A man waits for customers at his shoe-cleaning stall beside a mural with images of revolution leader Ché Guevara (left) and former Cuban leader Fidel Castro. Picture: Reuters
There must be patience for experiments in systemic alternatives, writes Muxe Nkondo.

The movement for radical social and economic transformation brings into sharp focus the question of revolutionary change in South Africa. Coming to terms with the legacy of the Russian and Cuban revolutions is obviously one aspect of it.

The two revolutions were unique events that provided inspiration for millions of oppressed people around the world, and continue to provide invaluable points of reference for progressive politics.The movement needs to understand and transcend this legacy through a critical reappraisal of their broad effects on political discourse.

All revolutions emerged in conjunctures saturated with unique contradictions, class alignment and popular struggles. This concrete confluence of contingent forces constitutes the conditions that the radical change movement must mobilise within.

The “revolutionary event” of capturing state power through a coup d’état or in a collapse of the existing political establishment, has often proven to be less crucial than the social movement of building capacities for self-government and self-definition.

The revolutionary event, in itself, may be a rupture that opens up new possibilities, but it has never been a sufficient condition for “the people” to build their own capacities for establishing truly egalitarian ways of living.

There is a need, in this context, for the movement for radical change to maintain an openness to, and patience with, the quite varied experiments in social and economic alternatives to neo-liberalism as they emerge now in South Africa and elsewhere. 

It is necessary to rethink the relationship between neo-liberal capitalist practices and radical change, and to do this in relation to trajectories of revolutionary politics in parts of Latin America, for instance. 

This entails assessing the salience of the people as a motive force. 

But who are the people? Throughout the history of neo-liberalism, “the people” have always been linked to a dangerous or unassimilable excess, alongside “the masses”, ‘“the mob”, “the crowd”, and “ordinary people”.

In all revolutions, “the people” have been identified with the Left, but in the current political coalitions in South Africa, it defies ideological location. This ideological indeterminacy reflects some of the limits inherent in the ways in which various political parties totalise the ensemble of the elements that constitute their political positions.

One way of going around this is to concentrate on the ways the various parties deal with specific social and economic demands, such as land repossession, free education, living wage, decent accommodation, safe drinking water, reliable and affordable public transport, decolonisation and environmental health. How each party tries to manage this diversity of demands through ideology and the policies that they derive from it, requires careful analysis. 

Here is the rough list that emerges from the ideologies of the various parties: socialism; social democracy; neo-liberalism based on individual freedom and choice; Pan-African nationalism; and Christian virtues.The first thing to note is that the classification lacks any coherent criteria around which the distinctions among the parties can be established. Do the parties have a common understanding of what constitutes radical social and economic transformation? 

The revolutionary event in Govan Mbeki’s The Peasants Revolt, to cite one famous study, was not only a peasants’ revolt, but also had a prominent political aspect as a grassroots rebellion against the elites. And why we call it “a revolutionary event” is to be found not only in its agrarian base, but also in an inflection of the base by a particular political logic – one present in the movement for radical social and economic transformation. 

The various demands require some kind of ideological totalisation for them to be a force for fundamental change. We should distinguish between the rhetoric used by the various parties and the ideology that expresses their deepest orientations. Rhetoric is an essentially transient political posture that disappears when conditions change, and its ideology is a patchwork quilt of borrowed elements.

The second mode of constructing the political logic involves the drawing of an antagonistic frontier, the first does not. Given differences and conflicts among the various parties, how will the coalitions address demands that involve the drawing of antagonistic frontiers? Land dispossession, the conditionality of socio-economic rights, the subordination of the sovereignty of the people to judges even in cases that threaten state security, for instance, are at the core of the South African condition. How can these be resolved?

A large part of the answer points to strategic and executive leadership, which should take into account the complex dynamics that are at the basis of achieving influence and public confidence. The leaders of radical change should be sensitive to the structures, requirements and contradictions of the particular mode of capitalist reproduction that is shaping South Africa’s political culture.

The ANC, for one, has to pay urgent attention to the particular dynamics of the “broad church”.

Central to transformative leadership is a rigorous examination of current educational policies and programmes to shed light on strategies employed to obtain and consolidate Leo-liberal hegemony.

The result of such virtual diagnosis of “the state of the nation” would be a modest but bold, timely and systematic treatment of knowledge production and dissemination as the foundation for transformation.

This approach to fundamental change represents an attempt to reconcile or even create a new synthesis between the opposed principles of no-liberal market competition and a responsive society based on social and economic bonds.

* Nkondo is a policy analyst, a member of Freedom Park Council and he sits on the Council of the Unisa. He writes in his personal capacity.

** The views expressed here are not necessarily those of Independent Media.

The Sunday Independent