The Cape Radicals: Intellectual and Political Thought of the New Era Fellowship 1930s-1960s
By Crain Soudien.
Johannesburg; Wits University Press 2019
On page 16 the author observes:
The dominant narrative of contemporary South Africa, almost a quarter of a century after the end of apartheid, enshrouds the country in a pall of pessimism. South Africa, in this narrative, is a failed experiment. Its phoenix-like ascent out of its long nightmare of apartheid is a lie. Nelson Mandela and Desmond Tutu’s fabled rainbowism is shown to be, if anything, utterly chimerical. All there is, goes the explanation, is a heap of hate. (Cape Radicals (p. 16). Wits University Press. Kindle Edition.)
In writing the hitherto unwritten history of the New Era Fellowship (NEF), Soudien encourages a cautious optimism and highlights the NEF´s central insight—the unity of all human beings. The Cape Radicals makes available accounts of past experiences from which the Unbounded Academy and aligned organizations can draw lessons for the present. Most of all, I find it to be an edifying work. Its accounts of the lives, thoughts, and actions of the members of the NEF; together with the same author´s writings on the life of Nelson Mandela; help to define what it means to live a life well-lived.
Here are more key quotes from the book:
Their aim was to bring into being an organisation that would disrupt prevailing ruling-class thinking, which said that some people were naturally superior and others inferior. Cape Radicals (p. 9). Wits University Press. Kindle Edition.
‘We will discuss anything under the sun,’ they announced to the people of Cape Town in 1937. A variety of forums were put in place: study circles, debating societies and cultural initiatives. These in turn were catalysts for new political formations, civic organisations, and formative social organisations. Cape Radicals (p. 9). Wits University Press. Kindle Edition.
Not only did they seek to bring an end to mental slavery, they also committed themselves to building a new society in which all people could live with dignity. The means of effecting this, they came to understand, was education. As the ruling class used education to constitute the ‘subjected’ subject, it would be necessary to use the same powerful tool to produce new liberated human beings. Cape Radicals (pp. 9-10). Wits University Press. Kindle Edition.
It was teachers, they believed, who carried the responsibility of role-modelling the new liberated people. Cape Radicals (p. 10). Wits University Press. Kindle Edition.
They began to project the principle of unfettered possibility for all human beings. Cape Radicals (p. 15). Wits University Press. Kindle Edition.
This book´s ……. purpose is to show that South Africa’s history is not a long and pre-determined story of either inevitable white triumph or a long-awaited black recovery. It is an attempt, as part of a larger set of articulated initiatives, to make the point that the country’s history does not begin in race-drenched objectives and motives nor is its every turn and phase a response to this point of departure. Cape Radicals (p. 17). Wits University Press. Kindle Edition.
Racism is the process that invokes the idea of biologically and socially distinct groups of people for the purpose of assigning them positions of inferiority or superiority. Cape Radicals (p. 27). Wits University Press. Kindle Edition.
Teachers were the ‘awakeners. Their job was the production of good education, an education that would place in the hands of young people the capacity to discern the difference between a defensible right and an indefensible wrong. Cape Radicals (p. 37). Wits University Press. Kindle Edition.
Here is my comment:
My comment is that a non-racial society necessarily must be an unbounded society.
First, I will explain the problem that implies the conclusion stated above in practical terms as simply as I can. I apologize to the specialists who expect discussions of issues that for the sake of brevity and simplicity I do not mention1.
Then I will explain the significance of choosing to use the unusual word “unbounded.”
Simply stated: There are not enough jobs. There are not enough good jobs. There are not enough jobs that enable a person to live with dignity and security as a respected member of a community and a family.
In many centuries of anti-racist struggles, it apparently sometimes appears to some people that the reason why blacks (and other victims of discrimination) do not have good jobs is that there is prejudice against them. Worse, their social position, speciously justified by racism, has often been so low that they were slaves, or (even now) little better than slaves. It would appear to have been assumed by many that if it were not for racism, average black would have a house and a car and all the same privileged lives the whites have. The white world may be envisioned as a closed privileged heaven, where the blacks would be living too if it were not for laws and customs that keep them locked out of it.
Assuming that if it were not for racial prejudice, blacks could live like whites, it is forgotten that (1) Augmenting (in many occupations doubling) the number of people eligible to apply for jobs does not increase the number of jobs. (2) Indeed, when more candidates can apply for the same jobs, wages are likely to be lower. (3) Unemployment rates may be the same as before, even when unemployment and bad (irregular, poorly paid, degrading) employment is more fairly distributed so that they humiliate the same percentage of whites as of blacks. (4) Continued unemployment, and bad employment, occur even when measures are taken to provide access to investment funds to create a class of black capitalists approximately equal (or proportionately equal) in numbers and in wealth to the class of white capitalists.
While I suspect that many blacks and many whites may have fallen into the illusion that only prejudice kept blacks out of the paradise where the whites lived, it is clear that the members of the NEF did not. Worldwide, most leaders of the struggle did not. In the early days, for the better educated, the end of racism had to be the beginning of socialism.
Why? Capitalism depended on the hegemony of the mental models of the ruling class ideology. That hegemony was a confused mixture of laissez faire economics, the jurisprudence of the sanctity of contracts and of private property, and racism. Calling it a hegemony means that its victims themselves believed it. But capitalism could only function with such a hegemony., It could only function with a docile, uneducated, and intimidated working class, mentally accepting their own subordination and exploitation.
. As more and more of the victims of the system became educated, acquired qualifications, organized unions and other pressure groups, they demanded to be treated as first class citizens and sometimes succeeded. But as far as I know, no intellectual believed that private sector capitalism was capable of generating an unlimited supply of dignified livelihoods to employ both the newcomers demanding their rights and the traditional privileged whites who expected to maintain the economic status they already had –or at least not lower it much, plus hopefully also creating employment opportunities for those who enjoyed the social status of being white but economically had little or nothing to show for it, plus also liberating from exploitation and offering dignified livelihoods to the members of South Africa´s many other ethnicities who were neither white nor black. Capitalism was not up to the task of providing so much good employment –even assuming that it was a task that South Africa´s capitalist leaders wanted to attempt to accomplish. Anti-Stalinist socialism was the preferred option for making a non-racial society not only an ethical and legal imperative but also an economic possibility.
But 2021 is not 1937 when NEF began or 1960 when it ended.
In 2o21 it is still true that to achieve a non-racial society a post-pure capitalist labour market must deliver livelihoods with dignity to all and humiliation to none, The alternative is, in Soudien´s memorable phrase, ¨heaps of hate.¨ The USA is Exhibit One. South Africa is Exhibit Two. Exhibit Three is the UK where wavering on Brexit cost Jeremy Corbyn the votes of the anti-immigrant workers in the industrial midlands, the election, and his career. But unlike 1937, in 2021 non-Stalinist socialism, heavily influenced by Leon Trotsky, is no longer a live option.
In 1975-6, in his lectures at the Collège de France, Michel Foucault made the point that modern republican institutions claim to be founded on the rule of law, which in turn claims to be founded on a social contract that forbids the government to violate the rights of private property and commands the government to protect them. The drafting, agreeing, and signing of this contract never happened. The reason why it became the juridical basis of the European World System and later, due to the conquest of the rest of the world by European arms, the juridical basis of the Modern World System, is that it was the ideology of the winners of the civil wars in Europe of the 17th and 18th centuries.2
This is no small matter. It repeals Ubuntu. It repeals the traditional seven capital sins of Christianity. It repeals the seven pillars of Islam. It cancels dharma. It condemns the social rights guaranteed by the Mandela constitution of 1996 to mainly remaining on paper because it is the government that is supposed to make those rights real, but the government is impoverished and deeply in debt. The government is forced to finance itself with taxes paid by the poor like VAT while the principal wealth of South Africa belongs to private entities that are free to move it out of South Africa. The social contract sets in stone the doctrine that private property exists prior to community and prior to government. It belongs to private entities who can move it and/or themselves to another community or to the territory of another government. By a mobility constituted by ethics and defended by law, they choose which norms they will acknowledge and which laws they will obey. Due to the contributions of Foucault and many other recent scholars, 3knowledge of the historical origins, functions (facilitating profit making) and absence of functions (meeting human needs in harmony with nature) of liberal ethics and jurisprudence is much more complete in 2021 than it was in 1937 or 1960.
In the early 20th century the leading philosophical opponent of the bogus universal and eternal moral certainties of liberalism was the American pragmatist John Dewey. For Dewey, as for Emile Durkheim, no human group can survive without morals and spiritual practices. The reasons why a group has the norms it has are a mixed bag, an outcome of history that is never completely understood by anybody. They include class interest, religious beliefs, the teachings of a charismatic leader, enchanting legends, psychological tendencies, historical accidents, and the fact that in many cases the norms really do function to meet human needs and to enable the group to cope with the challenges posed by nature and by enemies. Institutions should be treated as hypotheses, to be confirmed or amended according to their consequences in practice.4 In The Cape Radicals Soudien mentions a visit by John Dewey to South Africa in 1937.
The occasion was a conference held under the auspices of the New Education Fellowship, which had as its objective the challenge of coming ‘face-to-face with the general problem of the function of education in modern society’.5 It took up the whole month of July, 1937, dividing its sessions between Cape Town and Johannesburg. The central issue was posed as two tasks for education: “ reproducing the ‘type’ (the people and their culture) and of ‘providing for growth beyond the type’.”6 Phrased in these terms, the emphasis in 2021 must clearly be on the second, and on those intellectual traditions that welcome contributions from diverse cultures and from indigenous knowledge systems.
In 2021 we face the real possibility, perhaps the probability, of the extinction of the human species due to the destruction of the delicate balances of the biosphere that make life possible. This was not an issue in 1937 and was only beginning to be an issue in 1960.
I would affirm two more statements that I believe to be true in 2021 and to have been probably not true, or less true, in the times of the New Era Fellowship.
The advance of technology, and greater awareness of the advantages of using relatively simple traditional green technologies, are making it possible to supply the material requirements of dignified livelihoods for every human being, and to reverse the destruction of the biosphere. From a technical point of view, the necessary material resources can be produced. Perhaps Gandhi was right in the past to assert over and over that the world has enough for everyone´s needs, but not enough for everyone´s greed. He will certainly be right in the future.7
In 2021, whatever may have been the case in the past, there is nothing that would be more to the interest of the rich and powerful than an end to poverty. I believe this is an objective fact, and that increasing numbers of the rich and powerful know it. However, to my knowledge (which is of course incomplete) those among them who know that an end to poverty would be to their interest, as well as to everyone else´s interest, do not know how to achieve that objective.
On the use of the unusual word “unbounded”
My initial comment was that a non-racial society is necessarily an unbounded society.
A short answer to why a non-racial society is necessarily an unbounded society is that bounded thinking and bounded practices will not get us there.
Any number laws against racism, and any number of constitutions declaring the existence of a non-racial society, will not get us there. As long as there is one person humiliated to the core8, and as long as there is one person who has lost out in today´s fierce competition to win a legal dignified livelihood, who sees others of other ethnicities winning the economic game, we are in danger.
As John Dewey observed in 1908, and as recent psychological research has confirmed, 9 the concept of the equality of human beings, like the concept that everyone should enjoy dignity and security, share in the general prosperity, and contribute to the common good, is not natural. It is not an instinct. It must be taught and learned. Thinking within the narrow bounds of local common sense must be unlearned.
When markets do what they do best, but still are far from providing dignified livelihoods for all who need them, the unbounded solution is non-market livelihoods10. What are non-market livelihoods? And what financing and/or in-kind talent and material resources make them possible? When you start to count them, and to study them, you find that they are innumerable, as many as the survival strategies of our ancestors thousands of years ago, as many as the stars in the night sky, as many as the social innovations our descendants will create that we now cannot yet imagine.
These few remarks may be sufficient to suggest that the word “unbounded” –whatever its other appropriate uses may be— describes a society loving enough and imaginative enough to include all and to exclude none.
1 Many of the complications I do treat in other works, especially my book with the assistance of Gavin Andersson, Economic Theory and Community Development. Lake Oswego OR: World Dignity University Press, 2021.
2 Michel Foucault Society Must be Defended. New York: Picador, 2003.
3 Among many others, Thomas Piketty, Capitalism and Ideology, Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2020,
4 John Dewey and James Tufts, Ethics. New York: Henry Holt, 1908.
5 Cape Radicals (p. 43). Wits University Press. Kindle Edition.
7 Peter Diamandis and Stephen Kotler, Abundance: The Future is Better than you Think. New York: Free Press, 2012
8 Evelin Lindner, Making Enemies: Humiliation and International Conflict. Westport CT: Praeger, 2006
10 For details see chapter five of our (with assistance of Gavin) Economic Theory and Community Development, forthcoming soon.