Faster, Harder and Smarter?

By Richard Pithouse · 14 Feb 2010

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Picture: World Economic Forum
Picture: World Economic Forum

On Thursday, Jacob Zuma promised us a government that will work "faster, harder and smarter." It sounded a little like the old Standard Bank slogan, "Simpler. Better. Faster." The ANC's 2009 election slogan was "Working Together We Can Do More," which was just a word away from the British cell phone company's advertising campaign, launched the year before, that declared "Together we can do more." But the slogan was good for a smile when activists in Jo'burg took the opportunity to grab cans of spray-paint and stencils and conclude it with words like 'corruption' and 'evictions' when it appeared on election posters.

In 2008, Mbeki's last state of the nation address, this time seeming to rip off the story that the Body Shop likes to tell about itself, declared "Business Unusual." By September that year the slogan must have sounded as charming to his ears as the recollection of "Everything Keeps Going Right, Toyota" must sound in the Toyota head office right now.

These political slogans aren't just more of the meaningless baubles with which marketing departments clutter our lives. Children and soldiers are amongst the timeless essentials for public spectacles of state power. But the slogans change.

Before the ANC started to adorn these occasions with ripped off corporate slogans and a red carpet grand enough to make it clear that politicians aspire to be our real celebrities, we had the poetry lite of "The Age of Hope" and the "African Renaissance."

If the corporate slogans promise a government that has no interest in being political and merely aspires to be efficient and effective, the Obamaesque inspiration of the previous generation of slogans promised an inspired governance that would bring us a new world. But outside of occasional moments of entirely commendable decision, like Mbeki's practical support for Aristide when he was confronted by a looming US backed coup, the real content behind these visions tended to be little more than a collection of all the development clichés of the day as promoted by the World Bank and various donors and think-tanks.

But before that, going back to, say, 1990, the ANC had slogans that did not promise a denial of politics or try to dress up conformity as inspired innovation. Twenty years ago Amandla Ngawethu - a version of "power to the people" - was the ANC's main slogan. It's an eminently political slogan that invites ordinary people to assume political agency. But the ANC did not bring Mandela into parliament on Thursday to reactivate the politics of popular political empowerment - the politics that, taken forward by great collective courage, opened up the historic window of hope in 1990. They brought Mandela and a liturgy of the struggle into parliament to mask their capitulation, lack of imagination and structural inability to be able to effectively implement their commitment, problematic as it is, to reducing progress to a matter of the effective delivery of basic services.

Two of the interviews after Zuma gave his speech were particularly telling. Helen Zille said that on the occasions when Zuma had given content to his promises he was recycling DA policies. To the degree that this is sadly true, it is true, because neither the policy wonks in the DA nor those in the ANC are able to think outside of the contemporary dogma that asserts that the time of politics has passed and that good governance is merely a question of good management.

This dogma assumes a politically passive population that waits to consume delivery provided from above.

To assume that oppressed people must remain politically passive while they patiently wait for a prepaid electricity meter in a transit camp and a few months working on a public works programme is to assume that they must remain oppressed.

Moreover the idea that setting targets for efficiency is the royal road to progress forgets that social progress is something to be worked out in society and not a set of numbers to be audited by accountants. Of course, numbers can be a useful measure of certain forms of progress. But if the police get performance targets for arrests, they'll just pick up some undocumented migrants. If academics get performance targets for publications they'll just publish more bad articles in journals that no one reads. If a municipality has targets for building houses, they'll just throw up precarious structures in some benighted human dumping ground.

And when targets can't be met, jobs will, as Zuma's speech had to more or less concede, morph into job opportunities. Houses will morph into housing opportunities.

Real social progress requires a qualitative change in social relations and that requires politics - the real politics that can change the power relations and the quality of the social interaction that constitute the situation within in which pragmatic decisions are negotiated and taken.

In recent years, there's been a tremendous irony in the fact that as the ANC talks the language of post-political efficiency, it has itself been rent with real battles. And ordinary South Africans have, when they've not been turning against migrants, turned against the government on a remarkable scale and with real intensity. Neither Zuma nor those analysts who confined their critique to demands for more detailed 'delivery targets' confronted this.

But the political realities were there, lurking at the margins of the event. Gwede Mantashe's comment to the cameras after Zuma's speech was clear enough: "we must be hard on anarchy." A few hours before Mantashe's comment, a small group of unemployed people who had travelled down to parliament from Grahamstown were driven away with the now endemic violence and illegality with which the police respond to lawful and peaceful protest. They had come to ask Zuma about the jobs that he had promised last time. The police officers that arrested the protestors told them that the Speaker had ordered their arrest. This is the entirely inevitable and brutal underside of the will to deny politics in a country with the worst rate of inequality in the world.

Zuma spoke on the issues that really do concern people -- education, work, housing, health and so on. There is progress in some of what was said. For instance, the promise to build homes in well-located land in the cities is a huge improvement on the denialism inherent in the rhetoric of the now abandoned fantasy of 'eradicating slums' by 2014. But improvements in discourse, welcome as they are, don't necessarily translate into improvements in action.

If the ANC is serious about giving people, and especially young people, a viable hope for a decent future they will have to do three things that they are simply not prepared to do.

The first is to face up to the extent of the degeneration within the ANC and to realise that cloaking that degeneration in a carefully staged and scripted recollection of the glories of the struggle followed by the language of a second rate business school professor will not make it go away.

The second is to be absolutely and consistently clear that public service has to be effectively divorced from private accumulation.

And the third is to enable a structural change in the power relations that frame debates within the ANC and within the country. This would require the ANC to allow and even encourage a popular and bottom up politics, including a popular politics waged outside of their structures.

We need to reactivate the spirit of the popular struggles against apartheid to disrupt the myth, a myth that elites will not easily give up, that all we need is a government that works faster, harder and smarter at business as usual. But on Thursday the spirit of the struggles against apartheid was misused to justify capitulation to this myth. 

Dr. Pithouse teaches politics at Rhodes University.

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Rory Short
13 Feb

Environmental Sustainability

All the problems that you describe are real particularly the one about ANC no longer being the generator of political discourse but there is an even more important issue that needs to be addressed by humankind and that is our increasing destruction of our life support system. That is the web of life of which we are just a part. All the other problems need to addressed within that over-arching problem otherwise their solutions will be ultimately meaningless.

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Miles Teg
13 Feb

Brilliant Piece

When one reads a host of writers from different perspectives converging on diagnostics that has resonance with common sense and with each other - it is time to pay more attention. Actually, Fanon had it right as well long ago in Pitfalls of National Consciousness. No use in being a people's party if you disorientate the masses and don't listen to them.

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