Meeting Amidst the Rot

By Richard Pithouse · 12 Dec 2012

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Picture: Jacob Zuma courtesy World Economic Forum
Picture: Jacob Zuma courtesy World Economic Forum

What stank in the past is the present's perfume
-Lesego Rampolokeng, The Bavino Sermons, 1999

Many societies before us have travelled the well worn path that winds down the slope, gentle at first but then precipitous, that runs from the bliss of a new dawn and into the stench of a rotting dream. And many societies have discovered that neither shared participation in the great drama of a national struggle nor a founding leader that, like Kwame Nkrumah, Jawaharlal Nehru or Jomo Kenyatta, matched a real stature on the world stage with an ability to express a collective sense of historical destiny at home, guarantee anything. Novels like Ayi Kwei Armah's The Beautyful Ones Are Not Yet Born, Salman Rushdie's Midnight's Children, or Ngugi wa Thiong'o's Wizard of the Crow are full of the overwhelming sense of rot that a particular generation of Indians, Ghanaians and Kenyans had to confront.

Corruption, not just in the sense of financial corruption, but the corruption of institutions, organisations,  memory, language and relationships – including intimate relationships, is at the heart of all of these books. And with this corruption comes sycophantic performances of adoration for naked emperors, endless rhetoric, empty and pompous in equal measure, that is increasingly detached from any connection to reality, attempts to sustain loyalty and suppress dissent by trying to bind the evasions of the present into the drama of the past, fabricated threats to the new order, ethnic politics, patronage, violence and the constant rescheduling of the moment of national redemption always reported to be on the horizon but never attained.

As the ANC returns to Mangaung in its centenary year the SACP has informed us that criticism of Jacob Zuma is criticism of the national democratic revolution. A couple of months ago the party declared that criticism of Zuma was “imperialist aggression” aimed at “recolonising the country”. This language could have come straight out of George Orwell's Animal Farm. It is the language, in its classic form, of dictatorship. And as the ANC acquires more of the accoutrements of a classic dictatorship - a presidential palace, wailing cavalcades, bodyguards and other performances of overweening personal power, the right for some to plunder with impunity, a steady escalation in the murder of protesters leading up to a massacre, regular political assassination, activists tortured, burnt out of their homes and denied the right to protest – it is no wonder that we inhabit a growing sense of rot.

Of course there are good people in government, with Aaron Motsoaledi being the most frequently cited example. And some of the most penetrating critiques of the degeneration of the ruling party have, like Pallo Jordan's response to the Marikana Massacre or Zwelinzima Vavi's critique of the predatory currents in the political class, come from within its own ranks. The idea that the ANC can return to what is imagined to be its true self, an idea that certainly has real popular resonance, is frequently advanced from within the party. The symbolic power of the party's return to the church where it was founded a hundred years ago has been framed as a possible moment of spiritual re-commitment.

We've been told that Mangaung could mark the moment at which the party confronts its weaknesses, casts off its slough and moves towards renewal, a second transition or a Zuma Moment. Those of us who aren't privy to the plans being hatched and deals being cut within the party have no clear idea of the real nature and relative strength of the forces within the ANC. But it is clear that without a strategy to effectively contest the degeneration in the party, and without a base within the party to enable this strategy to be politically viable, the public expression of internal critique does not amount to an effective counter-project within the party. On the contrary it could, whatever the intentions of the people calling for change, only function to offer further legitimation to the party and buy it a little more time.

And given the extent to which the party has come, from the very top to the very bottom, to be built around the circulation of patronage, it may well be that it has now reached the point where its degeneration is so entrenched as to be unreformable. Media attention tends to focus on the leading figures in the party. But we need to recall that in some parts of the country it has become routine for councillors to approach their constituents with the police or bodyguards and for the goods and services that the state does provide to be brazenly mediated through local party structures and denied to people that refuse to perform their loyalty to the party. For many people simple democratic practices like offering oneself as a candidate for office or organising a protest have either become practically impossible or have to be undertaken with considerable courage and at real risk.

And corruption is not, as it is often reported, merely a matter of personal accumulation. It routinely functions as another form of social control. Accepting an offer of incorporation into the discipline of the party – and offers are,  sometimes alongside simultaneous repression, frequently made to effective grassroots activists - can mean that a young person, with no real prospects for regular work or access to housing, can suddenly, even from a position in a local party committee, leverage tenders, buy a new car, perhaps also a gun, and be someone. But sustaining access to the resources that flow through the party structures requires one to remain useful and that can mean, in practice, disciplining your old neighbours and comrades.

The salient fact here is that there are large numbers of people for whom the party is an organisation that functions very efficiently to advance their own aspirations by leveraging resources out of the state. Attempting to challenge this and to reorganise the party around a democratic and social logic would require a direct and effective challenge to the people whose personal interests and future prospects are directly tied to both the party's degeneration and the growing authoritarianism with which that degeneration is being protected. We should not make the mistake of misunderstanding the party's degeneration as a mere question of failure or, in the ANC's language, the invasion of 'alien tendencies'. On the contrary it is also a question of the success of a predatory political class. And if this class has come to dominate the ANC, or even merely to have attained a firm hold over some parts of the party, it may have to be contested from outside the party for the simple reason that it has become the actually existing party.

In order to make sense of this prospect it is necessary to look at political potentials that lie within what currently exist but carry the potential to move beyond what currently exists. These potentials are certainly not all progressive or democratic. In other societies confronted with the corrosion of democratic aspirations there have been, along with a general collapse into the pursuit of solely private interests, disastrous turns towards ethnic politics, deeply conservative movements to, in the name of revival, affirm the political priority of certain understandings of tradition and religion over democratic modes of engagement, the political as well as physical withdrawal of the middle classes into private spaces and enthusiastic support in some quarters for attempts to contain popular dissent through the mobilisation of state and popular violence.

Civil society has often been presented as our democratic trump card and its true that it has won real gains and held the line in some battles. But we do need to remember that the organisations that are usually referred to as civil society largely make up a middle class space constituted by professional activists that is frequently white dominated and dependent on donor funding rather than popular support. It has sometimes approached popular struggles with incomprehension, casual paternalism and even, on occasion, a degree of paranoia that has rivalled that of the ANC. For as long as civil society remains unable or unwilling to grasp the simple political truth that democracy is the rule of the people, and that it should be both the form and the goal of democratic organising, it will lack the capacity to mount a decisive challenge to the spreading rot.

The fractious character of our citizenry could develop, or explode, in a variety of directions. It could be captured by various forces. The ways in which people have turned the structural contempt of society onto themselves and, in a manner that is often gendered, their own families and communities, as well as the proto-fascist logic of homophobic and xenophobic violence, are grim warnings of how wrong things can go in society itself. But there's no question that, beginning in urban shack settlements and then on the mines and the farms, our citizenry has demonstrated its willingness to contest social exclusion. And although this popular ferment has sometimes taken the form of a counter-brutality it has also often rooted the legitimacy of its dissent in the name of a moral economy that asserts a right to dignity rooted in a shared humanity. It is here that the greatest positive potential for the renewal of our polity lies.

Dr. Pithouse teaches politics at Rhodes University.

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MFXJ Verified user
12 Dec

OK, but What Can I Do NOW? (And Tomorrow)

Yes I agree, I agree, I agree. I am also sick to death of the rot; from dream to disillusionment in 18 short years. After 82 long years of struggle!

Bur what do I do today, and tomorrow, and on ensuing tomorrows to make a difference?

Do I just "withdraw into the private spaces" and watch it play itself out as I'm taxed to death to provide the resources for all the patronage? Do I find a self-reliant community somewhere and become invisible while service-delivery grinds to a halt and our poorer fellow-citizens continue to be treated appallingly by the state, yet gallingly are still relied upon as voting fodder!

As a small, practical token of my discontent I'm going to wear a black armband for the duration of Mangaung, to mourn the death of the noble ideal of our fledgling democracy. I encourage other concerned and patriotic citizens to do the same.

Respond to this comment

15 Dec

Meeting Amidst the Rot

I share the sentiments and frustrations about what seems an overwhelming force in the ANC that promote self enrichment. But wearing a black armband is hardly a solution. The most pragmatic first step is to organise civil society to challenge the current legislation that discards direct representation in favour of party lists. Only when all councillors and MPs are directly accountable to a specific regional constituency including right to recall y will there be a change in this attitude.