This is the season of Passover, the Jewish holiday of freedom from slavery in Egypt. Even if never substantiated as a historical event, it nevertheless has inspired liberation struggles all over the world.
A few weeks ago, I visited South Africa with a friend. At first, we heard a great deal about rampant corruption by high officials in government. We heard fears about South Africa on a slippery slope toward failed nationhood, and frustration that the monumental sacrifices of the anti-apartheid struggle were being squandered. It was hard to discount those early impressions.
Meeting two university activists from the Young Communist League in Durban helped to put some of this criticism in perspective. They complained about a media culture that celebrates crime, violence, sex, and corruption. They didn't deny that such things happen now, almost 20 years into the government run essentially by a tripartite coalition between the African National Congress, the South African labor federation COSATU, and the South African Communist Party (SACP).
But, they asked, didn't corruption exist under apartheid as well? And did the media harp on that then? No. The media, most of it white- and corporate-owned, delights in highlighting shortcomings of the government, sowing disillusionment, cynicism, and the idea that things are no better now than under apartheid, and maybe worse. Criticism is appropriate, they said, but raised in the proper forums at the right time, coming from respected leaders.
An SACP t-shirt they gave me reads "Hands off our government" on the front, and "Hands off our state president" on the back. Considering the vicious, racist attacks on our own president, I could wear such a shirt myself!
The comrades asked how I felt about Obama. I said, "He is the president of the United States of America. He did not get elected to overthrow capitalism and imperialism. He has no capacity to do much more than some liberal reforms. Which are welcome, of course: Health care reform, GLBT and women's rights, ending the wars, judicial appointments, all these are not insignificant! We gladly celebrate and honor the tremendous advance his election represents: It does make a difference, and we are committed to using this platform on which we now stand to expand the democratic possibilities his election opens up, which would have been completely shut off by the election of anyone else. Forward progress will always depend on a vigorous popular movement from below." And then I went on:
"If I may say so, Obama reminds me somewhat of South Africa: Because of the gargantuan efforts the apartheid régime invested in keeping that system intact, with U.S. and other imperialist aid, and against the sentiment of the entire rest of the world, the struggle to topple it absorbed every ounce of energy the South African people could summon up for almost a century. How many lives were lost and damaged in that heroic confrontation with evil! And yet, when it all came down, what do you have now? Yes, politically a democracy for the first time in the majority's hands, but an economy and social system still largely controlled by Western corporations, and now a local bourgeoisie that is 'postracial.' It's no longer the fight against apartheid, but rather a fight to expand democracy and, as in the U.S., to advance the socialist aspiration. That turns out to be just as difficult, but in different ways."
Liberation is not a single event, the dismantling of apartheid, the election of a president. The future presents problems every direction you turn: Obvious solutions such as nationalization of mines, land, or industry, create a whole constellation of issues, such as compensation, loss of professional expertise, and international repercussions, that cannot be disregarded in the haste to build the new socialist paradise. The stages of history cannot be rushed past the goalposts that the whole South African people must establish themselves.
Considering the rich multi-cultural history that led up to the modern Republic of South Africa, it stands to reason that the land throbs with powerful fault lines of tribe, race, region, class, religion, language, gender, and nationality. In the end, however, I came away with the strong feeling that most people do seem to want this bold social experiment they call their "Rainbow Nation" to work.
The exodus from Egypt was followed by 40 years of wandering in the desert. Freedom doesn't just happen. It's a mindset, an attitude, a culture. Passover marks a passage, but not the end of the story. A luta continua. The struggle continues.
Photo: The shantytowns of Soweto still exist (PW/Eric Gordon)