South Africa


Twenty-five years of democracy (Part 2): Debate, depoliticisation and absence of vision

Twenty-five years of democracy (Part 2): Debate, depoliticisation and absence of vision
Professor Raymond Suttner. (Photo: Madelene Cronjé / New Frame)

Those who were involved in or acquainted with the ANC and allied organisations some 30 years ago would be surprised at the absence of debate in political life today. The ANC and UDF used to constantly argue over a range of issues and this was one of the factors that drew many people to their ranks. That vibrancy has disappeared.

This article first appeared on Creamer Media’s website: See Part 1 here

There was a time when the struggle in South Africa was suffused with debate, contending positions being examined and questioned and many people learning about ideas they had not previously encountered or mastered. This was not restricted to the ANC and its allies. Here I draw partly on my own experience. I was initially involved in the earliest forerunner of the DA, the Progressive Party, as a schoolboy, then in the National Union of South African Students (NUSAS) and later the ANC, SACP and UDF. Even in the liberal organisations, there was a great deal of debate, especially in student politics in the 1960s. It is true that there was a gap in that the ANC, SACP and PAC had been banned so we, as students, could not legally access their works and ideas.

But within the context of liberal concerns, there was debate. There was, as I recall, little demonisation of the ANC and the Nusas of the time repeatedly elected Chief Albert Luthuli as its honorary president, until his death.

When I became involved with the ANC/SACP underground in late 1969 I was struggling to find a way out of apartheid. I had concluded from my previous experience, that liberalism had no strategy for change, although I had seen it, then, as an ethical belief system. That ethical approach provided some guidelines that were valid then and, in many respects, remain valid for me today. But whether or not it was adequate or partially adequate ethically, there needed to be a plan for change.

When I left the country to study, in 1969, I already knew that on my return I would act illegally, though I did not immediately see that as signifying an alignment with and working for the ANC and SACP. In the period that followed I read the ANC and SACP periodicals Sechabaand the African Communist, where there were substantial engagements over guerrilla warfare with Joe Slovo and others making some memorable studies of Regis Debray, Che Guevara and other theorists and practitioners of guerrilla warfare.

In the months I spent at Oxford and in London, I was preparing myself to return and work illegally. I met regularly with some comrades, like the late Seretse Choabi and Alan Brooks, before my recruitment, and engaged and learnt a great deal. (I describe this period in Inside Apartheid’s Prison, republished by Jacana Media, with a new introduction in 2017.)

I returned to South Africa in June 1971 and worked as a lecturer by day and underground cadre at night. I had to hide my actual beliefs from colleagues at the then University of Natal, Durban, while issuing and sometimes writing illegal pamphlets. While containing ideas and presentations of strategies and tactics these could not – given the laws of the time – be presented as part of a public debate. Rather, they provided arguments in order to exhort people to assist MK or take up arms themselves or to resist in other ways.

In other words, while debating ANC/SACP ideas was illegal, what was issued presented analyses to the people of South Africa, mainly the oppressed black majority, but also democratic whites. We needed not merely to use slogans or inflammatory language, but to present a case for action or support. This was especially necessary because that was a time, before Soweto 1976 and later upsurges of resistance, when the apartheid regime appeared invincible and many people did not believe it could be defeated.

This was immediately after the adoption of the ANC’s strategy and tactics document at the Morogoro consultative conference in 1969, whose 50thanniversary is later this year. (This is the only full version I could find on the internet in light of the ANC official website having been removed. It appears accurate, apart from some grammatical errors.) This document is one of the classic expositions of revolutionary analysis, especially given the context of demobilisation inside the country and demoralisation within the ranks of the ANC at the time, with little prospect of successful infiltration into the country in the foreseeable future. The document carefully analysed the strengths and weaknesses of the apartheid regime and the potential strengths, behind the apparent weakness and vulnerability of the oppressed majority.

In the pamphlets I issued, I advanced the ideas of Morogoro and tried through officially produced ANC/SACP documents or ones that I wrote, to apply these to conditions in South Africa at the time, and also specific issues that arose at particular moments in time, for example the initiative of then Prime Minister BJ Vorster to initiate dialogue with African states.

Ideas mattered then, even in a time when it was hard to utter a word in support of the ANC or its allies without experiencing repression. The response was not simply to fight and “hit them hard” (had that been possible) but take action, within a carefully considered framework of ideas. There may be flaws in the approach, considered 50 years later, but it was nevertheless a systematic analysis of the way forward. It represented not only consideration of the conditions of the time and potential strategies to take the liberation movement forward, but also a vision of what the ANC-led movement had in mind for the future. This, together with the Freedom Charter, represented a future with which many could identify.

After four years of illegal work I was arrested and spent my first of two periods in prison (initially 1975-1983, totalling just under eight years). I was not on Robben Island and anyone who reads memoirs or histories of political imprisonment on Robben Island will know that the prisoners did their best to raise their level of political understanding through debates and reading, often through smuggling in illegal documents or when the officials mistakenly allowed in progressive works from the University of South Africa, which were laboriously transcribed and shared among the other political prisoners.

The women prisoners had a very rough time – the white women and the black women, especially the late Dorothy Nyembe who spent much of her time in prison on her own. The smaller the group the more difficult it was to obtain smuggled material.

The white men were kept in the main in Pretoria prison and we did our best to keep ourselves politically aware, in a context where all political prisoners were initially allowed no news (though some snippets were always smuggled in). We held “seminars” on various topics related to the struggle and on Fridays when we were meant to clean the passage where our cells were located, some of us would sit and discuss revolutionary texts. (The censors sometimes allowed in such works because they generally did not work by authors names but by titles, so that Selected Works sounded innocuous and they would not necessarily notice that the author was Lenin or Socialist Register sounded like other registers that they had for keys and that led to us getting an article by Joe Slovo on armed struggle. But one could never be sure it would happen again, so we transcribed what we had received in error).

When I was released in 1983, it was the period of resurgence of mass activity and the formation of the UDF. There was a great deal of debate over the relationship between class and race (or national) questions, issues of identity and increasingly questions of gender were resurfacing. There were lines of division within the Congress movement, over the weight to give to one or other factor, like class or national and there were divisions between the ANC-allied forces and those of Black Consciousness and those referred to or self- defined as “workerists”, many of whom would, through the unions, later become allied to the ANC.

There was debate and there was also intolerance of debate. I remember, because of my role in political education, being called to a meeting of SOYCO, (the Soweto Youth Congress) around 1985 because of comrades beating up Zim Zims, the contemptuous words used to describe the Azanian students’ movements (AZASM). It was my job to explain and this happened more than once, that we could not convert people to our beliefs through beatings but by convincing them by reasoning. What I presented then was published in the UDF journal Isizwe as an article On Discipline but many remained unconvinced.

We did not dwell on it then, but this episode illustrated a lack of clarity on, or commitment to pluralism, the extent to which we accepted the right of others to advance views that were different or, as we saw it, antagonistic to the (national democratic) revolution. This has a bearing on my previous article in this series, where I indicated that we did not discuss questions like constitutionalism in that time, since we were involved in a battle with high risks and possible death. (See part 1.) But the truth of the matter is also that the lack of tolerance could lead to deaths and this is one of the reasons for outrage over Terror Lekota’s claim that Cyril Ramaphosa had sold out his comrades in the SASO arrests in the 1970s, an accusation that had led to some tragedies in the past.

ANC today

In referring to the generally thriving debate prior to 1990 and perhaps 1994 it is not part of the ANC that is known today. That is not to say there is no debate -over policy options or that people do not brandish the Freedom Charter or the words National Democratic Revolution (NDR), but this is not debate. It is generally formulaic and lacks depth or even conviction. It is ritualistic, a form of identifying oneself with the ANC, sometimes purely as a route to deriving benefits.

One of the most significant features of post-apartheid South Africa is depoliticisation, that people are in politics or talk about politics, but they no longer devote much time to debating political ideas. Politics has become reduced, broadly, to what an ANC-led government does or does not do and what others would do in its place; the battle for positions and spoils; and the commendable efforts to clean up some of the criminal activities of the recent past.

None of this constitutes a vision and the absence of vision started to set in with the widespread patronage, that has been a feature of ANC politics for some time. To be part of a clientelist network does not require ideas, simply loyalty to a patron, in exchange for deriving one or other benefit, not necessarily illegally. Obviously corrupt relationships are even less dependent on political agreement and debating ideas.

To bear a vision means that there must be ideas over which people contend, which incorporates what they want to see open up in their lives, and a set of ideas towards whose realisation they want to contribute, and if necessary, make sacrifices.

What is the consequence of politics without politics? The ANC may well continue to be the majority party in South Africa for some time. Who knows? But without a vision that draws people, it is a very different type of organisation from that which attracted many people in earlier periods. Certainly, those conditions of the apartheid era do not prevail any more. But the ANC represented something that was morally significant, and those ideas still need elaboration. The meanings of the Freedom Charter are not obvious. The legacies of revolutionary giants like Nelson Mandela, Walter and Albertina Sisulu, Oliver Tambo and Ruth First, amongst others, are not obvious. But interrogation of those questions is more or less absent.

My sense is that we cannot any longer look to the ANC alone for that vision. Those who are searching for something that binds them to others and secures our future in a meaningful ever-evolving democratic and emancipatory project, need to enlist the support of a range of people and organisations beyond the ANC. These need not necessarily be in opposition to the ANC but should fill the gaps in current discourse and practice, in order to ensure our self-realisation as fully human beings. DM

Raymond Suttner is a visiting professor in the Faculty of Humanities, University of Johannesburg, a senior research associate at the Centre for Change and emeritus professor at Unisa. He served lengthy periods in prison and house arrest for underground and public anti-apartheid activities. His writings cover contemporary politics, history, and social questions, especially issues relating to identities, gender and sexualities. He blogs at and his Twitter handle is @raymondsuttner


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