The struggle for justice in South Africa
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.