For a long time, the history of resistance to apartheid was told as if the ANC had liberated South Africa on its own. There was a particular focus on the Robben Islanders and the more or less completely failed attempt to organise a military strategy from exile. The history of the trade unions and the United Democratic Front (UDF) was constantly pushed to the margins. The same marginalisation was true of other liberation movements, such as the Pan African Congress and Azapo.
From time to time, as we witness the descent into kleptocracy, it is suggested that we replace the figure of Nelson Mandela with Steve Biko or Robert Sobukwe. Biko and Sobukwe are certainly giants in our history and there is much to learn from them.
But there are also many other figures who have not been given their historical due. Harris Dousemetzis’s fascinating 2018 book, The Man Who Killed Apartheid: The Life of Dimitri Tsafendas, has an unfortunately overblown title. But it’s a work of impressive research that shows Tsafendas has had a raw deal from our written history and needs to be given a comprehensive reassessment.
The 2012 republication of Emma Mashinini’s autobiography brought another marginal figure to the centre of public attention. Mashinini, who died in 2017, was an important trade unionist and deserves much more consistent public attention.
There are also plenty of important struggle veterans who have not received the biography that they deserve. Phyllis Naidoo, who spent her life in the ANC, Richard Turner, the academic and trade unionist, Victoria Mxenge, the UDF lawyer, and Alfred Temba Qabulua, the poet and trade unionist, were all towering figures in Durban and richly deserve proper biographical attention. In Johannesburg, names such as Abu Baker Asvat, who was known as “the people’s doctor”, David Webster, the academic, and Mthuli ka Shezi, the playwright, immediately come to mind. In Cape Town, figures such as UDF leader Johnny Issel and Mama Yanta, the first chairperson of the Crossroads Women’s Committee of the 1970s, come to mind.
If we had a much richer sense of our history and of some of the personalities who rose up to challenge apartheid we’d also have a much richer history of ideas. That would give us a lot more space and freedom, as well as more tools, to debate the present.
We’ve slipped into a dangerous situation in which the struggle against apartheid, and the left more broadly, are both associated with an organisation that is in profound moral and political crisis. It is often assumed that the rot in the ANC has delegitimised all forms of progressive politics and that the only alternative to the ANC’s kleptocracy is full-throttle neoliberalism.
But if we had a better awareness of the history of the progressive movement in our country, and the ideas of intellectuals such as Neville Alexander, Richard Turner and many others who worked outside the ANC, we’d know that the progressive movement is far bigger and richer than the history of the ANC in prison and in exile. It would then be easy to oppose both the kleptocratic and the neoliberal elements in the ANC and to offer viable solutions for moving beyond this narrow binary.
When it comes to Neil Aggett, we’ve been particularly well-served by Beverley Naidoo’s extraordinarily accomplished 2012 biography. Naidoo’s beautifully written biography of Aggett is, in terms of its sheer literary quality, up there with Mark Gevisser’s biography of Thabo Mbeki as a truly great work.
Naidoo gives a real sense of Aggett as a person, of the radical milieu in which he moved with people such as Emma Mashanini and Johnny Clegg, as well as the politics of the late 1970s and early 1980s. In the wake of the Durban strikes in 1973, many young intellectuals joined the growing trade union movement. Aggett began his professional life as a doctor, working in Soweto and Tembisa, and learning some Zulu. But at the same time, he began working to support the trade union movement and by 1981 was a trusted and respected figure in the Food and Canning Workers’ Union.
Like many of the intellectuals who joined the trade union movement, Aggett was inspired by the ideas of the anti-Stalinist new left, kept some autonomy from the ANC, and had a vision of a future society in which the black working class was not simply instrumentalised by the elites in the national liberation movements, but sustained its own independent power.
At the time there were brutal debates between people who took this position, often labelled as “workerists”, and others, who were often described as “populists”, who thought that all the organs of popular power should be subordinated to the ANC. Of course, with the benefit of hindsight, it is now obvious that the so-called workerists were correct and that vesting all power in the ruling party was a road to disaster. The trade unions should have retained some independence from the ANC and the UDF should have done the same.
Famously, the mass protest after Aggett’s death in detention was the first time that all the black trade unions came out together and laid the basis for the solidarity that would later be formalised with the launch of Cosatu in 1985. To this day, in Cosatu and in Saftu, Aggett’s name is revered by the progressives in the trade union movement and he continues to serve as a model for how a principled middle-class activist can commit to working to build popular democratic power among the oppressed.
Aggett’s patient, self-denying and democratic form of activism is a world apart from the frequently nauseating self-promotion on social media that so often passes for activism these days. We have much to learn from him and have been very well served by Naidoo’s superb biography. Hopefully, other figures from whom we also have a lot to learn, people such as Abu Baker Asvat, Johnny Issel, Alfred Temba Qabula and many others will also come to be remembered with the same care.
And hopefully, all the other activists whose deaths were never properly investigated will, finally, also get some sort of justice. DM
"We accept the love we think we deserve." ~ Stephen Chbosky