Quite a few people are calling me, legitimately, on my slippery slope comparisons between harassment of researchers and mass murder. Fair enough, but I would still maintain that once you put yourself in a situation of effectively absolute license to act in service to a moral claim that you see as being beyond argument or not subject to procedural or democratic arbitration, your feet are at least at one end of that slippery slope.
Even in circumstances where there is literally no other option and where the injustice is unambiguously intolerable, moving to a strategy of direct action which preemptively and aggressively rejects democratic or institutional liberalism has costs.
One of the most interesting questions to me in my field of speciality is, “Why did apartheid come to an end?” As recently as 1987, most of the scholars, intellectuals and activists concerned with South Africa were fairly certain that apartheid was structurally strong and would only be brought down by a long period of total struggle. A decent number would still maintain that South Africa’s current commitment to neoliberalism means that much of apartheid survived, and that the struggle continues. I don’t: I think apartheid as a specific social and political system ended, and with great and surprising rapidity.
The debate about why that happened (because even left-wing critics of the current government tend to concede that something changed in 1993) is interestingly enough still fairly embryonic. A few books that appeared in the 1990s voiced the argument from the left that fairly little had changed, and that the transition was only a kind of crisis management by South African capitalism. There’s a few other books and articles that look at particular aspects of the transition (for example, behind-the-scenes analyses of Mandela and De Klerk’s talks, or of maneuvering within the National Party).
My own view is that it’s fairly easy to say what did not matter, namely, the formal “armed struggle” waged by the ANC. For all that the decision to take up arms was seen both within and outside South Africa as a watershed for the ANC, in the end, the ANC’s military wing Umkhonto we Sizwe was fairly irrelevant when it came to bringing pressure on the apartheid regime. Fear of MK may have pushed the regime into over-reaching in its attacks on other countries in the region, and the mythology of MK may have been an important symbolic tool for mobilizing protest in the country, but MK itself mostly blundered and served as an opportunity for some ANC leaders in the MK training camps to demonstrate that they, too, could manage to be pointlessly oppressive and authoritarian.
Whether or not South African troops were formally “defeated” at Cuito Cuanavale in Angola in 1987, the battle certainly outlined the limits or outermost capacities of South African military power, so that played a role.
Sanctions and divestment mattered some. I would argue that the most important international sanction in the end may have been the sports boycott, as it most sharply communicated South Africa’s pariah status to the white population. But the refusal of international financial institutions to roll over loans in the 1980s was what really mattered, and that happened less because of political pressure and more because banks decided (rightfully) that South Africa was a bad risk. I sometimes feel chagrin at how little some of us in the divestment movement understood about the international organization of capitalism or the nature of the stock market. On the other hand, given that divestment was really not that big a deal to do and that it did actually help a bit, I also sometimes get irritated even in retrospect with how hard trustees and others fought against it.
The really major thing, I think, is that the Soweto uprising of 1976 and subsequent campaigns to make South Africa’s townships “ungovernable” put the apartheid regime under what proved to be unbearable pressure, largely on the pure grounds of resource limitations. The apartheid state simply couldn’t cope in the end with the demands that ungovernability put upon it, even when it put up a pretty good show of having everything under a tight authoritarian lid. Few of us saw this clearly in 1986-87 precisely because the state was putting on such a good performance, but underneath, the leadership was increasingly seeing collapse as inevitable.
Let’s review what led to ungovernability. The vast majority of the population without any vote or democratic outlet. An authoritarian state that legally defined almost all dissent as terrorism and gave itself entitlement to retaliate against dissent with imprisonment, torture, and murder. A state which routinely censored all media. A state which ignored property rights of most of its citizens. In short, a state which was in every respect the antithesis of liberalism, in which there was literally no avenue for democratic or liberal protest for the vast majority of its citizens.
Let’s review what ungovernability consisted of. Refusal to cooperate with any institution controlled directly or indirectly by the national government. So leaving school, refusing to pay any rents or fees assessed by governmental bodies, refusal to comply with orders from authorities no matter how routine those orders might be, and an embrace of violent resistance to the state and any perceived agents of the state. Making large areas of the country “no-go” areas for civil authorities unless they were accompanied by strong military forces. Murder or threat of murder of suspected collaborators.
As I said, I think it worked. I think it was justified not just because it worked but because there were no other alternatives. The apartheid state and the National Party spent twenty years steadily crushing all other avenues for political change and rewriting the laws and constitution of South Africa so as to define itself as the permanent and unchanging ruler of South Africa.
It had costs. If you’d tried to talk seriously about those costs in 1986, to have a cost/benefit analysis, I think you’d have been laughed out of most rooms as a weak liberal who implicitly supported apartheid, and maybe with some reason. Things were past that point. But the ANC and its supporters would probably have done better after 1993 if there had been some clearer acknowledgement during the struggle about the consequences of ungovernability and some attempt to prepare to face those consequences. It’s pretty hard to introduce the proposition that people have a public or civic duty to obey the law, pay their fees, and respect public property when you’ve had more than a decade of a declared obligation to do none of that. When children have left school for 15 years, they’ve been permanently wounded for the rest of their lives, in a way that leaves a democratic and liberal society few easy options for remedy. When you’ve said it’s ok to necklace someone who supports apartheid, what are you going to say when someone necklaces someone over some other political or social disagreement? When you’ve said that a thug is a hero of the resistance because he’s being thuggish in the right cause, you may have a problem when he continues to act like a thug. Nobody wanted to talk about crime as an issue in 1990 or 1991, during the transition, but it’s not exactly surprising that it became such a major problem given ungovernability on one hand and the use of police as tools of authoritarian control by the apartheid state on the other.
If the end goal is more or less a liberal society of some kind or another, then illiberal means are going to eventually prove as potentially serious an impediment to achieving it as whatever illiberalism one is trying to fight. Obviously this doesn’t apply if one is looking past liberalism to something else, like a very rigorously conceptualized form of socialist revolution. I suppose it doesn’t apply either if one has an exclusive tunnel vision on a single cause, e.g., if all you care about is whether monkeys and rats are getting tortured in laboratories and the rest of the world can go to hell as long as the monkeys are set free. People with that kind of tunnel vision do tend to be a bit surprised when they take a look around them and realize that the world has in fact gone to hell in part because all sorts of folks went off into their own private activist Idaho and did whatever they thought was righteous.