It's very simple: once an activist, always an activist

I sometimes jokingly refer to myself and others from my generation as “expired activists”. The reason for this is that many of us decided after the ANC was unbanned and Nelson Mandela released in 1990 that it was time for us to step aside, to raise our families, pursue our careers and generally just catch up with all the stuff that we missed out on during the years we were engaged in Struggle.

This week, as I watched the protests in Pretoria against state capture and in support of our Finance Minister who had earlier been accused of fraud, I could not help thinking about whether the “expired activist” tag was appropriate.

I’ve realised that, while I might want to expire myself as an activist, I doubt that activism would allow me to expire.

As I thought about this, I received a call from an old friend and comrade, Mike Mulligan, who used to be SRC president at the University of the Western Cape more than 30 years ago. Later, we would be involved in civic structures in Mitchells Plain where Mike still lives.

“I’m still in Mitchells Plain and I will remain here,” he said, “I can never turn my back on the townships.”

We had a long conversation about the meaning of activism and concluded that “once an activist, always an activist”.

“The nature of your activism might change, but it is not something that will ever leave your system,” said Mike. He said he had no respect for people who confuse activism with vandalism and destruction.

I found myself agreeing with most of what Mike was saying. One of the main reasons I became a journalist and an activist when I was young was because I wanted to change the world for the better.

Over the years I have realised that, while I am still committed to changing the world, my definition of world has changed. My definition no longer means the whole world. It is often restricted to one or two people because I have realised that if you change one person’s world, they could go on and change other people’s worlds.

My thinking about activism – or rather my own activism – was provoked by one of the students who I have been teaching journalism in Khayelitsha on Mondays. He asked me whether it was possible that people of my generation betrayed the youth of today because we left the Struggle incomplete.

“You thought that democracy meant freedom,” said the young man and this got me thinking.

He is right. We did think that winning the right to vote meant that we were now free. We did not draw the distinction between political freedom and economic freedom. We assumed, wrongly I must admit, that having a democratic government would mean an automatic improvement in the lives of poor people. We never expected that members of our new government would be more interested in lining their own pockets than serving the people.

One of the other mistakes we made was that we thought, because the ANC leadership was returning from exile, that those who had assumed leadership roles in their absence, should step aside. What we failed to realise is that leadership is dynamic and that when leaders are removed or move on, others step into the breach. In many ways, the internal leadership were now our real leaders and, at least, there should have been some compromise around who and how our country, and more specifically the liberation movement, was going to be led.

We should never have allowed the United Democratic Front to shut down because of the huge support it enjoyed among a wide variety of South Africans, something that the ANC has never been able to achieve. In many ways, the UDF could have played the role of bringing people suspicious of the ANC closer to the once-banned organisation.

But the biggest mistake we made was to say that the Struggle was over and we could now focus on living our own lives. This was to be expected, in some ways, because the Struggle had been intense and all of us who had been involved probably needed a break.

What has happened in the past few years, apart from watching the unravelling of our society, is that many of those who stepped aside in the early 1990s have now raised their children, achieved in their careers and made their money. Not everybody, but quite a few.

This means that you now have a whole group of people who have huge political experience, who have free time and who are reasonably well-resourced.

Many of these kinds of people were seen at the protests and at the “People’s Assembly” in Pretoria this week.

Many of those who support the status quo are not in the same position. They still depend on patronage to survive and will not speak out for fear of losing their jobs or whatever government business on which they can lay their hands.

Faced with the injustices still prevalent in post-apartheid South Africa, it is difficult for me to expire my activism. I am forced to continue my commitment to activism but this time my activism is different. It is mainly through my journalism where I hope to raise issues that should concern us as a society and hopefully encourage others to engage with these issues in a way that will contribute positively to the development of our country.

I hope to do this no longer as someone who is committed only to the liberation movement, but instead to the liberation of all South Africans irrespective of which political parties they support.

Once an activist, as Mike Mulligan said, always an activist.

(First published as a Thinking Allowed column in the Weekend Argus on Saturday 5 November 2016)