Professor Raymond Suttner
Photo by: Ivor Markman
Until the 1990s, the ANC’s January 8 anniversary statement was a very important day in the calendar for very many people. For my generation, and many who are older and still alive, and many who are younger but participated in the liberation struggle under the leadership of the ANC and SACP, it was a special event.
It was the day when the organisation provided an analysis of the South African situation and its relationship to the world at large, for those inside the country, as well as anti-apartheid and other solidarity movements around the globe. In the discourse of the time it spelt out the “line of march” for all of us, wherever we were located. It articulated what had to be done in order to bring the apartheid regime “to its knees” and set the country on the road to freedom.
It was the day when the ANC sought to address all the people of South Africa. It spoke not only to members or comrades but “compatriots”, meaning nationals or fellow citizens, urging them to do whatever they could to reject the apartheid government. It was part of a process of building a nation on a new basis, where people existed in relation to one another as equals. That was manifested in appeals to people who were not in existing organisations. It called on them to build organised structures, as youth, women and other sections of the population that needed effective social and political expression.
On that day the president of the ANC, Oliver Tambo, would read a collectively prepared statement that was usually wide-ranging, covering all aspects of the strengths and weaknesses of the apartheid state and the corresponding qualities of the resistance mounted against it.
But it also had very specific areas of focus so that individuals located in different parts of the country, in a variety of conditions, would recognise themselves in the message. They faced differing and changing forms of oppression that were addressed in general terms in the statement, but also directly in relation to where different individuals stood and what their life experience entailed.
Some or many of those who were addressed or listened were struggling against oppression; others might have lapsed into a sense of despair. All were meant to see the statement speaking to them; it aimed to break the demoralisation that may have set in, wherever possible.
The January 8 statement tried to give a message to the majority of South Africans: the oppressed people as well as democratic whites who associated themselves with the struggle for freedom. It was not a simple message insofar as it simultaneously tried to be meaningful to people located in so many different ways.
Those of us who were cadres of the liberation movement would pore over the document, reading every word over and over again, in order to extract all the possible meanings that the message carried. We needed to understand what it entailed for the work that we had to do or encourage others to do in their various localities – in communities, factories, farms, schools, as workers or unemployed, living in homes or homeless, as business people or professionals or found in different places of worship.
What is sometimes misunderstood in glib references to “revolution” or bringing about “revolutionary change” is that any substantial transformation, including revolution, entails painstaking preparation and listening to people, in trying to understand how they see their lives. The ANC of the period of illegality understood that it does not happen in one day with one big tumultuous event, though there may be some dramatic or decisive moments.
There are also many who suffer but are not necessarily waiting to hear the message of liberation, and sometimes require months of discussions and argument before they can be persuaded to act together with a political movement, even though they may well long for freedom. Many are afraid of experiencing direct repression or losing a job. Others might have been sceptical of those who bear a message, just as we ward off salespeople who bother us. Most people fear risk taking, preferring to protect the little they have.
The logic of the message, its representing a coherent plan for solving the big and small problems that people experienced, was – and is – crucial. One can combat a sense of despair only if one is able to present a convincing way of remedying the issues at stake. One cannot mobilise or organise people where there is a sense that one has taken short cuts in arriving at an answer.
Enunciating slogans is simple. Confronting the obstacles to realisation is complex and sometimes consists of sober, undramatic actions to achieve a goal. That is one of the key differences between populism, which thrives on slogans, and popular movements, which mobilise people into building organisations in order to achieve planned results.
In a situation where people feel there is no way out of their current situation of hardship they sometimes derive a sense of “security” or comfort themselves in their despair by immobilisation. This may appear sensible, where they can see no other alternative on the horizon. It is a hard job convincing them that there is a way out of their situation, but one has to do that.
The first step towards winning people over towards a course of action that will bring about change, then and now, is to have a plan that is convincing, credible and which addresses a path that can lead to the goal. But that logic is not in itself sufficient to win over people. They can only be won over through understanding the plan and also trusting the bearers of the message – that was the crux of the statement in the past.
Even before trying to win over the masses, in many periods, the ANC needed a plan for itself as an organisation in crisis. In many of the phases of illegality it had its own reasons for requiring clear direction. There had to be a convincing plan for the ANC to survive. It had suffered massive reverses at the time of its banning and the arrest and exiling of key leaders in the 1960s. People had been trained as soldiers but their deployment was limited and prospects for entry into South Africa across hostile borders seemed a distant hope.
By the time of the Morogoro conference of 1969, demoralisation and divisions had weakened the organisation. It was a time when decisive leadership, vision and strategies had to be developed. For many of us who joined at that time, the Morogoro strategy and tactics statement was one example of the clarity of vision that the organisation presented, pointing a way out of apartheid darkness.
There is no doubt that very many people trusted the ANC and its leaders. It was not simply that they had made sacrifices including in some cases, their very lives. It was the way that some of the famous leaders conducted themselves, how they related to one another and to the membership in general that induced respect and trust. Of course, there was an uneven diffusion of such qualities among the top leadership of the ANC, but it remained a significant part of the organisation’s ethos.
Today the ANC acknowledges that it faces a crisis in its relationship with its constituency. This cannot be understood purely in electoral terms, that the ANC has suffered devastating losses in the recent local government elections and faces the prospect of falling short of a majority in the next national elections. Nor can it be comprehended purely by focusing on leadership divisions or the flaws of President Jacob Zuma or any other leader.
The changed relationship between the ANC and the population relates in the first place to dissolution of the bonds of trust that tied the organisation, at the very least, to the poorest of the poor. The ANC has come to appear as uncaring and even callous as it enriches its own leaders and those associated with them while many lack basic necessities. Schools lack basic facilities, like toilets, class rooms, electricity and clean water, and many remain homeless in situations where homes could be provided, or healthcare is within the capacity of government but not met. And these represent a small sample of the ANC-led government’s failure to meet obligations, sometimes demanded through court orders.
For many of us who were active in the ANC there is a sense of loss, for the ANC represented more than just a political organisation that won elections. Many became active in the struggle long before elections were on the horizon. Many did not believe they would live or did not live to see democratic elections.
The ANC was a home and even a family for many. It had long been more than a political organisation, but also a cultural presence within families and communities. The notion of a liberation movement as “family” can, of course, have negative qualities associated with mafia type organisations, but it also connoted the relationships of solidarity and concern for the wellbeing of members that the organisation took on as its responsibility, especially in exile or prison. It should be recalled that many men and women were young and needed parenting, and much scholarly evidence and recorded interviews support the view that it did strive to provide this.
A common ethos of service and ties of comradeship between its members no longer hold the ANC together. In a time of economic insecurity, access to the ANC has meant access to some form of regular income and in some cases, access to wealth for leaders and their associates. There are loyalties between people, but these are of an essentially different kind from those forged during the struggle.
There is no readymade alternative for many of us, for it is clear that the DA does not see itself as representing a truly compassionate alternative to the ANC. It depicts itself as clean and efficient and thereby benefits ought not to be diverted by corruption.
It may well be that DA-municipalities will perform better than the ANC has done, though DA “efficiency” may be overrated. More seriously, the DA can never recover and indeed, does not appear to wish to forge the bonds of compassion that previously tied the ANC to its base of support. The DA does run some areas efficiently, but this coexists with neglect in poorer areas under its sway.
It also displays callousness towards the most vulnerable, as evidenced in Johannesburg by Mayor Herman Mashaba’s remarks about foreign migrants. It is striking how similarly the DA and ANC respond to the question of foreign nationals, even if the ANC now attacks the Johannesburg mayor. Both organisations stand with the sentiments of King Goodwill Zwelithini, seeing foreign migrants as unwelcome on our shores. And ironically, many of these migrants hail from countries that provided hospitality to South African freedom fighters during the struggle – at considerable cost.
Most disturbingly, there is no doubt that the DA does provide a home for many racists. Every second week some DA member or official posts racist comments on social media, or individuals associated with scandalous and tragic apartheid killings like that of the Trojan horse in Gugulethu are found to hold office in the DA.
In some parts of the Western Cape former National Party officials who used to run municipalities have transmuted into DA officials. Clearly there is something about the ethos of the DA that still provides a sense of assurance to white racists or others opposed to transformation. This is also a source of discomfort to many of its black members.
Those who wish to see all inhabitants of South Africa feeling a sense of belonging need to find new organisational vehicles, additional to what exist, in order to ensure that this happens. The goal is too important for us to lapse into despair. A recent article referred to a “Socialist Sunday School” established, in Brooklyn, New York, without links to any political organisation, in order to re-instil values of caring, compassion and mutual solidarity. (http://portside.org/2016-12-31/starting-socialist-sunday-school). The example is interesting insofar as it represents a very, very small counterweight to what is promised by the election of Donald Trump to the US presidency.
Equally, when we in South Africa do not see any immediate way of dislodging the current Zuma-led ANC, or an adequate alternative party on offer, we need, in addition to political parties, to look around us for other vehicles for realising our goals, for instilling values that need to form the basis of an emancipatory society.
Raymond Suttner is a scholar and political analyst. He is a former political prisoner for activities in the ANC-led liberation struggle. Currently he is a Part-time Professor attached to Rhodes University and an Emeritus Professor at UNISA. He served lengthy periods in prison and house arrest for underground and other anti-apartheid activities. His prison memoir Inside Apartheid’s Prison will be reissued with a new afterword provisionally entitled Outside Apartheid’s Prison? by Jacana Media in the first half of this year. He blogs at raymondsuttner.com and his twitter handle is @raymondsuttner