How the failed ideals of 1970s activists haunt post-apartheid South Africa

South Africa is far from being the non-racial, classless society envisaged by 1970s activists. Reuters/Alessandro Bianchi

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South Africa is in many ways a very different country to that envisaged by political activists of the 1970s. For one, the equitable society they anticipated would replace apartheid remains a chimera. Instead, a process has taken place that political geographer Gillian Hart calls the “denationalisation” and “renationlisation” of the economy under the African National Congress (ANC).

As one abiding achievement of that decade – the trade union movement – begins to splinter, it is important to revisit the 1970s and engage critically with both its mistakes and achievements.

Two key activists of the era stand out: Steve Biko, leading light of the Black Consciousness Movement, and Rick Turner, leading advocate of ideas associated with the New Left. Both Biko and Turner continue to inspire and inform the critiques of post-apartheid South Africa.

The New Left was critical of both capitalism and state communism and instead sought to engage with socialist ideas in an independent and reflexive way. Those associated with it sought to work within the ambit of the law, using the means at their disposal to bring about social change. Black Consciousness called on blacks to liberate themselves from mental slavery as a step towards final victory over “the system” of apartheid.

South Africa’s New Left has bequeathed little direct organisational remnants. It is present in subtle but powerful ways – in ideas, scholarship, people and non governmental organisations, in newspapers such as the Mail & Guardian, and in its facilitation of the emergence of the labour movement. But, there is a deep cleavage with those who constituted this 1970s New Left and the current labour movement, led by the Congress of South African Trade Unions (Cosatu) since 1985.

The New Left in South Africa can be traced to a formative moment at the University of Cape Town (UCT), the student sit-ins of 1968, resonant with today’s #RhodesMustFall campaign. In both cases students occupied the Bremner Administrative Building, and in both cases spoke to core generational grievances.

Rick Turner meets Steve Biko

Turner left South Africa for France in 1963 to study for his doctorate in philosophy at the Sorbonne. He returned to South Africa in 1966 and emerged as a student leader at the 1968 UCT sit in. He moved to Durban in 1970 to take a permanent position at the University of Natal.

At the time, Steve Biko was a medical student at the university’s “non-European section” – the only medical school open to blacks under apartheid.

Rick Turner. The Star

Biko and Turner formed a friendship and their engagement is archetypal of intellectual questions that continue to resurface in South Africa. Put crudely, Biko emphasised the inescapably racial motive of apartheid oppression, whereas Turner saw race as primarily an enabler of class repression.

Between 1970 and 1973, Turner operated at the height of his influence. He travelled around the country giving talks that synthesised his reading of prominent contemporary thinkers and translated it into startlingly clear and simple propositions.

In 1972 Turner published his only book, The Eye of the Needle: Towards Participatory Democracy in South Africa. Using Christian imagery and an appeal to the transcendental values of religion, Turner attempted to show the feasibility and necessity of alternative ways of organising society. The book was quickly banned.

Through a combination of a change in strategy by the National Union of South African Students and Turner’s personal influence, a group of students at the University of Natal and in other parts of the country formed Wages Commissions. Part of a marginal white youth movement that author, former student activist and political detainee Glenn Moss describes as the New Radicals, students used statistical research to show that companies were drastically underpaying their workers. These Wages Commissions aided the revival of South African trade unions.

In 1973 the Durban Strikes erupted. Workers in the industrial areas of Durban stopped work and demanded an increase in wages. The overt challenge to the apartheid state rocked the country and provided the spur to the rebirth of the trade union movement.

Shortly thereafter, Turner and Biko and 14 other young South Africans were banned following the preliminary report of the Schlebusch Commission.

Twin parts of a moment of change

The emergence of Black Consciousness and the New Left were twin parts of a moment of change. Tensions emerged with older political traditions, irked by the young activists’ assumption that they were operating on a blank slate.

The young white activists in the New Left would move to become advisers to assist the rebirth of trade unions, crystallised in the formation of the Federation of South African Trade Unions in 1979. Among them was Alec Erwin, who later became a cabinet minister under former presidents Nelson Mandela and Thabo Mbeki.

Steve Biko. Reuters

In a curious way, the apartheid state created the conditions for both movements through its repression of black nationalist political parties and communism. This aided the independent engagement by young South Africans with the political questions that confronted them. This, however, also resulted in a disjuncture with the past struggles that created tensions and blindspots for both movements.

In the case of Black Consciousness there was initially no overt challenge to the historical leaders of the struggle, who were jailed on Robben Island. These were Nelson Mandela and his ANC comrades and those of the Pan Africanist Congress, led by Robert Sobukwe. For New Left activists – who saw society through the lens of class struggle – it was assumed that the end of apartheid would coincide with definite measures to ensure the attainment of a more egalitarian society.

In September 1977, Biko was murdered in police custody. Turner only lasted a few more months, dying by an assassin’s bullet in January 1978. Although their ideas remained, the movements lacked their guidance and many would feel that during the 1980s something of the idealism of the 1970s was lost.

At the same time, the older networks of the ANC and the South African Communist Party began to revive after the release of prisoners from Robben Island. Although the launch of trade union federation Fosatu in 1979 gave firm political shape to the principles of the New Left, as argued by Andrew Nash, by 1985 it was eclipsed by the rise of Cosatu.

Total eclipse of the New Left

The activists of the 1970s equated the end of apartheid with a fundamentally new society, non-racial and egalitarian. Their ideas dwelt on the nature of racial oppression and class stratification. But they did not formulate a coherent critique of nationalism as a potential mobiliser of people. Their eclipse by a rejuvenated nationalism and loss of power of the unions can be somewhat accounted for by this analytic limitation.

The ANC re-emerged powerfully in the 1980s, self-styled as “a government in waiting” and given added legitimacy by the international Anti-Apartheid Movement. In the march to democratic negotiations after its unbanning in 1990, alternative political formations were sidelined, and New Left activists were absorbed into the SACP.

The independent political movements of the 1970s ceded their independence to a new nationalist government. This has resulted in a labour movement locked into a tripartite alliance with the governing party and SACP. The new “rainbow nation” discourse took precedence and the deeper questions of racial and class equality were appropriated by government policy.

There are signs, with talk of the “NUMSA moment” and the revival of interest in Black Consciousness, that the 1970s are resurfacing as a sounding board to test alternatives to the current status quo.

History serves as a lesson, though, that these movements have to find viable ways of confronting the powerful force of populist nationalism.