Analysing Raymond Suttner.

Prof. Raymond Suttner, UNISA law academic, ex-revolutionary, ex-political prisoner and author of The ANC Underground in South Africa to 1976, now describes himself as a “political therapist”; people come to him saying how depressed they feel about the situation, and he heals them. Admittedly not by telling them that the situation is all right, or by finding the causes of their depression (“Now, tell me, what might have been the source of your hostility-aggression towards your first commissar?”). No, he just tells them that things are bound to get better someday. It is the political equivalent of Prozac, generating fake contentment with one’s bitter lot in this fallen world.

Ooo, that does sound ‘arsh, don’t it?

Suttner began his talk by plugging his book, which seems to be a good one. The purpose of the book, he explained, was good whether or not the book itself was good (which is a good observation in itself). The purpose was to remind us that there was a time when ANC political activity was determined by two vital purposes; to take action despite the fact that it brought no immediate direct benefit to the person taking the action, and to take action which would eventually bring direct benefit to other people as well as oneself. Altruism and solidarity, in short.

The book deals with the sixteen years between the banning of the ANC and the start of the Soweto uprising. During this period, Suttner observes, many commentators — such as reactionary and Afrikaner nationalist historian Hermann Giliomee — have claimed that the ANC had ceased to exist. (In the 1960s many books were produced by the South African propaganda organisation claiming precisely this.) Suttner was too nice to remind his audience that this is because virtually all of these commentators would like to see the ANC destroyed and are empowered by the notion that someone one actually managed to do it.

Suttner’s key point was to do with popular mobilisation and how important this is. If the people are not involved in politics, if they do not feel themselves to be participating in a democratic struggle, then there is a problem with that politics and that struggle no matter how noble the cause might be. The Creator would not disagree with this. It was refreshing to hear the notion of participatory rather than representative democracy rearing its head; the Creator has not heard such terms spoken out loud for twenty years. On the other hand, it is blindingly obvious that an underground organisation is not an agency for popular mobilisation, nor is it democratic. In the book, Suttner raises unanswered questions about whether the ANC before 1960 was really as democratic as it claimed; in his talk he wondered out loud whether even the UDF was as participatory as it pretended. It is good to raise such issues although it might have been better to have raised them earlier, even if not at the time they were relevant.

So: altruism, solidarity, and genuine participatory democracy. He did not mention socialism once, but perhaps he felt that as a long-standing communist (though no longer a Communist, his membership having lapsed making him one of the 35 000 lapsed members fraudulently kept on the SACP’s records) he did not need to. Perhaps, too, he felt that speaking to a bunch of bourgeois types at Rhodes, it was necessary to tone down one’s analysis to the intellectual level at which Democratic Alliance politicians routinely operate. (There, this proves that the words “intellectual” and “Democratic Alliance” can be put in the same sentence without the world coming to an end.) So much of what he said thereafter should be judiciously criticised because it may have been couched in dubious terms for purposes of agitprop.

But on the other hand, it may not.

The second two-thirds of Suttner’s talk, which was staggeringly well-timed to last exactly an hour (and not a sentence was wasted) was devoted to contemporary politics. Very properly, Suttner observed that there is much that we do not and cannot know about what is going on. Hence all observations must be provisional and many observations should probably be held over until clarity emerges.

Having established these qualifications Suttner went off on a splendid rant, the gist of which follows.

The ANC is staggeringly defective. (Suttner focussed on the ANC because he felt that the SACP was beyond redemption and therefore not worth criticising.) Its leadership is both corrupt and incompetent. They are without meaningful policies and have seized power largely for personal gain; a significant minority of them are criminals or at least justifiably suspected of criminal activities. This leadership is also intolerant and incompetent; it can alienate people with its intolerance, but it lacks the competence to persuade those people to stay in the organisation. Hence the organisation is also extremely fragile — membership and leadership have parted company and structures have largely disintegrated or ceased to function meaningfully — and as a result the current leadership is unprecedentedly insecure.

Suttner identifies problems arising from this. One was violence. An ex-MK operative obviously cannot speak out against violence per se, but he observed that the threats of violence explicit in many statements made by the ANC Youth League and the Young Communists League were threats against constitutional order. Likewise Suttner spoke out against calling judges “counter-revolutionary”, echoing the point earlier made by — of all people for Suttner to be echoing — Reserve Bank Governor Tito Mboweni. His major point, however, was that if a judge is “counter-revolutionary” when opposing one’s political agenda, and is endorsed only when supporting one’s political agenda, then the concept of the judiciary is absent (and, one might add, that political agenda is confused with revolutionary activity — something which a real revolutionary like Suttner probably found distasteful in the mouths of Malema and Mbalula, whose revolutionary credentials do not exist).

In speaking out against using violence to break up meetings organised by the “Shikota” party, Suttner emphasised that he was not supporting the ANC’s dissidents. His chief complaint against them was that they had put forward no programme for anyone to follow. A national convention such as they sought to call, he pointed out, was just a big public meeting; there had been no attempt to make it representative and any decisions taken there would be arbitrary top-down issues. Hence he could not support them.

On the other hand, he could not endorse the ANC’s criticisms of them. Lekota, he observed, was a brave and honest man, albeit impetuous and sometimes undisciplined. Anyone thinking that Lekota had left the ANC out of bitterness — he cited Pallo Jordan’s “sour grapes” remarks with surprise that an intelligent man could say something so stupid — obviously did not know Lekota. (Once again Suttner elided the probability that the people saying these things were saying them not because they were true, but because they were convenient.) Meanwhile, why had there been no effort to keep the disgruntled people within the fold? How far were their criticisms of ANC internal democracy valid? Would the new party have better internal democracy? Impossible to say.

Suttner, a Freedom Charter scholar, was somewhat scornful of the “Shikota” claims that the ANC had deviated from the Freedom Charter. It was far too soon to say such things about the Zuma clique. Besides, the Freedom Charter was such a flexible document that it was perfectly possible to argue that Shilowa and Lekota and others had themselves deviated from the Freedom Charter in their support for Mbeki. Hence such claims were two-edged — even if time might prove them more true than they currently seemed.

In response to a question regarding the way that Shilowa had failed to take Gauteng with him, Suttner was wry. He recalled how the Gauteng Provincial Executive Committee had initially shunned people who were rumoured to support Zuma. Then, rather suddenly, as Zuma’s power-base appeared strong in the run-up to Polokwane, the PEC had unanimously changed sides and become Zuma supporters. This was the only point in the speech in which Suttner genuinely sounded bitter, not so much because of the political choice which the PEC had made as because it was so obviously opportunistic and dishonourable — the latter being a term which one almost never hears in these great times, except in the mouths of people incapable of pronouncing the word without messing their pants from pure guilt.

Suttner concluded by identifying the obvious consequences of taking control of the ANC without any principles or programme. He observed the apparent difference between business right and communist left in the Zuma cabal (although he probably exaggerated this difference because he still wanted to believe that the communist left exists). He noted, much more plausibly, the divide between the careerist union and SACP leadership and the trusting workers who make their monthly donations to keep Nzimande and Vavi in cigars and — well, as Suttner observed, whisky has been declared counter-revolutionary, so presumably other ardent spirits are what the true leaders drink. But he noted, scornfully, how Nzimande had been flown around the country at the workers’ expense so as to sit on the platform next to Zuma and drink in the applause.

It is probable that Suttner exaggerated the popular support for Zuma amongst the rank and file. (However, his original split with the SACP had come when the Party supported Zuma’s traditionalist defense during the rape trial, and he argued that it was entirely possible that, had the prosecutor in that trial not been so inept, Zuma might well have been found guilty on the basis of the evidence.) On the other hand, he pointed to the very strong, yet secretive, influence of the military (such as Siphiwe Nyanda) and the spy services (such as the Shaiks) on Zuma’s crowd, and said that he did not want to raise any further points about this for fear of being sued. He obviously thinks there is something very dangerous going on there. Or, perhaps, he just thinks that bourgeois Grahamstonians are most vulnerable to be scared on such issues.

Oddly enough, on the other hand, he said relatively little about the corporate issue. When questions were asked about whether the ruling class had not deliberately fomented a split in the ANC, or whether the SACP leadership had not used its Party authority as a tool to enrich itself — making Communism essentially a front for capitalism — he changed the subject hastily. Perhaps this is the kind of thing he just does not want to think about. Perhaps he fears that he would not be able to apply his tools of political therapy to himself.

Instead, he did say one thing about the source of the problem which was interesting. He observed that under Mandela and Mbeki there had been a decline in the participation of the people in politics. This he emphatically blamed on Mbeki’s centralisation of power. Indeed, although he did not speak about him much, he blamed Mbeki for a great deal — for instance, that Mbeki’s harsh treatment of those who disagreed with him had promoted the Zuma faction.

As he observed, the press has been incompetent in its analysis, due both to retaining the same stale reactionary white hacks of yesteryear, and bringing in stale reactionary black hacks to back them up. (He named no names.) He did point out that a large number of intellectuals within the ANC and the Party — again, no names — were clearly aware of what was wrong, but were saying nothing. This, he said, was a problem — and one which clearly one could not accuse Raymond Suttner of.

Yes. And yet . . .

Suttner’s analysis boils down to the simple idea that before 1990 things were politically all right; that between 1990 and 1994 things somehow went wrong; that after 1994 things went very wrong because Mbeki took over (would the public have had more opportunity to participate if the corporate wheeler-dealer Ramaphosa had got in?) and then after 2007 really really bad when Zuma took over. So now the Party is bad, the ANC is bad, the ANC dissidents are bad, and the people whom the ANC leaders replaced, they were also bad. Everybody is bad except, apparently, Raymond Suttner, floating above the flames and wreckage like a helium balloon made of asbestos, impervious and unaffected.

But this is not actually an accurate analysis. It is a self-serving representation of reality, even if it is the best representation of political reality that the Creator has heard. It leaves out the towering fact that Suttner was in the SACP when that party became corrupt, that he was in the ANC when it became separated from the public. These are not affairs where he can say that he and the other intellectuals are above criticism. He and the others failed.

More to the point, issues like the collapse of public political dynamism were not simply imposed on the ANC by Mandela and Mbeki. They may have been a side-effect of the need for economic retrenchment. But the fact that the case against GEAR was made purely by abuse and personal dogma, that neither the SACP nor COSATU nor any Trotskyite organisation made any effort at political education of the public in order to either understand or meaningfully challenge government policies — this is something for which intellectuals like Suttner are responsible. Suttner was the head of Political Education in the ANC. Where is political education today? In the toilet with the rest of the Polokwane promises.

No. Cde Suttner has made a fine speech and written a good book which we should all read. But there are a couple of words which he failed to pronounce in his speech. Perhaps because he could not.

Those words are “mea culpa”.

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