In 1993, on the eve of our first democratic election I attended one of a number of conferences that I had the privilege to attend as a member of the Young Christian Students (YCS) at Ipelegeng Community Centre in Soweto. This was really just a talk-shop, where very young minds got together to map out what we felt the New South Africa should be about. We had long debates, heated ones and not so heated ones about the last few steps in the course of our struggle against apartheid.
On the Friday night of the three-day workshop we had one Thabo Mbeki come in to address us about the role of organizations like YCS in the upcoming elections and beyond. We had 50 or so people in the room, having a relaxed exchange with a man who would become Deputy President of South Africa the following year and its president in 1999. Of course we didn’t know this at the time but we appreciated that we had the privilege of sitting in the same room as he did, and talking to him. The Saturday morning was reserved for what we called the ‘state-of-the-world’ analysis and one Jeremy Cronin led the discussion.
This Jeremy Cronin went on to become a Deputy Minister in the Department of Transport. We spoke with him about the collapse of the Soviet Bloc, the ‘failure’ of socialism in Europe and what this meant for us. We discussed the ‘Has Socialism Failed?’ document (penned by the late Joe Slovo) that was highly circulated in progressive organizations at the time. Another coffee-table chat if you will. Not only did we get the feeling that we were listened to, but most importantly, that we mattered. Our opinions mattered. We were appreciative that leaders of national movements took the time to come and be with the people and listen.
This, I think, is the most valuable of the ‘Things we lost in the Struggle’. The idea that the opinions of the would-be governed matter. ‘The people’ indeed mattered and they would govern.
Some of the discussions we had centred on what we would change about the education system once we took over. No more of this Bantu education that put the African child at a disadvantage compared to the other races in our country. “There is no place for [the Bantu] in the European community above the level of certain forms of labour … What is the use of teaching the Bantu child mathematics when it cannot use it in practice? That is quite absurd. Education must train people in accordance with their opportunities in life, according to the sphere in which they live.“
(Dr Hendrik Verwoerd, South African minister for native affairs (prime minister from 1958 to 66), speaking about his government’s education policies in the 1950s. As quoted in Apartheid – A History by Brian Lapping, 1987.)
We agreed that the content of the syllabus would change to reflect the true history of our country. We marveled that a small island like Cuba could have an education system that produced an excess of doctors, surely this would be the model to follow. In our enthusiasm to rid ourselves of the education of the ‘Baas’(Master), we failed to look at any positives in that system. Indeed, what positives would one expect from the likes of Verwoed.
Not surprisingly, Outcomes-Based-Education (OBE) was introduced in the mid-90’s once the government changed. Over the years since its launch, education experts like Jonathan Jansen warned that the system was likely to produce ‘undercooked’ kids. OBE continued but was eventually scrapped in 2009/10, but the damage was done. The first batch of products of that schooling system was found to struggle at University and other tertiary institutions.
We had thrown out the baby with the bath water. Looking back, the education system was highly flawed before the change in government but the flaw appears to have been mainly in funding not methods. The funding was highly skewed in favour of the white population. But the end of the struggle seemed to herald an era where it was ‘high treason’ to suggest that anything from the previous system worked. It didn’t matter that the previous system produced doctors who could work in the first world, most notably, in the UK, albeit mostly white doctors.
In the struggle, when most organizations were banned, the leadership of the progressive movement realized that religious organizations and leaders were one of the very few remaining voices that even the evil machinations of apartheid were circumspect to outlaw outright. Even they were scared to be seen to be ‘banning Jesus’, and the likes of Father Trevor Huddleston, Beyers Naude, Desmond Tutu, Allan Boesak, Frank Chikane, Sister Bernard Ncube and Father Smangaliso Mkhantswa became the de facto visible leaders of the struggle. They commanded respect.
This doesn’t mean they were left untouched by the evil system. Far from it. They too suffered the brunt of the system just the same. The slight difference being that outright brutality was always reserved for the ‘political activists’ as opposed to ‘church leaders’. The leadership of the progressive front listened to what the church leadership had to say.
The ‘end’ of the struggle brought an end to the significance of ‘moral leadership’. One wonders what would have happened if the prominence of religious leaders had been maintained well into democracy. Would there be a need for a Moral Regenaration Movement today? Would the swindling of public funds be at the levels that it’s at today? I doubt it. Another of one ‘The Things We Lost in The Struggle’.
Perhaps the biggest positive attribute that we lost in the struggle is honest self-appraisal. The document that I referred to earlier, ‘Has Socialism Failed?’ was an honest look at the system of government that we held in high esteem during the struggle, not necessarily because it was a successful system of government but because communist countries provided the most support to African countries battling colonialism. What the West abhorred as an evil system we hailed as the ideal.
But even then, when Mikhail Gorbachev introduced perestroika and glasnost that gave us a peak behind the Iron Curtain, some of our leaders were bold enough to question that ideal system. Although never an out-and-out admission that communism was a flawed ideal, the document went out of its way to acknowledge that the people that we hailed as heroes were not necessarily always heroes. Self-appraisal meant that we could look at ourselves and judge ourselves critically.
Today, anyone who questions the weaknesses and personal failings of the leadership of the rulers is labelled ‘anti-progressive with liberal tendencies’, a counter-revolutionery. Steve Biko ensured that no self-respecting cadre would ever want to be referred to as a liberal, not in South Africa anyway. Liberals chose to fight the apartheid system from within, they joined the Democratic Party(or Progressive party) in the racist politics of the past. Liberals, although appearing to fight the system, benefitted from the system. To be called a liberal now is far from desirable.
The ability of the Left to look in the mirror and say I don’t like what I see in the mirror is heavily curtailed by the fear that such an honest self-appraisal is tantamount to signing a form declaring oneself an enemy of the National Democratic Struggle(NDS) which has always demanded loyalty to the cause at all times.
But blind loyalty is what allowed Joseph Stalin to preside over a brutal system in the Soviet Union in the name of ‘the cause’. Blind loyalty is what is stifling open debate in the movement about whether the electoral system that we have right now is a suitable one to achieve our desired goals. Blind loyalty breeds fear. A fear that if I speak out, I might be signing a form declaring the end of the benefits that come with being in the right circles within the ruling party.
Blind loyalty is what we got when we lost honest self-appraisal in the struggle. It requires loyalty to a fault. Some people even mistake Nelson Mandela’s unquestionable loyalty to the African National Congress as an example of why we should never ‘betray’ the movement by speaking out. But they fail to understand that the organization that he chose to remain loyal to has morphed into one that now seeks to protect the benefits of the few who are not living out the ideals of Nelson Mandela’s ANC.
Yes a lot has changed. I would never have written this freely in the past. The ruling party brought me the freedom to write this freely. But let’s not forget, these hard-won freedoms require each of us never to betray the ideals that got us here. Honest discussion about where we are and how we should proceed is a healthy sign that things have changed.
But we remain fearful. We dare not say that five more years of the current leadership is five more years too many. And we keep looking back, looking back to the years when we looked forward to a new South Africa. Looking back because at least then we could hold on to those things before we lost them, looking back, wondering how we can reclaim The Things We Lost in The Struggle.
I honestly long for the day when The President can stand up in Parliament and say, we have made mistakes. We let a few things run away from us (with us), but now we want to reclaim the things we lost in the struggle. A good starting place would be the unmatched honesty that Thabo Mbeki and Jeremy Cronin displayed that weekend in Soweto when they reaffirmed that ‘the people shall govern’.