The Enduring Horror of South Africa

By Richard Pithouse · 12 Sep 2012

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Picture credit: Jacob Zuma courtesy United Nations.
Picture credit: Jacob Zuma courtesy United Nations.

In her recently republished autobiography Emma Mashinini, the grand old lady of the trade union movement, ascribes the deep roots of her steadfast political commitment to a desire to assert that: “I am human. I exist. I am a complete person.”

This may strike some people as naïve in a country where many of the discourses contending for influence in the elite public sphere are frequently weighed down with the dead hand of stolid jargon, mediated through everything from Stalinism, to the language of the World Bank or human rights. But the constant mobilisation of all this jargon - 'deepening and advancing the national democratic revolution',  'achieving labour market flexibility', 'building social cohesion', 'extending participatory developmental instruments', 'gender mainstreaming' -  is not just about establishing and sustaining a distance between contending experts and the people with a view to legitimating the power of experts over the people. And it’s not just about the dark art of saying nothing of consequence while trying to sound informed and intelligent. In some cases, like the recent claim by the SACP and COSATU in KwaZulu-Natal that 'renewed imperialist aggression' aims, with the support of various local allies, to have Zuma removed from the Presidency in order to 'recolonise this country', we are dealing with language that is paranoid, fantastical, grossly authoritarian and plainly Orwellian.

But this is an extreme case and jargon more ordinarily functions to absolve political discourse from the obligation to develop a full recognition of the human presence in a situation by erasing that presence in favour of abstractions. The left has often been just as tempted to erase the human presence from attempts to make sense of particular situations as the right. This is one reason why Karl Marx railed against dogmatic abstractions and insisted both that 'communism is the real movement that abolishes the present state of things' and that communism is 'only an expression of the humanistic principle'.

There's no question that Marx would have acknowledged the source of Emma Mashinini's politics as both profound and eternal and recoiled in rage and horror from the South African Communist Party which has very little to show for its craven alliance with a socially conservative and authoritarian populist leader aside from cabinet positions for its leaders paid for with escalating social devastation, a steady corrosion of democratic institutions and norms, an ongoing debasement of political discourse and a trail of blood that snaked its way round the country for years before raising its monstrous head for all the world to see in Marikana.

When the distance between political jargon and lived reality starts to add further strain to the already fraying symbolic ties that bind the led to their leaders the state seeks to contain the situation with a mixture of repression, co-option and distraction that sometimes takes the form of scapegoating. Zuma, much like many Republicans in the United States, likes to present himself as a folksy man of the people with ‘ordinary’ ideas about the role of gay people, women and migrants in society. But stoking popular prejudices and pandering to the idea that we have lost our way because we have deviated from what are imagined to be ancient cultural norms that just so happen to offer some among the oppressed the prospect of exerting some power over others is a scurrilous form of politics that, while it recognises people's wounds, aims to exploit rather than to heal or transcend.

The successful instigation of a media frenzy around Brett Murray's painting, a last ditch attempt to conflate Zuma with the nation, and its wounds, bought him a little time. But outside of the networks of patronage, circles animated by ethnic sentiment, the social conservatives who relish the idea of stepping back from democratic commitments and the Orwellian histrionics of the SACP and the union leaders trailing in its wake, Zuma's credibility is finished. Nonetheless it’s the party and not the country as a whole that elects the president and, at this point, there's no clarity as to the likely outcome in Mangaung.

What we do know is that the coalition that is ranging itself against Zuma is deeply compromised from the outset. Its links to Malema, a corrupt and authoritarian demagogue, inspire no confidence. And recent media reports claim that it has to reply on Bheki Cele in KwaZulu-Natal. If this is correct it indicates that this is either an entirely unprincipled coalition or that the rot in the party is so pervasive that there simply are no prospects for a principled coalition to attain critical mass.

The only part of the tripartite alliance in which it is rational to sustain any hope for a progressive or even merely democratic politics are the parts of COSATU that have carved out a critical and independent position and which continue to take reasoned and principled positions in the public sphere. The progressive currents in the trade union federation did make a serious error of judgement in the nature of the initial support that they offered to Zuma and have since been compromised by their silence when activists and organisations outside of the ANC have been subject to repression. But in the context of the progressive hopes that remain invested in the tripartite alliance, they are the only credible game in town.

The progressive currents in COSATU have come to be associated with the personality and leadership of Zwelinzima Vavi and will certainly be strengthened if Vavi can, despite Blade Nzimande's machinations, come out of the federation's congress unscathed. But as Vavi himself is well aware trade unions have often drifted far from their members, become more concerned with palace politics than shop floor issues or a genuine engagement with social issues and turned into escalators lifting individuals out of the working class rather than expressions of the organised collective power of workers. Even if Vavi survives the coming battle there is no guarantee that this will have a significant impact on the trajectory of the ANC.

Towards the end of her autobiography, which was first published in 1989, Emma Mashinini writes that: “The horror of South Africa is that the life of a black person is very cheap.” No one can credibly deny that this horror endures. It is most shockingly evident in state murder and the practices, like torture, that surround it. But it's also evident in the outright contempt with which the state treats poor people – a contempt that is materialised for all to see in the state of our schools, public hospitals and public housing. And it’s evident too in violence from below be it specifically xenophobic, homophobic or sexist or part of the endemic casual violence that poisons the flow of everyday life.

The starting point of real resistance to this horror cannot be dogmatic abstractions about economics, human rights or socialism. It has to be a resolute affirmation that everyone is and must immediately be treated as a human being, as a complete person. It also has to take the form of solidarity with actually existing people and their actually existing strivings and struggles. Working out how to realise the dignity of every person in practice certainly requires serious engagement on terrains like the economic. But there is a real difference between starting with a real and immediate commitment to recognising the full and equal dignity of each person and simply assuming that this will follow, in time, from the right policies, ideas or leadership.

More than twenty years ago Emma Mashini observed that: “Where ever I am it seems there must always be trouble.” Affirming the equal humanity of all people is a dangerous business. And while South Africa has changed a lot since 1989 it remains that case that if you're not in trouble you're doing something wrong.

Pithouse teaches politics at Rhodes University.

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