Sunday, 18 May 2014

Raymond Suttner: “The dream has become a nightmare”

Bistandsaktuelt: My project here is to hear what people think about twenty years of democracy and freedom. After the election in 1994 my reading was that there was euphoria, a hopefulness that now seems to have disappeared. What is your comment?

Suttner: There was a promise. A dream of what we wanted to see. And in some ways, without being melodramatic the dream has become a nightmare. In one of my blogs I wrote that one of the reasons why I was grieving prior to Mandela dying was that Mandela represented a vision of a free SA, where leaders acted with integrity. It has turned into a nightmare in the sense that there is a lot of violence, and I think that some of it is fuelled by the rhetoric of the leadership with phrases like “shoot to kill”, militaristic songs and lots of sexual and gender based violence. And then there is the corruption and patronage.

I do not like working with terms like euphoria and disillusionment, because those terms are disempowering. What I try to do is understand what has happened.
I did work underground, but when I was out of jail in the 1980s I was very involved in the popular struggle of the UDF. And many of us that were involved in the popular struggle had in mind the type of democracy where people would not just vote but be involved in politics all the time.
The first issue for me is democracy. What happens when you institutionalize democracy? When you negotiate for democracy you do not actually negotiate the place of the popular, you negotiate constitutional instruments. It is not to say that those negotiations are antagonistic to the popular, but by definition negotiations relate to a type of constitutional order, parliament, judiciary and voting. Now in the course of that process, prior to the first democratic election, the masses became passive or were used as a battering ram to get concessions from the National Party in negotiations. The object of rolling mass action was to get the regime to see sense. That was not the same thing as in the mid-1980 when the masses were building crèches and drove the police out of the townships, and put their own crime control measures in place.
So when elections came the popular really got displaced. The UDF dissolved itself. They went into the changing rooms because the ‘A-team’ had come onto the field. Some of us argued that the popular struggle had a value in itself. It was not just standing in for the ANC, it was not just a holding action for the ANC, as Rev Frank Chikane has described the UDF.
I think the idea came into many people's mind that the ANC was the manifestation of the popular. All national liberation movements depict themselves as embodying the nation with slogans like ‘ANC is the nation’. The ANC displaced the popular by depicting itself as the ‘people’s government’.
This is the first problem. It has nothing to do with violence or corruption. It has to do with what people see as normalization. I wanted to see continuation of active citizens, apart from just voting.
In the course of implementing the Constitution there were spaces for engagement with the popular. I was in the first parliament. We introduced new rules so that people could come and make representations to parliament.
As the constitutional order developed we wanted it to be ‘people driven’, that it would strengthen the hand of the legislature in so far as it was implementing progressive legislature.
Over the time, [the early years after 1994] the ANC-government did implement important changes. Many people got fresh water for the first time, and electricity for the first time. The delivery was not always adequately planned or implemented. Maintenance was not always there. But there was a very significant change for a large number of people. But the way it was conceived was statist, the state ‘delivering’.
The popular movement (of the 1980s) did not see the benefits in their lives being solely dependent on state delivery, they wanted to be active participants.
You have talk of service delivery protests. But the notion of services is to treat housing, water, electricity as commodities, as opposed to basic human rights which is what the constitution treats them as. So imperceptibly the terms in which democratic discourse was conceived changed and democratic practices changed.
On the rise of Jacob Zuma to the position of President

Suttner: When president Thabo Mbeki dismissed Jacob Zuma (as Vice President), people thought Zuma was the victim of a conspiracy. The Communist Party and Cosatu had felt themselves side-lined in the Mbeki period and they rallied behind Zuma and depicted him as a victim of conspiracy, a man of the people and a socialist. This was false. They said Mbeki had dismissed Zuma to prevent him from becoming president.
In between all of this Zuma was charged with rape. He was acquitted, but the judgement is open to question. The way Zuma conducted himself during the rape trial was disturbing. Everyday after the court case he would go out to his supporters and sing a song “bring me my machine gun”. A machine gun is a powerful phallic symbol. Bullets can represent ejaculation, so it was really militaristic and very disrespectful of the type of case it was. It was very Zulu chauvinistic, with Zuma being called “100% Zulu” and he never said a word to dissociate himself from his supporters.
Anyway in the next year in 2007 was the ANC Polokwane Conference where Zuma defeated Mbeki for the ANC presidency. The people who came into the coalition behind Zuma were first of all the Communists and Cosatu, depicting him as a left candidate. Secondly there were sections of the emerging bourgeoisie who where wanting to secure contracts and other economic benefits, and there were criminal types. Immediately it was an unstable alliance. If he did not ensure job security and better wages Cosatu would be disappointed, at the same time if he was to satisfy the left, big business would be unhappy, people who wanted tenders etc.
So the way Zuma governs is like a ship half sinking and half sailing, half governing and half not governing, about to fall and staying in power.
So what has characterized his period in office has been a lot of violence. There has been massive violence by the police, by the ANC in the 2009 elections against COPE (a party formed by people who broke away from the ANC), when it was formed. There has been a lot of violende in the KwaZulu Natal area.
 Bistandsaktuelt: Aften Zuma’s rape trial you broke with the ANC. How did the ANC react to your criticism and breaking away?
Suttner: One time my wife found the wheels on her car were loosened. Once our gate was lifted. Another time they came and stole computers. When I came on the scene I was hit on the head with an aluminium ladder. Now when these people came into the house we had electronic beams and they neutralized the beams, so obviously they must have been people with specialized training.  We are on now on the margins. It has an effect on one’s income. When applying for funding for research it is difficult to get funding from the state or institutions that do not want to antagonise the ANC leadership.
Bistandsaktuelt: Do you have a sense that the good people have left the party, or are just waiting for a new leader?
Suttner: There are some people who were very brave, with whom I have faced danger. The problem is: When you get tempted do you succumb or do you not succumb? I do not know who is there who has not succumbed. I do not know what you can do to change the ANC from within. The problem has become serious and systemic.
 How much of what ones sees in ANC today of corruption, violence is a continuation of things that where accepted in the liberation struggle?

Suttner: Even before I fell out with the ANC I tried to understand if I had been an ‘innocent’ who had not understood what the struggle was about. Because when I got involved I was ready to die in the struggle. I did not look for positions. A lot of others came to understand that there would be lucrative things in the offing. In exile if you were connected to X or Y you may have got a scholarship to Oxford rather than to Soviet Union. Also on the communist side people wanted to get special training. If you were a member you were more likely to go to the Lenin School. Inside the country there were some aspects of that.
For example in the 1980s when I came out of jail and they were starting up popular organisations it was difficult to do much without funding. Some people knew how to get funding from Norad or Idaf and those people gave money to start an organisation and would have some control over  what they did. Thinking back on it, some of the divisions we had in the 1980, was related to the funding, and also related to people inside the country having connections to say Thabo Mbeki or Joe Slovo. And we did not understand that they could be in disagreement with one another. So those divisions may have been transferred into the country.
In 1985 two years after I came out of jail for the first time I was given a passport and when I was in England I thought let me find out who is getting funds from this, that and the other place. I somehow got to see the list of the people who were receiving funds and they represented a particular faction. The person through whom the funds were channelled may not have intended to play a factional role, but de facto these funds he had control over actually went to one group.
But I did not do much about it because as I was to about to return to South Africa a State of Emergency was declared. I was at the airport and Gill Marcus was there and rolled her eyes to indicate the bookshop. Joe Slovo was there. I went over and stood next to him. He said to me: ‘Do you think you should go back, there is a State of Emergency?’ I said: ‘Look I am one of the few whites who are in the leadership, I think I must go back, because it would be a bad example not to.’ Then I  went back, and all the issues of funding became academic because there was a State of Emergency until 1990.
The patterns that were established in exile may have partly been patronage and corruption, but now it is over much higher stakes. Now people are becoming billionaires.
Bistandsaktuelt: Looking back on 20 years that have gone. There have been 1200 service delivery protests the last five years. Do you see that as the start of new grassroots movements? Or just an expression of frustration?
Suttner: It is an interesting question. When we had popular power movements in the 1980s we hadcommunities despite apartheid. In most cases that was the basis for having street committees. Now many of these so-called service delivery protests are in areas where you cannot really speak of communities because they are living in squalid conditions where the sewage is running in the streets, they do not have clean water to wash themselves, they are living in shacks and there is huge unemployment.
In the failure to ever establish communities, it is not easy to establish organization. Many of these people will possibly vote for Malema’s EFF, but except for the Shackdwellers Movement in KZN and one or two others, you do not have well developed organizations. Apart from them you have a situation where the most effective action seem to be taken by NGOs and they sometimes substitute themselves for the people. In some cases NGOs will operate with the communities and involve them in what they do and together try to arrive at a solution.
Funding is being given to NGOs and sometimes they can get lawyers and present the communities with a solution, but the communities themselves are not involved.
Bistandsaktuelt: If you look at democracy in period from 1994 to now, what achievements are there?
Suttner: We have a constitution in place. We have had four free and fair elections and are soon to have our fifth. We have our Constitutional Court in place whose decisions are generally abided by. And there are a lot more people with their basic needs provided. They have houses and water etc.
There are problems with it. Sometimes they have been built by people who got shady contracts and they break down. In general some people who have not had electricity have got that for the first time but it is uneven.
The problem is now that under Zuma leadership the Constitution is being undermined. You see it with the Nkandla Report. But there are also lots of cases of corruption that the police do not investigate properly or the prosecution loses the dockets, and things like that.
What they are also doing is interfering in the appointment of judges. In appointing the Judicial Service Commission, which appoints judges, they are it packing with Zuma-supporters. So the last Chief Justice had made statements that were homophobic and he is a bit eccentric , he said he accepted the nomination because he had received a message from God that he should be appointed.
You have this situation that the constitution is being undermined by corruption, by violence, by patronage. The way 240 million Rands of public money has been spent on the private home of the president is an extreme example, but it is not the only example of undermining the law and the constitution.
So on the one hand you have the institutions. But people actually have to fight to secure their rights under the constitution.
The institutions are surviving. We are enfranchised by the fact that we vote. But what we vote for does not happen. So we are simultaneously disenfranchised.
Bistandsaktuelt: Is there a danger that  the armed struggle has been made too heroic.  Zuma still sings the same liberation struggle songs 20 years later. Is there an aspect of violence in SA society that is just being perpetuated?
Suttner: Mandela went to jail at the commander of MK and came out as a peacemaker. There is a time to fight and there is a time to make peace. A time for war songs and a time to make peace. One of the problems we have is that we have not entrenched non-violence. People do not see non-violence as a value. This is not peculiar to South Africa.
I think the aftermath of the struggle is quite complicated. You must remember that in 1990 the apartheid regime attacked the ANC. There were massacres, and it was hard to preach peace. We had to set up self-defence units. So that peace was not really inaugurated.  It was a situation of no peace, yet not war.  I cannot say the ANC was to blame for that, though more could have been done later.
I think there is now a conscious attempt to use violence to threaten people. It is a legacy of the struggle. But some of us who were in struggle do not use it. So it is not how things have to be.