Learning From Student Movement in South Africa

Capetown, South Africa
March 9th 2015

With the work of The Finance Lab, I’ve been in South Africa for the past 6 days, with 8 fantastic people, exploring how to best set up a social innovation programme around the future of finance. The timing feels right for something like this. As we are looking forward with clarity to what is possible, it feels important to look back and understand what came before. South Africa, through apartheid, has experienced some rich wisdom around the principles of social change – how can we learn from this and fold it into our own strategies going forward?

So whilst in South Africa, I set out to learn more and picked up a book The New Radicals – A Generational Memoir of the 1970’s by Glenn Moss. It was a recount of the university students' and black trade unions' opposition to apartheid and how a generation of activists helped to transform society. It shares insights on strategy, leadership and tactics. It was fascinating on many fronts – politically, ideologically and organisationally.

The story shared in this book has helped me to see that there are some common emerging principles with how one successfully catalyses deep social change at scale. I have captured points and principles from the book as they jumped out at me and have noted them below. These principles have given me new insights and questions to ponder for my own work.

Challenging the fundamental underpinnings of a system and understanding complexity
• Want deep change? Change the game – not just the rules.
• Understand ideologies of systems.
• Understand the interconnections of the system – it is messy!

‘The challenge to liberal orthodoxy went beyond the questioning of multi-racism as an immutable principle. Liberal ideology embraced free enterprise, unfettered market forces and economic growth and asserted that these features of capitalism would inevitably erode apartheid and racially based inequality. Armed with the conceptual framework of Marxism, the new left questioned this, identifying the broadly functional relationship between existing capitalism and the apartheid state, especially in respect of labour recruitment, control and allocation’. (37)

‘The unfettering of free market capitalist relations might involve superficial changes to the policy and administration of apartheid but would not challenge the core elements of that system. This included migrant labour, low wages, a rural urban divide based on maintenance of a reserve army of labour at lowest possible cost and the use of rural subsistence production to maintain artificially low wages’. (38)

‘This involved more than the rejection of the political system of apartheid. The inherent radicalism of this approach lead to a critique of an economic system based on labour repression, low wages and extreme exploitation as well as the ideological and cultural forms that expressed and reinforced political and economic power’.

‘Many past National Union of South African Students (Nusas) campaigns had serious flaws. While protest action had ‘shown up evils’ it had failed ‘to make explicit the system underlying those evils’. (96)

The importance of utopian and visionary thinking
• Believe it and conceive it.
• Be specific about the vision.
• Lead with positive alternatives, not just a critique of the old.

Rick Turner, who taught political philosophy at the University of Natal from the 1970s said, ‘The first step to changing reality is to conceive how it could be different.’ (101)

‘Rick guided a generation of student activists to become critical and strategic thinkers, helping them to understand that there were systems of participatory democracy which provided real alternatives to formal and representative democracy. Turner emphasised the centrality of utopian thinking, by means of which the ability to imagine a world based on different social relations became a precondition for transformative politics. He insisted that individuals could make ethical choices, even in authoritarian environments. This inspired a generation to seek new identities, values and ways of acting, based on the rejection of both apartheid and capitalistic socio-economic relations’. (35)

‘Politically, Nusas leaders had realised that strategies of opposition had to be based on more than a broad rejection of apartheid. They nature of society being fought for influenced the type of activities students should initiate, and this posed questions about long and short term goals and the relationship between political means and ends. It was not just about what was undertaken that was important. The way in which the activity was undertaken could not be separated from the longer term goals and campaign or project.’ (92)

‘At the same time, Charles argued that students needed to start defining the sort of society they were fighting for, moving away from vague consensus formulations such as ‘equal, democratic and just’. Asking whether socialism or capitalism best captured long term goals of radicals, Charles called for a more specific conception of the type of society we want’. With a definite goal we can assess the relevance of our activity and critically examine its direction.’ (104)

‘In addition to short term campaign demands would need to be blended with a longer term vision including the ideas of the sort of society being fought for rather than just what was being opposed. Student campaigns usually involved a ‘short period of concentrated activity’. The impact of this would be enhanced if it was preceded by a far longer build-up in which the ground work for the campaign was laid, information disseminated and the context created in which campaign messages and impact could be more readily absorbed.’ (94)

Clarity on Context and Framing
• What is the desired higher context of change?
• Framing is critical for the outcomes desired.
• How many of our change effort framing e.g. Social Responsible Investment might be reinforcing existing paradigms?

‘Liberals failed to distinguish between multi-racialism and non-racialism. Multi-racialism, involved a non-negotiable principle about what constituted desirable forms of organisation and racial representation, and identified challenges to racial segregation as the bedrock of opposition politics. Non-racialism challenged the primacy of race as the basis of identity, economic interests and social explanation. It opened the door to other ways of analysing society which used the prisms of class, gender, structural inequality, access to resources and economic location to understand the fault lines in South Africa. A non-racial interpretation generated strategies to challenge relations in all those areas, rather than just in the domains of racial inequality and prejudice. Non racialism also had a view of the future which race would cease to be a central element in self-definition and identity. Multi-racism, on the other hand, aimed for a society where people from different racially defined groups would relate on a more equal basis’. (37)

Part of the Black Consciousness challenge to liberalism was founded on a long term vision of non-racialism and the rejection for multi-racism and racial categorisation. “We see a completely non-racial society” wrote Steven Biko. We don’t believe in …. guarantees for minority rights, because that …. implies the recognition of portions of the community on a race basis.” (37)

Building a Good Strategy Is Essential for Success
• The importance of critical thinking and robust analysis of challenge.
• Definitely learn from others’ strategies but have the clarity to build your own based on your needs.
• The importance of an action learning approach.

‘Opening address by Neville Curtis, the President of Nusas 1969 which was based on Amilcar Cabral’s dictum “We are confronted and unprepared”. Our morale is low our image is bad and or impact and effectiveness is limited. To change this we must reach agreement on basic goals, values and priorities…. We must work and plan effectively. But in doing so we must deal with more than just Nusas. We must deal with things political, and things philosophical. We must test, evaluate, criticise, formulate, accept and reject. This was the only process through which students could establish conditions to realise their full potential and provide a vehicle through which they can assert their responsibility to society’. (14)

‘A more radical politics on the university campus continued to develop within this contested environment. Youthful activists began to find their own paths and strategies independently of what had gone before and their rejection of multi-racial as a principle and liberalise as a goal initially left them politically adrift in unchartered waters.’ (33)

‘This had both its dangers and advantages. On the one hand, there was little guidance from a credible older political generation thus limiting the younger generational capacity to build on any collective institutional knowledge passed down through the prism of experience. The successes and failures of earlier political strategies and programmes, the decision to launch various forms of armed and violent struggles and their consequences, disputes between Africanists and non-racialists, nationalists and communists -none of this history was available to the new generation of 1970s political activists’. (33)

‘On the other hand, the absences of established political leadership opened up the space for the development of new and uniquely ‘internal’ initiatives and approaches larger independent of the organisations that had dominated politics of the 1950s and the first half of the 1960s.’ (33)

‘Emerging radicals in Nusas and at University of the Witwatersrand (Wits) in particular were developing a notion of ‘praxis’ loosely based on Lukaes’s use of the term. This involved a dynamic or interactive (dialectical, in the language of the day) process of combining analysis, strategy and action, with each element continually influencing and structuring the others’. (47)

‘Power in South Africa was based on a minority rule and protection of the interests of a small, racially exclusive elite. Campaigning on a moral basis for change in these circumstances was bound to fail’. (93)

‘The search for appropriate political strategies and actions took place through interaction with other histories and traditions including black Consciousness liberalism, nationalism, socialism and communism. However the outcome was a development of our own strategies and initiatives’. (255)

Building Leadership Capacity
• Helping people understand context and system dynamics.
• Practice is essential for leadership to evolve.
• Provocations and support from elders are important.

‘Nusas paid particular attention to leadership training and political education within its own constituency. The bi annual seminars and the annual national conference were important vehicles for these ongoing initiatives. In the early 1970s they often included contributions from political and intellectual activists such as Rick Turner, Keith Gottschalk, Mewa Ramgobin and David Hemson who joined student leaders in presenting position papers on the wide range of issues facing a student movement fundamentally opposed to the society in which had formed it.’ (95)

‘Campaigns provided an important instrument for developing leadership and organisational capacity, educating and politicising students as well as a broader public, and revealing some of the realities underpinning a brutal and repressive society’. (96)

‘Movements flourish most when they are controlled by those who participate in them rather than those who impart ideas to them. But this is not to say that ideas and those to communicate to them are irrelevant. They often have important impact, creating possibilities whist foreclosing others’. (264)

Shine a light on what’s not working
• Show the contradictions.
• Show the nodes of power.
• Show where one is located in the system.

‘We need to turn our critical gaze onto white society and show clearly how its social institutions maintain and perpetuate inequality’. (99)

‘The sooner students realise that in South Africa they are neither operating within a democracy nor a legal system based on justice, the sooner we will be able to change that system’. (134)

‘However we would focus on the wages and working and living conditions of the mines and specifically target Anglo American because of the substantial gap between its quasi-liberal anti-apartheid appearance and the harsh reality of the compounds, migrant labour, poverty level wages and the absence of trade union rights’. (85)

‘The 1973 conflict at the Western Deep Levels mine embodied one of those moments which, in Dan O’Meara’s words ‘crystallise the contradictions and conflicts of an entire stage of development and the reactions to it point the way to the future development of a particular social formation’. (87)

‘A successful Nusas campaign had to be based on subject matter that was relevant to the political climate. It needed to provoke what the seminar termed ‘functional conflict’, which might help to change the attitudes, allegiances, generate critical thought and weaken the ideological ties holding groups and individuals to established positions.’ (94).

Who helps to influence change?
• People who have a stake in the future of the system e.g. students and youth.
• Tempered radicals from within the system.
• Beware of well intending institutions who blindly reinforce the status quo through their hierarchical cultures and structures e.g. Universities, big NGOS.

‘Ian Thompson, the philosophy lecturer who had joined the march, still had his note from his lecture on Socrates delivered earlier that day.’(27)

‘David Thebehali was representative of a relatively credible group of individuals who had chosen to work within the systems structures, using them as a platform to attack aspects of apartheid.’ (54)

‘Surely the very institutions of student government were part of the problem and inhibited the ‘changes in individual consciousness that the then influential Charles Reich believed would result in a revolution. Student government was intrinsically authoritarian, hierarchical and part ‘of the system’ or so it seemed’. (76)

‘Despite a rhetorical commitment to academic freedom and critical inquiry the content of the courses taught did little to challenge society based on racism, oppression and inequality. Universities prepared students to take their places as members of an elite which perpetuated a deeply unequal status quo and unquestioningly accepted its position in this hierarchy. Initiatives to counter this with only a few notable exceptions developed outside the academic education offered through university courses’. (95)

Making new meaning and finding higher level identities
• What are the higher level identities we need to define as humans? e.g. beyond gender, race, ideology and class
• Finding paths for new identities- especially for those who are from controlling power e.g. young philanthropists.
• How do we not to be co-opted into reinforcing the same ideology?

‘Was race the only, or even the most important, identity? Where did other important social identities, such as class, gender and ethnicity fit into the spectrum and how did progressive radicals link their strategies and activities to the interests associated with those identities? What about intellectuals as a social group? How did they link the resources they could mobilise to different interests in society?’ (99)

‘….they warned that essential institutions of colonialism might be ‘retained in the post-colonial era by a corrupt black bourgeoisie’. There is a danger that the stress on blackness obscures and mystifies the problem. Putting it crudely you have not understood the problem until you recognise the fact that exploitation can just as well have a black face as a white face’. (100)

‘Liberalism as a long term goal and as a basis for strategic action presented the danger of modernising the structures of inequality and oppression seeking to eliminate ‘only the harshest edges of oppression and exploitation’ while preserving the ‘hard core of inequality’. (103)

‘Radical humanism involved efforts to craft a new identity and new ways of being based on a rejection of existing political, economic and social practices. These initiatives were sometimes linked to radical and liberation theology as well as the idea of ‘white consciousness’ which was presented as on response to the challenges posed by Black Consciousness’. (46)

‘If apartheid and capitalism fed off and strengthened each other, this implied that structural change would need to tackle not only society’s racial hierarchy but its social and economic pecking order. This was attractive to racial white students whose interest in moving beyond liberalism was fueled by the rise of the Black Consciousness movement led by Steve Biko. Which challenged them to see the collective action of the black minority, not the polite entreaties of the white liberals as the only viable threat to apartheid…? And so it helped to provide a context in which white radicals could make sense of their belief that the suburban homes in which they were raised were as much as part of the problem as the Afrikaner nationalism which was blamed for it’. (38)

‘The Black Consciousness movement does not accept uncritically white culture as a model to aspire to, argued Eddie. This was a view shared by white student radicals who were on their own journey of rejecting the values of the society which had spawned them. Radicals were working to distance themselves not only from the political structures of apartheid and institutional racism but also from the economic, social and cultural and normative institutions and structures of South African’s ruling class’. (98)

‘This was not to be an exercise in moralism, involving a ‘confession’ on a road to ‘redemption’. The difficulty here lies in developing a balanced response to the ‘discoveries’ as it is all too easy to develop exaggerated feelings of collective guilt’. (99)