The struggle for justice in South Africa

Wednesday, 5th August 2009 at 8:00 UTC 4 comments

1994 was supposed to be the turning point for the people of South Africa. New leadership, following a Western model of democracy but with Black leadership, was supposed to be the turning point in ending the suffering townships face. But unrest over the last couple of weeks has dragged the plight of South Africa’s poorest back onto the news agenda.

Two things I’d like to draw out from this, first the extent to which South Africa has begun to be seen as a success in British political culture, and second that the ethnic divisions were not the only problems facing South Africa, and that simply replacing White leadership with Black leadership was never going to be enough (something that is obviously easy to say with hindsight).

We British Activists can often be heard citing the South African struggle as an example of an historic success, and an example of how to carry out protests and campaigns on other issues; in particular, on Palestinian rights. But in this triumphalism there is a definite twang of demobilisation; that people feel enough has been done and therefore lack the motivation to keep campaigning for a more equal, just and liveable South Africa.

Demobilisation is a huge issue, especially where victories are played up to be bigger than they are, and thus people feel a solution has been reached and pull out of the struggle too soon. With South Africa, the goal was, in a sense, set rather too low (again, hindsight speaking) and I do worry that many in Britain are very satisfied with a situation many in South Africa still don’t accept as just. This isn’t because they’re being demanding, I believe its because the abolition of Apartheid has not brought the kind of development people in Britain somehow assumed it automatically would.

Yes, the end of Apartheid was a great thing to celebrate. It was one of the most peaceful transitions from one power structure to another that we have witnessed in our time, though revisionists have taken to completely erasing the role of armed insurgency in the struggle. But the problem is, that transition has so far proven of little actual worth for the poorest, and I would suggest, looking at other situations where such a transition has taken place, that this indicates an elite-to-elite transfer has taken place; a white elite replaced immediately with a black elite. Now, don’t get me wrong, imperialism is disgusting, and always a greater barrier to progress than an autonomous, local elite. Its just its a half-baked solution.

So what I think was certainly needed was a process by which South Africa could be more deeply transformed, rather than simply a change of government, no matter how sweeping. The same injustices continue, but with Blacks abusing Blacks. Yes, it is now conceivable that these injustices be resolved, which wasn’t the case under white leadership, but for the people at the bottom of South African society to really step out from the grips of poverty and oppression, a real redistribution of power and a reassessment of values must be undertaken. How we in Britain can really cause that to happen, especially without going down the route of sanctions, I’m not sure, but we must face the reality of South Africa today, and not just parade the successes of our actions in the past, for only through a return to South Africa as an issue can we see a challenge to the new, economic, Apartheid.


Entry filed under: Africa, Development, News, Politics, Poverty.

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4 Comments Add your own

  • 1. Steve  |  Tuesday, 11th August 2009 at 8:38 UTC

    Even back in the 60s we knew that if we ever sorted out the question of the blacks and the whites, only then would we see the real problem — the problem of the haves and the have nots.

    One of the problems is the free-market and privatisation ideology that took hold in the Reagan-Thatcher years, and still affects South Africa today. The BEE (Black Elite Enrichment) programmes haven’t helped much, and the abandonment of the Reconstruction and Development Programme within a year of the ANC came to power was one of the worst things the present government ever did.

    There’s much more that could be said, but I think you get the drift.

    • 2. Graham Martin  |  Tuesday, 11th August 2009 at 12:13 UTC

      No, do go on, I think this is all very useful stuff which we simply don’t know up here in Britain. Its probably a reflection of the British campaigner mindset that we didn’t also have that debate during the time we were involved in campaigning against Apartheid; British campaigners do have a bad habit of not really finding out what people “on the ground” want from their struggles before planning campaigns.

  • 3. Steve  |  Tuesday, 11th August 2009 at 17:38 UTC

    British anti-apartheid campaigns were useful for people in South Africa to the extent that they6 alterted the British public to what was really going on. And the pro-democracy struggle was important, and it won important victories and made important gains. We are now free to criticise the government, we have civil liberties, which we did not have before. That puts us in much the same place as Britain is. In some ways sluightly better off — Tony Blair wanted to introduce detention without trial in Britain, so soon after we got rid of it in South Africa. And Gordon Brown still wants it. And, worst of all, the British media spoke of those who supported this position as occupying the moral high ground. Now that is scary!

    One of the things that pisses off people here is “lack of service delivery”. And they are right to be pissed off. The biggest problem is incompetent municipal councillors and managers who are out to feather their own nests and not to serve the people. You find those in Britain too. So what is most useful to people in South Africa would be successful ways of dealing with them. Not you lot dealing with ours, but setting an example by showing how you deal with yours.

    The ANC congress at Polokwane 18 months ago was at least in part a sign that democracy is working. A lot of politicians who hadn’t performed satisfactorily were given the boot. But there was also a bit too much gullibility about the ones who came in to replace them, with facile slogans like “change you can believe in”. And too many people believed the promises and now want to see some action.

    Back in 1997 Blair sounded like a new broom — who would have thought that he would turn out to be such a warmonger?

    • 4. Graham Martin  |  Wednesday, 12th August 2009 at 15:53 UTC

      I take your point, and I didn’t mean to imply people from the UK should be sorting things out in South Africa. My concern is that a lot of “past tense” language is used here that excuses a view that South Africa is now fine and happy, when those few people who keep in touch know full well that there are the problems you listed.

      My feeling is also that people in South Africa are more likely to need service delivery reforms just to survive, rather than to move from survival to thriving. That said, you are definitely right about Blair and there is a real risk Obama may turn out much the same, whilst Britain is dragged towards having a media-front-man as Prime Minister; Cameron is offering a lot of “change we can believe in” but very little real prospect of things improving for the poorer members of society.


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