One of the questions I am sure many in South Africa (and abroad) have been asking themselves more recently is how the state of the nation more generally and of the ANC itself more specifically has gotten to this point? Let’s face it; there is a huge amount of disillusionment and disappointment out there, of varying measure, intensity and origin, which cut broadly across our sizeable societal divisions.
Most often however, the ‘answers’ ignore the variegated but substantial influence and impact of myriad post-apartheid grassroots struggles and the community organisations and social movements that have largely carried them. In other words, explanations for our present state of affairs cannot simply be reduced to the ANC and its liberation struggle, to individual leaders or to various international crises. The ‘story’ and accompanying lessons of such grassroots struggles and organisations - both positive and negative - have much to tell us about what has gone wrong and why.
Even if it now seems like a lifetime ago, one of the most fundamental turning points in the political life of our post-apartheid transition took place in the late 1990s. Shadowing the already serious and widening cracks in Mandela’s carefully constructed ‘rainbow nation’ alongside the triumphalist arrival of an Mbeki government clearly determined to paper over those cracks with enforced political unity and neo-liberal dirigisme, there arose a range of new independent community organisations and social movements. One of those was the Anti-Privatisation Forum (APF) which came onto the scene at the turn of the century but which had ceased to exist by the end of its first decade.
Crucially, the APF was formed by a motley collection of Johannesburg-based political activists, students, unionists and community organisations/residents in direct response to the combined impact of government’s neo-liberal inspired privatisation onslaught and the closing down of space for practical anti-capitalist opposition and dissent within the ANC and its Alliance partners. What this meant from the start is that the APF, arising as it did, on the left flanks of the ANC and consisting mostly of those who had historically been part of the ANC-Alliance, became a contested symbol of liberation struggle progeny, an unwanted reminder for the ANC, its Alliance partners and the new political and economic elites of the potential power and reach of independent grassroots struggles. The ‘worst’ kind of post-apartheid ‘enemy’ had been born, a ‘child’ who simply would not obey the ‘parent’.
Contrary to the historic portrayal – by both the ANC and mainstream society - of movements like the APF as nothing more than disgruntled ‘trouble-makers’ taking to the streets at every opportunity, the reality of the APF’s tactical approach to early struggles is instructive for the present. The first step was always to approach local and provincial government officials and relevant government-initiated community structures to try and raise community grievances and engage in a serious dialogue to find solutions. Foreshadowing what has now become a widely recognised hallmark of ANC governance, such efforts were arrogantly rebuffed; supposedly democratic spaces at community level being quickly closed down to those who were not part of the ruling ‘family’.
Understandably then, the result was the adoption of a second phase of struggle. This saw the formulation of a set of common and basic democratic demands that sought to contest the implementation of unpopular socio-economic policies and closing of political space for oppositional voices. Confirming the APF’s historical foundations in the struggle tactics of apartheid-era, mass-based civics, the basic programme consisted of: various forms of mass, direct action at local, provincial and national levels; internal educational and research activities; regular mass community meetings; alliance-building and solidarity activities with social movements/community organisations and organised labour across the country as well as internationally; door-to-door campaigning; submission of memoranda of demands and policy alternatives to all levels of government; use of legal tactics through the courts; and, regular, community-based report-back meetings.
This was nothing more or nothing less than an organised attempt to play an active, informed but critical role on the contested terrain of an emergent national democracy politically dominated by an ex-liberation movement. And yet, the general response, that cut across South Africa’s generic public-private and party political divides and which has continued in various forms until the present, was one of common outrage at the audacity of it all.
How dare these ‘poors’ and their lefty middle-class ‘instigators’ question our political and moral integrity, the character of our post-apartheid democracy and besmirch the good name of post-apartheid South Africa on the international stage? There can be few better ways to incubate the further centralisation of socio-economic power, intensified political intolerance and the normalisation of an attitude of unaccountability. No surprise then with the subsequent rise to power of Jacob Zuma and his factionalist backers using pseudo left-populist rhetoric to masquerade as saviours of the ‘poor’.
Besides the more generalised and deleterious impact on the state, the ANC and its Alliance partners as well as on society as a whole, the experience of the APF at the community level was that Zuma’s politics created both short-term confusion and a variegated ‘turn’ away from independent movement-community politics and struggle towards institutionalised party politics and a creeping (Zuma-inspired) social conservatism. Together with the failures of the Zuma government to deliver on its legion of promises to the poor, this forced much of the APF’s constituency/ membership (even more so than before) into a narrower survivalist mode and engendered a politics that easily gravitated towards a mode of individualism and entrepreneurial engagement.
Coupled to the APF’s own numerous and serious internal weaknesses and mistakes - which included egoism of leadership, often lax individual and organisational accountability and a failure to fully confront unequal gender relations as well as the link between a macro-nationalist discourse and xenophobic attitudes/practices - the general environment of state failure, intensified elite accumulation, political conflict, organisational battle, factional opportunism and individual survivalism produced a recipe for implosion.
Yet, despite the APF’s demise, alongside that of numerous other social movements over the recent past, the impact of this symbolically representative transitional ‘enemy child’ is embedded in South Africa’s political and organisational landscape. Besides managing to effect shifts of some specific socio-economic policies in favour of the poor, it was: at the forefront of creating a new grassroots organisational ‘voice’ for many of those socially, economically and politically marginalised; instilling a new sense of collective activism and demand for social/political redress amongst poor communities; helping shift the terrain of political and social engagement and debate in South African society as a whole and in the process, expanding the boundaries of democratic politics and representation beyond the status quo framework; and, catalysing a new consciousness of the possibilities of radical change.
Most of the lessons worth learning are the hardest to learn of all.
**Disclosure: Dale McKinley was a co-founder of the APF and at different times its former media coordinator/ spokesperson and also Treasurer.