The iron fist and the velvet glove

For many foreign environmental justice activists at the World Summit on Sustainable Development (WSSD), the aura surrounding the post-apartheid state was sullied by both the connivance of South Africa’s ruling class with big business and the extent of police brutality aimed at those expressing dissent.

Among the more enlightened foreign activists any residual sentimental attachment to the party in office in South Africa was rudely erased by evidence of increasing poverty, inequality, environmental degradation and repression. The trumpeting of enshrined civil, political and socio-economic rights in the ”most progressive Constitution in the world” sounded decidedly off-key.

For the ruling class the WSSD (dubbed by many as the World Summit of Shady Deals) was in practice less about the benevolent goals of environmental justice and sustainable development than about showcasing South Africa for the benefit of the world’s captains of industry, finance and their political surro-gates, safely ensconced in the five-star hotels of Sandton. Sort of window-shopping for international capitalists.

The abiding interest of the South African ruling class during the WSSD was to reassure and pamper the bringers of direct foreign investment (despite the futility of this policy since 1994). Reassurance that the party would not be spoilt came from the president, Cabinet ministers and high-ranking policemen. Senior apartheid-era security policemen were put in charge. Dire threats were issued against protesters, a cordon sanitaire thrown around Sandton and an undeclared state of emergency imposed.

The mainstream media played its role well. Scaremongering was ratcheted up. Some gullible and nervous Sandton residents who evacuated their homes for the duration of the conference should be forgiven if they thought that a grand alliance of Zimbabwe war veterans, al-Qaeda terrorists and black-clad Molotov-wielding misfits were about to invade the sedate and opulent streets of their neighbourhood.

Senior security officials unveiled high-tech surveillance equipment and, behind the scenes, National Intelligence Agency operatives cajoled and intimidated those planning protests. Major marches organised by social movements were initially prohibited and then allowed at the last minute. It was obvious to the powers-that-be that protesters from South Africa’s dusty townships, sprawling informal settlements and impoverished rural areas were determined to exercise their hard-won democratic rights whether they received ”consent” or not.

Clearly, the government was keen to conceal from the international guests the extent of discontent among increasing numbers of poor people. The repression leading up to, during and after the WSSD is chronicled elsewhere — especially in the graphic accounts given by representatives of the Anti-Privatisation Forum and the Landless People’s Movement. For South Africa’s activists, unlike bewildered foreign delegates, this came as no surprise. Despite the political changes, repression has continued unabatedly.

In his recent book An Ordinary Country, Neville Alexander observes that what we used to call the apartheid-capitalist system has simply given way to the post-apartheid-capitalist system. The jargon of those who make the decisions has changed (everyone has become ”non-racial” and anti-racist), a few thousand black middle-class people have boarded the gravy train and are being wooed into the ranks of the established (white) elite, but the nature of the state has remained fundamentally unchanged.

Over the past eight years the African National Congress has shown itself to be adept at managing and dissipating discontent and serving the interests of the local and international capitalist class. This is a point well understood by the New National Party leader Marthinus van Schalkwyk, arguably the most class-conscious member of Parliament. In forming an alliance ”of the centre” with the ANC, Van Schalkwyk has castigated the Democratic Party for not understanding who the real opposition will be in time to come. For the NNP leader it is clearly ”those to the left of the ANC alliance”.

The South African state is striving to gain a place for the ruling class in the global pecking order by leading regional and sub-regional cartels (African Union and the Southern African Development Community), employing the justifying rhetoric of ”African renaissance” and ”black empowerment” (the latter conveniently displacing the tranquilising discourse of the ”rainbow nation”), promoting the neo-liberal framework of the New Partnership for Africa’s Development, the building of its military might and the shoring-up of its repressive apparatus.

No doubt, there are many state bureaucrats who genuinely feel they can make a difference to poverty, unemployment, inadequate education, health services and the welfare system. Culpability for this state of affairs, they insist, lies with the ”legacy of apartheid” and not the political and economic choices made by the ”new” state. They argue that they are able to negotiate the best possible terms in an unequal global economic system. But ”the trouble does not lie in the wishes and intentions of power holders”, Ralph Miliband argues: it lies rather ”in the fact that the reformers are the prisoners, and usually the willing prisoners, of an economic and social framework which necessarily turns their proclamations, however sincerely meant, into verbiage”.

For the moment it is true that the post-apartheid state has remained compatible with a range of civil and political liberties. Still, these rights and constitutional guarantees are tenuous and are sometimes subjected to severe limitations and constraints. Most importantly, civil and political rights are severely circumscribed by the socio-economic and political framework within which they exist. Secondly, they are often infringed in practice (try to obtain ”consent” for a march without any hassle!). Finally, in times of crisis, constitutional guarantees in liberal democratic states have not prevented oppression of particular groups.

The irony is that increasingly it is the left that is fighting to prevent the very democratic rights that were promoted prior to 1994 from being whittled away. Human rights under capitalism can be transient, often they are undermined when they are inconvenient or when the ideological state apparatus is no longer adequate to guarantee subservience to class rule.

Still, it is wrong to believe that ”bourgeois freedoms” are of no consequence. Rather, they should be extended, enriched and expanded by the transformation of the context — economic, social and political — that condemns them to inadequacy and erosion.

Promises made by the ANC in 1994 for a ”better life for all” and renewed in 1999 have not been kept. The chronic privation of millions and the continuing rise in unemployment signals the abject inability of the state to match performance with promise. Various social reforms and ”poverty alleviation” measures (such as ”free” electricity and water for some, cramped and tiny houses which progressively crumble, vitamin-enriched food) are too trivial or ineffective.

In the face of mass pauperisation, the spending of R60-billion on armaments and R600-million on a presidential jet exposes the reforms as hypocritical. A political system that increasingly shows itself to be a lame version of a truly democratic order through revelations of corruption, opportunism and the ease with which rich individuals and business buy political favour does not endear itself to the populace. In these conditions the post-apartheid state leans more heavily toward coercion and police power.

In addition to the apartheid-era laws such as the Regulation of Gatherings Act, a smorgasbord of Bills, which give the security and intelligence agencies additional powers, are in the offing. These include the Interception and Monitoring Bill, Intelligence Services Bill, the Electronic Communications Security (Pty) Ltd Bill, the National Strategic Intelligence Amendment Bill and the Anti-Terrorism Bill. Under the propitious conditions created by United States President George W Bush’s ”war on terror” and our own small bands of violent right-wingers, laws will be passed and measures instituted giving the repressive state organs many arbitrary and sweeping powers.

Accelerating and comfortable in this slide to authoritarianism is the historical lack of genuine internal democracy and a particular political culture within the Congress Alliance. The now discontinued journal Searchlight South Africa has narrated some aspects of the internal regime in the ANC camps from 1968 in Tanzania to the mid-Eighties in Angola. It is a tale of ruthless punishment of dissenters, paranoia, brutal crassness, ethnic favouritism, sexual harassment and Gulag-like existence for those who dared criticise those in authority.

For those of us in non-Congress left organisations in the Eighties a direct line of connection existed between the ANC reign of terror in its prisons and the killings (often through the horrendous ”necklace” method) of some activists in the period from 1984 to 1990. This was also the period where many left unionists were purged from Cosatu affiliates.

Many of those accused for the excesses in the camps in exile, implicated in the harassment of left individuals in South Africa and responsible for the purging of left unionists, took up positions of authority in the post-1994 state apparatus. The recent rabid threats against ”ultra-leftists” and the craven mea culpa of Jeremy Cronin and other ritual recanters indicate that the arrogance of totalitarian power is alive and well in the alliance.

The attempts at covering up corruption in the arms deal, and the bizarre incident in mid-2001 when leading ANC members Tokyo Sexwale, Cyril Ramaphosa and Mathews Phosa were accused of ”plotting” to harm the president, says much about the level of democracy within the ANC.

Besides repression against political activists, the South African police have embraced the aggressive policing methods of the Bratton strategy (named after a New York police commissioner) based on the ”broken windows” theory of conservative criminologists. The theory assumes that if you take care of minor offences such as public drinking, littering and loitering, a sense of orderly regulation is created thus preventing more serious crime.

Those who suffer the most as a result of the police’s zeal are the homeless, the unemployed and foreigners. Often, the practice of ”zero-tolerance” gives pseudo-scientific legitimacy to petty, xenophobic and racist police behaviour.

More starkly the deaths of hundreds of prisoners every year in our overcrowded prisons; the violence of the tens of thousands of electricity cut-offs every month in townships around the country; the death of 43 000 children of diarrhoea each year mainly as a result of inadequate water and sanitation; the refusal to provide the lifeline of anti-retroviral drugs to millions and the brutality against ”illegal foreigners” in the privately owned (largely by prominent ANC women) Lindela prison should be seen as part of the repression against the poor and the vulnerable.

In the many nascent left social movements being formed around the country and the inspirational and creative practices of organisations such as the Anti-Privatisation Forum, Anti-Eviction Campaign groups, the Concerned Citizens’ Forum, Landless People’s Movement, some civic, environmental, student and youth movements, a growing group of rank-and-file unionists and solidarity groups such as the Palestinian Solidarity Committee and others, a new left ethic is taking root.

While still tentative, it is founded on coordinating activities and supporting each other in the face of state repression. These organisations of the urban and rural poor contain many who have memory of past struggles, an understanding of the international situation and strong links with left movements elsewhere. Socialists and other anti-capitalists in these organisations are rapidly shaking off the blight of a debilitating sectarianism that characterised the left previously.

Already groups like the Indymedia Centre, Khanya College, the Freedom of Expression Institute, a few community radio stations and various edu-cational centres have forged links with the new social movements. It is important though not to gloss over our weaknesses, contradictions and vulnerabilities. The lack of a dedicated focus on gender issues and the HIV/Aids pandemic, the difficulties of winning over many more organised workers and the stranglehold over these workers by the union bureaucracy, relations with refugee communities, issues of xenophobia and the very important but mundane issues of financial resources and national coordination remain unresolved.

Given the ferocity of police harassment, timely legal defence of various sorts is sadly lacking. Activists need to know their rights and if need be institute civil and criminal action against offending parties. A constitutional challenge to laws that hamper freedom of assembly and expression is necessary. We need to also challenge vindictive actions such as those that keep our comrades in jail for weeks on end ostensibly to verify their addresses.

Also, functionaries routinely portray members and particularly leaders of social movements as ”maladjusted” and marginal people with a natural proclivity for maverick or criminal behaviour. Thus, civil rights abuses of the targeted individuals are justified and solidarity work hampered.

The only bulwark against a shift to authoritarianism is the countervailing power of left-wing social movements, a task made more imperative because of the taming of the trade union bureaucracy and the cooption of social-democratic leaders into the administration of the state. Large numbers of the population disillusioned by unfulfilled promises are increasingly vulnerable to the blandishments offered by all sorts of charlatans.

These popular saviours often garnish their demagogic rhetoric of social redemption with appeals to racial, ethnic, religious or other ”profitable prejudice”. Alexander’s warning of the ”ethnic” danger must be heeded, particularly its potential to divide the poor and channel discontent towards recidivist or conservative organisations.

Only when left movements become a vast popular movement can they prevent a slide into authoritarianism. In the meantime, a compelling response to state repression requires increasing the numbers and the influence of our social movements so that repression and intimidation will not reduce our size and capacity, but enlarge both.

Salim Vally is acting director of Wits University’s Education Policy Unit. This is an edited version of his presentation at the Freedom of Expression Institute’s recent Right to Dissent conference

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