The Khanya Journal (KJ) held a focus group discussion with six activists from the APF on the state of the social movements in South Africa on 11 April 2012.
In South Africa, communities have continued to struggle with poor service delivery and human rights violations. Despite this, social movements have not been able to tap into these struggles. Instead, there has been a decline in the social movements and this has taken many forms including the high turnover of membership and leadership, corruption; and some movements no longer even exist. What are the challenges for movements within South Africa?
The social movements are in a dicey situation. We thought the Durban [COP17] conference would unite us all, but it seems we have been divided. A lot of movements that emerged no longer exist. It appears as though there is something holding us and there is no coordination within movements. Coordination does not mean control or domination; but having a collective and syncronized action. Many organisations base their activities on specific issues and once the government realises the issue, they tackle it. Politicians always run on issues and social movements have to fill the void left by the government.
The social movements are handled like projects. When you look back at the initial formation of the APF, it was started as an intervention. I have never heard of social movements that last forever. Overseas, the anti-capitalism movements took a different form. Most key movements around the world are now known as ‘occupy movements’. In SA, social movements die because they employ and they mobilise people who are affected by capitalism, people who are living in poverty. The problem with this is that they focus on the immediate problems faced by the working class such that theydo not include the middle class. Social movements exist for a particular moment and do not exist forever unlike the ANC that has lived for a hundred years. Service delivery protests are periodic and usually die out. They struggle for basic services and they do not have food to eat. Coordination can happen even in squatter camps or amongst the poor. The poor cannot fight for a long time. The APF was against the ANC but as time went on the poor moved back to the ANC because they thought they could gain things from the ANC. So far, about 50 activists have stood in local council elections because they want to better their lives. This led to people being xenophobic, saying that foreigners are taking their jobs.
The APF affiliates fight for different struggles in communities, for example, against evictions, and against the privatisation of water. When some objectives were achieved, it created new developments. For example, comrades who engaged in unemployment struggles left once they themselves got employed. The struggles also change from time to time, and this may contribute to the changes within the social movements. Social movements still struggle in South Africa but there is lack of coordination. Social movements do not last forever and we see that they have internal problems.
Most of the leaders in the movements are not trained. When people are unemployed, they think of their own lives. Movements do not have powers like the government has when it comes to delivering to the communities. People volunteer for the movements while government pays people. Often, when activists are offered jobs or payment by government they leave the social movements. In our communities we need political education, people need to know who they are on the ground.
There is no political education within the APF affiliates the social movements. People tend to rely on one person who is politically educated. Movements focus on mobilising poor people and end up fighting about issues related to money. It is very difficult to sustain social movements like the APF. Most of the intellectuals who go into the social movements have personal interests. Language is also a key issue. Only one or two people participate in meetings or workshops because they understand. Sometimes when activists mobilise in the community, and people ask: “Whom should we vote for?” in most cases, we cannot answer.
Movements rise up through spontaneous issues, and beyond the issue being addressed, there is often no life for the movements. At times activists do not have a political understanding of the issue or some get a job and they leave the movement. Movements do develop organic intellectuals but often they cannot sustain them, so we lose them. Movements are broad-based and need to be coordinated. Some activists do not take the APF seriously. Conflicts also play a role in the failure of social movements. Spontaneous uprisings that take place become harder to maintain. We can organise protests, but what happens afterwards if the movement has no clearly defined goals and objectives; or when the goals have been reached? Movements seem to rise up at a particular time, and then they collapse.
Our Communities need the skills to sustain the movements and understand their struggles. The members of communities complain about the ANC and not being given opportunities, but they vote for the same ANC. Social movements need to educate members and communities to help themselves and to sustain the movements as well.
How was leadership exercised and developed amongst activists within the APF?
There were leaders but they were organic intellectuals/ middle class individuals. They left gaps when they left or were pushed out. Intellectuals can also be produced by the struggle and not only by those who have gone to school. Key leaders from impoverished communities lead for short periods of time as they face personal issues like unemployment. Organising the unemployed is difficult as they face their own problems. The poor can fight but not for a long time. We also have a broader working class, not just the poor who are in our movements.
There were intellectuals within the APF who provided guidance and vision. It is just that we never managed to make the people we deployed to be accountable within the movements.
APF had comrades who were intellectuals. But when some of them were not elected for office-bearer positions, they left the organisation with their skills. Also, political education within the APF was supposed to be shared but it was not. There is an issue of coordination and dictatorship within the social movements which we faced within the APF. Some activists who are intellectuals, when they first came into the struggle, they were dedicated. But then they became dictators. This caused many conflicts in the organisation. The intellectuals did not share political education within the APF. When the intellectuals left, nothing was left behind in the organisation.
The APF took a major decision when they expelled the young men who were involved in a gang rape even if this caused some divisions within. This showed a level of leadership. How did the APF deal with issues like gender and getting youth involved in the movements?
We must not forget that the APF existed within a society. If in society there is a problem with gender, that would be reflected in the organisation. Many think that women empowerment is about giving women a position, but I do not believe in that. In the beginning, there were many key woman leaders in the APF but it was never enough.
We organised in different communities, and the APF fought some successful struggles. Communities wanted to attack us in some cases where the APF could not answer their issues. But we made a mistake in the way we worked with the youth. We wanted to involve the youth in issues like water, but, we did not try to organise the youth on the issues that affected them. This was a lost opportunity as we did not bring the youth into movements.
The APF play a role on gender issues. Some women were in the secretariats.
The APF did not educate the women leadership with political education. Some male comrades did not support females. As a chairperson of the APF, I am not proud of myself because I am not politically educated. The training was too little and did not fill the big gap. Female leaders are like babies when they get into politics. The males are harsh. I was not sure if I could control a big rally but now I am able to.
How do you get comrades to work beyond just service delivery issues and build and sustain an organisation of poor people?
Production is important and we need to link up with workers at the point of production.
We did not link up with the unions. The unions are organised and have members.
SAMWU and NEHAWU marched with the APF when they were formed.
COSATU supported the APF on paper but not on the ground. What has COSATU or the unions done for the movements? The APF used its funds to support COSATU but that favour was not returned. Phineas and John Appolis were the only ones who came from the unions to support APF meetings or education programmes. Communities are now not interested in COSATU because when they are being evicted, for example, COSATU is no where to be found.
What was the vision of the APF and was there clarity about the vision amongst the movements and affiliates?
The visoin of the APF was blurred. Some civic organisations on the Rand came thinking that the APF was going to challenge the state. But, we said we were not and they left. We killed the APF Political Activist Forum, and after that, most activists started moving away from the APF. The Forum provided debate and direction for the APF. It was killed because the leadership didn’t focus on the vision of the APF. The vision of the APF is socialism in economics and politics but this political vision was never sharpened within the movements, rather, focus was mostly on fighting for free basic services. I also think that the APF was too democratic to a point that we lost the vision. We allowed everyone to talk to give a sense of democracy but the vision got lost along the way.
If you read previous newsletters, there was a vision about accessible water, electricity and houses for all. The APF wanted a society of fairness and had no vision of transcending capitalism. They wanted to reform capitalism to serve their immediate issues, anti-privatisation and anti-evictions. The APF adopted socialism but many affiliates and activists were not socialists. They wanted basic services and not socialism. Some organic intellectuals wanted socialism. People do not become socialists because of their immediate conditions.
What is happening today, is the APF dead?
The APF is not dead. It just needs to be resuscitated. People on the ground are waiting to be called to a meeting. We can save things that we might have lost if we call a meeting of affiliates.
The APF is facing serious internal problems that need to be dealt with and the donor is also involved in this. The question is: do we re-build the organisation or do we start another one? We need to deal with these problems because if we start a new organisation, we will have the same problems.
The APF is dead and what is left are memories. Those comrades who say that the APF is not dead are in denial. During the whole of last year , there was no annual general meeting, and no attempt to have any struggle under the banner of the AFP. If we want to resuscitate the APF, it cannot be done at a meeting.
We are not disputing that the problems had a negative influence within the APF. The APF played a significant role in the struggle, and we need to look at its history, and the lack of experience of activists. We need to reflect and learn from the experiences and see how we can move forward. APF activists should meet and see how they can coordinate and fight new issues. We should also look at our victories. The APF should be resuscitated with a clear mandate.
I think the APF does not exist but there are still APF affiliates that exist.
The APF is not dead but there are people doing things behind the backs of others. There is no passion amongst comrades about struggles and the APF. Even if you call comrades to a meeting, I do not think they would will come.
The APF archive was launched recently on South Africa History Online. What is its importance?
We did not know about the setting up of the APF archive. I did not know about the archive launch. It tells you that we were put into positions like ‘chairperson ‘but were not taken seriously. Women were not told about certain decisions. We had no say as women. The people who made the archive believe that the APF is dead. The decision to bury the APF was done behind our backs.
I received an e-mail a day before the launch of the archive. I heard that it was a book about the social movements. I was asked for APF banners. Dale McKinley phoned Khanya for the APF banners but we told him to speak to the APF office-bearers if he wanted to use their banners. If this was an APF archive, I believe that the APF should have been asked for their banners. This raises issues about comrades using other people for their own issues.
I heard about a book that Dale Mckinkley was writing; I understand that it was research for the APF. The archive is a different issue and it should have been a collective experience and not one person writing and doing it. Affiliates need to be encouraged to write their own history about their achievements.
At the archive launch we asked them why they launched a book without consulting the office-bearers formally and what they aim to do after the launch. The launch gave John Appolis a mandate to meet with APF office-bearers and activists and to call a meeting.