March 2, 2011

Air-brushing South African struggle history?

Filed under: opinion article — newritings @ 8:28 pm

The conscious forgetting of those who helped make the struggle for a more just and democratic South Africa, has been the proverbial elephant in the game park of our politics. The big five will include celebrating Madiba, and praying that he lives forever. Yet we choose to forget some of those close to him (women especially) and, worse, those in the struggle that had different approaches, values and inspirations to him and the ruling ANC. But last night some attempt was made to put an end to the silence. Professor Bonner, Wits Professor,and former free-lance educator with FOSATU (Federation of South African Trade Unions), lambasted those who were in effect “air-brushing our struggle history.”

Bonner was speaking on Thursday evening, 17 February 2011, at the Museum Africa at the launch of The Future is in the hands of the Workers, A History of Fosatu, by Michele Friedman, part of the Wits University’s Historical Papers Labour Archive Project. His sentiments, similar to the Forward written for the book, are simple: “in one sense,” he writes, “FOSATU itself is now history. In another sense, however, it is not, since it has been almost wholly forgotten by trade unionists, political activists and the wider South African public. This may partly be due to the fact that is many achievements were accomplished in the short span of six years, and have in a sense been absorbed into COSATU. Beyond that, however, has been the active down-playing of the role of this internal struggle in the ANC’s version of the road to freedom. With the exception of the exhibition from which this book emerged, the 30th anniversary of the forming of FOSATU was totally un-commemorated or remarked upon. Much of the same was true of the 25th anniversary of the UDF a few years before. The compilers of this book, hope that the story it tells will help to redress this pervasive neglect.”

The opinion held by many is that in the early years of our democracy, the exiles or the those who were involved in the underground struggle, have “squeezed out” – in many ways – the internal struggle people. This has not been just for government positions, but also displayed its culture of doing politics, in particular its commitment to mass participatory democracy, non racism, etc. as championed by the trade unions, the UDF, and other formations like the South African Council on Sport (SACOS), by replacing it with elitist politics, managerialism and the dominant re-racialising project of today. Bonner spoke of the so-called ‘black on black violence’ which weakened most civil society formations outside the unions, which grew resilient and in the midst of the Emergencies, led to the formation of COSATU.

The 1990’s ideological set back for the left by market way of doing and thinking, however, was not solely at the realm of ideas. The squeeze was financial as well. We can all recall the former GS of COSATU, deployed to the ANC in the first non racial government, calling on foreign governments to shift funding from CSOs to a non racial democratic government. This was understandable, as civil society organisations, especially the so-called service delivery NGOs, are not meant as competitor to an inclusive, democratic and accountable government. However, there is a tension in the roles of governments, especially those whose economies and budgets are not geared to genuine sustainable development, like the one the ANC inherited. Over the years, the economic crisis has added to the difficulties of a transformation which would meet basic needs of our people, overcoming the crass inequalities of wealth and power, and building caring communities where violence against women, hunger, and poverty is no more. These complex issues of necessity require consent, true, but at the same time allowing for serious debate and dissension. Killing of much needed resources for critical campaigning CSOs committed to human rights weakened our body politic. Those social movements (new or old) and others proposing alternative development paths and ways of doing politics (outside the dominant Congress Movement), were effected by this squeeze, which continues to this day. Today, some complain of repression by the state’s repressive agencies when they protest in the shack dwellers movements or against privatisation or evictions.

But how widespread are these concerns?

Before exploring this, let me point out that a separate piece has yet to be written on how women, of all political persuasions, have been written out of history at home and elsewhere. Suffice to say that I am pleased and baffled when I pass the various hospitals in Gauteng, only to see that they – the caring professions – commemorate women. From Helen Joseph (old JG Strijdom) down via Corrie, where Rahima Moosa (Old Coronation Hospital for women and children) is located. Some activists I know complain and ask what must other political parties/ tendencies/ movements do to be immortalized by the heritage and road agencies? I will take this up later with regards to Dr Abu Asvat.


Start with Mbeki. It looks like ¨this administration¨ (ANC) has difficulty remembering and truly recognizing the good, the bad and the ugly of the man and his legacy. On official gatherings, when patriotism is called for, some of our leaders hark to a period when Madiba was president, and jump right back into the present Zuma led administration. All the bad of the past decade is placed on the shoulders of only one man, with little discussion of the complicity of the party (ANC) and its Alliance partners under the rule of Mbeki. Did not  the ANC and the Alliance Partners agree in all those NEC meetings on the Mbeki programmes, which government implemented? Was our beloved Madiba bullied into saying that GEAR was non negotiable, to the chagrin of a Shilowa, then General Secretary of COSATU?


A friend from Barcelona who recently visited the Apartheid Museum, ironically after she received from us a copy of Mandela for Beginners by us, to assist her in her orientation, came back with a simple concern: “there is almost nothing or very little about Robert Sobukwe. Why?,” she asked.


The various currents of the Black Consciousness movement complain too, about being written out of history. Let me take the case of the Abu Asvat Institute, who have been campaigning to have the road that links Soweto and Lenasia (Link Road) renamed after the late doctor murdered by two gunmen on 27 January 1989. This Lenasia resident was killed while working at his surgery in Rockville, Soweto. The Institute believes that the link road if renamed Abu Asvat Boulevard will help literally build bridges, and recognize the contribution of a man who lived in both communities and is a true symbol of nation building. Their efforts have apparently been resisted by the local branch of the ANC.


Many, who played non racial sports, lament why the South African Council of Sport is rarely mentioned today in many of our discourses on sport. Hassan Howa and his other comrades worked under the organizing slogan: There can be No Normal Sport in an Abnormal Society, and working with SANROC and the Anti Apartheid Movement, internationally, effectively killed-off racist sport. That some of its key leaders were from the Unity Movement may have something to do with it, but why the silence and  absence from debates even in the media and talk shows?

In some cases we can suggest that poor or inapt record keeping (archiving) is to blame, but I do not think so. It has more to do with political will and selective memory syndrome where close friends and party comrades in the right faction or tendency are recognized. Let me go back to the discussion about the trade union movement whose record keeping like those of our sports movement is or was impeccable.

Two punches for the union movement

There appears to be a political carelessness, and a lack of attention to detail in as far as paying a debt and respect to those who built the movement. I have a feeling that some of the connected ex-leaders (maybe active still in some Alliance structure) will be remembered, because it is also convenient as it is easy…but who will remember Baba K, Petrus Pheko and others (including our unionist-returned astrophysicist Dr Bernie Fanaroff) who taught many of us, basic  organizing skills in the Metal and Allied Workers Union which became NUMSA? Asking some comrades at the book launch about these organizers, I was told that Baba K is back in Swaziland, some 90 odd years now. Is he on a pension? Did our former union, and COSATU at large, try to ensure that he and those like him get a struggle pension? Or is and other former unionists on union pensions ?

My second point is that we have inherited a culture of politics that believes the oft stated tradition of magnanimity towards politics opponents – adversaries outside and inside our parties. I will illustrate this by talking of the ANC and the unions and in particular, two of the unions I used to work for, NUMSA and COSATU.

In the case of unions, simply put, they do not know how to separate historical contributions of comrades with the later political choices that some of their leaders made. The cases are numerous – in the case of NUMSA, they removed the name of Moses Mayekiso whom they had named the building after, and in the case of SADTU, a researcher recently told me that the archives of the Educators Voice, that I worked on, under the leadership of Willy Madisha (and Solly Mabusela ex-Assistant General Secretary, and to a lesser extent ex- General Secretary Thulas Nxesi), are no longer available to the members, public and researchers. It begs the question:How does COSATU, and by implication the whole union movement, FEDUSA, NACTU etc  deal with the memory or legacy issues of those who have contributed but fell out with the current leadership? Many of us remember the strong leadership provided by Mbazima Shilowa, or Sam as he was called, during his stint as General Secretary, famously lambasting GEAR, when it was hastily introduced, but later defending it (as ANC premier in Gauteng). The same question must be asked about how the ANC views UDF stalwarts Lekota, Shilowa in the failed marriage. Quislings? Cockroaches, etc. I hear some saying; how history records them will be different, but the parties and unions cannot simply whitewash, airbrush or whatever, those who differed, and even paid the price for their presumed bad choices.

We have a long way to go towards burying Stalin and his legacy if we want a truer reflection of our history of struggle. For those who do not know that: airbrushing people out of history effectively, in both graphic and through other means, is not the domain of socialist – communist countries, but it was Stalin who appeared to have perfected the art. A cursory glance at various websites will attest how, for instance, one celebrated photo of Lenin giving his famous speech to Soviet fighters in Moscow (5 May, 1920), where both Leon Trotsky and Lev Kemenev were also photographed in the front, was later altered, excluding both former comrades from the picture.

In other pictures, a group of people were removed after they fell out of favour or killed, leaving only the supreme leader in the picture. This is not what we want if we are to learn from history. Only the truth will free us, lies and falsifications have a limited shelf-life.

POSTSCRIPT (added on March 18, 2011) – It reminds me so much of Brecht’s celebrated poem, a worker reading history which was so loved by activists – some amongst those who choose to forget where they came from. For those who do not know the poem, it opens with…

“Who built the seven gates of Thebes?
The books are filled with names of kings.
Was it the kings who hauled the craggy blocks of stone?”

and ends with…

“Frederick the Greek triumphed in the Seven Years War.
Who triumphed with him?


Each page a victory
At whose expense the victory ball?
Every ten years a great man,
Who paid the piper?

So many particulars.
So many questions.”



  1. Air-brushing South African struggle history? « newritings…

    Here at World Spinner we are debating the same thing……

    Trackback by World Spinner — March 19, 2011 @ 6:51 am | Reply

  2. Interesting article. The need to remember is part of our makeup, it gives us relevance, substance, it’s speaks to our ego and our legacy. I remember a different take from Rusty Bernstein’s book, called I think “Struggle to Forget”, wherein he laments his good memory, he wanted to forget, not remember!.

    See my article entitled “the roe of the activist” on my blog

    Comment by Sunny — March 20, 2011 @ 8:23 pm | Reply

  3. will check out wordspinner, as well as sunnysunshine. the RDP, document aptly spoke of a collective heritage of struggle:¨ Millions of ordinary South Africans struggled against this system over decades, to improve their lives, to restore peace, and to bring about a more just society. In their homes, in their places of work, in townships, in classrooms, in clinics and hospitals, on the land, in cultural expression, the people of our country, black, white, women, men, old and young devoted their lives to the cause of a more humane South Africa. This struggle against apartheid was fought by individuals, by political organisations and by a mass democratic movement.
    1.2.7 It is this collective heritage of struggle, these common yearnings, which are our greatest strength, and the RDP builds on it. At the same time the challenges facing South Africa are enormous. Only a comprehensive approach to harnessing the resources of our country can reverse the crisis created by apartheid. Only an all-round effort to harness the life experience, skills, energies and aspirations of the people can lay the basis for a new South Africa.¨

    Comment by newritings — March 21, 2011 @ 3:41 pm | Reply

  4. Reblogged this on [Modern Times].

    Comment by aboriginalpress — February 12, 2014 @ 6:12 am | Reply

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