Clashing Anniversaries in South Africa

On 20 August 2023 Abahlali baseMjondolo held an event at the eKhenana Commune in Durban to commemorate four of their comrades who were murdered last year. Photo: Zodwa Nsibande.

In the 1980s millions of people were organised into militant trade unions and community organisations across South Africa. At the time it was argued that South Africa, along with Haiti and the Philippines, was one of the most mobilised countries on the planet.

This year the anniversaries of two key moments in building this incoming tide of popular democratising power have been marked. The first was the fiftieth anniversary of the strikes in Durban which began on 9 January 1973 and opened the sequence of struggle that built a formidable trade union movement.

Brought together in the Federation of South African Trade Unions (Fosatu) in 1979 the new unions were committed to the idea of workers’ control and to the view that building democracy in the unions would enable a broader process of democratisation from below. Fosatu resolved to assert a degree of autonomy for the workers’ struggle within the national liberation struggle. In a speech given in 1983 Fosatu General Secretary Joe Foster argued that autonomous workers’ organisation was necessary “to ensure that the popular movement is not hijacked by elements who will, in the end, have no option but to turn against their worker supporters.” When Fosatu was replaced with the Congress of South African Trade Unions (Cosatu) in December 1985 that insistence on autonomy gave way to a direct, although initially not openly declared, affiliation with the ANC and a more politically militant commitment to national liberation.

Two years earlier, on 20 August 1983, the United Democratic Front (UDF) had been launched in Cape Town following a proposal from the charismatic radical cleric Allan Boesak for a united front of “churches, civic associations, trade unions, student organisations, and sports bodies.” Following the path first opened by the trade union movement the new movement was committed in principle and often in practice to radical democracy and what it termed ‘people’s power’. In a speech given in 1987 UDF leader Murphy Morobe argued that in both the struggle and the new society to come there should be “direct as opposed to indirect political representation, mass participation rather than passive docility.” This vision of a radical democracy to come meant “all South Africans, and in particular the working class, having control over all areas of daily existence — from national policy to housing, from schooling to working conditions, from transport to the consumption of food”.

The ANC in exile was as taken by surprise at the emergence of the UDF as it had been by the Durban strikes, and while the new movement was never an instrument of the ANC it placed itself within the political tradition of the ANC. People who were acting autonomously often did so in the name of the ANC and the symbolic, often mythic authority of the ANC became more hegemonic than at any previous point.

Things often got messy, and at times outrightly abusive, as increasingly militarised repression bore down in the latter part of the 1980s and resistance also took on a militarised tenor, often led by young men. But vast numbers of people had become political protagonists and ideas like worker control and popular power had won widespread support.

By the end of the decade both the popular struggle and the state were in crisis, with neither defeated or able to defeat the other. At the end of the Cold War the Western states backing the regime in Pretoria withdrew their support, the ANC was unbanned and negotiations began.

Cosatu and the UDF swiftly ceded leadership to the ANC and did not challenge the mediation of the negotiated transition through a post-Cold War liberal conception of democracy backed by Western governments and their embassies, advisors, allied donors, NGOs, media projects, research centres, and the like. Scant regard was given to experiences of postcolonial crises elsewhere in Africa, to Frantz Fanon’s warnings about the political character of the national bourgeoise, or to dissidents within the ANC.

In 1969 the communist leader Chris Hani, acting with six others, had issued a memorandum denouncing “the frightening depths reached by the rot in the ANC” including  “secret trials and secret executions”, “nepotism”, “mysterious business enterprises” and “complete indifference and apathy to the heroes and martyrs of our Revolution”. He would later write that in response to the memorandum “Orders were given for our arrest for alleged treachery. Dungeons were dug”.

During and immediately after the transition to liberal democracy critique by left intellectuals largely assumed that the political question had been resolved and focussed on policy issues, such as the adoption of a neoliberal macro-economic policy and a World Bank influenced ‘willing buyer willing seller’ approach to land reform. There was much less critique of the shift to representative democracy in which elections and ‘civil society’ (generally meaning donor funded NGOs) replaced participatory democracy, workers’ control and people’s power.

There was almost no critique of how donors and NGOs rapidly normalised the claim that the swift reduction of a radically democratic imagination to liberal ideas of ‘public participation’, ‘active citizenship’, ‘lobbying’, and so on, all mediated through authorised state institutions and NGOs (‘civil society’), were the successful culmination of the popular struggle for democracy. The shrinking of the democratic imagination and the range of matters taken to be legitimate issues for disputation, and the establishment of circumscribed spaces and modes of authorised engagement, was largely accepted without critique.

Michael Neocosmos was a notable exception to the shift from political to technocratic critique. In 1994, the year in which the ANC took state power, he argued, presciently, that people’s politics was giving way to state politics, and that democratisation from below was giving way to ‘statisation’ from above.

In a 2018 paper on the UDF he argued that from late 1984 to mid 1986 a “mass upsurge” of popular political initiative and power in “the form of bus and rent boycotts, housing movements, squatter revolts, labour strikes, school protests, and community ‘stay-aways’” was “forced on the leadership from below”. This political sequence, he argued, should be understood as having an evental character in the sense that the communist philosopher Alain Badiou uses the term ‘event’ to describe a moment in which there is an opening of a new horizon of possibility, an opening that changes the structure of an existing situation. For Neocosmos the evental nature of the mass politics in the mid 1980s is that “it was able to completely reconfigure and rethink the basis of emancipatory politics in the country, and to systematically raise issues concerning the centrality of popular democracy in any emancipatory transformation.”

Almost thirty years after the end of formal apartheid ANC rule has come to a point of economic devastation with unemployment at over 40% and youth unemployment at over 70%. There has been no significant land reform. Hunger is endemic, there is pervasive violence, crises in schools and health care, collapsing electricity, water, rail and port systems, corruption on a staggering scale and ruthless political repression of struggles for urban land. In Abahlali baseMjondolo, a movement of impoverished urban people, the phrase umhlaba noma ukufa (land or death) is now commonly used in meetings.

The presence of Blade Nzimande, who spent a decade as an ANC cabinet minister, at one of the events to commemorate the 1973 strikes was met with disquiet in some quarters. The celebrations of the fortieth anniversary of the UDF held on 20 August did not only include the ANC, they were ANC events.

Prior to the events paid advertorials were taken in the press, each of them presenting the UDF and the moment of people’s power in the limited donor and NGO driven jargon of transparency, accountability, engagement, participation, oversight and accountability. It was stressed that people need to use the authorised channels for engagement. It was not acknowledged that any assumption that these channels work for people in practice is entirely disconnected from reality, or that the way they are supposed to operate in principle places narrow limits on the forms and content of politics and renders people, as, in a phrase taken from Álvaro García Linera, “supplicants of the state”.

In a television interview former UDF leader Cheryl Carolus, who went on to senior positions in government and business, said, in defence of the new order, that “we can gather freely, we can associate freely”. This is true for middle class people. But she made no mention of the long list of working class and impoverished activists who have been beaten, arrested, tortured, jailed and murdered under the rule of the ANC.

At his keynote address at the gathering to commemorate the UDF held at the Johannesburg city hall President Cyril Ramaphosa paid tribute to UDF leaders Victoria and Griffiths Mxenge who were murdered by the apartheid regime, but said nothing about the long list of activists murdered by the police or the izinkabi (assassins) under the ANC. Along with the standard NGO and donor bumpf about ‘active citizens’ he repeated the claim that today “people enjoy freedom of association and the right to protest” ignoring the fact that while these rights are guaranteed in law they are frequently denied to working class and impoverished people in practice, sometimes with lethal violence. Unarmed people are regularly killed by the police on street protests.

The declaration adopted at the Johannesburg City Hall asserted that “the mass uprising of the 1980s…still constitutes the most significant mass democratic uprising the world has ever seen”. This may well be true. It said nothing at all about contemporary repression, and made a call for people to participate in ward committees, committees constituted around local councillors in municipal wards, and often coterminous with local ANC structures and gangsterised ‘business forums’. In parts of the country ward committees have long been the key structures through which people seeking to become independent political protagonists are contained, intimidated, repressed and sometimes killed. In some areas these committees are heavily armed. It is not uncommon for them to prevent meetings being held without their approval, and to do so at gunpoint. It is here that, in the words of Fanon, “The party helps the government to hold the people down. It becomes more and more clearly anti-democratic, an implement of coercion.” The kindest interpretation is that this naïve call to participate in ward committees is a result of ignorance consequent to profound alienation from the lived experiences of ordinary people.

In a excoriating open letter to the organisers of the celebration of the UDF anniversary Boesak, citing Augustine’s maximum that “A government that does not know justice is no more than a gang of robbers,” accused some of the people calling for a revival of the spirt of the UDF within the ANC of “shamelessly exploiting, and betraying, the trust of the people, spitting upon their sacrifices”. The spirt of the UDF, he insisted, cannot find a home in the ANC, it must “find a home within the people”.

This month two anniversaries relating to murderous forms of contemporary repression were observed. On 16 August the eleventh anniversary of the massacre of 34 striking platinum miners at Marikana was commemorated. On 20 August, the same day as the UDF commemorations, the first anniversary of the assassination of Lindokuhle Mnguni, an extraordinary young leader in Abahlali baseMjondolo, was marked with a commemoration for the four comrades that the movement lost to repression last year. Three were killed by assassins and one by a masked police officer.

The ANC’s response to the commemoration of the massacre held at Marikana was to declare that it “condemns the use of the Marikana tragedy as a political tool…at the expense of healing and national unity.” It said nothing at all about the commemoration held by Abahlali baseMjondolo in the eKhenana Commune in Durban where Mnguni and two of his comrades, Ayanda Ngila and Nokuthula Mabaso, were assassinated in an intensely local struggle for a piece of land.

After the land was occupied its management was democratised and, in accordance with the principles of Abahlali baseMjondolo, its allocation collectively undertaken on the basis of a social logic rather than profit. This pitted the occupiers against local ANC aligned ‘business men’ who wished to build blocks of flats for private profit. The ‘business men’ have taken a sliver of the land and built flats, but most of it remains under democratic community control, and the prohibition on selling land or renting shacks remains in force.

The commune that Mnguni and his comrades created was run on strict principles of democratic decision making and gender equality, produced vegetables and chickens, established and ran a community kitchen and a cooperatively organised shop to sell the surplus, as well as a poetry project and the Frantz Fanon Political School, inspired by the MST political school outside Sao Paulo. People from across South Africa, and from many other countries, ranging from Swaziland, to Brazil and the United States, have participated in classes at the school. An intensely fought local struggle became a node in a developing set of wider political networks.

The commemoration at the eKhenana Commune of the four Abahlali baseMjondolo activists lost last year was opened with the Internationale, something that Abahlali baseMjondolo learnt from the MST, and then a prayer from Pastor Raphael Bahebwa, who came to Durban in search of sanctuary from the war in the Congo. He led the formation of the Congolese Solidarity Campaign in South Africa, an organisation that he says was ‘born from Abahlali baseMjondolo’ and has begun the process of building a presence in the Congo. Solidarity from around the world was noted. A t-shirt from Ghana produced in solidarity with the commune was shown, and the planting of a tree at the MST political school in honour of Ayanda Ngila, the first comrade on the occupation to be assassinated, described. Local ruptures with key elements in the logic of oppression can have much wider consequences.

For Badiou fidelity to an event “is always fidelity to an original rupture, and not to a dogma, a doctrine or a political line – to invent or propose something new that, so to speak, brings back the force of the rupture of the event. This is anything but a principle of conservation: it is a principle of movement. Fidelity designates the continuous creation of the rupture itself.”

Fidelity to the event of popular power built under the banner of the UDF cannot take the form of reifying the standing of the individuals that led the UDF, or of the UDF itself. It cannot take the form of normalising the shift from radical democracy to liberal democracy and its circumscribed donor and NGO driven conceptions of ‘active citizenship’. Allowing Ramaphosa to appear as a contemporary custodian of the popular political innovation and courage that marked the UDF moment is sickening.

Fidelity to the rupture of the mass commitment to people’s power in the 1980s can only mean ongoing fidelity to new moments of rupture, and new moments in which democratic forms of popular power are constituted, even if on a much, much smaller scale. Very few of the leaders who came to the fore in the 1970s and 1980s have remained faithful to new moments of rupture, to the ongoing political innovation of the oppressed, to the ‘principle of movement’. But there are those, like Rubin Phillip, the now retired Anglican archbishop who at one point was deputy to Steve Biko in the Black Consciousness student organisation, and the trade unionist David Hemson, who are counted among the exceptions. Both have visited the eKhenana Commune to be in solidarity and Phillip has been a regular presence.

The moment of the UDF and popular power was a bold and, in terms of the risks taken, reckless step into the unknown. Its commemoration this weekend was feckless. Boesak’s star waned during a scandal around donor funding in the late 1990s. This weekend it waxed. He did well to stay away.

Richard Pithouse is a research associate in the philosophy department at the University of Connecticut and a columnist with the Mail & Guardian in Johannesburg.