Political Consciousness from Soweto to Marikana

Report on a Four-Day Activist Course in 2015


Did Marikana change everything?


Since the day we first saw images of the police shooting down Marikana mineworkers in August 2012, it seemed to many on the South African left—and I include myself among them—that the Marikana massacre had changed everything in post-apartheid South Africa.[1]


The liberation credentials of the African National Congress and its allied organizations had withstood compromise, disappointment and betrayal over the decades before Marikana. But the idea of the ANC as the essential representative of black working-class aspirations in South Africa had endured, despite challenges. After 1994, the ANC came to represent the idea that the post-apartheid order negotiated in the early 1990s would provide a better, more hopeful future for the black working-class majority. It may no longer have had the legitimacy of actively fulfilling popular aspirations, but the political order retained its legitimacy in law and by default in popular consciousness. But the Marikana massacre challenged the legitimacy for ANC government actions and potentially the legitimacy of the political order they upheld. After Marikana, we might not know will take its place, or how long it will take for a clear alternative to emerge. But Marikana has created a crisis of legitimacy for the ANC government, and we cannot easily imagine how that crisis will be resolved.


One way to try to imagine this was to ask whether there was a way for the ANC somehow to undo the effects of the massacre, to put themselves on the side of the victims of the massacre or to separate itself from the event. What would remain of the negotiated settlement that had brought the ANC to power, if they were genuinely to address the roots causes of the massacre? If they were to seek to ensure that such an event would not happen again, what would remain of the negotiated settlement and the networks of wealth and privilege that the ANC had come to represent?


After the massacre, it was very soon apparent that neither the ANC, nor their allies in COSATU and the SACP, would even gesture in that direction. The SACP took the lead in blaming the victims of the massacre, depicting them as muti-crazed criminals. When this did not work, the dominant response of the entire ruling class was, in effect, to pretend that nothing had happened or that what had happened was in the nature of a freak accident, an unforeseen tragedy, like an earthquake or flood, for which no human actions were responsible. “This is not the time for pointing fingers” became the dominant refrain.


By the first anniversary of the massacre, the strategy of hoping that the massacre would be forgotten, or obscured by legal technicalities, had already failed. When the ANC refused to attend the anniversary of the massacre on the grounds that it had become “political,” not even their most loyal supporter could have accepted their good faith, or that of the SACP or COSATU, which had been eroded in related ways. The impact of the massacre was conveyed in the five-month long strike of platinum miners in 2014, against the sustained opposition of the ANC and its allies. On the eve of releasing the Farlam report in June 2015, Zuma returned to the theme that the massacre was well deserved: “Those people at Marikana had killed people and the police stopped them from killing people.”[2]


Steven Friedman has argued that “the test of a watershed is whether it changes behavior or opinions among key actors: two years on, there is little evidence that Marikana did either.” He examines the responses of what he considers the three key actors—government, business and organized labour—and concludes: “Marikana should have been a watershed—it should have persuaded government, business and labour that they needed to chart a new course. But, two years later, there is little evidence that it has.” Until this happens, the families of those who died at Marikana “cannot be comforted by the prospect that their loved ones’ deaths shocked us into taking a new direction.” [3]


If Marikana has changed South Africa, it has done so in a much deeper way than takes place when “key actors” such as government, business and organized labour shift their policy preferences, but in a way which is harder to assess. Marikana changed South Africa immediately, in the sense that it made it impossible for vast numbers of people to continue thinking about our collective future as they did before. If Marikana does indeed “change everything,” it will do so by changing the basic questions that define South African political life, in ways that make the old answers redundant and even meaningless. But it may be many years before a new way of thinking emerges—as the product of many collective efforts and initiatives—that will provide a framework for the future. The key actors of the current order will be the last to realize that this process is happening.


The question of whether Marikana changed everything, in this context, is not simply an academic question, but also one that is answered by different forms of activism. It is a question of what we can contribute to clarifying the situation Marikana has created, and enabling new perspectives to emerge. The prospects of formulating new perspectives will depend, among other factors, on how well a new generation comes to understand the process through which political consciousness is formed in a given historical context, such as that of South Africa after Marikana. This is part of the reason for the growing commemoration of the Marikana massacre. It was part of the reason for holding the four-day activist course discussed in this report.


Background to the course


In the first semester of 2014, I taught a postgraduate course in Dialectical Political Thought at the University of Cape Town. The course dealt with the history of dialectic from ancient Greece through Hegel and Marx to the present, and especially with the practice of analysing dialectical processes—that is, processes characterized by the movement of contradiction—in our own context.


My first real encounter with dialectic was reading Hegel’s Phenomenology of Spirit as an honours student in the now-defunct Department of Political Philosophy in 1976, with the text serving as a guide to the rapid shifts in political consciousness after the Soweto uprising of 16 June. I taught an undergraduate course on dialectic in the very different political context of the University of the Western Cape in the late 1980s and early 90s, and its themes were also prominent in postgraduate courses and debates in the UWC Marxist Theory Seminar. But the vocabulary of dialectic had never had much purchase at UCT and had never been taught there until 2014, as far as I know.


Thirteen students registered for the course and completed it. On the whole, I think the students did the most impressive work I’ve seen in any course I’ve taught in the years I’ve been at UCT, and the course clearly had a considerable impact on them. In the second semester of 2014, I was invited by the UCT Institute for Humanities in Africa (HUMA) to present a series of three seminars on dialectic, intended for a broader UCT audience. Apart from UCT academics and students, about twelve activists from labour or community organizations attended the seminars, and were among the most consistent in attending and participating.


Activists at the seminars came from a range of organizations: Ndifuna Ukwazi, an educational institution for activists, based in central Cape Town, with links to the Treatment Action campaign, Social Justice Coalition, Equal Education and others; the International Labour Research and Information Group (ILRIG), a longstanding labour research and education NGO, based in Salt River; Inkululeko in Mind, a community youth organization based in the Mandela Park area of Khayelitsha. In informal discussion, at the HUMA seminars and afterwards, several of them expressed a strong interest in continuing their education in this field.


At the same time, it was clear that UCT students were both eager to develop practical skills in dialectical thinking and were at the same time unfamiliar with the political contexts in which they are needed. It was only at the end of the course that most of them became confident that they could make independent use of this mode of analysis. The main focus of the 2014 course was on the work of Hegel. Both in informal discussion and in the course evaluation, students indicated an interest in learning more about Marx’s analysis of capitalism, in particular, and its relation to working-class politics.


In this context, I started revising the course for the first semester of 2015, giving it a more practical and contemporary focus. I applied for a UCT teaching grant, in order to strengthen this focus by enabling postgraduate students to work together with community and labour activists. (I’ll use the term activists to include both categories; there is no rigid distinction between them, as the community organizations involved are based in working-class communities.) My ideas for the project changed in the process of communicating with activists, resulting in the four-day course outlined below.


Twenty-five people registered for the course before it began (seventeen activists and eight UCT students); some of the activists did not attend, but others joined as the course continued. Activist organizations included the Housing Assembly, Waste Pickers Movement, Marikana community (Cape Town), Inkululeko in Mind, GIWUSA, Ndifuna Ukwazi, Workers World Media project, Taxi Radio and the Rita Edwards Womens’ Collective. Attendance at the four days varied, by my estimate, from eighteen to twenty-eight, with slightly better attendance by community activists than UCT students, who sometimes had conflicting commitments. Seventeen completed the course evaluation at the end of the final day.


The course was held at Community House in Salt River, except for the first day, when water and sewage was cut off at buildings in that area, and the course moved to a venue at UCT. It was held in collaboration with the International Labour Research and Information Group (ILRIG), which did much of the organizing related to transport from the townships and informal settlements, meals, technology and venues.


Focus and method of the activist course


The activist course was an attempt to convey the basic methods of dialectical analysis by making use of them, rather than examining their philosophical premises and defining the central concepts of dialectic. The focus of the course was developments and changes in political consciousness from Soweto 1976 to Marikana 2012.


This focus was intended to provide a way of gaining a historical perspective on the situation of the black working class in contemporary South Africa. One of the main tasks of activists for social change is to enable new forms of consciousness—that is, to enable people to think in new shared ways about how their struggles can change the world. How can activists help people to respond to major events in ways that empower them? Can we anticipate the ways in which working people begin to see how they can contribute to creating a new society, instead of accepting the hardships imposed on them or asking for small improvements to the existing injustice? Activism without a conscious and coherent way of thinking about how such change comes about is tied to the dominant trends of the time, without any way of foreseeing their demise.


The basic method of analysis used in the course involved understanding the emergence and movement of contradictions within specific forms of consciousness, as they come into conflict with a changed reality. On the first of the four days, we watched a documentary movie on the Soweto uprising of 1976—that is, a specific situation in which we can see this process taking place, without having to theorize it. The impact of Soweto on the consciousness of a generation is easy to grasp, partly because we see it happening within a single day and it is so vividly recalled by those who were there.


It was only on the final day of the course that we discussed, quite briefly, how we can recognize the elements of consciousness (that is, widespread, formative beliefs and assumptions), how these elements coalesced into a specific form of consciousness (that is, a coherent outlook on the world constituted by these elements) and how the central elements of a specific form of consciousness can come into contradiction with each other in ways that make that form unsustainable.


Put differently, the course did not attempt to develop a systematic or theoretical account of its own methods and perspectives. It spent one session, outlined below, discussing a brief overview of the contradictions of South African capitalism, in order to provide a basic grasp of what it means to talk about the movement of contradictions in historical reality. It was clear that students became increasingly familiar with the recognition of contradiction in social and political reality as the course went on. It’s likely that individual students grasped the general method underlying our discussions to a different extent and in different ways.


The difference between UCT students (who were in the midst of a course requiring systematic thought on the history and meaning of dialectical concepts) and community activists (who experienced the contradictions of the post-apartheid order in far harsher form than most UCT students) was probably at its greatest on this point. If the course had begun with a systematic treatment of theoretical issues with which UCT students were much more familiar than activists, it would have created a situation of relative inequality, which it seemed essential to avoid. By keeping the focus of the course on concrete events, rather than theoretical methods, it was possible to have fruitful and productive engagement between students and activists.


Format of the activist course


Discussion over the four days of the course was organized mainly around ten worksheets, most of them containing extracts one or two pages in length, taken from published texts, followed by questions. The questions were meant to guide students into forming an analysis of a specific problem, but not to prescribe the conclusions of the analysis or the extent to which it was developed. The questions were not meant to achieve unanimity on all points, and differences of substance or emphasis often remained. It was more important to for participants to establish a shared method of analysis than to agree on the content of their analysis. Where this method did not necessarily resolve differences, it could clarify them at least.


The texts used in these worksheets were mainly those of participants in historical events—students who were at the Soweto march of 16 June 1976, Marikana mineworkers explaining their decision to strike, etc.—speaking in their own voices. I’m not sure whether this was a conscious decision at that I made in advance, but it had a far more powerful effect than I anticipated. For many of the activists, it seemed almost as if the Soweto students or Marikana workers were present in the room, so immediate was the effect of their words on the page (SSRC president Tsietsi Mashinini, for example, was both in the Soweto movie and in the worksheets). This had a considerable effect on UCT students as well. The students were used to responding to texts with the kind of distance required for academic purposes. But they soon followed the lead of activists, engaging more directly with the arguments and questions of the time.


Discussion of worksheets sometimes took place in two or three small groups. Sometimes these groups reported back to the whole group, but it often worked just as well for the discussion to continue in the whole group. When the whole discussion took place in the large group, there were fewer participants and some who were just spectators. When we broke into groups, I would sit in on parts of the discussion, but not participate.


On the final day, activists had the opportunity to speak about their organizations and the communities they worked with. The questions they were asked to address were intended to get them to reflect on what they had learned from the course—about consciousness, contradictions and the larger South African context. There were more volunteers than I’d expected, taking up almost the whole day.


A background reader was compiled and printed before the course. It did not form the explicit focus of any part of the course. However, information or perspectives taken from it were sometimes introduced into the discussion by students. Some activists indicated it would be used in their internal study programmes.


Course programme


A two-page programme was distributed in advance, which listed eight worksheets and readings for them, and allocated almost the whole final day to activist presentations. The content of the worksheets changed slightly as the course proceeded, and new worksheets were added in response to discussion. In this section, I’ll list the worksheets that were drafted and distributed as part of the course, without indicating changes. The initial programme and the ten worksheets are available online at: http://www.ilrig.org/2014/index.php/publications/booklets/128-activist-course-political-consciousness-from-soweto-to-marikana-april-may-2015.


Day 1: Friday 24 April: From Sharpeville 1960 to Soweto 1976


After students had introduced themselves and I had introduced the course, we began with Worksheet 1: The contradictions of South African capitalism. This was discussed in small groups. It was intended to give students a sense of how contradictions can occur historically, and how attempts to overcome them can lead to new contradictions, and so on. The worksheet outlined a series of five contradictions roughly from the mineral revolution to the present and gave the opportunity for students to describe contradictions in their own historical context.


After lunch, we watched a BBC documentary on the Soweto uprising of 1976, followed by intense discussion. The discussion of the movie led to discussion of events and the context that led to it, including many questions about the historical background.


We then discussed Worksheet 2: “Bringing the government to its senses” without breaking into groups. The worksheet included an extract from the manifesto of Umkhonto we Sizwe, released in December 1961, from which its title is taken, and from Bishop Tutu’s open letter to the South African prime minister in 1976, just a month or so before the Soweto uprising. The idea of “bringing the government to its senses” (rather than seeking to overthrow it) was integral to the decision to protest against the imposition of Afrikaans-medium instruction on 16 June 1976, and the events of that day presented a major challenge to that idea. After a late start, we only had time for a brief discussion, which we continued on the second day of the course.


Day 2: Thursday 30 April 2015: Soweto and After


We began with Worksheet 2, in the large group, which is outlined above.


After that we broke into small groups to discuss Worksheet 3: Soweto students speak. This worksheet included an extract from the statement of the Soweto Students Representative Council, dated 29 October 1976, about four months after the revolt began. Activist students were especially engaged with the SSRC’s dismissal of their parents’ generation, which aroused heated debate.


Worksheet 4: After Soweto was also discussed in groups. It dealt with the dilemmas faced by the Soweto generation once the initial revolt of 1976-77 had exhausted itself. It included passages describing Tsietsi Mashinini and others’ efforts to maintain their independence from the ANC in West African exile; the arrival of Black Consciousness activists on Robben Island, bringing the new mood of militancy with them, as told by Mandela; and Oppenheimer and Rupert’s Urban Foundation initiative, intended to keep that militancy in check. In each of these contexts, we can see the beginnings of the co-optation of the headstrong generation of Soweto, and the failure of their overconfident belief that their courage alone could change the world.


From these three worksheets, a collective analysis of the movement of political consciousness from before Soweto to the revival of the ANC in the 1980s began to take shape. It was the only one of the four days of the course entirely devoted to developing such an analysis. It was hard work for everyone, but perhaps the most productive and stimulating of the four days.


Day 3: Friday 8 May 2015: Soweto and Marikana Compared


We began with Worksheet 5: Marikana mineworkers on NUM, containing brief extracts from the interviews with workers soon after the massacre, included in Peter Alexander et al, Marikana: A View from the Mountain and a Case to Answer. Beginning with workers’ grievances against the bureaucratic obfuscation of NUM, we sought to formulate ideas of oppression and liberation implicit in the text. We broke into groups for this discussion.


After that, we watched Rehad Desai’s movie Miners Shot Down, on the massacre. The scenes of the massacre are so overwhelming that they tend to drown out some of the earlier footage, in which workers set out their frustration with NUM and Lonmin. We finished watching the movie before lunch, and then discussed it after lunch, which may have been responsible for this becoming a more general discussion of South Africa today, and the failures of the ANC government.


We ended the day with Worksheet 6: Apartheid and capitalism in South Africa, which included extracts from four texts setting out perspectives from the liberation movement on the relationship of apartheid and capitalism, formulated between 1969 (ANC Strategy and Tactics) and 1986 (Zwelakhe Sisulu on people’s education). We discussed this as one group, trying to clarify the differences between promise and reality of liberation.


At the end of the day I distributed Worksheet 7, an untitled page contrasting the results of Soweto and Marikana moments, for discussion the following week.


Day 4: Friday 15 May 2015: After Marikana


I’ve already noted in my account of the course format that much of the final day was spent on presentations by activists of their organizations and the communities they worked in. This left little time for our main themes, and these were only indirectly dealt with in the presentations.


This report-back exercise seemed to me only partly successful, with some describing their activism in much the same way they could have done before the course began. With hindsight, however, this may not be that surprising, especially when activists were speaking on behalf of their organizations—that is, conveying a collective mandate, rather than reflecting on how their own perspectives were changing or had been changed by the course. It also meant that some of the concluding worksheets were distributed, but hardly discussed.


We began with Worksheet 8: Soweto and Marikana Compared, which we dealt with in the large group, in a somewhat abbreviated way. We had more time for discussion in small groups of Worksheet 8: Marikana Consciousness—Its Elements, Forms and Contradictions. This included extracts from Marikana workers (and an AMCU official) articulating what seemed to be their central and distinctive beliefs, in a somewhat inchoate mixture. This was intended to bring the collective analysis to a provisional conclusion. However, this may have been more than could be done in the time available.


After the activist presentations, students filled in a course evaluation and we had a general discussion of the entire course, including ideas for its continuation online and next year. I distributed two more worksheets, which we did not get time to discuss. Worksheet 9: Is Marikana Over? contains an extract from a news report on the SANDF operation in Thembelihle informal settlement. Worksheet 10: Freedom Charter vs. Transparent Social Relations was written in response to discussion the previous week on alternative visions for the future and frustration with promises constantly broken.


The collective analysis produced over the four days is to some extent reflected in the overview given above. But any summary would omit differences in emphasis, ways of developing it further that were not fully explored, and issues that were clarified in some ways but left open-ended in others. Although it was important for the analysis to be based on evidence, the evidence was necessarily incomplete and selective, and the analysis for that reason always in need of further development and correction.


Student responses


The seventeen course evaluations filled in and returned at the end of day 4 were overwhelmingly positive. The question which may have been closest to asking how well the course worked was “Would you recommend to others that they take the same (or similar) course if it is offered next year? If a more advanced course was offered, would you consider taking it?” All of the respondents answered yes, some emphatically; for example, “Listen to me! This course should happen each year, it’s very educating and definitely I will be part of it next time.” Or, “Yes, I will recommend to others as it will make them see the world from a different perspective.” In response to other questions, students indicated that the course had given them new perspectives, which they would continue to develop, that it had “opened their eyes” and the like.


Students clearly felt the experience had been engaging and stimulating. One measure of this is their sustained attendance, coming on time and staying to the end. By the end of the course we were able to start at exactly the prescribed time—almost unheard of, in the face of the many difficulties of public transport from Khayelitsha, Philippi, etc.


Almost all of the course evaluation forms were completed by community activists, rather than UCT students. A number of the UCT students commented to me on how much they had learned from the course and I think that was also reflected in the work they did in their final essays and exam. I think it gave them a slightly different perspective on how they could make use of their UCT education.


The four-day schedule was probably not quite long enough to deal with the material, and to teach the analytical skills intended. There is no perfect solution for the problem of teaching a method of analysis by concrete example, rather than theoretical explanation. But with an extra day or two, it would have been possible to bring the two closer together.


Argument and process


There are at least two ways in which the field of political consciousness from Soweto to Marikana can be approached.


First, it is possible to approach this as a task of historical reconstruction, which requires careful attention to a wide range of evidence, examining assumptions and arguments to see where, when and how they change or stay the same, seeking patterns of development and influence that may not be obvious at first sight. This is the task of intellectual history. Arguments and evidence have to be judged on the basis of their capacity to give us a better explanation and a fuller understanding of what actually happened. We may sometimes look for evidence or explanation in a different direction, because we sense there is something wrong with the political conclusions we’re coming to. But we cannot decide our conclusions on political grounds and then select the evidence to match them. The historian may begin such research out of a wish to contribute to the struggles of oppressed people, but will not be of any service to the oppressed if they confirm only the views that the oppressed (or some among them) wish to hear.


Second, as in this course, it is possible to approach this as an educational opportunity, seeking to provide materials and methods to enable people to learn to recognize such patterns of historical development for themselves, through a collective process. To do this, it is necessary for someone to make a selection of relevant historical material, formulate questions for discussion, and propose certain ways in which developments can be clarified—that is, to initiate an educational process, which has relatively clear steps towards a goal, but allows students to play a significant, even decisive, role in that process. Whoever designs such a process is likely to bring to it their own perspectives and preconceptions. Learning involves an exchange of different views, whether among students or between educator and student. It is often only by confronting the views of others that you learn what you yourself believe.


Ideally, we should keep a balance between the two approaches. In practice, a course in this field will have a bias on one direction or the other—in this case, towards process rather than evidence. The first task is to engage students, allow them to see that they can contribute to the analysis and persuade them that the collective process can produce results. The risk this involves, however, is that they conclude with only an uncertain sense of the dialectical perspective on consciousness, without necessarily being able to make use of it independently in different circumstances.


Dialectical perspectives on consciousness


It may be easier to convey this perspective—the perspective which makes it possible to recognize how Marikana has the potential to change everything— with the help of examples from the distant past, where we are able to recognize the outcome of processes that may seem uncertain or opaque to people at the time. It is also easier to focus on the development of a perspective—a way of connecting events and contexts and recognizing their significance—when the example is removed from ongoing controversy, and students are less tempted to partisanship. I’ll outline one such example briefly here: the young Hegel’s account of the conquest of Christianity over pagan religion in the Roman Empire, which shows us how we might think of epochal change taking place through “the still and secret revolution in the spirit of the age,” which prepares the way for upheavals which astonish even their participants.[4]


The young Hegel—a theology student in Germany, around the time of the French Revolution—rejected the Christian view of Greek and Roman religion as childish and absurd. Instead, he explains pagan religion as the form of ethical life appropriate for free citizens. It assumes the existence of powerful forces at work in the world but not a supreme being with a plan for each of them. Hegel asks: “How could the faith in the gods have been reft from the web of human life with which it had been interwoven by a thousand threads.”


He argues that the loss of freedom in the classical republics meant that such a “religion for free peoples” would lose its significance and meaning. The republican citizen knew that the republic would live on after him. But within the Roman Empire, the citizen’s rights were limited to those of property, and death became a terrifying prospect. An empire that unified huge and diverse territories with one body of law and one ruling bureaucracy could not sustain a pantheon of gods. God was “no longer regarded as like ourselves, although infinitely greater, but was put into another world in whose confines we had no part, to which we contributed nothing by our activity, but into which we could beg or conjure our way.”[5] The Roman priests were the last to realize that the foundations of their authority were being hollowed out beneath them.


In a similar way, we can see how the power of medieval Christianity came to be undermined by the scientific discoveries of the seventeenth century, a process brilliantly dramatized in Brecht’s Life of Galileo. Centuries later, we can see the ways in which the downfall of colonial empires is prepared by their own expansion and the ambitions of indigenous elites undercut by global capitalism, at the moment at which their prestige as leaders of newly independent states seems to be at its height.[6]


Learning to use a specific perspective in a number of historically specific contexts probably helps students to make use of that perspective in a new and unfamiliar context. At the same time, because examples from the distant past are unfamiliar, time and effort is required to provide and assimilate a certain amount of historical background.


Cultures of dialectical thinking


I mentioned earlier that I’ve taught formal courses on dialectical thinking both at the UWC in the insurrectionary years of the 1980s and 1990s, and at UCT in recent years, at the high tide of neoliberalism. It’s clear that dialectic has different meanings in these contexts and in the context of community activism as well.


At UWC in the anti-apartheid years, there was a vigorous culture of activism, broadly Marxist in orientation and with a tendency to dogmatism. The SACP booklet on dialectical materialism—Dialego’s Philosophy and Class Struggle— had the prestige that comes with illegality, although it had little else to recommend it. The vocabulary of dialectic seemed to offer the assurance of science and militancy at the same time. The excitement of the dialectical classics—Hegel’s dialectic of master and slave; Marx’s analysis of commodity fetishism; Luxemburg’s critique of reformism, and the like—was tangible, when students were exposed to them. But it’s hard to say what impact they had on activist culture.


At UCT, decades later, dialectical perspectives provide an alternative to the positivism of the social sciences, a dominant view of politics as essentially a managerial activity and, above all, a challenge to the ethic of individual self-advancement. Its ethical challenge is liberating for some students, but a source of intense confusion to others, whose very sense of selfhood is threatened by it. The challenge at UCT was making dialectic accessible. In that context, the work of Brecht—the most practical of dialecticians—revealed itself in a new light.


The activist course gave students a sense of the possibilities that often lie hidden in the contradictions of contemporary capitalist society and developed their capacity to recognize them. Along with a sense of the potential movement of contradiction, however, they had a sense of their persistence over time. It is difficult—and yet necessary, I believe—to see dialectical thinking is a process always requiring further development, and never providing final guarantees.


In the end, you cannot think dialectically by following a set of prescribed steps. It is more an art than a science. At some points, it may be useful for a student to copy the style of a specific thinker, in much the same way that it may be useful for an aspiring pianist to play scales. But the aspiring dialectician has to decide constantly what use to make of dialectical insights. The process of learning is often one of trial-and-error, and is almost certain to include its share of frustration, along with its pleasures.


Much can be learned from the great dialectical thinkers, and from collective discussion. At the same time, learning to think dialectically is inescapably linked to developing a style of thought of your own. This often needs to be tested against the ideas and events that most forcefully engage your own generation.


Indeed, once you have assimilated the dialectical legacy, it often becomes unnecessary to make explicit use of the vocabulary of dialectics any longer. It simply becomes part of a many-sided culture—an ongoing project of human liberation.


[1] This paper was presented at a Colloquium on Engaged Scholarship, held by the Trust for Community Outreach at the University of Cape Town in September 2015.

[2] Greg Nicolson, “Marikana: The day President Zuma added insult to injury,” Daily Maverick, 25 June 2015.

[3] Steven Friedman, “Little evidence that Marikana changed anything,” Business Day, 20 August 2014.

[4] G.W.F. Hegel, Early Theological Writings (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1948), p. 152.

[5] Hegel, Early Theological Writings, pp. 151-63.

[6] Jean-Paul Sartre, “The Political Thought of Patrice Lumumba,” in Colonialism and Neocolonialism (London and New York: Routledge Classics, 2006), pp. 175-223.