On the Return of the Political

By Richard Pithouse · 10 Jan 2012

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Picture: United Nations/Flickr
Picture: United Nations/Flickr

When the African National Congress was founded in Bloemfontein in 1912 Sol Plaatje, then a newspaper editor, was elected as its first Secretary General. Plaatje, along with some other mission educated African intellectuals, had been optimistic about the new country that had come into being with the Union of South Africa in 1910. But within a year it was clear that segregation was going to be at the heart of the union, the white union, that followed the Boer war, its concentration camps and the English success in seizing control of the gold-fields.

In 1913 the hammer fell, and fell hard, on African aspirations. The Land Act, which Plaatje called “the sickening procedure of extermination voluntary instituted by the South African parliament”, confined Africans to a tiny portion of the country and sought to force Africans into becoming cheap labourers for white farmers.

That winter people began to be forced off the land and Plaatje walked the back roads with the people who, he wrote, had been turned into 'roving pariahs'. During what he called “a hideous night under a bitterly cold sky” a family, the Kgobadi's, lost their baby on the road and, no longer having a place of their own, had to bury the child “amid fear and trembling, as well as the throbs of torturing anguish, in a stolen grave.”

Between the end of the Cold War and the financial crash in 2008, capitalism had considerable success in marketing itself as the ennobling practice of economic freedom. But this is a fantasy that has no regard for historical reality. The fact is that capitalism began with forced labour, slavery and the violent enclosure of common land aimed not only at seizing wealth in private hands but also at forcing people to give up their autonomy and to accept that survival required working for a wage. The whip, the prison and the gallows were essential to the brutality that forced acceptance of its logic. In South Africa this was profoundly shaped by a racism that impoverished prosperous black people in the direct interests of white people, including poor white people.

Around the world peasants rebelled, as in the 1906 Bambatha Rebellion in what was then Natal, to defend their land and autonomy against a system bent on deriving them of both in order to turn them into workers. When people had been forced off their land, or their crafts rendered redundant, they often forged insurgent and cosmopolitan forms of autonomy from below to avoid the plantation, the mine, the kitchen or the factory. On the Atlantic Ocean press ganged sailors and slaves seized ships to become pirates. In the Klipsriversberg hills south of Johannesburg young men who had lost their right to the land and refused to work in the mines formed the Umkhosi Wezintaba, an organised band of highway men who had declared themselves 'rebels against the government's law'.

After the Great Depression of the 1930s it was taken as plain common sense in mainstream opinion in capitalist societies that while unregulated capitalism produced wealth, it was captured by the few and produced in a way that damaged society. It was assumed that society needed to organise to regulate capitalism and to ensure that a portion of its profits were returned to society as a whole through taxation and social spending. Working class men returning home after the Second World War often demanded an equal place in their societies and gave these processes real momentum. In the colonial world returning soldiers often took a leading role in anti-colonial movements. Of course here in South Africa the turn towards imposing a greater degree of social logic over capital took the form of apartheid – social democracy for whites and even worse political and economic subordination for blacks.

In the 1980s Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan, both firm supporters of apartheid, led the attack on social democracy. This was escalated after the Cold War and capital was able to shed more and more of its social obligations. Some people even went so far as to argue that capitalism and democracy are indivisible. Of course this argument simply ignored the fact that the United States, then the undisputed capitalist power, had long used violence and support for grossly authoritarian regimes to deny people around the world the right to govern their own societies freely. In recent years the surging power of Chinese capitalism under an entirely undemocratic regime, as well as the development of capitalism in places like India and Russia, which, while nominally democratic, are hardly models of democracy has put that myth to rest.

As Thatcher and Reagan allowed capital to detach itself from society, a process that escalated massively after the end of the Cold War, it captured the political classes in the West rendering democracy a system that is increasingly more about legitimating the power of elites than offering a real opportunity to direct them from below. Growing Poverty, and an elite response to poverty that makes more use of the police and prisons than social solidarity, is corroding these societies from below. Millions are now poor in countries as rich as England and the United States. But the financial crisis of 2008 had put another myth to rest. The illusion that freeing capital from social obligation is in everyone's interest because a rising tide floats all boats has been shattered. The profoundly anti-social consequences of finance capital being allowed to operate above the sphere of democratic regulation are plain for all to see. In many respects, from the manner in which protest is policed to the appearance of shacks, the third world is creeping into the first.

The global revolt that circulated between North Africa, the Middle East, the Mediterranean and the United States last year has three distinct thrusts. There is a rejection of brutal dictatorships that contained social aspirations, most often with Western backing. There is a rejection, also, of the way in which capital has diminished democracy in the West. There is also a rejection of an economic model that leaves the one percent unimaginably wealthy and a growing proportion of the rest facing lives considerably worse than their parents. This rebellion may be contained. But it may also develop into a significant challenge to the system that has allowed capital to steadily escape social obligation and it may open up possibilities to really rethink what we mean by democracy and the relation between the society and the economy. In some parts of the world the political imagination closed at the end of the Cold War but that moment is passing now. There is a scent of opportunity in this crisis.

Here in South Africa the ANC brought us, for the first time, a genuine political union. In 1994 we became one people under one law. No history of the ANC, what ever its critiques of the movement, can deny that it and it alone had the strength and vision to bring us into a genuine union and to open the possibility for the ongoing development of a free and just society in a manner that no longer requires blood, jail and all the rest. But the problem with national liberation movements is that because they are persecuted and become, to some degree anyway, the organised expression of the nation in exile and underground, they have an inherent tendency to paranoia and suspicion of open disputation.

And because every nation contains its own diversity - material, inherited and chosen - freedom after any long night of oppression requires not the continuation of a unity that is essentially martial but, on the contrary, the setting aside of the logic of militarism and paranoia and the resumption of open disputation. Karl Marx gives a wonderfully succinct account of the democratic ideal - 'an association of free human beings who educate one another'. Of course this has to be in struggle as much as in debate but struggle within a framework that allows organisation, protest and, where necessary, disruption.

From Cairo to New York, Madrid, Athens, Damascus, Moscow and many other places around the world, people are, often at great personal risk, reconstituting the power of open mass assembly to demand democracy against outright dictatorship or its capture and hollowing out by the interface between money and politics. But in South Africa the ANC is trying, formally and informally, in parliament and on the streets, to curtail democracy. It's leading figures no longer walk the back roads with the new pariahs – the unemployed, shack dwellers, sex workers, undocumented migrants, lesbians facing assault, learners in some schools. Outright state violence is being used to expel poor people from the cities and state and party violence is being used to repress the right of poor people to independent political organisation and expression.

Over the last hundred years the ANC has had its shameful moments but it has also had its glorious moments and it has often been far closer to the best of the spirit of the age than any of the range of forces it opposed. But a hundred years later, it’s clearly on the wrong side of the most bracing currents moving history forward. The time when the ANC could be counted as an emancipatory movement has passed. Today we have to look elsewhere for a resolute insistence that democracy must be for us all and that it must subordinate capital to society.

Dr. Pithouse teaches politics at Rhodes University.

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Mike Thurgood
9 Jan

On the Return of the Political

What Pithouse has to say about what the ANC is doing gives a rather nasty impression of how the behaviour of the ANC heirarchy has changed, and is changing. One might ask the question: are they fully aware of their deteriorating behaviour? Maybe it's an extension of the theme now often mentioned, namely that "I wasn't engaged in the stuggle to end up poor".

It is one thing to point out deteriorating behaviour, as Pithouse does, and to define why it is deteriorting. I certainly don't know the answer, but I would most definitely like to know. Is this change reflected in a black church prelate reported today to say that the only way for whites to be forced to change their attitude towards blacks is for a number of them to be killed - presumably as pointers to the necessity for a magnitude attitude change. I assume tha basis for such a frightening prospect is that whites are still perceived as seeing blacks as inferior beings.

Huh: don't be under any illusions.:Do the blacks really believe that the new 21st century version of colonialism as applied by China, especisally on the African continent, is all due to the goodness of Chinese hearts? No way:: they consider themselves racially superior nation, whether all of us like it or not, nd entitled to the vitl raw materials which the African continent can offer them. And they will be able to unequivocally demonstrate their superiority as they emerge in the next few years as the most economically powerful nation in the world.

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10 Jan

Party of the Past

When I look at the people in the ANC, I see a party of the past, not of the future.

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11 Jan

Academics and Analysts Should be Truthful and Objective

>>"Here in South Africa the ANC brought us, for the first time, a genuine political union. In 1994 we became one people under one law."

Not so - in terms of the Constitution, 1996 powerful kings and their peoples still unproductively and communally occupy millions of hectares of the best arable land in the country, whilst enjoying banal rights and special immunities.

>>"The illusion that freeing capital from social obligation is in everyone's interest..."

>>"But it may also develop into a significant challenge to the system that has allowed capital to steadily escape social obligation....'

This is communist clap-trap in superlative form.

Pithouse should be ashamed of himself for spreading half truths.

"In December 2011, the UK-based Charities Aid Foundation released its second annual World Giving Index, which seeks to measure the amount of philanthropy and volunteerism within the polled countries. Unsurprisingly, the index ranked the USA as the number one giving country in the world, with Ireland coming second and Australia coming in third.

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15 Jan


You really don't get it. There is not a simple binary choice between free market capitalism and state ownership. All societies exist on a continuum between the two and, for example, making the USA more like Sweden, or even France, would entail more social control over capital but no return to Stalinism.

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