There was a time when fighting for the right of our children for textbooks, water and the right to a toilet in our schools was revolutionary. When standing up and condemning teachers who sexually assault our children in our schools was courageous. When we stood up and spoke against wasteful expenditure and corruption of government ministers and public officials and it was the right thing to do.
Today, hardworking social activists fighting for these rights are called neo-liberals and counter-revolutionaries. I have heard that in certain corridors of power, that’s what I am called also. I want to set the record straight.
My discussions with Joe Slovo and Chris Hani often centered on what meaning democracy would have for the people.
I remember being with Joe Slovo, in the first few months of the new government in 1994. We were in a noisy community meeting in Langa, being criticised for slow delivery. We had travelled together in one car. We laughed. We knew how important it was that development was owned and driven by the people. Clearly etched in my mind are Joe Slovo’s words: “The people have a right to bang on our doors. It keeps us as politicians on our toes. We must never ever forget why we are elected. We are servants of the people, not their overlords.”
I quote him: “It is indispensable for the working class to have an independent political instrument which safeguards its role in the democratic revolution and which leads it towards an eventually classless society. But such leadership must be won rather than imposed. Our claim to represent the historic aspirations of the workers does not give us an absolute right to lead them or to exercise control over society as a whole in their name.”
I remember debating with Chris Hani about the nature of the development state. His wisdom was eminently real today: “We need a strong and robust civil society. We need a strong and independent SACP that is in alliance with the ANC and Cosatu. It must drive the state in the direction of meeting the fundamental needs and rights of our people. But while we are an alliance, we must be independent to challenge the government if necessary. It is our revolutionary duty. Development is driven from the bottom.”
Today I am astounded when I hear our revolutionary leaders being quoted in defence of mediocrity. I think of what these comrades that I worked with closely would say today.
Would they accuse as counter-revolutionary social activists fighting for the rights of our children to quality education? Would they say it is okay that our girls miss a week of school every month while in menstruation because there are no toilets? Would they say it is democracy that there are 300 mud schools in the Eastern Cape, 19 years into our new government?
Would they have stayed silent when, day after day, we hear of scandal after scandal of corruption and misuse of state funds? Would they have said it is okay that 12 million people go to bed hungry every night?
No. Those are not the revolutionary leaders I knew. They would have spoken out without fear. They would have supported NGOs who go to court to force government departments to deliver services such as textbooks or ARVs, to which citizens have a constitutional right.
In more recent history, we fought against the model of the “big leader” and the “all-knowing state”. We know the consequences of that style of leadership. It led to South Africa becoming the epicenter of HIV/Aids. Over 350,000 of our fellow citizens died for no other reason than the foolishness of our denialism and political arrogance. We must never allow this to happen again.
The Joe Slovo I knew shunned dogma and rigidity. He held strong views. But he was analytical and rational. And he knew that embracing criticism made him a better communist. He often said that the most important lesson he learnt, especially after the collapse of the Soviet Union, was that no strategy was cast in stone and would hold for all time. “We live in a dynamic and changing world. We must adapt to that living reality. We must never make principles out of tactics. We must never be afraid of admitting our mistakes.”
Simply put, Joe Slovo and Chris Hani would recoil with horror the language of anti-majoritarianism and the coarse labelling of those who hold different views as neo-liberals and counter-revolutionaries.
The failure of the Soviet Union, Slovo believed, was never the consequence of the actions of Stalin alone. It was political and sycophantic elite who defended his worst excesses because they benefitted from the “terror, brutality and judicial distortions associated with Stalin himself”.
In my deep discussions with Slovo and Hani, they reiterated their conviction that the trade unions and civil society should never become the conveyor belt of any political party, especially when we won democratic elections and were the governing party. “That is why I will not join the new government. We need a strong party that would be unafraid to challenge even the ANC government,” Hani often repeated.
“We do not regard the trade unions or the national movement as mere conduits for our policies. Nor do we attempt to advance our policy positions through intrigue or manipulation. Our relationship with these organisations is based on complete respect for their independence, integrity and inner-democracy.”
When I hear the constant refrain of attack on civil society organisations such as Section27 and Equal Education that fight for the rights of our people and our children, especially of the working poor and unemployed in our townships and rural areas, I am outraged.
We must oppose this language of old-style commandism and sectarianism with all our energy. We must be fearless in confronting those in power whether in government, labour or even civil society who want to take us back to the rule of fear.
Our freedom was won by ordinary people standing up and saying: “We have had enough. We want our freedom. We want the right to choose our leaders. We want these leaders to serve the people. We are not giving you divine rights to rule over us. Serve us with humility. Not political arrogance. Our fight was for the human dignity and social justice of our people, not your privilege and comforts.”
Joe Slovo said: “We need to continue the search for a better balance between advancing party policy as a collective and the toleration of on-going debate and constructive dissent.”
Joe Slovo and Chris Hani died believing that citizen activism would outlive them and defend the social justice and human rights they fought for.
That is what I will continue to do. I ask that if you admire them, you do the same.
I rest my case. DM
"You can't wait for inspiration. You have to go after it with a club." ~ Jack London