- 'The turning point …was in the decision of the liberation movement to abandon its exclusive reliance on non-violent campaigning'.
Letter from Rusty Bernstein to John S Saul
I (JSS) received the following letter, posted from Kidlington in the UK on June 8, 2001, from long-time ANC and SACP militant Lionel 'Rusty' Bernstein.1
When I quoted from the letter in my remarks at my own book launch in Durban on April 2, 2007, I was urged by several comrades there to allow the entire text to be published. Given that Bernstein died on June 23, 2002, not long after this letter was sent (and that, his wife, Hilda, noted author and a fellow long-time stalwart in the South African liberation struggle, has also quite recently passed away), I see no reason not to do so, especially since the contents of the letter are likely to be of general interest not only to historians but also to current activists in the South African struggle.
As will be apparent, Bernstein was responding to an article of my own, then only just published in Monthly Review (January 2001). My article was to receive a less positive response from certain other militants, including Jeremy Cronin and Raymond Suttner, also writing in the pages of Monthly Review. Both that article itself and my responses to Cronin and Suttner now appear in my The Next Liberation Struggle, a book published by the University of KwaZulu-Natal Press and the one that we were launching in Durban. The letter itself, with only the insertion of two accidentally omitted words ('this' and 'of') to convey more clearly the sense of the sentences concerned, is printed exactly as it was typed by Bernstein and received by me. The original letter itself remains in my possession.
June 8, 2001 [End Page 140]
Dear Professor Saul,
I have only recently received a copy of your article 'Cry for the Beloved Country' in the January Monthly Review. My congratulations. It is the most perceptive and pertinent assessment I have read anywhere about what is happening in my own country. I agree with almost every word of it, but would take issue with the bald description of 'a tragedy being enacted'. This seems to negate the many small, often localised but still inspirational and imaginative self-help movements which are still alive and kicking in the country, and carry forward some of the democratic enthusiasms and hopes which the ANC, in its best days, generated in people both inside and outside South Africa.
These 'best days' of the South African liberation struggle seemed to hold out a promise of new ways of democratic social change, and possibly even an opening towards a democratic socialism. They were widely believed to offer an example from which other movements and peoples might draw inspiration and lessons. But as your critique shows correctly, South African political reality appears to be departing further and further from the promise, and the new South Africa is proving to be very different from the hopes and visions we once held.
As one who played a small part, over some fifty years, in both the Congress movement and Communist Party in my country's 'best days', I cannot rest with just a description of what is now happening to confound our hopes. I am driven to ask also what went wrong? And why? Is it that our hopes were romantically unrealistic or our appraisal of the resistance movement fatally flawed? Did we misinterpret the real balance of forces at play, or the dead hand of tradition in shaping the future? Or was it simply as so may commentators suggest, that the objective conditions for democratic transformation were never present, or the political leaders too inadequate or self seeking for the task?
This is not an academic question. An understanding of what is going wrong, and why, is the essential precondition for any rectification, and thus for any return to former optimism about South Africa's democratic future. May I suggest that the answer does not lie totally in present realities but goes back to events well before the emergence of...