The struggle for freedom in South Africa was never simply a matter of winning the right to vote, or the abstract rights written into law. In all the traditions of thought and struggle that confronted colonial power, freedom was understood as a state of collective being – as a lived form of everyday sociality founded on new material relations.
For much of its early life, the ANC was an organisation of African elites seeking accommodation with white power. At times its leaders explicitly offered to discipline the black majority in exchange for inclusion into the circuits of officially sanctioned forms of power. That began to change in the 1950s when, in the wake of the Defiance Campaign, the ANC began to acquire a more popular and militant character through its growing association with the struggles of the most dispossessed, such as women living in shacks in Cato Manor in Durban.
The Freedom Charter, adopted in 1956, became so central to the political tradition of the ANC that for a long time the organisation was often referred to as Charterist, and its leading members as Charterists. In this document, freedom meant a new relation to the land and the cities, a new economy, new forms of social relations and a state subordinated to a democratic society.
There are important critiques of the Freedom Charter, but they are not the reason it has largely disappeared from the public life of the ANC. More than a quarter of a century after the formal end of apartheid, people do not share in the country’s wealth, land has not been restored to the people and they do not have sufficient food, decent houses or adequate healthcare. In 2020, the ANC is profoundly shamed by the Freedom Charter.
In 2020, more than a quarter of the people living in South Africa go hungry, more than five million make their lives in shacks, even more are without work, women live with constant fear, migrants face consistent abuse and the police and other groups of armed men in the employ of the state continue to relate to impoverished black people in the manner of a colonial occupation. There have been at least 140 political assassinations in the greater Durban area in the past 10 years. These are unspeakably bitter realities.
By almost every measure derived from its declared aspirations for the future, the ANC has failed to honour the promises made to the people who, often giving up more autonomous forms of organisation and struggle, gave the party control over the state, and over much political memory and imagination.
This failure is not, as some like to suggest, a matter of well-intentioned incompetence, or that insufficient time has passed since the ANC attained state power for it to have been able to begin to realise its stated commitments to the people. The reality is that the ANC is, again, a project of elites.
It is true that the ANC is a contested project. In recent years, though, its most bitterly contested cleavage has been between a faction bent on accumulation via the state and a faction that has accumulated wealth via the market. This is a contestation between two different forms of predatory elitism.
It is also undeniable that the ANC has consistently sought to repress forms of popular organisation and mobilisation developed outside the ruling party. The repression of independent forms of organisation from below certainly reached its grim nadir under Jacob Zuma with the Marikana massacre, regular murders by the police of protesters at road blockades, and rapidly escalating political assassinations, particularly in KwaZulu-Natal. But in recent weeks Abahlali baseMjondolo, the largest popular movement to have emerged after apartheid, has been subjected to sustained and grossly unlawful forms of state violence. It has repeatedly been made clear by the perpetrators of this violence that the ongoing attacks on the movement’s occupations have an explicitly political dimension.
But while the local state is using the opportunity provided by the lockdown to repress a popular movement that is able to exercise significant counter-power in Durban, state violence against the most disposed and impoverished people in society, people living in precarious conditions on occupied land, is a national phenomenon. Horrific scenes have been played out in Cape Town and Johannesburg.
People have been subjected to multiple acts of sadism, including potentially lethal forms of violence, as their homes are destroyed and their cash and cellphones stolen. If the apartheid state had conducted itself like this there would have been an international scandal. These kinds of attacks remain an outrage that is fundamentally incompatible with even the most anaemic and narrow concepts of freedom.
After Thabo Mbeki’s ruinous denialism during the HIV and Aids pandemic, and Zuma’s complete moral cynicism, it is understandable that Cyril Ramaphosa has won such enthusiasm from much of the middle class. It is a relief to have a competent minister of health in Zweli Mkhize during this pandemic. It is a relief that the state is taking advice from a doctor of the stature of Salim Abdool Karim. Ramaphosa is, of course, also vastly preferable to the buffoonery of Donald Trump and the other right-wing leaders around the planet.
But while Lindiwe Sisulu did condemn evictions in Cape Town, which of course is governed by the DA, neither Ramaphosa nor any member of his Cabinet has offered a public condemnation of the ongoing state violence against impoverished people in municipalities governed by the ANC. There is no indication that Ramaphosa has taken any action to stop these attacks, let alone ensure the arrest of the officials who have authorised them in violation of both the law and the lockdown regulations.
It is an undeniable fact that in 2020, under the leadership of Ramaphosa, the state is willing, in the midst of a global pandemic and a rapidly escalating social crisis that is forcing people into ever-deepening depths of immiseration, to mobilise unlawful forms of state violence to protect the duopoly of the market and the state over the allocation of urban land.
Under these circumstances, any uncritical affirmation of freedom as something delivered and sustained by the ANC is obscene. What we can affirm, in good conscience, is the long and ongoing struggle for freedom – a struggle that is now often repressed by a state governed by the ANC.