In politics, as in many other aspects of life, it is vital to take seriously the injunction of the great Caribbean poet Aimé Césaire to “see clearly, to think clearly — that is, dangerously.” Césaire made this statement in 1950, in the midst of what liberal Europe imagined to be a new dawn after the defeat of fascism in Europe. Césaire’s fundamental point was that what liberal Europe was doing abroad, in its colonies, was a version of what it had decried and fought at home, and that for the majority of humanity the end of fascism in Europe offered no meaningful freedom. In the colonies a new struggle was required, one that necessitated finding a new language to oppose the long and very successful development of the idea of Europe into a powerful ideology.
An investment in comforting illusions offers certain psychological benefits in the short term, but can also pave the road to disaster. South Africans often speak of our political history in much the same way as Catholics recite the Stations of the Cross. Suffering is imagined to accumulate towards redemption. The African National Congress (ANC) carefully encourages this, often appropriating figures and events from outside of its history, to substitute itself for the people.
But there is no longer any credible progressive project in the ANC. The ruling party has two dominant factions, both of which seek to misrepresent their private interests as an aspiration to advance the well-being of the public good. Neither faction offers a credible way forward for the majority who remain locked into the slow, circling agonies of racialised impoverishment.
The faction that had cohered around Jacob Zuma, and is now led within the ruling party by Ace Magashule, is organised around the private appropriation of public funds. This is a direct attack on the interests of the impoverished majority shamelessly spun as being “radical” action in the interests of the people as a whole. In the provinces, cities and towns where this faction has exercised real power it has frequently acquired the characteristics of what is often termed a “mafia state”, including brazen intimidation and assassinations.
Where this faction has a firm hold on state power, development is constrained, or altogether collapsed, and democracy is under serious attack, particularly for impoverished people. Even everyday forms of rule are increasingly violent and sadistic.
Favouring capital over the poor
The faction of the ruling party that is now led by Cyril Ramaphosa represents the interests of domestic and international capital, and the national elites who have been enriched by offering their political credibility to legitimate capital. This faction is committed to a more effective and less corrupt state but it has never put a single convincing idea on the table in response to the crisis of mass, racialised impoverishment, and has never invested any energy in the development of the kind of popular forces that could drive, or even support, an emancipatory programme.
There have been some gains in terms of moving against the more crude forms of corruption, and the violence that often accompanies it, with the appointment of credible people to key posts in the criminal justice system, and the arrest of the eThekweni Mayor, Zandile Gumede, both being significant.
But the economy is not growing and the crisis of unemployment, particularly among young people, is at the sort of level that usually results in massive social upheaval. Criminal violence is escalating. Local capital is frequently in flight, refusing to invest or rotten on its own terms (Steinhof, Tongaat-Hulett, etc). The state-owned companies, once thought to be able to drive a progressive agenda, are in systemic crisis. Ramaphosa has no ideas, and limited political capacity to deal with the situation.
Both factions are seeking, and finding, support outside of the ANC. For the Magashule faction the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF), with their very effective use of social media, have offered vigorous backing for their opposition to a crackdown on state corruption. There is also support from within the managerial class in the state-owned institutions. Ramaphosa, as the standard bearer for the establishment, receives even more vigorous and committed backing from the mainstream media, powerful international forces and much of the public face of the academy and the NGOs.
But despite holding the presidency of both the ruling party and the country Ramaphosa has not been able to effectively impose his authority and often looks weak. There frequently appears to be something of a stalemate, with neither side able to decisively advance its agenda.
There’s no doubt that if the faction currently led by Magashule ever won full control of the ruling party and the state South Africa would, like the mafia states in Eastern Europe, cease being a democracy in any meaningful sense of the term. One only has to look at the rate of political assassinations carried out in KwaZulu-Natal under Zuma’s reign to get a sense of how badly wrong things could go.
But the threat to democracy does not only come from the faction of the ruling party that aims to entrench and legitimate the private looting of public funds. Powerful voices within the elite, including, most recently, the Chief Justice, Mogoeng Mogoeng, are increasingly looking to authoritarian alternatives to liberal democracy as a way forward, with the dictatorship in Kigali often held up a model.
Morbidity could trump democracy
The levels of economic exclusion that currently plague our society cannot be indefinitely sustained. With neither faction of the ANC having anything like a credible plan to resolve the crisis it is inevitable that both will drift towards authoritarianism. As Antonio Gramsci observed in a different time and place: “The crisis consists precisely in the fact that the old is dying and the new cannot be born; in this interregnum a great variety of morbid symptoms appear.”
This statement is over quoted but for as long as neither faction of the ANC can effectively drive its agenda we will inhabit a kind of stalemate between competing forms of accumulation, a stalemate in which “morbid symptoms” will fester.
An increasingly common response to this situation is to suggest, and at times demand, that elected authority should voluntarily give up some of its power to “civil society”, understood to refer to the professional class working in NGOs. As well as being extraordinarily naïve, and for that reason unworkable, this proposal is also a fundamentally anti-democratic response to the situation. Very few NGOs can convincingly claim any democratic mandate from any genuinely popular constituency. This is largely just a coded way of saying that elected authority should be ceded to unelected but putatively enlightened members of the middle classes.
The urgent political task is clear. It is to build democratic and progressive forms of popular power among the impoverished, whether formally employed or not, that can offer a coherent and effective challenge to both factions of the ANC. But this kind of political work takes years and it is not clear that the morbid symptoms generated by the stalemate, or an attempt to contain the crisis via a push towards an authoritarian alternative to liberal democracy, will not overtake us sooner rather than later.