What is wrong in SA is extremely clear and the issues are, in fact, posed by the Zuma regime itself, writes Mathew Blatchford.
The salient feature of South African politics is the separation of political activity from the lived experience of most South Africans. This is what is usually called "normality", because this is the common feature of all neoliberal societies. Public opinion polls have shown an immense and growing separation between what the people want and what the elites want.
None of this is grounds for singling out South Africa for criticism. Indeed, the despicable, incompetent and corrupt Zuma administration is one of the less odious governments on the neoliberal scene at the moment. Most of the critiques of the Zuma regime are based on spurious comparisons with other neoliberal governments or with the far more neoliberal and plutocratic Democratic Alliance. Thus, most such critiques actually are demanding that conditions be made worse.
What is wrong in South Africa is extremely clear and the issues are, in fact, posed by the Zuma regime itself: inequality, unemployment and poverty, all of them increasing even by the regime's measurements (and far more by honest assessment).
When a regime correctly identifies huge problems, which it then proceeds systematically to exacerbate, the conclusion is inescapable: there is a huge divide between what the regime really wants and what it knows that the people want, and therefore it has to pretend to have an intention (the service of the people) when its real intention is very different (the service of a small elite).
Political disempowerment and economic exploitation were the core complaints raised throughout the colonial and apartheid eras, which leads one to frame the question: What has happened to suppress or co-opt the South African political tradition of discourse and organisation to pursue liberation from these situations?
Instead, we are confronted with a discourse of betrayal: certain individuals have betrayed the traditions of the movement, the culture of the community, or the interests of the workers.
Related to this discourse is the discourse of corruption, which is the same discourse translated into language comprehensible by a community that has no lived experience of liberatory politics.
In both instances, the discourse takes real, existing things – the betrayal of a historic order by political leaders or leaders' tolerance of corrupt practices – and instead of using these things to shed light on circumstances turns them into absolute, fetishised entities beyond which it is not necessary to go. In the old days when there were still Marxists, this was called reification: turning what is actually a possibly useful abstract concept into a thing that is supposedly concrete and by doing so stripping the concept of its use value.
I wonder whether the seductions of reification represent what has happened to the South African liberatory movement? One notices terms such as "neoliberalism" and "revolution", or indeed "democracy" and "developmentalism", thrown about without context or substance.
For the 10 years before the ANC was taken over by neoliberals in December 2007, its critics pointed to the strong strand of neoliberalism in the movement and claimed that it was the whole movement. This enabled them to transform the real problem (South Africa's relations of production in the post-apartheid period) into a false problem – "the wrong people are in charge".
Thus not only political leaders who stood to gain by a neoliberal palace coup but also intellectuals who stood to gain much less were seduced into changing the subject away from intractable socioeconomic problems into easily solved problems of party political leadership. Official public discourse focuses on convenient symbols that hang in political space without any connections to broader political problems.
These symbols should be treated as symptoms of a broader political disease. A clearly disastrous example of it was the treatment of the Marikana massacre, in regard to which all parties involved have gone out of their way to ignore or excuse the culpability of the mining industry. Doubtless many are afraid of the industry's power and many are also too lazy to do more than fit the catastrophe into an already existing narrative, but it may also be that the habit of refusing to make any serious analysis of any event is too strong to break.
None of the symbols worshipped by the intelligentsia has been taken up by South Africans outside the petit bourgeoisie. Nobody believes what politicians say any more. The country is not in a revolutionary situation but it is definitely ripe for massive change. What we lack is any kind of credible leadership or any debate around what form such change might take. – Mathew Blatchford, Fort Hare