It has been a long and exhausting stretch since South Africa has not had a bad year. The time when the pace of progressive change was lamented as being too slow and too narrowly conceived is long gone. These days we all know that things are getting worse.
With a youth unemployment rate of 77.4%, and an overall unemployment rate of 46.6%, South Africa is, as Duma Gqubule recently observed in these pages, “an unviable society”. We are a violent, often chauvinistic society, with a weak public sphere, broken institutions, collapsing towns and decaying cities, and a political class that is often ruthlessly predatory and entirely lacking in any kind of emancipatory vision. Millions have been left in squalor, their lives shattered by the weight of the contempt of the elites who call each other comrade.
There are plenty of critiques of the Freedom Charter and the Constitution, but at this moment in our history both documents appear to be wildly utopian. The same is true of Steve Biko’s aspiration that “in time we shall be in a position to bestow on South Africa the greatest possible gift – a more human face”.
If prospects for political hope were graphed from, say, the adoption of the Freedom Charter in 1955 to the emergence of the Black Consciousness Movement on campuses in the late 1960s, the rebirth of the Black trade union movement after the Durban strikes of 1973, the urban insurrection that began in 1976, the mass mobilisation of the 1980s – often cohering around the United Democratic Front – and then the attainment of liberal democracy, there would have been lots of ups and downs but a strong and general upward movement.
Many intellectuals were buzzing with excitement about the idea that the African Renaissance, first mentioned by Thabo Mbeki in 1997, would enable a “third moment” in postcolonial Africa after decolonisation and the democratisation that followed the end of the Cold War. Today these ideas inhabit a grainy half-forgotten world well lost.
From false hope to swift decline
The beginnings of the end of the sequence of rising popular hope, which by the 1980s was largely associated with the ANC, can be traced back to the authoritarian currents in the movement in exile. It can also be traced to the demobilisation of popular struggle in the early 1990s, the turn towards conservative economics that followed, the general complicity in the ANC with Mbeki’s catastrophically quixotic response to the Aids pandemic, the party’s violently repressive response to the emergence of new forms of struggle at the turn of the century, and many other moments and developments in our recent history. But it was Jacob Zuma’s trial for rape in 2006 that brought the ugliness that had festered at the margins of our politics into the centre of our public life.
The massacre of striking miners at Marikana in 2012 and then the Gupta leaks in 2017 bent the graph of popular hopes into swift decline. That decline was briefly reversed by the election of Cyril Ramaphosa on an anti-corruption ticket in 2018, but the failure of his presidency turned the curve of that decline into a drop every bit as precipitous as the rise of graphs showing Covid-19 infections with the Omicron variant.
As New Frame has argued before, it is vital that we take full measure of the scale and seriousness of our descent into crisis. Without that kind of pessimism of the intellect, it will not be possible to act decisively or effectively. But this is no time to abandon our social hopes.
There is a long list of countries that have rapidly recovered from crises of various kinds, including economic collapse and the devastation of war. We can do the same. We can quickly turn the movement of the graph of our social hopes.
With sufficient political will, our institutions can be salvaged; the economy reoriented in the interests of the people as a whole, and the worst off in particular; the Trump-like attacks on the integrity of the public sphere effectively opposed; popular democratic organisation welcomed as a democratising force rather than treated as illicit dissent; and much more.
Two vital tasks
But this requires the building of a political force, or a set of political forces with the strength and resolute commitment to do two things. One is to oppose and decisively defeat the predatory forces in the state, the institutions and in society. There is a great popular appetite for this. One only has to look at the astonishing resilience with which grassroots activists have taken on the thuggery of the ANC in Durban, where its descent into gangsterism is most evident, year after year. There is also, among many examples, the riots in North West that drove Supra Mahumapelo from the premiership in 2018. An effective national political force could defeat the predatory political forces if it aligned itself to popular revulsion for the kleptocrats and their anti-democratic and sometimes violent politics.
The second task of a political project to restore hope would, of course, be to reorient the power of the state and other institutions in the interests of the people. There is nothing utopian about this. There are plenty of examples – all with their limits and contradictions, to be sure – of rapid social progress under progressive governments. But this always requires popular organisation and mobilisation to build a political instrument for change, to renew and discipline it from below, and to defend it from domestic elites and imperialism, most particularly the revanchism of American foreign policy, covert and overt, under Joe Biden.
None of the political parties currently in Parliament has any capacity to offer any sort of way out of the current crisis. The way out lies in building democratic and progressive forms of popular power from below. South Africa has a remarkable history in this regard. Salvaging our hopes requires the renewal of that tradition. It is a challenge that we can meet, but only if we put aside the relentless elitism of the assumptions and ideas that dominate the elite public sphere.
What happens in the courts, in non-governmental organisation-based “civil society”, in the elite public sphere and in Parliament as it is currently constituted is far from being irrelevant. But it is among the masses of our people that our future will be determined. As any undergraduate student of politics should know, democracy, a term that comes to us from Ancient Greece, means the power (kratos) of the common people (demos).