South Africa’s Liberation Struggle Revisited

Peter Jacobs reviews two new books on the history of South Africa’s unfinished liberation struggle. He celebrates books that debunk the one-sided and sanitised histories of how South Africa’s black majority fought for their emancipation from political and socioeconomic subjugation.

By Peter Jacobs

South Africa’s liberation struggle historiography is well-established and longstanding. In the 1970s, for example, an intellectual insurgency erupted against the hegemonic versions of past struggles in which the ruling classes feature as protagonists. The insurgents, branded social historians, were thinking and writing in opposition to mainstream historiography, debunking countless myths about how social conflicts and classes have shaped South African society since the late-1800s. Whilst dominant narratives celebrated the civilising role of colonialism, counter-narratives of the social historians unearthed incontestable evidence of dispossession, oppression and exploitation inherent to colonisation. Moreover, how the dispossessed and disenfranchised social classes fought to emancipate themselves remained a major preoccupation of these insurgent intellectuals. This historiography also interrogated past struggles as means to new ends, underscoring the contemporary relevancy of the country’s liberation struggle history (see Shula Marks’ discussion of these ‘insurgent historians’).

Examining post-1994 socioeconomic revolts exhibit remarkable continuities and discontinuities with the decades of mass protests before the 1990s. Continuity with past struggles has sharper visibility in the forms than in the substance of current protests. Evidently, types of grassroots movements and methods of township, student and workplace protests replicate what had happened in the 1970s and 1980s. The discontinuity, by contrast, is prominent in the substance sparking and fuelling contemporary struggles. Worsening socioeconomic hardships have ignited new waves of mass struggles in which demands for alternatives to neoliberalism and post-1994 social injustices dominate. Woven into these battles are renewed campaigns against political alienation in a country promoted as a model of liberal democracy.

Against this backdrop, questions are being asked about what that contemporary protest movements can learn from past anti-systemic revolts. Two new books demonstrate why these questions have not lost their relevance while drawing attention to struggles that have received scant attention in voluminous histories of South Africa’s liberation movements.

The National Question: Multiracialism versus Non-racialism

In Cape Radicals (WITS University Press, 2019), Crain Soudien suggests that every socio-political struggle against oppression and injustice pivots on a battle of ideas. The struggle for ideological principles or principled politics is a sine qua non for successful revolutionary action in any freedom struggle! This message is arguably the chief strength of this book. The book pays tribute to the activism of the New Era Fellowship (NEF), an organisation dedicated to the spread and advancement of radical left politics since the early 1930s through the 1960s. Through regular public discussion forums and publications, the NEF was at the forefront in the battle for ideological clarity and nurtured generations of fighters devoted to full democratic rights for the disenfranchised majority. This NEF trained intelligentsia became the founders and builders of the NEUM, the Non-European Unity Movement (renamed the Unity Movement of South Africa in 1964).

Through their efforts to solve South Africa’s national question, Soudien argues, the ‘Cape Radicals’ made incisive and lasting breakthroughs, shifting the quest for liberation onto a far-reaching revolutionary path. Accordingly, rival organisations, particularly the ANC and SA Communist Party, diluted and misrepresented the national question. For example, the Freedom Charter promotes multiracialism, which is indistinguishable from the veiled racism of liberals. By contrast, the NEF and Unity Movement rejected, from the outset, that multiracialism or multinationalism were a solution to South Africa’s national question. The Unity Movement’s motto ‘We Build A Nation’ advocated a tenacious devotion to non-racialism in outlook and action.

There is a tendency to overemphasis in Cape Radicals cultural identities, in isolation from how political economy shapes segregated societies. Similarly, confusing the policy of non-collaboration with abstention from politics is probably as a result of Soudien’s erroneous reliance on ill-informed denigrators of the Unity Movement. Contrary to this misrepresentation, this policy meant conscious and independent action for revolutionary change by the disenfranchised in their own interests. Soudien has not sufficiently explored South Africa’s tradition of emancipatory politics but opens an agenda for further reflections on a history that ‘has in effect remained a closed book to mainstream history, sociology and politics.’

Scholar-Activism Against Capitalism

The other important book is simply titled Archie Mafeje (HSRC Press, 2019). In this book, Bongani Nyoka, a young South African sociologist, has assembled and edited seven articles that Archibald Boyce Monwabisi Mafeje (1936-2007) wrote between the early 1970s and late 1990s. After completing his Masters’ degree at the University of Cape Town (UCT) in the early 1960s, Mafeje enrolled for doctoral studies at Cambridge University, graduating in 1968. Subsequently, when UCT refused Dr Mafeje’s appointment as a senior lecturer in 1968, a rejection based on racist prejudice rather than scholarly credentials, he moved onto become a celebrated professor of Anthropology/Sociology at in the University of Dar Es Salaam, The Hague and Cairo.

Nyoka’s introduction offers a captivating background to the articles, tracing how Mafeje evolved into an esteemed social scientist and what animated his prolific scholarly work. But the book covers more than just Mafeje’s remarkable academic accomplishments. The volume’s introduction is in effect an abbreviated history of the Unity Movement, understandably limited to the moments when Mafeje actively participated in it.

Before he went abroad, Mafeje belonged to several organisations that were Unity Movement affiliates. Stalwarts of the Movement, particularly Nathaniel Tshuthsa Honono, educated Mafeje in Unity Movement politics during his high-school years in the former Transkei. This education coupled with his formative political training in the Society of Young Africa (SOYA) and the Cape Peninsula Students Union (CPSU) both Unity Movement affiliates alongside student/youth groups in Durban and Johannesburg, aided Mafeje to become a towering intellectual figure with recognition beyond Africa.

The imprint of Unity Movement ideology on Mafeje’s thinking was indelible as is evident from this collection – notwithstanding his paradoxical aloofness from organised political involvement during his decades abroad and, since 2002, his residency in Pretoria where he took up an academic position at the University of South Africa (UNISA). Unity Movement ideology is prominent in the topics Mafeje worked on and, far more profoundly, in the method of scientific reasoning subtly woven into his arguments. Mafeje advocated a militant defence of dialectical logic and historical materialism whenever he dealt with hegemonic theories, methodologies and epistemologies in the social sciences. His critique of anthropology (including its origins as a bourgeois social science subservient to positivism), and Harold Wolpe’s mechanistic uses of modes of production and reflections on the 1976 Soweto student revolt illustrate his mastery of dialectics.

As a renowned scholar on the political economy of agrarian transitions, Mafeje dissected the dynamics of agrarian class formation and unmasked how anachronistic tribal despots serve capitalist accumulation. It is common knowledge that in the Unity Movement tradition, resolving the agrarian question was regarded as central, as is evident from the involvement of its cadres in building peasant movements that became instrumental in the Pondoland revolt. In a semi-colonial country like South Africa, mobilising the landless peasantry as a revolutionary ally of the working class was regarded as crucial for liquidating capitalist property and social relations.

Beyond Historical Curiosity

Soudien and Nyoka must be commended for their thoughtful introductions to the history of South Africa’s unfinished liberation struggle and countering the falsification of past struggles. The two books debunk one-sided and sanitised histories of how South Africa’s black majority fought for their emancipation from political and socioeconomic subjugation. On the whole, the core strengths of these books eclipse their shortcomings. Though both volumes cast the spotlight on the historical relevancy of the Unity Movement until the 1960s, the authors hesitate to step beyond academic curiosity and research. So, they are both silent on how this organisation contributed to the liberation struggle over decades since the 1960s.

Since the mid-1960s, for instance, the Unity Movement leadership in exile fought tirelessly to garner support for an uninterrupted South African revolution. Another significant turning point was the ‘Terrorism Trial’ of 14 members of APDUSA – the African People’s Democratic Union of Southern Africa – in 1971/2, with 13 of them eventually sentenced to lengthy imprisonment on Robben Island. With the gradual revival of this ideological tradition throughout the 1980s, cadres of young workers, students and intellectuals joined the movement to fight for its political vision. The political re-orientation of APDUSA in the early 1990s, saw the adoption of a set of anti-capitalist transitional demands for unity with progressive forces and to resist the neoliberal onslaught of the post-1994 state.

Peter T Jacobs is a research director at the Human Sciences Research Council (HSRC) in South Africa, based in the Cape Town office. He is also member of the national executive of the African People’s Democratic Union of Southern Africa (APDUSA).

Featured Photograph: Unity Movement leadership in Lusaka, circa 1964.


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