The battle of ideas in South Africa

Paul Trewhela writes that in the end the party of inferior ideas always loses

For a century, South Africa was one of the prime political nations on earth.

All the main ideological/political currents of the century were tested out here - the European tradition of racism, lifted up to full height in Germany in the Thirties and Forties, with its acolytes in the National Party in South Africa; the tradition of Leninism and Stalinism, which created the Arctic death camps at Kolyma and the bullet in the back of the head in the cellars of the Lubyanka, the ideal prototype for what is now the most powerful organised group in the ruling Zuma wing of the African National Congress; the British and American tradition of parliamentary liberalism, which to the surprise of all - despite its historic weakness on the ground in South Africa - triumphed at least nominally as the guiding tradition in the establishment of the now sorely-tested Constitution of 1994.

Black politics in South Africa was able to pick 'n mix between these traditions, and it did. At times there have been resonances of all three traditions in the governing climates of black political discourse, principal among them by far however the last two. These have been adapted to and assimilated within a fourth, more general, European tradition of nationalism, itself the outcome of Europe's invention of the nation-state and the various climates of political nationalism from the time, say, of the wars of the Dutch Republic in the 16th and 17th centuries, or the Italian Risorgimento of the 19th.

These three, or rather, four, dominant political traditions set themselves down in a social matrix very different from western Europe of the 16th century, and from much earlier too. Europe and its traditions attached itself to southern and central Africa in relatively recent historical times, but at a time when African society in this zone had not yet developed the wheel, writing, money or ocean-going sea craft: the indispensable means of creating a modern society able to participate on equal terms on a world scale. There was no equivalence with the comparative status at the same time of, say, China , or Mesopotamia , or the Arabian peninsula , or Iran , or India , all great historical centres of written culture.

Living very broadly in iron-age pastoral societies, the principal unit of social cohesion of the people in southern and central Africa was the tribe - speaking broadly the same language - and within that, the clan, uniting people patriarchally by a relatively small pool of common genes: essentially, a family-based social system

The transition from this basic, fundamental social groundwork of the extended family entering into the actual lives and consciousness of millions of people, in development towards a complex modern society able to enhance energies to the full in a world of globalised capitalism, with China and India both rising economic powers, was always going to be difficult and painful.

Within these conditions, the African National Congress over nearly a century won for itself the prime position - which it still holds - in guiding the majority of people in South Africa towards developing the abilities that might enable them realistically to position themselves as equals in the contemporary world: not merely as hewers of wood and drawers of water for the benefit of others.

Indispensable to the ANC in this project over the past half-century was the South African Communist Party, the direct agent in southern Africa of the European tradition of Lenin and Stalin (both white Europeans, as was Karl Marx). Even if we were to exclude the crucial role for 30-40 years of material patronage from a world superpower, the nuclear-armed Soviet Union , the ANC received the full benefit of the organising powers of the SACP in all its political, military and propagandist activities.

Without the presence within it of the SACP as organiser-in-chief, there is no reason to think that the ANC would have fared any better in exile than did its initially anti-Communist (and later, Maoist) rival, the Pan Africanist Congress, which held itself together very poorly. In this sense, the SACP was the glue that held the ANC together in its thirty years of exile.

This came with two divergent consequences.

Firstly, the SACP as heir to the tradition of Lenin and Stalin has historically been the prime advocate and organiser of non-racialism in South Africa . For its first fifty years, the ANC was available for membership to people of one race only. Non-racialism entered organisationally into the heart of the ANC, first with the formation jointly by the SACP and the ANC of their military wing, Umkhonto weSizwe, in the aftermath of the Sharpeville massacre of March 1960; then, at the Morogoro conference of the ANC in 1969, which admitted whites, "coloureds" and "Indians" into general membership of the ANC, but not into executive positions; and, finally, with admission of members of all races to the National Executive Committee in 1985, agreed at the ANC's national conference at Kabwe in Zambia. By the time it was able to return legally to South Africa , in 1990, the ANC had been fully non-racial for less than five years. Nevertheless, it had taken that crucial step, essential to it becoming the party of government in 1994.

By contrast, by 1994 the SACP, and prior to it the Communist Party of South Africa (formed in 1921), had been fully non-racial in membership and increasingly in leadership for nearly seventy years. This non-racial party moulded in the tradition of Lenin and Stalin is now predominantly black in membership and leadership. Within the ANC, and within the general context of South African political life, the SACP won for itself historically the position of principal opponent in South Africa of the racial criterion in politics. This was no mean honour, and no mean historical achievement, and it was paid for by many sacrifices.

The other consequence was that the dictatorial political practice of Lenin and Stalin became installed in South Africa under the beneficent cloak of non-racial, "progressive" politics, located up to now within the broad cloak of the ANC.

The prime opponent in South Africa of both the European tradition of racist rule, embodied principally but not exclusively in the government of over forty years of the National Party, but also of totalitarian state despotism of the Soviet type (represented by the SACP), was the Liberal Party of South Africa. During the apartheid period, members of this party showed great courage and gave outstanding moral witness. But the Liberal Party existed for only 15 years, between 1953 and 1968, when it dissolved itself.

By that act of self-extinction, in that most bleak period of despotic rule under the heavy hand of Prime Minister Balthasar John Vorster (former paramilitary leader of the Ossewabrandwag), the Liberal Party discounted itself as a serious contender for the allegiance of black people, deprived of a vote, and handed primacy of position in the argument for the criterion of non-racialism in politics to its rival and enemy, the SACP. South Africa is still living under the consequences of that extraordinary act of self-abdication by the Liberal Party, when the choice it faced was of voluntary submission to the racist state or its combat as an illegal, underground, opposition party. All the credit for that choice of continuing in resistance ("A luta continua!") went to the SACP, the ANC and the PAC, which took the consequences of maintaining their identity as illegal bodies faced by a strong and ruthless state.

The Democratic Alliance, which of all parties in South Africa is the most direct inheritor of the traditions of the vanished Liberal Party (the parliamentary, constitutional and civic tradition derived from Britain and North America), still labours under the deficit incurred from the voluntary disappearance of the Liberal Party from organised political life, forty years ago. In the practical consciousness of the great majority of black people in South Africa, communism won a plus while liberalism incurred a minus. It was simple to ask: which party really put its heart into the overcoming of white rule, and which didn't? Which party fought through thick and thin, and which effectively capitulated?

There is no question that the calibre of leadership and political writing by the SACP today is not a patch on that of its leaders of 50, or 40, or 30 years ago. It nevertheless holds the advantage of the practical heritage of that tradition. In a sense, it is living off its capital.

By contrast, however, many fine black thinkers have found their own way since 1990 to major elements in the parliamentary and constitutional tradition once represented by the Liberal Party, faced with the bad alternatives in the two competing historical traditions, each with its own oppressive history (race thinking, on the one hand, and the Lenin-Stalin tradition on the other, with all the evil consequences of each). The low grade of argument by apparent supporters of each of these two traditions in South Africa is obvious from some of the comments attached by readers to previous articles by contributors to this website. The failure of the SACP to present a thoroughgoing critique of the gutter-level of discourse initiated by its ally, the ANC Youth League, as articulated by its president, Julius Malema, brings this once extraordinary political party down to the same level in the gutter.

The decline in the level of argument and moral integrity of representatives and supporters of the SACP is matched by the clear supremacy in logical and moral consistency of black writers and thinkers advancing perspectives from a different tradition. These would include individuals such as the editor of the Sunday Times, Mondli Makhanya (see here, for example, in his editorial "Time to bury Stalin and seek a new language that speaks of greatness"); Dr Xolela Mangcu, with his question, "How did a once proud freedom movement become a party of death?" (here); and the columnist Fred Khumalo, in his humourous/serious analysis of the consequences of the vocabulary of "imidlwembe" (or, traitors) in South Africa 's historic discourse (see here).

It was not difficult for Hitler and Stalin to beat out the brains of their opponents, whether they hanged a Pastor Dietrich Bonhoeffer in Germany or drove a poet Marina Tsvetaeva to hang herself in Russia. The battle of ideas is a different matter, and in the end the party of inferior ideas always loses. It may take a long time. It often does. It may happen only after huge numbers of people have met a terrible end, as happened under the empires of Hitler and Stalin. In the end, though, the moral witness of Bonhoeffer has already had a far longer history and influence among Germans, and in the rest of the world, than the 12-year Hitler Reich, and the poetry of Tsvetaeva will be in Russian hearts when Stalin has become a bad dream, from a bad past history.

The many opponents of the new Lekota-Shilowa grouping inside (or outside) the ANC are not wrong when they accuse its leaders of past misdemeanours and bad practice, from when they held the high seat in public life. The really significant fact, however, is that, like it or not, this grouping has turned in its public discourse to a similar set of concepts and sensibility as that of the most honourable and morally consistent writers and thinkers in contemporary black public life in South Africa. That is a very good thing. In the battle of ideas, the logic of the argument for political dictatorship - the argument of "Kill for Zuma", of the strategy to "hegemonise state power" - is already looking tawdry, like something dirty in the gutter, which it is.

The future character of black political thinking and argument in South Africa is already being articulated by the critics of the "Kill for Zuma" party.

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