Time for South Africans to rise up again and demand change

Neil Aggett. Charcoal on paper by Dr Amitabh.

In his memorial lecture for murdered anti-apartheid activist Neil Aggett, Peter Hain urges citizens to reclaim the values of the freedom struggle

With South Africa’s ruling ANC government sadly riddled with corruption from top to bottom, Neil Aggett serves as a reminder of the values of the freedom struggle the party once led so nobly.

He lived according to Nelson Mandela’s guidance: “What counts in life is not the mere fact that we have lived. It is what difference we have made to the lives of others.” A doctor working mainly in overcrowded and desperately under-resourced Black hospitals, he was also a champion of workers’ rights with the African Food and Canning Workers’ Union, working without pay, taking additional weekend hospital night shifts to support himself.

But his passionate trade unionism proved fateful. Arrested, he was assassinated in police detention on 5th February 1982. The security services maintained he’d “hung himself with a scarf” – just as they variously claimed others who died mysteriously in prison had “slipped in a shower”, “fallen out of a window”, “fallen down stairs”, or various other mendacious, specious excuses.

The 51st person to die in police detention – an apartheid total that later escalated to over 70 – he was the first and only white. Pilloried, harassed, exiled, abducted, or simply “disappeared”, imprisoned, banned, house-arrested, tortured or assassinated – people forget how hard a battle it was for those struggling to overthrow apartheid.

Today, it is taken for granted that Nelson Mandela walked to freedom in February 1990 after 27 years of imprisonment, and that four years later was elected president. Today, it is taken for granted that, however serious South Africa’s problems of poverty, unemployment, homelessness, corruption, power and water cuts, and mafia-like crime, each South African citizen has human rights protected by their Constitution. But none of that was achieved without a bitter fight against merciless opponents.

But today, tragically, the many thousands of freedom struggle activists like Neil Aggett have been betrayed by the ANC politicians who have looted and brought the country nearly to its knees. Decent people across South Africa, people of all ages and skin colours, tell me how despairing they are for the future of the country under incompetent, thieving ministers, and councillors.

My message to them is learn from South Africa’s struggle history. The struggle giants, the Nelson Mandelas and Oliver Tambos, the Neil Aggetts and Joe Slovos, didn’t defeat apartheid on their own. They were leaders of a mass movement of many tens of thousands of ordinary people who, in the most oppressive of conditions, resisted apartheid, risked their very lives, and threw themselves into activism. They defeated a powerful police state. They refused to be subjugated by an economic system feeding profitably in a trough of racism, and they beat and defeated apartheid, the most institutionalised and micromanaged system of racism the world has ever known.

Today, South Africa must be changed again – radically, and soon. But history teaches us that big change doesn’t normally come from the top. It never did under apartheid; it usually never has anywhere else. 

Once politicians start looting, it becomes an addiction. They become the political alcoholics, political drug addicts. They can’t, and they won’t, stop doing it. The people of South Africa have once again to rise up and resist as civil society, firmly standing together to say ‘enough is enough’, to reclaim the democracy and the ideals of the freedom struggle.

I don’t know if the ANC can be saved from itself. I don’t know if the good people still in the ANC can fully reclaim it from the corrupt ones. But meanwhile, South African citizens can say “No!” to paying a bribe for a contract, for a job, for a permit, for a licence, for starting a business, for building a home; “No!” to a corrupt trade union when applying for a teaching job.

Saying “No!” to the Home Affairs Department official demanding a payment to grant a visa to a Zimbabwean employee facing deportation. Saying “No!” to the policeman using a spurious traffic offence to demand money.

Often, it’s very difficult to say “No!” Much easier to opt for a quiet life and just hand over the money. But until everyone unites to say “No!”, nothing will change. Until a mass uprising said “No!” to apartheid, it didn’t change, and never would have.

If you don’t act, don’t complain. If you don’t resist, don’t moan. And don’t be surprised if this beautiful, special country slides into becoming a failed state.

I urge South Africans to rise up and reclaim the noble mission of Mandela, of Tambo and Sobukwe, of Sisulu and Kathrada, of Biko and Slovo, of Hani and Kasrils. Stand on the shoulders of these giants – and you can do it.

This is an abridged version of Peter Hain’s annual Neil Aggett Memorial lecture delivered at Kingswood College, Makhanda (Grahamstown) on 7th March 2023.

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