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South Africa: The Meaning of Revolutionary or Emancipatory Consciousness and Action Before and After 1990/94

I would argue that South Africa’s transition of 1994 was a revolutionary change, or in the words of the ANC and SACP of the time, a ‘democratic breakthrough’. It was not a finalisation of any revolution, because no revolution is ever finalised. This is Part One in a series.

There was a time when the word “revolution” was frequently used by cadres and activists in the Struggle against apartheid. It was nevertheless controversial, with different understandings of the meaning of the word. How one understands revolutionary or emancipatory or liberatory consciousness and practice before 1994 and in various phases that followed, especially after 2006, cannot be the same as the 1980s, and needs to be reconsidered.

It is, I believe, important to reclaim much-abused and ridiculed words like revolutionary and freedom fighter, though I am aware that for many people they bear connotations that are contentious.

Being a revolutionary in changing times

The word revolution was referred to recently within the context of “National Democratic Revolution” (NDR) by former president Thabo Mbeki and is used very often by the ANC, SACP and Cosatu. (On Thabo Mbeki’s reference to NDR and “counterrevolution” see my previous comment on this).

In reading Raymond Williams’ classic, Keywords, one sees that the word revolution has had complex origins and remains contested. When one looks at conventional dictionaries the word is treated with caution and often referred to as having connotations of the use of violence or often referring to a single extraordinary…

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