In January last year, Raymond Suttner started publishing a regular weekly column and video interviews on Polity.org.za. I had been following and looking forward to Suttner’s column, but it was not until reading Recovering Democracy in South Africa that I realised just how substantial this work has been. This is a very different book from Suttner’s previous works – and a very important one.

The Polity material forms the bulk of Suttner’s new book, which also includes some of his newspaper writing from the past decade. Each essay is linked to one of nearly 100 10-minute Polity video interviews that can be accessed with a smartphone or a tablet by scanning QR codes at the back of the book. [Scholars and researchers, note this innovative approach to incorporate multimedia material into writings and publications!]

Suttner does not use words lightly. Reading the book, one gets a sense of how every word, every sentence and every essay – and video interview – has been carefully thought through. While the essays may be short – between two and four pages each – they have a strong interpretative content. They are analytical but accessible, each piece in part commentary on contemporary political events and also much more than that. Suttner’s essays provide an in-depth analysis meant to get readers thinking about the present conjuncture and understanding it, not just for the purpose of critiquing it, but always with a view to changing it. In this sense, the book is educational or pedagogical. One of its aims is to empower readers as political subjects by showing that democracy is not just something abstract that is made in Parliament and other government institutions. By reclaiming democratic values and rights and becoming active citizens, each of us, in our own way, has the ability to transform and shape the world around us. So while the book is very much about the present, it is a book that will remain relevant and that readers will return to for some time.

The essays are arranged around seven topics and thematic sections, including a characterisation of the current crisis in the Zuma era (the powerful nexus between patronage, corruption, the alliance with traditional leadership, hyper-patriarchy and violent masculinities), attacks on constitutionalism and legality, gender and sexuality, race and identity, leadership, themes in the history of the ANC, and how to move forward from the present political situation. While each piece was originally written as a standalone article, by reading them together, one clearly gets the sense of a unified project. A number of motifs link the essays and various thematic parts, which results in a degree of overlap without coming across as repetitive but rather as driven by an overarching coherence.

Interestingly, Suttner’s emphasis on post-1994 democratic rights, active citizenship, constitutionalism, the sanctity of constitutional institutions and legality resonated with my own lived experience and personal history. I was born in Italy, a country whose constitution was the product of World War II and a war of national liberation against Nazi fascism. Italy’s new constitution, adopted in 1947, drew from the experiences of the Partisan Republics that were set up in liberated areas of the country in 1944-45. These republics practised a participatory form of democracy, comparable to South Africa’s 1980s. Growing up in Italy, I learned the importance its constitution that, like South Africa’s, is one of the most progressive and radical in the world and remains so nearly 70 years since its adoption. I was also taught about the importance of striving to remove social and economic obstacles that limit freedom and equality of citizens, an effort that requires the conscious cooperation of all.

The full realisation of constitutional rights remains as much a challenge in Italy today as it was when its constitution was first adopted. Rights-based constitutions, born out of anti-fascist struggles in Europe, are increasingly targeted as obstructions to the free penetration of financial capital and the application of austerity measures. As a result, we see more attacks on the constitution today than ever before, particularly on workers’ rights. Suttner’s emphasis on defending democracy and political rights at a time when capital wants to dictate not just the economy but also our politics is therefore well placed.

At the same time, Suttner is careful not to treat the Constitution as either static or final. The book challenges the reader to interrogate the meaning of the rights, concepts and values that the Constitution is informed by and is meant to protect. It challenges us to think of freedom and democracy as an ongoing journey that we constantly strive towards and not just something that is achieved “in one place at a single moment”, removed from and inaccessible to us. By discussing and debating these ideas and evolving concepts, Suttner argues that we can contribute to rebuilding a culture of debate in what have become highly depoliticised times compared to the anti-apartheid struggle when extensive political debate took place in spite of oppressive conditions.

By democracy, Suttner does not just mean representative democracy exercised through the vote, but also a broader, more direct type of democracy that had been a key feature of the popular struggles of the 1980s. According to Suttner, it has “fallen by the wayside” during the ANC’s transformation from liberation movement to political party. When the ANC came to power, the popular was displaced, as many thought of the ANC as “the manifestation of the popular” and “as embodying the nation”.

This transformation is in part responsible for the present climate of depoliticisation, which is evident in the absence of political debate at most levels of society, including at the level of party politics and government. One of its most worrying features is the lack of democratically inspired political leadership on issues such as hyper-patriarchy, gender-based violence, attacks on freedom of sexuality, so-called service delivery protests, and xenophobic violence. Sometimes this lack signifies inaction where there is a constitutional duty to protect the vulnerable, but sometimes there is, in contrast, use of police violence where negotiations and political engagement are required. I find the silence and lack of political will on the part of the ANC – as well as the SACP, Cosatu and opposition parties – disconcerting. Instead, Suttner explains that the state’s response has been to treat these issues as a problem of law and order for the police to contain, often by using deadly force.

But rather than surrendering to the current state of affairs, Suttner reminds us that politics and struggle do not follow a linear trajectory. As the history of the ANC in part six of the book shows, both gains and setbacks are part of any development. It is through a dialectical understanding of struggle that we can try to take forward a vision of the future. In an essay titled ‘What does it mean to be radical in South Africa today?’, Suttner argues that the question needs to be asked in relation to a particular moment in time. In the here and now, constitutionalism and legality are the frontline of struggle, and defending them can result in radical acts under the present circumstances.

The book revisits aspects of the lives of ANC and SACP leaders such as Nelson Mandela, Albertina and Walter Sisulu, Bram Fischer and Chief Albert Luthuli – as well as Chris Hani in one of the video interviews – to draw out some of their leadership qualities and lessons for today. While acknowledging the heroic qualities of these leaders, Suttner is also careful to understand them as “rounded persons” with strengths, vulnerabilities and weaknesses. Looking at their lives, Suttner recovers the possibility of alternative, gentler types of masculinity to the dominant models of hyper-patriarchal, machoist, militaristic, violent masculinity.

These leaders acted out their beliefs and prepared themselves for the consequences of their actions, including extreme hardships, imprisonment, torture and even death. Suttner calls it their “ethical core”, their moral integrity. But Suttner also argues that this unity of thinking and action should not be seen as something otherworldly; all of us can choose to act in accordance with our beliefs. We don’t need to be mere spectators in life, and we too have the power to influence the world around us.

These leaders, as well as the majority of those who joined the liberation struggle, were moved to act by “revolutionary love” or a “love for the people”, a deep love for all human beings shaped by a sense of justice, compassion, and the ability to imagine a different future. What is new and alarming about much of the current leadership is their callousness and that the plight of the poor no longer evokes compassion or empathy from the government that is supposed to be representing them.

It would be a fundamental mistake to read Suttner’s book as the product of disappointment or disillusionment with the present political order, as is the case with much of the current political commentary. While the book explicitly seeks to speak to this general climate of despondency, helplessness and despair, these sentiments do not motivate the author himself. In fact, Suttner is driven by the same revolutionary love that animated the struggle for liberation, and to which he devoted his life. His new book thus needs to be understood as an act of profound love for South Africa and all its people.

Recovering Democracy in South Africa by Raymond Suttner is published by Jacana Media and sells for R265 (paperback)

Main Photograph: Democracy remains a broke-down experience for many South Africans – Rogan Ward

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