Paranoia Stalks the Halls of Power

By Richard Pithouse · 29 Aug 2013

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Picture: President Jacob Zuma and COSATU President Sdumo Dlamini courtesy GoverntmentZA/Flickr.
Picture: President Jacob Zuma and COSATU President Sdumo Dlamini courtesy GoverntmentZA/Flickr.

(T)he paranoid construction is … an attempt to heal ourselves, to pull ourselves out of the real "illness", the "end of the world", the breakdown of the symbolic universe.
− Slavoj Zizek, Looking Awry: An Introduction to Jacques Lacan through Popular Culture, 1991

Sdumo Dlamini recently informed listeners of a Jo'burg radio station that a multi-headed snake was slithering through South Africa fermenting dissent against the ANC. In the lead up to Mangaung Dlamini had been kind enough to inform us that opposition to Jacob Zuma was driven by an imperialist plot aiming to recolonize the country. He's not alone. Blade Nzimande ascribes the fracturing in Cosatu to imperialist forces bent on regime change. Gwede Mantashe settled on the Swedes and the Irish as the real force animating the miners’ decision to go to the mountain in Marikana. And Iqbal Survé has been kind enough to let us know that the Mail & Guardian is a project of the CIA.

These sorts of claims are so divorced from reality, and sometimes expressed with such crass buffoonery, that it’s easy to receive them as comedy. But while they do make Loyiso Gola's job easy, and while laughing at authority is a good thing, we need to remember that the paranoid fantasies of our leaders are irredeemably anti-democratic and can have deadly serious consequences. When effective popular organisation outside of the ANC, even when perfectly legal, democratic and plainly grounded in a rational apprehension of reality, is cast in terms of external machinations, usually imagined to be directed by white agents of imperial power, ordinary democratic practices are misrepresented as threats to the integrity of the nation that are both sinister and external. This has already legitimated serious repression that has included people being hounded out of their homes, beaten, tortured, arrested on trumped up charges and murdered.

The paranoia that renders people like Dlamini, Nzimande and Mantashe elected into power but unable to engage on a democratic basis is not a new phenomenon in the ANC. Back in 2002 the late Dumisani Makhaye argued that organisation and critique from the left, in and out of the alliance, was complicit with forces, at home and abroad, unwilling to accept democracy in South Africa. Two years later members of the Landless People's Movement were tortured in Protea South, Soweto, beginning a resort to violence to repress independent organisation that reached its most appalling moment yet in Marikana last year. The ANC's history of paranoia stretches back to its exile days where some of its own militants, including some of the movement's most illustrious figures, came under entirely unjustified suspicion of treason. Chris Hani was detained by the ANC's internal security apparatus in 1969 and  Pallo Jordan in 1983. Paranoia also poisoned relations with other currents of struggle. Neville Alexander reported that in the '70s Mac Maharaj had said that Steve Biko was 'CIA'. In the late '80s some people in the  United Democratic Front turned against Azapo.

It is essential that we understand that although there have been times when the paranoia inside the movement has been corrosive it has not always been entirely irrational. In exile and underground the ANC was subject to on-going machinations from the South African state and its struggle with apartheid was mediated through the intrigue of the Cold War. Naivety about surveillance, spies and plots of various sorts would have been dangerous. This is common to all forms of politics rendered illegal by repressive systems. And it’s not always clear how people who have been subject to the hostile attention of a state that really is out to get them can transition into democratic modes of life. For instance, given Frank Chikane's horrific experiences  at the hands of the apartheid state there is something tragic about his consistently paranoid account of his time in the Presidency. In Chikane's reading nothing is what it seems and critique of the ANC, even when it takes a popular and democratic form, is really animated by nefarious conspiracies on the part of foreign intelligence agencies and international capital.

But the paranoia running rampant in the party cannot always be explained by personal experience of genuine persecution. On the contrary it is clear that it is being transmitted to new generations.

Part of the enduring appeal of paranoid fantasies as a mode of making sense of the world lies in the fact that the party has to operate in an elite public sphere, in South Africa and internationally, that sustains colonial ideas about Africa and Africans. Thabo Mbeki was wrong to imply that the HI virus doesn't cause AIDS, or that treatment for AIDS was being foisted on Africa as part of some malicious conspiracy. But he was certainly right to diagnose and oppose the poisonous racism in the official common sense about AIDS at the time. When ways of understanding the world have the power to present themselves as authorised common sense but are, in reality, toxic its not always clear where to draw the line between astute diagnosis and paranoid overreaction.

Moreover our country has not fully transcended its colonial origins and colonialism, a system in which even the most banal forms of everyday life are rooted in violence, always produces massive paranoia on the part of both the oppressors and the oppressed. This is compounded by the fact that in highly unequal societies the successful politicisation of poverty and exclusion, something which has been achieved from below in recent years, invariably produces a paranoia of its own.

The ANC's attempt to generate paranoia about Western imperialism as the real force behind popular dissent is not entirely dissimilar to how the apartheid state sought to discern Soviet cunning behind every expression of popular opposition. But while the ANC clearly prefers to take recourse in paranoid fantasies rather than to take full measure of the on-going breakdown in its own moral authority it is not inventing an entirely fantastical phenomenon. There is such a thing as imperialism and it does sometimes operate through civil society. For instance when Jean-Bertrand Aristide, an elected President, was removed from office in Haiti in 2004 by the US military, NGOs like Action Aid and the USAID-funded Batay Ouvriye, a small Trotskyist organisation, provided invaluable propaganda to legitimate the coup. The National Endowment for Democracy (NED), fingered in the plainly bogus report used to try and undermine Zwelinzima Vavi's standing in Cosatu, does have a well-documented history of seeking to undermine elected governments.

But the ANC chooses to sustain an investment in modes of thought that inevitably carry a paranoid underside. For instance nationalism can inspire courage and sacrifice but when it is rooted in a fantasy of the fullness of the nation it frequently ascribes its own limits to people who find themselves cast as outsiders – Jews in Europe in the 1930s, Muslims in contemporary India, lesbians and migrants in South Africa today. When the ANC conflates itself with the nation, it positions itself in a manner that makes it difficult not to misread self-organised popular mobilisation in terms of conspiracy.

The fact that Stalinism continues to provide some of the categories in which intellectual work is done inside the ANC also needs to be taken seriously. Amongst other delusions it proposes that a party with a unique grasp of reality has an equally unique historical responsibility to guide the people to a glorious future. Other forms of leftism that assume that a particular organisational form, personality or set of ideas guarantee a unique ethical and strategic enlightenment that provide a right to exercise authority over actually excising people, and their struggles, are also predisposed to recourse to paranoia to avoid having to confront, in Bob Dylan's phrasing, the difficulties produced by the fact that “Reality has always had too many heads.”

The ANC has no monopoly on the recourse to paranoia and conspiracy theory to explain away rather than to confront uncomfortable realities. In Cape Town the DA has shown, again and again, that it is every bit as unable to recognise popular political agency as the ANC. People struggling around basic needs, or for a more consultative form of development, are just as likely to be misrepresented as pawns of the ANC in Cape Town as they are to be misrepresented as pawns of imperialism in Durban or Johannesburg.

And the fact that the ANC is increasingly misusing the intelligence services and resorting to outright violence to try and contain the consequences of the decline of its moral authority means that certain anxieties are entirely rational. If, for instance, you are organising against corruption in public housing from a shack settlement in Durban, or planning to stand as an independent in the next local government election in a town like Estcourt, you'd be delusional if you didn't consider the possibility that your life might be in danger.

Given the complexities of our history, our society and our place in the world there's no simple formula that will enable us to easily root our polity on a rational foundation. But one thing that we can and must do is to break with the assumption, held with the same perverse fanaticism by liberal elites and their rivals in the SACP's politburo, that ordinary people are unable and unfit to make their own way on to the political stage.

Dr. Pithouse teaches politics at Rhodes University.

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