IT was a remarkable, passionate outburst of the sort for which Desmond Tutu has become famous. In November 2011 he roundly denounced the South African government over its failure (again) to issue the Dalai Lama with a visa. On this occasion he had been expressly invited by Tutu. Amongst other home truths, Tutu told the ANC that the liberation of South Africa had been a national campaign for fundamental human rights in which a wide range of groups and belief systems, including the Christian Church and other faith-based organisations, had played a significant part.

This furious protest was made as the year of the ANC centenary approached. President Jacob Zuma had recently adopted a habit of making conciliatory gestures towards other political traditions and listeners could usually expect the names of Robert Sobukwe, Stephen Biko, Helen Suzman and, less unexpectedly, Bram Fischer to appear in his speeches. But there was also no doubt that a determined effort to create an official, sanitised history placing the ANC at the epicentre of events leading up to the establishment of democratic institutions in 1994 had long been underway.

The struggle history of the Pietermaritzburg area is a case in point, a good example of historical myth making. This version runs as follows: a people’s war was spearheaded by Umkhonto we Sizwe (MK), masterminded by the Communist party and orchestrated from ANC bases in exile with the help of Radio Freedom. Between them they successfully achieved a state of ungovernability. Ironically, this is a scenario shared by right-wing commentators who fail to understand how a movement that enjoyed little apparent support at the time of the Soweto Uprising could be the majority party by 1994. The quick answer to this is massive international support, the backing of the apartheid government that identified a fellow nationalist party with which it could do business, and a high degree of local political opportunism which saw the ANC as the organisation of the future.

So here is history gift-wrapped by the ANC and validated by the right, a symbiosis that is not as strange as it might seem at first sight. Even though the ANC was historically strong in the lower Edendale valley and Pietermaritzburg, the area produced, according to sympathetic sources, only 40−50 MK soldiers. Organised insurgency was sporadic, dwindling to virtually nothing during the Emergency. Conversely, the ungovernability was the inevitable outcome of Inkatha’s tactic of imposing itself on newly established black local authorities, the partisan behaviour of the security forces, and ultimately their joint lawlessness. The resistance was determined, but amateur and often compromised. Self-defence units were just that, not MK outfits. There was no military victory because MK was no more than a minor irritant to the Pretoria government even after 1990. Instead, there was a negotiated peace between the realists of many groups as the Cold War ended and globalisation emerged. MK’s original remit of armed propaganda had legitimacy, but indiscipline led to illegitimate acts of terrorism. The term counter-revolutionary is nonsensical in contemporary South Africa political discourse. There was no revolution.

Apartheid was brought down by three main forces: changing global political and economic conditions; its own internal contradictions recognised even in the National Party from the Soweto Uprising onwards; and internal resistance. The ANC may be the oldest liberation movement in Africa, but it was caught largely unawares by F.W. de Klerk in 1989 and 1990. Nor in exile had it done enough by way of planning exactly what it would do if it had the opportunity to form a government. Its saving grace comprised three factors: the Freedom Charter, the United Democratic Front (UDF) and the Congress of South African Trade Unions (COSATU).

It is important to recognise the significance of the Charter. Some of its aims are now irrelevant, others taken for granted in their orthodoxy. But its value lies in its wider vision: ‘South Africa belongs to all who live in it both black and white’ was an inspirational and revolutionary call in the very best sense; so too was its embrace of justice. It exhorted people to strength and courage to pursue these lofty ideals in desperate times and provided a rough blueprint for the future.

Amongst other outcomes it inspired the UDF, established in 1983. Contrary to widespread belief it was not the internal wing of the ANC. In many ways it was the very antithesis of the ANC, which was trapped in the conspiratorial and paranoid politics of exile. The UDF, said to represent 600 grassroots organisations, was almost anarchic at times in its open, democratic approach. Having been instrumental in forcing the government to the negotiating table it was very quickly rolled up by the ANC in the early 1990s. During its brief but influential existence it had exhibited a political culture of inclusivity, drawing many individuals from minority groups into anti-apartheid politics. In the words of journalist Max du Preez, it ‘lived non-racialism’. It was also noted for accountability, often painfully so as little could happen without a drawn out process of acquiring a mandate; and it was opposed to any form of personality cult. Allan Boesak made an interesting observation: involvement in the UDF required a level of faith.

And then there was COSATU. If the UDF provided the community level struggle against apartheid, then COSATU produced the industrial shock troops in what were often violent confrontations. There was considerable ideological conflict about this because its predecessor the Federation of South African Trade Unions (FOSATU, founded in 1979) contained a strong workerist strand that believed the struggle should be all-embracing and waged on the shopfloor; not attached to a particular political tendency. The workerists lost out, many would say to the detriment of the labour movement, and COSATU’s miners and metalworkers in particular became the persuaders of the struggle. There are two ironies here. If the ANC did have a revolutionary army it might more accurately be described not as MK, but its trade union wing. And it is all a far cry from today’s preponderance within COSATU of white-collar workers intent on cementing their middle-class position in the nation.

It can be argued with some validity that Charterism was the glue that bound together, however loosely, the very different cultures of the ANC, UDF and COSATU. But what of the other ideologies and groups that contributed to liberation? Two stand out: black consciousness (BC) and liberalism. Steve Biko is the most neglected single figure in recent South African history. It is no coincidence that he was murdered by the Security Branch because the non-violent BC philosophy he personified and his vision of the future were a far greater danger to the apartheid state than thousands of MK soldiers.

BC, he pointed out, was concerned about empowerment, not power. Brought up an Anglican, he believed it was a sin to be oppressed and that restoration of a sense of self and pride was vital for African people. The aim was individual psychological emancipation from apartheid, something of course that applied to South Africans of all communities, and BC-aligned organisations put this belief into practice in grassroots projects that operated within the law. Mental imprisonment, Biko believed, could not be reversed from the barrel of a gun and he was convinced that change could be effected through the force of ideas. His hope was to see race eliminated as an operational factor in South African society. One might say that Biko’s was a political faith. There is little trace of it today sunk under the weight of racial nationalism and Leninism, although some of the most impressive figures in public life came to their prominent roles under the influence of BC thinking: Mamphela Ramphele, Cheryl Carolus, Mosioua Lekota and Xolela Mangcu are good examples.

A great friend of Biko’s was the liberal journalist Donald Woods, although to speak of South African liberalism is of course to evoke the name of Helen Suzman. Liberals have not had a good relationship with the South African state. Under apartheid they were told to pack for Perth and since liberation they have been denigrated as racists. There is sometimes reason for this based on individual behaviour. But the significance of liberalism lies in its basic principles, which amount to the responsible exercise of individual conscience and constant questioning of the use of power. These are the roots of the combative civil society that confronted apartheid and the many non-governmental organisations that continue today to monitor socio-economic justice and basic freedoms, advocate the rule of law, and hold government accountable. They are founded on essentially liberal principles, although many may not want to acknowledge this. And the greatest liberal triumph of all is the South African Constitution.

Another political tendency that deserves serious consideration, not for strength of numbers perhaps, but broad influence, is the Unity Movement (UM). Its origins lie in Trotskyite circles in the Cape in opposition to an essentially bourgeois ANC. Its emphasis was firmly on non-racialism, individual liberation, anti-nationalism, grassroots organisation and community struggle; not dissimilar to the beliefs of BC, in fact. The UM used the politics of non-collaboration and the boycott and had a profoundly austere approach to politics. It had a distaste for messiahs and what it termed political stunts. Perhaps most interesting of all, it regarded apartheid as a form of derangement. There are those who regard the UM as irrelevant, but it had considerable influence on black teachers and largely through them on the anti-apartheid sports movement, the South African Council on Sport (SACOS). The sports boycott did not bring down apartheid, but it had a highly corrosive effect on the confidence of the South African state and the white public. The space occupied by SACOS was another hijacked by the ANC.

An interesting spin off from the ANC centenary celebrations were claims by the Pan Africanist Congress that the ANC is only 53 years old and that 2012 was the year of the PAC’s hundredth anniversary. It is an intriguing viewpoint that centres on ownership of the organisation founded in 1912 that could also be contested by the Congress of the People (COPE) if it had not fallen apart through bickering. The PAC and its Africanist tradition suffered from internal strife and was already a fragmented force by the time apartheid was defeated. But it did throw up a remarkable leader in Robert Sobukwe, to whom the name of Patricia de Lille can be added.

One of the articles in this book looks at the case for regarding Bishop J.W. Colenso as South Africa’s first human rights advocate. The later role of the churches under apartheid is not easy to summarise. By and large as institutions they played honourable roles as did many of their high-profile members such as Frank Chikane, Ambrose Reeves, Beyers Naudé, Dennis Hurley, Simon Gqubule and Tutu. Churches offered sanctuary, assisted civil rights organisations and made their own direct contributions. The South African Council of Churches Dependents Conference (DC), for example, in partnership with the International Committee of the Red Cross assisted political prisoners and their families particularly those on Robben Island. The role of individual congregations was more questionable.

The universities played a comparable role. Some of them, and some of their staff, did a remarkable job promoting innovative thought about the nature of South African society, a great deal of it the result of that remarkably stimulating intellectual era of Marxist analysis of the 1970s, a trend that is on the way back. Universities also encouraged social, political and economic monitoring: good examples in Pietermaritzburg were the Centre for Adult Education where John Aitchison and Vaughn John produced some remarkable data and contemporary analysis about the violence of the 1980s and 1990s that has never been refuted; and Yunus Carrim and Yusuf Bhamjee at the Development Studies Research Group with Norman Bromberger and their work on strikes and boycotts. Similar patterns could be seen in the judiciary and legal profession.

It was the South African sociologist Pierre van den Berghe who pointed out that a moderately repressive and highly unequal society can set the scene for striking levels of creativity and activism. Those who thought that South Africa was somehow akin to Nazi Germany were deluding themselves. It was a relatively open society in terms of links to the rest of the world and its government, at least until the battle to preserve the system of apartheid was effectively lost, did actually care what the international community thought and how it reacted. This helped to preserve a semblance of legality. After all, apartheid was fundamentally a set of laws backed by a massive bureaucracy.

Today South Africa is fortunate to have a revived and thriving civil society. But sight has been lost of the scale of that movement during the apartheid era. The truth about the Truth Commission is that it was a piece of necessary political theatre, national catharsis. It published little that was new in terms of information. That was already out there in the public domain for those who cared to look for it. The list of organisations that compiled the information and used it to oppose apartheid is long and honourable and included the Black Sash (especially its advice offices), Lawyers for Human Rights, Detainees Support Committee (DESCOM), Human Rights Commission (not the present government organisation), the National Medical and Dental Association (NAMDA) and the National Education Crisis Committee (NECC). It should not be forgotten that their members and activists came from all persuasions: liberals and communists; Charterists and black consciousness adherents; Unity Movement members and conservatives; Christians, Muslims, Jews, Hindus and atheists.

History, Marx said, occurs as tragedy and recurs as farce. Some might say that in South Africa we have had tragedy followed by tragedy. The second tragedy could more accurately be described as unfulfilled promise or in more modern terms underperformance. One of the reasons for this lies in the fact that the rich variety of the nation’s political philosophical history has been devalued, creating a vacuum. That eclecticism influenced many individuals, some of them still in positions of significance, but it has not permeated the fabric of the state. It has been dominated by the ANC whose exile wing, as Hermann Giliomee has put it, expropriated the moral capital of a broad-based, pro-democracy movement. It has subsequently abandoned its conscience and philosophical base in the Freedom Charter to power-hungry racketeers and opportunists.

It is impossible to assign the fall of apartheid and the establishment of democratic institutions, in other words South Africa’s recent political history, to any one tendency or institution. The inevitable conclusion is that this achievement must be attributed to all South Africans who contributed in ways great and small. Democratic institutions do indeed belong to all of them. Both historical truth and the present health of South Africa demand that those who believe their party is the State and that the majority, however it is defined, has a greater claim to certain rights in society in the name of ethnic nationalism should be vigorously resisted.

Perhaps the contributions that follow will reinforce this point.