Title: The Ambiguity of Solidarity. Belgium and the Global Struggle against Apartheid
Authors: Goedertier, Wouter
Issue Date: 9-Dec-2015
Abstract: In the contemporary world, thinking about politics and society is often obsessed with trends. One of those major trends which has enthralled commentators for the better part of the last thirty years is the idea of “globalization”. The true heyday of globalization came in the 1990s, when the spread of economic liberalization, the appearance of new information and communication technologies, the rising prominence of international organizations, and propagation of cosmopolitan human rights created a sense of optimism about the state of the world. By the mid-2000s, however, the heady times of globalization were over. In the course of a few years, the mood shifted towards a more pessimistic worldview. Commentators began to talk about a more “Hobbesian” world, with powerful countries such as Russia or China challenging Western hegemony in a variety of ways. In the humanities and social sciences, a prevailing idealism was replaced by more “realistic” approaches to global developments. The ambiguity of solidarity engages with this “paradigm shift” through a study of the transnational anti-apartheid movement. In accordance with the general scheme which divides anti-apartheid into its “liberation” and “solidarity” components, my dissertation has a focus on the Belgian solidarity movement.
There are two main reasons to study the anti-apartheid movement. First of all, one has to highlight its historical importance. As the main protagonists in the struggle, the liberation movements, churches and trade unions of South Africa could count on the (moral and material) support of solidarity organizations, youth and student bodies, churches, trade unions, NGOs . . . in more than 100 countries. The result was one of the largest social movements of the post-war era, enduring for more than three decades. At the same time, (anti-)apartheid plays an enduring part in our democratic imaginary. As we become more pessimistic about the state of democracy and the fate of globalization, our overall appraisal of the anti-apartheid struggle is likely to change.
My research questions may be situated along three dimensions. For heuristic purposes, I make a distinction between the temporal and the spatial dimensions of anti-apartheid. Since these principal dimensions did not exist in isolation, I introduce a third dimension # the element of specifically human motivations and mediations. My exploration of temporal dimension is guided the Nietzschean/Foucauldian idea of genealogy. While I do not want to present a linear account of social movement development, it is still crucial to look for antecedents of anti-apartheid activism. This way, the phenomenon of solidarity can be studied from a long-term perspective. Regarding anti-apartheid’s spatial dimension, it may be argued that solidarity movements are primarily directed towards problems of the frontier. The fact that apartheid caused so much unease in Western countries had much to do with the difficulties many Westerners experienced in grappling with their own histories of colonialism. In addition, one should examine how Western solidarity efforts were affected by inter-state rivalries which have created a division in the modern world between a Lockean heartland, on the one hand, and a series of Hobbesian contender states, on the other. By bringing temporal and spatial dimensions together, one can highlight the mediating role played by anti-apartheid actors. Solidarity actors acted as intermediaries in the spatial sense (as indicated above), but also in the temporal sense, by initiating some of the social transformations that would be generalized across Western (and non-Western) societies at a later stage. In this context, I consider a few of the theoretical observations that have been made regarding the “new social movements”. When sociological theories about the middle classes (or cadre stratum) are combined with critical analyses of late modernity, a crucial question imposes itself: did Western solidarity movements (rooted in the cadre stratum) act as displaced mediators between different world orders? To what extent they contributed to the development of new cultural and economic practices and to the consolidation of new regimes of governance which eventually caused them to be displaced from their “original role”?
One prominent strand within the field of social movement studies conceives of anti-apartheid as a worldwide movement, operating within a broader, transnational political culture shaped in the dual climate of postcoloniality and the Cold War. However, due to its relative neglect of transnational class agency and state-society relations, this perspective is unable to identify a third and crucial historical development which informed both decolonization and the Cold War and thus helped to shape the transnational political culture of the post-war period. As a comprehensive concept of control, corporate liberalism gave expression to the general interest of ruling classes on both sides of the Atlantic. The order of corporate liberalism relied on different structures of socialization, including a surpa-state regulatory infrastructure and national institutions to stimulate growth and facilitate redistribution. These structures were manned by the expanding social stratum of the cadres. All cadres, whether primarily concerned with national or global matters, were equally involved in the transnational culture of corporate liberal governance. It is an observation which certainly applies to the four fractions of the cadre stratum that I have singled out because of their contribution to worldwide anti-apartheid movement: 1) student leaders and activists, 2) the cadres of church organizations, 3) trade unionists and 4) the people running development NGOs.
The cadres have a distinct tendency to drive towards “the ideal state of existing reality”. As a consequence, cadre loyalty to the dominant interests at the heart of a historical bloc cannot be taken for granted. When a given social order faces serious challenges, sections of the new middle class are known to develop a consciousness of their own. The resulting middle class movements may push towards the left or towards the right, depending on historical circumstances. Near the end of the 1960s, substantial sections of the (Catholic) student population distanced themselves from the Flemish movement as they began to radicalize in a left-wing direction. Challenging the authority of the Catholic clergy, they connected with a transnational struggle for autonomy, democratic participation and social justice. The birth of AKZA (Aktiekomitee Zuidelijk Afrika) show how young cadres were attempting to redefine their intermediary role with regards to the decolonizing Third World. Influenced by Marxism and liberation theology, AKZA supported nationalist movements in Angola, Mozambique and Guinea-Bissau before it settled on the struggle of the ANC in South Africa. To understand the social-psychological impulses behind these expression of solidarity, I rely on the Lacanian matrix of the four discourses. Feelings of guilt because of the immoral behaviour of authority figures reveal a hysterical aspect of student activism. The search for social alternatives was a way to discharge the excessive enjoyment connected to the functional roles of the cadre existence.
The radical anti-apartheid activists of the 1970s were adherents of a grassroots democratic socialism. In essence, this utopian endeavour could be read as an idealization of the world of corporate liberalism. On the one hand, the activists favoured an extension of the existing apparatus of social and economic planning to offset the imbalances of the capitalist world economy. But on the other hand, they wanted a degree of democratization that would do away with the need for bureaucracy. Directing our attention towards the anti-apartheid activities of more experienced cadres, we detect a similar determination to deepen the social compromises of corporate liberalism. In the late 1970s, Christian activists in Belgium formed KOBA to partake in the international campaign of the World Council of Churches to convince large Western banking institutions to cease giving loans to the South African public sector. Reaching for a normative consensus on lending practices, the activists tried to establish a dialogue with representatives of four major banks. However, these latter were not so keen to participate in a public debate. The turmoil surrounding the banking campaign demonstrates the conflicting ethical views held by different segments of the cadre stratum. Faced with a crisis of the corporate liberal order, the capitalist and technocratic segment of cadres was in no mood for moral self-questioning. Crucial as they may have been for the maintenance of social cohesion, the more humanistic segment of the cadres was not allowed to overstep the boundary set by the discipline of Capital.
In the 1970s, the consensus around the corporate-liberal concept of control was unravelling rapidly. The revolts of left-wing liberation movements in Africa and Southeast Asia, the collective contender effort of Third World states (with the New International Economic Order as its flagship) and the democratic spirit of May ’68 were shaking up the existing political structures. Sections of the heartland elite did their utmost to create a consensus around a modified version of corporate liberalism (most notably within the Trilateral Commission), but this initiative faced enduring criticism from both the left and the right. My own research indicates that trade union leaders, another fraction of the cadre stratum, could be pulled in different directions as a result of the political turmoil of the 1970s. Western trade unions that were committed to the struggle against apartheid could not prevent their members from harbouring an additional concern for the fate of the white minority in South Africa. Some labour leaders in Western Europe could therefore be situated at the intersection of the anti- and the pro-apartheid movements. I clarify this issue by presenting the case of Jozef Houthuys, president of the Belgian Confederation of Christian Trade Unions (CSC) and deputy general-secretary of the World Confederation of Labour (WCL). The efforts of Houthuys and like-minded officials to secure the affiliation of a controversial white-controlled South African trade union federation had the potential of frustrating the WCL's anti-apartheid activities and exposing the trade union international to allegations of collaborating with racist organizations.
Houthuys’s preference for elite-level negotiations and collaboration with reform-minded labour leaders was inspired by his membership of the Trilateral Commission. However, his eventual approach to South African labour issues bore the imprint of a new concept of control: neoliberalism. Achieving a comprehensive status from the 1980s onwards, the neoliberal concept of control makes all elements of social compensation and deliberation conditional upon the prior acceptance of capitalist discipline. As the proliferating language of human rights was now increasingly employed against the contender states, South African liberation movements such as the ANC felt compelled to scale back their plans for social and economic change. To assist the ANC’s bid for political power in South Africa, the solidarity organizations within the worldwide anti-apartheid movement were ready to embrace a strategy of moderation.
Surveying their activities in the 1980s and early 1990s, I argue that organizations such as AKZA can be regarded as displaced mediators which helped paving the way for the problematic hegemony of neoliberal global governance and the accompanying ideology of multiculturalism. In the 1970s, radicalizing cadres – from student leaders to trade unionists and church activists – tried to strengthen the democratic, redistributive and non-bureaucratic elements of corporate liberalism. When corporate liberalism proved increasingly unworkable in the 1980s, they persevered whilst adding a greater element of personal responsibility into the mix. Adapting themselves to the new economic and cultural climate, they tried to appropriate certain channels and spaces of neoliberal globalization. Western European solidarity organizations made full use of aestheticized action forms to attract the attention of the public to their cause. Such acts of great creativity blurred the lines between the politicization of consumption and the commodification of protest. Human rights and liberal democracy were prominent among the demands of the movement and, in the end, the turn to human development programmes led to the attenuation of left-radical politics. The road to neoliberalism was long and uncertain. Many forces and organizations were implicated, either intentionally or unintentionally. AKZA never campaigned for intensified capitalist exploitation, the depoliticization of the economy or violent and banal forms of racism. And yet, by way of its practices, the committee contributed to the shift from corporate liberalism to neoliberalism.
Publication status: published
KU Leuven publication type: TH
Appears in Collections:Modernity & Society 1800-2000, Leuven

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