Time to Gatecrash the (ANC) Party: It's the 'Politics' Stupid

By Leonard Gentle · 9 Mar 2012

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Picture: Wikimedia Commons
Picture: Wikimedia Commons

There is a very cynical, old apartheid era joke about English-speaking whites in South Africa to the effect that, ”Most supported the Progs (Helen Suzman’s old Progressive Party); voted UP (the old United Party of De Villiers Graaf) … and thanked God for the Nats”.

Meaning that it was okay to be disgusted by the racism and repression, but hell those Afrikaners knew how to run the economy -- and they kept everything functioning nicely.

With the exception of the everything functioning “nicely” part, one is reminded of mainstream responses to two recent events: Pravin Gordhan’s Budget, which received plaudits from everyone from the business media on one hand, to the SACP on the other, and Jeff Radebe’s judicial review that is seen by the same mainstream, as further proof that the ANC is attacking democracy.                  
This separation of “economics” and “politics” is a serious mistake. Our problem is not an economic one per se…ours is a political problem of the 1992-1994 elite transition, which constrained majority rule. South Africans have a ruling party (in hock to Big Business) that has long ceased to speak to any concerns of the majority. Things are made worse by the lack of a mass movement strong enough to make them do anything different.

To invoke Bill Clinton: “It’s the politics, stupid!”

There is a narrative in South Africa, which starts from the premise that political freedom has been achieved and the institutions of democracy are intact. In this narrative current levels of inequality are caused because there’s too little to go around. So what we need is economic growth.

The debate then becomes one of analysing what stands in the way of economic growth and what form of economic growth we should opt for. This narrative unites quite a number of disparate forces. The ANC being the ruling party presiding over the current institutions is a protagonist of this view, as is the Democratic Alliance and all our other political parties.

Then there is another narrative - one that prevails in other voices within the Tripartite Alliance. This view argues that we have “political freedom” but that the cause of the current malaise is that economic power still rests with the old order.

Strangely enough, this perspective also unites a range of voices, some polite and within the ANC itself (where the buzz-word is “transformation” and BEE), alongside Cosatu (who see the issue as one of the absence of “industrial strategy” where South Africa should beneficiate its mineral resources and move away from its obeisance to the old, white-owned minerals-energy complex).

Add to these voices, the South African Communist Party (SACP), which implicitly endorses the same notion, except that the old economic order impinges on the current political dispensation from time to time. The SACP poses a formulation in terms of their notion of a “National Democratic Revolution” (NDR). The NDR, for the SACP, is still an “unfolding” one, in which various “class projects” of the old order constantly regroup and attempt to make their way back into political influence whilst competing with the working class for the soul of the ANC.

Then there is also what could be referred to as the rude voices, in the form of the ANCYL, setting themselves up as “economic freedom” fighters.

But, strangely enough, as regards “political freedom”, everyone here regards the current dispensation as the last word and only differs as to whether it needs ongoing performance reviews.

There are two problems with this approach. Firstly, it assumes that what is called the “economic” is somehow separated from the “political” and the “social” -- and that the latter is acceptable. And, secondly it suggests that the ownership and control over economic power does not define and shape the political terrain and the institutions of political power. Alternatively, that political power is not the vehicle for levering the interests of those who have economic clout.     

This brings us to the question of the ANC government’s call for a review of the judiciary and its performance. This is being met with howls of protest because it follows on from the introduction of the Secrecy Bill, the appointment of Mogoeng Mogoeng, and so on.    

The picture of an ANC hell-bent on undermining the institutions of democracy then emerges, which calls on all of us to rally round, uncritically, in defence of the institutions of the current order.

But where did these institutions come from in their current configuration?

Well, in the 1990-1994 negotiations, the apartheid regime wanted to protect white power and privilege knowing that the end game of elections would be a black majority government. The ANC and the rest of the liberation movement wanted a non-racial unitary South Africa. The apartheid negotiators, therefore, initially proposed “group rights” as a code for protecting privilege. When this proved unacceptable, the negotiators followed this up with proposals for a high degree of provincial and local power.

Such decentralisation was code for minority protection because apartheid’s racial geography had constructed local geographies of white privilege, Bantustan “homelands” and local Amakhosi power bases. The ANC conceded this decentralisation of power, but wanted guarantees that these couldn’t become sources for secession and that “national norms” would prevail.

Likewise, the very progressive ideas for a Bill of Rights were resisted at the negotiations table as being too “left wing” and likely to scare investors. So a whole range of checks and balances were formulated to prevent placing high expectations on the new democratic state. Money bills could only be proposed by the National Treasury; debt as an obligation was constitutionally factored in, and all the “red rights” in the Bill of Rights were to be subject to the test of “affordability”.

But who would then preside over ensuring that “national norms” would prevail? Who would arbitrate on matters of rights against affordability?

Why, the courts, of course.

It was within the very nature of the compromises made at the World Trade Centre negotiations that South Africa would not only be a constitutional democracy, but that judges would have a high degree of power in giving interpretation to the tension embodied in the competing interests that gave rise to the negotiated settlement. The courts would, literally by judicial precedent, write the outcomes of what was a complicated process of compromise.

In this regard, competing cases come to mind. Whereas in the Grootboom case the courts ruled that the state had to provide Irene Grootboom with a house (which she never saw in her lifetime), in the Soobramany case, a seriously ill patient requiring dialysis was condemned to legal death because the courts ruled that it would exhaust the budget to expect the state to provide such life-saving dialysis in public hospitals.

So now we know that the right to life is subject to the constraints of what the executive considers a reasonable budget.

Similarly, whereas the courts have been happy to instruct local authorities to provide plans for realising human dignity in the case of covered toilets, in the notorious case of the Soweto residents threatened with self-disconnection pre-paid water meters, the Constitutional Court ruled that it cannot interfere with the legislature in determining what is the amount of water that would fulfil the requirements of the constitution. The legislature only had to show its intent to meet the requirements of the constitution, whether that had any real meaning or not.
In this sense, it is entirely legitimate for the ANC government to call for a review of actual judicial practise. Every democrat who tracked the processes of the negotiated settlement should be welcoming the opportunity to check how the courts are arbitrating on matters that were so close to the hearts of the thousands of activists who fought for democracy and then watched our negotiators make all sorts of compromises with the old regime in smoke-filled rooms.

Two weeks ago such a case of compromise was brought to the fore again, but was, in the main, not commented on in South Africa. This was the most recent round of negotiations between embattled Greece and what is called the Troika: the European Central Bank (ECB), the European Union (EU) and the International Monetary Fund (IMF) - the Troika essentially forcing Greece into submission by imposing severe austerity measures and restructuring social life.

Remember this stagnation has been happening over a year now, foisting an ECB employee on the country as an unelected Prime Minister and even demanding that Greece has a separate bank account for the Troika loan and that the control over this account be done by other ECB technocrats and not the Greek Treasury. But this latest humiliation went down to the wire as the disgraced Greek politicians held out until another ignominious collapse.

What made them hold out for so long? What pernicious scheme was hatched by the Troika that made even the disgraced politicians dig in their feeble heels?

The answer to these questions is that Greece had to amend its constitution to make debt payments a constitutional requirement.

Funny that this is precisely one of the constitutional requirements of our very own constitution in South Africa.                  

Of course, the ANC today is no defender of democracy; no beacon of progressiveness anymore; and its recent record of putting up compliant judges, using the state machinery to settle internal disputes and legislating to enhance secrecy, makes it ill suited to champion such a review.

But if one thinks beyond the knee-jerk “they’re tampering with the constitution” mania then the process does present an opportunity to review the trade-offs made at the World Trade Centre and raise the banner of greater, not less, public power over public authorities; of more, not less democracy.                                                                                                                                                                         
Let us not therefore lose an opportunity to review. It is time to put the politics back into democracy.
The struggle for democracy is about extending the terrain of popular power into all spheres – into the judiciary, over the constitution, over what is considered “the economy” and into the state itself as the product of struggles within civil society. By such extension, we disaggregate the state itself into its constituent parts; we unmask the role it plays in maintaining current inequalities; we reduce state functions to the “administration of things” – and, in so doing we open the possibility for higher forms of democracy. 

Gentle is the director of the International Labour Research and Information Group (ILRIG), an NGO that produces educational materials for activists in social movements and trade unions.

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