No Easy Path Out of the Morass

By Richard Pithouse · 11 Nov 2009

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Picture credit: max_thinks_sees
Picture credit: max_thinks_sees

In the salad days of our democracy it seemed fair enough to buy into the idea that our most pressing social problems would be steadily resolved in time. But the time when an easy assurance of a better future could justify the failures and horrors of the present has past.

Democracy is not consolidating and poverty is not being rolled back. These days the self-evident clichés that propped up optimism for so many years look as strangely dated as yesterday's propaganda.

By some estimates, we are now the most unequal country in the world. And its entirely possible that things could get worse. We may loose up to a million jobs this year. It is true that the financial crisis is starting to hit us hard but we can't deny our own responsibility and blame all our problems on the greed of bankers in New York and London.

Our school system condemns most of our children to an education that will leave them permanently disadvantaged. RDP houses are often unfit for human habitation. The abomination of the transit camp has returned to our cities. The SABC is in crisis. Eskom is in crisis. These failings are our own.

The vigorous battle being waged within the ANC for the soul of the party is not over. But it has not yet resulted in any sort of meaningful vision, let alone action, to move us out of this malaise. Instead of a deepening of democracy there is a clear move towards increasing authoritarianism with proposals to militarise the police force and to turn the SABC from a public broadcaster to a state broadcaster. Abahlali baseMjondolo, the largest poor people's movement, is under sustained state-backed attack.

Instead of a real plan to deal with poverty by reining in the rich, the promises of jobs and houses have been reduced to the prospect of 'job opportunities' and 'housing opportunities'. Forced removal to a transit camp and badly paid temporary work allocated through party patronage are hardly progress.

There have been times in our country when there were many serious discussions about social justice and historical redress. There have been times when ordinary people have been active in these discussions on a mass scale. These days the language of development is the preserve of experts and it has been debased to the point where universal human flourishing is not on an agenda that can't even find a way to secure the means for the basic biological survival for everyone.

No one can seriously deny the deepening disappointments of the present. 

But there are often attempts to deny political responsibility for the deepening crisis save by presenting it as being rooted in technical deficiency. But the fact is that the state can be extremely effective when it wants to be. Taxes are collected with enormous efficiency, grants are rolled out and houses are built on an impressive scale, and football stadiums are thrown up with astonishing speed.

When the state really wants to do something it can do it. When the state is ineffective in a particular area it is because it is not committed to being effective in that area. Often what appears to be inefficiency is in fact a very efficient system of political patronage. If the state allows a project to be about patronage rather than its stated aims, it is because it has accepted this.

The problem in our society is that the predatory elites that have captured our democracy do not have the political will to attend to the crisis confronted by the majority of the population. This is not to say that they do not have the capacity to be political. On the contrary the ANC is perfectly willing to mount a political challenge to big business in order to increase the share of the profits and positions available to its elite cadres. Leading figures in and around the ANC are entirely silent on the women who now have to be up at four every morning to chop wood because they can no longer afford electricity but vociferous in their defence of Jacob Maroga. They choose to depoliticise poverty and to politicise the ongoing renegotiation of the terms of the deal struck between old and new elites.

There can be no technocratic solutions to the current crisis because the problems that we face are, in their essence, political rather than technical. The crisis is rooted in the enormous imbalance in power between elites and ordinary people.

The political will to deepen democracy, strengthen institutions and create decent livelihoods and living conditions for everyone will not be achieved by calls for a return to morality in public life. Calls for morality in public life will, at most, change the language in which elites justify their predatory hold on society. We are already seeing a shift within a section of the ANC towards the languages of social conservatism and alliances with the Christian right.

If we are to find a way out of this crisis it will be because elites - in the state, in business and in civil society – are under enough political pressure to compel them to resolve the crisis. That political pressure will require the political empowerment of the poor. It cannot, at the moment, come from party politics because party politics is a contestation between different factions of the elite. There is no political party that that is a project for the poor let alone one that is a project of the poor.

But the values developed in the struggles against apartheid have not been entirely perverted. Increasingly people of principle in the churches, academia and civil society are taking positions at a clear distance from the party and the state. There is a slow but steady move away from delusions about partnership and a return to the politics of direct opposition. This is a welcome development, but on their own, these people can only exercise moral suasion.

We also have, by some accounts, the second highest rate of popular protest in the world. Popular anger doesn't always take a progressive form and there is always a danger that it could, perhaps with elite support, degenerate into a politics of national or ethnic chauvinism. But much of that protest is a demand for material and political inclusion in society and is, therefore, a clear although fragmented challenge to elites.

It is also a challenge that, when organisation can be sustained, can exercise a counter power against that of elites in the state, business and civil society. It is for this reason that if we have any chance of averting the rapid slide into an authoritarian society where the majority are locked out of any real prospects for a decent life it will be as a result of popular struggles for social inclusion.

There are no guarantees that these struggles will survive repression, sustain themselves and succeed in building the power of the poor against the power of the rich. But at the moment there is nowhere else where hope can be rationally invested.

Pithouse teaches politics at Rhodes University.

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