The myth of the struggle?

Posted on June 25, 2013
The 27th of April marks the annual celebration of the first non-racial elections in South Africa. Like many other public holidays, this day is characterised by political gatherings in stadiums, extensive media discussion of historical events of the day and celebrations of the lives of the individuals who were 'part' of the struggle. Numbers flock to these political gatherings for various reasons, presumably to listen to and to meet their favourite politicians, sing, dance and eat in festivity with fellow attendees.

It is during these get-togethers that politicians often celebrate and remark during their stage addresses that certain individuals or organisations 'struggled for our freedom'. This remark is also overstated by the ruling party during election campaigns, as if to remind voters who their loyalty should lie with. Arguably this is also to conscientise the youth about a particular struggle history and to stimulate appreciation for those considered 'heroes'. Often the struggle history is narrated as uniform. I argue in this piece that although equality, citizenship and democracy were components of the struggle, it was multilayered and its character changed periodically and concurrently with the development of segregationist legislation.

The African National Congress (ANC) came into being two years after the configuration of the Union of South Africa. The Congress's agenda was among other things to challenge the exclusion of Africans in the South African Constitution and to confront the aftermath of the 1913 Natives Land Act. Several conventions took place in vain in the years to come to address racial discriminating policies. The years to come gave birth to a significant number of political organisations whose historical contributions crafted the democratic South Africa.

In the early 20th century, the Industrial Commercial Union (ICU), which aimed to improve the working conditions for its members, was formed. Its membership grew beyond that of the then South African Native National Congress (now ANC), as it gave hope for immediate change. In 1921, The Communist Party of South Africa (now SACP) was formed to give focus to South African white workers' struggles, although this would later change. These organisations were not without internal politics.

The crux of these internal contestations entailed the question of whether the struggle should integrate other racial groups or whether it should be limited to Africans only. This thorny issue deeply cut through most organisations at the time and this would continue for years. Additionally, there were ideological differences and conflicting methods of operating between organisations which saw the ANC reject the Communist Party and its ideology during the 1930s, until a working relationship developed and flourished in the 1950s. The social engineering of the homelands in 1951 and its extension, the Bantu Self Government Act of 1959, aggravated the struggle between chiefs and their constituencies and saw some traditional leaders collaborating with the apartheid administration. However, the likes of chief Sekhukhune joined arms with the ANC and supported its course against apartheid, the same way his father had fought the Boers. The endorsement of pass laws in the 1950s led to an uproar among women who resorted to marching the streets of Pretoria in 1956. During this time communities such as in Alexandra and many other freehold townships were struggling against removals and for bread and butter issues.

The1960s introduced debates about whether the struggle against the apartheid regime should be in the form of arms or passive resistance while the 1970s saw the youth's resistance against Bantu Education. Although the mid 70's were a key historical moment of the youth's unrest, the causes of this turbulence can be traced back to the adoption of the Bantu Education Act of 1953. With all the ongoing struggles, there were those in the 1980s who struggled for ethnic recognition and autonomy such as chief Mangosuthu Buthelezi and the Northern Ndebele who struggled for political inclusion and to have their own homeland like their southern counterpart. The advent of democracy promised emancipation from social and economic deprivation. Post 1994 the evident struggle was about which economic system and legislations would alleviate the economic injustices of the past.

In sum, this piece maintains that although the broader national struggle was clearly about political freedom, there were underlying layers of the struggle with trajectories that changed with every segregationist legislation that was passed. Today this struggle is discussed and presented in a singular manner, when it was in fact a contested project with multifaceted desired ends. As a result different political organisations, civic movements and trade unions took up the role of representing those issues that were of concern at the time. These issues were multifaceted and in instances where there was consensus about who the enemy or the issue was, there was no agreement about the cause of action that would be employed to achieve an end.

Moreover, the end result - freedom - means different things to different people. During a study conducted with inhabitants of some villages in Mokopane to determine why people still show allegiance to chieftainship even though democratic structures are in place, some participants were not hesitant to express that freedom or democracy meant nothing to them as they remain illiterate, unemployed and poor (1). Astonishingly, some elders divulged that the colonial and later the apartheid administrations were more reliable as compared to the current government. This suggests that both the struggle and freedom have to be problematised, and so should the different means that were employed at various historical periods to achieve certain social, economic and political ends.

Additionally, there is a silence about leadership battles within organisations, civic associations and communities. The word 'national struggle' is contemporarily employed in manner that romanticises historical relationships especially in the ruling party. An analysis and understanding of these relations, the multilayers of the struggle, how colonial and apartheid policy incessantly shaped the struggle, and what the end result - freedom - meant to people at the time and now may help better understand contemporary national and local politics in South Africa.

(1) Skosana, D. (2012) 'Why are chiefs recognised in South Africa's new democracy? Issues of legitimacy and contestation in local politics: A case study of chiefly and local government in Vaaltyn', MA Thesis. Johannesburg: University of the Witwatersrand

Dineo Skosana is an Archival Platform correspondent based in Gauteng