SA’s hopeful revolutionaries

ANTHONY BUTLER: A happy and revolutionary long weekend, comrade

It is easy to confuse a profoundly unjust society for a country ripe for revolution

 First published in Business Day and BusinessLive

17 MARCH 2023

Will 2023 be the year in which the EFF finally unleashes revolutionary change in SA? 

It is true that Eskom at last faces real competition in its struggle to bring all economic and social activity to a halt. In contrast to the parastatal, though, the EFF has merely pledged to stop all commercial and academic activity in the country for one day, on Monday. 

The EFF’s demand that workers and students stay at home has been backed up by direct threats of violence. Party leader Julius Malema has described the protests as the start of a revolution and predicted that opponents of the EFF would “meet their maker”.  

Malema told party members last October that “at some point there must be killing because the killing is part of a revolutionary act”. It is difficult, however, to see threats of violence as elements of a wider revolutionary upheaval. 

Revolutions that have transformed both economic and political structures have often, by necessity, involved violence. But this has not always been the case, as the largely peaceful and revolutionary transformations of post-Soviet East and Central Europe demonstrate.

All manner of violent uprisings and revolts have meanwhile taken place throughout human history, and almost all have failed radically to change the underlying systems of power. 

The EFF’s involvement in violent rebellion has in any event so far been largely confined to welfare state revolutions. For example, its “ground forces” on university campuses have lobbed bricks at poorly paid private security guards, who have been instructed to avoid retaliation.  

Such protests have occasionally created inconvenience outside the tertiary education sector, for example with the littering of streets close to campuses or the build-up of traffic congestion close to university access roads, but this scarcely qualifies as revolutionary upheaval. The EFF has in fact been exceptionally unsuccessful at linking its nominal agenda of revolutionary change to potential agents of political upheaval, for example in organised labour. 

Like the ANC from which it emerged, the EFF has become wedded to revolutionary rhetoric in a society in which revolutionary change is more or less impossible. It is easy to confuse a profoundly unjust society for a country ripe for revolution.  

Moeletsi Mbeki once famously predicted a “Tunisia moment”, in which the social grants that have come with an expanding SA welfare state will suddenly be withdrawn as the result of a fiscal crisis, generating an intolerable shortfall between popular expectations and realities. At this point — at least according to the “J-curve hypothesis” first advanced by sociologist James Davies more than  six decades ago — individuals will rise up and engage in collective revolutionary activity.  

The trouble with Davies’ theory — and with Mbeki’s derivative amateur sociology — is that empirical evidence simply does not support it. Most societies across human history have been far more brutal and unjust than SA is today, but inequality and oppression have typically produced subservience, coping mechanisms and fear rather than revolutionary sentiment. 

There are some revolutionary Marxists in SA, but there are many more deeply conservative Christians. The ANC wisely embodies both traditions — sometimes in the same person. It is striking, for example, that excitable scholars have expended a good deal of energy on the implications of Nelson Mandela’s brief membership of the ostensibly revolutionary Communist Party of SA, but far less on what writer Dennis Cruywagen describes as “the spiritual side of Mandela … and his wish to be buried as a Methodist”. 

We can anticipate that the EFF’s national shutdown will be a partial success. Since Tuesday is a public holiday, pupils, students, many workers and much of the middle class will be taking the day off on Monday anyway. SA remains a world leader in the revolutionary long weekend. 

• Butler teaches public policy at the University of Cape Town

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