From the onset, I want to begin by developing a coherent structure and logic by way of making an assumptive logic to emphasize that all activist spaces and structures must have a reason for existence. You may call it cultural, social or even political if you like, but the fact is that there is a reason and a purpose for its existence. I am making this preliminary guiding logic so that I do not engage the discourse on activism for engagement’s sake, but that I also draw all point(s) of critiques, supporting views and conclusive remarks against this assumptive logic as a form of a standard.
So stemming from the above mentioned assumptive logic is now a definitive question to settle, that is, to explain what activism in common parlance entailed in popular discourse and political circles generally. A purview and context with in which I wish to limit this article on.
Activism is loosely defined as the practice of using vigorous campaigning actions to bring about social and political fundamental changes in society or at times, cosmetically. Therefore, it is this reason of existence that should serve as the moral compass that gives activists or the actual act of activism some direction towards that which it must steer the act to achieve its mission.
Most notably, there have been many campaigns anchored around the logic of activism as a weapon of struggle. Both in the distant past and more recently; they have sometimes taken different directions in pursuing different objectives. From the Treatment Action Campaign’s (TAC) actions whose struggle was to fight for the free dispensation of Antiretroviral drugs (ARVs) in all public clinics and hospitals to help combat the scourge of Aids related deaths that plagued the country under the former President Thabo Mbeki’s era. To the Equal Education (EE) movement, a government lobby group consisting of high school leaner activists oriented around making specific demands to the government around national issues of policy, implementation and monitoring in relation to the state of basic education in South Africa. There are many forms of activist formations, but space will not permit me to enlist all those that have shaped the contours of our national dialogue in South Africa, and I do not want to risk rendering the article lengthy and cumbersome.
I do however want to mention and emphasize a select few of others for purposes of exegesis insofar as they relate to the critique I am making, and one of them that really stands out as a highlight in the discourse on activism was the iconic Land-aligned formation, or affectionately known as Abahlali BaseMjondolo. This is a grass-root level structure whose struggle is elaborated from the prism of fighting for access to housing and against evictions. Their battles against forced evictions are often marked by their sporadic land grab programs and the confrontation this engenders between themselves and the state.
The most recent account I want to mention is a new cohort that has swelled up the ranks of activism- a result of the political turmoil that engulfed South Africa and all its institutions of white power into flames. Students across South Africa reconvened once more after the effective struggles of the #RhodesMustFall movement which took place at the University of Cape Town (UCT) in 2015. In the second round, students reorganized themselves under the new inviting banner which became known as the #FeesMustFall movement. These moments were forms of activism by students as a way of re-thinking their predicament in society, ideologically expressed in their critiques of colonial and apartheid legacies.
Over time, these struggles have mutated into new forms of campaigns such as the #PardonMeMrPresident and the #FreeKhayaCekeshe campaign, which challenge the powers that be to grant amnesty to students facing legal charges, and to fight against the criminalization of political struggles by the ANC government. With disappointment though, it is unfortunate to report that the #FreeKhayaCekesha case is still an ongoing struggle as I pen this article.
Khaya Cekesha, an FMF activist is still in jail serving an 8 year sentence term.
Basically, what triggers these sorts of actions, may at times be driven by students who turn to revolutionary ideas and thoughts of yesteryear leaders such as Frantz Fanon, Steve Biko, Robert Sobukwe and others, in search for both revolutionary inspiration as well as to understand the meaning of black existence in the face of our racialized social neglect in post-apartheid South Africa. Equally at times, changes in the system can also be triggered by changes in the political landscape of the country, generally compounded by an intensification of social contradictions amongst the people, which may give rise to new tensions in society requiring renewed commitment to new forms of activism as a way to wrestle against those prevailing contradictions.
An illustrative example here would be the political incidents that gave rise to the formation of liberal campaigns such as #SaveSouthAfrica, a moment that saw white people deftly crafting an anti-Zuma campaign using their liberal media platforms before subsequently organizing the black mass support and some political parties, whom altogether pressurized former president Jacob Zuma to resign as state President. In this effort they eventually succeeded in building political pressure that saw Zuma ousted as state president.
Again, as if white supremacy is not enough on our pained bodies, there was yet another development that shocked me to the core. It was the multiracial march to the Johannesburg Stock Exchange (JSE) in Sandton, as an attempt to capture white capital as a social partner in the fight against the spate of gender-based-violence (GBV) and the rape culture which has engulfed society. This said march, as planned and organized by a liberal strand of the feminist block in the black space, was not without its fair share of drama. Two things in particular stood out for me, one was the heckling of the African National Congress Women’s League (ANCWL) leader, Bathabile Dlamini, when she took stage to address and probably give messages of solidarity as someone who comes from a Women’s structure herself. Another shocker was when the leaders of the march surrendered ideological leadership to white people, and this was expressed as a strange type of activism that misunderstood the character of the South African state, that is, understanding it as essentially a neo-colonial capitalist state that as a principle, rules in the interests of white capital and domination. This state, through the negotiated settlement of 94’, a symbolic moment of absolute surrender of the idea of black liberation, is in its architectural make-up, designed to perpetuate the exploitation of the black majority, relegating them as much as possible as cheap and disposable labor who competes against each other in selling this labor power to the highest bidder in the plantation framework. Therefore when the marchers went to dialogue with the JSE, a site of our racialized economic exploitation and social dislocation I wondered quietly what has become of “activism” in the post-apartheid nadir, an era of neoliberalism.
It is at the backdrop of all these contradictions highlighted above that the aim of this contribution is twofold:
(i) To make an ideological argument primarily designed as an attempt to expose the inherent contradictions of activism within the context of a neoliberal democracy or how activism as we’ve come to understand it gives people a false ideological conception of some power that they have against systems of oppression.
I hold the view that people’s power in the context of a neo-colony is an oxymoron, the concept of neoliberal democracy in a post-colony is captured. It is a dictatorship of a minority white class in partnership now with the black comprador bourgeoisie, thus, we must remove the ideological fog and see things for what they are, that is, in admitting that for as long as we organize within the circus of bourgeois democracy in the road towards achieving our revolutionary mission as black people who want freedom, we will not achieve anything, all our efforts are rendered void ab initio, and all the radical-sounding rhetoric about struggles, as long as they’re anchored around the logic of activism that is working in tandem with the structures of civility could be misleading to zealous activists.
(ii) Secondly, the other side of the coin of this piece is to give a practical account of our engagement of power vis-à-vis the status quo. That is, to think about power by placing it within the wider context of neo-liberal democracy, to assist us in drawing a point of study of all the campaigns, situations and programs that we’ve actively engaged and participated in as activists ,and how they have panned out under the capitalist organization of society. Importantly, I am interested in exposing how the current system has successfully demobilized genuine activist struggles by using the weapon of intimidation and capture of activists through money.
The ideological intervention, as I argued elsewhere stems from an understanding of a characterization of the South Africa capitalist society as both a neo-colonial and a neo-liberal capitalist state. We must as a people, therefore, have a shared understanding of what the political meaning of activism is all about, its strategic allies, its minimum demands and strategies etc., so that we avoid a reproduction of the many unfortunate events of the past that we have seen. Events like the multiracial marches with racists against president Zuma, the JSE feminist debacle and others.
However, in building this subjective ideological analysis of the current terrain (qua) state as a battlefield in which activism plays itself out we must necessarily place an indispensable value on developing this ideological understanding first, that must then inform the actual process of our activist development of praxis.
We need to be revolutionary activists who are guided by ideology and grounded in theory as we conceptualize situational struggles and other forms of protest action. That’s a point where the rubber meets the road so that to borrow from Amilcar Cabral’s exhortation,
“We must think in order to act, and act in order to think better”.
Having said that, ideologically speaking, I believe it would still be a euphemism to say activism in South African has been bad. We’ve been gridlocked in the realities and contradictions of crafting vibrant and energetic leftist activist politics in the neoliberal South Africa where the dominant players in the activist space, felt even at times when the revolution was imaginable, that there were no enemies but a shared victimhood. At other times, we saw how a sectional approach of struggles fought in silos failed to draw comparisons between all struggles of black people as primarily interconnected and organized by the logic of our landlessness.
On the other hand, and in the building up of grass-root activism, I insists that there are some genuine conversations that activist spaces should have openly and frankly in efforts to combat the rise of the twin axis of neoliberalism within their spaces, namely, liberalism and opportunism. Things to address could include, but not limited to, funding for immediate programs and plans of actions, issues of sustenance, stipend for full-time committed activists to a cause over long-terms, etc. These issues must be discussed and discoursed about in light of the ubiquitous individualistic influences of the liberal ideology that traps many activists in the backward culture of turning genuine activist platforms, and the social capital that this generates, into a stepping ladder for their own careers.
A case in point would be to think about why all the former #RMF and #FMF pop-stars have joined NGOs when the struggles that they once believed in and pursued with vigor have not been realized? Add to this the irrational open flirting with the JSE by certain quarters of the feminist block and the contradictions this engenders. There are many areas of weakness that the capitalist neoliberalism imposes on genuine activist struggles for purposes of capturing them. For instance, I remember in the heat of #FMF actions in Cape Town, there was a conversation we awkwardly just let slide under the carpet because, I guess it was just too uncomfortable for us to speak about.
It involved three well known comrades who all emerged as leaders of the #FeesMustFall Western Cape movement in 2016. These were cadres Masixole Mlandu, Athabile Nonxuba and Chumani Maxwele. These three in my view, became the proverbial black sheep’ in the #FeesMustFall and #EndSourcing family as they accepted a token of appreciation in monetary terms from the workers of UCT. Workers whose struggle for #Insourcing was taken up by activist students.
Those workers, I believe, were acting out of the goodness of their hearts. They called and met up with the troika and gave them the money to say “Enkosi bantwana ngokuba nisilwelwe apha esikolweni” (thank your dear children for fighting for us against the University management). It was a R4000 payout which they each accepted. And of course, one could ask a legitimate question here that, were these three the only people who helped make the workers victories at UCT realizable? If not, then was it ethically, politically and morally correct for them to accept this gift as individual beneficiaries in what was a collective struggle? Moreover, to what extent do these acts of personal gains demobilize the discourse of activism broadly?
Anyhow, when the news broke out to us as comrades we cringed, and wondered as to what that action meant politically and ethically. We battled in translating it in rational political terms. And I personally, thereafter had a difficulty relating to them politically ever again, because I didn’t know whether to classify them as part of the generation of young black people who struggled in finding meaning of black existence in a confusing post-94’ situation, or to just crudely classify them as paid revolutionaries who traded on the politico of money. But of course, I did not want to be that bad dude to ask comrades to forego a R4000 revolutionary gift, so like the rest of the people, I kept quiet. But that case was not an isolated incident but I believe happened in other spaces of activism and therefore served us with a microcosm of the rod plaguing the activist circles at a national level.
And of course, as much as some of these accounts may be anecdotal, they however serve as condition-indicators of the contradictions of activism of our time. The capture of political parties, bodies and institutions in the service of nefarious ends is a specter that haunts many activists.
All in all, what this logic boils down to is the eventual capitulation or deviation of genuine activist spaces into a reactionary mis-directed mockery, sometimes as hubs for selfish interests and personal advancement or just outward right-wing politics. Over time when people get beholden to all the niceties that comes with struggling in a neoliberal era (the fun struggles) it can kill the creativity of rethinking the role of activism in the sense that people get locked up in the narrow outlook that expects something personally beneficial to them for being in the struggle, often in the form of social and political capital.
Therefore, I argue, that to confront these contradictions will require of us to educate ourselves anew about the political economy of activism under a neoliberal dispensation. To understand it properly and all its guises. We must share experiences, strategies and methods on how to combat this contradiction, and we must stand on our feet on this one. There are no blueprints; we will have to grapple with it until we figure it out ourselves. We must re-think activism as a new culture that frowns upon personal benefits in struggle for change, and be one that accepts, as a matter of principle the fact that we can have no piecemeal way to development outside a complete reconfiguration of the power relations in society. This critiques should not be misconstrued as a more holier-than-thou injunction on my part, nor should it be understood as a platitude that sets high standards for comrades to live by, it must however be understood as rooted in the realities and the contradictions of activism as both a theory and a praxis. That is, unless we begin to sift through the experiences of the past, with an expressed intention to learn a thing or two from them, as well as to learn from the mistake of others, then we might as well just give up and close shop. We’re doomed.
And learning from the past experiences better trains us in becoming more responsible activists with the least modicum of integrity that can be counted on, and be the kind of activists who understand the craft and skill of activism as an act of culture, and understanding this culture as an act of national liberation that must at all material times, serve as the basis informing the purpose for the existence of activist spaces.
Mandisi Gladile is an activist and a member of the EFF SC branch based at the Vaal University of Technology where he previously served as the branch spoke-person. Currently he is serving as an EFF branch secretary in Vanderbijlpark.