Address by the Deputy President Kgalema Motlanthe during the Inaugural Oscar and Rose Mphetha Memorial Lecture, University of Stellenbosch, Cape Town
20 September 2012
The Rector and Vice-Chancellor of the University of Stellenbosch, Professor Russel Botman;
The Mpetha Family and the Mpetha Foundation;
The Deputy Mayor of Stellenbosch
The University Community;
Ladies and Gentlemen:
I am deeply honoured to address the inaugural Oscar and Rose Mpetha Memorial Lecture under the auspices of the Oscar Mpetha Foundation and the Stellenbosch University.
In this regard I would like to thank the Mpetha family for establishing the Oscar Mpetha Foundation, because it behoves those of us left behind, inheritors of their inspiring vision, to uphold their ideals.
The ideals, for which Oscar and Rose Mpetha dedicated the rest of their adult lives, are the reason we are gathered here today, lest we lose our bearings and in so doing betray our heritage. As Professor Mokubung Nkomo put it, ‘the future is embedded in the present as the present bears imprints of the past’. [i]
Indeed the present historical experience in our country was forged out of the past struggles by men and women such as Oscar and Rose Mpetha— men and women whose vision transcended the limitations of their time.
The University’s support for the Oscar and Rose Mpetha Foundations’ efforts to keep alive the memory of these exemplary visionaries emphatically bears this belief out.
As well, I would be remiss not to express gratitude to the Stellenbosch University for the efforts it has been making over the years to transform itself in keeping with the post-1994 democratic ethos so that it remains a relevant 21st century African university meaningfully engaged with the process of post-apartheid social change.
And I think the choir is an eloquent example of what I am referring to.
While in the past the University of Stellenbosch was a production site for thought leaders, I am confident that it will continue to play this role today, with the view to contributing to the process of social change.
To appreciate the essential lessons bequeathed to us by the worthy life of Oscar Mpetha, we should ask the question as to the identifiable principles that defined his activism.
I think this manner of proceeding will then enable us to lift the lessons, which, in turn, we can use to dissect the post-apartheid socio-economic landscape for which comrades Oscar and Rose lived all their lives.
By looking at the post-apartheid socio-economic character we are, in effect, ascertaining whether the process of social change in South Africa is still on track.
There are three key thematic areas that predicated Oscar Mpetha’s activism,these are:
• Trade unionism: Being a trade unionist, Oscar Mpetha fought for the rights of workers. He understood the rights of workers within the overarching framework of racial domination and economic exploitation;
• Gender Equality: Throughout his life, Oscar Mpetha championed the rights of women and conceived of the struggle for an equal and just society in terms of gender equality and set about spiritedly championing the liberation of women; and
• The struggle for a non-racial society: The vision that framed the conception of post-apartheid South Africa entailed such key elements as national unity, democracy and social justice within the context of reconstruction and development.
Archie Sibeko, one of Oscar Mpetha’s colleagues and comrade in the labour movement, described Oscar Mpetha as a leader belonging to a crop of “those brave sons of Africa who gave so much of their lives and made so many sacrifices for the noble aims of the Freedom Charter. He struggled so that our country could be like any other, where all who live in it can be proud of it and can take part in things, regardless of their colour or anything else, where riches could be shared amongst its entire people.” [ii]
In substance, any useful understanding of the vision Oscar Mpetha espoused according to which present day South Africa has to be seen will need to be grounded on this historical experience that defined his thought-systems.
Trade unionism under apartheid long recognised the importance of organising workers as part of the economic, political and ideological strategy to drive social transformation.
Oscar Mpetha was one of the early trade unionists to grasp the underlying relations between social domination and economic exploitation in apartheid South Africa.
Though trade union activity predates their appearance in the political firmament, it was during their generation that non-racial trade unions first asserted themselves.
Oscar Mpetha, along with his generation maintained and deepened working class understanding of the interdependence between the black working class exploitation and social emancipation.
Equally key to understanding their contribution in the labour movement is to remember that the lives of black workers were inconsequential under apartheid conditions, as shown by a battery of racist labour legislation. This would have been his main attraction to labour activism.
Today’s trade-unions are vastly different from those of Oscar Mpetha’s time who worked under difficult financial and legal conditions that hampered them as much as they strengthened their ability to organise.
For example, at one point Oscar Mpetha and Ray Alexandra used to criss-across the Cape organising workers in one car only to realise that they needed to split their energies and would be required to use an additional vehicle for their task to be effective.
Over and above these, old unions had to operate under bad conditions such as banning orders and putting their life and limb on the line in pursuit of freedom and the rights of workers.
Today, unions are becoming more and more excluding to others and polarised, with some representatives vacillating between management responsibilities and representation, leading in some cases to political expediency and opportunism.
Thus, the critical question that we have to come to terms with in dealing with problems that confront the labour sector is how we can bring workers and their representatives closer together.
We must however also seek new ways of educating workers to understand their conditions better.
The example of the German trade unions is demonstrative of the type of systems we must explore in order to educate trade unions to be more equipped than their employers about economic conditions and research that can help them determine their wage demands based on relevant knowledge.
The other seminal point to note is that in post-apartheid South Africa black workers continue to be exploited as workers, as is the case in any other country were labour and capital have to interact. However, the dimension of racial exploitation is no longer obtaining.
In other words whereas under apartheid they were exploited as black workers, today their exploitation is shed of racial cast.
Further, since by nature trade unionism is reformist, there can be no end in sight to the struggles of workers. Even under liberation workers will continue to fight for their rights under the rubric of trade unionism.
Ladies and gentlemen
Are there changes to gender conditions in South Africa, especially with regard to African women, since 1994?
Firstly, I would contend that whatever progress we have made at the level of gender in the post-apartheid society should be seen as a historical continuum, where the pioneering efforts of Oscar and Rose Mpetha as well as their comrades laid the basis for these progressive steps in gender relations.
Gender equality has been a sore spot for many decades spanning the entirety of the liberation struggle.
During their time, Oscar Mpetha and others further elevated this important matter to the pedestal of the liberation struggle, as shown by their insistence on gender parity in the leadership of the Food and Allied Workers’ Union.
This historical consciousness provided propitious conditions for the heightening of the agenda for gender equality in the democratic dispensation.
Our constitution itself is predicated on human rights culture, advancing the promotion and respect of fundamental rights and liberties for all.
It is no hyperbole to state that the South African constitution is arguably the most gender-balanced the world over, and expressly protects gender equality on the political, social, cultural and legal front.
A slew of legislation and programmes meant to address gender inequalities have been put in place since 1994.
Yet a host of searing gender challenges remain. This is true not only because rates of gender-based violence and sexual violence are still extremely high, or because women still live in appalling socio-economic conditions (especially in rural areas, with high levels of poverty, illiteracy and malnutrition).
The culture of gender oppression is embedded in our history. It is reflected in economic, social, religious, cultural, family and other relations in society.
This is a trans-generational consciousness that must be exterminated from societal system of thought even as society is re-socialised into renewed, non-sexist mode of consciousness that puts humanity qua humanity at the centre of existence.
In terms of the principle of non-racialism, how has South Africa fared in the 18 years of democratic dispensation?
Any attempt to respond to this hypothetical scenario would first need a grasp of the political utility of race in the history of our country, which has shaped the nature of current socio-economic legacy.
This is indeed no small matter given that race is the fulcrum on which has revolved the history of South Africa over centuries.
Race has been at the core of the colonial social system and its apartheid derivative, determining the nature of social relations, economic ownership and political power.
A facile look at the South African post-apartheid social landscape that passes in silence over the historical roots of our societal make-up risks rendering itself ahistorical.
For a deeper understanding of the current historical juncture it is once again useful to bear in mind Professor Nkomo’s evocative insight: ‘the future is embedded in the present as the present bears imprints of the past.’ (ibid)
What then was this past that has shaped the present and which must be uprooted to rebuild our society in terms of Oscar Mpetha’s non-racial conception?
First we need to understand that the making of the colonial-apartheid state was grounded on a legitimising ideology intended to justify the underlying racial inequalities.
In its historically given completeness, the apartheid state was racially conceptualised in the administrative structures of governance, including the totality of its social, political, and ideological dynamics.
The legitimating ideology used state and social institutions to socialise a targeted section of the South African population into a systematic consciousness of racial superiority.
In essence racial supremacy was the ideological superstructure which lent justification to the economic system whose distributive regime was racially unjust.
In a dialectical interaction the racially skewed socio-economic patterns of ownership, in other words property relations, further conditioned societal thought in a self-reinforcing and self-perpetuating fashion.
To quote Michael McDonal, the word ‘racialism’ ‘insinuates race as a defining human attribute, a central axis of human society and political organisation, a fulcrum of political representation and participation’[iii]
This was the socio-economic and political character of the South African society that the democratic government inherited in 1994.
It is advisable not to forget this chapter of our history which has incubated the present in all its manifestations.
Located in this historical awareness, we should be able to recognise that the past we inherit the future we create.
This understanding set the tone to the approach that had to be espoused in moving forward.
We have to pursue the process of social change to prevent the all-too-often fate of the post-colonial polity, where freedom is hollowed out of its economic content, where form takes precedence over content.
At the same time the activity of changing the face of our society for the better has to give forth deeper national unity, strengthened democracy, non-racialism, non-sexism and social justice.
This is our strategic objective as a nation united in diversity.
Central to this strategic objective of unity in diversity is the need to change the material conditions of our people, to address the basic needs of South Africans, including jobs, sanitation, education, and so on.
To compound matters all these tasks have to be carried out in a global environment fixated on a mono-thematic agenda which is not always conducive to the implementation of national policies for economic prosperity and social transformation.
The democratic state inherited anomalous socio-economic conditions when it assumed power— racially defined inequalities.
Consequently this legacy throws up imperatives that must necessarily determine the shape and form of state intervention aimed at undoing the consequence of our past.
At the same time the democratic state is objectively interested in a stable democracy and cannot avoid the responsibility to ensure the establishment of a social order concerned with the genuine interests of the people as a whole, regardless of the racial, national, gender and class differentiation.
In addition striving to bring about a truly non-racial society denuded of past inequalities means being prepared to elaborate policies to meet the strategic objective.
However, it is inevitable —given our history— that these policies will be the apple of discord in post-apartheid society as a result of different conceptions of redress that various social actors bring to bear on the understanding of social transformation.
These policies include affirmative action and Black Economic Empowerment among a plethora of transformation policies brought to the fore by the ruling party.
Indeed the process of effecting all the necessary and desirable changes is not a smooth and linear one. It is difficult and stupendously complex.
In the increasingly globalising world, exacerbated by the recent global economic crisis, it is understandable that social perceptions of injustice and feelings of marginalisation could issue forth in the face of attempts to address the accumulated historical disabilities wilting the majority of our population.
The insidious public discourse that refuses to accept that apartheid was harmful to the developmental needs of the majority of South Africans and that, as such, government shoulders the responsibility to continue to address their challenges, does not make matters easier.
In this connection, the structural devastation of Bantu Education on modern day South Africa is the case in point.
I would argue that it is the moral duty of those with the means of articulation to sensitise society to the historical obligation to deal honestly with our history.
Our collective wisdom should help us avoid social consequences that say you are damned if you do and you are damned if you don’t as we attempt to grapple with our legacy at the same time as we are building one nation.
Further, we must guard against slipping into chauvinistic and narrow nationalisms which can come in handy as a fig leaf for those bent on self-enrichment and other self-serving intentions.
Striking a happy medium between attending to the historical injustice of our society while making a conscious effort not to lose sight of the responsibility to pursue an inclusive path is the condition for social cohesion, political stability and economic prosperity.
We should never forget that social cohesion is contingent upon the amelioration of the socio-economic experience of society.
At the ideological level, social cohesion is the upshot of subjective intervention by government, which must at all time remain mindful of its duty to embrace the diversity of our nation.
To this end, all-inclusive social processes such as national holidays and other symbols must tune to the emotional, cultural and psychological concerns of members of society in the same measure.
Particularly sensitive in South Africa is how we approach national days that speak to our history, which, oftentimes, is the history of popular victory over apartheid oppression.
This task places huge responsibilities on all of us to ensure that we use national days to animate our common nationhood and hype up our pride in our new found South African-ness.
It also means guarding against triumphalism in whatever form, or the tendency to turn our moral victory over an odious system into self-righteous arrogance.
Another key challenge for post-apartheid South Africa is corruption, which threatens to pull the rug from under the high moral claims of the democratic state.
Because the ideals of post-colonial society are about delivering social justice, corruption amounts to betrayal since it is usually practiced by people in power or close to it.
To succeed in this area, the democratic state can learn from other matured democracies elsewhere.
For instance the state of New South Wales came up with an exemplary initiative called ‘The Independent Commission Against Crime in New South Wales’.
And I quote from their declaration which says
As public officials we have specific powers, functions and knowledge because of the positions we hold.
Corrupt conduct occurs when an official uses or attempts to use that position for personal advantage.
Corrupt conduct can also occur when a member of the public influences or attempts to use his or her (influence as a public official) position for purposes other than the benefit of the public.’
A similar initiative adapted to our peculiar conditions will be a great step in the right direction.
Corruption amounts to a gross lack of capacious moral responsibility on the part of some of those historically charged to pave the way for a human-centred society.
The current historical conditions in our nation call on all of us, with government leading the charge, to wage an all-out war not only to combat all vestiges of corruption but prevent its emergence in the first place.
What is needed at this stage in our development is to safeguard our democratic gains and thereby the basic state of our being by ensuring that corruption meets with the full might of the law.
We have the duty to build a united, democratic, non-racial, non-sexist and just society. This is no glib slogan. It is the central vision that has assumed shape over a period of hundred years.
If Oscar and Rose Mpetha were to ask what the new South Africa has done on race, gender and labour front to meet this strategic objective, we would have to say we are not yet there but the process leading up to this vision is irreversible.
At the same time, we are confident that bringing about change is within the realm of possibility. In other words, a new world is possible.
I thank you