South Africa


How popular power, insurrectionism and their legacies translate in modern SA society

How popular power, insurrectionism and their legacies translate in modern SA society
Residents brandish their weapons during a march through the streets of Soweto by South Africans wanting the removal of foreign residents from the area as well as the eviction of people from various local buildings, Johannesburg, South Africa, 16 June 2021. 'Illigal residents'; or foreigners where removed, along with some South Africa students, from a nearby post office that had been taken over as an illegal commune. The country has been blighted by xenophobia attacks on foreigners over the past years and most recently people where evicted from their shops in Soweto overnight. (Photo: EPA-EFE/Kim Ludbrook)

Regrettably, there is only a limited manifestation of popular power today. But, because non-violence has never been endorsed as a central principle, warped versions of what was heroic in armed struggle still manifest themselves in political and xenophobic thuggery.

At the time of the unbanning of the ANC and the transition from apartheid repression to a new democracy, the ANC-led government drew on (or erased) several different strands of struggle or political practices which were ways of conducting political activity at different periods of resistance. These practices and understandings changed over time and often the same concept attained a different meaning because of experiences and creative practices.

My focus here is on the understandings of the word democracy and its relationship from the 1980s to armed struggle or insurrection. The article also asks what the relationship of these modes of struggle are or potentially are to the present.

Who is behind South Africa’s xenophobic nationalism?

The moment of popular power

Apartheid signified the denial of rights to the majority of the population, including disenfranchisement, while whites, in contrast, enjoyed all the trappings of representative democracy. For that reason “one man (person) one vote” was a crucial demand and there were songs at the time of the Freedom Charter in the 1950s that conveyed this. In 1985, the late Ma Dorothy Nyembe, who spent 18 years as a political prisoner, told me, “All the demands of the Charter point straight to Parliament.” 

She then sang: 

Chief Luthuli, Dr Naicker (three times)
Yibona ‘bonsimel’ epalamende
These will represent us in Parliament.
Dr Dadoo umhol’wethu (three times)
Dr Dadoo is our leader
Uyena ozosihol’ epalamende
Will lead us in Parliament
Dr Dadoo umhol’ wethu (three times)
Dr Dadoo our leader
Uyena ozosihol’ sisepalamende
He’s the one to lead us in Parliament.

(From: Raymond Suttner and Jeremy Cronin, 30 Years of the Freedom Charter. Ravan Press, pp. 252-3. (I do not use the later edition, 50 years of the Freedom Charter, Unisa Press: 2006, because it contains errors in the isiZulu). I quoted this before, but do so again because I do not have an alternative song of similar quality)

Chief Albert Luthuli was the ANC president from 1952 until his death in 1967, Dr Monty Naicker was the Natal Indian Congress leader from the 1940s and Dr Yusuf Dadoo was head of the Transvaal Indian Congress from the 1940s and later South African Communist Party chairperson until his death in 1983.

The popular power period of the 1980s, that was intended to displace the vacuum left by “ungovernability”, has been interpreted in various ways and it is a controversial question. (See Zwelakhe Sisulu, People’s Education for People’s Power, 1986). In some interpretations, and what I saw and heard in interviews conducted at the time, it was conceived as a form of “direct democracy” akin to the original understanding of democracy articulated in relation to ancient Athens by Aristotle and others, who viewed it with distaste.

But in the context of the ANC/UDF-led Struggle, it could be seen as an enrichment of previous conceptions of democracy, in particular the notion that the democracy that people wanted, the popular power they sought, did not simply have to wait until the moment of universal suffrage or in the common phrase at the time, “transfer” or “seizure of power”.

The people’s power period amplified the scope and meanings of the Freedom Charter’s opening words, “The people shall govern!”, which had previously been interpreted to mean “one person, one vote” in a central parliament, as symbolised in the song that Dorothy Nyembe sang.

The practices and understandings of the people’s power period broadened and deepened understandings of democracy to include actions that people engaged in before that moment of victory at the level of the central state authority. They enlarged the meanings of democracy, to include the people acting at that time.

Weza Made, a community leader in Uitenhage, told me then, “what has been preached in the past about the Freedom Charter where the people shall govern themselves, even now we are trying to do that practically.” (Interview, December 1985. Similar evidence of the linking of popular power experiences to the Freedom Charter were presented in an interview with Gugile Nkwinti, then a community leader in Port Alfred, April 1986, quoted in Raymond Suttner, Popular Justice in South Africa Today, May 1986, endnote 17, page 29. (Unpublished).

Trade union practice was already one directed at making gains in the present moment, especially after the 1970s revival. (See Steven Friedman, Building Tomorrow Today: African Workers in Trade Unions, 1970-1984, 1987).

This was the case, even if there were long-term goals like socialism, which could only be realised with the establishment of a democratic government.

Popular power and its link with insurrection

After 1960, the popular power and earlier notions of democracy coexisted with armed struggle, pursued as part of a people’s war. That insurrectionary legacy has various implications and aftermaths in the present period.

Insurrection was part of the achievement of the goals of people’s war that had been articulated since 1961 or earlier with the formation of uMkhonto weSizwe, and in 1969 — especially with the strategy and tactics document adopted at the Morogoro Consultative Conference.

As the years went by, the notion of insurrection appeared to the ANC-led alliance to be increasingly realisable, with military strikes against a range of targets, often coordinated with expressions of dissatisfaction by attacking symbols of oppression (such as police stations associated with forced removals).

The apparently improved prospects for insurrection related also (as was intended) to the uprising within the country, manifested in making the country “ungovernable” and apartheid “unworkable”, but also the various manifestations of popular power with community structures stepping in to fulfil state functions, itself an insurrectionary notion, albeit generally without military weapons.

While popular power was an essentially legal phenomenon, or its practitioners did not announce themselves as lawbreakers liable to arrest, it is true that many of the leading figures in the UDF or local community structures were ANC or SACP members or regarded themselves as such. In that regard, many comrades used to listen to the ANC’s Radio Freedom and tried to align their political activities with that which the ANC exhorted them to do — including directly insurrectionary activities. By that I am not simply referring to displacing state functions, but that many of those involved in popular power also concealed their lives as MK soldiers or as people assisting armed struggle and insurrection.

Popular power was not seen as an alternative to insurrection, but as part of an overall attack on the apartheid state, with a specific division of labour. And most of those in UDF or popular struggles probably did not directly link up with armed struggle — but many did see that as part of their political tasks.

Revisiting insurrectionism

In the aftermath of democratic victory at a central level, with the unbanning of the ANC and the election of a democratic Parliament, some of us came to review the notion of seizure of power, or even “peaceful” transfer of power. This was part of questioning Marxist-Leninist notions or dominant notions of representative democracy (also part of ANC thinking), which appeared to place a lot of weight on transferring power, conceived as a thing happening at a single, decisive moment. And instead of serving the purposes of the ruling party of apartheid, it would then implement objectives of the ruling party of the people.

The popular power period and some of the writings of the time led also to a review among some of us of the notion of revolution (not necessarily referring to the violent overthrowing of the state) that it need not be restricted to being achieved at a single, decisive moment in time. This was linked to the notion of “structural reforms”. It was argued that we should reconceive our notion of revolution to encompass a series of structural reforms that could cumulatively signify revolutionary change. Marx himself had focused on some legislated structural reforms that could fundamentally transform people’s lives, without first achieving a fundamental change in state power. (See Boris Kagarlitsky, The Dialectic of Change,1990).

The presence of popular power and insurrectionism today

Post-apartheid democracy has not formally incorporated notions of direct democracy or popular power, although there are limited opportunities for popular participation in law-making or public commentary invited on specific issues.

Popular power lives on to a limited extent in an organisation like Abahlali baseMjondolo which has over 100,000 members and mainly organises shack dwellers. Its practice of occupying land has attracted ANC and state repression, which has gone beyond stopping land “invasions” and entailed widespread assassinations generally committed with impunity, though in one case, ANC officials have been convicted of murder.

Some NGOs perform a popular role or have a popular component, but it remains limited. I understand that some of the street committees of the 1980s or structures performing a similar role do live on in some areas, but that needs more research or there may be such research, but it is not within my knowledge. In this period of state crisis and widespread cynicism about government, it may be that a future revival of democracy may include a popular component, going beyond the limited current practices.

Insurrectionism ought not to be present in a law-based constitutional order insofar as people have rights that ought to be the starting point for resolving disputes. Nevertheless, the widespread violence, and its often being accompanied by Struggle songs, suggests that a warped version of that which was heroic in armed struggle is often deployed by political ruffians and xenophobic vigilantes to paint their actions in the dress of that which is revered from the past.

This can happen partly because post-apartheid governments have failed to give a decisive lead in advancing non-violence as a principle in any democratic order. Those who rebuild our democracy need to ensure that that happens. DM

Raymond Suttner is an emeritus professor at the University of South Africa. 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, violence, gender and sexualities. His twitter handle is @raymondsuttner.

This article first appeared on Creamer Media’s website:


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Comments - Please in order to comment.

  • Stephen T says:

    While I agree with the half-hearted and indirect criticism of today’s ANC in the final two paragraphs, the content of the article as a whole leads me to a few other sticky yet crucial questions.

    For example, if the ANC were fighting for freedom, why were they so closely allied with one of the most anti-freedom ideologies the world has ever seen? The “official narrative” doesn’t add up.

    Furthermore if the ANC thinkers were indeed moving away from revolution in a traditional sense towards a more iterative approach to a change in state power, this would certainly have been at great ideological odds with characters like Chris Hani who still fervently believed in violent overthrow. It seems not only plausible but likely that the ANC would stand to gain a great deal if Hani were to be ‘removed’ from the picture, which then begs the question of who was _actually_ behind the assassination. Again, the “official narrative” leaves too many unexplained incongruities to be considered a valid historical account.

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