Let us return to the source! In quest of a humanism for the 21st century

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Alexander is a long-time Trotskyist socialist who was imprisoned with Mandela and is a leader of the Workers Organization for Socialist Action (South Africa) in Cape Town. This address was delivered on the occasion of the Annual Sipho Maseko Memorial Lecture, University of the Western Cape, 8 October 2009.


It was with much pleasure that I accepted the invitation of the organisers of this memorial event1 to speak in honour of the late Sipho Maseko, whom I knew for most of his life as an activist operating within the paradigms of Black Consciousness. I accepted the invitation with a sense of gratitude, especially because I believe that this is the kind of occasion where we should reflect with care and seriousness on the paths we have travelled during our short post-apartheid journey. Sipho, whose widow, Pam, worked with me in the National Language Project and in other contexts for many years, was one of those young people of the 1980s, who were totally committed to the total liberation of South Africa and of the continent as a whole. The sincere, indeed the naïve, belief in the values of freedom, equality, solidarity and democracy, which drove all of us at the time, has been systematically eroded by the eruption of the narcissistic, dog-eat-dog virus that is spreading across the globe in the current era of the hegemony of neo-liberal capitalism.


It is against this backdrop, that I want to put the spotlight on the question whether it is possible for us to “return to the source” – to borrow an exhortation from Amilcar Cabral – to once again place at the centre of our vision, our plans and our behaviour the values on the basis of which we hoped to build the non-racial, democratic republic after the demise of apartheid-capitalism. Because of time constraints, I shall not analyse the many important writings of the Black Consciousness generation, in which they grappled, among other things, with questions of identity and social structure. Allow me to highlight two central issues only. The first is the vision that actually illuminated the path of struggle chosen by that entire generation, whether or not they belonged to formal organisations of the Black Consciousness Movement. In the words of Steve Biko in one of his very last interviews shortly before he was murdered:

We are of the view that we should operate as one united whole toward attainment of an egalitarian society for the whole of Azania. Therefore, entrenchment of tribalistic, racialistic or any form of sectional outlook is abhorred by us. We hate it and we seek to destroy it. (Biko, S. 1987. I Write What I Like. Oxford: Heinemann (p.147).

Elsewhere2, I have written about the dynamics of the Black Consciousness Movement. All I wish to stress here is that the Biko generation set out on that long march implicit in the Gramscian notion of the war of position. Through the University Christian Movement and other sources, they came into contact with the pedagogical and social conceptions of Paulo Freire and the theology of liberation, among others, and all of these influences, besides the ideas current in the different organisations involved in the national liberation struggle, in the context of the repression and against the background of the mixture of Christian philanthropy and African communal life that all of us who were adults in those days had experienced in the countryside, undoubtedly contributed to their formulation and conscious promotion of this strategy. The promotion of the Black Community Programmes, together with the development of a modern labour movement, which had a more differentiated but related source and a sometimes converging, sometimes diverging, trajectory, was no less than such a war of position, one which eventually brought about a change in the balance of forces and helped to reshape the political space in the worst years of the repression.

While bearing this in mind, let me refer you to the other issue that I consider as having been central to the strategic path of the BCM, i.e., the idea of “psychological liberation”.

In dealing with this concept critically, we have, in philosophical terms, to navigate carefully between the Scylla of voluntarism and the Charybdis of political paralysis. Today, we would deal with the question in terms of the relationship between structure and agency. However, let us keep the discourse at a manageable level by stating quite simply that the question we are faced with is whether, and if so, how it is possible in the era of neo-liberal barbarism to implant a different set of values among especially the younger people in South Africa and elsewhere, in spite of the many structural constraints that determine their individual existential projects and the massive bombardment of negative and self-destructive ethical messages emanating from the media and other ideological state and non-state apparatuses. It is clear, certainly to me, that this is the challenge that faces all thinking South Africans, and people on the Left specifically, if we are to have any hope of turning our society to head once again in a direction that can lead to the post-apartheid and even post-capitalist situation we had envisaged before 1996, more or less.

We know, of course, that it is a combination of ideas, organisation and political-economic developments at the macro-level that brings about fundamental social shifts at any given time and place. It would, therefore, be a mistake to think that by harking back to a concept such as psychological liberation, I want to suggest that we focus all our energies on moral education of the youth, as important as that activity is. The real question behind these reflections is how we can tap back into the power that actually exists in many different social spaces and instantiations but which we have made ourselves believe is vested only in and, indeed, belongs to, “the government”. If the BCM and other movements, especially in the 1970s and 1980s, taught us anything, it is that we always have access to power, as long as we know how it is distributed.

The Biko generation inculcated positive values of self-respect, self-esteem and self-consciousness into the young people at schools and at higher education institutions as well as older people in communities and in workplaces. They did so because they understood that the slave mentality is the proximate source of the sense of disempowerment, despair and political apathy that keeps the oppressed in thrall. Above all, they understood intuitively that power is not simply the control of armed force, legitimate or otherwise. Hence, they undertook community development programmes and mobilised people at the grassroots in order that they might survive in the menacing environments of apartheid South Africa. Sipho Maseko himself and others in accordance with the injunction Education for Liberation, organised in Cape Town the Black Students Project that undertook political education as well as enrichment programmes that sought to help students understand their school work properly and pass their examinations, among many other things. Under the banner of the slogan You are your own liberators! the Black Community Programmes empowered whole communities across the entire country. As indicated earlier, together with the evolving modern labour movement inside the country, it was this war of position that eventually put an end to the apparently linear curve on which the apartheid regime thought itself to be proceeding ever upwards. Again, I do not have to go into details; many articles and reports are available for those who have a more serious interest in what was done by the young people of the 1970s and the 1980s. There is no doubt, of course, that the struggle against racial oppression in all its reprehensible forms compelled everyone to focus on the overriding objective of throwing off the yoke of racism. The mistake that many made, as we shall see, was to assume that the end of apartheid would bring about the end of class exploitation which, in this country because of the peculiar historical dynamics, continues to perpetuate racial inequality.


What does the picture look like today? Let me begin to answer this question by referring to the fact that when Evo Morales became President of Bolivia not so long ago, one of his first official acts was to get a law passed that reduced his presidential salary by 57%. In post-apartheid South Africa, the very opposite occurred. The recommendations of the Melamet Commission of 1994 and of the subsequent annual increases recommended by the Independent Commission for the Remuneration of Public Office Bearers3, based on the principles of remuneration of the apartheid dispensation, were accepted without much soul searching among the new elite. This, in my view, was the first signal that we were headed in the wrong direction. It sent entirely the wrong message to the youth of a poor, “third-world” country, South Africa, to the effect that successful black people are people who earn in these brackets and who own fancy cars and houses. The role model effect of this kind of lifestyle and value system which, today, 15 years later, has become the accepted thing, will take many years and many alternative models of success to turn around. I cite the effect of the acceptance of the salary packages recommended by the Melamet Commission in its different instantiations as the first of a series of lifestyle signposts for the youth. Add to this the fact that during the struggle against the apartheid regime, everyone, including your “Comtsotsi”4, was seen to be and treated as an equal, whereas after 1994, there was this sudden and very visible divide between those who were deemed to have been “successful”, on the one side, and the Great Unwashed, on the other side, the veritable underclass, victims of apartheid before 1996 and of neo-liberalism thereafter. One does not need a degree in philosophy to work out the socio-psychological results of this situation. The thousands of “service delivery protests” – a euphemism for localised mini-uprisings – the vandalism that accompanies them as well as “ordinary” crimes such as hijackings, cash heists, kidnappings, armed robberies, etc.: all of these horrendous manifestations of barbarism induced by the logic of capitalism in the 21st century are payback acts of entitlement. “If you who, yesterday, were in the trenches with us or with our parents can now drive around in a Mercedes Benz or a BMW, live in a mansion or even a palace in the leafy suburbs, and generally live it up, why should I continue to be mired in poverty and filth in so-called informal settlements with pit latrines, no garbage removal and no proper educational and health facilities”? This is the logic that is playing itself out on our streets. The simple fact is that if young people in the townships and in the rural areas are unemployed, hungry, frustrated and angry, they will, under these circumstances, resort to theft and even murder in order to live like those few others who, by grace of birth or because of political patronage, belong to the new elite. Given the retreat of all the moral and political censors that kept things “looking good” during the post-War years, one can hardly “blame” this youth for behaving in such a reactionary manner. Drugs and Americanised TV are increasingly added to this lethal syndrome of social pathologies.

There have been many more or less sophisticated attempts at explaining the sociology of the current disaster and it is unnecessary to add another such attempt to this list. What is clear, however, is that if we fail to address the question of values with even a modicum of success, we will inevitably arrive at the edge of the abyss, pushed there by this logic of capitalism. The intelligentsia in particular have a moral obligation to help the entire nation to find and accept the alternative. Today, when we are witnessing the collapse of the global financial system which reflects the terminal condition of the system of capitalism as a whole, the Thatcherite mantra: There is no alternative, which in any case never had any basis in fact, is no more and no less than an expression of social dementia and denial of the most self-destructive kind. For, not only are there alternatives, they are staring us in the face if we have the boldness and the imagination to explore them and, like the generation of Sipho Maseko, begin to make a difference on the ground.


How do we re-establish a culture of positive values, one that is socially critical but not destructive in its modalities? What is the foundational value that should inform everything else we believe in and do? I am here referring to the kind of value system that can inspire an entire generation of young people to take on to themselves the task and to forge the instruments of social mobilisation on a large scale and for decades, rather than just a few years, knowing full well that the realisation of their “dream” will change everything from the bottom up and shape social structures and processes that will be very different in form and effect from those of the neo-liberal imperialist agencies that now disfigure their lives and ruin our societies. In the previous dispensation, anti-racism and anti-apartheid for most, as well as anti-capitalism for some, were such a set of beliefs that not only fostered solidarity and unity but also charged the imagination of young people with a vision of the “non-racial, non-sexist and democratic” alternative to apartheid.

The answer has been lurking in, among other places, the ecological economics of scholars such as Andre Gorz5 for many years, but it has taken global climatic disasters and the collapse of the tyrannical political structures in Africa, Latin America, Asia, Eastern Europe and elsewhere to make us understand the full significance of the present stage of bourgeois rule. Today, we know that political diversity is as important for a humane society as are bio- and cultural diversity. For some years now, it has dawned on me that a humanism of the 21st century will have to be based on what Gorz calls the principle of sufficiency which, for the sake of a broader understanding of what this concept entails, I have transliterated as “Enough is as good as a feast”6.

It ought to be obvious that if the structures and processes of modern industrial societies were informed and shaped by this view of life, most of the currently existing social modalities and human desires and activities in most contemporary states would forthwith become antiquated and counter-productive. The hegemony of the world view that proclaims, among many other things, that “more is better”, that in terms of the much-vaunted “intellectual property rights”, I deserve all the fruits of what I have initiated, and that the ideal is to be the “world champion” in all spheres of life: in short, that the good life is to be had by competing and fighting against other human beings who, in the extreme case, have to be dehumanised so that I am not constrained by any fellow-feeling from killing them.


Let us try, however briefly, to sketch some of the consequences of applying the principle of sufficiency as the major moral force shaping post-apartheid South Africa. To begin with, in the domain of education, where the state and other public institutions can legitimately intervene, the content, orientation and delivery of the curriculum at all levels of the system would be changed fundamentally. The psychological, pedagogical, ideological and emotional revolution implied by an approach that does not glorify individual or group domination while allowing for the full development and flowering of the potential inherent in each and every human being can be imagined and extrapolated very easily. Individual brilliance expressed and deployed on behalf and for the benefit of democratically legitimated groups at different levels of society will continue to be one of the drivers of all social progress, including economic development. In the domain of the media and especially advertising, we would be rid of the brutalities and socially disreputable messages which subject us to the domination of capital. Adverts like the currently popular one which claims that everyone wants to be a “winner” and in the “first team”, rather than a ”deputy-chairperson” or a “benchwarmer” – or words to that effect – would become as absurd and counter-productive as they are from the point of view of a more humane social order. The glorification of the ostentatious consumption and high life of so-called celebrities in politics, business, culture, sport and even religion would cease to be the supposedly inspiring models of “the good life” that they are marketed as being in programmes such as Top Billing and others. All domains of life would be affected in the most profound possible way.

What a drab and boring vision, I hear the privileged strata exclaiming. On the absolute contrary, I should like to respond to my imagined detractors. Artists, designers, architects, urban planners, in fact all creative individuals and agencies will be faced with the challenge of finding the optimal ways of expressing and realising the entire range of possibilities in every domain of life. This will be the terrain of competition, not for individual glory and unequal reward but precisely for the common good, the old-fashioned commonwealth!


Is this no more than John Lennon or Vladimir Lenin’s dream? How do we begin to initiate and incrementally realise this vision and this set of values? Besides the ongoing political and economic class struggles, in which we are willy-nilly involved and by means of which we attempt to create and to consolidate more democratic space in the short to medium term, we have to go back to the community development tasks that the BCM initiated so successfully, if not always sustainably, owing to the ravages of the apartheid system.

We have to rebuild our communities and our neighbourhoods by means of establishing, as far as possible on a voluntary basis, all manner of community projects which bring visible short-term benefit to the people and which initiate at the same time the trajectories of fundamental social transformation, which I have been referring to. These could range from relatively simple programmes such as keeping the streets and the public toilets clean, preferably in liaison with the local authority, whether or not it is “delivering” at this level, to more complex programmes such as bulk buying clubs, community reading clubs, enrichment programmes for students preparing for exams, teachers’ resource groups at local level, and, of course, sports activities on a more convivial basis, etc. It is important that I stress that wherever possible, the relevant democratic authority should be asked to support the initiative. On the other hand, the community and its community-based organisations must remain in control of what they are doing. This is the difference between South Africa today and South Africa yesterday. As long as, and to the extent that, we have a democratic system, there is no reason why any of these programmes have to be initiated as anti-government initiatives. Any representative democratic government would welcome and vigorously support such initiatives, since they are pro-people, and in the current context, pro-poor initiatives.

There are already many of these initiatives and programmes in existence. They will, if they are conducted with integrity and not for party-political gain, inevitably gravitate towards one another, converge and network. In this way, the fabric of civil society non-government organisations that was the real matrix of the anti-apartheid movement will be refreshed and we will once again have that sense of a safety net of communities inspired by the spirit and the real practices of ubuntu7 that saved so many of us from being destroyed by the racist system. Today, the struggle is much more obviously being conducted as a class struggle against exploitation and unconscionable as well as totally unnecessary and unjustifiable social inequality, manifest in the miserable lives of the vast majority and the vulgar parading of wealth and comfort of the few.


I am all too aware of the fact that this has turned out to be a kind of secular sermon. It would have been easier, and it was probably expected by most of my audience, for me to have formulated yet another analysis of “the global crisis of the capitalist system”. There are more than enough of these, I think. Here, too, enough is as good as a feast. It has been more difficult and challenging for me to return to the source, to reflect on the first principles that motivate us in our struggle for a humane world order, one where every child and every person has more than an outside chance of fulfilling his or her human potential. Today, we have to formulate these principles in a new language, one that will find readier access among the youth, to whom, as we say so beautifully but so ineffectually, the future belongs. I have probably not succeeded in finding those words but I hope that my attempt to do so will inspire others to take up the challenge. I also know that I have spoken very much in the spirit of the late Sipho Maseko and his generation of revolutionaries.

1 Neville Alexander is a long-time Trotskyist socialist who was imprisoned with Mandela and is a leader of the Workers Organization for Socialist Action (South Africa) in Cape Town. This address was delivered on the occasion of the Annual Sipho Maseko Memorial Lecture, University of the Western Cape, 8 October 2009.
2 See Mngxitama, Andile, Alexander, Amanda and Gibson, Nigel C. (eds). 2008. Biko Lives. Contesting the Legacies of Steve Biko. New York: Palgrave Macmillan.
3 The current Chair of this Commission is Deputy Chief Justice Dikgang Moseneke.
4 A term used to describe young thugs who got involved on the side of the liberation forces in the 1980s especially.
5 See, for example, Gorz, Andre. 1987. Ecology as Politics. London: Pluto Press; and Gorz, Andre. 1989. Critique of Economic Reason. London and New York: Verso.
6 This is not an arbitrary act on my part; Gorz in fact derives the principle from the same pre-industrial period in which this aphorism originated.
7 A philosophy of African humanism based on the tenet: “I am a human being through other human beings”.

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