Facing down the new authoritarians

I have been talking for many years now to a member of the ANC’s national executive committee who is an important regional power broker, but whose larger ambitions flower only briefly in those fugitive springtimes when the party camps are unconsolidated and the battle lines fluid.

As the conference season approaches and the factions really square off, he consistently finds himself in the awkward squad. Positions disappear under his feet, the commanders who deployed him find they cannot quite handle him and he has to fight his way back from provincial exile.

My contact (he is not really a source in the sense that he provides specific stories) is the kind of person who is much caricatured in the press and our broad political discourse as a party hack of dubious ethics and little substance — which just serves to remind me how poorly the elite of the ruling party are understood.

He may indeed have some murky business interests and affects the broad collars and pointy shoes of the tenderpreneurial class, but his political insight is extraordinary, sharpened by wide reading and years of fractious relations with the ANC’s ruling cliques as they rotate through Luthuli House.

Let us call him Virgil — he is, after all, a guide to the underworld of contemporary alliance politics, a man of exquisitely split consciousness, who is able to anatomise his party’s ills while exhibiting all their most morbid symptoms. It is a rare perspective, and a valuable one.

We talk about the state of the ­alliance, the latest deployments, about that great taboo — the rise of ethnic politics — and about the ideology deficit confronting the contemporary ANC.

This year, however, he has increasingly turned, unprompted, to the preoccupations that Blade Nzimande, Gwede Mantashe and the rest of the Jacob Zuma vanguard are working so hard to frame as “liberal” or “reactionary” — the Protection of State Information Bill (popularly known as the secrecy Bill), the independence of the judiciary and the progressive character of the Constitution.

Because he is outside the ruling clique but close enough to watch it working, Virgil knows in his bones that he is as gravely threatened by the prospect of an unaccountable and increasingly authoritarian state as are opposition parties, civil society and the press.

We met recently, when the secrecy Bill passed through the National Assembly, and I described my discomfort, watching from the gallery, as MPs whom I have known and respected for my entire career voted to adopt it.

“You see how it is all lined up: they force this thing through and now you will have to go to Mogoeng Mogoeng to try to overturn it,” he said, describing Zuma’s choice of a chief justice in terms that would make Helen Zille blush.

He was ruder still about the primary sponsor of the bill, Siyabonga Cwele, the state security minister, who is believed by critics of Zuma to be presiding over a massive surveillance of their activities. (“Who is he? A nobody, even in KwaZulu-Natal, married to a drug smuggler. Why is he there?”)

‘Crises of legitimacy’
The emerging analysis in alliance dissident circles is that an authoritarian response is being mounted in the party to twin crises of legitimacy that threaten the ANC.

From the outside, popular distrust — evident in service-delivery protests and public-sector strikes — is at an unprecedented level and is starting to filter through to election results in the form of declining turnout and a diminished share of the vote (a phenomenon masked by the party’s successes in KwaZulu-Natal).

Internally, the leadership derives none of its limited credibility from policy positions or even personalities. Instead, it must calibrate levels of fear and greed among party officials at every level to maintain its sway.

As Jeremy Cronin once said of Zanu-PF, the ANC “no longer confidently fosters a progressive hegemony”. Instead it is the party of anxiety, of lies and spies, of permanent war. And in a bid to regain control of a situation that has long since spun out of its grasp, it has launched a sustained attack on its own liberation heritage: the Constitution.

Perhaps the most honest statement of the case on behalf of the alliance authoritarians comes from Ngoako Ramatlhodi, the former Limpopo premier, who, having survived a corruption investigation that paralleled Zuma’s, is now deputy minister of correctional services. He has also chaired the parliamentary justice committee and sat on the Judicial Service Commission. What he says is much more frightening than any of Julius Malema’s ad hoc bits of policy demagoguery, although it gets far less attention.

Writing in the Times in September, just before the 15th anniversary of the Constitution, Ramatlhodi set out a revisionist history that amounted to a proposal for its liquidation.

“Apartheid forces sought to and succeeded in retaining white domination under a black government,” he wrote. “This they achieved by emptying the legislature and executive of real political power.”

Ramathlhodi’s version is that still-powerful National Party negotiators in the constitutional talks worked to ensure that the powers of the executive and Parliament were vitiated by the balancing role given to the courts, chapter nine institutions and civil society.

The ANC did not have the weight in the negotiations to prevent this from happening, he suggested, and, perhaps traumatised by its experience at the hands of a dominant state, was all too willing to acquiesce.

“The liberation movement was overwhelmed by a desire to create a society bereft of any form of discrimination and, as a result, made fatal concessions. We thus have a Constitution that reflects the great compromise, a compromise tilted heavily in favour of forces against change.”

Apparently Ramatlhodi has never met Cyril Ramaphosa, or Kader Asmal, or concerned himself with such niceties as the historical record, which amply reflects the central role of the ANC team in proposing the basic architecture of our basic law.

Zwelinzima Vavi, for one, is happy to set him straight: “It is our Constitution,” he told journalists after meeting editors to discuss Cosatu’s concerns about the secrecy Bill. “It is based on the Freedom Charter”.

Virgil is more blunt. “It is complete bullshit,” he says. “They are rewriting history.”

He is less sanguine now than at any point in our relationship, despite the fact that he came under much more direct personal attack during the Mbeki administration.

Vavi is worried about what the secrecy Bill will do to the workers’ ability to protect their basic rights. Virgil is worried about an expanding apparatus of control that runs from internal party “discipline” through the intelligence agencies to legislative changes that will make it harder for party activists to make their voices heard in the press and ultimately, perhaps, the courts. He has seen plenty of wobbles of the party’s internal gyroscope and fears that it may now be too badly broken to self-correct.

National discourse
It is against this backdrop that mounting opposition to the Bill must be understood. Instead of debating policy within the broad limits of the Constitution, we are debating the basis of the Constitution itself. That is a profound shift in the national discourse — and one that has gone almost unremarked.

It will accelerate in the new year, with the likely passage of the Bill and clear moves in Parliament to create a media appeals tribunal that would give apparatchiks the job of adjudicating press ethics. Important judicial vacancies are due to be filled, including in the Constitutional Court, where the balance is steadily tipping toward the conservatism so skilfully enunciated by Sandile Ngcobo and so crudely by Mogoeng.

The fabric of South African democracy is relatively thick, woven of civil society, trades unions, the press, private capital, opposition parties, an increasingly transformed and complex set of courts and, yes, the ANC’s outsiders.

There are signs that it will strengthen further as it comes under attack. The constitutional vision of freedom is fundamental to South Africans’ idea of themselves. We lived through “unfreedom”, we felt it. The promise of liberation is part of who we are in the most visceral terms and we rally around it in surprising ways — as the broad coalition against the Protection of Information Bill shows.

It is a fragile creature, and new, but the ANC’s fear and rage may be giving birth to a politics more threatening to its hegemony than any of the lurid caricatures of its paranoiac imagination.

Democrats should be worried about what lies in wait in 2012, but it is not yet time to abandon hope.

Nic Dawes is editor-in-chief of the Mail & Guardian

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