Step out of the grooves of those who robbed you

“If you [hoist the movement flag] tomorrow, unless you set about the organisation of the Socialist Republic your efforts would be in vain. England would still rule you. She would rule you through her capitalists, through her landlords, through her financiers, through the whole array of commercial and individualist institutions she has planted in this country and watered with the tears of our mothers and the blood of our martyrs.”

That epigraph could sum up Dale McKinley’s South Africa’s Corporatised Liberation — A critical analysis of the ANC in power (Jacana). But it is not from McKinley, or this globalised era, or South Africa.

It’s from Irish revolutionary James Connolly, writing in 1897.

So McKinley’s message, likely to be received as empowering by many (and subversive by some), is not new.

New and welcome is McKinley’s meticulous marshalling of evidence to prove the point. At the book’s launch at Constitution Hill, he described cutting his text ruthlessly to enhance accessibility. A cut text, however, unavoidably loses nuance.

Other perspectives on how McKinley diagnoses the sickness and prescribes the cure are worth adding to the debate.

McKinley’s account of how we got here is predominantly cast in the language of betrayal and sell-out. He cites, for example, assistance to our democracy from such dodgy patrons as Indonesia and Saudi Arabia.

But as co-speaker Zwelinzima Vavi pointed out at the launch, not all compromises were motivated by venality. Too many people were also dying. Both the ANC and the apartheid regime agreed to lay down arms. But the regime — often through mendaciously labelled “Third Forces” — did not stop killing. In trains, on the streets, in KwaZulu-Natal’s killing fields and in township homes, the 1990s saw the planned, systematic destruction of popular formations and resistance. Far from random violence was unleashed against communities that had won some measure of self-governing democracy. Mid-level leaders (especially those resisting compromise) were picked off.

A desperate desire to end those killings, as well as what McKinley cites — arrogant, self-interested power — motivated the demobilisation of the mass movement. Then government diluted vibrant and militant grassroots groups by submerging them into “representative” community structures dominated by conservative religious and traditional bodies.

As McKinley notes, mobilising peoples’ organisations for victory was increasingly displaced by promises to “wait patiently because government will deliver”.

In this context, McKinley’s foundations-up rejection of anything connected to the old structures needs nuancing too. Protest bodies, the old unions, even parts of the ANC, represent that legacy of struggle as well as (some might still argue, more than) the new elitism. Their members and heirs often embody vital institutional knowledge, and political, social and cultural capital. The 1990s were characterised by dividing and destroying progressive structures; the 2000s by the virtual outlawing of solidarity. Strategies that preclude reclaiming the best of the past risk playing into that discourse and should be advocated with caution.

For both old and new structures, processes are as important as policies. McKinley doesn’t talk about patriarchy as much as he might, not only in terms of women’s struggles, but in terms of the pernicious way patriarchy shapes relationships between men, in the adulation and elevation of the “chief”. Vavi recalled how the South African Communist Party began showering financial and four-wheeled privileges on its Great Leader at the hierarchy-minded urging of some members. Better organisations will need a democratic working praxis that does not marginalise, and politics that directly address the entrenchment of past corruptions and oppressions at every level: family and community as well as workplace, economic and national.

Those mind-sets and oppressions persist. Failure to replace and rebuild the foundations is about more than elite “selling out”, and sometimes McKinley’s practical focus on where the data are found — the facts he has so ably assembled — draws the discourse away from that.

Connolly warned in 1909: “Don’t be ‘practical’ in politics. To be practical in that sense means that you have schooled yourself to think along the lines and in the grooves that those who robbed you desire you to think.”

PW Botha wagged his finger and banned us in 1988 but we stood firm. We built a reputation for fearless journalism, then, and now. Through these last 35 years, the Mail & Guardian has always been on the right side of history.

These days, we are on the trail of the merry band of corporates and politicians robbing South Africa of its own potential.

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Gwen Ansell
Gwen Ansell is a freelance writer, writing teacher, media consultant and creative industries researcher. She is the author of various books, including the cultural history ‘Soweto Blues: Jazz, Politics and Popular Music in South Africa’ and the writers’ guide, ‘Introduction to Journalism’.

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