South Africa torn in contradictory directions

The people shall govern: The 1955 launch of the Freedom Charter, which for many South Africans today is still the embodiment of the national ideal. (UWC Robben Island Mayibuye Archives)

The people shall govern: The 1955 launch of the Freedom Charter, which for many South Africans today is still the embodiment of the national ideal. (UWC Robben Island Mayibuye Archives)

Achille Mbembe and Andile Mngxitama offer rich provocations and insights in their complementary essays on race and class in South Africa today in the Mail & Guardian‘s “class edition” (September 26). Mngxitama’s insistence on the limits and dangers of class reductionism are illustrated in Mbembe’s discussion of how race and class have always worked in and through one another – and continue to do so in novel and bizarre ways in the era of democracy.

On the face of it, Mbembe’s analysis of how the denationalisation of capital is reshaping race and class would seem to explain the explosion on to the political scene of the pugnacious populism of the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF). What denationalisation alone cannot explain is why – in the face of brutal and intensifying race/class inequalities – it has taken so long for a left opposition to emerge.

Mbembe’s portrayal of a shift from a society of control to a society of consumption highlights the seductions of neoliberal forms of capitalism that often fall out of sight in left critiques.

But why, given the persistence of terrible deprivation in the face of obscene displays of wealth, do so many black South Africans seemingly acquiesce to the ANC’s rule of capital – spectacular municipal rebellions notwithstanding? And why did it take so horrendous an event as the Marikana massacre for the EFF – and more recently perhaps the National Union of Metalworkers of South Africa (Numsa) – to organise in opposition to the ANC alliance?

The answers to these questions lie in understanding how ANC hegemony has been eroded, but remains very much alive and kicking.

In my recent book Rethinking the South African Crisis I argue that the processes of denationalisation to which Mbembe refers are important but insufficient. Hugely significant as well are simultaneous processes of renationalisation. I coined the terms “denationalisation” and “renationalisation” to capture two simultaneous and related processes set in motion by the transition.

When the parties of liberation were unbanned in early 1990, the South African nation did not exist (as Ivor Chipkin and Ari Sitas have pointed out). It had to be conjured into existence from the rubble of a brutal history. Renationalisation refers to efforts to produce a new nation. The redemptive, ecclesiastical rhetoric of “the rainbow nation” and the towering moral authority of Nelson Mandela and Desmond Tutu represent one dimension – but there are others.

At that same moment, powerful South African conglomerates were straining to break away from the confines of the national economy and to reconnect with the increasingly financialised global economy from which they had been partially excluded during the 1980s by sanctions, exchange controls and the heightening crisis of the apartheid state.

Denationalisation directs attention to the highly advantageous terms that heavily concentrated South African corporate capital negotiated with key figures in the ANC; how these conglomerates restructured and denationalised their operations; massive and escalating capital flight; the formation of a small but powerful, closely allied black capitalist class; their ongoing influence over ANC government policy; and the multiple ways these forces have intensified the brutal inequalities and degradation of livelihoods of a large proportion of the black South African population.

The concept of denationalisation also calls attention to the historically specific character of capital accumulation in South Africa – most fundamentally that it has always taken place on a terrain deeply marked by racialised dispossession and racial oppression.

Denationalisation includes the Growth, Employment and Redistribution strategy, but also precedes and extends beyond it, providing a fuller understanding of the forces generating race/class inequality than that provided by neoliberalism per se. It does not, however, provide a sufficient basis for understanding contemporary political dynamics.

For this we need to focus on nationalism and hegemony, and the practices and processes of renationalisation. The erosion of ANC hegemony – along with proliferating populist politics, including the EFF – are most usefully understood in terms of how denationalisation and renationalisation are playing out in relation to one another in increasingly conflictual ways.

Allow me to explain.

By far the most important dimensions of post-apartheid renationalisation are embodied in the keywords of the ANC alliance: the National Democratic Revolution (NDR) and the “national question”. The NDR makes clear that renationalisation is not a separate “political” process. Instead it makes the case for accommodation to the inequalities of post-apartheid capitalism as a transitory phenomenon, to be superseded by an (ever-receding) second, socialist phase.

Within the ANC alliance, the NDR has become a site of increasingly vociferous contestation. It also functions as a sjambok with which to discipline those who step out of line.

Understandings of the national question are distinctively different from the NDR. They were forged in the context of fierce debates over race, class and nationalism in the early 20th century, further elaborated during the anti-apartheid struggle, and reworked in the transition.

The national question continues to have deep popular resonance, and for many South Africans is embodied in the Freedom Charter. Official expressions of “the nation” and “liberation” and invocations of the Freedom Charter are not just cynical manipulations from above. They carry powerful moral weight and connect with specific histories, memories and experiences of racial oppression, racialised dispossession and struggles against apartheid.

Because official articulations of nationalism tap into these popular understandings of freedom, justice and liberation from racial oppression, they are crucial to the ANC’s hegemonic project. At the same time, because nationalist calls are linked to redress for the wrongs of the past and visions of a new nation, they are vulnerable to counterclaims of betrayal – a vulnerability that is intensified by the fallout from processes of denationalisation.

Accordingly, the capacity of the ANC to tap into deep veins of popular understandings of the national question is both the linchpin of its hegemonic power and, at the same time, a source of growing instability.

These contradictory imperatives of denationalisation and renationalisation, operating in relation to one another, have helped to erode ANC hegemony.

Such contradictions are most clearly evident at the level of local government, in which practices and struggles in the realms of everyday life are both shaped by and feed into processes of denationalisation and renationalisation.

In effect, capital, along with the middle classes in South Africa more generally, need the ANC to keep the lid on things – which it tries to do with renationalisation. Yet simultaneous processes of denationalisation are rendering this project increasingly difficult.

Let me reflect briefly on the political stakes of this analysis.

My book went to the printer shortly after the press conference announcing the formation of the EFF on July 11 last year. Throughout the text, however, I pointed to the forces creating the conditions for the return of Malema or a similar populist figure.

Clearly, the ongoing erosion of ANC hegemony is the primary reason for the support that the EFF is garnering – and for the way many in the ANC alliance are lashing out against it, including attaching a fascist label to Malema and the EFF.

There may have been a moment in late 2011 when it was possible to discern some fascist tendencies in Malema’s ANC Youth League, including his alliance with a fraction of BEE capital and stone-throwing episodes outside Luthuli House reminiscent of storm troopers. I would argue, however, that the EFF today is more usefully understood as a form of left populism constituted around the figure of the great man – to which both Frantz Fanon and Antonio Gramsci were deeply opposed. Moreover, its vanguardist politics are not that different from those of the South African Communist Party, as Noor Nieftagodien has recently pointed out.

In seeking to appropriate the Freedom Charter in their bid for hegemony, both the EFF and Numsa have situated themselves firmly on the terrain of the ANC’s renationalising practices. This move is understandable, but it also precludes a more critical understanding of the past that might point the way towards a different future.

The challenge, of course, is what an alternative would look like.

A small but perhaps significant possibility is suggested by Govan Mbeki’s activities in Ladysmith between 1953 and 1955, the period leading up to the Freedom Charter. In the afternoons Mbeki would sneak away from a dancing class he had set up for teachers in order to distract the Special Branch, while he consulted with people about their vision for a new South Africa. Older people in Ladysmith recalled being treated as intellectuals in terms of what they called “Oom Gov’s university”.

These engagements exemplify what Fanon meant by a new humanism (distinctively different from liberal humanism), and what Gramsci meant by philosophy of praxis.

As the key site of contradictions in South Africa today, local government is also the site on which serious processes of popular engagement and consultation might help to open the way towards a different politics.

Gillian Hart is with the University of California, Berkeley, and the University of KwaZulu-Natal.



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