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Practices of Self-Organisation in South Africa: The Experience of the 1980s and its Implications for Contemporary Protest
southern africa | indigenous struggles | opinion / analysis Tuesday December 05, 2017 23:37 by Daria Zelenova sifuna.zonke at gmail dot com
A lightly edited transcript of a presentation at a workshop hosted by the International Labour Research & Information Group (ILRIG) and the Orange Farm Human Rights Advice Centre in Drieziek extension 1, Orange Farm township, south of Soweto, South Africa, on 24 June 2017. It was attended by a hall full of community and worker activists, including veterans of the big rebellions of the 1980s.
Practices of Self-Organisation in South Africa: The Experience of the 1980s and its Implications for Contemporary ProtestBy Daria Zelenova
This is a lightly edited transcript of a presentation at a workshop hosted by the International Labour Research & Information Group (ILRIG) and the Orange Farm Human Rights Advice Centre in Drieziek extension 1, Orange Farm township, south of Soweto, South Africa, on 24 June 2017. It was attended by a hall full of community and worker activists, including veterans of the big rebellions of the 1980s.
The talk that I’m going to present today is based on a research project that I carried out with my colleague Vladislav Kruchinsky in South Africa in 2011-2013. The aim of our research was to analyse and explore the methods and practices of self-organisation from below that existed in the crucial 1980s period of the anti-apartheid struggle.
The vast majority of the material that’s written about that period of struggle is devoted to the role of the large, institutionalised anti-apartheid forces, such as the United Democratic Front, an umbrella body for the community-based anti-apartheid organisations including church and sports groups, which was formed in 1983. A large part of it also focuses on the African National Congress, which is presented in the dominant narrative of the ANC as the leader of the anti-apartheid struggle.
My aim, with Vlad, was to look beyond these big organisations, and to focus on communities’ struggles, viewed through ordinary people’s stories. When we started our research, we understood that we wanted first-hand information, from the participants in the struggles. This is social history, meaning that it looks at the view from below, with the people interviewed themselves active participants in the stories they tell. We conducted extensive interviews with active members of the communities, township residents, from those days. We hope to finish this project with a book, which will be a compilation of the interviews.
History From BelowThe interviews that we collected shed light on very important local histories of the politicisation of, and resistance by, working class and poor people, against economic inequality and the oppression of the racist apartheid regime. We learned how ordinary township residents, not necessarily activists, but ordinary aunties and school pupils, mothers and grandmothers, and trade unionists, reclaimed power at the level of their yards, their blocks, their street, their zones, and eventually, of the whole township. We learned how new spaces based on a relatively horizontal distribution of power emerged, and what challenges this “horizontality” faced.
In addition to the interviews, we did work at two major archives of South Africa, which have collected material from the 1980s struggles. These are the Wits Historical Papers at the University of the Witwatersrand, and the South African History Archive next to the Constitutional Court in Johannesburg. We analysed original leaflets, brochures, minutes of meetings, posters and newspapers from the 1980s.
I am going to present some of this material today. The main question in our research was: Why social self-organisation by the working class and the poor in South Africa, based on the principles of equal distribution of power, and often with a very horizontal or flat structure, became an idea that could inspire masses around the country, and worked as a practice that helped dismantle apartheid?
I’d like to start with why we focused on the 1980s. We do so for two reasons.
First of all the 1980s was a crucial period in the anti-apartheid struggle, with mass resistance coupled to unprecedented levels of social and political self-organisation. That was the time when the “notions of ‘popular democracy,’ ‘people’s power,’ ‘self-empowerment’, ‘democracy from below’ were all introduced as new ideas and practices into South African politics” (in the words of UDF veteran Raymond Suttner, in an interview).
A careful analysis of the 1980s in South Africa shows that the dismantling of the apartheid regime became possible because the process of resistance was dispersed through the whole country, through countless acts of local disobedience, of consumer/ transport/ school boycotts, of strikes and stay-aways – or community-based general strikes. This dispersed resistance built on, and gave rise to, alternative practices of self-governance by ordinary people.
Secondly, a very important feature of that period was a democratisation of movements, and the birth of a radical democratic culture. This included changes at the personal level. It was in the 1980s that, for the first time, issues like gender inequality, of freedom of choice of a partner, and of domestic violence were openly raised on a wide scale, and when it became possible to openly oppose “traditional leaders” like chiefs and kings, something noted by analysts like Michael Neocosmos.
A major political event in that decade was the creation of the UDF as an umbrella structure capable of uniting a huge number of the already-existing organisations throughout the country, and of spurring more organising. The UDF was contested, but over time, it came to identify itself strongly with a radical vision of change.
A “People’s Democracy”Leading UDF figure Morphe Morobe commented in a talk called “Towards a People’s Democracy” that a “democratic South Africa is one of the aims or goals of our struggle.” But he also made it clear that democracy is the means by which we conduct the struggle:
The creation of democratic means is for us as important as having democratic goals as our objective. Too often models of a future democratic South Africa are put forward which bear no relation to existing organisations, practices and traditions of political struggle in this country. What is possible in the future depends on what we are able to create and sustain now. A democratic South Africa will not be fashioned only after transference of political power to the majority has taken place.The UDF outlined a much more radical vision of democracy than what South Africa ended up with in 1994. Morobe continued “Our democratic aim… is control over every aspect of our lives, and not just the right (important as it is) to vote for a central government every four to five years.” He stressed that “The creation of a democratic South Africa” was not something to be left for the future, or delivered from above; it “can only become a reality with the participation of millions of South Africans in the process – a process which has already begun in the townships, factories and schools of our land,” through the yard and street committees, civics, student groups, unions and other formations that had emerged.
As the 1980s progressed, this vision became a practice, both in daily struggles, and when, as we will see, some organisations involved in resistance started to replace the state with what were called “organs of people’s power.” In some cases, for example, street committees helped run public services, youth organisations created parks, and people created self-defence and anti-crime patrols.
Unions and TownshipsIt is necessary to identify the two most important prerequisites for the emergence of the UDF. First, from the middle of the 1970s, after the famous 1973 Durban strikes, the independent trade union movement was gaining serious strength: mass strikes and factory struggles took place in the country, workers established democratic control of their unions and created strike committees. The spread of the democratic culture and organising approach of these unions, especially the Federation of South African Trade Unions formed in 1979, played a major role in mobilizing ordinary people, and in enabling the development of so-called “organs of people’s power” outside the workplace.
Secondly, in the townships where, since the late 1970s, there were conditions of socio-economic decline in the context of capitalist crisis, there was the emergence of new organisations in the forms of street committees and action committees and “civic” associations.
While the unions raised issues around wages, transport, racist treatment and so on at work, the new community structures’ task was to fight for the everyday social needs of the residents: decent housing, lower rents, electricity, against evictions, etc. As with the unions, these struggles raised larger issues around the distribution of wealth and power; and, as with the unions, these structures enabled people to take more and more control over their daily lives, and to start to build a counter-power against the government – resisting the state, and sometimes later replacing some of its functions.
The socio-economic situation of township residents was very difficult. In conditions of growing unemployment, rising prices, and low-quality education and municipal services, and the under-development of the townships, issues like employment, housing and services were quite sharp. It must be remembered that, in many townships, there was little access to electricity, or to water in the home, sewerage systems often involved public toilets or the bucket system, and there were massive housing backlogs.
In this situation, women and children often played a key role in struggles. Even non-politicized housewives were easily mobilized into the struggle for local change. One example comes from the Valhalla Park Civic Association, which was formed by the residents of the Coloured township of Valhalla Park in the Western Cape to address evictions. Auntie Jane Roberts, who took part in this from 1984, told us that “we started to see what was happening to the people in the communities, and we decided as a community, ‘Okay, we gonna to be built up now.’” The Civic reconnected water and electricity that was cut off by the authorities, and put people back into the houses if they were evicted.
Another activist, Auntie Gertie, helped build the Valhalla Concerned Residents Association, after she was evicted, with her three little children. After she had some success in fighting evictions, she started to help others in her area. She told us her story of involvement in the struggle:
Committees and CivicsThe civics were, in short, residents’ associations that dealt with the concerns of the people. They took different forms, but the typical civic had an executive committee, which comprised a chairperson, vice-chairperson, a secretary and a treasurer. The leaders would often be elected for three years, but they could be re-elected or recalled, upon the demand of the majority. The duty of the leaders was to report back to the communities in which they were based. A very important point is that the leaders were parts of these communities, facing the same problems as other residents. As Aunty Jane put it: “We were in the community fighting for the community,” so “We can’t as the leaders say to the community we want that or we demand that… they are using us and they tell us what to do.” A culture of accountability was revealed itself in procedures during the meetings, in regular report-backs, and in continual communication with the residents.
The chairpersons’ functions were basically those of co-ordination, calling meetings, and organisation and preparation for campaigns. The idea of leadership as “serving the community” went hand-in-hand with a sensitive and careful attitude towards the decision-making process.
Civics interacted in different ways with more localised forms of self-organisation like block, yard and street committees. Like the civics, these were formed to tackle specific problems, such as high rentals, poor electrification, bad housing, the bucket system and crime. In contrast to civics, where leadership tended to be dominated by more educated people, fluent in English or Afrikaans, with some political background, these local committees centred on ordinary township residents, often without political experience or organising and facilitating skills. Like civics, these committees emerged in the late 1970s and proliferated in the 1980s.
In some cases, they were separate from the civics, and were more spontaneous local groups. The strongest and most democratic civics, however, were built on a solid foundation of yard, block and street committees. In these cases, the civic actually consisted of the committees operating in the township communities. One interesting example comes from Belville on the outskirts of Cape Town in the early 1980s, as reported in Grassroots newspaper:
Another remarkable example comes from Alexandra township in Johannesburg, which was a hotbed of struggle, where radical unionists from the FOSATU tradition played an important role. Moses Mayekiso, a metalworker from FOSATU and a leader of the Alexandra Action Committee, explained how the township was organised in the mid-1980s:
Media and EducationThe 1970s and 1980s were also a time of a vibrant alternative press and media, which provided an alternative to the big business newspapers and the government-run broadcasting system. These helped share news, and ideas, and politics. For example, community-based newspapers such as Speak and Grassroots included numerous discussions about how to include more people into the decision-making process. Special study groups were launched by activists and community leaders in order to share knowledge on popular participation and democratic organisation.
Respondents interviewed also pointed to other structures that emerged to organise people and raise their grievances, sometimes at meetings at people’s houses, and sometimes in public mass meetings. One such experience was shared by Bricks Mokolo, an activist in Orange Farm community, who started to get involved into the struggle in the late 1970s.
In 1985, Bricks was elected a chairperson of the Vaal Parents’ Education Crisis Committee. Education crisis committees emerged as a response to the crisis in education, and drew in children and youth, as well as parents – and, where possible, teachers. It must be remembered that this was a time of massive revolts in black African, Coloured and Indian schools, as well as in the universities, and that youth – including school-leavers, the unemployed, and those who were not studying – played a massive role in committees and civics, as well as education struggles, and in the unions. Class boycotts were common, and youth were in the forefront of clashes with the authorities.
“People’s Power” Takes OverThe massive township struggles of 1984 to 1986 saw a huge growth in the power of the various organs of people’s power in the townships – block, yard and street committees; civics; student and youth groups; women’s associations; union structures based in neighbourhoods; education crisis committees – and massive de-stabilisation of apartheid local government. As Mayekiso noted, a focus on immediate problems led easily to an attack on the system as a whole:
The conditions that caused the formation of these organisations were bread and butter issues, but addressing these bread and butter issues automatically drives you to politics. “Why the streets are dirty? Why we are not getting houses?” So through these issues people got politicized and conscientised.Effective township organisations, Mayekiso added, allowed extremely effective protest actions with high degrees of popular support. The formation of strong self-organised bodies made it possible to run massive campaigns:
…at the beginning, when people would meet in the garage or in an open space in someone’s yard, and in the streets openly, [they would] … get trouble by the police. But people defied and met. Not only the structure itself, the committees, but the actual meetings were the organs of people’s power, including the structures themselves…As protests grew, including attacks on state representatives, many areas became no-go areas for the police, and when the army was sent in, it faced resistance. The Black Local Authorities imposed by the apartheid government often collapsed, while councils in Coloured and Indian areas lacked credibility. In many places, organs of people’s power displaced the BLAs. In townships like Port Elizabeth in the Eastern Cape, Suttner noted in a 2004 article, self-organisation reached a peak when “widely representative community elements took control of important aspects of township life and the fleeing of government officials left a vacuum, which the civic structures filled.”
This was the period in which street and civics started to run public services, when youth organisations created parks, and when people created self-defence and anti-crime patrols replaced the police in many areas. This understanding of struggle as self-empowering became central to anti-apartheid propaganda, and was articulated in slogans and concepts like “people’s power,” or “Amandla-Ngawethu.” These reflected the situation that was already happening on a mass scale. In 1986, when organs of people’s power had already emerged in many of the South African townships and when BLAs were falling, the exiled ANC leadership made its famous call for “ungovernability” and “people’s power.” The ANC in exile had recognized the strong potential and possibilities of self-organising, and hoped to use it for the purposes of the party.
The End of the RevoltThe apartheid state responded to the rebellions with repression, using extra-legal forces, such as vigilantes and hit squads, and the mobilisation of the army, expansion of the police, and the auxiliary forces of the homeland regimes. The second State of Emergency in 1986 led to the arrest of more than 20,000 people, and involved the largest repressive operation in the history of South Africa. Police and army violence, including in detention, was common, and by the end of 1986 the state had suppressed (or at least, greatly weakened), many community-based organisations. The UDF was severely restricted in its operations, and a number of high-profile UDF figures, as well as activists like Mayekiso, were charged with treason.
The more intense the state repression, the worse the effect on the ability of people’s power to be successful. The arrest of many of the most experienced leaders also led to structures of accountability being undermined and escalating clashes with the security forces by youth, leading to a militarisation of struggle and a decline in a broader community involvement.
But the apartheid state now knew that major reforms were needed. Efforts were made in the late 1980s to carry out reforms aimed at weakening the protest movement, and to reach out to the ANC. When the transition period started in 1990, the ANC leadership worked hard to establish its hegemony over the community and youth structures and the unions, with the UDF shut down in 1991, many of its affiliates absorbed into ANC wings or into ANC-aligned groups. When the ANC came into power in 1994 the days of “people’s power” were gone, the movements of the 1980s co-opted or closed or sidelined. There was a process of depoliticisation and a move to focus on state power, with the ANC-led state meant to “deliver” to the citizens.
Some LessonsIt is important to note that not everything was perfect in the 1980s. There were power abuses, and important challenges to democratic practices. Some of the civics did not change leaders: this is explained by the domination of charismatic personalities, and, sometimes, the abuse of leadership positions. The fact that participation in any kind of resistance organisation ran the risk of being arrested and charged meant many people were not willing to take the risk of openly participating.
Civics faced challenges of gender and age inequalities: there was a generation gap between elder residents and the leaders of the civic associations consisted basically of youth, who sometimes imposed their will on the others. This could include using violence. There were tensions between civics and unions, in part because the unions wanted to ensure their autonomy and were wary of undemocratic practices in UDF-affiliated bodies. The ANC also exercised a growing influence behind the scenes, and ANC militants were often intolerant of non-ANC voices.
However, the period of mass self-organisation in the 1980s showed the possibilities of the people’s self-organisation and self-rule from below. It illustrated the potential for co-operation between trade unions, community based organisations, and other types– youth, cultural, sports – and unprecedented levels of solidarity. It showed mutual help projects, which created spaces of solidarity and communal support: soup kitchens, sewing collectives, community crèches, anti-crime patrols, defence units, and people’s courts.
The radical interpretation of democracy deserves special attention. In the 1980s, democratic practices, like mass meetings, the accountability of leaders and committees, were important, and people also saw democracy’s value to struggles.
Today, many of the principles of the self-organisation of the 1980s, and the very culture of radical, participatory and direct democracy, with its obligatory and absolute accountability of community leaders, with its special love for long and open meetings, are continued by some contemporary social movements in South Africa. I think that is the legacy of the 1980s, when many people believe that democracy is not an abstract idea, but rather a tool and practice, which must be used by the whole community.