Democracy is still Heresy

By Richard Pithouse · 28 Sep 2012

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Only the crudest propagandist would dare to deny that the ANC is an increasingly predatory and authoritarian excrescence on society rather than a democratic expression of society. It is equally clear that the party confronts what is arguably the highest rate of sustained popular protest anywhere in the world, has overwhelmingly lost the support of the intelligentsia and is increasingly resorting to violence and other forms of repression to contain dissent.

COSATU, unlike the SACP which welcomed the Soviet tanks into Budapest in 1956 and Prague in 1968, certainly has a democratic history. But its recent congress seems to indicate that its capture by the ruling party, its drift up the class structure and its degeneration into a bureaucracy with its own interests has seriously and perhaps fatally compromised its capacity to be an independent and critical voice.

But while all this is widely acknowledged it is much less frequently acknowledged that, with the possible exception of some very local experiments, it is not possible to vote for democratic alternatives for the simple reason that they don’t exist. Writing in the Mail & Guardian, Cape Town based activist Jared Sacks has recently shown that the DA and some NGOs are, just like the ANC, unable to grasp the political agency of poor people and resort to fantastical conspiracy theories to explain it away. Sacks found that in the Sweet Home shack settlement in Cape Town, protest was organised by residents themselves, across party lines and for very good reasons, and not, as the DA had suggested, by the external and malicious machinations of the ANC Youth League. The technocratic authoritarianism of the DA is a very different language to the Stalinism that frequently shapes the language of key figures in the ANC but both parties are systemically incapable of understanding popular challenges to their authority without recourse to witch hunts for imagined agitators.

Democracy is supposed to be the rule of the demos, of the people. But while the idea that ‘the people shall govern’ was taken seriously in some of the trade union and community struggles against apartheid it was never the politics of the ANC in exile or, of course, of the Stalinists in the SACP. In post-apartheid South Africa the affirmation of democratic principles has seldom translated into a meaningful commitment to democratic practices. Our public sphere has largely understood itself to be a site in which contending elites debate each other. And elites across the political spectrum, and located in a variety of institutions, have often responded to the demand for real inclusion in discussions and decision making by poor people with astonishing paranoia and hostility. There have been cases, and civil society and the left are as guilty of this as any other elite constituency, where the demand for inclusion has literally been read as criminality and violence even when it violates no law or human body.

Jane Duncan, a professor at Rhodes University, has analysed all of the 153 newspaper articles dealing with the Marikana strike and massacre between the 13th and the 22nd of August. She has taken a statistical measure of who it is that the press went to in order to get information on what happened. She found that business got the vast bulk of the opportunities to speak, 27% in total. The political parties got 10% of the space, government got 9%, independent experts got 8% and the police got 5%. Only 3% of the articles asked workers for their views on what happened and the bulk of these were primarily interested in questions about muthi. Duncan found that only one article out of one hundred and fifty three “showed any attempt by a journalist to get an account from a worker about their version of the massacre.” The initial assumption of the bulk of our media was that workers were people that the media should speak about but not to. Duncan’s research is a stark indictment of the profoundly anti-democratic assumptions that structure the unthinking common sense of much of our media. In fact if it hadn’t been for the Daily Maverick it is quite possible that the public discussion of the massacre in Marikana would have largely been shaped by the assumptions and agendas of contending elites.

The uprising in Marikana differs from the wider rebellion of the poor in a number of respects one of which is that its central material demand has been expressed by workers seeking higher wages rather than by residents seeking access to urban land, housing and services. But, along with the political salience of the shack settlement, a key point of connection with the wider rebellion has been the militant challenge to authorised forms of political representation. In Marikana this has taken the form of a popular rejection of the authority of the National Union of Mineworkers while in the wider rebellion it is usually ward councillors, ward committees and local party structures that have come under attack. In some cases this has taken the form of contestation over control of sites of authorised representation that has either sought to capture them or to subordinate them to popular pressure. But in other cases people have resolved, like the miners in Marikana, to represent themselves. It is striking that contestation within or over authorised forms of representation has usually been quite quickly recuperated into the ‘normal’ modes and limits of political engagement while decisions by people to represent themselves have often resulted in political innovation that, despite being confronted and weakened by repression, has been able to better sustain a challenge to attempts to contain engagement to ‘the right channels’ and the narrow parameters of ‘service delivery’.

The ANC retains a considerable although waning capacity to function as a mechanism of top down social control over collective aspirations and their political expression. It provides all kinds of opportunities to access wealth and power and is often an accessible route into individual progress for people that are willing to cash in a popular constituency for personal gain. In recent years it has brazenly tied access to much of what it does ‘deliver’ to the performance of support for the party. We’ve now reached the point where, for many people, a party card is required to access the limited social benefits of citizenship. The party has also been able to exploit ethnic and national sentiment, some of it plainly chauvinist, as well as the lure of masculinist forms of personal power, to offer a sense of inclusion to people who remain materially, spatially and politically excluded. And it has been able to sustain the ongoing production of zones of exclusion, most notably the former bantustans and, in the cities, shack settlements and transit camps, where large numbers of people are effectively treated as if they do not have a full and equal claim on democracy.

A degree of enduring popular faith in the party will continue to buy it some time. For instance many people who are appalled by their own local experiences of the party take comfort in the fantasy that if its senior leaders knew what was going on they would share their outrage. This is one reason why popular protest often continues to take the form of trying to draw the attention of senior party leaders to local realities. It is also why, in recent years, the ANC has campaigned against aspects of itself as much as against other parties in local elections. And there are also many people that sustain a fidelity to the idea of the ANC in the face of their disgust at its current state and hope that what they imagine to be the true ANC will return.

Nonetheless the fracturing of the control that the party used to be able to exercise at the bottom of society cannot be denied. Of course there’s no guarantee that when people decide to represent themselves their politics will take a democratic form. But it is difficult to imagine a genuinely democratic resolution of our crisis that would not be grounded in the entry, the forced entry, onto the political stage of poor people resolved to represent themselves.

Dr. Pithouse teaches politics at Rhodes University.

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28 Sep

Level of Protest

A good article by Richard, and he is right that most in SA politics, business, academic have little grasp of the thinking at ground level. There is anguish, especially among educated youth, with the key grouch being unemployment.

But to say the ANC confronts the world's highest level of protest is surely off the mark. Syria, Israel, Greece and Spain have an edge.

That doesn't take away from the truth of Richard's piece and ANC, DA, Cosatu, SACP, etc. ignore it at their peril.

Geoff in Jo'burg

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28 Sep

Democratic Options?

Well put Richard, to the point.
Will political parties take note?
Will the predatory elite give back what they, in turn, have stolen to level playing fields?

Will we start listening from the bottom up, or same old story, take orders from the top?

TIME has now become the enemy as the "platform" is burning?

Where is our Brazilian Lula moment Vavi?

Time is running out whilst political and financial plundering goes on non stop!

What is it going to take, people of SA?

28 Sep

Rebellion of the Poor

I think that Peter Alexander's point is that mass protest in South Africa has been sustained more than anywhere else - going back to 2004 - so it is cumulatively greater than anywhere else.

militia Verified user
28 Sep


This article is brilliant, it perfectly describes the situation that our organization encounters on a day to day basis on the ground dealing with violent communities.

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2 Oct


I would have been nice if you explained the words "violent communities" and what constitutes the violence in them? Then your comment will have more value.

28 Sep


I appreciate Richard's analyses a lot, also here - but there is one thing that bothers me - in this text as in many others from SA activists and researchers. Why are 'politics' and 'parties' conceived as so distinct from 'the people'?

Unlike the DA, the ANC, and in this instance the author of the text, I don't believe that the fact that a protest is led by a political party or faction leader discredits the protest and the legitimacy of the claim. It is actually shooting ourselves in the foot to support that idea - would you say, as soon as we can prove that an ANC leader is involved in a protest (and how would that not be, given the still large groundedness of the party?), the protest is meaningless? Of course leaders lead their own political battles at the same time as their constituencies' (cf Bourdieu on political capital) - protesters are aware their leaders are also driven by personal/ political ambition: they are not necessarily being manipulated (see Auyero on client's agency). They protest, possibly following one party/ faction leader, because they believe the protest is a way of expressing their collective claims.

In other terms, I think it is at best naive and misleading, at worst (not in this case) dishonest, to claim in spite of some evidence (see Karl von Holdt's work) that protests are always distinct and separate from party political battles; and that, when they are not distinct, they are not legitimate, grounded or authentic. I think it is a mistake also not to see how grounded the ANC is in popular neighborhoods (even if it is a variety of ANCs...) - for many reasons that do not mean that people are satisfied with the party and its politics and policies. If we blind ourselves to that, we might not be able to truly understand the dynamics of local politics and of social change.

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