Democratic degeneration

South Africa’s once grand hopes have collapsed into pettiness, cynicism and a lack of emancipatory vision. Renewal can only come from a democratic reconfiguration of the popular.

As we head towards the local government elections on 1 November, the collapse of the emancipatory visions of the past is painfully evident. There was a time when, adopting some of the rhetoric of grassroots democracy that marked the United Democratic Front at its best, it was widely thought that local government would be where a socially committed democracy gained real traction. 

The first assault on democratic hopes was the imposition and almost universal acceptance by elites of the idea, much used by institutions such as the World Bank, that the primary function of local government was the technocratic business of “delivering” services. With this to be largely achieved by allocating tenders, another idea enthusiastically promoted by neoliberal institutions, the stage was set for both the end of popular participation in local affairs and their subordination to private interests.

These days, for many of us, local government means local elites profiting as rubbish rots in the sun, sewage runs out into disintegrating roads, days pass without water and a general sense of decay envelops everyday life. Small towns have been hit the hardest, but in some instances, such as Pietermaritzburg, the rot is just as evident in cities.

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The association of local government with outright gangsterism, including the ubiquitous use of death threats and regular assassinations, is steadily moving out of KwaZulu-Natal and into other parts of the country.

It was no surprise that the Afrobarometer survey in August found that, of all the institutions towards which attitudes were surveyed, it was local government that received the least trust. Almost three out of four people surveyed indicated a pronounced lack of trust in local government.

There is, at the moment, no way to resolve this crisis by casting a ballot. Each of the major three parties is plainly a threat to democratic and social hopes. Cyril Ramaphosa remains more popular than the ANC, but his new dawn has failed. The ANC is still a fundamentally corrupt organisation, from its local councillors to its national executive committee. It continues to repress grassroots activists. Voters are unlikely to forget the frenzy of corruption when large amounts of money were allocated to deal with the Covid crisis, or the repulsive cynicism with which Zweli Mkhize engineered looting from the first funds allocated to begin the process of developing a national health insurance system.

Ominous options

In terms of corruption, the EFF’s leaders are as compromised as the worst elements in the ANC. What the party offers is essentially a much more authoritarian version of the politics of the predatory nationalism that cohered around Jacob Zuma. Its hypermasculinity and militaristic posture can only inflame the wounds of a deeply damaged society constantly at war with itself.

It cannot be denied that the DA runs local government in the Western Cape more efficiently than the ANC does anywhere else in terms of how funds are accounted for. But its turn to the right has taken it into a position where any association with the party, even in terms of a purely strategic protest vote, is simply immoral. The posters it erected in Phoenix, which DA leader John Steenhuisen endorsed, were clearly an implicit legitimation of murder, intensely racialised murder. There can be no place for this kind of politics in any civilised society.

The smaller parties on the ballot are generally equally dispiriting. Herman Mashaba’s ActionSA, with its posters appealing to people who are “tired of politics”, its xenophobia and its enthusiasm for hyper capitalism, offers boilerplate right-wing populism. The repeated description of Mashaba’s xenophobia as “Trumpian” is not exaggerated. 

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The Forum for Service Delivery was formed in North West in 2005 with the idea that a “non-political”, grassroots-driven commitment to “service delivery” could cut a path out of the morass. It made a solid start in the 2016 local government elections in that province, winning 29 seats. When it sought to contest the 2019 national elections, it made a turn to extreme xenophobia. In this regard it is arguably even more ominous than Mashaba’s outfit.

There are some potentially interesting developments, though. One is that there has been a marked increase in individuals running as independents. Some of these people are simply opportunists seeking to capitalise on the collapse of the ANC’s credibility. But others have real support in their communities and a record of positive contribution to community affairs. One of the more interesting developments in this election is the emergence of the Makana Citizens Front in Makhanda, a town that has been laid to waste by corruption and maladministration. If it succeeds at the polls and then in office, the front could become a model to be emulated elsewhere.

The scale of transformation

But the most likely response among potential voters to the failure of society to generate credible political options is to stay at home. Historically, this is how most former ANC voters have expressed their disgust at the party’s degeneration. Beginning with the Landless People’s Movement in 2004, election boycotts are also how organised grassroots formations often express their discontent. With voter registration rates at an all-time low, particularly among young people, it seems likely that participation in this election will be low, and that people who do not vote will have a significant effect on the results.

The crisis of local government will not be resolved in the courts, by more corruption exposés or by non-governmental organisations with no popular base claiming, via the World Bank-approved ruse of “civil society”, to speak for society. It will also not be resolved by inevitably doomed attempts to restore the emancipatory visions and practices of the past. In politics, there is no going back. While the growth in independent candidates and the experiment in Makhanda are worth watching, real transformation requires real scale.

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What is required is the kind of political renewal that emerged in countries such as Haiti 30 years ago, and then across much of Latin America during the period of the Pink Tide. And then, after the financial crisis of 2008, in southern Europe. Most recently we have seen similar shoots of hope in the United Kingdom and the United States, with the popular projects that cohered around the figures of Jeremy Corbyn and Bernie Sanders. 

All of these periods of possibility, which achieved major gains in some cases, were grounded in the popular and the entry of new actors on the political stage. In sharp distinction to right-wing populism, they saw greater social and political inclusion as the route to a better future. 

Progressive politics is not a matter of waiting for a bolt of lightning to strike from an empty sky. It is a matter of day-to-day organising, expanding circles of solidarity, and listening to each other and thinking together as a means for undertaking the intellectual work of understanding the present and possibilities for a better future. To the extent that too few of us are committed to this work, we have brought this crisis on ourselves.

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