Not entirely omniscient
23 June 2017 22:45 (South Africa)
Opinionista Mark Heywood

'The more things change, the more they stay the same'

  • Mark Heywood
    mark-heywood.jpg
    Mark Heywood

    Mark Heywood is Executive Director of SECTION27 and an Executive member of the Treatment Action Campaign.

History is often recalled as if it were uni-dimensional. But those of us who live the politics of the present know that, in reality, history is made up of a turbulent sea of cross-currents and rip-tides. This is one of the reasons why the recent rash of accounts of South Africa’s recent past are so exciting.

These accounts capture the multiple threads of history, its fabric, before it has been stitched into a simplistic and single narrative. I think of Ben Turok’s With My Head Above the Parapet, Zelda la Grange’s Good Morning Mr Mandela and even Frank Chikane’s attempts to air-brush former President Thabo Mbeki in The Things that Could Not be Said: From A(IDS) to Z(imbabwe).

However, reading two 2014 books that ostensibly have no relation to each other at all, make me recall the saying, ‘The more things change, the more they stay the same’ - but also wonder at why it appears to be true.

On of the books is a new history by Glenn Moss titled The New Radicals, A Generational Memoir of the 1970s, which recounts the history of a segment of white student politics in South Africa in the 1970s. The other is a collection of essays by Arundhati Roy, titled Capitalism, A Ghost Story, which angrily exposes and passionately and poetically denounces the depredations of the ‘gush-up’ capitalism that has seized power in India.

As I said, ostensibly these two books are separated by an ocean and have nothing in common. But park that thought…

Moss’s book is well written, racy and interesting. But what is perhaps surprising to the reader is how strongly its themes and its cast of characters connect the present with the past (even if that is not a story Moss is trying to tell).

In essence The New Radicals tells the story of the self-questioning that motivated a group of white students in the early 1970s to break with the liberal student politics that preceded them and to place the National Union of South African Students (NUSAS) on a collision path with the Apartheid state and its security apparatus.

Moss honestly explains how the advent of black consciousness, led by Steve Biko, and the splitting off of radical black students to form the South African Students Organisation (SASO), caused progressive white students to interrogate themselves and question their contribution to change.

In doing so, they realised not just their racial connectedness to the Apartheid state but also their class complicity. Student politics (like any politics) could just be a step up the ladder of privilege – even whilst appearing to challenge the status quo. As a result of this realisation, they sought to break with both, partly through launching a more radical programme of contesting Apartheid, but also through examining the capitalist foundations of the Apartheid state.

The students came to realise that achieving social justice would require a far deeper change than just the removal of the Apartheid edifice.

The book provides a narrative of campaigns for the release of political prisoners, and the forming of Wages Commissions and the early unions. Equally fascinating is to discover the familiar, but now much greyer, characters who drove these campaigns: Steven Friedman (now an academic and essayist), Eddie Webster (still a radical sociologist), Karel Tip (now a Senior Counsel who recently represented a faction of COSATU against Zwelinzima Vavi) and Geoff Budlender (a distinguished human rights lawyer and now also Senior Counsel). On the fringes of the story are other familiar names, Barbara Hogan (former Cabinet Minster and still an activist), Janet Love (director of the Legal Resources Centre) and Jenny Curtis/Schoon who was viciously murdered by Apartheid agent Craig Williamson in 1984 and so, unlike her comrades, did not make it to see the dawn of a new South Africa, the dawn of freedom.

But, 20 years after that dawn, it is precisely the quality of freedom that we experience today that The New Radicals makes you question.

For example, one of the ironies that struck me occurred early in Moss’s history when we first encounter the young Geoff Budlender, then the chairperson of the NUSAS National Council, responding to the massacre of 11 mineworkers by Apartheid police that took place in September 1973 by saying this would not be an isolated incident:

“until the government and the industries give attention to the basic underlying issues – full trade union rights for Africans and the payment of human wages”.

What nasty trick did history play that finds Budlender, 40 years later, leading evidence on behalf of the Farlam Commission in order to try to discover the truth about the Marikana massacre of 34 mineworkers in 2012 - this time by an ANC government? Similarly, in the latter pages of the book the great lawyer George Bizos takes the stage as defence advocate in the NUSAS trial. Would Bizos ever have imagined, back in 1975, that 40 years later he would still be on the benches fighting new and sometimes deeper forms of inequality?

In the middle of Moss’s book, there is a picture of white students occupying the Anglo American boardroom in 1973. If you look hard enough, you will recognise some faces, both of the students and of the bosses. Today, more black people occupy the board rooms at Anglo American where Gordon Waddell et al once sat, and white students have given way to trade unionists and social justice activists of the present. Today, it is black and white business leaders who find excuses for generalised inequality whilst they prosper.

These and other scenes led me back to the probing questions the young students asked of themselves and to ask why these questions were abandoned? In the process of building NUSAS, they asked both ‘what they were fighting against and what for?’ Their answers implicated big business in Apartheid. Consequently NUSAS challenged lily-livered liberal politicians (who tried to find fig leaves to cover the complicity of their own parties) and took bold steps to initiate worker organisations and trade unions.

In those days, socialism was not a dirty word, and a form of democratic socialism was considered an alternative, although the students were independent and prescient enough to distance themselves from Stalinism – thereby earning the distrust of the exiled ANC and SACP.

But ‘what was the change they were seeking’? As importantly, why did we not get it?

As a social justice activist, and leader of campaigns for the rights we now have entrenched in our supreme law, I have been forced by Moss’s book to ask once more: What is the change we are seeking?

How do we move from a trench war around bare human necessities like toilets and textbooks to raising a vision of a society that spreads peace, dignity and opportunity to all people?

What is causing society to slip further and further away from that vision? How do social justice activists avoid rallying around a new set of glib formulas and quick-fixes that may be just as superficial and lulling as those of yore?

As I asked these questions I could not avoid seeing that, embedded deeply in there, resilient across the two ages, remains the old bogey of white-owned capital which structures and sanctions inequality. Capitalism survived the transition from 1970s Apartheid to 2000s democracy. Indeed, if Sampie Terreblanche’s account Lost in Transformation is to be believed, it orchestrated it. Is capitalism the problem, then, and, if so, how will we overcome it?

Which brings me back to Arundathi Roy.

At 67, India’s democracy is much older than ours. For a long time, we Africans looked across the Indian Ocean to gain some inspiration from the anti-colonial struggles that country waged. But Roy, the quiet poet of the beautifully moderated God of Small Things, now seethes at how India has evolved to become the trailblazer for inequality and rape. Her essays open our eyes to underbelly of modern India, one of political executions, state terrorism in Kashmir and a generalised war on the poor.

According to Roy, India’s post-independence rulers have consolidated their power, made peace with inequality, and today are implicated in grotesque murders, rapes and the plunder of peoples and land that, she suggests, exceed the brutality and displacement of colonialism and Apartheid. While the world looks away at the so-called trouble spots, in the regions of ‘peace’ and rising prosperity all is not what it is said to be and there is a different sort of violence.

Roy forces activists to question ourselves once more.

In the essay from which the book takes its name she cries out against “the transformation of the idea of justice into the industry of human rights”, and when she names NGOs and foundations as having played a crucial part in this “conceptual coup” I have to ask whether this includes me.

Continuing to rain down her body blows, she refers to the 830 million people living on twenty rupees (four rand) a day in India and laments that:

“this awful crisis has been forged out of the utter failure of India’s representative democracy, in which the legislatures are made up of criminals and millionaire politicians who have ceased to represent its people. In which not a single democratic institution is accessible to ordinary people.”

This warning is the connection between the two books. For decades, South African activists of all stripes have been rushed off their feet trying to break inequality but in the heyday of our newish democracy we still risk being being sucked inexorably into its vortex.

In 1996 the South African Constitution gave people power. We must make sure that power is not taken away again. We must invest energy in seeking to overcome the new atrocities, where children die in foul pit toilets and millions of young adults are denied dignity through gainful employment. But we must also address the causes of these inequalities, both those that are immediately visible – like corruption – and less visible – like the abuse of corporate power. Most importantly we must not get lost in critique, but raise the vision of a better society for everybody.

New thinking is needed if we are to swim against the tide and a new generation of radicals must emerge to take on the challenges of the 21st century. DM

  • Mark Heywood
    mark-heywood.jpg
    Mark Heywood

    Mark Heywood is Executive Director of SECTION27 and an Executive member of the Treatment Action Campaign.

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