The invitation came by email, inviting "CDE Danny Schechter" to the ceremony marking the 100th anniversary of South Africa's African National Congress in the Orange Free State. Unfortunately, in these depressing financial times, I had to beg off because it didn't come with an air ticket.
For the uninitiated, CDE stands for comrade, a term over-associated in this country with Communist movements, and a word that is often used by members of the US military and even by activists of Occupy Wall Street.
The dictionary I consulted pigeonholes it as a subversive lefty phrase, which of course it isn't.
comrade |?käm?rad; ?kämr?d| – noun – a companion who shares one's activities or is a fellow member of an organisation • (also comrade-in-arms) a fellow soldier or serviceman • a fellow socialist or communist (often as a form of address) : [as title ] Comrade Lenin.
ANC members, and members liberation movements the world over, use comrade as a term of identity and endearment.
In that sense, I was proud that the ANC had me on the guest list – no doubt because of the 30 years I spent crusading against apartheid, as an activist in South Africa and America, writer, filmmaker, and part of the team that produced Sun City, the anti-apartheid multi-artist hit and related educational material.
I was consumed with the South Africa struggle since my days in the civil rights movement in the early 1960s, my graduate student days in London in the mid-sixties when I visited the land of apartheid on an ANC-backed "mission", as a founder of the Africa Research group in Cambridge, MA, as a freelance writer and then as a network producer and independent filmmaker.
I made five films with and about South Africa, working with a South African company, and produced the South Africa Now TV series with my company Globalvision for 156 weeks between 1987 and 1991.
That's a long immersion, and as the late South African writer and poet laureate, Mazisi Kunene told me, I earned the right to speak out about my concerns even if I wasn't born in the "beloved country".
A history of activism
The ANC, formed in 1912 (around the same time that the National Association for the Advancement of Coloured People [NAACP] was born) fought a long freedom struggle, one of the longest in Africa.
It went through several stages, first, as a church-based elite lobbying force, a non-violent nationalist movement, and then, as part of an alliance with Indians, Coloureds, and progressive Whites, including Afrikaners and Communists.
It morphed into a violent struggle of resistance and armed combat when the doors to non-violent change were brutally shut by white nationalists who built on British colonial racism to impose apartheid, a practice of physically relocating communities, regulating labour with passes, and violent repression.
In response, the ANC evolved a four-pole strategy built around armed struggle led by exiles, urban insurrection in the townships to make the country ungovernable there, worldwide anti-apartheid activism and aggressive lobbying at the United Nations, in sports federations and other international bodies.
Its committed and impressive advocates and representatives criss-crossed the globe raising money and awareness.
Outside the country, the movement was led by Oliver Tambo, Nelson Mandela's law partner. It had alliances with the "frontline states" of Mozambique, Zimbabwe and Zambia and worked alongside liberation fighters in Angola and Namibia.
Inside South Africa, many top leaders such as Mandela were arrested and sent to the draconian Robben Island prison where they were expected to die. Thousands more were arrested in bitter battles with the police and army. Scores sacrificed their lives – such as the murdered black consciousness fighter, Steve Biko, or rivals in the PAC and Unity Movement.
Many died or were killed, endured torture, the separation of families, and very tough times.
Finally, as South Africa's economy came under external sanctions and pressure, and after their army suffered a major defeat in Angola at the hands of Cuban and African solidarity fighters, Pretoria had no choice but to free Mandela and his comrades, and start a negotiating process that led to the country’s first democratic elections four years later.
Nelson Mandela became president in 1994.
A new challenge
That was nearly 20 years ago. While the ANC which promised a "better life for all" faced a new and even more problematic struggle – delivering on its promises by providing services, building houses, creating jobs and transforming a country with the deepest divisions between wealth and poverty in the world. There, the 99.9 per cent were held captive by the 0.01 per cent.
A group that fought against power had now become the power, and in some cases was seduced by power's seductions and corruption.
The result has been predictable – and a lesson for revolutionaries the world over.
Some in the ANC believed "it is now our turn" to enjoy the country's riches. "If we get mesmerised by the 'fleshpots'," ANC leader Joe Slovo warned me in an interview on the first Election Day, "we will be through". Had he lived, he would have not been a happy man to see the co-option and compromises of many of his comrades.
Sadly, many sold out while others bought in. The country that wanted to be known as "the Rainbow Nation" revealed a dark side alongside all the impressive and undeniable progress that had been made.
Still, the ANC lost its beneficent aura, and, in some cases, its moral standing as a handful of high profile leaders became millionaires and more, while "black empowerment" schemes were riddled with nepotism and self-dealing as in the phrase that goes back to the apartheid days: "Let's make a plan!"
There seem to be new scandals every day. At the same time there are many ANC stalwarts that stay true to the movement’s values.
To its credit, much of the South African press tells it like it is. Some of this is reversible. Many activists demonstrate for reforms of what they call a "new apartheid". The ANC's traditions are still alive – although not always within the ANC. A new crusade against corruption, demagoguery and hypocrisy is needed.
Hopefully, this anniversary can become a time of reflection. It has to start by the movement admitting it did not bring about what’s called the "new dispensation" all by itself. It has to credit religious leaders such as Desmond Tutu and civic leaders in every community.
It has to salute the solidarity movements that helped delegitimise apartheid and its apologists, including US politicians and corporations.
Happy 100th Birthday ANC. A big Viva to all your leaders and supporters and a sincere thank you for allowing me, an opinionated American who cared, access to your internal processes, and profound lessons about what it takes to make change.
I learned so much more than I was able to give and am proud to have stood with you when I could.