It’s one thing winning the revolution. It is another thing implementing its vision. That was the theme of veteran ANC activist Denis Goldberg at a meeting of ACTSA Scotland in Glasgow on Tuesday.
Billed as a speech about the Marikana massacre, it turned into a disarmingly honest and at times painful analysis of the challenges of building a fair and just South Africa in just 18 years after centuries of constitutional oppression.
Denis’s right to do that comes with provenance. Twenty two years in jail for fighting apartheid wins you that privilege. But that analysis is also a prerequisite to understanding Marikana.
It is also essential to understanding what Denis calls the ‘transition’ from hundreds of years of colonialisation, a legacy of ‘deep seated racism’ and an economic and social change over a brief 20 years that took hundreds of years in Britain. And when others look into South Africa now and criticise, they should first look at what their imperialism created.
In the early 1900s, cheap labour was not just an economic issue, it became enshrined in the constitution. Cultures and local economic systems that staved off starvation were shattered by a system that demanded taxes in cash instead of kind, forcing people into slave labour.
The Pass Laws imprisoned workers in jobs. If they protested, they lost the right to even live in the area. Strikers were shot dead. Violence was inherent in the society.
So what’s changed? Well, probably the most democratic constitution in the world. One that includes the right to equality, housing, health, education and to join a union, to strike and to bargain collectively. The rights are one thing. Implementing them is another.
That brings the thorny issue of the role of trade unions in representing their members but also in building the ‘transition’ – delivering on the revolution. “Political parties die between elections, it is the trade unions that can mobilise people”, said Denis.
Throughout the struggle, with political parties banned or stifled, it was the trade unions that mobilised people. So how do they balance the demand of workers for ‘their bit’, now the new South Africa is here, with the challenge of creating a just society out of one that so structurally exploited the majority?
Where do the resources come from to build equality of access to housing, health and other basic provision when the whole economy had been based for so long on depriving people of that?
Globalisation causes its own problems with poverty wages elsewhere producing unrealistically cheap goods to compete with. A shovel can be imported more cheaply than the ore it’s made of costs to mine. Yet in a country rich in mineral wealth, one way to build equality is from a huge redistribution of that wealth.
But South Africa is a capitalist country with all the seduction that brings to some of those in power. What Denis coins as ‘super-exploitation’. “Some revolutionaries forgot that we had a revolution. They need to think again about what we had a revolution for”, he observed.
Marikana may have started with the ‘murder of police and shop stewards’. It may have been irresponsible actions by the ultra left. It may have been ‘super-exploitation’. It definitely ended in a massacre. A massacre the security forces tried to cover up. Photos show unarmed bodies. Later photos show the same bodies with machetes planted beside them.
A comprehensive inquiry is now under way; one that Denis hopes will be a root and branch investigation.
But violence is not new in South Africa. From the Sharpeville massacre and before, violence had been the single biggest tool in the state maintaining the apartheid system. Even during the period of change from 1990 to 1994, 10,000 people were killed.
Denis reminded just how shaky the initial days and years of change were with a real threat of counter revolution. He spoke of Mandela’s need to work on the generals to bring them onside and avert a possible coup. He spoke of the relief on inauguration day when they saluted Mandela.
The culture of exploitation and history of violence is not going to change overnight. The reality is that police are killed and police kill. South Africans in struggle also kill each other. Again, some “forgot that we had a revolution”.
All that plays a part in Marikana. But what plays the biggest part is the ongoing ‘super-exploitation’. Miners on poverty wages while managers earn up to hundreds of times more. Not just in mining but across the economy. That ‘extreme ratio’ has to be stopped. There is a need to “stop the greed of leadership” that is “immoral and illegal.” Denis condemned, “our freedom being stolen by officials who were part of our revolution”.
He made an impassioned call for positive leadership. For the trade unions to be part of providing that leadership. A culture of government that says ‘leave it to us’ will not move the ‘transition’ along. It needs people to be involved. It needs a positive trade union movement that has shown it could mobilise a million people.
Leadership is too often about “power politicking and not organising”. That is a lesson that would be well taken here in the UK.
Trade unions should be organising, educating and mobilising with a role that also takes responsibility for building the values of the revolution. The suggestion is that, as well as fighting for their own members, some vision of the broader picture and patience for the greater good may need to part of that role. “You have a revolutionary task”, he said, speaking out to the unions.
But Denis also asked that we do not forget the progress made. 90% literacy from over half of the people being illiterate. Three million homes built and more on the way. 12 million have safe water that didn’t before. Everyone with the right to vote and to organise. It will take 30 years to build the country. “30 years is not a long time in the life of any nation. But it is tough on those who have to live through it”.
The country needs many levels of change. While remaining a passionate political campaigner, Denis now concentrates on using his skills “to bring together – make people’s lives better - to bring dignity” in local projects.
He spoke of initiatives like music project that brings races together to feel joy and achievement they would never otherwise have experienced. A ground breaking psychotherapy project for those, especially children, disastrously affected by the trauma of events.
“After all”, said Denis, “it is all about trying to make life better for people. Is that not what the revolution was about?”