By definition, revolutions are supposed to be illegitimate. Subversive. Bottom-up. But sometimes, they are overtaken by collateral agendas that suddenly and unexpectedly legitimize them. And they go top-down. Just because they are legitimized does not make them legit!

The first example that comes to mind is the famous (or is he infamous?) King Henry VIII of England. Talk about a brutal tyrant!  Yet he cleverly acceded to the emerging democratic structures that would one day (a few generations later) tame the monarchy. Henry started his reign as an ardent Roman Catholic. Those who repudiated the papacy of Rome were banned, one of whom was the skillful Bible translator William Tyndale. To complete this project of liberating the laity, Tyndale escaped England and fled to Holland. Before long, he was joined there by another avid translator, Miles Coverdale. They worked together until Tyndale was trapped by the Inquisition and martyred in Holland.

Yet shortly thereafter, there was such a turn-over in England that Miles Coverdale was invited home by Anne Boleyn, Henry VIII’s second wife. She sympathized with the Protestant Reformation and so within just one year of William Tyndale’s horrible death, the Coverdale Bible was released in England – legally. Much of it was Tyndale’s work, but all of his earlier translations had been smuggled across the English Channel on merchant ships from Holland and Belgium. The parts of the Coverdale Bible done by Tyndale were translated directly from Greek and Hebrew. Whereas Coverdale himself translated from the Latin Vulgate. This shows that while King Henry VIII was willing to appropriate the project for his own ends, he would not radicalize it too much – preferring Coverdale’s methodology to Tyndale’s.

The truth is that Henry VIII wanted an heir – a son, and Anne Boleyn kept bearing baby girls.  He wanted another divorce, which was anathema in Catholic theology. So to keep divorcing until a wife bore him a son, he needed to nationalize the church, which he did. And of course legitimizing a vernacular Bible was the populist (read: protestant) way to legitimize his merger of church and state. Thus the translators were unbanned and a torrent of different translations started to come out, thanks to recent innovations in technology. There were more versions of the Bible than Henry VIII had wives!

Eventually the embittered eldest daughter of Henry VIII’s first wife Catherine of Aragon ascended to the throne – as Queen Mary.  Bloody Mary wasted no time in de-legitimizing the Reformation and plunged England into a revenging reign of terror. Talk about reactionary! She tried to turn back the clock, but it was too late. Even her alliance with Spain through her marriage to a Spanish prince was not enough to counter the opposing alliance – between France and the Pope. So even her bizarre reign came to an end.

One interesting life in this historical zig-zag is that of Cramner, who Henry VIII appointed as the first protestant archbishop of Canterbury. He was informed of his appointment while he was traveling in Europe, where he had just married a German woman. The Reformation was more advanced in Europe at that time, so a clergyman marrying at all was a declaration of his protestant inclinations. But now he had to return to the “via media” setting of England with her – requiring her to travel inside a baggage trunk with a lot of ventilation holes in it!

Queen Mary’s revisionist era was brutal to Cramner, who had meanwhile evolved the Coverdale Bible into the Great Bible and then written the Anglican prayer book.  In doing so, he had really sealed the revolution which Queen Mary did not succeed in de-legitimizing. Like so many, he was tortured to recant his views, and forced to sign a confession saying so. They sent him off to burn at the stake anyway. As the fire rose around him, he forced his right hand into the hottest core of the flames because it was the hand that had signed his dishonest reversal. Rolling back a revolution only has the effect of hardening the resolve of it saints and heroes.

The second example is a social revolution that is going on in this 21st century, which is undermining all the efforts that were made to outlaw marijuana (a. k. a. dagga, weed, etc.) for decades.  So many youth of the 20th century were charged and convicted for mere possession – although growing it and dealing it were even bigger crimes. 

Even 50 years ago, marijuana had become the biggest cash crop in California, whose state economy was equivalent to the 20th country in the world at that time. It was big business, and the taxman was losing out.  But there was still a ghost of Prohibition in public opinion, and generally speaking, just because nicotine and alcohol had been legalized, they were still huge health hazards – so why legalize yet another crutch? 

Opinions have changed.  Some countries started using it as an appetite stimulant for pigs – to grow them faster.  Some religions and cultures not only tolerated it but embraced it.  Other countries including South Africa have found medicinal purposes for it and legalized it as a medical treatment.  Now Canada has legalized its “recreational use”, and that was nothing short of a “legitimized revolution”.  For those of us who can remember the psychedelic youth culture of the 1960s, the Flower Children, the Hippies and the backlash – the War on Drugs – it is all quite shocking.  Drinking and driving is bad enough, but now we have to contend with toking and driving as well!

A lot of it must have to do with the fiscus – just as Henry VIII nationalized the monasteries and snafued church resources that had been flowing to Rome, one sees a collateral agenda in this.

As in the case of the Protestant Reformation, there are both moderates and radicals involved.  Some are already calling for the medicinal use of LSD. Others just shrug that the fiscus should tax consumption to increase government revenue. Thus its production and marketing will be closely regulated.

Just as in the Protestant Reformation, the lines blurred between religious, political and military interests, it is hard to know just who is legitimizing this revolution. Too often, the “conservatives” have tried too violently to stem the tide, creating a “liberal” flood of change when the dam bursts. 

The third example is what is going on right now in the Great Debate about Land Reform in South Africa – and the realpolitik around it. The Economic Freedom Fighters have been the prophets of this revolution, and the change agents.  Julius Malema was despised and rejected by the mother liberation movement and had to form the EFF on a platform of land redistribution. At first, the EFF’s seven pillars were like the 95 Theses that Martin Luther posted on the Wittenburg Church’s Facebook page – so to speak.

The ruling party at first treated him with derision. As gate-keepers of the Constitution, it did not seem fitting that they should ever change it to accommodate “expropriation without compensation”. (Although that is exactly what Henry VIII did to the monasteries.)

By acceding to the EFF’s motion to explore this more radical approach to Land Reform, the ANC has polarized itself, and the country. It has raised expectation to the point that it could even split – like the Lutherans and the Church of England did, from the mother church. But the ANC did this for its own reasons – surely not because of any change of heart in favour of the poor. It can hardly plead that motive in the light of corruption, patronage and waste to the extent of State Capture. It was a case of self-preservation, akin to Henry VIII nationalizing the church and to the taxman legitimizing marijuana.

We have only reached the stage of foment, debate and disagreement at this juncture. Some esteemed voices are warning that pushing this agenda too far, too fast, could prove to have nasty consequences.

And yet the economy is indeed stumbling, there is terribly high unemployment and the one-person-one-vote reality is now a fact of life.  At this stage, there is an echo to that warning against too much change, too fast: Trying to roll it back can also have the reverse effect – that is, of hardening the resolve in favour of change. Bloody Mary’s revisionism did not last long; nor did the War on Drugs.

History could be repeating itself, so we have to be careful about legitimizing revolutions.  It is very hard to turn the clock back, once poor people have sensed the prospects of a better future. That becomes so tantalizing that it leads on to more martyrs and in due course, to irrevocable change.

A Luta continua.  A Vitoria é certa.


Chuck Stephens is the Executive Director for the Desmond Tutu Centre for Leadership and writes in his personal capacity. 

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