Randall Kennedy, the Harvard scholar, in his book, The Politics of Racial Betrayal defines a “sell-out” as “a person who betrays something to which she is said to owe allegiance. When used in a racial context among African Americans, “sell-out” is a disparaging term that refers to blacks who knowingly or with gross negligence act against the interest of blacks as a whole.”
The term sell-out with a meaning of betrayal is perhaps as old as the English language. The term is also not new for the South African politics. For a great part of the liberation struggle, people have either suspected or accused their own comrades, rightly or wrongly, of acting in a way or displaying a behaviour that is inconsistent with what is deemed acceptable normative in values of an overarching black emancipation cause. The biblical adage “there is nothing new under the sun…” still holds in this instance since the labelling of others is not new. Our attempt in this instance is to engage the usage of the term in our body-politick within essentially the ANC organisational space since it is used on both ends of the spectrum essentially with a sense of self-righteous indignation.
Recent funerals and our general atmosphere of politics, albeit crafted or real, brought the term, sell-out, to the fore again. If the subject of sell-out is engaged within the liberation struggle narrative it becomes almost impossible to entertain it devoid of the cognisance of the notion of a black identity thus a black struggle for freedom from an oppressive racist regime that enforced a heretic apartheid system characterised for its known venomous protection of white supremacy in the South Africa’s citizenry. Meaning it’s the appreciation of a black identity that defines a black struggle that contains the usage of the term and to which it owes its relevance.
As in the dark days of apartheid, when some stood accused of having sold out, it was the black liberation struggle they sold out in sharing information (be it in the camps, in a cell, or internal meetings) on their comrades to the enemy. We again hear the reverberating labelled sounds of sell-outs bellowed, accusing others of having betrayed the values of this particular cause. In this epoch, it was, in particular, the Madikizela-Mandela death and mourning and its accompanied revelations that thrust the term back into the presence of our immediate consideration and memory.
We also know that the term is not uniquely used in one setting of our political space, since many apartheid-classified ‘whites’ who did not share the pressurised decisions of the then National Party of the early 90’s, equally continue to refer to De Klerk and others of his regime as sell-outs. Our interest for the term, however, is that the term is largely and more commonly in frequency used among those who were associated in some size, shape, form or at organisation level with what we can call the black liberation struggle.
The urban dictionary defines a sell-out as: “as someone who betrays a cause, organisation, or the like, traitor. At an informal level, it depicts a person who compromises his or her personal values, integrity, talent, or the like, for money or personal advancement.” I wish to postulate that the nature and means of the black liberation struggle no dissimilar to any other cause beyond the undeniable reality of orchestrated infiltration, presupposed it would attract all kinds of people that identify with the epithet ‘black’ for an identity and the struggle against state-sponsored institutionalised racism as an acceptable system of governance.
The liberation of the masses, in South Africa, accepted as black for an apartheid exacted identity was therefore never exempted of diverse characters, personalities and also interests. It is in one sense preposterous to ever have an expectation of being black or identifying with the black struggle in its manifested forms to have had a hegemonic synchronised if not choreographed appreciation for that black struggle when you dealing with fallible and ordinary humans who remains never free from their own limitations and appetites.
On another score to remotely have had an expectation of all to share a pure intentions notion is also far-fetched. We may even argue what pure means in this setting, suffice to say it would be deceiving to advance the notion that there was a scientific, uniform if not hegemonic understanding of what constitutes the black struggle for which there was an upfront agreement that all who share a black identity as endowed by apartheid system of binary racial classifications pledged allegiance to fight in uphold be they in ANC few members or the greater masses.
Kennedy, continues to assert that, “Defining it that cleanly, however, offers a misleading sense of clarity. ‘Sell-out’ is a messy, volatile, contested term about which disagreement is rife when it comes to applying the label to specific persons or conduct.” While we accept that the liberation cause from inception had betrayers immanent in people who were willing to divulge information that led to the suffering and death of others, the usage of the term extends itself in an evolved context to some being labelled sell-out for either their association with corruption even sharing an opposite ideological conviction in an epoch where the black identity leads in governance.
On the other hand, it also is used to define others who had in self economic interest partnered with the oppressors of the black struggle. Meaning it’s possible to be black and part of the political and economic elite and have the masses languished in abject poverty when one has become a benefactor of white privilege through one’s political power proximity when one disowns a role of selling out and at the same time point fingers at those who have sold out.
Another challenge with the term is that while its description in rudimentary sense confirms and act or action on the part of someone or people, more than often the term is cloaked on an individual or a group as that which defines the totality of the person, meaning not a single act on the part of the person but the completeness of his/her character. This raises the subject can a sell-out be right for other decisions while he/she may have sold out in another instance?
The problematic of using the term ‘sell-out’ in our liberation struggle politics lays in this that it is used by all and those who use it in reference to others necessarily accord themselves a moral high ground to determine the act of betrayal be it in values, cause, action or organisation and identity. Kennedy further argues that the label demonizes the messenger and the message, inhibiting necessary dialogue about ideas and actions that do not conform to racial orthodoxy. Those who therefore act as messengers for identifying others in frames of sell-outs are not necessarily affording space for engaging the meaning of that black identity in the context of black political leadership contaminated by capital and its interest where economic freedom remains a mirage for the masses when a thin buffer zone of the political elite protests being the signpost for the black masses economic emancipation having benefited from an untransformed economy. It does not afford any honest discussion as to how pre – 1994 poor ANC leaders returning from exile came into capital and whether that act of becoming recipients of the benevolence of the white oppressive system in handing out gifts such as homes etc. constituted a betrayal of the struggle. It also does not extend that opportunity to ask those who act as messengers how willing they are to be subjected to the same label.
This brings us to the subject of the convenience of its usage. A closer look at its usage within the black liberation struggle in particular the ANC setting evidences an ease of appropriation. The reality is whoever appropriates the usage of the term to define others automatically exonerates themselves of such selling out often in narrowness if not a callous dishonesty of appreciating what that black struggle meant and continues to mean. We have seen how some have accused others of betraying the values of the cause and or the Movement claiming it their right as custodians to have not. We have lived through a period of self-righteousness a very present characteristic of some who berates others of corruption and raiding the coffers as the maximum symbol of betrayal when their wives have been roped in early on as directors and shareholders in the same companies that remains responsible for the enslavement of the black masses.
Our discourse affords the space to classically define this as corruption, which must at all times be condemned and never justified, as the evidence of selling out. Yet the same discourse is silent and eerily comfortable to afford the Eskom IEPP’s deals in which firstly the way is paved to privatise sections of the state-owned utility outfit which again stands to benefit the political elite if not a designated group. If the raiding of the state coffers constitutes a justifiable claim of selling out on the black struggle for economic emancipation does the Eskom IEPP’s not do the same if not why?
Our discourse stands ambivalent if not caustically cold to adjudicate the practitioners and defenders of an upkeep of a paralysing patriarchal system as not a selling out off the black struggle. It evidences a truculence to prove gravely dispassionate with this aspect of the black struggle that has hitherto continued to keep the black women in chains when it buoyantly prognosticates the fundamental overarching objective of striving for a democratic, non-racial and non-sexist South Africa.
It therefore, appears the appropriated right to label others sell-outs of a black struggle while easily advanced by the political elite on both sides of the hypocritical fence appears less honest and not without justifiable challenge. We must ask what then the political and economic value of straightjacketing and determining others corrupt and sell-outs to the cause of the black liberation struggle means for those who exonerate themselves in the convenient narrowness of the appreciation of what the totality of a black struggle may mean.
We must ask what this exoneration means when the same betray the black struggle in serving the interest of a designated black elite group at the expense of the masses. We also must ask what may constitute the role of morality in its applied sense in labelling others sell-outs. Shall we not weep in recognition that the economic emancipation of the black masses evidences a stillborn when political power changed hands in 1994. We know because our youth told us 1994 was a sell-out, so despite a 1000 interwoven politically connected and super-wealthy black families who have benefitted from this untransformed economy, the masses remain betrayed.
The troubling yet sobering question many in the ANC on both sides of the so-called moral divide regardless to claims of a blinded euphoric post 1994 – 1999, a misplaced portrayed perfect era from 1999 until 2008, a challenging period since 2009-2018 and a claimed ‘new dawn’ unfolding for however long, must answer, is can they truly ever label others as having sold out on the black struggle when their lives, choices, actions and decisions, wealth informed by self, family and group interests evidences the opposites. Labelling appears easy in our neck of the woods because we appear necessarily blind to our own folly in this regard. Are you a sell-out?