South Africa Shining?

By Richard Pithouse · 20 Jul 2010

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Picture: coda
Picture: coda

As the glow of the World Cup dims and those of us who didn’t have to spend the tournament in Blikkiesdorp start to settle into the ordinary grind everyone from the captains of industry to the Communist Party is urging us to ‘build on the momentum’.

No one in their right mind could conclude that we don’t need momentum. In a country with systemic unemployment, an atrocious school system for most pupils, creeping and increasingly communal modes of authoritarianism, millions still living in shacks and a state that has failed to meet its most basic obligation, which is to keep people safe, its clear that a lot of things are broken and need urgent fixing.

But momentum needs direction and neither Jacob Zuma nor the contemporary African National Congress is any good at what George H.W. Bush called “the vision thing.” Aside from a new elite excitement about the prospects for big and bold projects like the King Shaka Airport and the Gautrain, which has led to fevered suggestions that we might bid for the poisoned chalice of the Olympic Games, we’re pretty much back to business as usual. The President’s relatives are splurging money and making dodgy business deals, politicians are wasting public money on cars, gratuitous self promotion and hotels , the unions are accusing the Eskom management of more reckless expenditure, there is talk of censorship at the SABC and xenophobic flames threaten to flicker into evil bloom.

But the popular enthusiasm for the World Cup often bubbled up outside of the projects of FIFA and the state. And what is really new after the World Cup is the new sense of vision in society itself. After the World Cup everyone knows that the state is perfectly capable of throwing up a stadium or keeping tourists safe on the Durban beachfront if it puts its mind to it. Knowing that the state can do what it sets its mind to doing can put a sense of social resignation to rest and open up all kinds of possibilities.

It’s now quite obvious that we could, if we wanted to, easily electrify shacks to stop the relentless winter fires, ensure that women could walk safely through our cities after dark and that there was a decent library in every school. And the sense of collective belonging and participation in our society that was engendered by the event could lead to a sense that we need, for the first time since 1994, to take the priorities of ordinary people seriously.

The World Cup has also shown us that, if we can organise a World Cup as well as Germany, we can centre our own aspirations, think big and think beyond the often self imposed limitation of a subordinate, third rate society out on the global periphery. If that means that we reject the idea that people should have to accept RDP houses as the limit of ‘housing delivery’ that’ll be a wonderful thing. But this desire carries a danger. Its one thing to ask a question like “Why should our cities be any less engaging and impressive than those elsewhere?” from the perspective of ordinary people. It’s quite another to ask this sort of question from the perspective of elites.

Before the tournament, our development path was veering towards a toxic cocktail of social conservativism, authoritarian nationalism and crony capitalism that was producing an increasingly violent state led project of class segregation resulting in gated, privatised, themed and often spectacular spaces for elites and peripheral, grim, wholly inadequate and sometimes even semi-carceral spaces for the poor. If the Blikkiesdorp transit camp in Cape Town is the most notorious example of the latter, any number of malls, office parks, casinos or golfing estates could be used to represent the excesses of the former. In response we had one of the highest rates of popular protest in the world.

We are not unusual in this. Across the global South elites are increasingly tempted by an authoritarian mode of capitalism through which they can attempt to expel the poor from a visible presence in society and to leverage themselves into a ‘world class’ modernity by creating gated and spectacular islands of Dubai across their cities.

The nature of the excitement that is being felt in some quarters about the new sense of possibility for South Africa after the World Cup runs a real risk of fuelling an even more ruthless pursuit of islands of Dubai across the country at the expense of more places like Blikkiesdorp. District 9 could become a much better window into our society than Invictus.

Long before the tournament, it was no secret that our elites were inspired by the momentum of their counterparts in India. That was where Lindiwe Sisulu got the idea to reintroduce the transit camp, an abomination last seen under high apartheid, to South Africa. But India should be a lesson to us rather than an inspiration.

In 2004, Indian elites were brimming with self confidence on the back of the IT boom and saw a real chance to take their place in the world. The right wing Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party coined the phrase “India Shinning” and, with a degree of millennial fervour, announced a new era in which the shackles of the colonial past would be thrown off. Cities would become ‘world class’ and the value of rural land would be ‘unlocked’ for industrial development. Elites turned, in other words, to colonising their own country. In 2007 Arundhati Roy wrote that:

“What we’re witnessing is the most successful secessionist struggle ever waged in independent India — the secession of the middle and upper classes from the rest of the country. It’s a vertical secession, not a lateral one. They’re fighting for the right to merge with the world’s elite somewhere up there in the stratosphere.”

Today India is wracked with popular revolt and ruthless state violence. Poor people’s movements and armed and often brutal Maoist groups are involved in very different struggles against the state and capital (which in Bengal means struggle against the communist party). By some estimates the Maoists control a third to a quarter of the landmass. “India Shinning” has turned into a sort of civil war.

As our captains of industry, Communist Party and politicians all exhort us not to lose momentum in the wake of the World Cup, it is essential that we resist the temptation to acquiesce to the cosy fantasy that momentum in any direction is equally good for all of us. We need to have a serious conversation about where we want to go rather than just assuming that the pace of our movement is all that matters.

Are we aiming for more private jets at King Shaka Airport and more regular opportunities to watch Paris Hilton smoking zol in PE or is our first and immediate priority the creation of the circumstances under which ordinary people can live a decent life?

Dr. Pithouse teaches politics at Rhodes University.

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