The Patriarch Calls Us to a Very Dubious Order

By Richard Pithouse · 24 Sep 2010

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Picture: World Economic Forum - Eric Miller
Picture: World Economic Forum - Eric Miller

Jacob Zuma sought to cast himself as the grand patriarch calling his family to order in his speech at the National General Council of the African National Congress. His call for order was warmly received by a wide range of people inside and out of the ANC.

It's hardly surprising that many people have welcomed the call for order given Malema’s ranting in support of the avaricious ambitions of the predatory faction of the political class and some of the excesses in the recent strike. But the order that Zuma is seeking to impose on the competing projects within the ANC will, if it is successful, come with its own costs.

For some years now, support for the liberal consensus on which the post-apartheid deal was struck has been rapidly breaking down, both at the bottom and at the top of society.

At the bottom of society, this break down has been expressed in a turn to xenophobic and ethnic politics, social and religious conservatism, the popular rebellions that have swept the country since 2004, growing trade union militancy and the emergence of vibrant poor people's movements that, like Abahlali baseMjondolo, have questioned both the economic and political basis of the liberal consensus.

At the top of society, the breakdown in the liberal consensus is reflected in the militarisation of an endemically violent and brutal police force, a serious attempt to roll back press freedom, overt cronyism and corruption, the violent repression of popular politics organised outside of the control of the ANC and the systemic distortion of the claimed objectives of the state's projects by clientelism and patronage.

When an existing social consensus breaks down, the field is temporarily opened to a variety of contenders hoping to shape the new consensus before it settles into place. The vigorous contestation in the ANC should be understood as a symptom rather than the cause of the breakdown of the liberal consensus within the ANC. The cause of that breakdown is the failure of political and economic liberalism to meet the aspirations of the majority.

Some sort of renegotiation of the old social contract is now inevitable.

All sorts of contenders have entered the fray to try and shape the new social contract. Outside of the ANC, these contenders include big business, elite civil society and popular movements. Given the ANC's addiction to easy money, big business will certainly have considerable suasive power in shaping the new deal. Zuma is notorious for telling all sorts of contending groups that they have his support. But his recent comment, "Politics and business go together. Once business steps closer to the political party in power, it means things are going very well," was clearly not just spin.

Elite civil society is neither a financial or popular political force and without any real material force to carry its project it is unlikely to have decisive long-term influence. Popular movements have been able to make decisive interventions in specific areas, like AIDS and housing policy, but they are relatively small, very vulnerable to repression and can only exercise real power in some neighbourhoods. 

The ANC is in alliance with everyone from the Chinese state to big business, the rent-seeking element in the political class, trade unions, communists, ethnic entrepreneurs, gangsters and the Christian right. This is, of course, an inchoate political farce that is animated by opportunism more than anything else.

The ideological fictions that are used to present an alliance of such contradictory social forces as a rational and noble arrangement include a constant harking back to the ANC's grand, although fractured, history as a national liberation movement, an increasingly mawkish and stupid appeal to patriotism and the Stalinist idea of the national democratic revolution.

But the ANC is no longer a national liberation movement uniting an oppressed people in struggle against a brutal racist state in a hostile world. It is a ruling party welcomed with the same pomp in London as in Beijing and deeply entangled with local and international capital as well as the economic, security and civil society projects of the dominating states. 

The party’s language of patriotism doesn't offer a politics of real solidarity with everyone who lives in South Africa. All it really offers is a mix of empty spectacle, participation in empty rituals like “Football Friday” and the fantasy of belonging in a society that is increasingly predicated on active and at times violent social exclusion.

If the National Democratic Revolution is understood to mean the subordination of more and more aspects of society to ANC domination, then it could be said to be advancing. But if it’s supposed to be about deepening democracy and social inclusion then, clearly, it’s going backwards.

Zuma is notoriously unwilling to commit to anything substantive, but in his recent speech, and the choices that he makes, the general trajectory of his Presidency is clear enough. That trajectory is an authoritarian crony capitalism with efficient party, welfare and service systems to contain the poor.

But even if Zuma can win support for this project, it’s highly unlikely that he will be able to realise it. We're already quite far down the road towards crony capitalism. And given the blatant repression of popular movements like Abahlali baseMjondolo in Durban and the Landless People's Movement in Johannesburg, not to mention the mounting attack on media freedom, it’s clear that political authoritarianism is escalating rapidly.

It is not at all clear that Zuma will be able to develop efficient party, welfare and service delivery systems given how deeply the ANC has come to be constituted on the basis of patronage and clientelism at all levels. Any real attempt to move against these practises at the base of the party is quite likely to provoke a rebellion against its leaders.

Inside the ANC the Communists have been torn between their support for the ANC's new authoritarianism and their critique of its predatory excesses. The result is that they have been distinctly flatfooted in their response to the current opening. The ascension of some of their leading cadres to Zuma's cabinet may well be part of the explanation for this.

The Youth League have been good at shouting their mouths off, but seem to have been seduced by their own hubris to the point where strident rhetoric has replaced tactical engagement and become self defeating.

It is COSATU that has emerged as the force with the best prospects of speaking to the roots of the crisis in a manner that can win broad support beyond their two million members. If COSATU finds a way to ally with popular struggles and the progressive edge of civil society and if it is able to sustain its critique of the ANC’s slide into an authoritarian vehicle for predatory elites then, perhaps, there is some chance that the new social contract may be better than the old one, which is dying all around us.

Dr. Pithouse teaches politics at Rhodes University.

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12 Dec

Incisive and Superbly Well Written

My God but this is a brilliant piece. Taut, incisive and right on target.

I've never been to this site before but with writing and analysis of this quality I'll certainly be back.

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