Monday, January 14, 2013


A mother remembers (photograph by Alf Kumalo)
A Mother Remembers - Alf Khumalo
This weekend I was part of a business delegation invited to attend the ruling party’s January 8 Statement activities in Durban, KwaZulu-Natal. Much has been written about what was said (or not said) by the new ANC leaders that informs policy reform, at least for the next twelve months. The more I listened to the Statement and shared in social conversation with many other business leaders, the more I thought about the struggle for economic freedom. 

I wondered, how did South Africa win political freedom? Are there lessons from that difficult and costly struggle that can be applied to this newer, but equally challenging fight against systemic economic inequality plaguing our society? What will it take to beat this system? 

I think our choice of policy for accelerating effective participation by black people in the economy, was negatively affected by the Convention of a Democratic South Africa (CODESA) as well as the process that culminated into a negotiated political settlement. It is widely accepted that during CODESA certain concessions had to be made. In summary, we agreed to a ‘evolution’ of Black economic participation, and not a ‘revolution’. So the new government was to take a more transformational outlook and not a radical one in getting the scores of poor Black people into the mainstream economy.

I fear that it may take one very costly series of events to render this 'peaceful' economic struggle useless and the people may revert to an 'armed' struggle.

Does this sound familiar? Let me remind you. 

The African National Congress (ANC) was formed in 1912. The ANC Youth League of Tambo, Mandela and Sisulu was formed in 1944. The Youth League brought more vigor to this resistance and successfully argued for a more militant approach. They drew up a Programme of Action calling for strikes, boycotts and defiance. This Programme of Action was adopted by the ANC in 1949, the year after the National party came to power. It led to the Defiance Campaign of the 1950’s. 

But even then taking up arms was NOT on the agenda. So, for more than 4 decades, the ANC largely carried out peaceful demonstrations of resistance to the apartheid government. The 'peaceful' struggle continued and in 1955 African, Coloured and Indian political and social organisations organised themselves in Kliptown and released a progressive document: The Freedom Charter. 

It called for the people to govern and for the land to be shared by those who work it. The document also called for houses, work, security and for free and equal education. How did the government respond to this peaceful gathering and progressive outcome? They claimed that the Freedom Charter was a communist document. Since they had banned communism in 1950, they resolved to arrest ANC and other political leaders and brought them to trial in the famous Treason Trial. 

As if that was not enough, the government then announced that women must also carry passes. Guess what happened? Yet another 'peaceful' campaign was mounted by women countrywide, in 1956.

And then one day, something happened that would change the political struggle forever.

The PAC started a campaign on the 21st March 1960 where people were asked to leave their passes at home and gather at police stations to be arrested. People gathered in large numbers at Sharpeville in the Vaal and at Nyanga and Langa near Cape Town. At Sharpeville the police opened fire on the unarmed and peaceful crowd, killing 69 and wounding 186 people. 

The massacre of peaceful protestors at Sharpeville brought the era of peaceful protest to an end. 

On 30 March 1960, ten days after the Sharpeville massacre, the government banned the ANC and the PAC and declared a state of emergency and arrested thousands of its  activists. 

The massacre of peaceful protestors and the subsequent banning of the ANC made it clear that peaceful protest alone would not force the regime to change. The ANC took up arms against the South African Government in 1961 putting an end to 49 years of a political movement hoping to bring revolutionary change through peaceful resistance. 

From 1961, the ANC effectively became a new movement altogether. In 1990 the ANC was unbanned. In 1994 it won South Africa’s first democratic elections. It’s been in power ever since. 

So, its safe to say, it was largely because of the pressure of the armed struggle that the unwilling counter party was forced to the negotiation table, holding very little leverage leading to political emancipation. 

It is also worth noting that at the time, the emphasis was largely on socio-political freedom. Not to undermine the work that had been done before 1961 by ANC leaders in exile, the "straw that (eventually) broke the camel's back" was how the armed struggle rendered South Africa ungovernable forcing the hand of the oppressors

Do you think that ordinary South Africans don't remember this? Do you think our generation has forgotten how one day changed, and perhaps accelerated, the course (and cause) for political freedom? 

This BEE thing is not working.

This 'peaceful' economic struggle is not yielding any real results. How long will it take for an organised group of people, severely disenfranchised by a lack of socio-economic progress, to be adequately agitated and opt for a more aggressive approach? Especially, one that has been proven to work in the past. In fact, one that they, ironically, owe their very political freedom to. 

It should come as no surprise that after 19 years of a 'peaceful' and 'passive' offensive to get black people to be an integral part of mainstream economic activity, one is starting to hear calls for revolutionary means. And therein lies the danger: If we think this is about ceasing economic power from white hands to black hands, we further from the solution than we realise.

What we need to focus on is key levers of growing the economy into one that is controlled by ALL South Africans, equitably so. That means we must establish enabling legislation and supportive policies that will ENFORCE (as opposed to encourage) this behavior, otherwise it is only a matter of time until someone works out that this 'peaceful campaign' we call BEE is not working and we need a more aggressive strategy. 

By then, we may not be able to influence the outcome. The tide may be too strong. Time for rational thinking may be up.

How long before people start saying: "We've seen this before. Peace didn't work against a minority force resolute to keep their political power in 1950's. If anything, whilst we were protesting peacefully, they retaliated with the might of military power. Why should it be any different today? There hasn't been any genuine, scaleable commitment from the "haves" to broaden the ownership and control of the wealth, that was effectively seized from the indigenous people of this land. How much longer are we going to be in 'evolution'. 

You don't have to a be a heart surgeon to figure out what kind of power and leverage resides with 90% of any society that is gripped in poverty, feels highly disenfranchised, with a proven record in organizing behind a common cause. 

Bottom line: We need a Plan B on Economic Transformation. Fast!