The best of South African literature
The writings of activist Jabulani Nobleman Nxumalo must serve as an inspiration to young progressive intellectuals, says Blade Nzimande.
Johannesburg - On October 26, the University of KwaZulu-Natal hosted the Mzala Nxumalo Colloquium under the theme “The National Question: 20 years into democracy and beyond”. This was the first gathering of its kind in South Africa to engage the legacy of Jabulani Nobleman Nxumalo, the ANC and SACP activist and intellectual who passed away on February 22, 1991 at the young age of 35.
Nxumalo wrote under the pen name of “Mzala”, a name by which he was popularly known. His other pen names included Sisa Majola and Jabulani Mkhatshwa. His best-known work was his book about Inkatha leader Mangosuthu Buthelezi, titled Gatsha Buthelezi: Chief with a Double Agenda. The book was written in the late 1980s during the brutal war waged by the apartheid regime and Inkatha against the mass democratic movement. In it, Mzala provided a withering critique of the role played by Buthelezi and Inkatha under apartheid.
Mzala was a militant first-year student at the University of Zululand in 1976 when authorities closed the institution following a student strike in the wake of the Soweto Uprising of June 16, 1976. It was around this time that Mzala went into exile, hotly pursued by the apartheid police. He joined and was active in the ANC and the SACP, working as a soldier for Umkhonto we Sizwe, a political strategist and an intellectual who contributed centrally to the debates within the liberation movement and beyond.
Even though Mzala was a dedicated and committed ANC soldier, he was drawn strongly to education and books. Oliver Tambo, the revered ANC president, encouraged ANC cadres to pursue education as one of the tools of liberation. This, he argued, would enable the movement to run South Africa once apartheid had been defeated. Indeed, Mzala did further his studies and at the time of his death he was a Ph.D student at Essex and Open Universities in England.
Mzala was an avid reader. Like a man possessed, he devoured the literature of revolution from Karl Marx’s writings to that of Lenin and the classics of the South African struggle such as the works emanating from the ANC, the SACP and the movement’s leading intellectuals. Such literature shaped his thinking and produced a well-rounded Marxist-Leninist organic intellectual, who tirelessly produced knowledge. He was a great believer in thorough and rigorous research and the detailed interrogation of ideas, even when evidence was sometimes at variance with the immediate political strategy of the movement.
Mzala was arguably the most prolific writer of the “Soweto generation”, his writings offering insight on the liberation struggle in South Africa and revolutionary strategies against the apartheid state. Besides security reasons, Mzala’s different pen names served other purposes. He would at times write articles expressing views in opposition to his own earlier articles in the movement’s journals in an effort to start debate within the movement.
His articles enriched debates in the exile community but also informed others with an appetite for South African political discourse. Mzala wrote extensively on socio-economic issues and the geopolitics of the continent, including political struggles in southern Africa. This helped as cadres had to understand the politics of the frontline states from which they operated.
Mzala frequently reviewed books, offering rich, critical insight into the history of the ANC and indeed the world, giving readers the opportunity to view things from a different perspective.
He wrote extensively on the national question. This has always been a difficult and controversial subject in SA, and in the course of the 20th century communists themselves sometimes differed over how to analyse a South African society where race and class interact in complex ways. Mzala believed that for the national question to be resolved, the oppressed had to secure self-determination, not in the narrow, ethnic bantustan sense as dictated by the apartheid regime. It had to be resolved, he believed, by achieving the kind of independence that would bring about freedom from oppression for the poor, who were mostly black, while liberating the oppressors from their fearful and fearsome domination.
For Mzala resolution of the national question was inextricably linked to building socialism in SA, under the leadership of the working class.
Mzala’s story is compelling. But what then is the legacy of this important liberation movement thinker in a liberated South Africa? Sadly, to put it bluntly, Mzala has been largely forgotten. There are many reasons why his footprint is missing.
During the apartheid period black and liberation history and heritage was largely swept under the carpet, and that of whites upheld. Mzala’s book on Buthelezi, for example, was banned and could not be circulated inside South Africa. The same goes for the journals in which he mainly published. A concerted effort should be made to republish his work.
I believe we should establish a foundation, named after Mzala, to reconnect with his ideals and work. The foundation should, among other things, thoroughly research the history of the liberation movement, especially from 1976 to 1994, the period covered in Mzala’s writings. It should also revisit the theoretical debates of that time and explore the links between the struggle of the pre-1994 period and the present.
The foundation could undertake research around the national question with which Mzala concerned himself. This is still a central issue in post-apartheid South Africa. And Marxism, a philosophy that is utterly opposed to racialism, can raise the debate about our common future above the level of the racial mud-slinging that is too common today. Much more still needs to be done to understand race relations in South Africa, particularly after a long history of separate development and discrimination under apartheid.
Discrimination along class and gender lines is still prevalent in South Africa. In fact such a foundation could also help to research, write and debate, using the insights in Mzala’s writings, the relatively new, post-1994 concepts, like “national reconciliation”, “national unity” and “social cohesion”. These are areas that require thorough and rigorous research and debate.
As we study Mzala’s work further it will become increasingly clear that he was a significant figure in the liberation movement’s intellectual life and political thinking, especially in the 1980s.
His writings must serve as an inspiration to young progressive intellectuals, both inside and outside our alliance.
*Nzimande is Minister of Higher Education and Training
** The views expressed here are not necessarily those of Independent Newspapers.
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