Reinventing the Political Space in Post-Apartheid South Africa

By Prishani Naidoo & Ahmed Veriava · 9 May 2009

A+ A= A-
    Print this page       comments
Picture: United Nations
Picture: United Nations

Growing up in the ‘70s and ‘80s in South Africa, our imagination of freedom and its possibility would be shaped by the time. As children, the invisible participants of history, we discovered the world and its possibilities through the struggles of our elders and the passions our parents had fallen into.  This was the world of the liberation movement given to us in the militancy of the songs, slogans, and forms of protest that were exploding around us, as well as in the poems and lyrical flights of the writers and great orators of the time. It was a militancy that cemented the belief that anything was possible.  And that what we had was unacceptable.  

In the common experience of exclusion from the political, and inclusion in the economy in unequal and exploitative ways, individual and collective acts of resistance against apartheid emerged.  The everyday became a site of struggle as the apartheid state and economy attempted to regulate all aspects of the lives of Black people. In a context of increasingly relentless resistance, there would come to be imagined ways of living, organising the economy, and governing ourselves, different from those that the apartheid state would have us naturalise and accept.  In these, and in the many acts of resistance against apartheid, our common would be made, a common made possible by the reconstitution of political space around a flowering movement. From street committees, democratic civics, and student assemblies, through to work place committees and unions, to the plethora of community run projects and popular theatre groups and forms of artistic expression, new forms of democratic politics were being invented.

We were, off course, just kids then. Tagging along. Running behind.

Those of our generation who grew up in the townships would first come to taste this sense of militancy on entering high school.  Here we would find a political space made and fashioned by the generation that came before us, a generation that found its power on the streets, against the fears and cautions of its elders.  Our young dreams of liberation and imaginings of life after apartheid, tangled up with the ordinary everyday complaints of scholars, came to be infused with the militant insistence that things would have to be different.  

We chose our heroes for their courage to think, speak and act against what was safe, known, and acceptable to the status quo, both within the liberation movement and against the apartheid state.  Nelson Mandela was, for us, then, important because of the role he played as one of the ANCYL members who challenged the commitment to the ‘petition politics’ prioritised by the ANC until the mid-40s when it was forced to reconsider this stance and adopt more confrontational forms of political engagement with the state.  Steve Biko became significant because, through him, we were able to imagine ourselves, our lives at the time, and our futures, outside of the ideals held up by white society and its norms.  These were our heroes because of how they allowed us to think and act in common against what we knew had to change, not for what they delivered to us.    

As resistance came to define acts from the classroom to the workplace (strikes) to the home (payment boycotts) and community (boycotts of black local authorities and tricameral elections), our imagination of freedom came to resemble so much more than the ritual of electing leaders into the seats of power previously reserved for whites.  In the 1990s, after political leaders were released and parties unbanned, we can still remember the debates we would have in the student movement (as were happening in other parts of the liberation movement) about the possible political forms that could take shape in a ‘new South Africa’.   

But the 1990s would see such debates disappear as the ANC subsumed the energies, the burgeoning dreams, and the insurgent desires of the liberation movement under the all encompassing ‘progressive’ will of the party, the shaping of a liberal democracy that would mark the first phase of ‘the National Democratic Revolution’ (NDR).  We can’t quite remember when ‘One Person, One Vote’ became the defining slogan of the liberation movement. But it wasn’t always this way.   

As the neoliberal mantra of economic pragmatism came to define the parameters of this ‘revolution’, the expression of ‘the will of the people’ was quickly reduced to the outcome of an election every five years, the ‘work of governing’ left to our elected leaders and ‘experts’. In fact, we’d contend, neoliberalism’s hold in South Africa was made possible by increasingly closing political space. From Mandela’s 1996 declaration that GEAR was ‘non-negotiable’ to the forced introduction of prepaid meters, the closing down of political space has facilitated the economic management and commodification of increasingly greater aspects of life. Even the narrow forms of liberal democracy reflected in the discourse of ‘consultation’ and ‘transformation’ have been emptied of whatever promise they might have held, given over to the limits of an ostensibly neoliberal governmental framework in which the figure of the active citizen is recast as the motivated entrepreneur. 

In this context even the Alliance would become second to the ANC and the ANC second to the executive, so that by the time of the Polokwane Congress of the ANC, the internal battles of the ruling party seemed to occupy the centre of our political universe.  

While the opposition parties paint a dark picture of our present, the problems they choose to highlight - populism, corruption and crime – are dwarfed by the problems of continuing inequality and poverty, set to get worse in the context of the global capitalist crisis.  As we celebrate the smooth passing of another election, the solutions to our problems do not seem to be waiting on this terrain. With nationalist politics teetering on the brink of crisis, and the global system of capitalism within a veritable crisis, possibilities for change seem limited.  

Today, if we maintain any nostalgia for the past, it is a nostalgia for the common, a common made in struggle, and our potential to reshape the world.  As children of apartheid and the struggle against it, we took faith not in the knowledge that our parents and their friends had the answers.  It was rather a comfort that came from their commitment that there was no alternative but to struggle against what they knew and felt was wrong. And we would see the answers being made and shaped in their coming together with others commonly oppressed and united in a commitment to struggle against this oppression. We would see and feel the common being made in the many acts of refusal against the forms of life being prescribed for Black people by the apartheid state, and the heroic attempts of everyday rebels for fashioning lives outside of the destinies marked out for them by power.  

Neither properly products of the apartheid era, nor ‘born-frees’, we belong to that strange place in time at the threshold between two eras. For we are old enough to remember the time when people still lost themselves in the multitude on the move and the belief that anything was possible riding a current of struggle. But we are perhaps still young enough to refuse to settle for the empty pragmatism of the transition, our parents’ choice of the quiet of incremental change, rather than provoking the future to enter the here and now – with all its uncertainty.  Neither a lost generation nor children of the transition, we are a generation in-between. And we are coming of age.  

As we realise the error of our blind faith in our heroes (become leaders) and our childish celebration of the foreclosure of the political space shaped by the struggles of the liberation movement on the path to our liberal democracy, it is with the restlessness and unease that comes with venturing into the unknown.  But we take strange comfort in the fact that those old ‘knowns’ and ‘givens’ have now so obviously failed us the world over.  

The only way out is to reinvent political space, to reinvent ways of being in common.

By Prishani Naidoo and Ahmed Veriava. Naidoo is a lecturer in the Sociology Department at Wits University. Veriava is an independent researcher and writer, living and working in Johannesburg.

This article is distributed by the South African Civil Society Information Service. For information regarding permission to republish this article, please visit the Copyright section of our website.

You can find this page online at

A+ A= A-
    Print this page       comments

Leave A Comment

Posts by unregistered readers are moderated. Posts by registered readers are published immediately. Why wait? Register now or log in!


10 May

Reinventing the Political Space

I am grateful that I found this publication.

I agree that we need to invent ways to be in common. The internet, and particularly blogs, social networking etc. offer a wonderful opportunity - of course for those who have access. Its a start.

Another issue is that, to the uninitiated, uneducated and people from other disciplines (e.g. humanities, social sciences) it is extremely difficult to understand economic concepts. Even with a dedicated attempt over many years, I still don't quite understand the processes by which the inequality gap has increased. I also don't understand how the trickle down concept works etc. etc.

It would be helpful if someone could simplifly things into a language or examples, simulations, games that we can all understaned and to stimulate a wider debate so that we don't only talk about 'the poor', but also include poor people in the discussion.

This is a very serious question - what is the alternative to the system in place and what can ordinary citizens do to engage government about this.

I know I have now put my ignorance on show, but frankly, I simply cannot bear the fact that simply by having skills and education, I have become part of the unequal story that is South Africa.

Respond to this comment

daniel hutchinson
9 Jun

Fighting Afro-Fascism

"The logical result of Fascism is the introduction of aesthetics into political life... Communism responds by politicizing art." - Walter Benjamin

The only way to combat the growing political consensus is not in the political sphere at all, which is self-defined by its own modes of representation. Rather, the better way is found in opening up new avenues of expression that are not defined politically, but seek to redefine the political, especially in terms of what this means in our own lives as we live them from day to day.

We need to move on from the "voice of the voiceless" paradigm, so easily assumed by our opponents at the highest level, and instead focus on regaining our own voice or should I say being able to recognise the sound of our own voices.

It is less about the freedom to expression, than about a freedom to withhold giving expression within the prevailing political aesthetic.

Respond to this comment

daniel hutchinson
16 Jun

Beyond Heroism

"Nelson Mandela ... challenged the commitment to the

Respond to this comment