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Op-ED: Ruth First, validating dissent and building a democratic consensus

Op-ED: Ruth First, validating dissent and building a democratic consensus

There is an encouraging and sometimes brave upsurge of protest against the corruption, acts of illegality and other abuses of the Zuma-led government. This has involved a wide section of society.  Some individuals, in leadership and other positions, have been victimised as a result of what they have done.  While one admires this willingness to sacrifice it is important that we do not automatically “stigmatise” power or celebrate “dissent”.  In specific contexts power may well represent a democratic “truth” and democratic practices.  Both power and dissent need to be evaluated and justified by whether or not these are freedom-enhancing or denying. By RAYMOND SUTTNER

First published on

On 17 August 2017, the 35th anniversary of Ruth First’s assassination was marked at the University of the Witwatersrand with a panel discussing dissent. The event was advertised as showcasing people who had been “outspoken” and there was much reference to the need to “speak truth to power”. All of those represented in the panel had paid some price for condemning or opposing abuse of power or deviating from an institutional or organisational leadership position with which the panellist disagreed on principle, whether in the SABC, ANC or the DA.

I admire the stands that these people have taken and that the individuals concerned have been willing to oppose injustice, and in some cases still face disciplinary action, that may have a serious impact on their professional or political careers. In this context, it is painful to remember Suna Venter who was hounded to an early death as a result of her opposition to SABC abuses. This was a person truly committed to democratic values, who needs to be celebrated by all who cherish freedom.

Having said that we need to be careful not to automatically celebrate dissent or condemn “power” as obviously and always bad. Both dissent and power need to be subjected to scrutiny according to specific values. I suggest that we ask whether the dissenting stance or the assertion of power represent democratic values and practices, whether they are inclusive or divisive, whether they advance or aim at denying freedoms.

In saying that dissent needs justification I am arguing that “speaking out” or being “outspoken” or being a dissenter or a “dissident” is not inherently brave or justifiable. It is that, in particular contexts and it may not be brave or admirable in other contexts. To take a clear example: Under the South African constitution the values of inclusivity and building of a common nationhood are advanced as central values. In consequence, we can infer purely from the constitution that to advance racist views or actions –once a dominant stance in South African official politics- would not be justifiable legally. But we can also argue that it is morally unjustifiable from the standpoint of the desirability of building a common society where all can live together amicably, whether or not we derive those values from the law and constitution.

Unity, the “national liberation project” and suppression of dissent

Having said that, there are also danger zones insofar as unity can be used as the basis for penalising the identities and views of some people or groups, that may be minorities, that manifest qualities in no way antagonistic to the interests of all others.

They may fall outside the consensus amongst those who form the unity or the core beliefs of the organisation which may be dominant, to which some or large numbers belong. Yet they may not necessarily hold values or be or do anything that is in any way antagonistic to common wellbeing, what is necessary for the safety, security and general welfare of all the inhabitants of South Africa. Unity is often evoked as a basis for joining people together for common purposes or to achieve shared goals. But all unity also carries the danger of intolerance towards minority views or identities that are not or do not aim to be part of the unified vision prevailing at a particular time.

In order to liberate South Africa from apartheid and other colonised peoples from colonial rule the project of national liberation, led by a liberation movement was advanced as representing the nation-to-be. All freedom loving peoples, especially the most oppressed, were exhorted to join together under the umbrella of this movement fighting for freedom.

There was considerable justification for invoking the need for unity insofar as all colonial powers and apartheid rule sought to divide the oppressed and artificially advance divisions on the basis of ethnic identities, real or manufactured. The ANC was formed on the basis, amongst other factors, of the need to unite African people and end “tribal animosities”, which had often seen divisions amongst these peoples when they resisted colonial conquest.

In subsequent years modes of division became more elaborate, commending to Africans that they should realise their freedom as separate chiefdoms and tribal subjectivities, within bantustans, some of which were accorded pseudo independence. Every effort was devoted by the apartheid regime and collaborators to combatting broad African unity as well as unity between Africans and all other black people.  

Let us be clear. That the apartheid regime may have sought to validate “tribal identities” and separation between Africans, Coloureds and Indians does not mean that any assertion of an ethnic identity, being MoPedi or iMpondo or any other identity necessarily lacks legitimacy. Indeed, it may be advanced as a result of a legitimate pride in language, culture and various other practices. In most respects, these identities may cause no harm to anyone.   But we need both to recognise the right to assert them and engage critically. Within many cultures and customs there is contestation over practices or interpretations of practices that are seen by some or many as being abusive.

On the one hand, we cannot treat all assertions of tribal identities as “chauvinist” or divisive. Many statements of leading writers or documents of the ANC refer to the need to combat “ethnic chauvinism” without recognising that ethnic or tribal identities need not be chauvinist. Equally that does not mean we are barred from an interrogation of their component qualities, and identifying harmful elements. The same obviously applies to cultural practices of all other inhabitants of our country.

Dissent and its role in enhancing freedom

In the context of our discussion, dissent is important and justified insofar as it is in fidelity with freedom, if it represents values and practices that are freedom-enhancing and not denying of the freedom of some. When many of us resisted apartheid, we were in one sense dissenting from a consensus that the apartheid regime sought to project. At the same time, we did not self-define ourselves as dissenters or dissidents. We saw ourselves as bearers of a new, emerging consensus which was supposedly triumphant after 1994. Ruth First was assassinated and Nelson Mandela spent decades in prison for championing the rights of all, simultaneously dissenting and asserting a new vision or consensus.

That does not mean that dissent is only legitimate if one represents the majority. How we characterise other expressions of dissent depends on what is said or done, where and how.

Speaking out and Ruth First

With all the emphasis on “speaking out” publicly or “standing up to be counted”, it is sometimes forgotten that Ruth First herself did not always see the way to manifest her views or her disagreement as best served by “speaking out” beyond the organisations to which she belonged. Yet, her independence of thought is beyond doubt. Ruth First appears to have understood that there is a time to speak and a time to hold one’s peace where more harm can be done by articulating a view in a particular way at a particular moment in time.

First disagreed with the SACP over the Soviet intervention in Czechoslovakia. She is also said to have disagreed with the ANC/SACP backing ZAPU in the Zimbabwean war to the exclusion of ZANU, what she described as their “putting all eggs in one basket”.  She never raised these views in public. She was a member of organisations that required debate on such disagreement –at that time –  to be internally conducted and that members who disagreed were expected to hold their peace, publicly until such time as a position may have been changed. Many people knew of her disagreement and that she sometimes had sharp exchanges with her husband, Joe Slovo on such issues.

Ruth First did not raise her views publicly because it would have endangered the unity of a liberation movement and SACP under siege. Personally, I see that as justified and necessary at the time. That does not make the invocation of unity a justified basis for suppressing dissent at all times and certainly not now, at a quite different time.

Forms of dissent

For those of us linked with the ANC and SACP, as well as the PAC, resistance to apartheid included the use of force, justified on a legitimate basis as self-defence against attacks of the apartheid regime on innocent people.

That is not to say that there were not unjustified uses of force by liberation movements, where unnecessary and illegitimate civilian deaths occurred, unnecessary in the sense that these were not individuals engaged in hostilities or acts related to the war effort of the apartheid regime. Even though armed struggle may have been justified, not every action that was done in the name of those armed forces was necessarily covered under the justification.

In the post-1994 period, there has regrettably been insufficient weight placed on the need to secure peace and that it requires respect for the principle of non-violence. South Africa is a very violent society and violence, except in very exceptional circumstances is antagonistic to respect for human rights. This is because any act of violence negates the humanity of the victim.

In general, my reference here is to use of violence as a first resort to resolve problems, unnecessary force by state authorities, notably in Marikana and in other recorded cases of extra-judicial executions or attacks on civilians. But there are also significant levels of violence between civilians, related to the macho culture prevalent in South Africa.

But in recent times resort to violence has been repoliticised within sections of the student movement under the broad banner of the #FeesMustFall movement(s). In some cases, these resorts to violence, burnings or various other forms of disruption or coercion have been justified by the perpetrators by virtue of the demands made or violence itself has been seen as bearing a redemptive or cleansing quality. This may be part of wider policing of thought and refusal to listen to different views that has paradoxically been part of some strands of these movements.

That the resort to violence on campuses was not preceded by significant debate may relate partly to the contempt that students, like many others, have for the politics of the day. This has created barriers preventing an inter-generational dialogue, a factor that was conducive to resolving many problems in the 1970s and 1980s. It will require patient and dedicated efforts to build trust afresh in order to listen and learn from one another.

Dissent and power today

One of the reasons for the tendency to unqualifiedly celebrate dissent is that people feel powerless and they look for new heroes and heroines and identify heroism in a limited range of ways. But there are many people who are taking action to remedy the corruption, undermining of democracy and constitutionalism by state capture and a range of other ills, that characterise the hollowing out of our democratic life.  

We are not powerless as members of the South African public. Many are out in the streets demonstrating that power.   What needs to be appreciated is that bringing people into the streets, while important, represents an episodic phenomenon if the demonstrators then drift away and do not have a link with one another that is enduring. That is the crucial difference between mobilisation –bringing people out to hear a speech or to march and other activities and that of being part of an ongoing effort –being organised.  

Organisation does not necessarily mean formation of a new political party though that may be required. Initially, people may agree to come together for limited purposes, under an agreed unified vision –to restore constitutionalism and legality, to end corruption and state capture. Within that unity we may have a much wider grouping than that which formed the UDF, which mainly represented the poor. All may agree on these broad goals but differ over how to address issues like social inequality. Not everything needs to be settled at this early stage and can be part of an ongoing debate and developing and broadening consensus.

The immediate goal needs to be to drive the crooks out of the state and reclaim our country. That is insufficient in the long run but it is crucial now. We need to set aside sectarian differences and join together under an agreed unified vision, under the leadership of respected individuals who may be broadly accepted as non-partisan or non-party political. This does not exclude the participation of members of political parties, as long as they agree with the unifying vision

Dissent and rebuilding a democratic consensus

What I am arguing for, then, is to dissent from what Zumaism means but simultaneously to advance a new democratic consensus, that is, to renew the democratic consensus of 1994. That does not preclude enhancing what we expect of democracy, drawing on what remains inadequate and what we have learnt in this period. That is all part of the great debate we need to have amongst ourselves. DM

Raymond Suttner is a scholar and political analyst. 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 public anti-apartheid activities. His prison memoir Inside Apartheid’s prison has recently been reissued with a new introduction covering his more recent “life outside the ANC” by Jacana Media. He blogs at and his twitter handle is @raymondsuttner


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