Feats of an innovative generation

The new radicals: Wits students protest against the death of Ahmed Timol in detention.  (Wits Historical Papers).

The new radicals: Wits students protest against the death of Ahmed Timol in detention. (Wits Historical Papers).

THE NEW RADICALS: A GENERATIONAL MEMOIR OF THE 1970s by Glenn Moss (Jacana)

I first met Glenn Moss 32 years ago at the Johannesburg offices of Work In Progress (WIP), the political magazine he founded and edited. My aim was to get my honours dissertation published and I went to WIP more in hope than expectation.

Moss was everything a good editor should be – perceptive and encouraging without any hint of condescension – and somehow he managed to turn my dry research on the military into a series of three impeccably subbed articles.
I was impressed.

At the time he was about 30 years old and I took him to be an activist-academic type whose politics had probably emerged somewhere between the seminar room and the picket line.

Over the next few years I met a number of his lefty contemporaries – political lawyers, unionists, journalists, lecturers and ANC exiles – but the question never occurred: Where had they come from?

The history of the National Union of South African Students (Nusas) that my generation received tended to start around 1976. Perhaps it was the solipsism of youth, prompting the assumptions about who invented the wheel, but we lacked curiosity about those who preceded us. Their world was, at best, opaque.

Which is one reason why I found The New Radicals to be such an important addition to “struggle” history – a book that fills in a decade-long gap in impressive detail, ­leaving no doubt about the immense achievements of this innovative generation.

Moss begins with a campfire in April 1970, drinking Tassenberg with some student leaders, including the president of the South African Students Organisation, Steve Biko (beaten to death by the security police in 1977), political philosopher Rick Turner (assassinated in 1978), local Nusas leader Jeanette Curtis (assassinated in 1984) and her brother, Nusas president Neville Curtis (banned, exiled, died in 2007).

Anyway, on that occasion, the 17-year-old Moss replied to a question from Biko, telling the black consciousness leader that apartheid had been successful in making it difficult for white people to interact comfortably with black people. Biko, who seemed to relish this answer, roared with laughter and lifted the first-year student into the air.

This is the launch pad for the substance of the story – the challenge of black consciousness and why it was one of the factors that nudged the white student leadership into rejecting liberalism and exploring alternatives.

Moss, a former Wits Students’ Representative Council president, tells the tale of Nusas and its organisational offshoots in the first half of the 1970s, and he does this with dogged detail, drawn no doubt from forensic research but also from a prodigious memory.

It was a time when previous generations of ANC activists were either in jail or in exile. The students sought out the few still around, but mostly they made it up as they went along, drawing inspiration from the European New Left, the countercultural ­movement and from their own experiences.

What emerged was a home-grown radicalism that rejected the free market economics and gesture politics of the liberal establishment, but also steered clear of the South African Communist Party’s Soviet-style dogma.

They were the first internally based organisation to launch a campaign for the release of political prisoners (which, Mandela later told them, was hugely inspirational on Robben Island), and they campaigned for a unitary democracy and a redistribution of wealth in South Africa, and for Namibian independence.

But their greatest contribution came in their part in creating the trade union movement that, 15 years later, coalesced into Cosatu.

Moss gets his teeth into describing how activists from the Nusas wages commissions formed the Industrial Aid Society (IAS), which, in turn, helped build the basis for the new unionism that emerged in this era.

For much of the book he focuses on campaigns and programmes rather than debates and differences, but he can’t avoid the conflicts he had with the Natal-based “workerist” Trade Union Advisory Co-ordinating Council, which eventually ousted him from the IAS job, although he avoids naming names and is commendably self-deprecating about his own errors.

The depth of information about strategies and tactics will no doubt be treasured by historians but might be too dry for readers less immersed in this past.

However, there is much of wider interest, including stories of his schoolboy years in Pretoria, his long spell in solitary confinement, his trial as part of the “Nusas Six”, his unexpected encounter with the poet Breyten Breytenbach and his accounts of police brutality and of apartheid spies (his 1972-73 Students’ Representative Council included two Bureau of State Security agents and two security police agents).

Moss has an accessible style, although the book would have benefited from another edit: points made in one context are sometimes repeated, almost word for word, in another.

The book is subtitled “A generational memoir …’’ and readers anticipating anything more personal may be disappointed.

He does not delve into the psychology of his own activism or that of his comrades and avoids individual conflicts, let alone lovers’ tiffs.

This is a choice rather than an omission but he might have ventured further with some retrospective reflection. Only at the end does he hint at this dimension, suggesting that the isolation of the Nusas students, both from their own roots and from black students, meant they formed their own sense of belonging, which is why “so many of these bonds endured – politically, socially and personally – over four decades and more”.

It would have been interesting to have heard his current perspective on the ideas floating around in these circles 40 years ago. For example, I was left wondering whether he felt the New Left theories of the 1970s still held up.

Overall though, this is an important book, one that fills a chasm by telling the previously ignored tale of a “manufactured community” that broke with privilege and position and made an immense contribution to changing their country.

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