Are there revolutionaries in South Africa? Who are they and what are they doing? Do you need to go around with a lamp in the day time to find one? Apparently not.
According to the secretary-general of the ruling ANC we find revolutionaries at the highest level of government. Addressing the National Union of Metalworkers of South Africa, Gwede Mantashe referred to the newly appointed minister of higher education as a ‘revolutionary’. No one familiar with South Africa would be surprised, as the said minister is Blade Nzimande, General Secretary of the South African Communist Party, a party that promotes itself as a fighter for socialism and the National Democratic Revolution.
This demonstrates one of the peculiarities of South (and Southern) Africa. Since 1994 the social system and government policies do not differ in principle from that of the USA for example. But a majority of cabinet ministers and other senior politicians want to be seen, at least sometimes, as revolutionaries. The leaders of the ANC, the Communist Party and the Congress of South African Trade Unions that became the political managers and business beneficiaries of South Africa’s neo-liberal, ultra-capitalistic republic, every so often leave their marble halls and oak boardrooms, dress up in red or green t-shirts and track suits, and present themselves as custodians of the revolution.
It is easy to understand why this is so. Memories of heroic risings against racist rule are still fresh, and huge social crises make the need for radical change obvious. The label ‘revolutionary’ therefore bestow a certain moral authority to its wearer. But there is clearly a problem here. This same group has mimicked George Bush & Co by deregulating markets, skewing social services expenditure and rocketing military spending to primarily benefit state elites and giant business corporations. Since at least 1996, with the open and official embrace of neo-liberalism by the ANC, their actions, far from being revolutionary, have not even been reformist in the sense of wanting to improve capitalism for the benefit of the downtrodden. In fact, the gap between their claim to be revolutionaries and their behaviour is so wide that the only plausible explanation is that this claim is deliberately false – a fraudulent attempt to cover up their role in the oppression of the people.
During the later years of the struggle against Apartheid the majority of politically active Black people considered it a mortal insult to be called a ‘reformist’. To be labelled ‘counter-revolutionary’ was potentially deadly. This has been carried forward in interesting ways. In the USA critics of the government are likely to be denounced as ‘revolutionaries’; in South Africa critics are denounced as ‘counter-revolutionaries,’ pretty much without regard to the content of their criticism. The latter fate befalls opponents of the state’s privatisation policies, as well as judges whose judicial findings are less than complimentary to ANC leaders. As we have seen, this often makes it difficult to sort the reformists from the revolutionaries and both from the downright reactionary, counter-revolutionary wreckers. In this situation it is unlikely that the ANC-led alliance is the only group falsely clinging to red labels, although others won’t necessarily do so for the same sinister reasons. We therefore need to start with an idea of what exactly a revolutionary is if we are going to get anywhere in answering the questions posed at the start of this article.
Lacking incontrovertible examples of revolutionaries to use as a measure, the safest thing is probably to start with a broad definition. Let’s say revolutionaries are people seeking to do away with the current social system. This definition offers the following advantages:
- It clearly sets revolutionaries apart from reformists who merely want to change the system in some ways.
- It leaves open the questions around what defines the system, what would replace it and what the effective methods are for doing so. This allows the discussion to move past the issue of whether a particular person should be labelled a revolutionary or not. Conceding that someone is a revolutionary becomes less of an issue as you can still argue that the person is a mistaken, ineffective or dishonest one.
- It reckons with the possibility that everyone is a revolutionary some of the time or to some extent, in the sense of wanting to abolish prevailing oppressions.
Talking about revolutionaries can help us understand revolution as the concentrated expression of the desire for as thorough as possible a liberation from the poverty, inequality, violence, insults and stress that present society impose on the vast majority. What could be more important than that?