Debates about the meaning(s) of activism have been perennial pre-occupations in postcolonial societies. In South Africa, the contours of this debate have been shaped, on one hand, by those who argue that attaining formal democracy renders struggle and activism superfluous; and, on the other, by participants in new forms of struggle who call for a resurrection of radical activism. Both positions use the anti-apartheid struggle as their primary historical reference to gain legitimacy. In this year of the centenary of the African National Congress (ANC), the ruling party has sought to claim for itself the mantle of leader of liberation politics, as part of an exercise to legitimise current regimes of power. Its response to popular protests has oscillated between efforts to de-legitimise dissent and violent suppression of local struggles. But these efforts have been consistently challenged by various movements that draw inspiration from the successes of the anti-apartheid struggle.
The underlying causes of these struggles are not hard to understand. Despite enormous gains made in the democratic dispensation, the main beneficiaries of the new order have been the established white elite plus a small class of black nouveau riche. South Africa is the most unequal society in the world: unemployment levels remain among the highest globally (affecting primarily poor black youth), squatter settlements continue to proliferate, income levels remain stubbornly depressed for the majority and the country ranks very low on almost every social development index (for example, education and health). In the past decade South Africa has in fact experienced unprecedented protests against bad service delivery, corruption, low wages, the education crisis, commodification of public goods and many others.
In this context two broad forms of activism have again become distinguishable. First, the ANC and its alliance partners play a critical role in the ways in which activism is imagined and practiced. The ruling party argues that it remains the authentic bearer of the historical traditions of activism. In this hegemonic rendition the ‘ideal activist’ draws heavily on the iconic image of the revolutionary as an armed young black man, whose defining attributes are arguably self-sacrifice, discipline and adherence to a party line. The first of these has largely been jettisoned in favour of self-enrichment, leaving notions of activism influenced heavily by the traditions of the Communist Party, as well as the experience of political exile. It is an activism embedded in hierarchical politics, which has transferred rather effortlessly into the state. The erstwhile revolutionary figure is now in power and subjected to the discipline of the state. Occasionally, he is still required to make perfunctory gestures in the direction of transformation and invokes liberation heritage for efficacy. Cadres of a special type are characterised by practices of surveillance and discipline.
A more innovative, disruptive and dynamic form of activism has been generated by struggles from below. It is an activism defined by a non-hierarchical approach of political engagement, of promoting disruption, ‘speaking truth to power’, mobilising direct action and attempting, albeit with uneven success, to create spaces where poor communities can define their own politics and repertoires of struggle. Many of the activists in these movements have only tenuous connections to the ANC, or any other party for that matter. Others are explicitly contemptuous of party politics. A significant, and often unacknowledged, contribution made by these movements is that they have opened spaces in which ordinary citizens, the majority of whom retain varying degrees of residual loyalty to the ANC, can speak openly and critically to the ruling party. Speaking out against a range of practices that are antithetical to the culture of activism of the 1980s, such as the abuse of power, self-enrichment, disregard and disdain for the poor, misogyny and homophobia, is a difficult but critical step in the constitution of new activisms.
The Anti-Privatisation Forum, Abahlali baseMjondolo, the Anti-Eviction Campaign, the Soweto Electricity Crisis Committee and numerous local movements have been among the most prominent actors in these struggles. Inspired by international struggles (for example, those of indigenous movements in Latin America and Asia and the massive anti-globalisation protests in northern cities), these new social movements have executed novel forms of struggle such as direct action, land and housing occupations, internet solidarity campaigns and so forth.
At the same time, there have emerged what may be termed social justice movements, which share many of the characteristics of the burgeoning social movements but are also distinctive in important respects. Some of them have launched campaigns around specific rights-based issues, while others utilise the law against powerful institutions, including the government and corporations that are perceived in their policies or actions to undermine the country’s Constitution (or international conventions). Whereas the new social movements typically espouse strident anti- ANC rhetoric, many of the local social justice movements have cultivated a critical association with the ANC alliance. Perhaps the most significant example is the Treatment Action Campaign (TAC), which waged a successful campaign that combined astute advocacy, legal strategy and community mobilisation for access to anti-retrovirals in the struggle to combat the HIV/AIDS pandemic.
It is therefore in these new movements that new forms and practices of emancipatory activism are being forged. Both draw on the history of the anti-apartheid struggle for inspiration and legitimacy. Ironically, neither makes any effort to engage the multiple experiences of past modes of activism. Instead, they tend to reiterate a dominant narrative of liberation and generally do not contest histories of past struggles. Contempoary social movements have far more in common with the Industrial and Commercial Workers Union of the 1920s, the insurgent local protests of the 1940s and the civic/youth/union struggles of the 1970s and 1980s, which were popular movements of the urban and rural poor and were often led by women. Bus boycotts, occupations, stayaways, marches, public gatherings and other forms of direct action were developed by ordinary people as they challenged oppression and exploitation.
As new traditions of activism are forged it is critical to dispute the hegemonic constructions of memories of struggle and to disrupt narrow and partisan interpretations of anti-apartheid activism in order to free the process of constituting activisms from the shackles of party and state discipline.
The emergence of the Democratic Left Front (DLF) suggests the possibility of extending and consolidating the experiences of democratic and non-proprietorial activism that were spawned in the new social movements. Although the DLF is neither the first nor the only initiative of its kind, it is distinguishable from other efforts because it has brought together a wide range of activists from diverse and historically antagonistic political backgrounds, including activists from Trotskyist, Communist Party and Africanist traditions. Critically, it has deliberately prioritised the nurturing of new forms of political practice, which, firstly, does not proceed from the premise, so characteristic of left-wing movements historically, that it has the answers (a predetermined programmatic blue-print) that has to be imposed on the masses. The notion of a privileged group of educated, über-activists has firmly been jettisoned. Second, the DLF sees the existence of a plurality of anti-capitalist voices as a strength, and not as the source of adversarial or sectarian competition. Third, it has brought into its orbit a wide range of grassroots movements involved in anti-capitalist struggles on various fronts, such as opposing evictions, homophobia, high food prices, job losses, ecological destruction, racism and xenophobia. By foregrounding an inclusive activism based on mutual respect and commitment to a continuously evolving set of political ideas and programmes of action, the DLF has potentially placed itself in the forefront of a new emancipatory activism.
Noor Nieftagodien is a member of the Democratic Left Front (DLF)
(This is an abridged version of an article that first appeared in ACME: An International E-Journal for Critical Geographies, Volume 11, issue 2, 2012.)