Away from the abyss in the spirit of a new UDF


Away from the abyss in the spirit of a new UDF

What has become of the ideals championed at the Rivonia trial by Nelson Mandela and his comrades? To help answer this question, PIET CROUCAMP spoke to clergyman, politician and anti-apartheid activist Allan Boesak.


BETWEEN October 9, 1963 and June 12, 1964, South Africa witnessed a pivotal moment in its history. During this period, a group of anti-apartheid activists was apprehended at Liliesleaf Farm in Rivonia, Johannesburg. This secretive location had served as the meeting place of Umkhonto we Sizwe (MK), the new armed wing of the ANC.

The subsequent trial unfolded at the imposing Palace of Justice in Pretoria, resulting in the imprisonment of prominent figures such as Nelson Mandela, Walter Sisulu, Govan Mbeki, Ahmed Kathrada, Denis Goldberg, Raymond Mhlaba, Elias Motsoaledi and Andrew Mlangeni. The charges primarily revolved around acts of sabotage, leading to life sentences for many of the accused.

Next week, I will have visit the cells that once housed these iconic men, and it raises the question: what has become of the ideals championed by Mandela and his comrades? To gain insights into the state of the liberation movement, I spoke to Dutch Reformed Church clergyman, politician and anti-apartheid activist Allan Boesak. 

Lees hierdie artikel in Afrikaans:

How do you view the current state of South Africa and the ANC?

I'm heartbroken, disappointed, disillusioned and angry. My anger stems from what I observe and hear from young people across the country as I travel. When I think back to the sacrifices made by young people in the 1970s and 1980s, who dedicated their lives, hopes and aspirations to a different new South Africa, it pains me to see what has become of those sacrifices. I attended the funerals of these young activists, consoled their grieving parents, and addressed their communities and churches. Now, I look back and see how the ANC, first under Jacob Zuma and now under Cyril Ramaphosa, continues to undermine those memories and sacrifices. This infuriates me because these issues are pushing our country towards an abyss from which we may never recover if we are not vigilant. 

Do you believe Thabo Mbeki’s presidency was more aligned with the original ideals and values of the ANC?

It's a trick question, given the HIV/Aids crisis during Mbeki's presidency, which was a significant issue. However, I do believe that Mbeki made a more honest effort to adhere to the ANC's ideals compared to those who followed him.

Do the two of you still talk?

I would love to engage in a conversation with President Mbeki about various issues, including the one you mentioned. His pan-African vision and the concept of an African renaissance struck me as visionary and essential. Unfortunately, all of that seems to have been lost since his departure. 

There is a consensus that Ramaphosa represents “the good guys" within the ANC.

Well, that's not entirely accurate. The notion that Ramaphosa is the virtuous figure in the ANC is largely media-driven propaganda. The DA's willingness to form a coalition with the ANC under the condition of Ramaphosa's leadership is a testament to this myth. Ramaphosa's image as the “good guy" is carefully cultivated and projected by influential forces within the ANC and the media. Consider this: who facilitated his rise to wealth?

Where has Ramaphosa gone wrong during his presidency?

Ramaphosa bears responsibility for sidelining and even suspending many principled members of the ANC who upheld the party's ideals. He and his inner circle have marginalised and isolated them.

Who are these individuals you are referring to?

For instance, take MP Mervyn Dirks, who attempted to hold Ramaphosa accountable for the Phala Phala matter. Dirks proposed establishing a parliamentary committee to oversee the presidency and require the president to explain his actions. What happened to him? He was pushed aside, ostracised, marginalised and eventually suspended. Similarly, Lindiwe Sisulu raised significant concerns about the constitution, the ANC, and what she perceived as wrongdoing. She was removed.

Would you say the same applies to the public protector, Busisiwe Mkhwebane?

Likewise. The moment she challenged [Ramaphosa] on constitutional grounds, she was removed in a blatantly unconstitutional manner, with no regard for the law or the principles of decency.

Isn’t it parliament that removes the public protector, not the president?

Dr Croucamp, you're a political scientist; you understand how this works. Parliament seems to be beholden to the political leadership, not the people. Let me give you another example. How can parliament, acting under the influence of ANC leaders, vote against a Section 89 report drafted by a respected judge, former chief justice Sandile Ngcobo, regarding the Phala Phala matter, which suggests the president has questions to answer?

But that is the constitutionally prescribed role of parliament?

Parliament's role should be to debate that report. Blocking it indicates that parliament is completely beholden to the ANC leadership, regardless of their responsibility or lack thereof. The public's faith in parliament's integrity has been severely eroded. To most South Africans, parliament no longer serves their interests.

Chief Justice Raymond Zondo recently remarked that parliament has taken no steps to address the lack of oversight during the Zuma years. What are your thoughts on this?

Zondo is absolutely correct, although he has created a credibility and integrity dilemma for himself and the nation. Why did the chief justice issue a report identifying individuals he believed were criminals and unfit for state service, including parliament, only to later swear those same individuals into the cabinet of the president who appointed him as chief justice? While I may not be a legal scholar, I recognise that this raises serious concerns. When the chief justice creates such a credibility challenge, where can ordinary citizens find a sense of justice?

Do you reject the theory that the current state of South Africa, and the challenges faced by Ramaphosa, are a consequence of the mismanagement during Zuma’s presidency? Didn’t Ramaphosa inherit a compromised and ungovernable system, setting him up for failure?

No, I do not accept that theory. Ramaphosa served as deputy president alongside Zuma from the beginning. The ANC prided itself on making collective decisions, and Ramaphosa was privy to everything happening during his tenure as deputy president. He also chaired the deployment committee, responsible for placing individuals in state enterprises. He knew their competencies, understood their incompetence, and was aware of the corruption. Yet, he appointed them, and they were under his supervision. There was nothing at the government level that he was unaware of.

If Ramaphosa had spoken out, he would have been removed as deputy president?

Maybe, but he was consulted on all of Zuma's actions. I cannot fathom how he could have inherited a captured state as if by surprise. It was disheartening when he began referring to “those nine wasted years" as if he bears no responsibility or accountability. To me, Ramaphosa is a carefully cultivated image presented to us, primarily by the media and a specific faction within the ANC, as the “good guy".

Are you suggesting that he avoided taking responsibility for being at the core of the problem?

No-one in the ANC takes responsibility, yet they all amassed wealth, even during Zuma's presidency, if not before. No one can claim clean hands unless they are proven to be outside the group that embezzled the funds, a matter that Zondo and the nation should be deeply concerned about. 

Allow me to inquire about the song Kill the Boer, Kill the Farmer. Does it have historical origins within the liberation movement? I know it can be traced back to Peter Mokaba, and gained prominence in the 1980s during the urbanisation of the struggle within South Africa's borders. However, does the song delineate the militarisation of the struggle or does it have more profound historical roots?

I remember that song from the 1980s. However, since the formation of MK in 1961, the ANC effectively shifted away from its previous policies and plans for a fundamental change in South Africa to regain or achieve power. The primary focus became a policy of military action, along with advocating international sanctions to influence the global community. Chief Albert Luthuli and Dr Martin Luther King played a role in the first declaration to call for sanctions against South Africa.

That was a secondary policy, and the main strategy since 1961 was MK and the militarisation of the struggle?

Certainly, but when I advocated for the United Democratic Front (UDF), one of our principles was that it would be an above-ground, non-violent movement, inspired by Luthuli's legacy and the defiance campaign of the 1950s. It's crucial to recognise that within the ANC and the UDF, there was an ongoing ideological debate between violence and non-violence.

So, does this song have its origins in the militarisation of the struggle and MK?

Yes, the song gained prominence during the 1980s when the struggle became more violent, particularly in the Vaal Triangle region towards the end of 1984. It was during this period that we witnessed the use of “necklacing" as a form of punishment for informers of the apartheid regime within the black community. However, the escalation of violence primarily occurred when the police engaged and provoked violence. 

You, Beyers Naudé, and perhaps even Desmond Tutu maintained a more nuanced view of the relationship between violent and non-violent means in pursuing the ideals of the struggle?

Indeed. During my time, I reprimanded a young pastor who sang militarised songs in church. I explained to the congregation the reasons behind our choices — our struggle's tension between violence and non-violence.

Didn't the youth have their own agenda at the time? They were at the forefront of the urban struggle against apartheid in the 1980s.

Yes, but it is a complex matter, as the youth drew inspiration from figures like Che Guevara, making it challenging for the message of Jesus to compete with the romanticism of Che. There are young individuals asking me about the UDF, wondering where they fit in because they want to make a difference. It's about securing their own future.

Is it possible to rekindle the spirit of the UDF in some form?

This prospect excites me, and I respond with a resounding yes. I firmly believe it's possible. Not precisely the same organisation, as the circumstances have evolved. We are no longer battling a white pharaoh but one who looks just like us. After 30 years of ANC rule, the dynamics have shifted. The trauma we experienced during apartheid and colonialism has transformed into a different kind of trauma under the ANC.

However, I am currently traveling across the country, and I'm headed to another significant public meeting on Sunday. I'll be visiting the Eastern Cape, Johannesburg, and Bloemfontein as well. People yearn for something familiar, not something entirely new. They identify with what is now commonly referred to as the spirit of the UDF. So, if you ask me if it's possible, I'd say yes.

If it's the last thing I have the strength to do, I'll help rekindle that spirit. It's not about resurrecting the past; it's about forging a new future for our people, and they deserve nothing less.

♦ VWB ♦

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