Thinking about South African history, current political protests against the president, the battles in Weimar Germany between leftist and rightist militias and even the circumstances of the Philippines at the turn of the 21st century, J. BROOKS SPECTOR looks to philosopher Henry David Thoreau for support.
When I first arrived in South Africa in January 1975, rather naively, I began to wonder why the great mass of black people had not risen up in righteous anger to overcome their oppressors in some way. In this thinking, perhaps I was still under the spell of the apparent success of America’s civil rights revolution, and then the mass mobilisation of a nation’s citizens against an unjust, outrageously expensive, and thoroughly pointless war in Southeast Asia.
For the first, like many others, I had failed to reckon with the more subtle forms of economic segregation and deep-seated racism in many of the nooks and crannies of society that still remained. For the latter, I had seen the success of popular mobilisation against the war as the key to ending American participation in it. But, at the time, like many others, I did not give sufficient credit to the increasing enervation of the American government in the face of a struggle that seemed endless and astonishingly costly in men and treasure, and that traduced the chances of nearly every other government social programme by virtue of the foregone expenditure in Southeast Asia. And, of course, there was the sheer tenacity of the Viet Cong and Viet Minh armies in their success in carrying on years of struggle in what was the absolute archetype of asymmetrical warfare. And winning it.
Perhaps I was also under the spell of the largely non-violent, civil disobedience gospel that had motivated so much of the protest against both racial discrimination and that war. That sensibility owed much to the ideas of Rev Martin Luther King Jr, but his ideas, in turn, were affected by Mahatma Gandhi’s notion of ‘satyagraha’, forged during the Indian struggle for independence. And Gandhi’s ideas, in turn, had drawn upon Henry David Thoreau’s An Essay on Civil Disobedience, that had been occasioned by Thoreau’s protest against another American war, this one being fought against Mexico in 1845. (Thoreau had, himself, borrowed significant influences for his philosophical approach from his study of the origins and philosophical bases of Buddhism.)
Of course, all of these ideas have come to have an enormous impact (although not an uncontested one) on civil rights and human rights struggles around the world. The lessons from these ideas were that a struggle that relies upon morality and righteousness has great strength and momentum on its side, even if it is against determined adversaries, and even if it takes a great stretch of time to succeed. (And, of course, just as long as one’s opponents are not the kinds of people who would gladly slaughter hundreds of thousands to retain control. Then it can take much, much longer.)
As Thoreau himself had written in his essay,
“Unjust laws exist; shall we be content to obey them, or shall we endeavour to amend them, and obey them until we have succeeded, or shall we transgress them at once? Men generally, under such a government as this, think that they ought to wait until they have persuaded the majority to alter them. They think that, if they should resist, the remedy would be worse than the evil. But it is the fault of the government itself that the remedy is worse than the evil. It makes it worse. Why is it not more apt to anticipate and provide for reform? Why does it not cherish its wise minority? Why does it cry and resist before it is hurt? Why does it not encourage its citizens to be on the alert to point out its faults, and do better than it would have them?”
And more succinctly still, Thoreau had argued,
“Must the citizen ever for a moment, or in the least degree, resigns his conscience to the legislator? Why has every man a conscience then? I think that we should be men first, and subjects afterward.”
It was this line of argument that led Thoreau to refuse to pay a tax as his personal protest against the war then being waged by the United States against Mexico on grounds that successful prosecution of the war would vastly expand the area of the country that would be open to the legal status of slavery. As a staunch abolitionist, he was, therefore, compelled by his moral compass to oppose that war by whatever peaceful means possible. After he refused to pay that poll tax, the town authorities where he lived had hesitated at first about how to cope with this act of civil disobedience, but then eventually put him in jail over it.
Now, of course, the other part of the story is that friends and relatives quickly rallied to pay the tax for him – and he seems to have gotten confused about the details of taxation. This particular tax was not from the national government but was, rather, a local town tax that gave him the right to vote in town public meetings and elections. It was, therefore, unconnected with the ongoing warfare or his deep revulsion over it.
Still, he had made his point. Citizens have a right – even a moral duty – to refuse to co-operate with a government once they have carefully determined their cause was just and the government’s deeply wrong. He had also found a new great theme to write about, civil disobedience, after the lessons about self-reliance and inner contemplation in his extended essay, Walden, and beyond still other writing that marked him as one of the earliest of environmentalists.
But now return to South Africa in 1975. After observing the circumstances all around me that described what was effectively a racial dictatorship that determined black lives right down to smallest details of buying a stamp or the walking along a sidewalk, I began to ask black acquaintances about how one might confront and immobilise such patently discriminatory circumstances – legally. I asked why boycotts of discriminatory stores, transportation and government offices weren’t taking place on a regular, ongoing basis; or why mass sit-ins didn’t occur routinely. Still lacking deep historical knowledge about the boycotts (and their resulting repression) that had marked the nation’s past, I tried to argue that striking back at the country’s economy, rather than at its political system directly, might be a way forward.
And so, I asked people things like: “What if, on a pre-agreed date, every adult black person in the country stood in line at some bank to open an account with the minimum amount needed to do so, say R5? There would be vast crowds in all of the nation’s banking halls, and commerce would grind to a halt, demonstrating the power of an aggrieved nation through a totally legal, ordinary act. And then, a week later, just as things were settling down, every one of these people would return to their respective banks and stand in line again, this time to close their account, thereby throwing things into chaos all over again. Wouldn’t things like that demonstrate better than anything else how potent an aroused nation could become in the face of its oppression?”
Gently, the flaws in this logic were explained to me. Back in that pre-internet, pre-social media, pre-cellphone, pre-email world, just how did I think the organisers of such an effort would fare, once the police found them out, and then tracked them down? Moreover, who would bear the cost of this organising, and how would they carry it out when the country’s media would refuse to publish their manifestos or broadcast their press releases? And then what would happen to all those in the crowds waiting in line when they lost their livelihoods from participating in what would quickly be officially listed as an illegal gathering?
Soon enough, of course, the Soweto Uprising – and the decade and a half of turmoil that followed – demonstrated how much effort and cost would actually be needed to bring down the old regime. This was true even as apartheid’s opponents gathered foreign allies and supporters, the country’s economy was increasingly abandoned by international banks and investors, and the grinding, unceasing cost to be paid by the bulk of the white population for supporting the system became increasingly onerous. One lesson learned from that, of course, should be that it takes more than a high moral posture and a night in jail to rid a nation of an odious political regime.
And so, inevitably, we come to the South Africa of today. The past days have demonstrated that in face of rising anger against the sins, follies, and deceits of the Zuma administration’s escalating corruptions, cronyism, influence peddling, obloquy, and dogged incompetence, a national revulsion is finally taking hold. Groups and individuals who had rarely if ever risen in protest have joined those with long track records of dissent. A non-racial momentum has brought out over a 200,000 people to protest nationwide.
Despite police and government efforts to downplay the size, diversity and energy of those crowds, and in the face of efforts by bused supporters of the president, the lesson of Friday, 7 April seems to be that public unhappiness with President Zuma and what he represents is building rather than ebbing. Further protest efforts are in the offing, starting Wednesday, 12 April.
Key questions, going forward, include whether the many different opponents to the president, their efforts to drive him from office, and their very varied agendas can be joined under one coherent banner on a sustained basis? Can the many different civil society groups, opposition political parties, and the thousands of largely unaffiliated citizens all agree on a common strategy and tactics? And can such an unwieldy conglomeration – not exactly a coherent, cogent coalition – build momentum rather than watch its support dribble away or dissolve into factional squabbles and disagreements? Moreover, can such a loose coalition maintain its focus and energy in the face of attacks by opponents from his rural and other strongholds who are summoned to defend the president, let alone from attacks by some government figures that remain determined to keep the president in office, even in the face of a partial revolt among his own party? There are already opportunities looming for various confrontations either at the official government commemoration of the death of Chris Hani on the 10th, or at a national day of action – against President Zuma – called for two days later.
While circumstances are not the same, such partisan fighting can easily escalate beyond the angry pushing and shoving and hot political rhetoric on display so far. Back in 1919, in a defeated Germany, amid increasingly straitened economic circumstances and food shortages, private armies – the Spartakusbund and the Freikorps – battled it out for the future of the new Weimar Republic. While it was not an outright civil war, it could easily have reached that point.
The Spartakusbund was the creation of the far left, while the Freikorps brought together loosely organised groups of armed, former soldiers. Ultimately, the Freikorps defeated their leftist enemies in bloody street fighting, but while the Freikorps were fighting in defence of the newly proclaimed republic, their ideology was not entirely in sympathy with it, and their views remained a core of opposition to it from the right, until the rise of the Nazi party.
South Africa itself has not been entirely immune to this kind of fighting, of course. Once it became clear, a quarter of a century earlier, that the apartheid government was on the way out, ANC-aligned fighters had battled Inkatha-aligned ones (along with those shadowy third forces) in rural areas, townships and even, on occasion, right in the centre of Johannesburg. That time was also a period of pronounced economic difficulties.
Right now, South Africa has yet again entered another dangerously unsettled economic position – this time as the reality of the international ratings downgrades sinks in with business, labour, government and the ordinary people who will, inevitably, bear the brunt of the higher costs of financing government, or the increasing difficulties of attracting financing for any new businesses. Prices will rise because of a depreciated currency, imported goods will begin to cost much, much more, and the economy may well begin to accelerate the shedding of jobs as it shrinks into recession.
This time around, here, will those who wish the president an early retirement, but who remain split on so many other issues (while together on the president’s future, the SACP and the DA are hardly in agreement on much else, just for starters) be able to maintain a coherent front even as their differences divide them? Will they swing towards a national tax revolt, or will this opposition (or some of it) decide more direct action is needed, or, more unlikely, will they hold off to build a stronger political opposition for the 2019 election is the best option? Will Zuma’s own party eventually decide its continued survival depends on dumping him, or will they conclude, instead, that in the face of the growing clamour to remove him, embracing him with all his flaws and faults still remains the best way to survive to fight another day?
And if the opposition determines to keep up the pressure and it continues to build support, what concrete form can this opposition take? Will they somehow lean towards occupying government buildings on a continuous basis, despite the possibility of police action; will they call for a tax revolt, or even disruptive electronic campaigns against the presidency and government? Will they follow the example of the early demonstration of the power of flash mobs as with what happened in the Philippines with cellphone SMS campaigns that summoned hundreds of thousands to a downtown Manila plaza to push for the removal of a corrupt president almost 20 years ago? In that example, the obvious loss of support forced the military’s commander to transfer his loyalty from the incumbent president and onto the vice president.
South Africans who still have jobs and homes to defend, as well as children to educate, may grow tired of a grind of demonstrations that would continue to degrade the economy further. On the other hand, as an increasingly weakened president clings to his office, those without homes, jobs or opportunities may finally grow tired of his promises and equivocations.
The country is at a turning point, but no one yet has a complete map, let alone the GPS co-ordinates of where the road choices may take it. Thoreau had also written,
“The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation. What is called resignation is confirmed desperation.”
Photo: “Economic serial killer,” read one sign referring to Zuma during the Save South Africa march on Union Building on 7 April, Pretoria. (Greg Nicolson)