The politics of hope or the politics of delusion: Reflections twenty-five years after the launch of the United Democratic Front
The Ashley Kriel Memorial Lecture
July 30th, 2008
What did we do, twenty five years ago, when we converged in our thousands on Rocklands, Mitchell’s Plain, to form a movement that would change the course of history in South Africa? What did we believe in? What was it that made us believe so much in the cause we stood for, in the promises we made to ourselves and to our people? Why were we willing to take so much risk, sacrifice so much, put our lives on the altar? Why were we so captivated by a dream, and why did we believe that we could make that dream come true in our lifetime? What did young Ashley Kriel die for? Was it the politics of hope, or the politics of delusion?
Of course the obvious catalyst was the new constitutional plans of the Nationalist Government; the idea of a tri-cameral parliament that would exclude the vast majority of South Africa’s people. But that was not the only reason. We understood, instinctively and through careful analysis what was at stake. We grasped that we had arrived at a moment of singular importance in the history of South Africa, and that the struggle for justice, its meaning and destiny, was about to be put on the scales of history over against our integrity as an oppressed people. We had come not only to register our protest. We had come to fashion a dream, to spell out a vision, to make a promise. Hence we said, “we are here to say that what we are working for is one, undivided South Africa that shall belong to all of its people, an open democracy from which no single South African shall be excluded, a society in which the human dignity of all its people shall be respected”.
We asked coloured and Indian people who were tempted by those proposals to understand that these were a hoax, a desperate search for allies by a government discredited across the world, a lure into a trap politically unacceptable and morally unjust. We spoke of black solidarity, our commitment to non-racialism and our dream of democracy. We said that “all South Africans who love this country and who care for its future, black and white, Jew and Gentile, Christian and Muslim, have no option but to reject these proposals”. And the vast majority did. We also said this: “We are here to say that there are rights that are neither conferred by, or derived from the state. They are God-given. And so we are here not to beg for those rights, we are here to claim them”.
And then we spoke of “three little words”: All, here and now.
“We want all our rights. Not just some rights, not just a few token handouts the government sees fit to give – we want all our rights. And we want all of South Africa’s people to have their rights. Not just a selected few, not just “coloureds” or “Indians” after they have been made honorary whites. We want the rights of all South Africans, including those whose citizenship has already been stripped away by this government.
“The second word is the word here. We want all our rights here, in a united, undivided South Africa. We do not want them in impoverished homelands, we don’t want them in our separate little group areas. We want them here in this land which one day we shall once again call our own. “The third word is the word now. We want all of our rights, we want them here, and we want them now. We have been waiting so long, we have been struggling so long. We have pleaded, cried, petitioned too long now. We have been jailed, exiled, killed for too long. Now is the time!”
What were we speaking of? Was this the politics of delusion? The cynical politics of the past years, the arrogance of those in power, the shameful neglect of the dreams of, and our promises to the poor seem to suggest so. But I remember that day too well. I remember the faces of those who came; I remember the joy and the songs, the determination and the steadfastness. I remember the years of struggle; the courage with which we faced the dogs, the teargas and the guns. I remember how we marched, were shot at, beaten to the ground, fell down, but stood up and marched again. I remember prison, and torture and pain. I remember the fear, and I remember the faith that overcame that fear. I remember death, the open graves and the tears, and I remember the strength of those who turned away from the grave to say: “You can do what you will, but there is a fire we have lit in our hearts, and it burns for freedom!”
I remember all this and I know: this was not the politics of delusion, it was the politics of hope. I look at South Africa today and I see disappointment and disillusionment, anger and frustration. But I also see the resilience of hope, the refusal to give up, the strength that continues to dream. Our people are not looking for the politics of instant gratification and entitlement; they are longing for the politics of justice. They are not looking for the politics of self- satisfaction and self-aggrandizement; they are searching for the politics of hope. When we spoke of “all our rights” all these years ago, we did not speak of the rights taken from the pages of some liberal document and taken for granted in what they call a “liberal democracy”.
We spoke of the rights that would make a qualitative difference to the lives of our people. We spoke of the right to be free, the right to struggle for that freedom, the right to live in that freedom, the right to have the government of our own choice, and the right to hold that government accountable; the right to fashion our own destiny and to participate in the shaping of our society. We meant the right not to be poor and destitute; not just the right not to be discriminated against but the right not to be wronged; not just the right to have rights but the right to be trusted with responsibilities because we know how easily rights alone can fall victim to the ambivalence of paternalism or even worse, democratic despotism.
I mean that kind of democracy where we have the vote, but are bereft of our voice, where our speech is not the speech of vibrant diversity but of controlled uniformity; where we are shown a manifesto but never a vision; where the dreams of the poor have become the blanket of the rich; where justice for the poor is a line in a slogan but not the song of our hearts.
There is another aspect to the word “all” that we must consider tonight. In 1983 we said, standing upon the incorruptible truth of the Freedom Charter: “South Africa belongs to all its people. That is a basic truth we must cling to tenaciously for now and for the future”. We said that in defence of our view that in this new organization we shall invite all to work together, white and black. We were severely attacked and some refused to cooperate with us on those grounds. But we knew that we were right: non-racialism is a central pillar in the political and social construct of South Africa, an essential part of our soul as a nation, and an unmissable gem in our system of values.
We would not do without it then, and we cannot do without it now. So though in light of South Africa’s history of racial enmity, hatred, discrimination and exploitation we understood how they felt, we nonetheless remained firm. What the UDF then became, in our prayer meetings and discussions and rallies, in our marches of protests and our services of thanksgiving, in the prisons and in the torture chambers, was the embodiment of the ideal of a nonracial South Africa. We were not naively or romantically speaking of all white people, but rather of those “who have struggled with us, who have gone to jail, who have been tortured and banned… those who have died in the struggle for justice.”
We were serious when we said that “the nature and quality of our struggle for liberation cannot be determined by the colour of one’s skin, but rather by the quality of one’s commitment to justice, peace and human liberation”. We meant it when we said that “in the final analysis, judgement will be given, not in terms of whiteness or blackness, whatever the ideological content of those words may be today, but in terms of the persistent faithfulness we are called to in this struggle”.
I believe this today as I believed it then. There are those who mockingly call us “romantic” when we speak of this ideal today.
They point to the “reality” that South Africa is not a non-racial society. That in this we have failed miserably, and for all intents and purposes, we should forget about it. I want to say tonight that those persons who argue thus either have not been part of the UDF, never shared its values and its ideals and therefore would not know what we are talking about; they would not understand; or they have once believed but since then exchanged those values for selfish politics and lust for power. In their hearts, they still do not accept nor really believe that South Africa belongs to all who live in it. Hence they live in perpetual resentment that South Africa is no longer a white man’s possession, or they have set their sights on claiming this country as a “black man’s land” or they hide in the draughty cave of “coloured” politics.
They still do not see the need to share the wealth of our country with all who live in it. They cannot share the vision of a common land, a common dream, a common future, because sharing that dream means sharing what you have, opening your hand to let go of what you have in order to accept what the other has to offer; letting go of the certitudes of today in order to take hold of the hope for the future. To the measure that they have excelled in their ability to accumulate, they have lost their ability to dream.
In January 1983, when I called for the formation of the UDF, I reminded the audience that South Africans’ flirtation and fascination with ethnicity is an exercise fraught with danger. Ethnicity, I warned then, does not solve differences, it entrenches them. “Ethnicity tends to emphasize group interests, keeps alive tendencies towards tribalism, white and black, and fosters narrow, ethnic nationalisms than can only aggravate an already volatile situation. Furthermore, ethnicity is inseparable from racism, however subtle it may be. The insidious nature of this evil is a warning that societies such as ours have enough problems without exacerbating their inherent racism by making ethnicity a basic, politically divisive factor”.
But this is precisely the tragic situation our country faces today. When one strays from the narrow path of non-racialism, one inexorably moves into the camp of ethnic nationalism. Or one is pulled in. When this happens, we lose sight of what is happening to all of us, because we see only what happens to us in our own little camp – to those who look like us, think like us, talk like us. We then begin to believe that the evil that strikes is targeting us and us alone, that the pain of betrayal is ours alone. We then begin to fear when there is nothing to fear. That is why, before we know it, we begin to accuse and slander, to maim and kill in a xenophobic frenzy so utterly strange to the deepest heart of our people.
That is why, throughout South Africa’s painfully slow transformation processes, some Afrikaners find refuge in a new Afrikaner nationalism; they can think not of what we shall all gain if and when justice is done, but only of what they will lose if the disinherited get their due. That is why we saw that peculiar, but pathetic show of Boeretrots with the De la Rey-phenomenon, and they did not know how far they were removing themselves from the centre of this nation. That is why there is a new movement for coloured people, seized by “coloured” concerns and a new dream for justice for “coloured” people.
They do not see that, if what happened in South Africa since 1994 is a betrayal, it is a betrayal not of “coloured” people, but of all marginalized, all poor, all destitute people. The problems besetting the “coloured” communities are problems besetting all poor communities right across the length and breadth of this land. The alienation they feel is shared by millions of other black people and the hope they long for is desired by millions more. If justice is denied one, it is denied all and it is not helping us when we give injustice an ethnic specificity. When Cosatu marches in the streets of our nation in protest against high prices and demanding compassion and justice, they do it for all poor, needy and neglected people who suffer injustice.
And that is it how it should be.
That is why there are those who call themselves “African” to the exclusion of all other Africans, including the sons and daughters of the Khoi and the San who were the first to live in this continent and who gave birth to the human race; and of all those white brothers and sisters whose roots are planted in the soil of Africa, who share the lot and the dreams of this continent, who want to be known by no other name than African. That is why there are those who seek to establish levels of suffering, levels of pain and levels of disadvantage and upon that falsehood try to build new levels of privilege. And no matter how they go about it, it always ends up with levels of colour.
To narrow down our Africanness to an ethnic dimension, “Africans” becoming “ethnic” Africans is not only humanly degrading, but historically untrue and politically offensive. That is why affirmative action has in places taken on new forms of racial exclusion, ruthlessly and thoughtlessly throwing overboard the solidarity forged through years of struggle. That is why even the ANC has succumbed to the subtle, but pernicious temptations of ethnic thinking, has brought back the language of ethnicity into the speech of the movement and has as government brought back the hated system of racial categorization. That is why today, everywhere we look, it takes but the merest provocation for the ghosts of racism to rise and haunt us, because we have buried them in graves too shallow and too close to home.
The flight into the imagined safety of ethnic mobilization is understandable, but it is neither safe nor right. We shall regret the stoking of these unholy fires. The non-racialism we believed in, fought for and actually practiced, is in danger of disappearing altogether in our new democracy. The racial divisions and ethnic categories are back, and with them simmering tensions that are threatening to dictate the trend of our democratic discourse, the integrity of our democratic institutions and the quality of our life together. We demanded all our rights “here”, in a united, undivided South Africa. Of course our immediate reference was to the bantustanization of our country and the political realities these represented, the group areas and the political meaning invested in terms such as “white South Africa”.
Looking back we realize just how tenacious the legacy of apartheid has proved to be, and how we underestimated the pernicious permanency of such a system. We also underestimated just how agile apartheid was going to be in the mutations it assumed in its endless capacity to adapt to the new situation. The homelands have been removed from the statute books and geographically no longer exist, but they are economically just as entrenched. They no longer exist in law, but they are persisting in the economic injustices and crippling inequalities inflicted upon the vast majority of our people. Likewise the group areas act has been scrapped, but separate areas have proved to be physically unmovable.
Moreover, the group areas mentality seems to have been indelibly entrenched in the minds of many of South Africa’s people. Too many of us live with that unbearable paradox: our bodies might be in the promised land, but our minds are still in Egypt. That “here” has in other ways become ambiguous. Apart from those who run away because they find it impossible to connect with a democratic South Africa, there are those who genuinely want to stay and make a contribution and are genuinely feeling that for them South Africa is a home denied. Those of us who truly believe in a non-racial, non- sexist, democratic South Africa must assure that South Africa is their home.
But it comes even closer. For many all over this country who gave their all in the struggle, for whom the UDF was the embodiment of their most sacred political beliefs, politics in South Africa have become a strange and frightening space. They have become alienated from those with whom they thought they shared dreams and aspirations, ideals and a vision for the future; forcibly removed from what they passionately believed in, tragically estranged from the movement they love. We must find the courage to seek, find and acknowledge the reasons for their sense of alienation; bring correction and healing, and call our brothers and sisters home.
The UDF did not just make promises of freedom and democracy. The UDF was itself a promise to the people of South Africa, a glimpse of what we might become if we but believe; a vision of the destiny God had intended for us. And it was a promise for all of us, right here and right now. The people believed, and that is why we could do what we did. But the question put before us by the still poor, still destitute, still denied, but still hopeful people of South Africa remains: was it just the politics of delusion, or was it the politics of hope? A promise deferred is a promise denied.
A promise not fulfilled is a dream defiled. A promise reborn is a moment recreated. A trust once betrayed is a weakness one can understand; a trust twice betrayed is a deed that is not easily forgiven; a trust recaptured is a priceless treasure. Tonight is a reminder of that promise. We can renew it here, but the fulfillment of that promise must take place elsewhere: in the presidency and in parliament; in provincial legislatures and municipalities; in board rooms and in the courts; in politics and business, in schools and universities, in churches and mosques and temples, in hospitals and clinics, in the workplace and in our neighbourhoods; in our minds and hearts.
I am convinced that we have now an opportunity, a second chance as it were, to make real and give substance to the dreams we once had, to the promises we made, to the ideals we have held up to our people as they so bravely struggled for a better life than the one they had. But if it is a time of new promise, it is also a time of new challenges. The reality is that in almost fifteen years we have not nearly achieved what we had hoped for. Oh, make no mistake: we have done much. We have one of the most progressive constitutions in the world. We have put in place policies, processes and structures for the implementation of procedures for the transformation and development of our country. We have protection of human rights many countries still jealously seek.
We have democracy, but we lack the spirit of democracy. We have serious problems with the level of commitment of too many of our politicians. Internal strife and fighting for positions are far more prevalent than any desire to fulfill any promises of service delivery. Too many of those in power have become drunk with power and live in careless forgetfulness of their responsibility to their people. We have not prepared for the alarming levels of corruption, for the growing gap between the rich and the poor, for the devastating results of our selfish economic choices and for the anger now spilling onto the streets. From across that dismal divide they now look differently at the rest of the nation, stunned and angry that their belief in what they hold dear has not been rewarded.
We have made economic policies that favoured the rich, impoverished the poor even further and reduced their opportunities to almost nothing. We have taken the suffering, and the patience of our people for granted and now we find that the “time bomb” is real, and ticking.
We live in a time when distrust in our democratic institutions is growing. Parliament, legislatures and local councils, the criminal justice system and the courts have not been able to completely win the confidence of the public. They turn to them not in faith, but in desperation. People harbour strong suspicions that those in power, if it suits them, will either ignore or manipulate our institutions, but have themselves not come to trust them as fully as they could. We have been stunned, amazed and devastated by the senseless talk of violence by some of the present leadership. Not only is such talk totally out of place in our democracy, it is a shameless abuse of positions of trust, and shows a lack of sensitivity for the task of rebuilding trust and respect the new leadership clearly needs to do.
This is not the language we speak. But more than that: it is a cruel and thoughtless inversion of commitment: when Nelson Mandela testified from the dock in 1964, and spoke so eloquently of “an ideal for which I am willing to die ”, he spoke of a willingness to lay his freedom and his life on the altar for the sake of the life and freedom of his people. His first thought was not taking the life of others, but giving his life for the sake of others. All of us who faced guns and threats of death could say that after him. But what we hear now, despite all the justifications, is not a willingness to die for the sake of others but a desire to kill for a cause that is not necessary to kill for, and that Jacob Zuma himself, I am sure, would not want anybody to die for. That is not the language of the politics of hope and liberation. It is the language of the politics of delusion.
So where do we stand tonight? The answer lies within ourselves. We can either succumb to the politics of delusion, or we can stand up for the politics of hope. We must begin by repeating what we said in 1983: “This country is our country”, we then said, “and its future is not safe in the hands of people – white or black – who despise democracy and trample on the rights of the people. Its future is not safe in the hands of people – white or black – who depend on economic exploitation and human degradation to build their empires.
Its future is not safe in the hands of people – white or black – who need the flimsy and deceitful cloak of ethnic superiority to hide the nakedness of their racialism. Its future is not safe in the hands of people - white or black – who seek to secure their unjustly required privileged positions by violent oppression of the weak, the exploited, and the needy. Its future is not safe in the hands of people - white or black – who put their faith simply in the madness of growing militarism. So for the sake of our country and our children, whether you be white or black, resist those people, whether they be white or black…
So let us not be fearful. We are doing what we are doing not because we are white or black, but because it is right!” South Africa’s problem is not an ethnic problem. Our problem is a problem of betrayal of the poor, of a loss of faith in the people, of a loss of vision for the nation. It is a problem of disconnectedness with the people, of greed and hunger for power, of self-deceit and mindless arrogance. Our problem is not believing in ourselves, not trusting ourselves with our own dreams of justice and not claiming our heritage of freedom.
Our problem is forsaking our spirituality and forgetting our faith. And those rights we have fought for and think we have lost? It is time to claim them with new intensity. All, here, and now. Too many of us are despairing, mourning the loss of what we thought we had, bemoaning the state of our democracy, blaming others and forgetting our own responsibility. Let us be done with all that now. Remember during the struggle, when attending funerals, we used to say, “Wake up from mourning!”
This is what we need to say to ourselves now. This is what South Africa needs to hear now. Wake up from mourning! We are a tried people, but we are not a broken people. We are a tested people, but we are not a failed people. We might be battered, and disappointed and disillusioned, but we are not defeated. We are a fighting people.
We may stumble, we may fall, but we rise up again and walk! We must say this, not to the politicians, not to the world, but to ourselves: to the parents and the children, the students and the workers and the professionals, the churches and the mosques and the temples, the organizations and the movements; to ourselves, all of us, the people of South Africa, all the people of South Africa, in all our rainbow brilliance: wake up from mourning! Yesterday is behind the mist of night. Today is the gift of new arising. Tomorrow is the dawn of our awakening. The coming day belongs to us! Let us wake up from mourning and do what we know is right. Let us wake up from mourning and unite this nation. Let us wake up from mourning and take hold of our destiny. For ourselves; for our future; for our country. Thank you, God bless you!