South Africa: making the case for radical political action in the short and long-term

Where should “well meaning” South Africans or “progressives” who cherish liberty and have a sense that things “have gone horribly wrong” be devoting their energies today?

Where are the key points of hardship where we should be advancing our positions and joining with one another in order to move towards remedying the problems of the present?

One of the reasons why there are often heated exchanges between those who are unhappy relates, in my view, to a tendency to start with what ideological standpoint is the most “revolutionary” way of analysing the world and conditions in South Africa.

In contrast, my belief is that we should begin by identifying the character of the oppression that is experienced, wherever this is to be found. Once that is identified we can ask ourselves what tools of analysis can best assist us to resolve the question.

In a previous article I argued that defending legality in the context of a rights-bearing constitution is an act of radicalism.[1]

The present contribution considers the notion of radicalism more generally. The word radical is extensively used in South Africa and other parts of the world. It is used in a wide range of contexts, sometimes even opposed to one another; for example, references to the “radical right”, “radical transformation”, “radical solutions”, “ radical thinking”, “radical Islam”, and professional and disciplinary orientations as in “radical therapy”, “radical lawyers”, “radical philosophy” and “radical social work”.

Literally, being radical means to get to the root of a problem. Eradicating that problem, though, may be a long-term question, taking some time to resolve. If we identify the roots of such a problem what are we to do in the present? Are we to look at obstacles to solving it and fold our arms because they can only be settled in the long term when one addresses what may be called the “fundamental contradictions”?

It is important that we should hold onto our analysis of the fundamental causes or contradictions that form barriers towards ultimate resolution of the issues we confront. But we also need to immediately address burning issues in the present that can be acted on, even if we do not yet have the capacity or the means to attack the fundamental problems at their root.

People who experience problems that are capable of being addressed, problems that fundamentally affect the quality of their life, cannot simply be expected to wait because these problems are connected to wider and deeper questions that can only be finally resolved in the long run – whether through revolutionary change or other forms of substantial transformation.

One of the problems with insurrectionary approaches to change is that they focus on some decisive moment, such as when there will be “seizure of power” or even “transfer of power”, and defer all else that ought to be remedied to the other side of that point. That is the approach that dominated much thinking in the struggle against apartheid.

It had some merit in the context of that time, but the problem now is that there are conditions of existence that cannot wait till that moment “of final resolution”. They need to be ameliorated, or better still remedied, urgently.

Being radical has another meaning. When used in the sense of having a sustained and deep alignment with the poor, it also means that one relates to the most burning issues of the present.

In South Africa today people have problems that may in many cases  be remedied by acting through the courts or taking other actions that are in support of legal rights or entitlements.

The difference between the present and the apartheid era is that many of the problems that people face, such as illegal evictions or use of force by police, are contrary to the constitution and the law. Consequently the law is in many cases on the side of the poor and the resources must be found to support the realisation of the rights they have, not to claim rights that do not exist, as was the case under apartheid.

To be radical today is therefore not automatically related to being a socialist or a Marxist; it simply means siding with those experiencing hardship, wherever they may be located. It may also mean working with a variety of people holding a range of ideological approaches.

A radical believes that the oppressed should remedy their own problems through their own actions. That is a variant of direct democracy, where people directly empower themselves to take actions that affect their lives.

But it just may not be possible, in the present context, insofar as a remedy that is open to the people concerned requires certain expertise, for example, assistance of lawyers and other specialists. When these professionals are drawn on it does not mean simply taking action to remedy the problem on behalf of the people concerned.

In a radical sense it means that the professional has put him- or herself in their client’s place and adopted a sense of connectedness with them so as to act with compassion and passion to remedy the problem.

But again, it may not be possible to be represented by lawyers or other specialists and one may not be able to achieve remedies through legal processes such as courts. The resolution of the problem may require political action by the aggrieved people, such as organised mass action on as large a scale as possible. In that context being radical is to play a role as one of the oppressed or with the oppressed in seeking a solution.

In hearing what the immediate daily issues are that most affect people today and building organisation and unity around these, one is acting radically in relation to the hardship experienced in the present.

But radical thinking and acting does not stop there. On the one hand one cannot be fixated with what is necessary in the long term and ignore what is needed now. Equally it cannot relate entirely to immediate issues and ignore the long-term resolution of problems.

A truly radical approach is one that joins the problems of the present with a vision of the future, using solving today’s problems to build the type of capacity needed for tackling the problems of the long term.

Interestingly, the Freedom Charter, written 60 years ago, is constructed around such an approach. It is based on the collection of demands from ordinary people on the land, off the land but wanting land, in shacks or homes or trying to sleep without shelter, and in a range of other situations where they voiced their grievances and what they wanted remedied.

The Charter raised these demands in both a specific and generalised sense. It related specific grievances to more general claims, fundamentally those relating to the demands that the people should govern, the doors of learning and culture should be opened, and the land and its wealth should be shared.

Many people argue that the Freedom Charter is outdated – and it is true that some of the clauses cannot be applied in the conditions of today. It is the spirit of the charter that survives most strongly, however, and it ought to guide the way we interpret it. That relates to how we understand freedom in general, for freedom as a concept can never be finally realised.

Thus when we look at the Freedom Charter it is very limited in relation to gender and has no mention of sexualities. In South Africa today patriarchy is a central question, manifested in violence against women and intolerance of LBGTI people.

Patriarchy is heavily implicated in the violence that plagues our country and that violence is mainly masculine violence –not only against women but also against other men. Ours is a society that valorises toughness and a version of masculinity that devalues gentleness. Changing that must be incorporated into our understanding of freedom.

To return to what must be done in the face of widespread dissatisfaction coupled with a simultaneous sense of helplessness on the part of many who wish to see the promise of freedom retrieved and reconstructed: the central argument advanced here is that radicalism is determined by examining what questions are troubling people in their present existence, not by abstract theories found in textbooks.

We need to address the minor and major problems on people’s doorsteps as a matter of urgency, especially since at this time they may have the law on their side. That is in no way incompatible with longer-term questions that need to be addressed in order to build a more equitable society, beyond what the law currently provides.

Raymond Suttner is a professor attached to Rhodes University and UNISA. He is a former ANC underground operative and served over 11 years as a political prisoner and under house arrest. He has recently published Recovering Democracy in South Africa (Jacana Media, 2015). On twitter @raymondsuttner  

[This article first appeared on Creamer Media’s website:]

[1] Recovering Democracy in South Africa, Jacana Media, 2015, pages 226-228.