Pursuit of the politics of pain will blind us to the future

Is the system of constitutional democracy, which South Africa as a nation embraced with so much hope in 1994, under long-term threat? And should we be concerned about its future?

President Jacob Zuma recently proclaimed the overarching importance of the ANC. Admittedly he qualified his remarks by saying that he loved South Africa no less than the ANC. But it is a fair interpretation to say that he sees the ANC as the only vehicle capable of governing this country.

For a party leader, that is fair enough. But it will not be a surprise if further attacks on the Constitution and its custodian, the judiciary, take place if the ANC and its leader consider that the ruling party’s wisdom in determining our social, economic and political policies is challenged.

Current political discourse shows a more concerning development, evident from the recent sustained burst of student unrest.

The protests against fee increases, coupled with a more generalised focus on the Eurocentric nature of our universities, are not only understandable but also justifiable. And they have hopefully shattered the intellectual complacency of ­academic life in this country.

The protests have, 21 years into our new democracy, finally ignited debate about why many of the ­parents of this generation of ­students do not enjoy a better life.

This, in turn, highlights the failure of the Convention for a Democratic South Africa compact to produce a clear path to transformation, and the ANC government’s failure to implement policies that would meaningfully alter the socioeconomic landscape so horribly skewed by apartheid.

On his recent visit to South Africa, economist Thomas Piketty observed that, when National Party rule began in 1948, the top 1% of the population had 22% of the income. By 1975, they had less than 10%. But, 21 years after democracy dawned, that number is up again – to about 20%.

This is hardly a compelling advertisement for the implementation of the egalitarian vision promoted by the Constitution.

The problem is that the student protests, politically invigorating as they have been, come with a price. Much of the political discourse accompanying the protests has been aimed at the central pillars of the constitutional structure: constitutional democracy, nonracism and a social-democratic economy.

It has become almost commonplace to hear or read that the Constitution was a political fudge that maintained the ill-gotten gains of whites, and that it blocks real socioeconomic change.

It can be shown that there is nothing in the Constitution to retard delivery of the basis core services it promises. The Constitution is not the cause of growing inequality.

And more threatening to the constitutional vision for a future South Africa is a form of identity politics seizing people’s minds.

It is not unique to South Africa – the rightwing in Israel has used this tactic for years. It goes like this: you can’t understand the pain caused by the Nazi Holocaust, so you can’t understand my condition or my political responses.

Such politics can have devastating reactionary consequences, even when the pain at issue is real.

The Constitution imagined a South Africa in which a new identity, forged from the lessons of the past and hope for the future, was central. Instead, as Achille Mbembe, with his customary perception and intellectual bravery, wrote recently: “Personal feelings now suffice. There is no need to mount proper argument. Not only can wounds and injuries not be shared, but their interpretation cannot be challenged by rational discourse because black experiences trans­cend human vocabulary …”

Apartheid caused horrendous pain, degradation and death. Any denial of this is an outrage. But if the “politics of my pain” dominate, then, as Mbembe noted, the black/white paradigm will shape our political language forever. And that runs counter to the fundamental vision for a new South Africa as prefigured in the Constitution.

Coupled with increasing inequality, a shortage of necessities such as water and electricity driving more legitimate anger, this discourse represents a significant threat to our constitutional democracy.

We need more than assurances of the ruling party’s good faith.

PW Botha wagged his finger and banned us in 1988 but we stood firm. We built a reputation for fearless journalism, then, and now. Through these last 35 years, the Mail & Guardian has always been on the right side of history.

These days, we are on the trail of the merry band of corporates and politicians robbing South Africa of its own potential.

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