Revisiting National Democratic Revolution

The Faculty of Humanities together with the Harold Wolpe Memorial Trust Eastern Cape Consortium recently hosted Professor Raymond Suttner, revolutionary, ex-political prisoner, part-time visiting Professor at Rhodes University and Emeritus Professor, UNISA, who presented an overview of thoughts on the national liberation movement in “Revisiting National Democratic Revolution (NDR): the 'national question'”.

The paper re-reads ANC history and revisits NDR as a theory of struggle, neither as a cynical exercise nor as untouchable doctrine, beyond interrogation.  Concepts are considered dynamically, contextualised in history and the present, consciously aiming to develop emancipatory meanings and theories. This, Prof Suttner said, enables a critique of essentialist, hierarchical, binary, static and singular meanings attached to words where they are capable of bearing a range of connotations and unfolding into a series of potential outcomes.

“NDR can easily be described as a cliché, or worshipped as some type of idol which somehow governs every action that one does. I was tempted to dismiss the concept but on rethinking it each word doesn’t have an obvious meaning,” said Prof Suttner, who suggested that it is useful to rethink the meaning of the concepts associated with the liberation movement to include “dynamic ways of understanding a movement in dynamic ways over time. Instead of saying democracy only has one meaning as a representative democracy, we could ask ourselves about the word having a number of meanings which coexist with one another,” he added.

The significance of this rethinking, for Prof Suttner, is that words and the concepts associated with the liberation movement can be understood in a range of different ways; some can be emancipatory while some are dangerous and can shut down attempts at transformation and reconstruction.  

In considering the origins of the ‘national liberation model’, he said at its inception it is a response to colonial dispossession; “national” was a response to try and unify diverse individuals against colonial rule that practised divide and rule. “In this sense, the meaning of the word ‘national’ was something very positive. However, in some instances, where the movement is depicted as ‘the nation to be, where the status of the nation is conferred on the liberation movement by outside authorities such as the United Nations, and is viewed as a designated sole representative of the People, the meaning of ‘nation’ can embody dangerous qualities,” said Prof Suttner.

In these cases, an election following a national liberation struggle may be seen as purely confirming what the liberation movement knows. “As justified as the liberation movement may be as a national broad front against colonialism, it has the tendency of aggregating to itself a permanent representivity of the People irrespective of the outcomes of elections. It tends to depict itself as the nation in the process of becoming.” This, he said, can prove problematic if it discourages critiques of the movement by virtue of the fact that it is taken as representing the will of the People.

An overview of the evolution of the national liberation model, Prof Suttner suggested, could prove helpful to consider where a ‘wrong turn’ occurs, and to consider the elements which gave rise to it in order to prevent it happening again. “The questions are how do we identify it and what do we do about it?” he said. It is important to consider how people relate to it, because that’s what gives it its efficacy. It has salience, because of this grounding in the understanding of ordinary people as illustrated by the ANC’s Freedom Charter.

Characteristics of the NDR include retrieving legacies, as highlighted by Prof Suttner. Insofar as colonialism marginalised education and knowledge for some groups, part of the emancipation from colonial rule involves recovering those legacies. But how that is done can have important consequences on the emancipation.  “We must be careful of the notion of consensus that was supposed to have been prevalent in pre-colonial society and steer away from an essentialist meaning,” he said.

Masculinist and patriarchal tendencies of the NDR, where masculine heroism is worshipped, are prevalent too. “One of the emblems of this is military heroism, which is potentially one of the most dangerous elements of the national liberation movement model,” he said. “Freedom fighters did not fight for war and parading of military valour; they fought for peace and friendship…The recourse to violence is something that should only happen in specific circumstances…”

As highlighted by Prof Suttner, the notion of social cohesion is used frequently in attempts at nation building, but in order for it to be emancipatory it needs to be inclusive of a range of identities.  “The ANC was not preordained as leader of South Africa. We need to treat the notion of nationalism as evolving and understand that there are reasons that are politically sound to organise on a national basis in the beginning, but there are tendencies to homogenise people too,” said Prof Suttner. 

For example, in South Africa many sectoral groups are frowned upon as being divisive and the notion of the national is used to stamp out tribalism and ethnicity. “What will the price of national identity be? Insofar as there is a common identity we need to make sure that it is not crushing what people hold dear,” said Prof Suttner, adding that there is a dangerous process of de-ideologisation happening in South African society, where “certain things are portrayed as being alien to the ANC while certain meanings are secure,” he said.

Prof Suttner concluded by calling for a revitalising of debates around the meanings of NDR.

By Sarah-Jane Bradfield

Picture source: Books Live website