As the world celebrates the life and times of Fidel Castro as a revolutionary, politician, internationalist and statesman, scholars of revolution and humankind in general have been bequeathed a treasure trove of critical and emancipatory ideas. South Africa as a country that is currently grappling with a multiplicity of challenges including leadership, poverty, unemployment, inequality, domestic violence, crime, etc. has an opportunity to learn from the life experience of Fidel Castro.
In an age where terms such as ’revolution’, ‘selflessness’, ‘legend’ and ‘stalwart’, amongst others, have become so promiscuous that their true essence and value have been lost, it is worth reflecting on the force and profundity of revolutionary ideas. Castro’s early entry into the revolutionary struggle against repressive regimes in Cuba and Latin America and his passion for anti-imperialism and fight against injustice internationally went way beyond improving the material conditions of humanity. What could be gleaned from this chapter of Castro’s life is that, besides being endowed with humility, service, and selflessness, he was sufficiently precocious to construe revolution as a realm of ideas. To begin with, a young Fidel Castro had no business flirting with subversion and being a thorn on the side of right wing governments in Cuba and the region, his family background was that of enormous wealth, he was certainly born into the Cuban elite. It would be superfluous to delve any deeper into the personal life of one of the most storied figures of the twentieth century save for a glimpse into his revolutionary conscience and perspective. Every revolution is distinctive and complex; it follows historical contours of the country concerned. While it is only judicious to guard against being prescriptive and formulaic in understanding revolutions, certain fundamentals stand out and have been identified by scholars of history and politics as critical in successful revolutions.
Fidel Castro turned his back against his wealthy family background and this was a lynchpin for the revolution. Armed with a humanistic impulse, Castro assumed a moral high ground consciously opting for the side of justice in a world where he personally had everything due to his pedigree. Instead of forging solidarities with his class folk and living a lavish lifestyle as a young student and later law graduate, Castro repelled the lure of opulence in a Cuba that was the playground for the rich and famous at the time. This feat in his personality perplexed his family and detractors alike, not only did he distance himself from the dominant culture within his home country; many of the Cuban elite were to meet their demise in his warpath. It is also worth recalling that in his formative years as a student activist Castro begun not necessarily as a rabid communist ideologically, the idea of a revolution and posture against a repressive regime came first. Castro fulfilled some of the most important conditions for a successful revolution as identified by the French philosopher Jean Francois Revel; there was a critique of the injustice existing in economic, social, and racial relationships. According to Revel, injustice results in inefficiency, and thus in counter-productivity and the ruin of a nation’s resources. Moreover, injustice is an affront to human dignity and Fidel Castro and his movement targeted the oppressive and dehumanising regime of Fulgencio Batista with steely resolve.
It has thus been argued that for a revolution to be successful certain prerequisites should be met. As I borrow liberally from Revel, it becomes evidently clear that in an established system of domination, for a revolution to be successful those from the dominant culture must unequivocally renounce the very system which advantages them in its totality, i.e. socially, economically, politically, culturally, etc. There must be a critique of culture: of morality, religion, accepted beliefs, customs, philosophy, literature, art, of the ideological attitudes which underlie these things; of the function of culture and of intellectuals in society, and of the distribution of that culture (education, communication, information). And there must be a critique of the old civilisation-as-sanction, or a vindication of individual freedom. In countries such as South Africa where vestiges of colonial and apartheid rule remain persistent especially from a cultural and economic dimension, it becomes imperative for the middle classes and for the white community in particular to reject the refractory white supremacy. Thus it must be kept in mind that critiques of the moral and cultural orders are relevant only if they are, for the most part, expressed by the governing class and the dominant culture itself. It has certainly been observed that all revolutionary trends –whether they are destined to come to fruition imminently or remotely –have this in common, that a group of those who benefit from the status quo detach themselves from their class and betray it from within. It is this fundamental condition that has invariably lacked in the South African democratic transition or the so called negotiated anti-apartheid revolution. Whilst the dominant white culture has been left firmly intact, narratives of change continue to be undergirded by economic determinism. In a similar fashion to modernisation theory, policy narratives are characterised by commonsensical calls for more graduates, more artisans, skills and capacity building, employment creation, service delivery and good governance. Discourses of transformation and radical change are marred with contradictions as the emphasis on good governance and rooting out corruption are rendered superficial in a society that remains entrenched in coloniality. Furthermore, the cultural hegemony of the white minority and western culture in general have been reconstructed and reinforced as a logical progression whereby the African majority in pursuit of ‘quality education’ simply toils and pays exorbitant school fees at basic education level in order to access former whites only schools. While there have been calls for decolonisation of higher education, the critique has been mute at basic education level. In this scenario calls for the decolonisation of the academy and curricula come a tad late.
As Revel reflects on the French Revolution, he underscores the importance of having the dominant culture relinquishing its dominance. As it was in the case of Fidel Castro, the insider perspective of those who enjoy all the trappings of privilege that obtains from the dominant cultural position over and above the obvious material accoutrements becomes even more critical. As Revel points out, this was also true of a part of the French aristocracy in the eighteenth century; and it was true of the bourgeoisie of the nineteenth century. One must be an aristocrat to denounce the degradation implicit in life at the court of the Bourbon kings; and one had to be a Bourgeoisie to describe accurately the moral world of the middle class. Consequently this criticism from above, which is directed against the most subtle cultural manifestations of a system, and which points out that system’s shortcomings from the standpoint even of those who benefit from it, is indispensable. Therefore it was the aristocrats and the bourgeoisie of the eighteenth century, not the peasants, who were in a position to criticise the religious system; and, without that critique, the revolution would never have taken place. If revolution is understood anthropologically as a ‘total social fact’, meaning that it affects every facet of a culture, scholars of revolution would drift away from calling for a revolution in instalments where there is the acquisition of political control without the necessary redistribution of land, wealth and the reconfiguration of the dominant culture. The so called national democratic revolution remains vacuous if it assumes victory at the expense of the African majority from a cultural point of view. This topsy-turvy arrangement of Africans at the bottom and the white minority on top is simply a pickanninisation of an entire people; it is neither workable nor sustainable and does not augur well for equity and justice. As the world bids farewell to the great revolutionary Fidel Castro, populism and right wing sentiments have regrouped in America and western Europe, it is therefore pertinent for South Africans to take a leaf from the book of the Cuban revolution and define a more just and equitable future. So far South Africa has continued to be dominated by liberal discourses that demand good governance whilst leaving structural foundations of injustice and white privilege intact. The calls for a decolonised society will remain hollow if the continuities of colonialism and apartheid are left unchallenged from all angles.
Mabutho Shangase is a Senior Research Fellow at the Institute for Global Dialogue and a Doctoral Researcher at the University of Edinburgh.