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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.


  • Sandile Memela

    Sandile Memela is a journalist, writer, cultural critic, columnist and civil servant. He lives in Midrand.