Time to Stop Romanticising Social Movements

Cape Times (South Africa), January 26, 2007 | Go to article overview

Time to Stop Romanticising Social Movements


BYLINE: Ebrahim Harvey

The World Social Forum, held in Nairobi this week, came against the background of increasing divisions opening up within South African social movements.

The dramatic and rancorous allegations and counter-allegations between, on the one hand, the Abahlali Base Mjondolo, the shack-dwellers movement of KwaZulu-Natal and the Western Cape's Anti-Eviction Campaign, and the Social Movement Indaba (SMI) secretariat on the other, at their annual conference at the University of KwaZulu-Natal at the end of 2006, brought to a climax internal problems and tensions simmering for a few years.

But these events are only symptomatic of larger problems afflicting social movements. Contrary to the impression some social movements try to give, nothing is further from the truth that the ANC and its allies are the bad guys and they the good ones. This simplistic and misleading notion is peddled by some in the leadership and their supporters.

And this is a big part of the problem in the often tense and conflicting relations between the social movements and the ANC's allies. As a result a huge gap in national discourse - convenient for many in the leadership of social movements - is that little is publicly known about their internal situation. Why? Because the almost exclusive focus thus far has been on a critique of the ANC's neo-liberal policies.

The problem is that this has not been accompanied by equally "speaking truth" to their own power or self-critically facing their own many weaknesses and failures.

Unless their policy differences with the ANC can be translated into a unifying opposition force with a clear and coherent programme of action, a correct tactical orientation, the clear realisation that electoral politics cannot be avoided and substantial mass support - all of which they lack - the best policies are useless or little more than mere words.

It is precisely here where the social movements are stuck at the moment, but only partly because of the ANC's dominance of the political landscape.

Their own other weaknesses - lacking the support of and poor relations with trade unions, fragmentation, issue-bound, episodic militancy and outbursts, followed by long intervals of quietude and retreat, lack of organisational discipline, protracted internecine strife and poor administration - are proving to be probably their biggest undoing as they try to win support from disaffected ANC supporters and sympathisers, whose socio- economic hopes and expectations have been largely dashed by the neo-liberal juggernaut of post-apartheid South Africa. …

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