South Africa must shed its illusions

South Africans must set aside the fantasy of exceptionalism that assumes that the country is something more than an ordinary place, and face the hard realities of our past and present.

In 1899 W.E.B. du Bois, the great African-American intellectual, wrote that “the world has glided by blood and iron into a wider humanity, a wider respect”. Du Bois, who joined the Communist Party at the age of 93, and would continue to will his prodigious intellect into confrontation with oppression until his death in Accra in 1963, at the age of 95, had no illusions about the dangers on the road ahead. In 1903 he famously declared that “The problem of the twentieth century is the problem of the colour line”. For the rest of his life he sustained an indefatigable commitment to emancipation analogous to what Antonio Gramsci described as the necessity to simultaneously inhabit a pessimism of the intellect and an optimism of the will.

In 1989, Johnny Clegg, an artist who, at a precociously young age, found the courage to tear away the shroud of the political myths that comfort us as they deaden us, released a song titled One (Hu)’man One Vote. It was the opening track on an album released a month after the Berlin Wall was breached. It begins by taking the listener straight into the violent confrontation that had been building in South Africa since 1976.

It describes the arrival of a group of boys, carrying homemade guns, and a bazooka, boys who have resolved to step into the void of a political commitment with uncertain and quite possibly perilous consequences. 

Bayeza abafana bancane wema
Baphethe iqhwasha, baphethe ibazooka
Bathi “Sangena savuma thina
Lapha abazange bengena abazali bethu”

The second verse of the song moves out to take in a wider context:

The West is sleeping in a fragile freedom
Forgotten is the price that was paid
Ten thousand years of marching through a veil of tears
To break a few links in these chains
These things come to us by way of much pain

At the time the West was supremely confident of the permanence of the significant freedoms that it had attained for itself, although largely unwilling to confront their colonial underside. Earlier in the same year Francis Fukuyama had published his famous essay, declaring the “end of history” and arguing that we had arrived at “the end point of mankind’s ideological evolution and the universalization of Western liberal democracy as the final form of human government”.

Fukuyama was wrong. Clegg, as we can now see as right-wing demagogues rise to power across the West, was right. Freedoms are always won at great cost, and are never won in perpetuity. 

Brutality of racial capitalism

Universal Men, Clegg’s debut album, released in 1979, was a collection of beautiful and deeply empathetic songs about the migrant workers who, along with the work of the women in their rural homes, laboured to generate the wealth that sustained a brutal system of racial capitalism. 

By 1983, when Work for All, the third Juluka album was released, Clegg’s work as a lyricist was marked not only by an acute sense of history and its accumulation into the present, but, also, by the personal and collective choices that must be made if we are to act as free people, and to make deliberate decisions in the situations in which we find ourselves. This album included a direct attack on the violence by which that system of racial capitalism was sustained. The song Mdantsane (Mud Coloured Dusty Blood), which deliberately echoes Pablo Neruda’s anti-fascist poem on the Spanish Civil War, I’ll Explain Some Things, describes repression with the vivid particularity of lived experience:

Bare feet on a burning bus
Mud coloured dusty blood
Broken teeth and a rifle butt
On the road to Mdantsane

By 1986 Clegg, who had previously worked in support of the trade union movement, and was a participant in the United Democratic Front, was explicitly affiliating his work with people incarcerated and murdered by the apartheid regime. Asimbonanga, the great song that emerged from this commitment, is hardly a facile affirmation of an optimism unbound from history. The distance that must be closed requires a passage across the “burning water”.

Simplistic ‘rainbowism’

But in death Clegg has relentlessly been incorporated into the most facile forms of “rainbowism”, as if his work amounted to little more than a vapid ahistorical entreaty for black and white people to get along.

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Many of the intellectuals who make meaning in our public sphere are overwhelmingly invested in a compulsion to remove South Africa from the realm of history and into the realm of mythology from which, to borrow a phrase from Walter Benjamin’s famous essay on history, “not even the dead will be safe”.

The fantasy that South Africa is a special place, different from other countries, a fantasy that cohered around a set of messianic projections onto the figure of Nelson Mandela, took a battering during the overwhelming sleaziness of the Zuma years. But instead of putting that fantasy down, acquiring some maturity and understanding that we inhabit what Neville Alexander called “an ordinary country”, many people have sought to sustain the fantasy by transferring it to the figure of Cyril Ramaphosa. 

No one thinks that Ramaphosa is a world historical figure like Mandela, or even a charismatic personality. But there is an assumption that if Ramaphosa can prevail in his battle inside the ANC, the vision ascribed to Mandela will be “back on track”. We are offered a childish narrative, more suited to a Harry Potter novel than to the demands of history, of “goodies” at war with “baddies”, and an assumption that if the former prevail all will be well.

Colonial fantasy

It may be that we sustain such childish understandings because the fantasy of easy redemption via the intercession of a magical figure has always been accompanied by its shadow, the colonial fantasy, always deeply racist, of an imminent apocalypse in a whirl of pangas. 

But, however we understand the phenomenon, the desire for simple solutions, often magical solutions, to profound problems is overwhelming. “Social cohesion”, an inane concept with reactionary and racist origins, is presented as an answer to the ongoing accumulation of injustice. The failures of the ANC are reduced to the undeniable problem of corruption as if the ruling party’s largely successful attempt to expropriate political power from the oppressed, its complicity with capital, its violent repression of autonomous organisation and its utter failure to sustain any kind of credible emancipatory vision are not worthy of consideration. 

We need to face the reality of just how damaged our society is, and just how unfit all the parties in parliament are to enable even the possibility of an emancipatory confrontation with our situation. We need to acknowledge the reality that the middle-class fantasy that “civil society”, in the form of nongovernmental organisations with no popular base or democratic mandate, is a credible alternative to the authority of the state is deeply undemocratic. 

Lived reality

The reality is that the ANC has failed to find a way out of mass racialised impoverishment and that as the social crisis deepens society is becoming increasingly violent and increasingly prone to authoritarianism. Millions of people live lives that are simply not viable. Millions of people have become deeply cynical about electoral politics. People are fighting over what material resources are available to them in increasingly violent and socially dangerous ways. 

We need to understand that if we are not able to recover an emancipatory prospect the crisis will be contained via a new form of authoritarianism, whether driven by one of the ANC factions, a new configuration in the ruling party or new forces led by charismatic figures who appear, in Gramsci’s words, as “men of destiny”.

In the King James Bible there is a line from the First Epistle to the Corinthians that declares “When I was a child, I spake as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child: but when I became a man, I put away childish things”.

It is time for us all, women and men, to put away childish things, to confront history and find a viable path across the burning water and into a just and democratic social order.

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