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