who experienced colonial or apartheid oppression.

In the case of South Africa, in recent years, hope for a “better life for all”, an early ANC election slogan, has collapsed. Instead, there has been diversion of resources that were meant for all the people of South Africa, and especially the impoverished and marginalised, into the pockets of those holding power or close to those who hold power in the country. This is because access to power at every level in South Africa usually or often enables one to extend patronage to others or do so in a corrupt manner, as is currently prevalent in the country.

With the diversion of those funds towards private needs at the top, many who have not benefitted, who are hungry, who are jobless, lacking adequate educational opportunities or healthcare for themselves or their children, have fallen into a sense of demoralisation and often despair. It also tends to evoke passivity, as democratic processes yield few results. This sense of despair is not restricted to the poor but pervades wide sections of South African society.

We are talking then not just of an individual need that is not being met, but of a social need, which is required by large numbers of people. In the political sense, it is a desire for freedom, a desire for transformation in a broad sense, and - more broadly - a desire for an end to the inequality that has widened since 1994.

But it also relates to specific freedoms that have not been realised and form part of this broader social requirement to realise people's needs in society, whether as women, disabled people, or those who practise sexualities that meet opposition from patriarchy (LGBTQIA+). Ours is a country where violent masculinities are prevalent and people who depart from heterosexuality are often targeted.  

The attack on universal notions of freedom also scapegoats foreign-born migrants - not those who are wealthy but those scraping a living. They are subject to continual insecurity, violence and bureaucratic harassment by the Department of Home Affairs, police and members of the public with little if any state intervention to prevent harm.

Need to revive broad collective/social movements

It is important to rescue the notion of a collectivity that has an interest in social hope, the realisation of hopes that are not just that of atomised individuals, but of a collectivity or society as a whole, as a universal goal.

It also points to the need for social movements which may be political parties, movements around distinct needs, that are also specific social needs like sexualities or climate change and so forth, which, although voiced by segments of society, all form part of an overall vision of hope for the future.

Many of these visions may be articulated within single-issue or specific-issue types of movements, though they do have a universal interest at heart, like climate change that affects the future of the globe.

It's important for us to resuscitate the notion of broad movements, because the realisation of social hope depends on people coming together, unified and acting as one. It is important that people revive a sense where they do not see a problem as affecting them purely as individuals and recognise that this is also the problem of others, whether in society as a whole or as a specific group within society as a whole, who are alerted to a particular problem or experience, by virtue of their identities or their gender and similar factors.

Given the grave abuses of collapsed collectivities and collective movements, we need to draw lessons.  But that need not mean throwing away the notion of acting as and finding ways of acting together collectively, subject to careful organisation building.  This is what many people have been doing historically and are already doing around the globe in this time. (See the many examples of Rebecca Solnit, Hope in the Dark, 3 ed, Haymarket Books, Chicago, 2016 and Aronson, We, above)

We need to find ways of acting as a collective in order to realise goals that will not be achieved as individuals. They will not be realised as social goals if these are simply individuals acting to realise them for themselves.

How to revive broad collective social movements?

Ronald Aronson writes in We that “today the hope that matters most has fallen on hard times. Even after the catastrophes of the twentieth century the great modern hope had persisted ‘that things will one day finally get better,’ in Theodore Adorno’s words — ‘that one day human beings will be allowed to breathe easily.’

“But today we are losing the hope of a better society and a better world, and even the collective consciousness that can pose such goals. Who still anticipates the continued spread of political and social equality and democracy? Who still banks on the collective force of workers and other ordinary people? Who still thinks that our children’s and grandchildren’s lives can be made better than our own? Who still expects that the development of science and technology and the spread of education will make the world more humane and livable? And who still sees themselves as belonging to a collectivity capable of making any of these things happen?”

Aronson distinguishes more than one collectivity and more than one type of individual action. He refers to the 20th century experiences of We as ones which suppressed individualism and individual experience. And he refers to a book, a dystopian novel, whereby the notion of We is imposed on individuals or in a sense it takes their place as each of them suppress their own sense of I, the individual. (The novel is by Evgeny Zamyatin and also called We and was denied publication in the Soviet Union until 1988, and was first published in the United States in 1924).

In other words, the collectivity does not arise as a condition for the realisation of individual freedoms within the whole, but as a way of suppressing individual freedoms, supposedly, in their interests and that of the notion of We.

Its notion of happiness is to impose it by eliminating freedom and difference, through policing individuals on the lookout for any deviation.

The We that Aronson advances for the present is in opposition to today's trends. It is not a false collectivity that destroys social hope, but one of the active democratic collectivities that have emerged in recent times to revive this hope again and again, as indicated by both Aronson and Solnit. Aronson says that if the 20th century problem was We, perhaps then a very different We may point towards a solution for our time. If so, history will have indeed redefined the meaning of We.

This article is part one of a two part continuation of the earlier articles enquiring into the value of notions of hope for the current crisis in South Africa.

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.