Some lessons for South Africa’s sectarian middle-class lefties

Ayanda Kota
Ayanda Kota, chairperson of the Unemployed People’s Movement. Photo by Jon Pienaar.
Ayanda Kota

Some NGOs with no membership that cast themselves as “radical” misuse grassroots organisations for their own purposes, writes Ayanda Kota.

The Unemployed People’s Movement is struggling with the question of rethinking politics. When this movement was formed in 2009, it emerged as a movement taking up issues of housing, unemployment, electricity, corruption and service delivery. The leaders were clear that we stood for the rights of black people and for socialism.

We had many demonstrations and government conceded to some of our demands. Our political activities included demonstrations and political education. The latter consisted of discussing texts such as the Communist Manifesto and work by Biko and Fanon, as well as learning about our rights.

But as leaders we learnt that when a person is in a real struggle, for example over corruption, evictions, land or housing, their concerns are much more important to them than theories. Many of our members didn’t work, and their daily challenges were much bigger than the question of workers and capital.

When you are in struggle you meet many people. Some of these people just see grassroots formations as a potential base for their projects. In some cases they will go so far as to try by all means to ruin what ever they can’t rule. They will use lies and character assassination, and even pay grassroots activists to support NGOs against movements. These are not merely a question of tensions between NGOs and grassroots movements. The left is often highly sectarian. And the left is not the only problem. Civil society is often a racist and highly condescending space.

Of course, you also meet activists that are really committed to genuine solidarity with oppressed people. In fact you meet some wonderful people. Take for example the Trust for Community Outreach and Education (TCOE). After years of building rural movements, it is launching a national movement to link rural and urban struggles for land. This movement is growing organically, with the direct involvement of people on the ground. Other organisations could learn a lot from the approach of the TCOE.

We discovered that many of the so called political experts in NGOs and universities know nothing about how community struggles really work. Some of these people only want to talk about neoliberalism and socialism whereas many of our members need to talk about councillors, corruption, evictions and dignity as well as neoliberalism and socialism.

Many of the so called political experts have no interest in the lives of ordinary people, and their thinking about politics. All their knowledge comes from books. In some cases they who are middle class (and sometimes white too) expect us (who are poor and black) to remain the perpetual pupils while they remain the perpetual teachers. This cannot be solidarity. This cannot be emancipation. Yet it remains so common. There is huge pressure not to discuss this. Those that do come under serious attack.

Through our struggles we have learned a lot. But in this process we have to unlearn some of the things we have usually understood, which is not easy. We have learned that it is our struggles first, then theory, not the other way round. We have learnt that we should be a community organisation first rather than a social movement first. We are a community organisation first because movements emerge from the community struggles and as soon as they lose touch with the community they stop existing. In fact the South African left is full of so-called ‘organisations’ that have no real members, no real support and have never had an election. NGOs often prefer to work with these fake organisations because they have no members and exist only to serve the NGOs. But this is not the way to build real movements. One real organisation with real members engaged in real struggles is worth a hundred fake organisations that exist only to put their names on press releases and attend NGO meetings.

Our communities are so broken. Millions of South Africans go to bed hungry. There is so much despair. We live with so much inequality, poverty, hunger and unemployment. When real movements emerge, this infuses humanity and social consciousness in our people. They provide a terrain of urgency as opposed to the politics of the messiah. They provide a space for democratisation of our struggle where people are part of decision making. These sites of struggles have so many possibilities.

We don’t have all the answers and there is no political expert that has all the answers. Answers that we do find come from real struggles. To do that requires the lives and ideas of poor people seriously.

Instead of relying on old rhetoric and empty slogans, we are experimenting with new ideas of solidarity. People are hungry, so we are encouraging households to build gardens. We have initiatives such as people’s kitchens, including bakeries. Some of the longest lasting and strongest struggles in the country have invested a lot in building projects like crèches. We must learn from this. Initiatives like this help build our communities and create the platform for our secondary task of infusing political and social consciousness and building a mass movement.

We carry out these projects despite living under a system of capitalism that puts forward false solutions and uses violence with no recourse to human rights. It is a corrupt system that that buys politicians to make sure alternatives like the ones we are trying do not triumph. But it is through the kinds of experiments we are doing that we can replace our “dog eats dog” society with one that values solidarity and caring. There is space for us to build our power and construct our future.

Can we rethink radical politics and socialism in the 21st century and not be stuck in dogma? Latin America has been able to do so. Mass movements have been built and factories and land have been occupied. Governments have changed. There is solidarity in the region. Cuba is sending its doctors to Bolivia and Bolivia in giving Cuba crude oil in return.

What we have in this country is a left that is mostly divorced from the real struggles. They think political theory is paramount and not the real struggles of the people. They think NGOs are the most important place for politics and that radical politics means bussing poor black people into NGO meetings. They have no respect for the people who they say they are struggling for. Most of the left believes that the people are ignorant and backward. They believe that they have all the answers. They are missing a critical truth and that is the answers that are contained in the contradictions of the daily struggles taking place across the country.

NUMSA aims to reconnect the struggles of the community with the struggle of the workers. This offers us an opportunity to re-engage in politics. NUMSA is very clear that they do not have all the answers. They are not coming with solutions but re-engaging. This has to be welcomed by everyone committed to a better society. This is a moment which we must seize. However for this promise to become real a clear break needs to be made from the domination of people’s struggles by NGOs.

The struggle for food sovereignty, land, housing and water are important in the broader struggle to unite, politicise and affirm the humanity of our communities in the broader struggle for emancipation.

The opinions expressed in this article are solely those of the author(s). No inference should be made on whether these reflect the editorial position of GroundUp. Kota is the chairperson of the Unemployed People’s Movement.

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TOPICS:  Politics