By Richard Pithouse · 17 Aug 2010
Jacob Zuma has assured us that the “ANC will never do anything that undermines the spirit of the Constitution of the Republic and which erodes the dignity and rights of other people, regardless of their standing in society. ” This assurance rings more than a little hollow given that the media is already under serious threat, poor people’s movement are already facing serious repression, the police are already killing more people than they have at any time since the late 1980s, state criminality in the form of illegal evictions is already rampant, and, in some cases, Black Economic Empowerment has already degenerated into the increasingly brutal pursuit of "money for jam" for the friends and family of the political elites.
There are many well meaning people in the African National Congress (ANC), many important debates are taking place within the party and it continues to carry the hopes of millions of South Africans. But neither these facts, nor the fact that the ANC came to power via democratic means and on a great tide of popular hope, should blind us to the fact that it has been shaped by an unstable mixture of political traditions, some of which are authoritarian and some of which are democratic.
The ANC, like most national liberation movements, has long assumed that it alone represents the nation and that any opposition to it from within its ‘natural’ constituency must, therefore, be treason or some sort of sinister conspiracy. This profoundly anti-democratic tendency to assume that critique must automatically be illegitimate and probably the result of conspiracy has been compounded by its alliance with the South African Communist Party (SACP). The SACP was a Stalinist organisation until 1989 and has never taken full measure of its long complicity with one of the most perverse and brutal regimes of the twentieth century. Some of the roots of the Stalinist disaster lie in the idea of a vanguard party that assumes for itself the sole right to give political direction to ‘the masses’. The language of the ANC, even on its crony capitalist right wing, is deeply infused with this fundamentally anti-democratic spirit.
But the ANC also contains the democratic streams of struggle that moved through the black trade unions and the United Democratic Front. There is certainly a degree to which the democratic strands in the alliance have been co-opted via access to the opportunities for personal advancement that come with proximity to state power. But there are still real debates within the ANC and its wider alliance and internal pressures can and often do exercise some restraint on the ambitions of its elite cadres. The debates and struggles within the ANC and the alliance are important, often crucially so. But it needs to be acknowledged that neither the left nor the democrats within the ANC have been able to stop the party’s ongoing drift towards a noxious fusion of crony capitalism, social conservativism and political authoritarianism.
In the elite public sphere much of the opposition to the growing authoritarianism in the ANC is fatally compromised by the fact that its liberalism is inconsistent. The Democratic Alliance (DA) presents itself as the defender of the Constitution but responds to land occupations with the same violence and state criminality as the ANC. Civil society organisations often rally round abstract liberal principles but say nothing when ordinary people confront concrete repression. The paltry civil society response to the recent return to outright repression of the Landless People’s Movement in Johannesburg is just one of many examples of this. The media is usually quick to subject government claims to critical scrutiny when they relate to elite interests but often recycles official comment without question when it is, like the relentless attempts to blame shack fires on shack dwellers rather than the living conditions in shack settlements, patently ridiculous and patently anti-poor. For years much of the media routinely recycled the government’s relentless conflation of ‘illegal immigrants’ with ‘criminals’ and today its entirely typical to read articles that follow the government in conflating cable theft with community organised electricity connections or popular protest with criminality.
Liberalism claims to offer the same rights to everyone in principle but in practice the poor are systemically excluded from the circle of people that count. This renders liberalism deeply suspect in the eyes of many of the people excluded from its consideration. The partisans of a more authoritarian project in the ANC are not blind to this and are doing their best to exploit this to further their project. This is why, for instance, Zuma has sought to justify his attack on the media in the name of the poor. Of course Zuma is being entirely disingenuous but a liberalism that does not extend the same consideration to everyone will always be vulnerable to an authoritarianism that clocks its predatory elitism in the name of the people.
While a consistent liberalism would be a much more credible bulwark against the growing authoritarianism of Zuma’s ANC liberalism itself is inadequate to our situation. Even when it is serious about seeking to offer the same rights to everyone many liberal rights require the mediation of money to be realised in practice. The commodification of the means to realise these rights, such as effective access to the courts and the media, or to basic resources like water and land, means that liberalism is not a philosophy or practice of concrete and immediate equality. If democracy is to be defended it will have to be deepened and taken beyond liberalism. This will not be possible without broad based political empowerment.
The logical way to force the logjam open and enable a genuine deepening of our democracy would be for COSATU, clearly the most democratic component of the tripartite alliance, to leave the alliance and ally itself with the popular protests and social movements. But for as long as prospects for this or some other major realignment of the political landscape remain slim the quality and tenacity of radically democratic political interventions may have to substitute for their quantity.
For a DEMOCRATIC Left
Some people say that Pithouse is an anarchist, some people say that he is a Maoist. In his academic writings he is clearly largely influenced by Franz Fanon. But what is important to me is that it is clear that he is contributing a consistently democratic voice to the left. In light of the authoritarianism of much of the left in and out of the SACP this is a very important contribution. We really do have to learn from the mistakes of the past.
After Cronin and Nzimande supported the attacks on press freedom it is clear that the only organization in the alliance that we can trust is COSATU. But they must break and join the popular struggles like UPM, AbM, AEC, LPM, APF etc.
I share the opinion that
Something is Broke and Must be Fixed!
The ANC (and its alliance) have presided over our descent into the most unequal country in the world with the highest rate of popular protest. COSATU and the SACP need to stop pretending that the alliance is progressive. We need a fundamental renewal of our politics and, I agree, that can only come from its democratisation.
The SACP didn't stop being Stalinist in 1989. It is still a Stalinist party. I agree that COSATU is the only part of the alliance that can really be part of a new mass democratic project - something like the new UDF that COSATU in the Western Cape once proposed. But will their leaders ever have the gumption to break with the ANC and its gravy train?
Although there are problems with liberal discourse in terms of implementation, I think that the principles of liberalism are correct and just as the democractic strands within the ANC need to be supported, so too should the struggle for liberal rights.
Lets not throw the bathwater out with the baby!
Press Freedom in South Africa - Germany is Observing
The protection of the bill has been a big topic in German newspapers and online media, too. But I think, that the South African civil society and media are strong enough to avoid any restrictions of their commentatorship, especially when foreign governments and media are involved in these debate. I would like to recommend following article to freedom press in South Africa, which is in German and English: