Jay Naidoo is no stranger to the landscape of South African history and in his latest book, Change, Organising Tomorrow, Today he draws from his experience as a labour union organiser, government minister, social entrepreneur and global thought leader explores ways of solving some of the world’s biggest problems.
Here’s an extract from Jay Naidoo’s book published by Penguin Random House, South Africa.
Chapter 8: Managing Transition
In 1990 the apartheid regime was nearing its end. It had not been defeated militarily, but apartheid leaders knew the end of white rule was near. For many who fought in the liberation struggle, it was a surprise how quickly it came.
After decades of mass struggle it was the intensity of the 1989 Campaign of Defiance against Unjust Laws that ultimately broke the camel’s back. During this time millions of black South Africans actively defied the racist laws and prohibitions preventing us from participating in everyday society. We showed up at white hospitals demanding treatment, occupied parks and beaches that were reserved for whites, and organised public meetings of groups that had been banned. In numerous public protests around the country we faced the police head on as they tried to keep us behind their barricades. None of us were willing to tolerate any longer the rules that took our citizenship away from us.
This was the critical moment when a regime loses its legitimacy and the people lose their fear. The burning embers of anger and discontent had become a raging bushfire of revolution.
Soon afterwards, on 2 February 1990, F.W. de Klerk announced that Nelson Mandela would be released from prison the following week and that all political organisations, including the ANC, were unbanned. Tata Madiba, the symbol of our resistance, was free. South Africa was on the road to a new future.
But many of us who were organisers in the struggle still had concerns.
Most revolutions fail because too little attention is paid to managing the transition from the old system to the new system. Those of us operating in South Africa’s evolved political landscape therefore asked ourselves constantly what the future of our country should look like. We needed to achieve a post-apartheid dream of freedom not only in name, but in reality too. We had to figure out the length of time it would take to complete the transition and determine how we would govern such a completely transformed country.
We began by planning for this transition even before it arrived, determined to destroy, and never to utilise, the brutality and exclusion that had been the weapons of our oppressors. Our own stock of weaponry contained the values and objectives that we upheld during the decades of mass struggle preceding democracy, and we focused on preparing and unifying as many of our people as possible for this event.
There were many challenges confronting us. Powerful individuals who had played major roles in carrying out apartheid repression remained in control of the army and security forces. The beginning of the nineties was marked by violent conflicts between the ANC and black conservative forces such as Inkatha who were in alliance with white extremists. Hundreds of people died during these battles, and it looked like the country was teetering on the brink of a fulls-cale civil war.
As leaders of the resistance movement we knew we had little time to create a peaceful transition to democracy. We had to build a consensus with our main negotiating party, the National Party, and prevent them from using their veto in government to maintain the white minority’s racial privileges. The right-wing threat of a counter-revolution also had to be neutralised if we were to prevail in implementing democracy.
The birth of freedom in South Africa, as anywhere else in the world, was fraught with strife. There were, and still are, cliques in every corner resistant to change and prepared to employ violent methods to achieve their ends. But the key objective of the antiapartheid movement was a negotiated revolution. We had to develop an institutional framework that would promote peace and assist us in co-governing various elements of the transition, especially the activities of the security forces and the conduct of political parties operating at local level. The process required rules about how to interact with these factions so we could manage our differences and begin to formulate a common narrative that included all South Africans.
In the labour movement we drew from our knowledge of conflict resolution to try to reduce discord in communities. We approached business leaders with whom we had negotiated in the past to settle major strikes and labour disputes, and asked church leaders to help us mediate conflicts between rival COSATU and IFP supporters in the workplace. Our objective was to create an honest peaceful environment that guaranteed freedom of speech, association and assembly.
Nelson Mandela was a paradigm of a powerful negotiating force during this period. His defining genius was always his affinity for searching for solutions to some of the most complex challenges we faced in the country.
In the negotiating period before democracy, the key issues were avoiding war, securing peace between opposing factions and creating the groundwork for a negotiated political revolution. Using the vast stores of empathy and tolerance at his disposal, Mandela was able to break through the walls of fear and hatred that our white compatriots hid behind and to establish a commonality with them, a shared interest in democracy.
At the same time, Mandela had the wisdom to recognise those moments when he should not give way.
This is always a challenge in times of fundamental change. Powerful individuals within our own ranks argued that we needed to counter violence with violence in order to defend ourselves. Mandela resisted this approach throughout the negotiating process. He called for a unilateral ceasefire after the Boipatong massacre on 17 June 1992, when forty-five residents in the Boipatong township were killed by IFP-affiliated steelworkers from a nearby hostel. By doing this, Mandela resisted the urge to be demagogic and instead rose above the fray, swimming against the tide of popular sentiment and arguing for peace. This is real leadership.
Militarism can sometimes be a problem in resistance struggles. Many freedom fighters are firm believers in that old military adage ‘in order to save the village, we had to destroy it’. Blow up the bridges, bomb the radio stations, raze the farms, destroy the schools. And once the enemy is driven out, the soldiers march into what is left of the town and declare their victory. Whatever had been built by the people over decades or centuries is destroyed in almost an instant by their so-called liberators. It is always much easier to invade than it is to occupy.
In the mid-eighties we fiercely debated the necessity of establishing ‘liberated’ zones in KwaZulu-Natal that sought to obstruct or inhibit any violence from Inkatha and the state. Young activists angrily drove anyone suspected of being an Inkatha sympathiser or member out of townships where a majority of people supported the MDM. But this opened up these townships to massive and sustained attacks from regiments of fully armed IFP combatants supported by the security forces. Hundreds of people ended up dying during these skirmishes. The state is always better armed than its people and will not hesitate to use force against those who challenge its authority.
In these unpredictable and violent contexts, the language of war replaces the consolidating power of mass organisation by the people. I have seen the consequences of this kind of approach in failed states around the world. I have heard thousands of horror stories that should never form part of the narrative of our own country’s fate.
There are never simplistic solutions in situations that involve many divergent interests. One-size-fits-all answers are rare, but past struggles do contain significant lessons for future groups of organisers. Negotiation and compromise help to build trust and offer a number of paths towards the fulfilment of a joint objective. It is essential, however, that activists understand that every context provides new challenges or conditions. Ideas and programmes should therefore be adapted so that they can function within these changed environments.
When we were preparing for South Africa’s transition, the leadership of the resistance understood this. We carried out our responsibilities with integrity, a clear purpose and a deep organic connection to our mass base. Our dream was for a country united around the idea of one person, one vote, in a united, non-racial, non-sexist and democratic South Africa.
Undoubtedly we achieved that. But that was just one building block in the completion of the revolution yielding the fruits of freedom. There were others that were required to transform our economy and deracialise land ownership in the country.