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From Marx to Gandhi

One of the most significant developments in the recent history of our species is the emergence of an ethic of reconciliation.

So argues Ari Sitas, a professor of sociology at the University of KwaZulu-Natal. He sees it as a post-World War II and post-colonial phenomenon that embraces the ”Mandela moment” and South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission. Exhorting co-existence and the transcendence of historical enmities, the ethic has resonated from Mexico to China.

But Sitas admits that, as a not-quite-ex-Marxist who believed in class struggle as a means to social justice, he is struggling with the notion.

In a paper to be published in the near future, titled The Ethic of Reconciliation, Sitas says the ethic sees not the master recognising the slave, but the slave ”being generous enough to allow the master into humanity”. In the case of South Africa, it begins just as the Rwandan genocide unfolds, one of two opposed ways of ”resolving” intractable historical conflicts. If we are to avoid genocide and ethnic cleansing, the way forward is not conflict, but transcendence.

Sitas has not always been a proselytiser for peace and he certainly does not subscribe to some New Age, happy-clappy placebo. Schooled in Marxism and steeped in left-wing opposition to apartheid, his struggle with his former self is an attempt to come to terms with a globalising world, one which demands radical reviews of theories and practices that guided political thought and action in the past. Sitas is not dispensing with his previous self, he is attempting a new synthesis.

In the 1970s he was an activist/artist in the union movement, a prime mover in the political theatre that became an essential element of worker struggles against apartheid. Influenced by the theories and ideas of Augusto Boale and Paulo Freire, Sitas and his collaborators initiated a movement that took culture ”out of the hands of the establishment to create new forms that are meaningful to the democratic forces working for change”, says Astrid van Kotze in her book Organise and Act.

Sitas’s reflections on reconciliation are inspired by the South African experience, but more directly by research he undertook on behalf of a group of bicommunal civil society initiatives and NGOs in Cyprus after the failure of the Kofi Annan plan for the reunification of the island.

Today Sitas is turning his eye on the entire history of left practices in the 20th century. He has developed a fascination for Gandhi — more accurately neo-Gandhian movements — and the sage’s influence on liberation movements.

Neo-Gandhian thought becomes a basis for a critique of war and militarism as means to liberation. At one pole of liberation strategies is the cathartic violence of Frantz Fanon and the Marxist commitment to class struggle, at the other the non-violent resistance of Gandhi. Yet Sitas discerns the influence of Gandhi in a range of liberation philosophies, in Kwame Nkrumah’s consciencism, Julius Nyerere’s utopianism, in Amilcar Cabral and especially in Nelson Mandela and the African National Congress.

Sitas is careful to distinguish the nationalist Gandhi — seen by many as a representative of the middle classes — from the progenitor of a legacy that he analyses into five elements: social voluntarism; a cooperativism that can be seen in the concept of ubuntu; a guiding principle for collective action, which emphasises that the means of struggle are as important as its ends; a rejection of calculative approaches; and a rejection of the terms of engagement as defined by the oppressor.

In his review of methods of liberation, Sitas points out that revolutionary violence tends to beget counter-revolutionary proxy wars. ”The social consequences of many of the movements and the state forms that followed their success or failure were devastating for large numbers of people.”

In Africa, armed movements from below congealed into a militarism from above, where armies become pawns in battles for state power — the Askaris in South Africa, the Contras in Nicaragua, Renamo in Mozambique, Unita in Angola. ”Violence, however justified, has not, pace Fanon, been cathartic.”

Sitas identifies four reasons why the ethic of reconciliation has emerged: the pervasiveness of neo-Gandhian ideas in liberation movements, a process of reflection in the advanced industrial countries of Europe, the convergence of human rights discourse with anti-Stalinist socialism and the frequently underrated influence of art and literature.

One of Sitas’s most interesting insights regarding the history of left struggles is his contention that the old left valued equality over freedom — in the hope that once equality had been achieved, freedom would follow.

He argues instead for a balance between these two values. Too much freedom, he says, leads to the most crass forms of Americanism, while too much equality leads to an abrogation of responsibility.

The arts, he says, have also shaped the new sensibilities, playing ”moral counterpoint to a world of violence and excess” throughout the last century. The creativity of artists, writers and musicians amounts to a ”profound statement” that imagines a better world.

In the West, from the 1960s onwards, self-doubt proliferates, while in the Third World, Gabriel García Márquez and others began to disseminate a universal empathy for what Sitas calls living rights.

In Africa, Wole Soyinka, Chinua Achebe and others brave the wrath of the postcolonial state by highlighting corruption and abuse. ”Theirs has been the most profound attempt to educate and form a feeling against that which denies life.”

Asked if violent struggle is not more honest and authentic than reconciliation, Sitas argues that militarism does not allow for the creation of values and moral systems, a priority of the current age.

Sitas’s ethic of ”co-existence” — the word ”reconciliation” bothers him, being bereft of the nuances of the actual process — is just one aspect of a body of work that is marked by a determination to promote growth.

Sitas has always been steeped in worker struggles, but unlike Leninists, he cultivated an understanding of workers as real, human, beings. From this has flowed a richer sociology, a more nuanced understanding of his field. His scepticism of the most urbane tendencies of late 20th century thought — postmodernism and post-structuralism — is reinforced by the nature of his project, which demands his immersion in the material conditions of South Africa’s workers, their rural roots, their cultural and artistic practices.

A study of daydreams in the workplace exemplifies his humanistic sociology and is an extension of his other persona into his own worklife: a poet and a writer, he uses the topic to demonstrate that in the middle of the most repetitive tasks, human beings always have a capacity for transcendence, the ability to create another world.


Born in Cyprus in 1952, Ari Sitas came to South Africa with his family when he was 16. He studied sociology and political philosophy at Wits University and was one of the founding members of the Junction Avenue Theatre Company. Besides his career as an eminent sociologist at KwaZulu-Natal University, he is a celebrated playwright and poet.


Voices That Reason: Theoretical Parables (2004) (Unisa Press)

The RDP Poems (2004) (Madiba Publishers)

The Mandela Decade 1990-2000 (2008) (forthcoming)

Some articles

”Seasons of drought have no rainbows” (2007), in Alternation

”Beyond racism: The ethic of reconciliation” (2007), in Cyprus Review

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