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The quintessential Freedom Fighter: It’s time to reclaim the meaning of ‘cadre’


Dr Seelan Naidoo is principal associate at Public Ethos Consulting. He holds a master's in Decision-making, Knowledge and Values from Stellenbosch University, and a PhD in Organisation Studies and Cultural Theory from the University of St Gallen. He is an associated researcher of the Centre for Humanities Research at the University of the Western Cape. He writes in his personal capacity.

At the height of struggles against fascism, it was those who called themselves partisans who fought and died for freedom in Spain, France and many other countries. At the height of apartheid in the 1980s, it was the cadres who were on the frontlines of an intensified struggle for freedom in South Africa. It is time to reclaim the meaning of the word.

The cadre, now maligned as the figure of public officials deployed beyond their capacities for the sake of “the Party”, was once the admired figure of the disciplined and capable Freedom Fighter. The same fate has befallen the once admired figure of the partisan, which we are led now to associate more with the party-sanship of the party hack.

Yet, at the height of struggles against fascism, it was those who called themselves partisans who fought and died for freedom in Spain, France and many other countries. At the height of apartheid in the 1980s, it was the cadres who were on the frontlines of an intensified struggle for freedom in South Africa.

There were millions of us in the mass democratic movement, in liberation organisations, in South Africa and abroad, at home and in exile, in prisons, in the schools and universities, NGOs, churches, the unions and across every facet of South African society. Many of these women, men and children, black and white, suffered in one way or another for their cadreship and activism.

And lest we forget: it was the leaders among them who bore the brunt of apartheid retribution.

These admittedly imperfect cadres were our heroes and are rightly remembered as such because they acted and suffered, not firstly for themselves, but for the higher virtue of freedom for all in South Africa. I read Mongane Wally Serote’s recently published praise poem to Oliver Tambo, Sikhahlel’ u-OR, as a beautiful tribute to the very cadreship of Oliver Tambo, the quintessential Freedom Fighter.

i can see him
with his pondo marks and a bright warm smile
and laughter and spectacles and a handsome face
and his fingertip on the pulse of the nation
a happy face reflecting the fought wars and failures and lessons
he will remove his spectacles to think

Shall we now acquiesce and turn our backs on the very ideas of the partisan, the cadre, and even the political activist, as virtuous figures of our polity? Have these bygone subjects of disciplined service and sacrifice become so sullied in our time as to put them beyond any recovery?

While these questions should not be evaded, we must also ask what we risk in a peremptory jettisoning of these once admired ways of truly being and acting for something more than oneself.

The welcome push which is now underway to reform the public service in South Africa may benefit from a thoughtful recovery of the erstwhile figure of the cadre and of cadreship, and of the activist and of activism. The cadre and the activist remind us that the notion of the political is bound up with the pursuit of the greater good. To toss out the idea of politically engaged action in the public service may be to also toss out that which turns out to be crucial for a reformed public service: politically informed thinking and virtuous action for the greater good.

The admirable qualities of the cadre remind us that one may be a loyal party member and still serve the public interest. The admirable qualities of the activist remind us that one may be highly politicised without being a party member, and yet still strive for the public good. It is not political activism and party-political cadreship, in principle, that are detrimental to public service. Indeed, they may hold that which is crucial to it.

Here we are led to important distinctions: between the party-political and the political, and between party interests and the public interest.

It is when the party-political is conflated with the political – and when the interests of the party are conflated with the public interest – that cadreship runs the risk of falling into an abominable party-sanship that collides with the public interest and detracts from it. 

It is not cadreship and political activism that are the root problems. Rather, it is a betrayal of the deep values of cadreship and activism, its fallenness into the primacy of narrow sectarian, business and individual interests, that produces its maleficent forms which are running amok from Cape Town to Musina.

A recovery of the exemplary party cadre and the political activist is not for the sake of shaming our brow-beaten public servants – what would be the good of that? Rather, it is to open up other ways of understanding the interplay and ordering of interests that the public servant must bring into a virtuous arrangement.

Although the cadre and activist stand in stark contrast to the figure of the individualised neoliberal subject who cares only for himself and his own, cadreship and activism are not devoid of personal interests. Rather than try to sanitise individual and party-political interests, which are always at sway in our polity, we should attend more to the ordering of interests and try to inculcate a sense of the primacy of the public interest in the public service. A primacy which is emphatically inscribed in our Constitution.

As exemplified by Oliver Tambo, authentic cadreship and activism are ways of being and acting that incorporate the interests of the person and even of the party, but which, crucially, prioritises thinking and action in the public interest. 

In an era of rampant neoliberalism and the reduction of all interests to that of the individual, we need cadreship and activism more than ever if we are to recall what public service really means. DM


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  • David Mark says:

    Let’s replace “party cadre” with “national servant”. I think that more appropriate, and should remind public service employees where their loyalties and responsibilities ought to lie.

  • Charles Parr says:

    My view is that it is far too late for this group of people to salvage any respect mainly because they have never had the self respect to behave properly and fit into society. This is a group of people that have raped, murdered and stolen anything and everything for no other reason than they could because they were armed and they believe that they were owed pockets and sacks full of money whenever they wanted. You all need to die off so that the country can start progressing and stop being held hostage by your group’s barbarian behaviour.

  • Louis Potgieter says:

    War is hell, and in times of war one is required to do things that should be unthinkable in normal times, e.g. kill other people. Thus, in times of conflict, ideals of humanity are compromised. We can have struggle hero who would otherwise not meet the requirements of a good leader. (I can think of a good example of an ‘imperfect cadre’.) The struggle is over, and normal politics prevails. With it we should bury the idealisation of the epithet ‘cadre’, and not drag it into modern leadership, where it confuses and distracts. You can be a principled activist without it.

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