What has happened to South Africa’s white left?
This question seems counter-intuitive – or no, it seems decidedly out of place in contemporary South Africa. After all, the nonracial mantra that sealed the national consensus of the Mandela presidency was intended to end the race-based politics that had marked apartheid’s tawdry path by drawing white people into the idea of a rainbow nation.
But, with this consensus all but over, stories from the white left are increasingly being drawn to the fore. One such is The New Radicals: A Generational Memoir of the 1970s by Glenn Moss, long-standing champion of radical politics, both at Wits University, where he was president of the students representative council and, nationally, as deputy vice-president of the National Union of South African Students (Nusas).
Nusas? What was Nusas?
Founded in 1924, Nusas was the banner that – ostensibly, at least – was intended to unite all the country’s students. However, the vagaries of national politics were to divide the organisation deeply – not once, but twice: the first time over language, the second time over race.
Despite these unhappy experiences, Nusas made a major contribution in the struggle against minority rule. In his book, Moss links his own radicalisation to his active membership of Nusas. The regular round of detentions and torture aside, his association with Nusas culminated in the so-called “Nusas Trial”, which ran from 1975 to 1976 (the five accused, including Moss, appear in sepia tone on the cover of his book).
On the wrong side
These days, however, Nusas is cast as a small whites-only grouping that had failed to understand the “struggle” story and, though it might have found itself on the right side of history, was plainly on the wrong side of destiny. For some 20 years, then, the Nusas story has been swept to the corners by the ubiquitous force of nationalism and, its doppelgänger, market economics.
Taken together, these two have turned the post-apartheid state into a creature scarcely recognisable to many South Africans, including Nusas members, who had worked for a more giving society than the grabbing one we seem to have become.
At a recent lunchtime meeting in the middle of a week to promote the book, Moss told me that many who have attended the book’s launch functions are disenchanted with the current version of South Africa and want to understand the events that contributed to apartheid’s ending when they were students.
So, between the dashed hopes for a different country and the ageing of once-committed whites, a new genre of “struggle tales” are gradually surfacing. Unlike the brandy-and-coke brigade, however, this cohort knows that there can be no backward glance to the 1970s.
Let me pause here to declare two interests. First, and much to my chagrin, I was not politically active as a student: outside my studies, my undergraduate career was solely devoted to the great trinity of the late 1960s: sex, drugs and rock ’n roll. Indeed, when it came to matters involving Nusas, I remember being decidedly derisory.
Second, I have counted Glenn Moss as a friend since the early 1980s, when I contributed to one of his many creative ventures. This was called the South African Review Series, and was an attempt by so-called progressive thinkers to raise policy alternatives to the decaying apartheid order and the market fundamentalism that was promising its reform.
Over salad, Glenn confessed that he was not himself without an appetite for the great trinity when he arrived at College House residence at Wits in 1970.
His plan in those days was to take the (then compulsory) two-degree step into the legal profession: a broad undergraduate training followed by the post-graduate LLB. But, as many a parent and child have been painfully compelled to learn, there’s many a detour between the university gate and a very successful life.
Almost from the get-go, the Pretoria-raised Moss was drawn towards the radical thinking and activism that would shape South Africa and his place in it. His was to be a career of engaged service that was noticeable for “doing something” and not, as Margaret Thatcher once icily remarked of a younger generation of Tory politicians, simply “becoming someone”.
Moss’s odyssey began with a brave protest against the initiation rites that ran through residences at Wits and every other South African university at the time. This early rebellion against the frat-boy culture of College House drew him to the attention of the university’s vice-chancellor, Guerino Bozzoli, who was affectionately known to all as “Boz”.
Their paths were often to cross in the years ahead: Bozzoli, the liberal patrician and respected university leader; Moss, the radical-in-the-making student leader, each viewing South African politics in the 1970s through divergent optics.
In his version of Wits, Moss remains dismayed at the liberalism that coursed through the institution, and that has been proudly claimed by successive generations of Witsies. And, on the account offered in these pages, it is difficult to gainsay his exasperation.
But with the benefit of hindsight, perhaps, it is easy to understand how it was that Wits – and other liberal institutions, mind – navigated the stormy waters of those years. They were caught between the Scylla of draconian race legislation and the Charybdis of late-colonial capital that demanded control over the young, with their ideas that the majority not only should, but actually could, govern the country.
There were moments, however, when liberal professors and radical students united: representations to government, street demonstrations and academic freedom lectures: these were expressions of anxiety, not politics.
But the politics of a cohort of students and younger academics, positioned at the margins of the campus, were turning to the tectonic shifts that were, at the time, taking place below the waterline.
Indeed, the agents of these changes are introduced in the very first paragraph of the book when freshman Moss, four months into his studies at Wits with his name already known to the vice-chancellor, shared a flagon of “Tassies” – the once-famous cheap wine more formally called Tassenberg – with the Black Consciousness leader Steve Biko, and Rick Turner, the activist-intellectual considered to have been the moving spirit in the rise of the trade union movement. Also present at the April 1970 piss-up was Neville Curtis, then president of Nusas, who, like many others in the white left, would flee the country.
But, if the new direction in South African politics was plain to Moss’s youthful eye, it was not to the security police. As was to emerge in the Nusas trial, the apartheid state had only a limited understanding of “new forms of political opposition”.
In this account Moss is less immediately interested in the traffic in ideas that had brought this loaded (if somewhat intoxicated) assignation about. This is understandable because it was not immediately clear that the 1968 student revolt in the United States and Europe had profoundly touched South Africa and its universities.
While the iron fist of BJ Vorster’s regime could brutally deal with students, and the security police roamed the campuses, they could not stop the ideas that were to fuel radical politics. One such was a deepening alliance between white intellectuals and the black working class: this strategy was tapped from the work of a range of thinkers who were not to be found in the university’s liberal syllabus: Lucás, Lenin, Cabral and Gramsci.
But this, too, would change.
From the margins of Wits, a generation of young intellectuals – the Websters, both David and Eddie, the Yale- and Oxford-trained political philosopher Sheldon Leader, the late Michael Nupen and many others besides – challenged not only the university’s liberal ethos, but also opened up the grim politics of a dismal decade to a withering critique.
This was to spark an enormously fecund time in the scholarly life of Wits, leading to some of the most influential initiatives in the country’s intellectual life – the History Workshop being, perhaps, the most famous. Other initiatives, such as the honours course, which Moss took, used the liberal modernisation idea of “development” as a cover for the critical engagement with the literature of the New Left.
In telling his story, Moss has written a book that is both interesting and important: unobtrusively, he has opened space for a deep conversation not only on the role played by the white left in the struggle to end apartheid, but on the role played by a student organisations like Nusas.
He has also invited us to think about students, not as mere numbers or potential employees, as the bean counters constantly encourage contemporary academics to do, but as agents who can determine their own political destiny.
He has reminded the university, too, of the responsibility to keep open the space where the young can talk about, and so fashion, the world in which they will live. This is especially important in today’s higher education sector, where state regulation and financing play coercive roles not all that different from those once exercised by the apartheid state.
But, mostly, I believe, Glenn Moss shows how education and emancipation are one and the same thing. And, without understanding this, we will not free ourselves from the simple dogma that, unfortunately, has returned to stalk the country this early spring.
Peter Vale is professor of humanities at the University of Johannesburg State regulation and financing play coercive roles not that different from those once exercised by the apartheid state