It didn’t take long did it? Despite the lingering stupor, just a month after the end of the constructed mega-hype of the Soccer World Cup, South Africa is firmly back in the reality trenches. With intensified public attention on important social and economic issues/debates, a host of strikes and re-energised political faction fighting taking centre stage, it seems an apt time to critically redirect some of the fading winter sunlight onto the political, economic and social state of the nation.
On the political front, leaving aside the continued but ever more hollow purveyance of its kinder-gentler, ‘government of the people’ public relations campaigns, the main feature of the now 15-month old Zuma government can best be described as organised chaos. In other words, while the (institutional) body remains intact its (component) limbs are flailing all over the place. The only thing that now appears to uneasily hold it all together is a common (elite) desire to use the state as the fulcrum upon which new class and factional battles for power and accumulation can be fought out. Such battles are being framed increasingly by more exclusionary class, racial and identity politics, especially at the local level, and the creeping propagation of ‘traditional’/socially conservative values and approaches to deal with crucial social issues and politically sensitive constituencies.
What this demands at a societal level, and not surprisingly so, is the privileging of a narrow national-capitalist and state-centric politics which has, in turn, catalysed a dumbing down of progressive/alternative political discourse, thought and creative action. The (contested) state and its accompanying political party overseer have become, now more than ever, the prescribed change-agents, the political tabula rasa for all societal problem solving. With the ‘honeymoon’ period between the Zuma crew and the working class/poor now a distant memory, this political ‘envelope’ is being pushed further and further as the means by which the deferred but increasingly strident expectations of that majority can be corralled and (hopefully) managed.
At the same time, such a politics has created additional space for a gradual but steady circumscribing of more fundamental ideological and/or systemic contestation, the pseudo-radical posturing of its practitioners notwithstanding. In the process, the slow but sure dismemberment and de-politicisation of progressive civil society - which represents the only meaningful source of an organisational and ideological alternative and opposition to this politics - proceeds apace. And, in a similar if more sub-systemic vein, it is proving a more than suitable terrain for an intensified questioning of the social relevancy of (selective) constitutionally enshrined individual and socio-economic rights/equity, alongside the practical struggles being waged in their defence. Indeed, as we are presently witnessing, this is now being translated into increasingly bold attempts to associate all those who question and/or actively oppose such a politics with the same dismissive ‘minority’ and ‘counter-revolutionary’ labels, irrespective of ideological or social standing. If anyone needs further convincing then the ongoing associative politicisation and militarisation of the coercive forces of the state should be a clear enough sign.
The policy ‘outcomes’ of this politics, even if they appear at times to be somewhat uncoordinated, reflect its underlying character and purpose. Whether it is crime, black economic empowerment, foreign relations, basic service delivery, the justice system, access to information, the macro-economic framework, the education system, transport or energy, they all now clearly exhibit the associated dual-track approach. Namely, ‘self-help’ in the case of those areas where there is little or no political capital and elite benefit to be had and ‘help yourself’ in those areas where the (contested) state and its myriad class allies can effect expanded economic benefit, social influence and political/institutional control.
The contemporary social front directly mirrors this overall politics. An escalating hyper-commoditised daily existence has now produced a situation in which all but the elite are mostly engaged in a desperate struggle for social relevancy and location. The result is an intensification of social division, stratification and dysfunction amongst the majority, now more than ever driven-on by increased competition for limited social benefits, services and productive opportunities.
In a Manichean twist, scarce waged labour has become the light at the end of the tunnel, the main ‘prize’ for social inclusion and stability as against the dark and desolate recesses of utter social marginalisation. Access to state-serviced and controlled social grants, and even then subject to considerations of political patronage and party electoral support, now represent a barely inclusivist second ‘prize’. A stretched civil society is being increasingly ‘asked’ to fill the massive gaps in between but the larger reality is one in which the social consequences of a failing system are being individualised. No wonder then that we are witnessing growing levels of social desperation, destructive social behaviour and general tension/conflict. No amount of opportunistic constructions of ‘South Africaness’ and self-serving identification with the social struggles of ‘our people’ can, or will, change the present reality.
On the economic front, we are moving in a ‘back to the future’ direction. Even if more recently surrounded by record amounts of merry-go-round debates and discussion documents – reflective of intra-elite factional positioning than anything else - macro-economic policy remains as it has been since the late 1990s. Infrastructural spending, predominately directed towards various mega-projects that have minimal direct benefit for the majority, has become the default ‘driver’ of (conflated) economic growth and enhanced elite profit-making and accumulation. This is being underlaid to an even greater degree than in the past by an intensification and deepening of the ‘public-private’ institutional and power relations matrix in such a way that the historically located ideological (conceptual) and institutional (practical) distinction between the two is rapidly disappearing.
We are now in a macro-economic frame of reference that can best be described as neoliberal state socialism. Such a political economy makes it possible for South African elites to continue to simultaneously feed off of both domestic and continental plates. The deepening penetration and exploitation of other African economies by the ‘public-private’ nexus is grounded in its role as the continental conveyor belt for dominant capitalist class interests. Rather than laying the groundwork for a potentially progressive (South-South) internationalist political economy as claimed, it is achieving the exact opposite. That is, further exacerbating existing economic division and socio-political conflict, facilitating enforced migrancy and trumping any proto-moves on the domestic front to deal with xenophobia.
Meanwhile the micro ‘trickle down’ to the domestic majority, having already largely been off-set by the combined effects of the global systemic crisis of capitalist economics and the ever-widening national maldistribution of opportunity, ownership and wealth, has become a drop-by-drop. Nowhere in the world (with the possible exception of North Korea) is there presently a wider gulf between the verdant economic gardens of the minority elite and the drought-stricken economic wastelands of the majority poor than in South Africa. And yet, this contemporary crisis continues to be treated – by both the ‘public’ and ‘private’ representatives of that elite – as more of an economic (and political) opportunity than the human and developmental catastrophe that it is.
The present state of the nation is akin to a pressure cooker that is sucking up its last few drops of water. When the burnt smell is already in the air, the explosion cannot be far off.
World Cup Legacy
I would really like researchers to investigate the tangible legacy of the world cup. Much has been said about the feel-good or intangible legacy and benefits.
But what are the real benefits to our majority who are marginalized to the 85% poor who don’t have a house, running water, electricity and a Telkom line?
And please let’s not talk about the miracle of the ‘trickle down effects’ of modern economics gobble de gook!
Let' stick to the facts please.