Defend Truth


The renewed solidarity of South Africa’s black oppressed has become extremely urgent


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.

In a neoliberal, post-grand-apartheid epoch, the black oppressed have become atomised into struggling subclasses, communities, households, and individuals with very little effective recourse to the laudable institutions of our post-1994 democracy and the law that it produced.

In a previous Daily Maverick article, I wrote about the conception of the principle of the unity of the oppressed that animated the United Democratic Front (UDF). And did so to sound a call for renewing this principle among activists and organisations that work on the side of the oppressed, but that too often do so apart from each other.

The fragmentation of the left puts progressive values at risk in a hastening neoliberal era. The case for a renewed solidarity is clear-cut as a principle. However, the path to unity is more shrouded and stands in need of elaboration.

What does the unity of the oppressed mean in our time and context? How can we, in South Africa, in 2023, interpret and translate the principle of the unity of the oppressed in a way that is fitting to the time and context in which we find ourselves? What does it mean for us in this moment of truth?

I respond to this hard question to open a discourse and not to try to give a definitive answer to it, especially considering the difficulty of using words like “we” and “us”. Clearly, these questions are not amenable to the kind of ideological monologue that has become so prevalent in our public discourse. Yet, we cannot evade the question of solidarity because the unity of the oppressed is their only recourse.

The unity of the oppressed, as a principle of struggle against injustice in South Africa, was years in the making when it was actualised at a time of great need in the early 1980s when it found its fullest expression in the brief yet remarkable existence of the UDF.

This was not just a beautiful ethical principle; it was shown to be possible, and it proved to be a highly effective mode of struggle. Moreover, it shows that the disunity of the left was not always the case.

The principle of the unity of the oppressed is a counter-principle to the divide-and-subjugate strategy that is always at sway where there is injustice. All the great leaders and movements of the oppressed were first great unifiers of the oppressed. Mahatma Gandhi, Martin Luther King Jr, Stephen Bantu Biko, Oliver Tambo, Nelson Mandela, and many others like them knew that this principle is the only effective source of power available to the oppressed against the concentrated power of their oppressors.

Although solidarity is a universal principle of struggle, it must be interpreted and translated into action. Otherwise, it remains a vacuous truism – a utopian fantasy in a dystopian reality.

For Gandhi, this translation gave rise to passive resistance as an effective mode of struggle against British colonial tyranny in India. Martin Luther King Jr translated passive resistance in the struggle against the tyranny of American institutionalised racism by calling on Christian morality in the face of pseudo-Christian hypocrisy.

Biko translated this principle in his concept of Black Consciousness against the racially divisive tyranny of apartheid in the 1970s. The UDF translated it organisationally in the formation of a massive people’s movement against apartheid in the 1980s.

Tambo led the translation of this principle in the ANC’s formal adoption of non-racialism in 1985 at its Kabwe Consultative Conference. And Mandela translated it in the 1990s into a call for reconciliation in preparation for the building of a new nation from the wreckage of grand apartheid.

It should be noted with deep sadness that none of their glorious achievements has endured the test of history. Gandhi’s India has since regressed to religious and ethnic chauvinism in which its minority Muslim citizens are subjected to state-sponsored oppression.

King Jr’s dream is as distant as it ever was in an America that is still characterised by racial division and the continued oppression of its African-American citizens.

And Mandela’s South Africa has regressed into hardened racial and economic inequality that continues to afflict the wellbeing of the majority of its black citizens. The lesson for us is that solidarity neither comes easy nor are its gains easily sustained.   

What the examples of struggle alluded to above have in common is that they were all encounters with racial oppression at the behest of concentrated white power. This forthright assessment may worry white South Africans – as it should. It is the uncomfortable yet empirical truth of the situation, which I believe most progressive people already know to be true.

The formula and effects of racial division and supremacist thinking are still at sway in South Africa. And this is inflected in our national context of an immature post-apartheid constitutional democracy, and in the global context of rampant neoliberalism.

It is helpful here to draw on Biko’s notion of Blackness to describe who the oppressed are for whom solidarity is so important. For Biko, Blackness is premised on the unity of the racially oppressed – a unity of everyone who identifies with their Blackness and rejects the claim of white supremacy.

Those who are not white but do not identify with their Blackness are non-whites. It is non-whites who are co-opted to the claim of white supremacy because they have succumbed to its strategy of division and isolation through fear, self-loathing, false consciousness, and the economic rewards of playing the stooge.

In our contemporary milieu, negative references to a black elite and the rise of a black middle class should also be approached with caution since, as red herrings, they play so easily into the strategy of divide-and-subjugate. There is no doubt that concentrated white business interests sought to co-opt a small non-white elite to its ends in the post-1994 period and succeeded in doing so in many cases. However, this does not mean that one cannot be black and employed, educated, or even wealthy at the same time.

Blackness is defined foremost by identifying as black and so refusing racial division, by rejecting the claim and projects of white supremacy, and by standing on the side of the oppressed. In this sense, Biko’s notion of Blackness transcends class and is the foundation for a class-alliance of the black oppressed – the very kind of alliance that also underpinned the UDF and all the examples alluded to above.

We must admit that currently there is little unity among the black oppressed in South Africa. We, the large black majority, are fragmented in every possible way on racial, tribal, geographic, linguistic, ethnic, gender, citizenship, ethical, cultural, political and economic terms. Everywhere we look, we see the growing division and isolation of the black oppressed. And this degree of fragmentation is so extensive that it threatens the very notion of Blackness that Biko espoused as a principle of solidarity. Being black has been shattered in our time into myriad sectarian identities.

Even on the left there is an unprecedented degree of dissension among political parties, trade unions, and the host of organisations that pursue progressive agendas on behalf of the people. In a neoliberal, post-grand-apartheid epoch, the black oppressed of South Africa have become atomised into struggling subclasses, communities, households, and individuals with very little effective recourse to the laudable institutions of our post-1994 democracy and the law that it produced.

On the other side of this fragmentation of the oppressed is a highly concentrated and organised phalanx of those who uphold racial supremacy day by day, through privileged access to legitimate institutions and within the law, by subterfuge and unlawful action, in public, in private and in secret, knowingly and unknowingly, and with benign and malignant intentions.

It is against this backdrop that the unity of the black oppressed in South Africa has become so extremely urgent. Not in the name of racial chauvinism and a racist discourse, but as the only recourse of the powerless poor against the powerful forces railed against them.

For progressive activists, both in the ANC and outside of it, there are few tasks that come before this one. DM


Comments - Please in order to comment.

  • Michele Rivarola says:

    Spoken by someone with blinkers on his eyes. It is your comrade Mantashe who states in public that those who are about to be oppressed by international commercial oil and gas interests and are resisting the prospect of such grand exploitation are funded by none other than the CIA. Catch a wake up Mr Naidoo and rather than bleating about the fragmented left establish who is trying to build national unity and who 30 years on is trying to excuse continued failures and grand larceny of state resources by pinning blame on a system that failed over 30 years ago.

  • Martin Neethling says:

    Articles like this that reflect some of the discourse in privileged academic circles is almost entirely irrelevant in today’s South African context. The idea of unifying ‘the oppressed’, and identifying with one’s ‘Blackness’, and of course assuming as a given that those two concepts are synonymous, has little useful application in a legitimate, democratic State, under The Rule of Law. SA might have an absolutely terrible government in the ANC, but it is not an illegitimate one. And it is one that has been repeatedly re-elected via the popular vote, and by a majority Black voting population. Quite simply, if we want different outcomes we need to elect a different Government, and slowly but surely this is happening, even if not fast enough to save us from the painful fallout now of 30 years of bad policies, corruption and weak leadership. ‘Oppression’ is thus an exciting but completely inappropriate way to describe the plight of our poorest citizens. Literally and figuratively they are getting the Government they deserve. Naidoo should redirect his considerable energies and fabulous vocabulary to mobilising participation in the democratic process. Remaining trapped in this quasi-revolutionary paradigm helps no-one.

    • Rod H MacLeod says:

      Absolutely agree. “Blackness is defined foremost by identifying as black and so refusing racial division… ” is a demonstration of the lack of thought gone into this quasi-revolutionary paradigm. I mean, how do you at once define yourself as black and in so doing refuse racial division? As a white SAN this “forthright assessment” worries me nought. Fiddling with clumsy definitions of non-white, black, blackness, oppressed people and what not is just a sign of an irrelevant man seeking a forum for old and irrelevant ideas. He is trapped in a miasma of fond memories of a once glorious UDF hiatus. Those days are gone, sunshine.

    • Denise Smit says:

      You stated it perfectly. He can use sophisticated academic words from 60 years ago but it is not going to help . All the leaders her referred to would turn in their graves because they supposedly wanted a non-racial SA and this is absolute racism and rule and devision strategy recommended by this supposedly learned person in ETHICS? Denise Smit

  • Caroline de Braganza says:

    What we need in South Africa is unity of ALL citizens – many are already engaged in assisting the increasing number of people living in the poverty brought about by this very government.

    Playing the race card and creating divisions within our society is disingenuous. What IS urgent is to mobilize and educate all South Africans to participate in the democratic process.

    For instance, Rise Mzansi is holding their first Peoples’s Convention at Constitution Hill this week with 800 delegates attending. (The movement has over the past year been actively visiting communities around the country – getting the people’s input on problems in their everyday lives and ideas on solutions.)

    Under the theme of Governance, delegates will look at “how our political and public administration systems and institutions can be made to work better for the benefit of the South African people. It is under this theme that delegates will discuss issues such as maladministration, corruption, interference in government and other institutions such as state owned companies (SOCs).” Songezo Zibi

    Now, that’s democracy in action – not empty waffle padded with elaborate vocabulary.

    • Denise Smit says:

      Rise Manzi sounds suspicious. What do we not know about what is wrong . How is this party going to help to take government from the ANC. Something is smelling – it is not innocent .Perhaps to draw votes away from the multi parties in favour of the far left? Denise Smit

  • Denise Smit says:

    For the ANC/EFF you are blaming apartheid for everything and excusing and ignoring the neglect, cleptocracy, corruption, breakdown of everything that worked, destructive policies that the black government that has been in charge of this country for 30 years have done. You are trying to draw attention away from the disastrous 30 year government by playin the race card. It is the only card you can play. Denise Smit

  • Trevor Forbes says:

    Instead of the pointless search for racial scapegoats, politicians of all parties and people of all colour and creeds should reflect on one simple fact. A rising tide carries all with it. Put in economics terms, this means a robust economy provides everyone with opportunity to be engaged not just a minority of wealthy individuals of any colour. This is where the ANC has singularly failed all South Africans. For many years, the South African economy has needed a 6% growth rate to reduce its over burden of unemployed. This has to come from inward investment from overseas. In order to encourage this, any government needs to set goals that international investors can measure to ensure an appropriate return on their investment. This is where the previous Nationalist party government failed and where the ANC government has also failed. International inward investment totaled $7.2 billion in 2001. By now, assuming an average annual growth rate of 6%, this should be running at $26 billion. Instead, it is at $9 billion. Hardly a ringing endorsement by the international community. Unfortunately, the politics of the left and the racial nationalists of the EFF will not achieve this. Cozying up to China also does not achieve this. The only financial language the PRC understands is lending not investing unless this comes with pseudo colonial requirements. South Africa needs a cross party economic forum to resolve its woeful economic performance.

  • Anthony Kearley says:

    As I understand it, the majority of SA citizens are both black and relatively poor. In a democracy, the only way that a majority group can remain oppressed is if they keep voting for it…

  • Who is “oppressing” black people? Surely it can only be non-black people? How does such a tiny minority “oppress” so vast and powerful a majority? And in what forms do this “oppression” manifest itself? Are black people caught in a zero-sum equation in which the only way they can rise is for their non-black “oppressors” to fall by the same margin?

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