Things Fall Apart

By Richard Pithouse · 28 Oct 2009

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The ceremony of innocence is drowned;

The best lack all conviction, while the worst

Are full of passionate intensity.

- W.B. Yeats, The Second Coming, 1919

Kader Asmal was quite right to warn that powerful people in the African National Congress (ANC) are actively working to build an anti-democratic constituency. Fikile Mbalula's response, crafted with all the delicate subtlety of a blue light cavalcade shooting motorists out of its path, offered quick confirmation of the patently anti-democratic depths to which political discourse has sunk in the ANC.

The people in the ANC who are pushing for a more authoritarian society in which an increasingly predatory elite shelters behind a militarised police force, a more socially conservative culture and escalating political intolerance are full of passionate intensity because they have a clear vision of what they can gain. And what they can gain is social sanction for a form of authoritarian nationalism in which the dignity of the nation is reduced to the spectacle of the grand excesses on the part of its elites. We've always had a form of dual political citizenship in which the poor are excluded from meaningful access to our liberal democracy, but in recent years, elites have been lifted above its rules and norms.

We are not alone in this. At the end of the Cold War there was a powerful consensus that liberal democracy and free markets were the universal bedrock of social progress. Here in South Africa we obediently put aside the popular democratic experiments of the 1980’s and founded the post-apartheid order on this consensus. In the wake of the financial crisis much has been made of the anti-social nature of an unregulated market, but a lot less has been said about the limits of liberal democracy.

Around the world the failure of liberal democracy and free markets to develop inclusive societies has led to a deep popular scepticism about the value of liberal democracy to the point where in many countries, such as Russia and India, there has been considerable popular support for an increasingly authoritarian elite nationalism. This elite nationalism often seeks to win popular consent with rising prosperity for the middle classes, authoritarian modes of securing personal safety, grand but empty spectacles of national progress and the management of the poor via the exploitation of ethnic sentiment and local level patronage.

Many of the people who are horrified by the ANC's drift towards an authoritarian nationalism organised around elite interests, lack all conviction in an alternative. Although some persevere, it’s simply not credible to argue that the solution to our social crisis is to continue with free markets and liberal democracy when this arrangement has so clearly failed the majority. Something has to change.

There is a serious debate about economics within the ANC but its often been reduced to a simple opposition between the state and the market. There's not been serious engagement with the fact that predatory elites can capture the state and profit from it at the expense of the majority with as much ruthlessness as any corporation. A comrade in a BMW is not necessarily any better than a boss in a BMW.

Serious economic change is essential if we are to build an inclusive society, but there can be no purely economic resolution of the crisis that we are in. 

The current strategies by elites to manage the poor with grants, service delivery and forced removal to transit camps are very modest – in fact they amount to a strategy for short-term containment at the level of basic survival rather than a strategy for a viable society, let alone for justice. 

But although this strategy is so modest, it is failing because the ANC no longer secures the loyalty of its cadres on the basis of a shared vision. It secures its political support on the basis of a share in the plunder from the state and so its high level leaders are simply not in a position to deal with the systemic capture and distortion of development by local party elites.

This is a political problem that will continue irrespective of whether or not development is driven by the market or the state. But there is no serious discussion about progressive political innovation within the ANC. There is equally little discussion about this in wider society.

The problem that is not being faced up to is that while liberal democracy offers everyone the same rights to engage and shape the future in principle; in practice, access to the media, the courts and electoral politics are all commodified to the point where there is systemic exclusion of the poor.

If we could draw on the popular democratic experiments developed during the struggles against apartheid in the 80s, and similar experiments in recent times in countries like Haiti and Bolivia, we may be able to propose a deepening of democracy in opposition to the current impasse. If we don't generate a more democratic alternative to liberal democracy, authoritarian alternatives will triumph.

But the pervasive anti-democratic sentiments in our society are not limited to the ANC. There is a general assumption that the poor are beneath the law. The DA in Cape Town is as willing to engage in criminal behaviour towards poor people, such as unlawful evictions, as is the ANC.

While in civil society, there is a general assumption that the realisation of human rights should occur through a professionalised NGO politics that is profoundly disconnected from the reach of ordinary people. 

Development is generally conceived in technocratic terms, which leave no room for meaningful popular participation. There is a widespread tolerance across society for authoritarian solutions to social problems. Ethnic and national sentiment is on the rise.

The most important experiments in deepening our democracy, and placing it firmly in the hands of ordinary people, take place not in universities, think tanks or NGOs but within the struggles of poor people's movements for meaningful social inclusion. These struggles are the canary in the deepest shafts of the struggle to mine a fuller mode of popular engagement from our democracy.

The ongoing attack on Abahlali baseMjondolo (AbM), the largest poor people's movement in South Africa, has been entirely unlawful and framed in terms of the most base ethnic chauvinism and sexism. A month after the first attack on the movement, its leaders remain homeless and continue to live in hiding and under public threats of death.

AbM leader S'bu Zikode could go to the Constitutional Court to hear the judges rule in his favour on the Slums Act but he cannot go home. His house has been destroyed and he lives under threat of death. 

Some ANC leaders in the eThekwini Municipality and the KwaZulu-Natal Provincial Government have, in word and deed and without consequence, given clear sanction to the most serious attack on democracy since the end of apartheid.

The canary in the mine of our democracy has been enthusiastically clubbed into a state close to death. Church leaders have spoken out with great courage and a few academics and students have taken action. But on the whole this terrible and ominous event has passed without much public discussion.

Liberal democracy has no long-term future in South Africa. But for as long as alternatives on the left are repressed and those on the right are backed by the power of the state, democracy as a whole will have no long-term future.

Dr. Pithouse teaches politics at Rhodes University.

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Roger Roman
27 Oct

Falling Apart in a Pattern

The similarity between the latest attack on Kennedy Road and Operation Murambatsvina, and between the ANC as it appears to be operating in eThekwini and Zanu-PF and the Green Shirts becomes more chillingly obvious all the time. As the footprint of the FIFA World Cup becomes more vicious and blatant in the host cities the elite will learn that the will of the masses of the poor and marginalised is no canary! The people whose land was stolen and whose children were evicted from their schools for the Mbombela stadium will not keep quiet. The people of Riverlea living in shit a stone's throw from the Soccer City Stadium will not keep quiet. The taxi drivers in the host cities blessed with a BRT system in time for the World Cup will not keep quiet. The street traders forcibly evicted for MacDonalds and Coke will not keep quiet.

The World Cup 2010 may yet prove to be a poisoned chalise for the elites of this country. The 19th June, a mere 9 days after the opening ceremony is an historic day in the host nation. Even if the elite have forgotten it's significance the landless and homeless and the poor have not. They will not keep quiet.
Nor should any of us.

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