Promise & Peril at the Turn of the Tide

By Richard Pithouse · 21 Aug 2013

A+ A= A-
    Print this page      0 comments
Picture: Mamphela Ramphele (Agang) and Julius Malema (Economic Freedom Fighters) courtesy Wikimedia Commons.
Picture: Mamphela Ramphele (Agang) and Julius Malema (Economic Freedom Fighters) courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

(T)he horses have vanished
Heroes hop around like toads

- Pablo Neruda, Right Comrade, It’s the Hour of the Garden, Chile, 1973

Writing after the French Revolution Immanuel Kant, the German philosopher, noted that “while the drama of great political changes is taking place” people “openly express universal yet disinterested sympathy for one set of protagonists against their adversaries”. Kant did not deny the limits, or even the horrors of the French Revolution. But for Kant it was the universal Idea that emerged from the revolution, an Idea that was open to all, that became transcendent: “true enthusiasm is always directed exclusively towards the ideal, particularly towards that which is purely moral (such as the concept of right), and it cannot be coupled with selfish interests. No pecuniary rewards could inspire the opponents of the revolutionaries with that zeal and greatness of soul which the concept of right could alone produce in them”.

In 1804, the year of Kant’s death, African slaves in Haiti seized the Rights of Man and the Citizen that had been affirmed in revolutionary Paris in 1789 for themselves and overthrew slavery. This event began the insurgent process by which the highest ethical ideals that have emerged from modernity were appropriated and affirmed by the same people whose equal humanity was so ruthlessly denied in the modern world.

In South Africa the African National Congress (ANC) has, particularly in the 1950s, and then again from the 1980s, come to be intimately associated with the Idea of a liberated South African nation, an Idea that has inspired tremendous courage and sacrifice. This is not unusual. When people are denied national belonging, national liberation movements frequently do become enmeshed with the Idea of the nation.

The ANC, as an actually existing organisation, collapsed into serious crisis in exile. Since Jacob Zuma’s ascent to the Presidency its crisis in government has been spiralling into ever tighter circles. And as the party becomes increasingly corrupt and authoritarian – to the point of sometimes becoming a predatory excrescence on society – the distance between what it is in practice and what it claims to be has become a chasm. This chasm is seldom acknowledged with the result that honest and rational discussion of the problems that we face is often a threat to the party. This is one reason why the ANC’s own discourse is becoming increasingly hysterical and paranoid and dissent is habitually framed as conspiracy, usually imperialist conspiracy.

For a long time, many people, even when confronted by the most venal and authoritarian currents in the party, have drawn a distinction between the Idea of the ANC and its realities and asserted fidelity to the former, sometimes to legitimate revolt against the latter. But for as long as discontent was contained within the party, or its affiliated structures, the connection between the grand Idea of the nation and the altogether more tacky realities of the party were sustained.

But it’s now clear that the party is steadily losing the control that it has exercised over the nationalist imagination for so long. Ongoing popular protest has been chipping away at its authority for years. In some areas struggles in shack settlements and mines have resulted in the emergence of independent organisations like Abahlali baseMjondolo and the Association of Mineworkers and Construction Union (AMCU). And in a development that may come to be highly significant the divisions in COSATU now seem irreconcilable. There is a real possibility of a split in the federation with public sector unions remaining loyal to Zuma and more radical unions, led by NUMSA, taking a more independent path. In the electoral sphere Agang and the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) both claim to speak for a truer conception of the nation.

It’s not yet clear how all this ferment will settle and where and how lines of solidarity and antagonism will be drawn. But it is already clear that this increasing political diversity means that the ANC can no longer appear in the public sphere with the Democratic Alliance as its only credible rival at the polls and white power and contempt as it’s only credible threat in society. Zuma’s statements are now measured against responses from Mamphela Ramphele and Julius Malema. COSATU’s choices are now measured against those of AMCU, and Blade Nzimande and Sidumo Dlamini against Irwin Jim and Zwelinzima Vavi.

This new political diversity, unstable and dynamic, does have the potential to shift the national debate on to a foundation less constrained by organisation into what are perceived to be relatively solid racial blocs. This could enable more open and rational discussion. There is also potential for a realignment of material forces. Agang has no serious prospect of capturing popular struggles. But the EFF is making serious attempts to do this. Its political theatre is being backed up with real attempts to make connections with popular struggles. And it is possible that a split in COSATU could bring the resources and organisational capacities of trade unions into an alliance with the struggles in the cities, and the farms of the Western Cape.

None of this means that the ANC is in imminent danger of losing its grip on the state. It has all sorts of advantages that can be used to compensate for its ongoing collapse as a moral force including the ability to use the state to effect repression and reward compliance. And if popular opposition looks like it may reach some sort of critical mass, on the streets or at the ballot box, the party would, along with escalating repression and co-option, be able to introduce measures with popular appeal, like extensions to its welfare system and urban land reform, to stabilise its authority.

But there is an opening, one that is widening by the day, in which news forms of popular organisation could take root. Kant thought about the constitution of a new political order in terms of fidelity to principle. But for others it has made more sense to think of political reconfiguration through an altogether more instrumental lens. Nicola Machiavelli, writing in Florence on the cusp of the emergence of the modern world out of the Middle Ages, aspired to the creation of “new authorities, new men” that could “make the rich poor, the poor rich” and aspire “to build new cities, to take down those built, to exchange the inhabitants from one place to another; and in sum, not to leave anything untouched”. For Machiavelli it was necessary to “go directly to the effectual truth of the thing [rather] than to the imagination of it”. He was clear that “anyone who abandons what is done for what ought to be done learns his ruin rather than his preservation”. His vision of the sort of person who can seize the moment and force change is rooted in an idiom of hyper-masculinist self-assertion, of “young men”, more “adventurous than cautious” who, “more violent” can, “with more audacity command” and submit fortune to their will.

Malema certainly commanded the stage on the anniversary of the Marikana Massacre with audacity. He is forceful, unafraid and willing to tell the truth about the chasm between some of the ANC’s stated ideals for itself and the country and the realities of the party and what this has meant for millions of people who live increasing desperate lives. But this young man, while certainly adventurous, is also demagogic, authoritarian, sexist and every bit as corrupt as the worst people in the ANC. He is also an opportunist who only turned to popular struggles for support when he was at risk of losing his own position in the outer reaches of the ANC’s most extreme forms of political predation.

Hostility to Malema is often a veiled expression of hostility to the people that he is assumed, sometimes far too easily, to represent – the urban poor. And hostility to the very idea of populism – a form of politics that addresses people directly and calls them to an awareness of their own power outside of authorised representative institutions, is often a deeply anti-democratic sentiment. There will be no route out of our crisis without popular mobilisation, the only way in which concentrations of wealth and power can be effectively challenged.

It’s clear that Malema’s populism does raise important questions about the ANC, concentrations of white power and the subordination of society to capital. But, along with centrality of demagogic personal charisma, the EFF’s presentation of itself in deeply masculinist and pseudo-militaristic terms has set the organisation on a path that cannot be democratic. And there is no doubt that militancy that doesn’t place women’s concerns and agency at its centre will be entirely inadequate to the challenge that we face.

It’s impossible to imagine that Marx, Lenin or Fanon, in whose names the EFF conducts its politics, would have been anything other than appalled by Malema, Kunene et al. Fanon’s biographer, Alice Cherki, who worked closely with him in Algeria and Tunisia, insists that for Fanon it was essential “to place the emphasis on a kind of political conduct”. That conduct was certainly not one in which the oppressed were assumed to be an inert mass to be directed from above. For Fanon struggle, as well as being a form of collective force, should also be a space where people are able to assume their own political agency and to take charge of their destinies. This will seem naïve to those who look only for force to set against force and who don’t share Fanon’s deep concern about modes of struggle that rely on a “brutality of thought and mistrust of subtlety”. The global history of authoritarian forms of leftism, the SACP’s Stalinist history and the sorry history of the forms of demagogic and hyper-masculinist militancy that have disfigured and damaged the left outside of the ANC, all make it perfectly clear that a militancy that is not democratic, and not firmly in the hands of the people in whose name it makes its claims, is deeply compromised.

We shouldn’t forget that from the black trade union movement and the black consciousness movement that both developed in Durban in the early 70s to the United Democratic Front, formed in Cape Town in 1983, to contemporary experiments in developing forms of militancy rooted in an immediate affirmation of dignity and democratic practices, there have been forms of politics, effective and popular forms of politics, that, despite their limits, have aimed to transcend rather than mirror the brutalities of the society that they have opposed. There is no reason why we can’t build democratic forms of militancy again.

Dr. Pithouse teaches politics at Rhodes University.

Should you wish to republish this SACSIS article, please attribute the author and cite The South African Civil Society Information Service as its source.

All of SACSIS' originally produced articles, videos, podcasts and transcripts are licensed under a Creative Commons license. For more information about our Copyright Policy, please click here.

To receive an email notification when a new SACSIS article is published, please click here.

For regular and timely updates of new SACSIS articles, you can also follow us on Twitter @SACSIS_News and/or become a SACSIS fan on Facebook.

You can find this page online at

A+ A= A-
    Print this page      0 comments

Leave A Comment

Posts by unregistered readers are moderated. Posts by registered readers are published immediately. Why wait? Register now or log in!