THE recent deaths, within a few weeks of one another, of two prominent lawyers, both ex-Robben Island prisoners, focused rare and brief attention on the Unity Movement (UM, formerly the Non-European Unity Movement founded in 1943 – ironically, like the African National Congress, in Bloemfontein). They were Pietermaritzburg activist Kader Hassim of the African People’s Democratic Union of South Africa (APDUSA, founded in 1961 by Isaac Tabata) and Fikile Bam, judge president of the Land Claims Court.

The UM was a political tendency that played a role more influential in the liberation of South Africa than the number of its supporters might suggest. Its ten-point plan for human rights emphasised radical policies around land, but was fundamentally little different from the platforms of most other anti-apartheid organisations. This raises an interesting point about South Africa’s liberation history: comparisons should be made between the methods of different organisations and the extent to which they balanced means with ends. The hallmark of the UM was non-collaboration with tainted, segregated bodies and use of the politics of boycott. Both were powerful weapons for the oppressed, although they were not always consistently or effectively applied. It was an austere approach that rejected populism: the UM were the puritans of the anti-apartheid movement.

 Members held trenchant and principled views. Africans, they believed were all those by birth or adoption who felt Africa to be their permanent home. With roots in the Trotskyite socialism of the pre-war Workers Party of South Africa, the UM regarded much of this country’s political Left as agents of the Kremlin. And from its early days in the forties, it employed colourful language to describe opponents. The supporters of apartheid were described as a so-called master race or herrenvolk, and the term quislings was applied to collaborators. Internationally the UM had links with the West Indian Marxists George Padmore and C.L.R.James (who was incidentally also one of history’s best cricket writers.) This international outlook kept the UM in tune with rapidly changing world views on race.

The UM’s non-racialism and a parallel anti-nationalism were deep rooted and uncompromising, based on a belief in the essential equality, dignity and human worth of individuals. From the outset (and in common with the Communists) there was room for whites, particularly the working class whose membership was expected eventually to see the light. Race, the UM believed, was an obsession that undermined human relationships, and it took this to a logical conclusion by treating apartheid ideology as a form of madness and an ‘excrescence of capitalism’.

It had faith in ordinary people and no time for what it regarded as political stunts. Specific campaigns (like the Defiance Campaign) it saw as opportunistic, while high-profile political leaders were regarded as suspect. The UM, in its own words, had no need of messiahs, and it advocated grassroots political education and organisation. Violence as a political tool it rejected with contempt as puerile and something that would retard the struggle. In common with Black Consciousness, the UM hoped liberation would be achieved through individual self-awareness and empowerment; not mass mobilisation, nor threatened or actual destruction of life or property.

Organisations with a UM background that placed loyalty to principle and policy above all else, like the South African Council on Sport for instance, had a rough ride in the late eighties as the apartheid state unravelled. The broad Charterist front around the ANC argued for pragmatism and compromise in order to fast-track unity. The intention may perhaps have been sincere, but disregard of the no-compromise, non-collaboration approach of the UM led to the opportunism and corruption that are at the bottom of many of the country’s present ills.

The UM was criticised as too intellectual, lacking engagement with popular politics. This is fair comment. But South Africa’s whisky-drinking, golf-playing political elite could do with a measure of austerity and puritanism. And many commentators believe that the country is in the process of renewed ethnic polarisation, something the UM warned about through its opposition to any form of racism among the oppressed.

The political tradition represented so nobly by Bam and Hassim, both undervalued patriots, has lessons and relevance for South Africa today in terms of civic morality and nation building. But there is more than this. Liberation was made possible by South Africans who represented a wide swathe of political belief – Black Consciousness, liberalism, Marxism, Africanism and trade unionism as well as Charterism. And, as Desmond Tutu reminded us so eloquently when the Dalai Lama was refused his visa again last year, the churches and mosques, the temples and the synagogues played their significant part too.

The political history of this country is highly complex. It was liberated not by the ANC, but by South Africans. And that in a year of potential ANC triumphalism is something that should not be forgotten.

This article was first published in The Witness on 11 January 2012 and entitled ‘A complex history’.