When I first made contact with the ANC and its allies in the late1960s it followed a period where I was not clear about what road to take politically. I had been a liberal but came to believe that this was leading nowhere in terms of changing SA. But where were the alternatives?
It is hard to recapture the sense of the 1960s, after the arrest of Nelson Mandela and mopping up operations apparently against all remaining ANC and SACP cadres by the mid 1960s. There was a sense of a void. There was a sense that the ANC was no more and insofar as underground struggle was by definition invisible, it took some time for its existence to become visible to people like me, a student and then lecturer on a white campus, UCT.
For all intents and purposes the strategic defeat that the ANC and its allies experienced in the 1960s was not merely a political setback, it also erased a memory of struggle. A generation was born who did not know about the struggles that had gone before; a generation existed without knowledge of the ANC and its campaigns. (Possibly this needs to be qualified in that there were people who escaped the net and they did often transmit such traditions to their children, and this was one of the foundations for the later development of the underground).
Part of the struggle for liberation was the recovery of the history of these important struggles, from the old people who were still around, albeit often in low-key positions, but remembering very well or struggling in the battle of ‘memory against forgetting’. I was one of those who set about recovering some of this history in the 1980s, in particular, the story of the creation of the Freedom Charter through the Congress of the People campaign.
We understood this recovery not merely as an exercise in historiography but also as a profoundly political act insofar as it was retrieving a popular tradition, a politics where the masses were involved. We sought by recovering this memory, to re-inject the popular into anti-apartheid politics.
Within a short while of publishing some accounts of these campaigns, quite unconnected to this research, mass activities broke out on a range of fronts, making South African ungovernable, but significantly also establishing elementary organs of people’s power, through street committees and other local structures with varying levels of success.
Interestingly, one leader who I interviewed, Weza Made of Uitenhage said that what they were doing in their street committees was implementing the first clause of the Freedom Charter that reads, The People Shall Govern! What was interesting about this is that we saw ‘the people’ in their own activities, elaborating on the meaning of the Freedom Charter, deciding from their own experience that ‘the People Shall Govern’ should not only mean voting for elections but direct popular power.
For me, as an intellectual who read about mass creativity in books, all around the country there was evidence of that creativity, as communities set about taking control of their own lives. Yes, the ANC called for popular power, but the implementation of that exhortation in practice was decided on through ‘mass creativity’ on the ground, in a variety of areas. One of the most important examples of successful activity was the driving out of the Bantu Administration department in Port Alfred and their building then being used as a crèche around 1986.
In areas where popular power was practised successfully a number of sectors, that represented important constituencies in communities were represented when decisions like instituting a consumer boycott was decided on. This meant that the ‘rationale’ for coercing people to boycott was removed. The community as a whole was involved in such decisions, where popular power existed with minimal violence.
Scholars have noted that through a series of states of emergency from 1986 to February 1990 over 30,000 people were arrested and this left these structures in the hands of young, inexperienced people, who were often more inclined to violence than their elders. It also frequently led to infiltration by gangsters, so called comtsotsis. Where communities had contained violence in structures that were broad based, the narrow base of the leadership in this situation saw the creation of kangaroo courts and other abuses.
With the decapitation of the leadership and the weakening of popular organisation, the Mass Democratic Movement was established, led by COSATU and the churches, with the UDF having been banned. Michael Neocosmos has perceptively noted that the MDM was not a directly popular formation but one where the popular was represented by the leaders of the MDM. He sees this as part of a process where the popular was gradually side-lined/displaced.
By the time of the unbanning of the ANC, civic organisations (‘civics’) and other local level structures had been weakened, the notion of a national civic organisation (SANCO) robbing civics of their essential feature, accountability to their immediate constituency.
Many in the UDF conceived themselves as a curtain raiser, holding the fort until the A team –the exiled and prison leadership of the ANC came onto the field of play. When that moment arrived the UDF dissolved itself.
In the years that followed the direct action of the masses was not encouraged other than to break deadlocks in negotiations. Certainly the idea of popular power, initiating projects outside of the hegemony of the ANC was frowned upon.
Popular power was seen to be realised by what is rightly considered a breakthrough with the elections of 1994. But for many people that was not meant to be the only way in which the power of the people would be manifested. Many of us had experienced ‘elementary organs of popular power’ and envisaged this coexisting with representative democracy. This would not merely be izimbizo, where government arranged meetings where they heard local representatives, but independent community action that would not necessarily be oppositional but the occupation of a space by people emerging from below in their communities.
But that was not to be, the popular was now supposedly embraced in the ‘people’s government’ elected in 1994 and popular nationalism was transformed into state nationalism.
Returning to the question of memory, the reasons for reviving the Freedom Charter in the 1980s, to assert popular empowerment, are not today treated as ongoing imperatives. There is no desire to have the masses in action, for what could that lead to, the unthinkable: going beyond the guidelines of the government and the ANC? What we have then is erasure, a selective and ritualistic memory of the Freedom Charter, the Congress of the People campaign and to a large extent the excision of the popular power period from political discourse.
[Revised 29.05.2013.This topic is undergoing ongoing revision, because of its importance]