South Africa


Freedom and ethics – then and now

Raymond Suttner

There is concern about the fall out from the economic crisis South Africa faces. But the main casualties are the poor whose living conditions continue to be the denial of basic needs. Insofar as the focus on political leadership is on other issues citizens need to act to recover the compassion that once moved people to struggle, as and with the oppressed, for humane living conditions.

This article first appeared on Creamer Media’s website:

What did it mean to join the liberation struggle against apartheid, in the difficult times and what does it mean now? Joining the liberation struggle in the period of illegality meant the possibility of experiencing torture, imprisonment and death. Consequently, one had to be prepared. But prior to that decision, if it were made, one had to make a range of other assessments.

Before one can decide what to do in any given situation, raising ethical questions, one needs to assess what is best for oneself and others and what conditions one confronts. In Catholic circles there is a methodology referred to as the “see-judge-act” process. This was not simply the approach of radical leftists but recommended in the 1961 encyclical letter by Pope John XXIII entitled, (The Church) Mother and Teacher:

There are three stages which should normally be followed in the reduction of social principles into practice. First, one reviews the concrete situation; secondly, one forms a judgement on it in the light of these same principles; thirdly, one decides what in the circumstances can and should be done to implement these principles. These are the three stages that are usually expressed in the three terms: observe, judge, act.” (Pope John XXIII, 1961, Mother and Teacher, n 263)

In brief, this methodology means one considers a situation and tries to make sense of what one sees. This guides one’s actions.

During the apartheid years we all had to decide where we stood in relation to the prevailing oppression, whether we were black or white. Doing nothing, as a white, constituted “a stand”. It meant that one was content to reap the benefits of white privilege or did not see anything wrong with what was happening in the country. This was either through indifference to the suffering of black people or not thinking sufficiently about what happened before our eyes.

One had to consider what one saw, and understand it, in order to appreciate that there was nothing natural or inevitable about the social order. It could be eradicated.

That is not to say that every black person focused on apartheid as injustice or as something against which they would act. Given the pressures of life many or most people, black and white, simply carried on with their lives as best they could. Unless directly approached to get involved in “struggle politics”, they did not necessarily contemplate fighting for freedom.

These very broad and generalised statements point to processes that people did have to engage in if they were to participate in the struggle for liberation, though there were varying levels of involvement.

When I was a young man it was not so easy to join the liberation struggle, meaning the activities of illegal organisations. They were not easily visible or waiting to welcome one. (I speak only of the ANC and its allies, for that is my experience, which is not to deny the role of other organisations in defeating apartheid.)

It should be recalled that for some three and four decades respectively the ANC and SACP were banned organisations. This meant that it was not only illegal to participate in activities of these organisations but that the media did not mention them, and the history of the struggle pursued by the ANC and SACP was erased for much of the period between 1950 (in the case of the SACP) and between 1960 and the late 1970s in the case of the ANC. The Freedom Charter was not part of public discussion, though some people had copies hidden away from earlier times.

At that time the reference point for many people was the United States Bill of Rights or the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, adopted by the United Nations in 1948. There was little sense of a local South Africa history or culture of human rights, which in fact started with the Bills of Rights in the early ANC in 1923, the African Claims of 1946 and then the Freedom Charter of 1955. This had been fairly successfully suppressed through silencing bearers of the tradition from which it derived, through various forms of restriction of individuals and categories of literature.

When I grew up as a liberal in Cape Town in the 1960s there was no sign of the existence of the ANC and SACP. I later came to understand that a condition for existence and recovery, as an illegal force was that very invisibility. Rebuilding the ANC after the Rivonia trial required slow and patient discussions with trusted comrades, only recruiting new people after very careful processes. Any undue haste could risk everything and lead to the destruction of that which had been built. One of those who were key figures in that process was Albertina Sisulu, the centenary of whose birth is celebrated this year. (See Raymond Suttner, The ANC Underground, 2008.)

When I was a young student in that period I was under the impression that the leading anti-apartheid force was the liberalism of the time, manifested in the National Union of South African Students (Nusas), an overwhelmingly white organisation, and to some extent the Liberal Party and Progressive Party, (both of which were very different from the DA of today, much more attuned to the sensibilities of black people, within limitations, including rejecting universal suffrage).

Whatever the ANC had been doing since its banning could not and did not get reported on. It was also hard to find literature about the history of the ANC and SACP.

There was never any real public and open scrutiny of what these organisations stood for. They were outside the bounds of legitimate public political discourse of the time. That is not to say that there were no references to these banned organisations on the part of the apartheid regime. The ANC and SACP were dismissed as obviously so repugnant in character that it was unnecessary to examine their actual words. At the very least, one was not invited to examine the ANC and its allies and their histories and what they represented and the alternative South Africa that they advanced.

Luckily for me, I did begin to see that there was a need for political activities beyond the liberalism of that time. I say “luckily”, because I still believe that it was a privilege and honour to have participated in the struggle for freedom, especially as a white.

Though I did break with liberalism, it was not on ethical grounds. Liberalism at that time did not signify capitalism in the main, though it did undoubtedly support capitalism and oppose communism and socialism. My main attraction was to their stance against apartheid. At that time, in the absence of the Congress movement, liberals stood in the forefront of public opposition to apartheid, engaging in various forms of protest.

I did not, consequently, have moral objections for my breaking with liberalism, admiring some of the leading liberals of the time, like Donald Molteno QC, Colin Eglin and Alan Paton. I just concluded that liberalism did not have a strategy for change. It focused on acting according to what was right but did not have a clear path for implementing its moral creed. (I remember the late Edgar Brookes saying that it did not matter whether or not one succeeded, as long as one did what was right, a sentiment that initially appealed to me.) That is why, when I took up a scholarship to study overseas, in late 1969, I had decided that I would not be doing so in order to return with a PhD but with the know-how, needed to act to bring about change, illegally.

Returning to the Catholic methodology of “See-judge-act”. I, like many others had seen apartheid beyond what it was proclaimed to be, or we saw the dehumanising treatment of black people with sufficient clarity, that we were able to make some preliminary evaluation, that it was unacceptable to treat people in this way.

Over time I grappled over what was wrong in order to form a “judgement” of its character, and this changed as I broke with liberalism and came to understand the ANC/SACP characterisation of South Africa as representing “colonialism of a special type” (CST), or internal colonialism. The essential value of this characterisation was that it incorporated, in its understanding, both national or racial oppression of (all oppressed) black people and class exploitation of workers. Although there were feminist developments at various times, especially in the 1970s and 1980s, CST did not develop an adequate analysis of gender.

Out of that characterisation flowed various options for removing apartheid and realising freedom, referred to as the national democratic revolution (NDR). This entailed a range of forms of organisation, underground, armed struggle, mass public struggle where there was space to do so and international solidarity. These all aimed at destroying the apartheid regime, inaugurating democratic rule and transformation of people’s lives.

These forms of analysis – CST and NDR were contested not only by the apartheid regime but by a range of other anti-apartheid actors, who believed that these were either too radical or insufficiently radical.

When I decided to “act”, it entailed something different from some other choices that people may have made. If one “acted” as a professional against apartheid (and professional lawyers, doctors and others did some very important work) one could restrict one’s actions to that which fell within the domain of the profession and although one might invite repression, it would not be on the scale of someone who advanced the ANC/SACP alliance as a cadre of these organisations.

In the case of some who analysed apartheid and made a judgement about it, they may have made that judgement at a primarily intellectual level, for example, that it entailed racial discrimination or class exploitation or both or that it constituted an international crime, given the developments in international law, after World War II. One may have entered into debates over one or other characterisation and these were plentiful. But it was unnecessary to draw conclusions for one’s own life.

In my own route to the liberation struggle, as with many others I also had to form an intellectual judgement and continue to read documents and examine explanations about strategies, tactics and policies. But at some moments this was impossible. There just was not time to engage in all the alternative explanations, in the way that is possible in 2018. There were strategies and tactics that seemed viable and likely to yield results. I was tasked with doing some things, with “acting” and there was not always time, given the danger and the pressures, to read all the literature or engage in all the debates, as I would do had I purely been a full time, single minded academic.

At different stages that would change, for example in the 1980s despite the banning of organisations, it was possible to have fairly open discussions of doctrines, related to the ANC and SACP. These debates were important in winning support for the liberation struggle, and not simply an intellectual pastime. A clampdown did follow however, and that opening was shut, to a large extent from mid 1985 until February 1990.

I was involved in the struggle as a white who joined hands with oppressed black people in acting to end apartheid. It may have been more “natural” for a black person to join the struggle, but black people also had to undergo processes of self-examination and understanding of strategies and policies in order to ready themselves for what lay ahead. They, like me, had to understand what had to be done and how what they did fell into a larger whole. They had to be prepared to be captured, tortured, imprisoned and even killed.

Very many people engaged bravely in various forms of struggle. Some of the bravest operated in areas that did not even appear on the maps and their deeds are still relatively unknown. They may not be alive to tell what they did. Some of these were operating almost in the belly of the beast with the constant threat of assassination in Lesotho or in other dangerous places in other neighbouring states and, of course, inside the country.

Many are alive, and some are part of the ANC-led government and were part of it under the leadership of Jacob Zuma. These same people, who once risked everything, supported Zuma until near the end. They now stand by while there are insufficient resources left after the pillage of State Capture and generalised corruption, to remedy grave social ills, including continuing use of dangerous pit toilets by children, polluted water supplies or no water at all. These basic needs that are not met for many communities relate to squandering of resources, and the results of diversion of funds, in multiple projects intended for the poor being unprovided or inadequately provided.

Some admit that they made “mistakes” in supporting Zuma. Is that sufficient? Very many of these people come from the oppressed. They know what poverty, oppression and humiliation means. Instead of remaining on a course, which they had pursued in a time of danger, aimed at remedying the lot of their parents and grandparents, they chose to support Zumaism and all that it entailed.

Where something entails a violent, abusive and corrupt system which is known to do harm, it cannot simply be characterised as a “mistake”. The ANC used to embody the pain of the oppressed in the way its cadres lived their lives, faced dangers and the possibility of death in order to free the people of South Africa. To rupture that connection, to repudiate that responsibility, is a betrayal of the trust that many vested in them. Even a frank acknowledgement of the scale of the betrayal would be more honest than failure to articulate the character of the damage that Zumaism entailed.

Even though “mistakes” are conceded and there are important steps to “clean up” corruption, there remains little evidence of a level of compassion towards the marginalised and the poor. The conditions under which many people exist today has in many cases, not significantly improved since apartheid. In some respects, what gains were made, have been set back.

Those who are concerned about the fate of the marginalised, need to find ways of rebuilding the bonds of care that characterised those who participated in the struggle. The ANC may or may not recover such qualities. In the meantime, others need to find ways of pursing this role through multiple formations, including faith-based communities, educational, professional and other organisations, and in every other place where people of goodwill congregate. DM

Raymond Suttner is a scholar and political analyst. He is a visiting professor and strategic advisor to the Dean of the Faculty of Humanities, University of Johannesburg and 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 was reissued with a new introduction in 2017. He blogs at and his Twitter handle is @raymondsuttner


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