From courage to collapse

The disintegration of the ANC’s integrity and its capacity to drive a social project is part of a wider crumbling of progressive politics.

Today is the 30th anniversary of the Boipatong massacre. In 1992, men aligned to Inkatha and acting with the support of the police attacked the residents of Boipatong, killing 45 people. Yesterday was the 46th anniversary of the Soweto uprising, in which the police killed at least 176 people, perhaps more.

In 1994, as the tide of history turned, it was widely thought that political violence would come to an end and that the ANC, now in power, would commit to achieving the social goals to which it had been committed since the adoption of the Freedom Charter in 1955. It was assumed that working to ensure young people could flourish would be a priority.

But as we know, political violence continues. The 10th anniversary of the Marikana massacre will be marked on 16 August. Activists are killed by the police and shadowy assassins at a steady rate. At times the police, assassins, local ANC structures and criminal justice system act in concert to suppress dissent – dissent that is often organised around entirely modest demands.

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The Forge, a space for public discussion in Johannesburg, held an event earlier this week to discuss the continuing and murderous repression of the eKhenana Commune in Durban. Speaking from the floor, Melita Ngcobo, a well-known activist in Tembisa, said: “Whenever we try to build something beautiful, they come for us … They come to kill us.” Murder remains a tool of political control.

Cyril Ramaphosa, Blade Nzimande and many trade union leaders respond to the assassination of grassroots activists with a telling silence. If silence is complicity, then complicity among political elites is rank, even systemic.

A devastating rebuke

The values and aspirations of the struggles that brought the ANC to power have been betrayed and the party has become a predatory force. The social logic of the Freedom Charter has been abandoned. The charter was adopted on 26 June 1955 and its 67th anniversary will be celebrated later this month. Today the charter stands as a devastating rebuke to the ANC, and it is not surprising that the party has slowly let it slide out of public view.

A particularly devastating aspect of the ANC’s betrayal of the principles and commitments that inspired the struggles that brought it to power is the social abandonment of the majority of the youth. The abandonment starts young, with millions having to begin their lives with wholly inadequate access to food. After that, young people endure one of the worst education systems in the world. Most face unemployment after school. Statistics released at the end of 2021 reported that the unemployment rate for young people – under the age of 24 – was at 77.4%, with 7.4 million young people without work.

The fact that a social crisis of this scale is not constantly at the forefront of the national conversation is indicative of a pervasive elitism in many of the institutions on which the public sphere is grounded. This elitism may like to see itself as sophisticated and urbane, but it is simply brutish. The ANC and its liberal critics share a crude and sickening contempt for the impoverished majority.

18 June 1992: Residents extinguish a fire in a shack said to belong to an Inkatha supporter and started by youths aligned to the ANC. (Photograph by Walter Dhladhla/ AFP)

No society can endure the levels of hunger and unemployment that we currently see in South Africa without major social upheaval. No society can sustain popular sanction for its political class, its laws and its institutions when its elites are so crudely and brazenly corrupt. Something will give.

It has been just under a year since the winter riots of July 2021, which took place on a staggering scale. But while hunger and the government’s withdrawal of its Covid social grant were major factors driving mass participation in those riots, they did not take an explicitly political form. There was no central demand and no attempt to occupy and hold central spaces behind a clear demand.

Convenience of xenophobia

As Youth Day was marked yesterday, there was another kind of rupture with the formal order as truck drivers again blockaded the N3 highway between Durban and Johannesburg. They had a clear demand, which the ANC is treating as legitimate. That demand is that migrants no longer be employed as drivers.

Xenophobia is an entirely stupid politics that will inevitably lead to greater suffering, including violence against some of the most vulnerable people in our society. It is always a social and political disaster. The only way out of a social crisis is to build clear ideas around positive social goals and the organisational power to force progress towards those goals.

But xenophobia is also always functional to elites who wish to find a way to remain in power during a social crisis and sustain the social order that enriches them. Xenophobia, like anti-Semitism in Germany in the 1930s and 1940s, or Islamaphobia in contemporary India, is a way for elites to mask themselves in the language of the popular – to turn the people against each other so that they don’t turn on elites. Encouraging horizontal social conflict is a mechanism to displace vertical conflict, to turn people against their neighbours so that conflict does not develop between the people and their rulers.

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In South Africa today, we don’t only confront the degeneration of the ANC, which includes a willingness to encourage xenophobia to give it a few more years in power. We also confront the All Truck Drivers Forum, Operation Dudula, Gayton McKenzie, Herman Mashaba and a host of right-wing opportunists, many with an authoritarian posture, seeking to exploit rather than address the social crisis.

We are not only in a moment of serious and worsening social crisis. We are also in serious political trouble. The extraordinary political vision and courage that carried us from the formation of what would become the Black Consciousness Movement in the late 1960s through to the Durban strikes in 1973, the Soweto uprising in 1976 and the urban insurrection of the 1980s often associated with the United Democratic Front, have ended in the corrupt and violent rule of the ANC, now a predatory political party bereft of any social vision. Outside of the ANC, a set of new and entirely malignant actors are emerging, some having the temerity to misuse the language and history of the struggles against apartheid to present themselves as a contemporary iteration of those struggles.

We have three central tasks ahead of us if we hope to move out of the social crisis and do so with democracy intact. One is to oppose xenophobia and its steady normalisation at every turn. Two is to build a new political vision centred on positive social goals. And the third is to build the forms of political organisation that can move us towards those goals. Until we can achieve these goals, we live in betrayal of all those whose lives were taken in the struggles of the past.

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