After spending time with South Africa’s mass media, online social networks or its blogosphere any casual observer would conclude that the country politics mostly revolves around Julius Malema.
Nowadays Malema attracts all the public attention and concern that a few months ago were focused on his party leader, Jacob Zuma.
For the ANC, that is not necessarily bad: when one looks past the bluster and bombast, Malema is, after all, managing expectations for the ruling party amongst South Africa’s popular classes. One unfortunate by-product of this dance between Malema and the media is that South Africa’s politics is now increasingly being reduced to the interplay of personalities and thus detached from its social contexts or struggles.
But Malema also presents a dilemma for the ANC, its alliance partners and the media: while he keeps the party at the centre of conversations about expectations about democratic rule and service delivery, he does so with buzzwords (expropriation, nationalization, for example) that stretch the boundaries of what has so far constituted acceptable public debate. Whether the ANC (or Malema) has the will or the capacity to make reality of his outbursts is not the point. What Malema has perhaps achieved with a mix of calculation and happenstance is to put front and centre the thorny social questions that are skin deep in contemporary South Africa.
Until recently social movements, which has become more visible in the last decade, held that space now occupied by Malema. They loudly agitated for services, land, and resources. More recently they have declined remarkably, often-as in the case of the Treatment Action Campaign and the Anti-Privatization Forum-narrowing their focus down to legal action or NGO-type interventions. As for “service delivery” struggles: they manifest as uncertain political expressions or as part of local ANC power struggles. Politicians and consultants don’t hesitate to present them as social pathologies or technical problems in need of institutional fixes or the redeployment of cadres.
Sadly the technocratic management of social conflicts and their management by the ruling party can only serve to perpetuate a system historically built to entrench racial inequality and which currently really benefits only a small, still largely white, affluent minority. Worse than that, the standards of wealth and comfort erected on such foundations of inequity and socioeconomic violence persist as benchmarks of success and empowerment.
Central to the ANC post-1994 regime was the idea that its market-oriented economic policies would create access to jobs, care of redistribution as well as bring about the dismantling of the infrastructures that sustained Apartheid-even though the rhetoric may suggest otherwise, but that idea is now in shambles.
Access to jobs is hardly a way out of poverty for most of the shrinking numbers of those still employed. Sure, the poor and unemployed will mostly (although far from overwhelmingly) tell you they first and foremost want “any job”, especially when the alternative is starvation or survival on paltry social grants, but those who do have an occupation quickly realize how little difference it makes from a life of deprivation. While the share of profits on the national product is at its highest level since 1960, the share of wages is at its lowest and the costs of basic necessities have increased radically.
The government, for its part, insist in presenting the poor as self-entrepreneurs in the making, yet it has been the state-connected tenderpreneurial bourgeoisie sponsored, among others, by Malema’s Youth League to have mostly benefitted from private opportunities for accumulation.
The ANC has also been quite skilful in deflecting challenges to its control of the poor’s political loyalties — counting on its control of social assistance and entrenched collective identities.
In this the party embodies indeed an emerging global trend. Historian Perry Anderson recently showed, in the London Review of Books, how the Lula government in Brazil gambled on the essentially conservative political orientations of the poor; the poor demand material improvements but without disorder and violence, which already fill their lives. In this way Lula has built a permanent electoral majority for his party, the PT.
The faith of China’s rulers on economic growth and technocratic governance as the only solutions to social problems is another example of this trend.
In South Africa, however, even if governmental assistance and patronage may improve ordinary people’s lives, they have offered little protection from social duress. Social grants benefit one quarter of the population, but are totally inadequate as a foundation for a decent life. The grants still force employable members of recipient families to make themselves available for whatever exploitative and insecure job is out there. Far from addressing social precariousness, social grants organize and reproduce it.
At the heart of South Africa’s political malaise are the anxieties of poor people torn between the reality of material insecurities and the continuous governmental appeal to an imaginary order based on production and “decent” work.
The continuous deferral that things will get better, only deepens the hardship of the working classes, as Franco Barchiesi argues in his new book, Precarious Liberation. Having democratically overthrown Thabo Mbeki, they find that their anger and disappointment with the new South Africa provide ammunition both to Jacob Zuma’s authoritarian utterances and Malema’s polemics against “useless” unions.
Yet as we know, the lack of an ideological or organizational expression on the part of poor people does not mean that social conflicts have lost their political potential to destabilize existing power arrangements.
The ANC itself has, in fact, been deeply affected by its inability to normalize the “social question” as it looks less and less like a “broad church” combining different interests within a discernible project, resembling rather an inchoate set of actors using the party’s material (access to state funds) and symbolic (the loyalties of the poor) resources to advance their agenda.
The only conclusion we can arrive at is that unless the discussion on redistribution and social justice is reopened away from state mythologies of productivism, development and a conflict-free non-racial democracy, the most likely options that present themselves are a resentful, chauvinist populist discourse and a slow authoritarian slide.
Franco Barchiesi is a former lecturer at Wits University and the author of Precarious Liberation: Workers, the State, and Contested Social Citizenship in post-apartheid South Africa. Sean Jacobs, a native of Cape Town, is a former researcher at the Institute for Democracy in Africa.