There is an extraordinary degree of popular protest in South Africa. It is diverse, dynamic and unstable and it includes elements that are emancipatory, contradictory and reactionary. This degree of sustained popular dissent – long organised and expressed outside of liberal frameworks, and increasingly also organised and expressed at a distance from the ruling party – provides fertile ground for building popular organisations. But, with important exceptions, the vast bulk of the money and energies channelled through the NGO left in recent years has failed, often completely, to support any kind of effective movement building process.
After apartheid donors and in some cases other actors, like churches and trade unions, have overwhelmingly chosen to support modes of political engagement that are organised through NGOs in which middle class actors assume the right to enlighten, control and direct impoverished people. This has, again with important exceptions, often taken the form of what Paulo Freire called ‘manipulation’, ‘prescription’ and other elements of ‘the praxis of domination’. This is always classed and often gendered and, in many instances has been acutely racialized. The result is that putatively progressive spaces have often become sites of domination.
In this milieu a person’s standing as an activist is frequently derived from their access to donor money, their standing in elite institutions and their prominence in the elite public sphere rather than any sort of mandate from oppressed people, or any sort of success in supporting or effectively engaging actually existing practices of the self-organisation of the oppressed. Sustained ongoing failure to organise effectively, or to win any kind of meaningful popular support for NGO projects, is often no barrier at all to organisational and personal success.
The practices in these spaces are often systemically ineffective in terms of their stated goals but functional for sustaining NGO power. This is the case, for instance, with the not uncommon practice of working with people who represent grassroots organisations that only really exist on paper. But in a number of cases NGOs have also been seriously damaging to actually existing forms of organisation among the oppressed. It is, for instance, damaging when people who are not members of a grassroots organisation are bought into NGO meetings and misrepresented as members of that organisation. It is also damaging when NGOs seek to gain influence over popular struggles and organisations by offering money to individuals within those struggles and organisations rather than via open, democratic and collective engagement in the languages and physical and political spaces where those struggles and organisations are strong. Implicitly constructing oppressed people as ignorant and seeking to educate them, on the NGO terrain, in a manner that is not genuinely dialogical and that takes no serious account of their own lived experience of oppression and resistance, is often stultifying.
There have been a number of cases where NGOs, across the political spectrum and acting in a manner that is not entirely dissimilar to that of the ruling party and the state, have actively sought to delegitimate popular struggles and organisations that they have not been able to control. At times this has taken the form of recourse to the standard set of prejudices that fester in elite society against people who are poor and black. There have even been cases where an acutely racialized expression of the sort of inevitably toxic recourse to conspiracy theory and character assassination typical of small sectarian organisations has made its way into the heart of donor backed progressive respectability.
We know from our own history, and from the sustained mobilisations in places like Brazil, Bolivia, Haiti and Venezuela in recent years, what actually existing popular militancy looks like. We know that effective modes of militancy begin from the recognition of the political capacities of the oppressed, and are firmly in the hands of the oppressed. But the transition from popular politics to state and NGO politics in South Africa has often supressed this knowledge. One of the ideas that was often lost in in this process is that of a radical or emancipatory praxis.
In the ‘70s and ‘80s the idea of radical praxis was often taken seriously in the process of building the organisations, movements and unions that undertook the work of developing the power of the oppressed. Radical praxis was often understood as more than just the idea that effective political work required reflection on action, and action guided by reflection. It was also an idea with democratic and ethical dimensions.
In contrast to authoritarian modes of politics conceptions of political militancy rooted in commitments to radical praxis often took the form of some degree of an immediate affirmation of the capacity of everyone to participate in the work of both reflection and action. There was often a strategic dimension to this commitment in so far as it was understood that building democratic forms of popular politics would offer some insurance against the bureaucratisation of organised resistance and the possibility of, as had happened everywhere from Algeria to Zimbabwe, authoritarian forms of rule after apartheid. But there was also often an ethical dimension to praxis based modes of politics.
In the 70s Paulo Freire was one of the thinkers taken seriously by the new forms of militancy that emerged in the intersection between universities and community and worker struggles and enabled the development of both the black consciousness movement and the new trade union movement. For Freire:
Those who authentically commit themselves to the people must re-examine themselves constantly. This conversion is so radical as not to allow of ambiguous behaviour. To affirm this commitment but to consider oneself the proprietor of revolutionary wisdom - which must then be given to (or imposed on) the people -- is to retain the old ways. The man or woman who proclaims devotion to the cause yet is unable to enter into communion with the people, as totally ignorant, is grievously self-deceived.
In Frantz Fanon, a thinker who was an important precursor to Freire’s work, there is a similar ethical commitment to the idea that the starting point of what Fanon, in his original formulations in French often described as praxis, requires mutual respect. In a comment on his work as a doctor Fanon wrote that:
Examining this seventy three year old farm woman, whose mind was never strong and who is now far gone in dementia, I am suddenly aware of the collapse of the antennae with which I touch and through which I am touched. The fact that I adopt a language suitable to dementia, to feeble-mindedness; the fact that I ‘talk down’ to this poor woman of seventy-three; the fact that I condescend to her in my quest for a diagnosis, are the stigmata of a dereliction in my relations with other.
State repression and the various kinds of popular violence that came to characterise the second half of the 1980s frequently made it difficult to sustain the slow and careful work of democratic organising. Popular politics itself became increasingly invested in a militaristic and, at times, millennial symbolic order. After apartheid the ANC, drawing on a repertoire of authoritarian ideas, steadily turned the party into an effective system of top down control. This, together with a liberal consensus that sought to reduce the idea of democracy to various kinds of representation – voting and the substitution of both debates in a resolutely exclusionary public sphere and NGO based civil society for popular participation – put paid to the idea that the people would govern themselves. This was compounded by the technocratic fantasies that were attractive to both the ANC and the liberal consensus.
In a moment in which the state is becoming increasingly predatory, the army is back on the streets, torture and murder are being used as forms of political control, millions of people have no viable route into a dignified and fruitful life and there is an active attempt to build new ideologies to divide the oppressed and sustain consent for oppression full measure needs to be taken of what works politically, and what doesn’t. The body of experience, some of it captured in writing, with regard to the idea of emancipatory praxis is one of a number of useful ideas, ideas that can only be realised in practice, that can help to equip us for the challenges ahead.