Revolution vs romance

Both South Africa’s “rainbow romantics” and its “revolutionary left” suffer from a failure to grasp many of the political realities of the country after apartheid — and this often makes irrelevant their contributions on how to tackle the social and economic challenges facing the nation.

According to the “rainbow romantics”, 1994 was a “miracle”. They uncritically argue that much of South Africa’s problems, especially those rooted in racism, disappeared with the advent of an open society.

This interpretation, sadly, does a serious disservice to the legacy of South Africa’s first president, Nelson Mandela, who is ascribed the powers of a messiah.

But, it is not very smart to understand human affairs through angelic interventions. There is no doubt that Mandela has contributed immensely to South Africa’s transformation. But to then assert that his emphasis on reconciliation and nation building meant that other serious problems that beset the country were suddenly solved is being highly disingenuous.

What Mandela did bequeath to South Africa was an environment in which the divisive and prevalent tensions were removed from South African society so that its real problems could be addressed under much more enabling conditions.

To interpret nation building as being the end result of South Africa’s ills is wrong. This is aptly demonstrated by the incredulous insistence that referring to the fact that poverty in South Africa is still largely racially defined is re-racialising society and dwelling on the past.

Thus, President Thabo Mbeki’s confrontation of South Africa’s past is derided by his critics as taking the country “backwards” — as if it had ever moved forward in a substantial manner.

This is a thoroughly simplistic premise from which to understand the monumental problems South Africa faces. In building a nation, means and ends should not be confused. Solutions that seek to carve out a better future have to address the past. The two cannot be divorced.

One other gross injustice that is being visited by this perspective on Mandela’s legacy is the creation of the false impression that his government did not take as a priority redressing the country’s socio-economic imbalances.

To concretise reconciliation requires that more should be done in fleshing out and supporting those efforts. The basic imperative is to recognise that reconciliation cannot occur in a hollow environment. It will not succeed without dealing with the social and economic legacy of apartheid and to pretend otherwise is fatal.

The other perspective that is thoroughly confused about the transition is held by the “revolutionary left”. This view — like that of the “rainbow romantics” — resorts to mystical analysis that has nothing to do with concrete South African reality. Its refrain is that the African National Congress has “sold out the revolution”.

But, it is baffling how they come to the conclusion that the ANC was ever a revolutionary movement. According to them, the ANC has betrayed its revolutionary principles and has embraced capitalism at the expense of a workers’ revolution.

The problem with this analysis is that it fails to understand that the ANC was never established to revolutionise society. Most national liberation movements of the past century, including those of Africa, despite their principled and professed agitation against colonialism and racism, were never revolutionary movements. They were and are essentially led by a middle class whose interests were never hostile to capitalism per se.

The ANC has never been a revolutionary movement in the sense in which it is being imputed by the South African “left”. The destruction of racism is hardly revolutionary. Many states and movements have done so, but are still mired in serious problems.

The confusion in this analysis is its failure to comprehend that, by their nature, national liberation movements were never established to set up communist states.

True enough, the ANC is a radical liberation movement, a situation brought about by the brutality of the type of regime it faced and judged on the basis of the programmes it is implementing to overcome the legacy of apartheid. But a radical liberation movement is not synonymous with a revolutionary movement.

This is much more than an issue of semantics. “Radical” implies a steadfast will to change the status quo, whatever it is, while “revolutionary” means to try to qualitatively change a situation — profoundly adding new value. Thus one can be a radical against something, but not necessarily be a revolutionary.

Thus the ANC — like national liberation movements everywhere — provides South Africans with a minimum programme to set up a democratic society that is free from tensions. It has never had a “historical mission” to set up a workers’ state.

This is the role of other formations in society. To continue to burden the ANC with this role is thoroughly ahistorical and has no bearing on concrete South African reality.

Therefore, the left should understand that its programme to overhaul society along the lines of a revolutionary communist society rests on its shoulders, and not on the ANC.

This problem has its roots in the paralysis that blighted, and continues to blind, advocates of a revolutionary transformation of society after the collapse of the Soviet Bloc.

In South Africa this has led to a vacuum and a clutching of political straws by the left that maybe a liberation movement like the ANC can set up a revolutionary society.

There is no way that such a state of affairs can be achieved in a world dominated by capitalism. Only when capitalism has vanished from the Earth can revolutionary forces rally around setting up a communist world.

In this sense, the Chinese are arguably correct: communism will be achieved in a long time to come, not in the contemporary world.

Basically, capitalism is too resilient in the contemporary world and to misunderstand this is the Achilles heel of modern revolutionaries — who are guilty of romanticism just like the “rainbow romantics” they are so critical of.

Dr Thabisi Hoeane is a lecturer at Rhodes University’s department of political and international studies

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