The Limits of Manuel's Diagnosis

By Richard Pithouse · 17 Jun 2011

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Picture credit: jit bag
Picture credit: jit bag

The spirit of Tahrir Square continues to animate resistance to dictatorship in the Middle East and is now also inspiring experiments with insurgent and popular democratic practices in Greece and Spain. A number of writers have described the rebellions in Southern Europe as being characterised by a “ferocious resistance” to the political class across its ideological spectrum.

Similar sentiments are expressed in South Africa from time to time. But the dominant thrust of popular energies here remains an attempt to bring the political class under popular control rather than the dream of doing away with it. From the rolling cheer at Albertina Sisulu’s funeral for Bishop Thabo Makgoba’s excoriation of the predatory tendencies in the ANC to the sit-in at the ANC offices in Port Elizabeth, responded to, of course, with gratuitous police violence, it’s clear that the recent election has not blunted the popular anger that is bubbling inside the ANC.

But our politicians are not all tenderpreneurs and when anger can’t be contained by patronage or the police the technocrats are called in to turn demands for justice into something more manageable by processing them through the policy machine.

The idea of the value, if not necessity, of the rule by experts stretches back before the birth of Christ to the Greek philosopher Plato. Plato saw democracy, which in his day, as in ours, meant the rule of the many, which in turn meant the rule of the poor, as a threat to society. The idea of rule by a class of enlightened experts has its roots in hostility to democracy and is as central to Leninism as it is to neo-liberal managerialism. The ANC deploys both of these frameworks, with an increasing emphasis on the latter, as an adjunct to its growing dependence on demagoguery.

After years of contestation, much of it more than a little acrimonious, the diagnostic report of Trevor Manuel’s National Planning Commission is out. When the left in the ANC was given a cabinet post for Ebrahim Patel after Polokwane, the market was given a cabinet post for Trevor Manuel in a position that the left had agitated for. But it’s not clear if the Ministries given to Manuel and Patel were really intended as platforms from which they could effectively drive agendas or as places to contain constituencies by encouraging them to invest their energies in the circumlocution offices of government.

As Lyndon Johnson famously observed by way of a charmless and rather gendered metaphor, and with regard to J. Edgar Hoover, it’s sometimes better for a President to have potential malcontents inside the tent pissing out rather than outside the tent pissing in.

Commissions and negotiations of various sorts are often deployed against struggles with a view to demobilising them because while they appear to be concessions they often function to deflect, dissipate and co-opt popular energies. This is part of a broader pattern in which concessions won by struggles are usually mediated through technocratic structures. It is a way for popular demands to be laundered through the anti-political machine strung between the state and civil society. It enables the state to absorb demands for justice and declarations of conflicting interest and to process them in a way that enables it to recast people who have forced their way into some recognition of their right to shared participation in a common political space as passive recipients of delivery.

Certainly not much seems to have come out of Patel’s proposal for a new National Growth Path. It’s entirely possible that Manuel’s report will prove to be entirely irrelevant to the deals that actually go down.

This is not a simple question of the putative paralysis of the Zuma presidency. The Zuma presidency is, indeed, unable to go anywhere at the level of discourse because Zuma does, indeed, have a tendency to tell different groups of people whatever he thinks they want to hear.

But in practice this is not a government that is drifting aimlessly. Its trajectory is clear enough. There is decisive direction from the security cluster. The police have been militarised, Bheki Cele’s bellicose public discourse continues unabated and there has been a dramatic escalation of police violence, repression of popular struggles and attempts to curtail freedom of expression.

There is much more active and dedicated concern about the media writing stories about corruption than, say, the state of education or housing for the black poor. Strong men with direct stakes in the ability to cash in political capital via the allocation of tenders, men like John Mchunu, David Mabuza and Julius Malema, have flourished like never before in the party of Albertina Sisulu and Chris Hani. 

The Zuma presidency is being defined, in action, by the strengthening nexus between corruption and authoritarianism.

As a document abstracted from its immediate political context, Manuel’s report is not particularly interesting. It’s the sort of text that requires a shallow grasp of a certain kind of broad orthodoxy rather than any original or innovative research or thinking. An ordinarily competent graduate student with a decent Internet connection and a good supply of coffee could easily have knocked it together in a weekend.

Its primary concerns are with the crisis of entrenched mass unemployment and the inexcusable state of education accessible to poor black people.  The report is also clear that while wealth has been deracialised to a significant degree since the end of apartheid the percentage of people living in absolute poverty has only declined from 53% to 48%; that post-apartheid development has tended to reinforce the spatial marginalisation of poor people; that civil servants often put the interests of the party before that of society as a whole and that between a fifth and a quarter of state procurement expenditure ends up, illegitimately, in the hands of the tenderpreneurs.

We all know all of this already. The report doesn’t bring anything new to the national conversation but, while its language is generally delicate and measured, it warns, plainly, that there are some clear signs of decline in our society. It’s this warning that has excited attention. The report is not a clarion call to action but it does offer an indication that, within the ANC, the proponents of economic orthodoxy and constitutionalism are joining the left in openly expressing a deepening anxiety about our trajectory as a society.

Liberation movements like to believe their own mythology and there has long been an entrenched and often very aggressive culture of denialism within the ANC about both its own failures and the degree of crisis in our society. In some cases it’s been genuinely dangerous for people to politely point out some of the facts that appear in this report.

For this reason there’s certainly some significance to the fact that a cabinet minister has put his name to this report. It’s one thing for everyone in the street to know that the Emperor’s new clothes are less than adequate while he and his court go along with the pretence that they are sublime. It’s another thing to have a leading official in the Emperor’s court issue a statement that repeats what everybody knows.

But while the report is supposed to be diagnostic rather than prescriptive its implicit prescriptions are clear enough and they essentially come down to the view that government should be cleaner and more effective and that the unemployment crisis should be addressed by ensuring that schools produce people more suited to the needs of the market and by reducing the costs of employment for capital.

It’s not exactly the programme that the left in the ANC had in mind at Polokwane. It would implicitly endorse the sentencing of a large proportion of our population to the dustbin of history while offering their children little more than the prospect of precarious and exploitative employment. We’ve been told in the past that Manuel has the ‘vision thing’ but there’s certainly no vision here for someone sitting out their twenties in a transit camp or a backyard shack.

Any technocratic project is limited by the fact that it has to court state power to sustain access to state power. Unlike a trade union, a movement or an assembly in a square in Cairo, Athens or Madrid it has neither the intellectual autonomy nor the legitimate popular constituency to give it the capacity or the right to openly challenge the state. This is why, even within its embrace of economic orthodoxy, Manuel’s report does not acknowledge everything that everybody knows. It’s silent on the rapid drift towards the increasing embrace of authoritarianism within influential currents in the party. It is also unwilling to confront the full degree to which party structures are shaped and directed by a predatory political class that sees the state as a site for personal enrichment.

Any attempt to mount an effective challenge to the growing power of the ANC’s increasingly securitised and demagogic right wing that doesn’t depend on the threat of discipline by the market or the ANC’s ongoing tolerance of the Constitutional Court will require a popular political base.

Pithouse teaches politics at Rhodes University.

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