Lessons on Political Culture and Consciousness From Struggles of the Global South

“It took me a period of two and a half years to understand a ‘we’ and ‘us,’” says T.J. Ngongoma, recounting how he joined Abahlali baseMjondolo, or “Residents of the Shacks,” a South African grassroots movement. In March 2015, Ngongoma spoke with students in Grahamstown, South Africa, many of whom participated in what became a mass revolt of university students later that year. He spoke about sustaining a “political-social movement”: the importance of democratic practices, time and patience, learning, and collectivism. The two and a half years it took Ngongoma to understand “we” and “us” reveal something important about the movement: they had created a rich political culture different from their surrounding society. The culture of Abahlali is a radical collectivism organized and mobilized in resistance to the dehumanization and exclusion of the urban poor. Membership in the movement and participation in the culture demanded learning.

With the election of a reactionary government in the United States—which joins a burgeoning array of right wing governments and movements—collectively producing a political culture of resistance is urgent. The urgency is greater as the vigor of American political discussion and involvement of the past six months abates, and the investigation of Trump-Russia connections has made observers of many aspiring participants. In this project of politics, culture, and resistance, Americans can learn important lessons from South Africans and other people in those parts of the “Global South” where genuine mass movements have been built and sustained. Through struggles against colonialism and neo-colonialism, which encompass ongoing struggles against racism, authoritarianism, patriarchy, local and transnational capitalism, and (neo)liberalism, mass movements have produced knowledge and cultures of resistance. This is true of Abahlali baseMjondolo, of movements elsewhere in Africa, and in places like Brazil, Bolivia, and Haiti.

For the Guinean revolutionary, Amilcar Cabral, culture was political. Speaking at Syracuse University in 1970, Cabral said, “at every moment of the life of a society (open or closed), culture is the result, with  more or less awakened consciousness, of economic and political activities, with more or less dynamic expression of the type of relations prevailing in that society.” In the United States, liberalism has long been the hegemonic organizer of relations, political and economic activities, and culture. We do not mean so-called “bleeding heart” liberalism as seen on Fox News, but the liberalism shared by the eighteenth-century philosopher and slave-trader, John Locke, and contemporary élite proponents of free trade: liberalism as the guiding principles of capital accumulation through colonialism and imperialism, linked inexorably to racism, class war, and the institutionalization of politics; liberalism as an excluding rather than emancipating project.

Kenyan activist and intellectual, Firoze Manji, considers culture via Amilcar Cabral: “Culture is not a mere artefact or expression of aesthetics, custom or tradition. It is a means by which people assert their opposition to domination, a means to assert agency and the capacity to make history. In a word, culture is one of the fundamental tools of the struggle for emancipation.” This understanding of culture and what it means in practice is crucial in the United States, today. Importantly for the American context, Manji argues how neoliberalism “exacerbated the depoliticization of culture” through middle class individualism and “attempts to break up the collective – especially organized forms such as trade unions, farmers’ organization and youth movements.” Repoliticizing collective culture as “a means to assert agency and the capacity to make history” must be central to the new resistance.

We will spend some time comparing the United States and South Africa. While the daily lives of many people in both countries are affected by or mediated through racism, exploitative wealth inequality, gender inequality and violence, and an increasingly repressive state, the political cultures are markedly different. In South Africa there is a dynamic political culture with, in recent years, well-organized forms of resistance in shack settlements, on the mines, on university campuses, and in parliament. In the United States—even though the liberal arousal effected by the Trump election signals potential—the political culture has been listless for decades. This does not deny the existing movements in the United States that have and do organize around real politics. We must be critical, however, of the attitude towards politics taken by the average American liberal, who often shies from the word “politics” because it indicates something “divisive.” There is also no intention here of representing South Africa as a “better” society; its problems are deep and manifest for a majority of South Africans in harsh daily struggles. What differs in South African political culture is the centrality of dissent and resistance, and the idea that resistance has potential to be transformative. Following this, the actual practices of resistance are important. For many South Africans, the practice of resistance has different meanings than it does for most Americans. Working through these two concepts—the transformative power and the practice of resistance—will be important to cultivating a political culture in the United States from which opportunities and knowledge for resisting reactionary power can emerge.

There are practical reasons for South African dynamism and American lassitude. Historical, political, and economic factors mean that material realities of life for a majority of South Africans, compared with a minority of Americans, are genuinely precarious. This does not mean that all Americans are comfortable—our society marginalizes through race, class, gender, religion, and more—nor that all South Africans live in distress, nor that a person cannot simultaneously inhabit discomfort and comfort. No person is wholly determined by her or his situation. However, many South Africans confront and share with their neighbors daily experiences of harsh marginalization that cannot be ignored. This collective experience contributes to collective action.

In We Make Our Own History (2014), Laurence Cox and Alf Nilsen explain, “Social movements…grow out of people’s experience of a concrete lifeworld that is somehow problematic relative to their needs and capacities, and from their attempts to combine, organise and mobilise in order to do something about this” (72). In Pedagogy of the Oppressed, the Brazilian educator and philosopher, Paulo Freire, frames it as a struggle against dehumanization: “sooner or later being less human leads the oppressed to struggle against those who made them so” (44).  However, politics does not result from lived circumstances alone, nor are these sufficient to sustain a political culture. Rather, organizing and mobilizing from a set of experiences—participation in “the struggle”—make politics and political culture possible.

It is important not to overemphasize material circumstance as a foundation for political culture; it is, rather, a motivating factor in the thought and action that can foster a political culture. Ngongoma articulates how political participation involves a learning process. This is as true for South Africans living in a shack settlement as it is for middle class Americans, but the maintenance of a political culture like Abahlali baseMjondolo’s facilitates that learning, provides examples of success and failure, instills the motivation to participate, and introduces and fosters a critique of society, its structures, and its institutions. Ngongoma’s two and a half years were not wasted time; immersion in the culture of Abahlali baseMjondolo allowed him to comprehend and to practice radical collectivism in a humanizing political project that affects daily lives. The nationwide revolt of South African university students in 2015 that won a zero percent increase in tuition fees for 2016 could not have happened without the knowledge that mass mobilization can be transformative and the examples of historical and present mobilizations. The comfort of students when discussing such concepts as disruption and socialism was not only a result of academic study, but of political consciousness located in a broader political culture, and this comfort made mass mobilization more possible and effective. Jonis Ghedi Alasow, one of the students active in university struggle and discussion in 2015, contrasts the liberal appeal to “the right way of doing things,” which presupposes the “wish to integrate those on the peripheries into the centre,” and the politics of a “movement…wish[ing] to eradicate the very categories of ‘periphery’ and ‘centre’,” which, therefore, cannot adopt “the liberal ‘methodology’ of participation in oppressive structures.” This comparison, and the complementary assertion that a movement is “not interested in the ‘right’ way of doing things,” depends on a collective awareness and then the collective rethinking of “rightness” and “doing.” Significantly, rethinking occurs both in the moment (of a movement), but also over the course of several moments (of movement), through which an accessible political culture is produced.

Many South African lives have been directly shaped by the transformative power of mass mobilization, which was crucial to defeating apartheid (white supremacist minority rule). Many people participated in or remember the powerful labor movement and the popular United Democratic Front (UDF) of the 1980s. The UDF did not survive the transition to democracy, and the trade unionism of that era was largely captured by capital and the state. However, the legacies of these movements persist in part because they contributed to the defeat of apartheid and because some of their cadres are still—for good and for ill—part of the political life of South Africa. A current revival of trade union dissent, especially among mining and industrial workers discontent with the neoliberal direction taken by the African National Congress (ANC) government since 1994, can tap into a culture that was dormant but not destroyed during the last two decades.

In the United States, mass mobilizations that yielded significant results are twenty years further removed, they changed the daily experiences of far fewer Americans, and they were not consolidated in the state as happened in South Africa. Many South Africans feel betrayed by the ANC, but this sense of betrayal is possible because of the widely held understanding that hundreds of thousands of South Africans struggled for liberation and yet live lives marked by oppression. The ANC government represents only one strand of the efforts of South Africans—nationalism—and it is no longer a revolutionary organization, but it emerged from the struggle, nonetheless. Though it is a contested narrative, mass struggle is the South African national narrative.

On the other hand, Presidents Nixon, Reagan, the Bushes, Clinton, and even Obama do not represent even an ambiguous extension, let alone a betrayal, of the will of the people as it was expressed in the radical movements of the 1960s and 1970s. They represent counter consolidations of capital and violence in their reactionary and liberal forms. Furthermore, the American narrative does not revere mass mobilization. In South Africa, even though many in power propagate a “sanitized” version of the anti-apartheid struggle, this suppressive narrative does not enjoy the same hegemony that it does in the United States. For example, the “general strike” of enslaved Africans in the American South that won both their freedom and the Civil War (see Du Bois, Black Reconstruction in America) remains a counter-narrative rather than the national narrative. The Civil Rights movement may have brought the backward South into the liberal twentieth century, but its radical directions have been suppressed. For its part, organized labor is conceived of today in institutional terms rather than mass popular terms, the latter often associated with anti-democratic forces. Significant mobilizations like Occupy Wall Street, the Ferguson and Baltimore protests, Black Lives Matter, and Standing Rock have made relatively little impression on the political life of most American liberals. This is partially because protest (politics in the street) is not political in the worldview of liberalism, which confines politics to rooms with carefully limited access—the “right way of doing things.” In that view, major political events like Ferguson are uncivilized reactions to politics, not political actions in their own right.

As with lived experience, we should not think that a vibrant political culture is impossible in the United States because we are disconnected from our history of mass mobilization. We must actively contribute to expanding the audience for radical knowledge, which will prepare the ground for the production of a political culture of resistance. The significance and relevance of our American histories of mass mobilization cannot be overstated. We have to assert the relevance, efficacy, and progressive potential of radicalism and mass mobilization, while not ignoring the pitfalls which can lead popular power itself to become reactionary. This requires expanding the concept of “political” in two ways: 1) beyond the sphere of the formalized political power of institutions, governments, and elections to include the neighborhood meeting, the union hall, the protest, etc.; and 2) beyond the conception of politics as moralistic.

In Bolivia, a political culture of resistance is mediated through indigenous culture (see Aguilar, Rhythms of the Pachakuti). In 2000, mass mobilization drawing on the culture and social formations of the Aymara people prevented the privatization of water in the city of Cochabamba. Direct political action between January and April of that year—blocking and, at times, literally filling the streets—forced the government to make concessions to the people rather than to transnational corporations. It was not institutional power but cultural power that enabled the organization, coordination, and mobilization of many thousands of Bolivians in a political struggle. Significantly, Aymara culture includes a concept of necessary disruption of the norm, pachakuti, which rationalized mass resistance. Despite filling the streets, Bolivia’s “Water War” has more in common with Standing Rock than the Women’s March on Washington. The Water War mobilizations drew on existing cultural knowledge and organizational forms to empower direct action (in ways that would be affirming to Cabral). Some complain that the Women’s March lacked direction, but more limiting was its lack of shared experiences and knowledge that could rationalize a political objective. Liberal political culture, unlike Aymara culture, does not empower the collective or encourage disruption. As with lived experience and history of collective action, lacking indigenous knowledge does not make a political culture of resistance unattainable. We just have to produce it.

In his talk with students, Ngongoma spoke about politics explicitly. “Because whatever crime that is committed on us is politically motivated,” he said, “so it is necessary for us to respond in responses that are politically motivated.”

In contrast, American liberalism grounds itself in morality rather than in politics. “Racism is wrong,” is a moral pronouncement, not a political position, and not an anti-racist position. Yet the American liberal will interject “racism is wrong” and then wonder why society is still racist, or, worse, will assume racism has been defeated. In essence, this encapsulates the liberal co-optation of the legacy of the Civil Rights movement, the crushing of Black Power, and the myth of a post-racial America. In his book-length essay on racism, Anti-Semite and Jew, Jean-Paul Sartre writes, “The Jews have one friend…the democrat. But he [sic] is a feeble protector. No doubt he proclaims that all men have equal rights…but his own declarations show the weakness of his position” (55). The “democrat,” Sartre argues, presses a policy of assimilation that suppresses the Jewishness of the Jew. “The anti-Semite reproaches the Jew with being Jewish; the democrat reproaches him with willfully considering himself a Jew” (58, emphasis original)—Sartre’s democrat maintains that “All Lives Matter.”

A liberal can accept that “Black Lives Matter,” but as a moral injunction against bad individuals and actions, while still generalizing her or his experience of the police (as mostly domesticated) and so elide the experiences of the Black people whose Lives Matter. A moral position that black lives matter is not fully a political position. The majority of American liberals benefit from the compounded and ongoing exploitations and exclusions of four centuries, which is not overcome by morality. Freire writes, ‘Discovering [oneself] to be an oppressor may cause considerable anguish, but it does not necessarily lead to solidarity with the oppressed. Rationalizing [this] guilt through paternalistic treatment of the oppressed, all the while holding them fast in a position of dependence, will not do. Solidarity requires that one enter into the situation of those with whom one is solidary; it is a radical posture” (49).

Actual solidarity with the Black Lives Matter movement is different. Real political commitments cut through the current debate about “ally-ship,” because, we see, politically motivated crimes demand politically motivated responses. Solidarity and comradeship differ from friendship, which does not require shared political commitments. Learning and practicing the politics of the Black Lives Matter movement does not leave room for false solidarity. The Black Lives Matter movement has developed a critique and a platform that give definition to the statement, relieve it of moralism, and imbue it with a radical political project. In this way, “Black Lives Matter” is rooted in history, in the present, and in future; it is not timeless, but situated; and it finds its form in collective action. In the same way, the Water Protectors at Standing Rock are political. Their protest is historical, present, and is aimed towards a future society that will be produced through collective action.

Understanding this conception of politics is crucial to the cultivation of a political culture. The process of working out a critique, a conception of society as it should be, and the methods through which these will be expressed and practiced is the core of politics.

Agreement and disagreement are both key. Ngongoma explained the daily practices of Abahlali baseMjondolo: “There is no certain individuals who sit and think for the people. We learn as we go in our daily struggles, together. And that helps us to sustain the movement, the togetherness of the people, with different ideas, who agree to disagree up until they agree on one point to take it forward.”

In other words, we must be political together before we are political in the streets. The energetic rush to local organizations that many Americans have made in response to the current reactionary government is often not political. Donations to the American Civil Liberties Union should not be scorned, but they are not a route to political change, nor can the donation itself be called a political act. To the tune, “I need somewhere to plug in,” and the refrain, “Call your Senator,” the political potential of Americans is spent on individualized actions that often depoliticize important issues rather than politicize them, that legitimize rather than criticize existing structures and individuals. Anti-Trumpism replaces deeper critique. Organization and mobilization take on meanings of volume and ease—often through the efforts of very few people, rather than largescale involvement—and reinforce for new participants the idea that activism entails mechanical piece-work or simply “showing up.”

These do not instill a sense of collective “ownership” (to use Ngongoma’s word), which emerges through thoughtful debate and hard work. To put this commitment to collectivism in practical terms, it is the rule in Abahlali baseMjdondolo that “there shouldn’t be a policy drafted by an individual that has to be tabled, because immediately if an individual has to draft a policy for a meeting, that meeting belongs to that individual, and all other people in that meeting are going to be passive onlookers.” Social media organizing may make it possible to almost spontaneously convene protests, but it is seriously limited in terms of the discussion, debate, and learning that a political culture requires.

Culture, as we have seen, quickens consciousness. Dr. Aubrey Mokoape, a founding member of the Black Consciousness movement in the late 1960s, also spoke to students in Grahamstown, two years ago. He explained how he and his comrades sought “to conscientize people in whatever environment they were in,” how they created Black Consciousness organizations in churches and in high schools, and how “this whole effort culminated in…the biggest movement of Black people that [South Africa] had seen up until then.” When through collective thought, debate, work, and action people have defined their collective ownership of the critiques, practices, and objectives of their politics, then it becomes easy to communicate these to others. Dr. Mokoape cautions that conscientization is not conversion; it is “not usurping the people’s struggles, not imposing ourselves on the people’s struggles, not attempting to lead the people in their struggles, but empowering them to understand their own struggles, and to be able to connect the dots between one struggle and another struggle.”

We must connect the dots: learn from past and present struggles, engage with their critiques of our problematic society, understand what contributed to their successes and failures, and take seriously their practices. However, this “discovery” of people’s ability to influence history “cannot be purely intellectual,” writes Freire, “but must involve action.” At the same time, it cannot “be limited to mere activism, but must include serious reflection.” In this praxis, this process of critical learning and action—what Freire calls conscientização—we in the Global North can encounter important teachers in the Global South. We can also access the power of our own radical histories and the example of present day movements in the United States.

Conscientização, for the majority of Americans, requires acknowledging our own and our country’s complicity in the exploitation of people in America and abroad. This cannot end at “checking privilege;” politics is possible only if consciousness spurs us towards collective engagement, rather than excuses or silences us. We must also expand our understanding of politics beyond liberal moralism and institutions to include practices like the lengthy, carefully deliberative democratic meetings of Abahlali baseMjondolo and the road blockades of Bolivia’s Water War. Then we must learn to connect the politics of the meeting and the politics of the protest, to articulate the political relationship between our practices, our critiques, and our objectives. In this way, Standing Rock becomes comprehensible. Political culture, like language, enables communication that is, as Cabral observes, a condition for broad-based, unifying, and successful struggle.

We cannot produce a political culture while activism is marketed as two scripted minutes on the phone. Everywhere we find the will to resist, we must develop projects for collectively forming political consciousness linked with radical action—“learning as we go, together”—and cultivate the political culture from which resistance can flourish. We must make of ourselves not individual “activists” but, to use the appropriate word, “comrades.” In short, we must actively work to change our culture—that consequence of “every moment of the life of a society.”

Paddy O’Halloran is a native of Providence, Rhode Island.  He is currently a master’s student in Political and International Studies at Rhodes University in South Africa.  His research interrogates race and space through the politics of social movements.