Port Elizabeth, South Africa.
There were five South African launches for my new book on freedom fighters Ruth First and Joe Slovo – Bloemfontein, Johannesburg, two in Cape Town, and finally Port Elizabeth. It was the latter that provided a political education for the present. Earlier in our day in Port Elizabeth our host, Allan Zinn, had taken us to the northern campus of Nelson Mandela Metropolitan University in the Missionvale Township. We witnessed over 500 high school students participating in a Nelson Mandela day workshop on conflict resolution and the difference between debate and dialogue. It was both powerful and somewhat chaotic – possibly a foreshadowing of the coming launch. Our next stop was the Zwide Township and the offices of the Alternative Information Development Centre (AIDC), a non-profit that works in conjunction with community organizations and challenges the government from a non-sectarian, socialist platform. AIDC publishes Amandla. The evening’s launch was scheduled for a third township, New Brighton.
New Brighton was the location of the infamous murders of the Craddock Four by the apartheid regime. A massive township, New Brighton is the home of the Red Location Museum, an incomparable hands-on institution that provides a detailed portrayal of the struggle against apartheid in the Eastern Cape. I was scheduled to talk about Ruth and Joe at the Museum. The launch was jointly organized by the Centre for the Advancement of Nonracialism and Democracy (CANRAD) and The Herald newspaper and scheduled for 7:00 p.m. As at the other launches, a bookseller was present and there were approximately 50 copies of my book as well as other struggle histories displayed. Just before seven I was asked if we could delay events for about 15 minutes because a number of taxis from other townships, Uitenhage, Zwide, and Missionvale, had yet to arrive. At this point, I understood that this launch would be different. In Bloemfontein, I had spoken with academics at the University of Free State about the methodology writing Ruth and Joe’s stories. In Johannesburg there were a mix of struggle veterans and other progressive South Africans who attended the Lilliesleaf launch and listened to me speak about why I wrote on Ruth and Joe and the journey of constructing the book. The Cape Town launches were collective efforts with people that I had interviewed for Ruth First and Joe Slovo in the War Against Apartheid. Port Elizabeth was a different scene.
I was to speak first and the respondent was Fieldmore Mapeto who had been an Umkhonto we Sizwe (MK) commander and more recently the national organizer of the South African Security Forces Union. In The Herald the next day, Shaun Gilliams wrote:
Wieder addressed a full house at the museum, while sharing a dialogue with the audience and Fieldmore Mapeto, who is the former regional head of the ANC’s armed wing Umkhonto we Sizwe, and museum acting deputy director Mpumezo Ralo. Wieder spoke at length on various important events in the lives of the late South African Communist Party stalwart and his wife, who was notoriously killed by a letter bomb dispatched by agents of the apartheid government in 1982. Following his address, Wieder opened the floor to questions, many of which revolved around Slovo’s views on socialism in the South African and broader context and the personal and ideological relationship between Slovo and First.
Gilliam’s report contrasts with my memories and reflections. While he does not misrepresent my role, his article does not adequately portray Fieldmore Mapeto or the people who attended the launch – it was their show and because of that the evening was a mind-opening, political, educational experience.
150 people attended the launch. Approximately 135 attendees were young, African, men. One cannot help but ponder the gender disparity of the attendees. Knowing that Mapeto had been an MK commander and a member of the SACP, I emphasized Joe and Ruth’s involvement in both the underground army and The Party. I spoke for 15 minutes and Fieldmore responded for about 35 minutes. This was all good. When an American writes South African struggle stories, their obligation is to listen and learn and Fieldmore Mapeto was my teacher. Fieldmore knew Joe Slovo. He praised the book but then talked about what he viewed as errors in my representation of Communist Party history in South Africa. On that issue our debate continues. But for this night, the platform clearly belonged to Fieldmore. The people at the Red Location Museum responded. This is not to say that I was silent and I did participate in the conversation. For the most part, people made statements and asked questions and Fieldmore reacted to the majority of the queries.
As much as from Mapeto, education that evening came from the young men who spoke from the audience. They came to participate – they didn’t board taxis to attend a lecture. And speak they did with a mission to critique the ANC government as well as The Party. Most of the people who spoke expressed themselves articulately. Some of course did not. A few young men quoted Marx or Lenin and I had questions about their citations. Not about accuracy, but rather depth. Were these memorized mantras? Are there study groups where Marx and Lenin and Slovo and Hani are actually discussed, debated, reflected upon? Also apparent was a bubbling, a tension, in the air. The speakers clearly were not happy with the lack of services provided by the ANC government. But when Julius Malema and his new Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) political party was mentioned, there was laughter and someone responded with the words “trite and shallow.” That particular exchange was powerful because while there was something of a populist ethos to the meeting, the comment was quickly critical of what some fear in the supposed 42% of people under 26 who support Malema. When the crowd challenged the SACP, Mapeto answered with a lecture that was somewhat inadequate. He was speaking with people who viewed themselves as communists – but what they sought was not the party of Blade Nzimande. Again, contradictions abounded and issues that myself, still an outsider in spite of working in South Africa for almost 15 years, couldn’t completely understand. It wasn’t hard to understand one speaker, however, who bluntly spoke for many when he asked Fieldmore to denounce Blade. Frustrations were obvious – was there a plan?
In spite of ANC, SACP, and COSATU denials, South African people are talking of the deep divides that exist today in the country. References to the early alliances of the ANC with the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund continue as foundation for a class divided society that gave the ANC political power but only allowed for a trickle down of black entrepreneurs who drive Mercedes Benz’s like upper class whites. The South African capitalist reality, however, does not explain everything. Yet, the trembles that I witnessed on 18 August 2013 at the Red Location Museum, while referencing government and private sector corruption, and apartheid like censorship; are more connected to the government not nurturing or providing services: jobs, housing, electricity, water and general human rights. The issue for the young men, who came to the Ruth First/Joe Slovo launch, is the one that both Ruth and Joe fought against their entire lives, a class-divide that is growing rather than shrinking.
I have still not really defined what was learned. I felt like I was in a 1980s UDF meeting and clearly experienced an Arab Spring spirit. But what does that ethos mean in 2013 South Africa? There’s excitement, there’s energy, but is there structure? Are there plans, however small or large, for systemic change? In the 1980s there were civic associations, there were study groups, there were both small and large organizations to change a racist, class disparate society. Do those same types of configurations exist today? The night of the Red Location launch, I understood the scaffolding but not the substance. And after further conversations in the days that followed, I can only hope that there is more to the Arab Spring moment in New Brighton than just the framework that I observed.
Alan Wieder is an oral historian who lives in Portland, Oregon. Since 1999 he has worked on oral histories of political resistance in apartheid South Africa. He spent over twenty years on the faculty of the University of South Carolina and has also taught at the University of Western Cape in South Africa. He is the author of Ruth First and Joe Slovo in the War Against Apartheid.