“Blank pages in history should not be allowed” – The role of revolutionary intellectuals

Commemorative lecture on the 15th anniversary of the death of Jabulani (“cde Mzala”) Nxumalo – Galeshewe, Kimberley, February 25, 2006

Jeremy Cronin


One of the most outstanding revolutionary intellectuals of the 1976 generation, Jabulani Nxumalo (popularly known as comrade Mzala), died 15 years ago in London at the age of 45. He was born in Dundee, Northern Natal in October 1955.[i] His parents were both school teachers, and they inspired in him a life-long love for books. Mzala attended school at Louwsburg, then Bethal College in Butterworth, and he matriculated in KwaDlangezwa in Empangeni.

In 1972, at the age of 15, he was detained without trial for his role in a school boycott. The following year he was arrested again and charged with public violence for his part in student and worker strikes. Mzala attended the University of Natal (Ngoye), where he studied law and he was active in SASO (the South African Student Organisation). In 1976, like thousands of his generation, he fled the country into exile.

He connected up with the ANC and received military training in Angola. He was part of the famous June 16 detachment of MK. While still in training at Funda camp, north of Luanda, he was seriously injured in the face by a bullet mistakenly fired by a new recruit. He fell to the ground and comrades were convinced the injury was fatal. Luckily, Mzala regained consciousness in hospital and later made a full recovery.

In the midst of his training and organisational responsibilities, Mzala was always intellectually active. In 1977 he was working on a simplified book on Marxism-Leninism in Zulu. The text seems, unfortunately, to have been lost. He was also in the habit of writing up his thoughts and pinning them on notice-boards for others to read and respond. His intellectual energies were recognised in MK and already in 1976 he was political commissar for Luanda. In 1979 he was deployed to Lusaka, where he acted as co-ordinator of commissariat structures. In 1980 he was sent for advanced ideological and political training in the German Democratic Republic.

In 1983 he was deployed into Swaziland, disguised as a reporter (“Jabulani Dlamini”), working on the Swaziland Observer. Eddy Maloka recalls that he “rode a motorbike that needed only R5 to fill the tank. He always had a pipe between his lips – but it remained forever unlit.” In the 1980s, frontline states like Botswana, Lesotho and Swaziland were extremely perilous for ANC operatives, in many cases they were even more dangerous than deployment inside of apartheid South Africa itself. The risk of enemy infiltration and of being kidnapped or assassinated were ever present. We now know that the Swazi government had signed a secret accord with the apartheid regime in 1982 to collaborate in the hunting down of ANC networks and cadres. Mzala was detained by the Swazi police in 1983. In December of the same year, with a new identity, he returned to Swaziland, but this time to the Shiselweni district in the south of the country. He served as commissar for the Natal rural machinery, a network that was later to become central in the establishment of Operation Vula. While in Shiselweni, and out of his own initiative, Mzala crossed over the border into Natal, and set up an MK unit based in Ingwavuma. In 1984 he was again arrested by the Swazi police and deported to Tanzania.

In Tanzania he worked for Radio Freedom and the Amandla Cultural Group. In 1987 he moved to London where he worked for the international committee of the SACP. He was deployed to Prague as the South African representative on the World Marxist Review, but his health was now beginning to falter, and his stay in Prague only lasted two months.

Throughout the 1980s Mzala was extremely active as a writer. He published regular articles in the journals of our movement, MK’s Dawn; the ANC’s Sechaba; and the SACP’s The African Communist. He sometimes used the pen-name Khumalo (derived from his actual surname, Nxumalo), as well as the name by which he was known by most comrades in the movement, Mzala. (He acquired the name, because he was fond of addressing everyone as “mzala, mzala”.) He also wrote several major articles under the name Sisa Majola. One of his most important and polemical contributions on our armed struggle was entitled “Cooking the Rice Inside the Pot”, and it was signed Mzala. When no-one responded in Dawn, he published a polemical rejoinder to his own article! It was titled: “Preparing the Fire Before Cooking the Rice Inside the Pot”, and it was signed Alex Mashinini. During his time in London he published (as Mzala) a book, Gatsha Buthelezi, Chief with a Double Agenda (Zed Books, 1988). During the London period, while working for the SACP’s international committee, he also contributed an excellent and regular column to The African Communist (“Africa Notes and Comment”), under the name Jabulani Mkatshwa. He was so prolific, it is quite possible that there other pen-names under which he wrote, but about which we are as yet unaware.

His death in London on February 22 1991 was a huge loss to the SACP, the ANC, and to the African and internationalist struggle. When he wrote his articles, or when he pinned provocative notes up on the notice-board in camps in Angola, comrade Mzala was not looking for admiration or praise. He was trying to provoke engagement, responses, debate, umrabulo. I can think of no better way of honouring his memory than by addressing the topic that the SACP and YCL structures in the Northern Cape have set for us today: “The role and importance of revolutionary intellectuals”.


Let’s start by asking ourselves: “What is a revolutionary intellectual, and what are the qualities required of a revolutionary intellectual?”. I suggest that there are several key qualities that mark out a revolutionary intellectual. In seeking to elaborate on these qualities I would like to draw upon the inspiring legacy of comrade Mzala.

1. To be a serious intellectual requires EFFORT and WORK – There is a popular misconception that all that is needed to be an intellectual is to lie back on a couch and dream. Comrades who were with Mzala in MK remember that he used every spare minute to read books, magazines, reports, anything he could lay his hands on. His articles are full of references to a wide variety of sources, and not just to writers of his own persuasion. For his book on Buthelezi, he read all of the speeches of Buthelezi that he could trace. Reading these speeches could hardly have been a relaxing leisure activity. In his writings on the national question, Mzala is citing PAC writers, Black Consciousness writers, US think-tanks, and European academics. In his “African Notes and Comment” it is clear that he is tracking political events in a wide range of African countries.

2. Revolutionary intellectuals are ACTIVISTS – All serious intellectuals (progressive or conservative) understand that intellectual work requires research, study, disciplined effort. But revolutionary intellectuals are also activists. Like the outstanding revolutionary intellectuals before him (Marx, Engels, Lenin, Rosa Luxemburg, Gramsci, Mao, Ho Chi Minh, Fidel, Che Guevara, Amilcar Cabral, and many more), cde Mzala was an intellectual, but also an activist. There needs to be a constant unity of theory and practice. Practice without theory is blind. Theory without the constant test of practice is liable to be dogmatic, formulaic, and just plain wrong.

3. Revolutionary intellectuals are part of a COLLECTIVE – The activism to which I have referred above is not individualistic activism. Mzala’s activism was embedded within the organisational structures of a broad national liberation movement. The unity of theory and practice that he fostered was a collective theory and a collective practice. His intellectual activities were, in the first place, interventions in the context of the programmes, the strategies, the key documents, and the internal debates of a movement. And the practice by which he sought to illuminate and critique this collective theory was primarily the collective practice of the movement and its mass base. This is not to say that Mzala never wrote for a wider audience, or never studied other struggles, but his positions and perspectives were always rooted in the collective of the South African liberation movement.

4. Revolutionary intellectuals are not dogmatic or elitist – The dangers of intellectual dogmatism and elitism are, indeed, real, not least in organisations that regard themselves as vanguard formations. There is always the danger that theory will be used to show-off or bully and intimidate. Many of us will have had the experience of comrades who quote from the “classics”, or use jargon words, not in order to illuminate a point, but in order to display their “superior” knowledge. We will all be familiar with the dogmatic invoking of an “authority”, the unchallengeable word of this or that leader, or of “head-quarters” - not in order to assist a discussion, but in order to silence debate. Everything about the way in which Mzala conducted himself challenged these negative tendencies. He sought to translate Marxism-Leninism into Zulu, so that it would be accessible to those who were not necessarily adept in English. His intellectual work was not just articles and books, but also radio broadcasts and provocative statements on notice-boards. Mzala was one of the leaders of the ANC delegation to the International Youth Festival in Cuba in 1978. When he returned, he didn’t keep the experience to himself. He moved around to all MK camps in Angola, to provide a report-back and to discuss and debate what he had learned. As we have seen, when Mzala’s article in Dawn didn’t get a critical response, he responded polemically (as Alex Mashinini) to his own original intervention. Mzala never imagined that his own inputs were infallible and timeless truths.

The struggle against intellectual elitism and dogmatism is particularly important in a society emerging from centuries of colonial oppression. Certain brands of Marxist elitism, for instance, can easily become very Euro-centric, and can lead to the underrating of the dialectical and revolutionary values and wisdom embedded in all of our cultures, and in our rich, collective struggle traditions. Such neglect risks becoming disdainful of the ways in which revolutionary knowledge is reproduced, not just through books and magazines, but also in the oral culture of our struggle (in songs, in speeches, and stories). Needless to say, the over-rating of certain forms of knowledge reproduction and dissemination tends also to be neglectful of the intellectual contribution of tens of thousands of women comrades.

5. Revolutionary intellectuals are partisan, but they are also CRITICAL – As I have already argued extensively, comrade Mzala’s intellectual work was deeply embedded within the organisational traditions and discipline of a national liberation movement and of a communist party. He was always partisan to these organisations. But he did not allow this loyalty to become uncritical. He was not prepared simply to recite dogmas, or to repeat “the line”. He would not have appreciated what we sometimes hear these days - that “the policies are all fine, we must just implement”. However, if Mzala was prepared to be critical, it was never criticism for criticism’s sake. He was not oppositionist, or factionalist. (Factionalism is usually dogmatism in another guise, the mechanical alignment with one side and the dogmatic rejection of another).

Getting the balance right between organisational loyalty and critical thinking is not always easy. It might be useful, therefore, at this point to consider an example of Mzala’s critical partisanship. In 1988, comrade Francis Meli published an important history of the ANC[ii]. Mzala reviewed Meli’s book in The African Communist (“To Whom Does South Africa Belong?”, 4th quarter , 1988). The same text, but in a more extensive version, is included in a longer paper which Mzala wrote for the Open University [iii]. Meli was Mzala’s senior within the movement. Meli was on the NEC of the ANC, and the CC of the SACP, and he was editor of the ANC’s official organ, Sechaba. In his appraisal of the book, Mzala is appreciative of a history of the movement written from inside, and by an African comrade. Amongst other things, he appreciates Meli’s defence of the early leadership of the ANC against attacks coming from anti-ANC writers like Mokgethi Mothlabi who dismissively claimed that in its early years the ANC was simply “a Congress of defeated people” involved in “obsequious representations and cap-in-hand deputations” to Britain. Mzala agrees with Meli that this kind of portrayal is extremely a-historical and one-sided.

However, Mzala argues that Meli goes too far in his attempt to defend the honour of the early founders of the ANC:

“not everyone would agree with Meli either when he suggests that deputations were ‘part of traditional African political custom’ considering the record of two centuries of uninterrupted military resistance (and not deputations) against the colonisers up to the 1906 Bambatha Rebellion…

“Partisanship becomes a problem when it is no longer tempered with objective realism…blank pages in history should not be allowed. Everything should be told…Wishful thinking cannot replace the hard facts of life, otherwise an exercise at history writing is reduced to sheer political propaganda for one’s organisation.

“No shame should be associated with the admission of the fact that the tactics employed by the early leadership of the ANC were thoroughly reformist, or even that their version of nationalism was somewhat cautious, timid and non-confrontationalist.” [iv]

These passages illustrate Mzala’s critical partisanship in two ways. He is prepared to engage critically (but constructively) with his senior in the movement, and his loyalty and respect for the ANC does not lead him into believing that his organisation is above all criticism.

6. (Some) revolutionary intellectuals write with style and skill – Maybe this sixth quality is not an essential quality for an effective revolutionary intellectual…but it helps. And, since Mzala is such a wonderful example of a writer who deploys brilliant images and memorable examples, I can’t resist including this quality here – mainly as an excuse to quote some more from his writings.

For instance, in a polemic with those who argued that Inkatha was really in “opposition” to apartheid, he writes that Inkatha fits:

“into the apartheid strategy like a plug into a socket”

In an article arguing for a more effective integration of the ANC in exile with the struggle at home (a topic to which we will return below) he writes that we must

“begin a process of de-exiling ourselves…we must fight our way back into our country…Yes, let us always remember that while we engage ourselves in building pyramids in Egypt, the main task is still to cross the Red Sea back into our own land.”
Mzala’s writings are full of striking images and examples like this. His intellectual alertness, his dialectical approach was never content with re-cycling the same old deadening phrases.

7. The fundamental objective of being a revolutionary intellectual is to develop a concrete analysis of the concrete situation – It was Lenin who wrote of the importance of “the concrete analysis of the concrete moment”. And it was Lenin who was, perhaps, the most outstanding practitioner of this revolutionary art. Mzala, too, never wrote an article, or a book, simply for the sake of it. His writings are thoroughly interventionist, directed towards helping the collective to act effectively within a concrete conjuncture, to seize the moment. In the concluding part of this paper, we will look at three key issues on which Mzala wrote fairly extensively:

  • the role of Buthelezi and Inkatha;
  • the national question; and
  • the organisational challenges of our liberation movement.

In doing this, we will seek to illustrate how Mzala was always trying to produce a concrete analysis of the concrete situation.


1. The role of Buthelezi and Inkatha

In re-reading Mzala’s 1988 book, Gatsha Buthelezi, Chief With a Double Agenda, it is important to remember the context. Mzala did not spend some two years of his life writing a book on this topic simply so he could put another publication down on his CV. Nor did he write about this topic simply because he came from Natal and had a particular axe to grind – although I am sure this would have had some influence on his motivations.

In part, the project (which did not enjoy support from all quarters of the ANC) was an intervention into a debate within the movement itself. There were those who believed that Buthelezi was “essentially one of us”, and that he should be handled with “kid gloves”. Mzala believed passionately that, whatever strategy was adopted towards Buthelezi, it should be based on the truth, and not on an opportunistic fudging of reality.
But a more important target for the book was an external audience. By the second half of the 1980s it was clear to the major imperialist powers that the end of white minority rule in South Africa was fast approaching. This, by the way, was not a view that had always been held in Washington or London. In the early 1970s, official US policy was to work with the white regimes in Angola, Mozambique, Rhodesia and South Africa. One notorious policy paper emanating from official quarters in Washington reckoned that the white regimes “were here to stay”, and that whatever their “shortcomings”, they were a “reliable” bulwark against “Soviet advances” in the region.

By the second half of the 1980s this cynical calculation was no longer in vogue in the imperialist capitals. There was, therefore, a desperate hunt for a “credible” black leader in South Africa who could pre-empt an ANC victory. Particularly in German and US ruling circles, Buthelezi was identified as the favoured candidate for this role. As late as 1993 at the multi-party negotiations the vestiges of this strategy were still evident in the National Party’s insistence on a troika of revolving presidents for a new South Africa.

It should also be remembered that in other negotiated transitions away from right-wing autocratic regimes that were threatened by popular revolt, the imperialists sometimes had considerable success in inserting a “moderate”, thus pipping the progressive forces at the post. An example of this is the Philippines, where the popular movement was denied the fruits of its struggle against the Marcos regime, by the electoral victory of the US-backed Cory Aquino.

In short, Mzala’s thorough, well-researched book, which was published by Zed Press in the UK and US – in order to reach a wide audience - was timely and essential. It meticulously uncovered the true nature of Inkatha, with its politics of rural war-lordism and patronage, and its deep complicity with the apartheid regime. No wonder Buthelezi banned it outright in KwaZulu – thus confirming the very point Mzala was making: Buthelezi was no democrat.

2. The National Question

In the last years of his life Mzala also devoted considerable energy to engaging with the “national question” in the South African struggle. Again, the context of this engagement is important to recall. Inside South Africa the mass struggle had thrown up two significant groupings within the broad mass movement – the so-called “workerists” and “populists”. [v] The one current (“workerists”) argued for the relative insulation of working-class organisations (particularly the trade unions) from popular, community-based formations. This current also tended to be suspicious of the ANC-led movement, arguing that “after independence nationalist movements always sell-out the workers”. The rival tendency, argued for much greater integration of worker struggles and community struggles, and it tended to be sympathetic to the ANC.

Each tendency had its own inherent dangers. The “workerists” tended not to appreciate how much the sense of national collective grievance and of national collective power (amandla ng’awethu) shared by the black majority constituted a critical revolutionary motive force. But the “populists” ran the danger of failing to appreciate the diverse class interests at play within the black majority, or within particular, local communities. Mzala, like other leading theorists of the time (for example, Joe Slovo) was at pains to show the important inter-linkages between the national question and class, within the concrete situation of South Africa. He continuously sought to underline the national dimension of the class struggle, and the importance of class within the national question.

While these general points remain valid in the present, clearly our own concrete situation has shifted along considerably. However, what has become even more relevant in the present, are Mzala’s warnings about a nationalism that fails to sufficiently foreground class. In criticising certain brands of pan-Africanism in South Africa, Mzala recalls that one of the early 20th century intellectual founders of the pan-Africanist current, the Afro-American, Marcus Garvey:

“even suggested…that the development of the African bourgeoisie was the end desire of the Pan African movement. He wrote: ‘Why should not Africa give to the world its black Rockerfeller, Rothschild and Henry Ford? Now is the opportunity. Now is the chance for every Negro to make every effort towards a commercial, industrial standard that will make us comparable with successful businessmen of other races.’” (Mzala, The National Question in the writing of South African history, my emphasis)

When he quoted this passage from Garvey in 1988, Mzala was holding it up with a sense of scorn and dismissal – as if views of this kind were almost unimaginable.

But less than twenty years later, from within our own movement, and from seasoned comrades who know better, we are now hearing similar things. For instance, a recent director general in the Department of Labour, and then in International Affairs, and now a businessman, Sipho Pityana has this to say:

“In our society, there has to be space for as many seriously wealthy black individuals as possible…We must build a culture that celebrates individual financial success…and we must not allow this to be portrayed as violating the principles of the struggle.” (Sunday Business Report, February 12, 2006)

What Pityana (like Garvey) is conveniently forgetting is that the function of capital, the role of a Rockerfeller, Rothschild or Henry Ford (black or white), is not some socially neutral function, simple individual entrepreneurial acumen that deserves celebration. Nor is the role of a Rockerfeller open to every white person, let alone “every Negro”. Capitalist wealth is always the result of the intensified exploitation of millions of working people.

3. The matches, the pot, and the fire - the ANC and the strategic challenges of the movement

In every decade since its launch in 1912, the ANC has confronted challenges and sometimes serious external and internal crises. It is easy to lose sight of this, imagining that the history of the ANC and its movement is simply a triumphal march from one victory to the next. This is neither accurate nor empowering for activists dealing with the complexities of the present.

In the 1980s, for instance, the ANC found itself in an exceedingly challenging situation. There were both objective and subjective problems. The leading organisational structures were in exile. It was an exile that had been long (from the late 1950s), scattered across many countries and continents, and almost always distant from home. For most of the three decades of exile our leading structures were located, at best, several countries away, and not just on the other side of a border. Tens of thousands of young (and not so young) MK soldiers, who had left the country in the 1960s, 70s, and early 80s, fully expecting to find themselves back home with arms and training within a matter of months, were bottled up in camps in Angola and elsewhere. The frustrations of exile were particularly sharp given the fluidity and dynamism of the rolling wave of semi-insurrectionary struggles back home.

These objective realities gave rise to a number of subjective tendencies. At the best of times, exile is not an easy reality – most liberation movements in exile have split and fragmented. The ANC remained remarkably united, notwithstanding the particularly complex nature of our exile. But exile creates inevitable tensions between the survival requirement of putting down roots, of establishing routines, bureaucracies, offices, and employment, where you find yourself, while still trying to remain focused on the home-front. With an army dislocated from its mass base there are the dangers of militarisation and stagnation. Are you accumulating a conventional army that you will simply take out of the box once liberation has been achieved? Or is the point of a people’s army to merge actively with the people’s struggle? Dealing with a mass of exiles and their families, supplying food, shelter, clothing and even education, can result in bureaucratisation.

It was in this context that Mzala wrote several extremely important articles. As we have seen, he called for “a de-exiling” of the movement. He insisted that the rice had to be cooked in the pot, that is, the struggle had to be fought primarily at home. The leading structures of the movement needed to orient themselves for this task. Mzala’s articles were part of an important ferment within the movement that led to the historic 1985 Kabwe Conference, which resulted in a major over-haul of the organisation.

It was in this context, that Mzala also reviewed (at some length) Mikhail Gorbachev’s book, Perestroika – New Thinking for Our Country and The World.[vi] When we remember Gorbachev now, we tend to think of him as the erstwhile general secretary of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union who unilaterally dissolved his own party, and who, in the face of a serious setback for socialism opportunistically abandoned class analysis in the name of “universal” human values. However, as Mzala,s review article reminds us, in the late 1980s Gorbachev’s Perestroika book was received enthusiastically, almost with a sense of relief, by many militant left intellectuals in our movement. Mzala, like many others, had personally benefited and appreciated the selfless solidarity of the Soviet bloc countries. But he had also experienced, at first hand, the many signs of stagnation, bureaucratisation and administrative commandism about which Gorbachev was now so open. This is certainly part of the reason for Mzala’s enthusiasm for Gorbachev’s move to glasnost (“openness”).

But Gorbachev’s critical appraisal of the Soviet Union also had a strong resonance for Mzala and others as they thought about the challenges confronting our own movement in the late 1980s. In his review article, Mzala quotes at length from Gorbachev:

“Government and Party leadership gradually became alienated from the ordinary working people; they formed an elite that ignored the opinions and needs of ordinary people. From the side of the leadership there came the propaganda of success, notions of everything going according to plan, while on the side of the working people there was passivity and disbelief in the slogans being proclaimed by the leadership…the leadership organised pompous campaigns and the celebration of numerous anniversaries. Political life became a move from one anniversary celebration to another.”

It would be entirely wrong to imagine that anything like this level of stagnation in the CPSU was replicated in the ANC of the late 1980s (or is being replicated in the ANC-led movement now). But, Mzala clearly saw warning signs in the 1980s, and it would not be wrong to see them now again in the present. The Secretary General’s Organisational Report to the ANC’s July 2005 National General Council is refreshingly frank in its critique of the negative tendencies in our movement.

It is also possible to recognise in some of the immediate events of the present (the Transnet strike, the Khutsong township demarcation dispute, the list process within the ANC ahead of the local elections) syndromes of a dislocation of our forces, of an absence of the ANC as a political movement at the heart of events – a new variation of Mzala’s pot, stove and rice not being in the same place.

In the case of the Transnet strike we have comrades in the Department of Public Enterprises and in Transnet (the pot?), we have comrades in SATAWU (the stove?) leading the strike action (along with three other trade unions), and we have millions of Metrorail commuters, the great majority of them ANC supporters (the rice?). The comrade state-managers and the comrade trade-unionists are deadlocked and there is a serious break-down in communication. Millions of comrade commuters are spectators in a process that leaves them stranded at railway stations. What is our unified political vision of transport as the ANC-led movement? How do we provide political leadership to state/parastatal managers, to trade unionists and to communities? How do we unlock and unify the knowledge, expectations and aspirations of progressive public sector managers, trade unionists and communities into a common transformational programme of action for transport? We cannot do this if we conflate ANC policy with the managerial perspectives of those in the commanding heights of the state and parastatals. In this particular case, by the way, the Transnet and department comrades directly involved in the negotiations have very, very little transport experience. By contrast, in the leadership and membership of SATAWU we have many decades of transport experience – and not just practical experience, but also policy development experience. We cannot afford to marginalise this expertise – which does not mean to say that SATAWU comrades are necessarily right in every respect. Above all, there is no way that we can develop a common transformational programme for transport if the ANC and its alliance partners are not actively involved in mobilising and engaging communities around the challenges of transport.

In the case of the Khutsong demarcation dispute there has, again, been a failure to place a developmental and transformational politics at the centre of discussions. Government has failed to articulate a clear developmental argument for re-demarcating Khutsong to the North West province. Snide comments about Khutsong residents “forgetting that they are South Africans”, or that they “don’t want to change their car number-plates from GP to NW” are not helpful. Everyone knows that the chances of getting effective services are a great deal more likely from a relatively efficient and well-resourced Gauteng province. Perhaps the NW province has an exciting and visionary perspective for developing Khutsong as part of its own growth and development strategy? But if it does, we have not been told about it. It is hard not to come to the conclusion that the demarcation was actually the result of a behind-closed-doors deal, an inter-provincial trade-off. Again, “ANC” policy is presented as something decided technocratically. Again we find an ANC-supporting community being alienated from an ANC government. Again we find the syndrome of disparate pots, ovens and fires.

The local government ANC list nominations process also seems to have proceeded unevenly. In some (perhaps most) cases, it went reasonably well, with a generally democratic and empowering process being observed. But in many cases we have had reports of an extremely unsatisfactory process. We have reports of ANC branches nominating in a secret ballot, but then not being informed of the results of their own vote. Clearly, the branch nominations are not final, and it is correct that at higher levels the lists should be adjusted – to ensure 50% women representation, balance, adequate skills, elimination of corruption, etc. But surely this should be done transparently. Branches should be informed of their own results, and they should be informed that their nominations (particularly for their ward councillor) are not necessarily final. Some time later, according to reports we have received, a finalised list was then brought back to branches (sometimes this did not even happen) – but again often without any attempt to explain to comrades the reasons for adjustments. This has resulted in widespread dissatisfaction and a sense of alienation. And yet, this whole process was an ideal opportunity to develop and deepen branch members’ understanding and appreciation for the organisational and moral values of the ANC.

Too often we tend to think of political education as a relatively abstract lecture on the Freedom Charter, or the National Democratic Revolution. No doubt, this is an important component of political education. But equally important, perhaps the most effective way in which to develop cadres, is to weave Charterist and NDR values into the practical task of, for instance, list nominations. No doubt, coming back to a branch to explain why their favourite for ward councillor is no longer in top spot on the list can be a time-consuming and contentious business. But this goes to the heart of building political awareness and democracy. And this gets us back to the central theme of our paper.

Mzala the commissar

We have been looking at the role and character of revolutionary intellectuals, and we have used the inspiring example of Mzala. If we were to summarise his example in one word, then we would have to say that he was, above all, a COMMISSAR. It would be a mistake to think of a commissar only in a military, or quasi-military context. The commissar’s role is above all political. It is about introducing political discussion, democratic debate, umrabulo, learning from each other in the midst of every situation – whether in an isolated camp in Angola, or a prison cell in apartheid South Africa, or a base-camp in a cave in Ingwavuma.

Now, more than ever, our movement requires tens of thousands of Mzalas, commissars working away in state departments, parastatals, trade unions, branches, and communities.

5576 words

[i] The biographical information is derived from Eddy Maloka’s moving tribute, “Mzala: a revolutionary without kid gloves”, The African Communist, 1st quarter, 1994, p.61-66
[ii] A History of the ANC: South Africa Belongs To Us (Zimbabwe Publishing House, Harare; James Currey, London; & Indiana University Press, Bloomington, Indiana
[iii] The National Question in the writing of South African history. A critical survey of some major tendencies, Development Policy and Practice, Working Paper 22, The Open University, Milton Keynes.
[iv] The National Question in the writing of South African history, p.40
[v] These were terms that were not generally used by the tendencies to describe themselves, rather they were terms that were applied polemically against each other. The so-called “populists” called their rivals “workerists”. And the so-called “workerists” called their rivals “populists”, in return.
[vi] See “Perestroika and Class Struggle. A comprehensive review of Mikhail Gorbachev’s book `Perestroika – New Thinking for Our Country and the World”, by “Sisa Majola”, The African Communist, second quarter, 1988, p.91ff