Notable political books of 2014

With my head above the parapet: An insider account of the ANC in power by Ben Turok (Jacana) 

Ben Turok, South African Communist Party and ANC stalwart, must’ve felt something like history’s form of dramatic irony when, 50 years after helping draft the clause in the Freedom Charter that calls for the seizure of the “commanding heights” of the economy, had to oppose the call for nationalisation by Julius Malema. It wasn’t, and still isn’t, ANC policy – and Turok represented the ANC in Parliament for 20 years. 

Then again, he notably protested against the ANC’s Protection of State Information Bill by refusing to vote on it – one of only two ANC parliamentarians to do so. This was probably the most public instance of Turok sticking his head “above the parapet”; his new book is the story of his later years in Parliament (he retired last year) and the tale of his gradually sticking his head further and further above the said fortifications.  

This is also the story, then, of a tearing apart that began to happen in the ANC during the Thabo Mbeki presidency: not just the factionalisation of the party as different power blocs jostled for power, but also a sense that the ANC in government was going terribly wrong. It was failing in its mandate of “a better life for all”, becoming less democratic, undermining public-protecting institutions, getting ever more paralysed by policy confusion and lapsing into corruption.

The most interesting part of Turok’s memoir is his account of being a constituency MP. That is, in our system of proportional representation (a key problem, most agree), MPs are allocated constituencies in which they have to try to get public policy working, especially for the poor. Turok attempted this in more than one constituency but was blocked in various ways, including lack of follow-through from national to local level and the swift emergence of a political rentier class inserting itself into such processes.

Turok’s account of this work is telling, and an insight into why development and empowerment are barely happening today. Also very telling, though, is his tale of the Polokwane conference in 2007, at which Jacob Zuma took the ANC presidency: at that event, Turok, a veteran politician, comes across as an outsider watching a mysterious political process with bafflement and bemusement. 

What’s gone wrong? On the brink of a failed state by Alex Boraine (Jonathan Ball)
Alex Boraine, a key figure in the moves that led to negotiations about South Africa’s future in the early 1990s and later in the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, asks the question that so many are beginning to ask of this country: Is it on its way to becoming a failed state?

Okay, it’s not Somalia, and lots of potholes in the suburbs don’t mean it’s a failed state. But nor is it the South Africa most of us must have imagined lay ahead when Nelson Mandela became president and Desmond Tutu declared us the “rainbow nation”. Yes, we got the freedoms denied under apartheid, but the poor are still poor and little has happened to change that, despite all the ANC’s plans and promises. 

For Boraine, bad governance is probably the root here. Not only is the “capable state” required by the National Development Plan lacking, as well as being strangled by corruption, but the executive also seems unhappy with vital provisions of the constitutional dispensation, especially those that limit its powers or prevent it from imposing secrecy on so much of what it does. Thus state institutions meant to provide accountability – including Parliament – are suborned or undermined, and that’s a sure sign of bad governance.

The paradox is that as things slip out of control the ANC become more and more determined to reassert control: “Control is almost a fetish” for the ruling party, writes Boraine, but that in itself is part of the problem: “It is the ANC’s obsession with power that engenders a culture of suspicion, distrust and extreme intolerance … In exile, it could be argued that the ANC had good cause to be paranoid and lacking in transparency … But, nearly 20 years later, the same phobias exist and the ANC is no longer an exile movement but the government of South Africa. The leadership has not yet learned the lesson that a besieged movement in exile is not the same as a democratically elected government.”

Are South Africans free? by Lawrence Hamilton (Bloomsbury)
Like Boraine, Lawrence Hamilton enumerates the things wrong with the South African state, and like him proposes solutions. He goes further than Boraine in both diagnosis and advice, giving primacy to the structural economic conditions that are part of our history and which have not been changed, even under a democratic government voted in to achieve freedom.

But, asks Hamilton, what kind of freedom did South Africa get? More than the “minimal” freedoms of human rights, but less than the “conjunction of the ability to determine what one will do and the power to do what one decides to do”, as Marx defines true, material freedom in The German Ideology.

Hamilton tracks us back through the evolving notion of freedom, querying the old liberal arguments about freedom from versus freedom to, and coming out with a notion of “freedom as power”, along the lines of Marx’s definition – which, ironically perhaps, expresses itself in terms of the individual’s freedom of self-determination and agency. 

So we are talking about what the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) call “economic freedom”, and by which they do not mean something altogether different from what the Free Market Foundation means when it uses such a phrase. South Africans have the freedom to vote, and are free from the kind of oppression apartheid imposed, but relatively few have “freedom as power”, as in the power or capacity to work, earn a living, make a profit, and exercise some social mobility. 

When the EFF talks of “economic freedom”, of course, it sees it as to be imposed from above (by the scientific socialists of the EFF, presumably), not taken from below. This rather vitiates the party’s populism, or at least introduces a contradiction in its concept of how government should work to empower the people or how the people can empower themselves, but that is perhaps a problem of its “Marxist-Leninist” ideological basis, which fudges the issue of individual freedoms and empowerments.

Hamilton is not just concerned about the transformation of economic fundamentals but with the development of a properly democratic system, because that could empower South Africans to put more pressure for change on the government. South Africa’s present form of proportional representation does not, in fact, produce the kind of “people’s democracy” the ANC of 1994 was proposing; it does not bring government closer to the people. 

Pretty much everyone except the ruling party’s dominant faction believes this, and agitation for a combination of proportional representation and constituency-based parliamentary seats has been going on for a while. Hamilton’s electoral proposals are perhaps too complicated (a “consiliar system”? an “tribune of the plebs”?), but do stimulate thought on what could be done in this area if we are to deepen democracy rather than turn it into a series of formalisms, as the present government and ruling party seem to want to do. 

Still an inconvenient youth: Julius Malema carries on by Fiona Forde (Picador Africa)
The first edition of Irish journalist Fiona Forde’s biography of Malema came out just after he had been expelled from the ANC but before he had formed the EFF, so it obviously had to be updated to take in that development and the appearance of Malema et al in Parliament, having won about 6% of the vote in the May poll – and now making about 94% of the noise now echoing around the House. 

Forde had significant access to Malema, whom she interviewed at length; she didn’t hold back on the hard questions, either. She also dug up important facts about Malema’s business dealings, tenderpreneurship and his family trust, all later probed by the tax authorities. (Malema is now said to be making a deal with the revenue service.) She also has a keen sense of the political and social environment that, from childhood on, would shape a Malema and spur him onwards.

It’s an engaging and very readable book, despite Forde’s fondness for cliché (I think I counted 14 on one page) and the fuzzy coda provided by that noted political analyst Beezy Bailey. This update is thorough, and improves the book originally published in 2011, but expect more updates and new editions – the Juju story is sure to continue its rollercoaster ride though South African politics.

Until Julius comes: Adventures in the political jungle by Richard Poplak (Tafelberg)
Writing as “Hannibal Elector”, Richard Poplak provided these accounts of the election period for the Daily Maverick website, but the bittiness implied by that is not a problem for a book of such pieces, possibly because the South African political scene is so fragmented and confused anyway (“This,” states Poplak at the outset, “is a book about madness”). And, put together like this, his pieces do add up to something like a compendium of “fear and loathing on the campaign trail”, as Rian Malan puts it in his introduction, invoking the illustrious ancestry of Hunter S Thompson.

Poplak, however, is less likely to go off on rants than Thompson was, and his commitment to fact is stronger. That said, this isn’t a work of detailed political theory and analysis; it’s a colourful portrait of that electoral madness on the run, with many illuminating encounters with key figures in what was, surely, South Africa’s most interesting national poll yet. The home-made “man salad” supper with Ronnie Kasrils (“the spoiler” in the 2014 elections) is priceless, as are many other encounters presented by Poplak.

Until Julius Comes is certainly the most entertaining work on South African politics to have appeared over the past year. Poplak’s rollicking style has much of the hipster slanginess of the old Rolling Stone, and he has a talent for bizarre but useful comparisons and metaphors. He is often very funny, and that alone makes the book worth a read, even if you are by now tired of South Africa’s endless political and ideological civil wars. 

He can, though, go a little too far in his application of the amusingly preposterous comparison, possibly because he over-uses the idea – you know, the “X makes something look like Y” formulation (“Islamic State makes Hitler look like a kindergarten teacher” or the like). For instance, Poplak speaks of a Schoenberg “wall of noise”, which seems a conventional invocation of the modernist composer as author of unlistenable music. But here Poplak is under-researched. Schoenberg’s work may be hard to listen to in a plink-plonk-screech kind of way, but it’s hardly a “wall of noise”. That, I think, would be Metallica.

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Author Shaun de Waal
Shaun De Waal

Shaun de Waal has worked at the Mail & Guardian since 1989. He was literary editor from 1991 to 2006 and chief film critic for 15 years. He is now editor-at-large. Recent publications include Exposure: Queer Fiction, 25 Years of the Mail & Guardian and Not the Movie of the Week.


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