The Lost Souls of the revolution

RW Johnson writes on the disenchantment of the struggle generation

In the 1990s one met lots of white, Coloured and Indian ANC supporters. Some were bien pensants, comfortably off middle class people joining a winning bandwagon and enjoying hobnobbing with the new men of power. They didn't last long. They were soon brutally disillusioned and many have emigrated.

More interesting were the true believers from the minorities, often SACP supporters with history in the struggle. These too are now a massively disillusioned group, bitterly critical of the ANC yet somehow unable to make a clean break from it. Every war or revolution produces people like this, militants who look back proudly at their years of struggle but feel betrayed by its outcome.

Think of the impoverished veterans of Napoleon’s Grande Armee, endlessly reliving the glories of Austerlitz, Jena or Auerstadt but writhing unhappily under the Bourbon restoration which followed. They would be Bonapartists while they drew breath, unable and unwilling to see that their unhappy plight was due to their choosing to follow an adventurer who was bound to over-reach himself in the end.

Such people are lost souls. They have given up too much of their lives to one particular struggle to be able to wipe their hands of it, but at the same time they are tortured by the way that the world which that struggle produced departs so disastrously from the vision they fought for. They still feel they were completely right to have believed and acted as they did but they find the actual results of that struggle unbearable and they have scant hope of the future.

Several themes stand out when you talk to our local lost souls. They feel sure the revolution was betrayed, that there could and should have been a socialist paradise, the vision of which inspired them through the struggle. The culprits are comrades who turned out to be corrupt and ANC leaders who were too timorous to take a more radical stance. Sometimes this includes Mandela.

They feel a particular fury against ANC corruption for they feel sure that it was the hunger for immediate material rewards that undercut and sold out the revolution. But always lurking impersonally, the serpents in the garden, are the various evil -isms – neo-colonialism, neo-liberalism, imperialism, capitalism.

Meanwhile, these sad people spend a great deal of their time thinking about and celebrating the martyrs of the Struggle. They treasure books about people in solitary detention or suffering torture, they get particularly worked up defending John Harris and the station bomb, and they are still deeply engaged in understanding the fate of Ahmed Timol or Solomon Mahlangu. They are as deep into martyrology as any Catholic divine and have their own version of the Stations of the Cross.

This devotion to the world of the 1970s and 1980s derives from a hunger for a time when they felt such clarity and righteousness, a world they would like to return to, which, indeed, they wish they’d never left. In that world they had such certainties, something they don't have much of now. Now the memory of that world is their bolt hole, their refuge. They long for that time, though those were the days of banning, detention and mistreatment.

The really sad thing is that many of these lost souls were brave and selfless and they truly hated injustice. To everyone else but them it is obvious that they are the victim of their own delusions, that they made naive mistakes in taking ANC propaganda for the truth, propaganda they themselves often created and retailed and, finally, in misunderstanding the true nature of the Struggle itself.

After all, if African nationalism brought corrupt bureaucratic bourgeoisies to power in the rest of Africa, it was always likely that the same would happen here. Did they really misunderstand what was happening in other African states or did they merely misunderstand their own national movement? For they believed in the sanctity of their movement, they really thought it was different. If, however, you broach these subjects they are unable to follow. It is too painful, for it means accepting that they threw away large parts of their lives.

The myth of the lost revolution is contradictory in every respect. Almost no one in the ANC or SACP believed in such a thing in 1990. MK was on its knees, there was no chance of military victory and the objective was simply to negotiate the best bargain they could. Even Chris Hani knew that the collapse of the Soviet bloc had changed the game.

There is a tendency to look back to Hani and Slovo as lost guides, but the truth is that they had little to offer. They built their careers and their thinking on a generation of struggle and when that struggle suddenly stopped, they were lost. Hani could only list the ministries which he definitely would not want – interestingly, he refused even to consider education, saying it would be a bed of nails. He was full of militant attitudes but these were ten a penny – Winnie, Peter Mokaba and others were the same. Such posturing did not go far in an era of peace, reconciliation and governance.

Slovo was equally lost. He started by insisting on nationalization. Businessmen said, well then, of course, they would not invest. But you must invest, Slovo said. So that you can take it away? They said. You must be joking. To which he had no reply. He became Minister of Housing but had no understanding of housing finance. He and Hani were yesterday’s men. What they had to offer did not fit the new era.

In any case, if you imagine a transition to socialism in 1994 you realise it would have been complete chaos. As is now only too obvious, the ANC lacked the people with which to run the SOEs. Imagine if they had nationalized the mines, the farms, the banks, the retail sector: they would all have been looted, gone bankrupt and collapsed. The country would have starved and the ANC government would have imploded within a few years. In that sense the dream of a socialist transition was – and remains – a complete chimera.

The key thing to realise is that the nationalisation of industry, far from opening the door to socialism, was actually a recipe for runaway corruption. (Malema, who still advocates sweeping nationalisation, is only too well aware of the looting possibilities that would open up.)

So, far from ANC corruption having blocked the road to socialism, nothing would have been a greater boon to the corrupt than socialism. Nowhere in Africa is the nationalisation of industry about socialism: it is all about the private accumulation of capital.

In other words, a socialist revolution was always impossible. Nobody betrayed it. It would be wiser to praise Mandela for being sensible enough to avoid a step which would have led to the summary collapse of the economy and the ANC.

So why cling to this myth of the revolution betrayed? Mainly, it would seem, because the lost souls of whom we speak gave their lives to the struggle. It is painful enough to have to admit that the ANC government is a corrupt failure, but it would be more painful still to admit that they themselves were always wrong, that the vision that carried them through the struggle was flawed from the start.

So was the struggle itself a mistake? Clearly, a struggle for majority rule was inevitable and, indeed, democratically essential. But what if majority rule brings the oppression and immiseration of that majority, as in Zimbabwe. Do we still, at the bottom of our hearts, believe in its righteousness?

What is clear is that the armed struggle was a bad mistake. The resort to violence envenomed and polarized the conflict. It saw the security forces (and MK) resort to torture, there was great misery and loss of life and all for nothing. There is something horribly appropriate about the way in which the armed struggle is now represented by the comic opera conmen, Kebby Maphatsoe and Carl Niehaus.

The standard argument is that the armed struggle was inevitable because there was no peaceful way to change. But this was obviously not true. In the end there was such a way, which is why Mandela could become President without a civil war. Ultimately demography, international pressure and the end of the Cold War were all far more influential than the armed struggle.

The saddest thing of all is the way our lost souls misunderstood their own movement. They accepted its heroic myths at face value, convinced themselves that its leaders were selfless men who really believed in the ringing truisms of the Freedom Charter.

Indeed, the oddity was that left wing members of the minorities often believed more passionately in the ANC than its African members did. Africans knew that it was a communal movement, was about “our people”, and were keenly aware of the tribal tensions and unfairnesses within the ANC. The leftists from the minorities saw it as a movement of pure principle, committed to non-racialism and the Freedom Charter. But no movement is really a cardboard cut-out like that and the price of naivete is high.

There is more disappointment to come. Real per capita income has been falling for six years now and further decline lies ahead. Unemployment is already nearly four times higher than its worst level under apartheid and inequality is also worse now than then.

Everything suggests that the ANC has failed completely to govern the country and that ere long it will be forced to cede economic sovereignty to outsiders. The country itself might break up. Our lost souls will then have to ask themselves the hardest question of all: was the regime created by “liberation” worse than apartheid?

For the moment such large questions are avoided by devoting more attention to local issues. Here in Cape Town these often take the form of demanding that the city council build low-cost housing in up-market suburbs or the city centre, or that golf courses be taken over for similar purposes. Such campaigns allow activists to enjoy some good old fashioned class struggle, ranging themselves notionally in favour of the black poor against white privilege.

Yet this is all nonsense. ANC administrations don’t build low-cost housing in Sandton or in the embassy quarter of Pretoria, do they? Nor do Bill de Blasio or Sadiq Khan (socialists both) build low-cost housing in New York’s Central Park or on Lords cricket ground in London.

Apart from the fact that such green lungs are ecologically essential to any city, no sensible city administrator wants to thus destroy the most desirable residential districts for they pay enormous rates to the city. Moreover, it makes no sense: low-cost housing built in Camps Bay or Sea Point will immediately be very valuable and get sold to the highest bidder.

Again, the awkward truth is that Cape Town city council redistributes far more resources towards the city’s poorer districts than do ANC-controlled Jo’burg or Durban. This is possible because so much less money is stolen or wasted in Cape Town than in ANC-controlled cities.

But such local skirmishes are not really the point. Nor are the forlorn attempts to refocus attention on “revolutionary” struggles elsewhere – usually this means supporting Hamas, Hezbollah and other terrorist movements, though almost incredibly some of the comrades are now campaigning for Jeremy Corbyn’s re-instatement in the British Labour Party. This is all mere distraction. The question about whether the regime born of liberation is worse than apartheid will not go away.

But it is, in two different ways, the wrong question. First, there were so many cruelties, indignities and exclusions under apartheid that nothing can make them right or “more right” than something else. Think of the unnecessary unhappiness caused by the Mixed Marriages Act and the Immorality Act; about the terrible unfairness of job reservation; about the lives stunted by the Separate Universities Act; about the horrible effects of the pass laws, let alone all the petty indignities of “whites only” facilities and so on.

What we are proving, though, is merely how evil the old regime was. So resistance to it was righteous. But there were many ways of resisting it: the ways of Luthuli, Suzman or Buthelezi, the way of Sobukwe, let alone the MK way. Given that the armed struggle achieved little but cost or ruined so many lives, it is hard not to conclude that the most righteous forms of resistance were the non-violent ones.

The evils of today – poverty, corruption, unemployment and inequality - are just as morally offensive, but what point is served by the comparison and can there possibly be a “right” answer to the question?

Secondly, it is the wrong question because history is not some sort of moral beauty contest. It is what it is. Our lost souls thought they could give history a push and ensure that it worked out in a way they would like. But historical change is an enormously complex process – a sort of summation of all human activities – and it does not respond to such puny efforts and in any case every effort creates its own equal and opposite reaction. The oddity is that the comrades would have said they were historical materialists yet they paid almost no heed to the real historical roots of change.

If you take history seriously it is wise to admit the utility of Fernand Braudel’s conception of la longue duree – long-term factors which exert an insistent pressure down the ages. Sometimes these are material but they might also be ideas embedded in human consciousness – “old attitudes of thought and action, resistant frameworks dying hard, at times against all logic”.

Against that there was histoire evenementielle – short-term events and personalities which a chronicler or journalist might describe. And the fact is that humans act only in that histoire evenementielle and while they do so they may even feel they are in command of history. But really it is the longue duree that determines things and only a very few individuals – Copernicus, Newton, Einstein – can have any impact on that by effecting a paradigm shift in the way we think.

If we think of South Africa in those terms we see the crucial significance of the higher rainfall along the Eastern littoral, for this guaranteed plentiful vegetation for the simple agrarian societies there. The abundant fodder for these cattle-based societies guaranteed both the numerical supremacy and the population density of the Nguni peoples – who dominate South Africa today. Moreover, that density was helpful to the growth of strongly centralized chieftaincies. As one moves towards the far drier West the population is more scattered and the chieftaincy correspondingly weaker.

These were simple societies and resources were allocated entirely by the chiefs. That is to say, patron-client relationships were the basis of the entire social order and those assumptions still remain basic to African society today. Hence the ubiquity of patronage and, indeed, corruption. These societies, particularly at chiefly level, were always polygamous and, like all polygamous societies, they were intensely patriarchal. We can’t understand today’s gender-based violence without taking that into account.

We can, of course, construct an histoire evenementielle in which we allow prominent individuals (Verwoerd, Mandela) to count or sequences of events (“the transition”, “truth and reconciliation” etc) to loom large but as one examines even the few longue duree factors we have mentioned one realises that they will still be working their way through our society for several generations to come. In that sense history defeats us all. The only thing to do is try to understand it – and respect it.

The temptation is always to believe that one can somehow accelerate history, that one can make great leaps forward (“revolutions”) by purely voluntaristic means. This is almost impossible to achieve and even trying to do so has an exceptionally high human cost. So, it is not surprising that our idealists who set out with such self-belief in 1994 have failed. We should have expected that and so should they. The real point is to understand one’s own history and work with the grain, not against it. Immediately, it means learning from mistakes and not clinging to yesterday’s theories and visions.

R.W Johnson