Wednesday, 20 February 2013

The Durban Moment Forty Years On

by Richard Pithouse

January marked the fortieth anniversary of the 1973 Durban strikes. In commemoration of the strikes, and their wider political context, Omar Badsha's South African History Online project and Rhodes University are hosting a conference on the Durban Moment from the 21st to the 23rd of February.

The idea of the Durban Moment is generally taken to refer to the years between 1970 and 1974 during which there was a remarkable flowering of intellectual and political creativity in the city. A new generation seized their time and developed a new politics independent of both the official nationalist movement, which at the time couldn't see beyond an armed struggle that was going nowhere, and the Stalinist left. The leading figures in this ferment were Steve Biko and Rick Turner, the central political projects were the Black Consciousness and trade union movements and the key events were the Durban strikes in January 1973 and the rally in support of Frelimo in September 1974. The Durban strikes led to the formation of the black trade union movement and the Frelimo rally is sometimes said to have inaugurated a new attitude of embodied defiance that exploded into the Soweto rebellion in 1976.

Serious repression of the new forms of dissent developing in Durban had begun with the banning of Biko and Turner, amongst others, in early1973 and escalated with the arrest of leading Black Consciousness activists in the wake of the Frelimo rally. Biko was murdered in September 1977 and in a national crackdown in October that year eighteen Black Consciousness organisations and two newspapers were banned and around seventy activists were arrested. In January the following year Turner was murdered too.

The Durban Moment had its roots in the University of Natal where Biko was a student and Turner a lecturer and was inspired, along with other influences ranging from James Cone's black theology to Jean-Paul Sartre's philosophy of freedom, by the student revolt that had swept the world in 1968. But, unlike some of the recent attempts to connect to international movements, initiatives, ideas and attitudes with an international reach were brought into an enabling conversation with local realities rather than being adopted wholesale as if real political meaning had to be imported in the form of a franchise.

Biko and Turner were both charismatic men but neither of them exploited this to develop a cult of personality or to try and substitute their own personalities, as impressive as they were, for building real intellectual and political movements. On the contrary they both used their charisma to encourage rather than to police open and rational discussion, to build organisations and institutions and to encourage other people to find their own way into independent voice and action.

The politics of the Durban Moment was characterised by much more debate, diversity and intersection between different projects than is often assumed but, while easy generalisations are unhelpful, its clear that a consciousness of how domination was mediated through gender was not its great strength. There were many strong women, including, amongst others, Harriet Bolton, Phyllis Naidoo and Mamphele Ramphele, who were central to the courage and creativity of the time. But the attempts to root new forms of politics in the experiences and organisation of black people and factory workers were often, implicitly or explicitly, inflected with masculinist assumptions.

Nonetheless the assertion of popular organisation rooted in autonomy – black autonomy from white paternalism and workers' autonomy from elite nationalism, as well as the autonomy of the individual consciousness, was an invaluable break from modes of more authoritarian politics that imagined liberation in terms of the manipulation of 'the masses' from above.

At a time when the state, in practice if not in principle, is frequently a vehicle for aspirations that are more predatory than developmental, prospects for progress are often conceived in strictly technocratic terms and popular autonomy from the ruling alliance is sometimes openly described as treason there is much to be gained from a more nuanced inventory of our political and intellectual history than that offered by the presentation of the history of resistance to apartheid in increasingly narrow and militaristic terms.

But when it comes to charting new paths the old certainties are inadequate. Trade unionism has descended into a serious moral and political crisis much of it rooted in a steady enmeshment with capital, the state and the ruling party. The independent left, in its various forms, has often substituted support for charismatic authority or NGO projects for the work of building popular organisation and has largely failed to locate itself amidst the ongoing popular rebellion.

It is important to remember that political innovation occurs in distinct sequences often tied to particular locations and specific social subjects. If political innovation is not repressed or does not exhaust itself there is a tendency, over time, to sclerosis which may take the form of bureaucratisation, elite capture or a retreat into fixed dogma. The political and intellectual earthquake that rolled out from Durban in the early 70s was not immune to these tendencies. We honour it not by seeking to turn its innovation into sterile dogma that can only blind us to new innovation but, rather, by seeking to repeat its creative and courageous engagement with our time and place.