Sandile Memela
Sandile Memela

The struggle has long lost its purpose

It would seem that as we approach the 20th anniversary of freedom and democracy, the exact purpose and meaning of the liberation struggle for democracy has become one of the most misunderstood or distorted activities of the last 100 years.

Much of the analysis of its achievements tends to focus on non-revolutionary activities like ANC leadership contests, protest marches, wearing designer takkies. And yet the focus should always be on the ultimate objectives of democracy — economic justice and social equality.

It will always be disturbing to see what seems to be a deliberate confusion and dilution of the purpose and meaning of the struggle even by men and women who have given their lives to this cause.

Not long ago former Rivonia trialist and Robben Island prisoner Andrew Mlangeni said: “Well, what we actually fought for, were arrested for and spent 27 years in jail for (was): the untrammelled right of the citizen to raise his or her issues publicly in the most effective manner. We fought precisely for the right to strike, to demonstrate, to march – in designer or just plain takkies.”

Well, this may be democracy but it is certainly not what the struggle was for.

It has been more than 22 years since the Rivonia trialists were released from prison. It is appropriate not only to look at what motivated them but to take stock of what has been achieved by their commitment and self-sacrifice, if any. In fact, this is more urgent as the ANC heads to Mangaung to ask: what, exactly, was the struggle for?

At the risk of being accused of over-simplifying things, former freedom fighters have, until now, delivered a little more than the co-option of the liberation struggle into an unjust and unequal socio-economic system that has sought to make a few blacks comfortable.

The self-sacrifice and consequence of the longest struggle in Africa did not quite succeed to destroy or undermine a patriarchal and supremacist economic system but its leaders have become part of the history they fought against.

The ultimate purpose and meaning of the historic struggle was not just to deliver empty-sounding democracy where people only vote once every five years but economic justice and social equality. Without the attainment of the latter, the struggle is incomplete, nay, has failed.

Perhaps the hour has now arrived for former freedom fighters over 65 years of age to admit they have exhausted their role and should not only be commended for their role but be allowed to enjoy retirement. In fact, the continued dominance of this leadership has not only distracted the people from the ultimate objective of the resistance struggle but has guaranteed that the central concern of African politics is to work within the system through protest marches in designer or just plain takkies. This has not translated hopes and aspirations into practical freedom with economic justice and social equality yet.

Granted, the now aged former freedom fighters played a pivotal role — especially in the 1970s and 1980s — in refocusing the people on the agenda of liberation struggle, raising awareness about apartheid injustice and heightening mobilisation against the colonial legacy. But this saw it, increasingly, not only abandon the armed struggle but use strategies, systems and processes that not only corporatised it but enhanced its performance within the system it fought against. Its leaders became well-versed in boardroom negotiations, seminars, hotel-based negotiations and thus assumed a centralised democratic approach that, largely, left the people behind. Given its international contacts and networks, especially in the late 1980s, it was very strategic to develop a clone organisation like the United Democratic Front and mobilise the people in the final push against apartheid.

The culmination of this collaborative strategy was the Kempton Park talks or Codesa where the liberation movement, epitomised by the ANC, transmogrified into giving legitimacy to the system it fought against without guaranteeing the redistribution of the wealth and sharing of the land. Given this background, this explains why some veterans are — depending on how you look at things — not only preoccupied with praise but over-glorify what they see as democracy — an unjust economic status quo they will leave their grandchildren to confront and change, if they will.

Unfortunately a critical study of social trends shows that the new generation of born-frees desire nothing more than to emulate their grandfathers and fathers lifestyle to find peace and comfort in the system: material worship, money, designer labels, far-into-the-night drinking sessions and suburban lifestyles.

But there is no doubt that after two decades of democracy what is emerging is the urgent need, especially for children born into the struggle to examine the practical meaning of freedom and what it has delivered to provide a better quality for all.

As we approach the 20th anniversary of freedom celebrations, the issues, strategies and concessions made in the early 1990s are coming up for critical engagement and the former freedom fighters will be haunted as it is expected to respond to these concerns. What is happening at grass-roots level and among the middle class is that people are, in their own ways, demanding to gain a deeper understanding and knowledge of what was agreed to when reaching a settlement with the apartheid regime.

One of the major unintended consequences of the apartheid struggle has been to accommodate, protect and promote the unjust economic system and thus legitimise apartheid in the name of democracy. This is tantamount to inheriting apartheid as it is except to do away with racial discrimination and elevate a few well-connected blacks to enjoy a privileged life in the name of the people.

What is now seen as a misunderstanding or distortion of the struggle is when former freedom fighters exaggerate the right to protest, for instance. This suggests or may be read to mean that people must resign themselves to accept the economic status quo or work within the system to find comfort. In fact, protest for protest’s sake does not mean anything without satisfying people’s demands. We cannot afford to say Marikana was a mere “mishap” and continue with business as usual.

What has always been disheartening for some has been the realisation that the liberation movement has, largely, been wholly absorbed into the mainstream unjust economic system while the poor majority have been left to settle for crumbs.

There are deep rumbles of discontent that have exploded into violence, property destruction and death in the grassroots communities while the grandchildren of the struggle veterans are growing up to question the true purpose and meaning of the struggle.

The resounding question now is: what has exactly been achieved with democracy?

After more than two decades of freedom fighters at the helm of democracy, South Africa has become the most unequal society on earth.

The black majority has seen greater poverty, unemployment, inequality and hopelessness with a dependency on social grants as the only alternative to a better life.

The grandchildren of freedom fighters and other struggle veterans feel haunted and must answer questions to find peace: what is the relation between what their grandfathers and fathers fought for and the society that has, largely, not transformed?

What’s obvious is that saving the country from the brink of self-destructive war seems to not have necessarily freed miners and farm workers, for instance, from economic injustice and social inequality.

If former freedom fighters are not to die of heartbreak due to a sense of failure, they will need to complete the revolutionary programme of giving economic justice and social equality to the majority. Otherwise, history will judge them, harshly. This is needed for freedom and democracy to be more than just a political slogan.

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    • Mr. Direct


      Although I agree the leaders of the struggle have let the masses down, and instead enriched themselves, I do not agree with the idea of “giving economic justice and social equality”.

      I think this cannot be given, I think it needs to be earned.

      There is a lot government can do to facilitate this, such as improve basic education, and increase grants/subsidies to tertiary ecucation. BEE without improving education is not going to solve anything (I personally think this makes matters worse).

      The recent reports regarding the state of education show that government are making the biggest mistakes in the most important areas. Yes, land reform is important, changing street/town names is ethical, but education is critical.

      The problems will not only manifest themselves in this generation, but the next, and the next after that (the students become the teachers).

      Right now there is a crisis in the education system, and it needs the same vigor and dedication to resolve as was needed to kill apartheid. If the leaders are looking for a new struggle, there it is…

    • Jon Story

      One of the most difficult things to achieve is the transformation of ‘freedom fighter’ or ‘struggle hero’ into an ordinary citizen. The former is ‘struggling to’ transform society into a better one, a freer one, a more equal one. It is all good and well to proclaim to all the world that you are in it for ‘a better life for all’ but more difficult to achieve.
      The first thing that is necessary is to get out of ‘struggle mode’.
      A friend of mine experienced a similar thing in the Netherlands just after the war. There were freedom fighters, too, giving their life to achieve freedom from the oppressor. When liberation came they had to get out of ‘resistance mode’. Needless to say that the freedom they envisaged was not the freedom that actually happened. Politically things returned to normal, but much like it was before the war.
      Seventy years after the ertwhile enemies collaborate in a united Europe. That took a lot of letting go of old ideas on both sides.
      As soon as South Africans of all races realise that they need each other and that the struggle was a happening in a time which is history, its purpose (whatever that was) will be fulfilled.
      Rome was not built in a day, it took hundreds of years.“
      But we live in modern times and want to achieve everything now. We have instant coffe so why not instant freedom and equality.
      However, the gate to freedom and equality is narrow. It would be a pity if the baggage of the past should prevent SA to enter. Eventually.

    • Sterling Ferguson

      @Sandile, here you go again, the government that was setup in 1994 didn’t give the people a voice in the government. The voters are not allowed to elect the people in the government and hold them accountable. The people running the government today are more concerned with staying in power then doing for the people. A lot of people in SA are saying they took part in the struggle are doing nothing but telling lies. If a South African went to Nigeria or Zambia this was considered fighting in the struggle.

      All over Africa the ruling parties have told the people that they liberated them from colonial rule and this is far from being true. Many of them have used the struggle to justify ruling for life. However, after WW2 the Europeans were broke and the colonies were a drain on them so, they were happy to get out of Africa.

    • Lost Faith

      “The black majority has seen greater poverty, unemployment, inequality and hopelessness with a dependency on social grants as the only alternative to a better life.”

      Quite correct, Mr. Memela. The black majority has also seen an astounding deterioration in the quality of education, so much so that a substantial majority of black childern is now illiterate and innumerate – unemployable in a modern economy and destined for a life on the margins of economic life. This state of affairs is guaranteed to perpetuate social and economic inequality. There can be no improvement in the socio-economic position of the black majority untill this situation is radically improved. Unfortunately the trend is in the other direction, with the government and its hangers-on partying into the night.

      Did you notice, Mr. Memela, that SA came 62nd out of 62 nations in an authoritative education ranking from the UN? Unless the black majority insists on quality education and then spend a couple of decades aquiring the skills that will enable them to produce the goods and services of a modern economy, your dreams of “economic justice and social equality” will remain just that…..a dream. The hard truth is that there is no way around this long and arduous task.

    • ntozakhona

      Sandile your blog is self-contradictory on what it proposes. The struggle veterans must hand-over to born frees and their materialistic parents who desire nothing more than the best out the status quo? You isolate a single line from Andrew Mlangeni’s article, strip it off context and use it to distort him and discredit the liberation struggle.

      Andrew Mlangeni and others understand the content of the national democratic revolution which is a phased process not an event. The goal of the revolution is to create a society in which all citizens share in its wealth. I supposed your good poems made us suppose you understood that. Nelson Mandela had in the 50s that “Our struggle is inspired by the suffering of the African people” The liberation struggle is not over until that suffering is defeated, The forms of struggle might have changed but the content remains.

      Mlangeni is right that the right to protest and agitate for a better life is what we fought for. We have chosen to use those as part of the arsenal to dislodge those who monopolise economic power with the support of international capital.

      Your Kay Sexwale who claims to have been part of the struggle without chronicling her role in it potrayed protests as a sign of a government in crises. Liberation struggle activism is not hereditary but is proven in battle. The PAC, AZAPO who had postured as you do, are today voting with the DA on motions initiated at the DA caucus.

    • manquat

      Achieving economic and social equality is hard. It’s like a game of monoppoly. For a long time the founders and architects of the apartheid regime, built an empire with hotels, houses and lands. They were the key players and controlled all the key production facitlites and the economy in short. The black majority was prevented from playing the game. The white minority continued to use the resources and accumulate the resources to their own benefit. They went around the board and kept on collecting and getting richer while the black majority was marginalised.

      The system has been rigged to benefit the white minority. Even after 1994 and right up until today. . @ Jon Story quoted scripture and I will do the same in closing, using the words of Jesus as well, “For whoever has will be given more, and they will have an abundance, whoever does not have, even what they have will be taken from them.” Matthew 25:29 NIV

    • jack sparrow

      Sadly Sandile I think it comes down to the behaviour of the individuals in power. Mandela and Smuts generally managed to kick the “struggle” excuse and become, on balance, positive leaders. Unfortunately those that followed were flawed from Strijdom and Verwoerd through to Mbeki and Zuma. They followed fatally flawed policies of racism and tolerated criminal acts, corruption and incompetence in those they appointed to powerful positions. The rest is history and it currently looks like our poorly educated children will suffer most.

    • Len


      I fear that the biggest legacy we are leaving at the moment is rotten education. How can we ever hope to achieve the aspirations you describe above if we destroy our youth’s right to education. We will always be at the mercy of those connected to the struggle heroes if we do not produce a youth that is intelligent and that challenges the status quo.
      We need a strong vibrant energetic and EDUCATED youth to take us forward. Sadly, it is well known that African leaders obtain most of their voting numbers from the uneducated populace. Can we say that we are not like this?
      How do we turn this around when the leadership (apparently) does absolutely nothing to the Minister of Education – a Minister who would be fired in any other country for failing so very badly at her job – and yet – she is connected to the ANC women vote – so this is more important than the youth.
      Apartheid plays a role but what is really missing now is leadership integrity – there is none at the moment – that is the biggest crime we are committing against our youth and therefore the future of our country.

    • sandile memela

      @ Mr Direct : i guess it is a question of emphasis as we do not seem to disagree per se. what needs to be acknowledged is that much has been achieved in the last 18 years but it is not even half of what the struggle was for, that is, sharing of the land and what it has to offer.
      we need to keep our eyes on prize and not be lulled by democracy.

      @ jon: we have a rainbow coalition not only in the form of the constitution but in the the principles and composition of the membership of the ANC.

      Yes, we need to work together and this will require those who have – especially in terms of owning and controlling the economy – to give more and not just expect to make 1000% profits.

      But it will be a mistake for anyone, including Mandela, to over-glorify democracy when the people are still in economic bondage. there must be decent wages and equal opportunities for all.

      It is comforting that there is awareness that the economy is the next phase of the struggle. it is just that we dont have another 100 years to wait!

    • Tofolux

      @Sandile, I think it must be very easy for us to criticise especially when some of us who have always sat on the sidelines have elevated themselves into something that is quite diabolical. I also wonder if these people interrogated its whats, when and hows of freedom. Clearly not becos no one takes responsibility for thr role and relevance, NO ONE. As you say, some are in a perpetual mode of waiting for someone to make something happen. How fair is that? There is no empirical evidence that supports the fact that this nation moved as one in the pursuit of freedom. Yes, those who were and paid for this freedom at the frontline, were few. Whr were any of these critics? Secondly, you fail to recognise the different transitions of freedom. Not only did this ruling party inherit a FAILED, NEGOTIATED STATE. Today we are paying a huge price for that settlement eg 3 spheres of govt, duplication of duties, the different legislative processes, stranglehold of timelines on govt becos of these laws,etc. The argument you make is poor and weak when you HAVE NOT comparatives esp in dealing with past and current challenges. This conclusion is premised on sheer fallacy and fantasy. It is idealistic to sit and wish for the ideal world. Realistically there is none in any part of this planet.It doesnt stop us from getting thr only if and when those who have outsourced their own respons, roll up thr sleeves and stop being ANTI-SA.

    • Zeph

      I agree that liberation politics must go and governing politics should take precedence. Unfortunately I do not see this happening any time soon as, for politicians, the former has currency and the latter has consequences.

    • Hugh Robinson

      It never fails to amaze how so many words are written but never solutions. The grumble of what should be without with real workable solutions. These I call Ifwe’s. If we had this we could… If you did that … Never, I will find a work around even thought….

      The Ifwe never comes clean saying it the way they really mean pointing fingers or accusing others never self for the failures. Always the roundabout wishy washy B.S. The never ending circle.

      Every system has its failures. It is up to the people to find a work around as many other seem to have done with out the begging bowl or excuses for lack of effort.

    • Hugh Robinson

      @sandile memela # Your solution is for those in economic bondage to be released by handing everything to them on a plate. Tell us exactly how do you think this will work once they have this freedom.

      Tell us what happened when similar transformation was introduced into the police force, hospitals , home affairs, education and many others such as Eskom and SAA. This was freedom way beyond the wildest dream. Has that economic decision making freedom worked?

      You cannot have your cake and eat it. It did not work with the aforementioned and it will not work in your idealist world.

    • The Creator

      The struggle to abolish apartheid ended when apartheid was abolished.

      However, white power and white supremacism were not abolished, although we pretended that it was.

      The struggle had always been about a more egalitarian society, but that was quietly jettisoned because it seemed too difficult.

      The real difficulty is that a fresh struggle is unimaginable. The poor seem to have no sense of a positive way forward, and the middle class have no solidarity with one another — and certainly not with the poor.

    • http://Firefox clarence

      Straight from the mouth of the children of Sharpville protesters.
      The students died in vain…nothing was gained.

      State of basic education appalling – ANCYL
      Ronald Lamola
      04 December 2012

      League deeply concerned at the results of second ANAs

      “”The state of our learners’ mathematics and literacy abilities means
      ….that the goal of achieving economic freedom in our lifetime is challenged.

      How can we achieve economic freedom
      …when our future leaders
      ….. have difficulty reading, writing and counting?

      The ANC Y L has always maintained…. that education and skills development are basic propellers required for. the attainment of
      …… Economic Freedom in our Lifetime.

      As articulated at the 24th National Congress of the. ANCYL, we believe that more emphasis has to be placed on
      ….. access to quality education and
      ….the development of entrepreneurial skills amongst young people.””

      Sounds like ‘meritocracy” over blatant ‘entitlement.’

    • Mr. Direct


      Agreed, there are some successes, but not enough for me. I do not think we are greedy to think there could be so many more.

      @Tofolux, are you really going for the pre 1994 government, and their crippled, sanctioned economy part of your reasoning for current failures? Billions on housing upgrades for the elite, while there is no money for education in poverty stricken areas? The recent story about the paid advertisments by the education department on the textbooks debacle is a typical example of this governments inability to see the big picture. How many children’s school fees would the R900 000 advertising bill have paid?

      But then again, sinking more money into the black hole that is our education system seems pretty pointless at the moment. Somebody needs to sort that out, but I guess we will need to hire some international consultants because our lot may not be able to write or count based on the departments own measurements.

      I do not care which political party is in power, and I do not care who is president, as long as they do the job properly. If the ANC do what is right, I will vote for them, but at the moment I am a safe bet for the opposition…

      @Zeph: Completely agree…

    • Sterling Ferguson

      @Hugh Robinson, Sandile and other writers will go to great pains to write articles on this page pointing out the problems in SA. However, most of these writers will never pointed out the causes and solutions to the problems in SA. Take for an example the term inequality, this is a term that has been throwing around in the US and SA has pickup on this term. However, most writers will never say that feudalism is contributing to the inequality in SA/Africa. If one goes out and start a successful business in SA and hire people to work in this business, this person is contributing more to equality then tribal chiefs or BEE people. The owner of this business is paying his workers a salary and taxes to the government.

    • Sterling Ferguson

      @Ntozakhona, after WW2 in Europe many people went around talking about how they took part in the Underground fighting the NAZIS. However, most of these stories are nothing but lies because, many of these people sit on the sideline and did nothing. In SA the people that went to N America, Europe and many African countries were not there fighting apartheid like many of them are now claiming.

      You spoke of the right to protest, however, you never mention anything about the people in SA having a right to direct elect their president, members of parliament and mayors of the cities.

    • ntozakhona

      Again you seem to have inculcated the methods of the colonialists very well, misrepresent facts and distort history. The oppressed must be forever ashamed as what they think they have achieved amounts to nothing.

      Democracy can never ever be over-glorified. The institutions of democracy we have set up are a bulwark against dictatorial tendencies and the corruptive rampant greed driving the ”generation mix” brigade. Nelson Mandela as quoted by Zuma in a Mbeki memorial lecture had said that heads must roll if textbooks are not delivered in time. He had said that no child must learn from under a tree. True, we are stumbling but to say liberation struggles lacks that content is ingenious at the very least’.

      Tshepo Tshola composed a song ” Ako butle” (please patiently await your turn) warning the young Lesotho Kingdom not to so power hungry and seek to overthrow his father and destabilise the throne. These Forces have nothing to offer but big english words not properly phrased, complaints, gossip and slander.

      The debate at the policy conference about the need to speed up radical economic transformation was hamstrung by these forces wanting to talk about second phase instead of second transition, ja! They even in their slanderous manner suggested ( with the assistance of the media that relies on them for leaks) implied that second transition means second term for a certain Zuma.

      Is Memela being himself, the much maligned elders would ask?

    • Kullid Dooshbag

      Excellent post. The truth is that freedom was sold down the river in order to achieve financial freedom for only a few gucci comrades…

      Western media will always suppress the ideas of revolutionaries.

      For example, had the Lancaster agreement not been ignored, there could well be peace and stability in Zimbabwe, instead we are without fail being shown a picture of African incompetence, further compounded by the tear-jerker doccies of sad farmers being “unfairly” treated by the government. The very same farmers descended from the men who came with gunpowder treason and smoke to steal these farms many years ago.

      Malema is portrayed as an idiot, yet his one trick pony of remembering what is in the freedom charter remains valid.

      Why do we use the word “comrade” when we live in a capitalist country?

      Freedom aint free…

    • Sterling Ferguson

      @Ntozakhona, {no child should learn from under a tree} Zuma found million of state rands for his home but, many children are still standing under a tree. The SA government claims that they didn’t have money for AIDS treatment programs and many people died that could have been treated but, billion of rands are still stolen by the ANC bigwigs. The deputy president met with the US government to ask them to continue funding the AIDS treatment program and the government in SA should be paying for these programs.

      In SA the government was setup for nobody to be accountable to the people. The answer is for the government to be reformed so the people can hold the government officials accountable for their behavior.

    • Sterling Ferguson

      @Kullid, SA is what one called a Red Capitalist country with the people running around calling each other comrades while and riding around in luxury cars. Most of them are members of the ruling party and are using the government as an ATM machine. The same thing is happening in China with the Red Capitalists that see members of the party becoming very wealthy like in SA.

    • ntozakhona

      Sterling I agree that some of these media hyped people did not even lift a finger against apartheid. Some hid under the guise of being part of the loud-mouthed but non fighting AZAPO. It was fashionable for cowards to label themselves AZAPO in those days, that made it seem big The most irrititating are children of sTruggle heroes whose parents sensibly shielded them from the brutalities of struggle life who today claim to have imbibed the struggle from their mother’s milk, what illogical nonsense! In Sesotho it is said “‘ Leshala le tswala molora – coal gives birth to ash” Tselane ‘ Daddy’s soldiers’ Tambo and Kay Sexwale are just ash, we do know Zinzi Mandela though and she respects ANC processes.

      The are however many people who went overseas and contributed immensely to building international solidarity with the ANC. Remember the ANC built the largest demonstration of peoples power ever in the world, the anti-apartheid movement is a phenomenon tet to be repeated, Memela can discredit the struggle as much as he likes, our children will carry that proudly inspiring them to complete the national democratic revolution project.

    • ntozakhona

      Sterling until you provide an answer I will also keep asking, have you considered what the first past the post elective system would do to minority voices in this country?

    • Sterling Ferguson

      @Ntozakhona, you mention post elective system, I think you are talking about a direct elections for the president, members of parliament and mayors of the cities or towns. In a country where there are direct elections with constituency base, everyone voice counts. The system one sees in SA today, nobody has a voice in the government except a small group of kingmakers in the party. One can’t petition members of parliament, mayors or people running the government because they were all appointed by the party. When Lula was the president of Brazil, he didn’t appoint the mayor of Rio because the people in Rio were allowed to elect their mayor. When the storm hit the state of New Jersey,US, the president and the governor all came together to help the people of that state. The reason why the president and governor came together because they all have to face the voters. The party differences didn’t mean nothing because the interest of the people were more important.

      When people are caught committing corruption in SA there isn’t no fear of losing their jobs or being sent to prison. The ruling party in SA controls the NPA and appoints the officials in the government. In a democracy the weapon you have is your vote to remove people from office that’s not doing their jobs. Democracy means for the people and by the people however, this isn’t the case in SA.