I’ve just read Alan Boesak’s recently published “reflections” on the anti-apartheid struggle and the challenges that continue to confront us as a society. While he reflects some interesting perspectives on the nature of the struggle, the resolution of the political conflict and the character of post-apartheid South Africa, it seems to me that the esteemed reverend also engages in wholesale distortions of the historical record. As always, recording history is very much in the eye of the beholder and therefore disparate interpretations of events is not an unusual occurrence. Some of the issues raised by Boesak deserve critical scrutiny though.
Chief among these is his characterisation of the ANC in exile as an essentially Leninist organisation committed to some sort of socialist project, as distinct from the struggling masses at home, who, according to Boesak, were fighting for something radically different. It seems the ANC and Communist Party flags, the songs about socialism during the 1980s were all a mirage. In order to explain the influence of Leninism and the SACP over the ANC he refers to phrases such as the “National Democratic Socialist Revolution”, a concept that, as far as I know, has never been used by either the ANC or SACP to describe its political position or characterisation of the struggle.
Boesak’s characterisation of himself as an “accidental politician” ignorant of so much of the ANC’s ideological positioning during the 1980s sounds rather implausible, to say the least. For someone who studied abroad, frequently met ANC leaders and quotes extensively from political and philosophical texts in his book to claim “unawareness of these political traditions” sounds more like a rejection post-facto than an insight occurring at that moment.
Boesak’s attempt to write history to fit his contemporary political positions does a great disservice to others who struggled, with him, against the apartheid system. It is also a refusal to share in the responsibility of what has become of the ANC. If the ANC has deserted its principles as outlined in the Freedom Charter (and that question remains an open one) the responsibility for it is shared equally between the leadership of the ANC in exile, those of the mass democratic movement and the trade union movement. To blame a bunch of Leninist exiles (again a question mark) will not do Dr Boesak.
It is not surprising that Boesak finds much wisdom on the wickedness of the ANC in the words of Phillip Dexter and Terror Lekota, both fellow leaders of his Cope, though both longstanding members of the ANC — and at least in Dexter’s case a Leninist of note too!
Given Boesak’s crucial role in the anti-apartheid struggle, he is uniquely placed to bring a wealth of historical reflection on the struggle and its consequences. Instead he has chosen to subordinate this to the interest of narrow party politics. Boesak’s reflections sound like post-Polokwane blues emanating from the losers of that particular political battle. Marx’s maxim that “History always repeats itself: first as tragedy; then as farce” seems apt here …