Stand by for Emergency IV

 Partly, because many of their leaders and structures are back after an extended absence. And partly because a great deal has changed since the clampdown of June 12 1986. But as the measures that have rendered many organisations leaderless for up to three years are renewed, there are strong signs of a resurgence of confidence in what has become known as the “mass democratic movement”. 

Three examples from different areas underscore the point. 

  • In Alexandra township on Monday, symbolism and practical activity combined with the effective relaunch of the Alexandra Action Committee; Moses Mayekiso once again at its helm. The AAC announced a programme of action around housing problems, and served notice that the political transformation which took place during 1984-1986 would once again find an organised outlet.  
  • In the Eastern Cape, influential leaders Mkhuseli Jack and Henry Fazzie were welcomed back into their communities . No-one doubted that the reinvigoration of organisations in and around Port Elizabeth would follow.  
  • And, after Peter Mokaba walked free from a Pietersburg regional court last month, it did not take long for the executive of the South African Youth Congress to hold a press conference in which they hinted at a new phase of youth activism.  

In these key areas, the leadership structures look more or less as they did at the time of the imposition of the first nationwide State of Emergency in 1986. What the Emergency had supposedly left dead and buried is very much alive again. But this is not to suggest that the political situation has simply reverted to pre-Emergency times, or that organisations depend on specific personalities, alone, for their survival. What makes the deja vu most striking, according to a United Democratic Front official speaking in his personal capacity, is that successive Emergencies have demonstrably failed to rub out the culture of resistance of the 1980s. They have, however, dramatically altered its face. 

Resistance leaders believe that the elements which plunged South Africa into its deepest-ever crisis are still present, and have manifested themselves in different ways. “The conditions which gave rise to massive mobilisation and organisation over the past years have not been removed,” extra-parliamentary leader Mohammed Valli told the Weekly Mail, “and this has provided a fresh challenge to the democratic movement. “Most importantly, while repres¬sion has weakened -and in some cases wiped out- the structures that grew up, the state has failed dismally to impose its version of a new South Africa. “Hearts and minds have simply not been won, and the (political) consciousness and awareness that was developed still lives graphically in people’s memories.” 

Another senior UDF leader argues that developments since 1986, including some of those which appear to have done most damage to the organisation, have led to a psychological breakthrough in activist circles. “In many ways, the realisation that apartheid is not about to collapse has led to a form of glasnost in the democratic movement,” he says. “This is not to concede that the government has somehow ‘won’. On the contrary, it is a development based firmly on the belief that the Pretoria government is facing unprecedented pressure both in terms of its international debt squeeze, and in its need to present a fresh image to the world. “This has contributed to what I would describe as a new (tactical) maturity throughout the democratic movement. One senses a openness within the movement to explore new options and initiatives. The sacred cows are gone- everything is open for discussion.”


This is how major extra- parliamentary leaders assess their positions on the eve of the fourth national Emergency: they are certain that the fabric of the anti-apartheid struggle is intact, but are open to innovative, previously unthought-of means of channelling it. “The debates on the nature of a post-apartheid South Africa, going on at all levels of our structures, are being pursued with more vigour than ever before,” says the UDF official. And new structural forms have been born “in the middle of the Emergency”, he says. There have been fresh, innovative challenges to Pretoria through campaigns such as the prison hunger strike, and “new organisations have sprung up at different levels, the best examples being professional groups such as the National Association of Democratic Lawyers, the National Medical and Dental Association, and the social workers’ congress”.

Such initiatives, Valli believes, will complement the likely re-emergence of “township-based structures” such as civic associations, many of which had become moribund in the face of the Emergency onslaught. And they will operate in a changed political environment which offers up profitable new areas for activism. “In 1984, the defeat of the tricameral system was a life-and-death matter for us. It was successfully discredited then and there. This meant that the restrictions placed later on anti-election campaigning were not as damaging as they might have been. The polls were very low in the 1987 (municipal) elections, not because of a co¬ ordinated campaign, but because of the consciousness of the people. ‘Thus it is unlikely there will be any nationally co-ordinated, high-profile ‘no vote’ campaign (this September). ‘There are new areas of challenge.” 

These new areas, says the official, include the international terrain. “The priorities of the democratic movement change with conditions,” he says, “and whereas protest against the apartheid state was the be-ail and end-all in 1984, we are now effectively contesting the Nationalist government in the sphere of foreign relations.” This is one element of a broader, strategic battle over the concept of “negotiations”. Despite impressions to the contrary in some quarters, says the UDF official, the “broad democratic movement” (which can be taken to include progressive trade union structures) accepts that a “negotiated” transfer of power is as valid an option for the future as the seizure of power. “And so the democratic movement is taking the whole question of the possibility of ‘negotiations’ in the not-too-distant future quite seriously. “This is not because there are signals from the NP that it has undergone a change of heart, or has the same understanding of what ‘negotiations’ mean as we do. It is because we believe the pressure (on Pretoria) will rapidly become intolerable. These are the signals from the capitals of the world.” 

Thus the extra-parliamentary movements are manoeuvring themselves into a position whereby they are fully prepared for such a development. Says the official: “We are saying to our people – don’t prepare for negotiations by lessening pressure on Pretoria. That must continue. But be ready to seize the opportunities of changed balances, when they arise.” Speculation around the release, before the end of the year, of jailed ANC leader Nelson Mandela, is considered in this broad context. “Certainly we realise the state may be trying to prepare the ground for Mandela’s release and, as a hoped-for consequence, their own brand of negotiations.” 

But, it is suggested, advantage can be taken of tills- with spin-offs the government cannot predict. The bottom line for the democratic movement is that its demands remain constant, while tactical advantage is gleaned along the way. The internal “glasnost” which the official identifies certainly makes it easier for such strategy-linked advice to be heeded, and acted upon. Many political taboos have disappeared or been shifted aside in the cut-and- thrust of activism under the Emergency. Consultations with business leaders, apparently sympathetic “home land” figures, “liberal” whites, and even township “mayors” and councillors now take place without undue recriminations within extra-parliamentary circles. 

At the end of this month, UDF President Albertina Sisulu is expected to lead a top-level delegation of UDF leaders to meet US President George Bush in Washington. The tactical cor¬rectness of accepting the American initiation does not appear to have been called into question within the organisation – another positive indicator of how much has shifted during the time of the Emergency.

This article originally appeared in the Weekly Mail.

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Shaun Johnson
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