Democracy must be radicalised if it is to endure

The hopes nurtured as apartheid fell have crashed repeatedly on the rocks of violent and authoritarian realities. Sustaining them will require a genuinely popular democratic project.

When the state murdered 34 striking miners in Marikana on 16 August 2012, it was no longer possible to, in good faith, lament the dream deferred. The dream was over. It was now indubitably clear that a new politics was required.

Before the massacre, the pious repetition of the official theology of a redemptive nationalism was often a matter of naivety. After the massacre, it was almost always a sales pitch, plodding rather than seductive.

Eighteen years before the massacre, much of the planet had been seduced into soaring optimism as Nelson Mandela was inaugurated as president on 10 May 1994. Many commentators were particularly moved by the air force display. The new state, it seemed, would now, for the first time, hold a monopoly on the legitimate use of violence and use it in the interests of justice. It was overwhelmingly believed that time was now on the side of both justice and democracy. 

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Patience was counselled with regard to questions of justice. One non-governmental organisation (NGO) went so far as to laud what it called “the politics of patience”, as if suffering confirmed some sort of nobility that would, in due course, be rewarded.

It was assumed that the modernising forces driving the development of society towards a rights-based future were rooted in elite spaces – the Constitutional Court, NGOs, the media, universities and so on. It was taken as common sense that liberal democratic ideals held a privileged position as the motive force of society in both spatial and temporal terms. It was thought that, through a mixture of pedagogy and incorporation, ideas and practices understood as ignorant and backward would be steadily transformed as they were brought into the present and towards the centre.

Escalating political violence

When undemocratic behaviour was acknowledged, it was dismissed as a trivial hangover from the past – something that would soon be swept away by the new order and its commitment to human rights. If, say, any attention was given to the fact that the police had tortured a woman in a holding cell for speaking up against a ward councillor’s corrupt allocation of housing, it was assumed that the fundamental problem was ignorance – on the part of the ward councillor, the police and the woman who had been tortured – and that training in a “human rights culture” would resolve the problem. Noblesse oblige via the NGO.

This was how the first xenophobic attacks in Alexandra in December 1994 and January 1995 were understood – a matter of ignorance requiring a pedagogical intervention rather than a reactionary form of self-conscious dissent from liberal norms.

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When the police murdered Michael Makhabane, an unarmed student, on a historically Black university campus in Durban on 16 May 2000, during a protest against exclusions, the event was not taken as particularly significant. This was in part, of course, because elite society, Black and white, only tends to take the lives of impoverished and working-class Black people seriously if they are lost in a way that makes for a mediatised spectacle. But it was also because, insofar as the murder was noted, it was assumed to be an expression of the past on the symbolic periphery of society, and not a step towards a future markedly different to that aspired towards in the national mythology.

In years to come, the number of people the police killed during protests would slowly rise as the number and scale of protests increased. At the same time, state murder was an increasingly common consequence of forms of governance that assumed people who couldn’t meet their basic needs as consumers should be treated as criminal.

Rebellion of the poor 

It is generally argued that 2004 is the year in which popular protest, usually organised from shack settlements and taking the form of the road blockade, began to accumulate into what was termed “the rebellion of the poor”. The scale of protest was certainly noted in elite circles, but it was relentlessly reincorporated into the dominant narrative and depoliticised by being described from above as “service delivery protests”. The implication was that the ANC was failing at a technical level and that popular dissent was only a demand for this to be corrected. It was assumed that meaning could be ascribed from without, rather than through dialogue and listening. Technocratic fantasies replaced the work of politics.

At the same time, another kind of murder – the political assassination – was gathering steam, along with the mobilisation of ad hoc assemblages of armed men gathered in party colours. The police murder, the assassination and the party mob entwined themselves around electoral politics in the local government elections held on 1 March 2006. In Durban, a group of people, most with roots in the South African Communist Party, decided to back Zamani Mthethwa as an independent candidate against the incumbent, Bhekisisa Xulu, in Ward 80 in Umlazi. The Mthethwa campaign alleged severe intimidation during the campaign, including assaults, whipping and death threats, and brazen fraud on polling day. Xulu was announced to have won the ward by 71 votes.

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The day after the election, Mthethwa’s supporters held a protest against what they alleged to have been electoral fraud. Monica Ngcobo, who was 20 years old, was passing the protest on her way to work when she was shot and killed by the police. They said she had been shot in the stomach with a rubber bullet. The autopsy later showed that she had been shot in the back with live ammunition. Almost immediately after Ngcobo was shot, the police entered the home of Mthethwa’s younger brother, S’busiso, and shot him multiple times. He survived the attack.

On 8 March, people in ANC regalia gathered outside Mthethwa’s home and the Ngcobo home in the presence of the police. Insults were issued and threats made and the windows in the Mthethwa home broken. On 12 April, Sinethemba Myeni, a key figure in the Mthethwa campaign, was murdered by gunmen who burst into his home. On 3 May, Mazwi “Komi” Zulu, also a central figure in the Mthethwa campaign, was murdered on his way to work.

These events were largely ignored in elite society and, to the very limited extent that they were acknowledged, were understood as the result of backward actors on the periphery rather than for what they were: an advanced warning of the politics of the future, a politics that would steadily move towards the centre of social and political life.

Authoritarianism moves to the centre

Of course, in the same year there was rapt national attention on Jacob Zuma’s rape trial, where anti-democratic values and gross chauvinism were on full display. This was, perhaps, the first time that elites began to grasp that forms of politics they had dismissed as peripheral and backward, as out of time, were moving towards the centre of society, and the future.

The growing phenomenon of the open mobilisation of armed groups for the purpose of violence was driven home to elites with the spectacular horrors of the violence against migrants and people from ethnic minorities that took 68 lives in May 2008. However, it was not well understood that local structures of the ruling party had often been directly involved. This enabled the comforting fantasy that the armed mob was external to the formal political system rather than entangled with it.

On 26 September 2009, armed men openly attacked Abahlali baseMjondolo leaders in the Kennedy Road settlement in Durban and destroyed their homes. Their attackers identified themselves as ANC and as amaZulu and their victims as amaMpondo, or as having “sold out” to amaMpondo. They acted with open backing from the police and senior figures in the ANC in the city and the province.

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With notable exceptions, such as Anglican bishop Rubin Phillip, elites were simply not able to accept what had happened and preferred – much as had happened under apartheid – to ascribe these events to what they imagined to be the inherent tendency for mindless violence among the “unwashed masses”, a phenomenon assumed to be outside of rather than articulated to electoral politics. Again, it was assumed that this was a trivial expression of the receding past rather than an anticipation of the future.

As the scale of protest escalated over the years, so too did the rate at which the police murdered unarmed people on protests. At least nine lives were lost in 2011, the year in which Andries Tatane was murdered in Ficksburg. It was only with this murder, which was filmed and screened on television, that the attention of the wider public was drawn to the fact that the state was, again, using murder as a form of social control.

And then there was the televised massacre at Marikana. It was now incontrovertible that the state was using murder as a tool of social control, and that this was a constitutive feature of the present and, quite possibly, the future. This was not always seen in negative terms. Dominic Tweedie of the Communist University infamously said, “We should be happy. The police were admirable.” Until Greg Marinovich began to turn the tide, much of the initial media reporting was disgraceful. But although the violence and authoritarianism of the state had to be acknowledged, it was still seen, in standard colonial logic, as something confined to “them, over there”, far from the suburban calm. It was often implicitly assumed that “they” were not fit for democracy and required a different form of rule.

When ‘they’ became ‘us’ 

Now, in the wake of the July days, which took at least 337 lives, it is clear to all that popular disorder, political violence and anti-democratic forms of politics have reached the suburb – along with various sites of elite power, including the judicial system, the university, the NGO and so on. It is equally clear that liberal democracy no longer has an uncontested claim on the future.

Elite society should have understood, from the outset of our democratic experiment, that our future is entwined with that of the majority and that what can be done to “them, over there” will not remain “there” in perpetuity. It should also have understood that trickle-down democracy is as much a fantasy as trickle-down economics. But as the body count rose year after year, elites were blinded by their narcissism and failed, fundamentally, to understand the forces that were building in the state, in the ANC and in society.

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Today, the widespread lack of interest in the elite public sphere in doing the work, the democratic work, to disentangle the different threads of the July days is not encouraging. There has been a wilful failure to distinguish hungry people who appropriated food in a carnival atmosphere from cynical criminal opportunists and the organised – and treasonous – campaign to sabotage the infrastructure of cities and towns with a view to defending a predatory political class. Colonial hallucinations of an undifferentiated mob, always “orchestrated” by sinister forces, substitutes for engagement with the complexities of empirical reality. There has been almost no recognition of the fact that many of the people who appropriated food have far more to fear from the ethnically inflected and endemically violent kleptocratic politics that has festered in the ANC and in the state in KwaZulu-Natal than most middle-class people.

This is not just a matter of prejudice and analytical laziness. It shows that the elite is, in the main, still stuck in the old fantasies about their own power and virtue, their unquestioned right to leadership. These fantasies have resulted in a consistent failure to apprehend reality since 1994, even as the body counts have come in – 68, 32, 337.

One of the many lessons from the July days, and our descent from the moment of the Marikana massacre, is that there will be no democratic future without a demos, a people, committed to that future, and willing to organise and struggle for it. For that demos to prevail against the growing power of anti-democratic forms of politics – be it political gangsterism in KwaZulu-Natal or Herman Mashaba’s authoritarian populism – it must draw its power from all of us, everywhere. We can no longer pretend that democracy is a matter of elites talking to each other about the rest of society. That game is up.

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