The Dangerous Fantasies of our Political Elite

By Richard Pithouse · 18 Feb 2009

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Picture: PhotoBookSA
Picture: PhotoBookSA

Carl Niehaus was the perfect spokesperson for Jacob Zuma. He had an inside understanding of the world of reckless extravagance under the patronage of dubious businessmen. He must have known, perhaps lying awake wondering who to phone to get the rent for his extraordinarily ugly house, precisely what has happened to elite politics in the ANC.

The idea of politics carries both a debased and an elevated sense. In its debased sense it is the self-serving and often ruthless competition for power and money. This is what we mean when we dismiss something as being 'just politics'. But in its elevated sense it is the search, preferably the popular search, for a better society. That search is a fundamentally ethical project and it is the ethics of politics in its elevated sense that gives people the strength to endure prison or torture while they stand firm in their ideals.

When society is very weak in relation to political elites the point can be reached where politics, in its debased sense, no longer sees any need to hide its crude excesses. On the contrary it tries to legitimate itself precisely via the public spectacle of its own power. There are occasions when we've come very close to this point in recent years. Consider, for instance, an MEC tearing down the freeway at reckless speed in a ridiculous convoy with his bodyguards shooting at motorists who don't display sufficient deference to the almighty politician. It is clear that the grand and entirely stupid spectacle of what should be the ordinary activity of getting to the meeting has become far more important than the substantive content of that meeting.

In this sort of bloated and pompous world captured so brilliantly in Ngugi wa Thiong'o's novel Wizard of the Crow, the politician craves ever more ludicrous displays of power. This is not only to cow his people into awed submission but also to keep his attention away from the wasteland in his own soul. We have to wonder why it is that people that could face solitary confinement are now entirely unable to face life in a modest home. We have to wonder what has bought them to this point. And we have to wonder where it will all end.

In Ngugi's fictionalised account of Kenya, the Ruler decides to make some improvements to the capital city so as to render it a more fitting backdrop to his honourable presence. He decides to build the tallest building in the world and calls it 'marching heaven'. Naturally the poor have to be beaten back as all the country's resources are invested in a building every bit as reckless and stupid as our new stadiums. The ANC, like the Ruler in Ngugi's novel, have gone way beyond demanding extravagant homes to defend the dignity of their key cadres. The issue is no longer the fact that politicians live in opulence while a disabled old lady has to shit in a bush year after year because the state can't be bothered to build an ablution block in a shack settlement.  

The project is now to create whole cities that can defend elite narcissism against any encounter with the current realities of our history, realities with which most people have no choice but to struggle every day. Old apartheid legislation has been dusted off and reworked in the form of the notorious KwaZulu-Natal Slums Act. This Act, firmly endorsed by the ANC's Polokwane resolutions and Housing Minister Lindiwe Sisulu, aims to ensure the banishment of the poor from our cities and to criminalise resistance to that banishment. When the shack dweller's movement Abahlali baseMjondolo staged a legal march against this Act in September 2007, they were subject to a violent and at times blatantly racialised attacked by the police. There had been no provocation. An elderly lady was shot in the back 12 times with rubber bullets. A Catholic priest was beaten up. This kind of violence against lawful protest is far from unusual. The ANC might declare a pro-poor agenda but it is not willing to allow actually existing poor people to publicly question that agenda.

But South Africans remain fractious enough for anyone who seeks to rule with a viable degree of popular consent to have to justify their power in the name of the poor. This often becomes just another spin-doctored spectacle. But, precisely because it is so often an empty stage-managed spectacle, it is very vulnerable to dissent. This is one reason why popular revulsion against politics in its debased sense has often been animated by variations on the slogan 'No Land! No House! No Vote!' in protests in cities and small towns across the country. The public refusal to vote is a refusal to endorse an elite entirely contemptuous of its own constituents, an elite that can whip up a stadium in no time but leaves a shack settlement without electricity to burn eight times in a single year. It is also a declaration of autonomy.

Once you've publicly stated your refusal to vote, politics can only be about taking on responsibility for yourself. And that means communities and movements developing their own power against the state. And that means, if they can endure the inevitable state violence and repression and continue to the point where the spectacle of their resistance creates a crisis for the delicate image of the political elite, they can force that elite out of their blue light convoys and to the negotiating table. And if they can stand up to the inevitable threats and resist the inevitable offers of co-option and sustain their collective strength they may, in time, actually be able to force the politicians to acknowledge their humanity. It then becomes possible to have a conversation person to person rather than ruler to ruled.  And at that point it becomes possible to engage in politics in its elevated sense. Given how far gone the ANC is, it is almost certainly entirely wishful thinking but, who knows, perhaps Niehaus et al may still be rehumanised from below.

Dr. Pithouse teaches politics at Rhodes University.

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17 Feb

Convoys of Importance.

I agree, absolutely.

And with reference to these obscene convoys:

It's usually for 'security reasons' that they travel in that manner i.e. give the rules of the road and the laws of the land a big middle finger.

Who are these people being kept 'secure' from? Is it the infamous 'third force'? Is it Joe Citizen?

I thought (naively) that the politicians that represent us would be better served by engaging us, instead of hiding from us. It seems that the closest the average politician gets to Joe Citizen, is when Joe is bussed into a rally, and the politician is convoyed in.

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20 Feb


You had me for much of it, but the endless repetition of old solgans and old ideas - that withholding the vote can achieve anything - just ignores the way in which 'the people' have been energised by the post-Polokwane mess, the impact of Obama, the notion that the marginalised can make a difference via the ballot. Think it may be time to move forward with the masses and not try call them back to where you are ... and where you've been patiently waiting for them, for some years now.

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