Finnian O Domhnaill was impressed by Zelda Holtzman last week and draws comparisons between post GFA North of Ireland and South Africa after Apartheid.
Last week we attended a talk in Derry by Zelda Holtzman, a South African activist and campaigner. Zelda was active in the ANC underground in Umkhonto we Sizwe (MK) military structure and in the SA Communist Party. From 1995 to 2003, she served as a high ranking official within the South African Police Service and led the work to transform it. Later, she was head of Parliamentary Protection Services but, after challenging the inappropriate use of state resources was unfairly dismissed. She subsequently challenged her dismissal. Zelda is an active campaigner against state capture (systemic corruption) in South Africa.
Zelda spoke honestly about how ANC have evolved from the party symbolizing the revolution in South Africa, to a party riddled with corruption. As she explained this evolution over the years, the similarities with the situation in the North of Ireland were startling. Here I summarize some of her main points.
Like here, many in South Africa want to hold on to and preserve their revolutionary legacy, while ignoring the immediate issues of today. This generation of South African young people want answers but those who lived through apartheid often assume the authoritative role and silence any dissent based on the past.
Zelda explained that in any revolution the movement exists on the consciousness of oppression. In most instances once the oppressed gain power, and the dynamics change, this is where difficulties arise. Beyond oppression a state needs structural and economic reform. Reconciliation is but one aspect. Without economic reform people continue to divide into their own camps whether that’s through race, religion or class. It is all underpinned by economic inequality.
South Africa emerged out of apartheid at a time when neo liberal economics were being championed. While many ANC members had misgivings, they went along with adopting this in the belief it would deliver for their people. Like the North, and the promised peace dividends, many in South Africa still await any of the benefits. The trickle down economy only trickles so far.
In recent years communities and former members have reached a point where promises are no longer enough. They want delivery. Meanwhile the grand scale corruption within the ANC was being fully realised. The party closed ranks to criticism or dissent. Any critical analysis results in being labelled as the enemy, a counter revolutionary, anti-ANC. The same reaction occurs in nationalist communities when anyone attempts to criticise Sinn Fein and their position within the community and voluntary sector in particular. It’s a well known fact that jobs are created and preserved for members and anyone who has criticised them in recent year has been labelled the well known term of “dissident”. In South Africa the ANC centralised civil society and community sector funding in 1995 as means of silencing the power of the sector.
To be clear the definition of dissident is as follows:
“A person who opposes official policy, especially that of an authoritarian state.”
“In opposition to official policy.”
So former revolutionaries and dissenters have now abused the word to portray any criticism of their own actions, as the ruling power, as a negative.
Zelda explained how the perception exists that the ANC are always right, as historically they were on the right side of history. Their journey from revolutionaries to rule makers has created a disconnect and a disrespect of the working class people. In a position of privilege an abuse of power occurs and principles are lost. A good point was that the vestiges of colonialism still exist in the make up of our parliamentary structures. In many post colonial states the government is based on that of Britain. Why have so many new states held onto this structure?
Power gives access to knowledge. It also allows a restriction of knowledge and has led to the ANC operating on a need to know basis. For many revolutionary organisations and parties this is a continuation of how their military operations worked throughout conflict. In a position of power this way of working only serves to stop questions being asked.
For those who do speak out there are very serious consequences. These can range from a loss of employment opportunities to the possibility of violence. Zelda reflected on how the party is now made up of many opportunists. Many never fought for liberation. While any party naturally evolves, the core principles should remain. Sadly as can also be seen here, many people participate in the politics of popularity and personal gain. The original values of equality and socialism no longer apply. The ANC are even now against striking workers as many party members have shares in the corporations.
As it stands there is currently no political alternative right now, but grassroots organisations are emerging. Young people and students are creating social movements outside of mainstream political structures. They address a range of issue including the environment, employment, education, health and land grabs. However it appears these have been heavily infiltrated in an attempt to turn the community against them. The ANC means to create distortion in social justice movements to minimise their potential power.
Like most countries the media is heavily biased. Again many ANC members are a part of the media corporations. We live in a time of social media which allows opportunities to challenge the mainstream narrative and to create and strengthen our own narrative.
Zelda ended the talk by reflecting on her own involvement and asking questions of how a revolutionary movement can stay true to its values. She admits that in hindsight she and others may have been naïve to assume that the party would be all encompassing, progressive and able to achieves its original aims. That maybe she should have seen the vulnerabilities in gradually falling away from their principles. A good point was that the struggle ahead is harder when it is now a struggle against your own. The community depend on the legacy and still have the hope that the ANC will liberate them. The electorate vote for this legacy time and again instead of their future. 20 years since the GFA and the electorate in the North continue to vote the same parties based on legacy and decades old promises. Yet nothing changes.
An interesting question which can be applied globally is whether capitalism kills off revolutionary movements? The growth of neo liberalism has done this to an extent. Zelda re emphasised that continuing to strengthen grassroots movements around human issues, regardless of the capitalist and corrupt state, is the best hope of reclaiming power.
Unfortunately time did not allow us to hear more about the situation in South Africa. However what we did hear, and the similarities with the North, were striking. Does it serve neo liberalism and colonial ideology for the historic powers to have a stake in the development of new states and governments? Is it the natural corruption that power brings to people that creates such similarities? Or has it been carefully orchestrated by powers which have more to lose in the power balance of capitalism and globalisation?