South Africa: After the End of Our Innocence

By Richard Pithouse · 26 Sep 2014

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Picture: Deputy President Cyril Ramaphosa and President Jacob Zuma courtesy GCIS/flickr
Picture: Deputy President Cyril Ramaphosa and President Jacob Zuma courtesy GCIS/flickr

From our increasingly riotous streets to our ever more fractious parliament, it is undeniably clear that South Africa is not a country at ease with itself. And, as the language of those who come out to defend Jacob Zuma and what has become of the ANC grows more hysterical and sets itself against imagined ‘agents’, ‘criminals’, ‘Satanists’ and ‘Nazis’, the weakness and panic at the heart of the Zuma project becomes increasingly evident. What were once, for most people, hairline cracks between the reality of the ANC and the idea of the nation are rapidly widening and deepening into real fissures.

More than one commentator, realising that the idea of an enlightened state that steadily moves us forward is now an ideology rather than a reality, and gripped by an increasingly ominous sense that attempts to resolve the growing social and political crisis may summon forces opposed to the social contract on which the new order was founded, has turned to William Butler Yeats’ 1919 poem, The Second Coming with its famous line, “Things falls apart; the centre cannot hold”.

Our own ‘blood-dimmed tide’ is nothing like the horror, described by Isaac Rosenberg as ‘shrieking iron and flame’ that tore through Europe leaving millions maimed and dead in the years before Yeats wrote his poem. But when Nelson Mandela said ‘never again’ in 1994 we had every right to assume that this included a permanent proscription on murder as a tool of political containment. But, first breaking onto television with the murder of Andries Tatane and then crashing back with the massacre at Marikana, the reality of its return has confronted us all. Murder at the hands of the police and, as organisations like NUMSA and Abahlali baseMjondolo know all too well, more shadowy assassins, is now a fact of our political life.

Our ‘ceremony of innocence’ has been drowned in murder, corruption, lies, the failure to build an economy and institutions that can redeem the promise of democratic citizenship and all the everyday brutalities and degradations that mark the lives of millions. For some it seems that in the midst of this rot ‘The best lack all conviction, while the worst / Are full of passionate intensity’. For some there is a sense that new forces are stirring, that some ‘rough beast, its hour come round at last, / Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born’. But our divisions are such that every candidate for our Second Coming, a replacement of the social contract established by Mandela, is imagined by some as monstrous and others as redemptive.

The name most frequently invoked in these terms is that of Julius Malema. For some Malema is the name of a future in which a corrupt and authoritarian elite, scornful of liberal democracy but cloaked in the undeniable urgency and legitimacy of national aspirations, seizes control of the economy for its own narrow purposes. But while this vision takes the form of ruination for some, there are others who imagine a moment in which the promise of the long struggles against apartheid and colonialism is finally redeemed and the lives of those now consigned to waste can, at last, begin to flourish.

There are other candidates haunting the imagination of those who fear the emergence of the ominous force that Yeats imagined waking from its long sleep in the desert. One of these is Zuma himself. Zuma’s brazen subordination of the state to his own interests has led some to conclude that he has no politics beyond his own self-interest. This is mistaken. Zuma-ism carries no plan for a progressive resolution of our crisis – no one in their right mind can claim that we are building a developmental state or are on the cusp of our own Lula Moment. But there is an imagined future, sometimes implicit but nonetheless clear enough in Zuma’s politics. It takes the form of crony capitalism buttressed with the support of authoritarian states in the South, notably Russia and China, and a new authoritarianism, organised in the name of tradition and patriotism, and mediated through a substantive shift in power to the police, intelligence and traditional authority.

For others the prospect that the next President may carry the name Ramaphosa has come to stand in for a future in which our society is fully and finally subordinated to the most predatory currents in international capital in a manner in which even the pretence that there is some possibility of alternatives is abandoned.

And for others, including Malema, if his recent comments at the Cape Town Press Club offer a genuine insight into his thinking, the real monster skulking towards Bethlehem is the people themselves and the spectre of an ‘an unled revolution’, that, in his estimation, ‘is anarchy’.

Many of the strategies that are often offered as ways of defending the current order by redeeming some of its promise are largely fantastical. For a start any attempt to reform the party will face all kinds of internal resistance. This is also true at the local level where, in some places, the party has been so firmly captured from below by predatory forces that even the most well-meaning new broom would find it exceptionally difficult to sweep clean from above.

There is considerable investment in the idea that the courts, via the mediation of enlightened donors and progressive lawyers, are the route to attaining an effective and responsible government. The courts are at times important sites of contestation. But they are not, in the full sense of the term, democratic institutions. Moreover, we are increasingly confronting a state that acts in routine disregard of the law and, at times, the courts. On their own the courts guarantee nothing.

There is also a view that civil society, often taken to mean NGOs, organisations that frequently have very little claim to represent any constituency other than their donors, has both a legitimate claim to represent the people as a whole and the power to counter the excesses of the state and capital. It is not uncommon for the first part of this equation to take the form of an anti-democratic fantasy. In these cases serious questions are raised about the legitimacy of the power that it does exercise and the credibility of the assumption that it is animated by an automatic ethical superiority.

Another idea that has had some recent purchase is that all that is required to redeem our current social arrangements is something called good leadership – explicitly said to be efficient and incorruptible and often implicitly assumed to conform to the orthodoxies of the partisans of the idea, always socially corrosive, that society should be subordinated to the market. It attracts the naïve enthusiasm of some donors and the odd columnist, but it lacks any political vehicle to realise its ambitions. The attempt, personalised by Mamphele Ramphele, to change this ended in farce.

For much of the left the hope is that a vanguard, be it the EFF or NUMSA, will be able to capture the escalating popular ferment, use it to secure state power and reorganise society on a new basis. In some cases little thought is given to the debilitating dogmatism, sectarianism and authoritarianism, sometimes descending into outright thuggery and slander, that has long crippled the left in and out of the ANC and, in some instances, rendered it a force more toxic than redemptive. It is also not unusual for insufficient thought to have been given to the sometimes ruthless hostility that the various factions of the official left have often shown to popular organisation outside of their control. This does not only raise questions about the potential effectiveness of the left as a political actor. It also raises questions about the prospects of a left that could be willing to embrace forms of political action that build real popular power on a progressive basis outside of a vanguard party and outside of the state with the result that there could be at least some diffusion of power and, in the unlikely event that such a party could win state power, some subordination of the state to society.

It is a telling mark of the systemic elitism of our society that very few of the attempts to think through our crisis from within ‘the widening gyre’ consider the people as a whole as potential political protagonists in their own right, and as potential agents of social change, rather than as a vehicle for the election or authorisation of one faction of the elite against the others. If there is a monster stirring, be it out in the wastelands imagined in Yeats’ poem or in the citadels of power, it draws its power from our collective elitism, an elitism that unites everyone from Malema to Zuma and Zille, as well as business, and much of civil society and the official left, against the sort of resolution of our crisis that would take the power of the demos, of the people, seriously.

Dr. Pithouse teaches politics at Rhodes University.

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