The memorial service for Ahmed Kathrada at the Johannesburg City Hall on April 1 last year became a significant event in the gathering public hostility to the increasingly authoritarian kleptocracy into which the ANC had collapsed under Jacob Zuma.
Emotions ran high. Many people remarked that it felt like a United Democratic Front (UDF) rally from the 1980s.
But although many of the participants, on the stage and in the audience, had been protagonists in the UDF, the actual content of the statements made from the stage frequently echoed the post-Cold War liberal consensus rather than displaying any fidelity to the politics of the UDF. Much of the language that was used, including terms like “good governance” and “civil society”, could have come straight from a script prepared by the World Bank.
Opposition to corruption, and attempts to legitimise it with the organised mobilisation of slander and dishonesty, did not extend to the affirmation of a positive political vision. The UDF, at its best, had proposed popular democracy as both means and end, and had imagined a future in which participation in democracy was an everyday practice rather than simply a matter of voting every few years. In striking contrast, elite opposition to Zuma often affirmed the role of nongovernmental organisations, framed as “civil society”, rather than popular democratic organisation and mobilisation.
A week after the Kathrada memorial Save South Africa marched in Pretoria. It was as much a simulacrum of popular democratic politics as support for the Zuma project was a simulacrum of radical politics. Save South Africa was an NGO, and not a membership-based democratic organisation. Its convenor was the chairperson of AngloGold Ashanti. Its spokesperson worked at a consultancy whose clients included Walmart, Citibank, Bank of America and Merrill Lynch. This was capital using the NGO form to present itself as “civil society” in order to claim democratic authority.
This claim to democratic authority was issued against the hold of a violent and predatory faction of the ruling party over the state — a faction making its own claim to legitimacy in terms of an absurd claim to being a radical political project. But disgust at the Zuma project, and the increasingly desperate ways in which it sought to legitimate itself and intimidate its opponents, should not blind us to the fact that this was an intra-elite contestation in which both sides proffered an illegitimate claim to speak for the people as a whole.
The standard critique of the conflation of “civil society” with NGOs after the Cold War traces its origins to the stirrings of dissent against Soviet-backed authority in the Gdansk Shipyard and among dissident intellectuals connecting with each other via a samizdat culture in Prague.
It is argued that, after the Berlin Wall was breached and the Soviet Union collapsed, it was assumed, by intellectuals working in the service of governments in the United States and in Western Europe, that a multiplicity of sources of social organisation and moral authority would “consolidate” liberal democracy in Eastern Europe. This rapidly came to be a matter of support for foreign-backed NGOs.
But other lines of critique look back to the forms of mass participation in opposition to Western-backed authoritarian regimes in the Philippines, Haiti and South Africa during the 1980s. It is argued that in each of these three countries mass movements opposed to authoritarian governments also developed visions for futures more substantively democratic than that offered by liberal democracy. It is suggested that following this support for NGO-based “civil society” was explicitly conceived as a way to displace popular participation in everyday political life in post-authoritarian societies.
The intersection of this project with the economic interests of local elites and international capital was dramatically displayed in 2004 when the US organised a coup against a popular and elected government in Haiti. The elected president of Haiti was abducted by US Marines, after which a group of NGOs, presenting themselves as “civil society”, quickly rallied to present the coup as a democratic event. The South African media more or less uniformly accepted the line that NGOs with no claim to a popular base, or elected authority, had a greater claim to represent the will of the Haitian people than their elected representatives.
None of this means that there are not many NGOs, or projects within NGOs, that do not play valuable roles with regard to social justice and affirming democratic values. But the ease with which a systemically elitist conception of “civil society”, one centring on middle-class professionals generally acting without any kind of credible claim to represent a popular constituency, or to hold a democratic mandate, had displaced the aspirations for more popular and more democratic forms of politics is instructive.
It indicates a failure to sustain a fidelity to the democratic principles and practices developed during the best moments of the mass struggles against apartheid and an accommodation with the liberal consensus developed after the Cold War, and backed by organisations such as the World Bank and various donors in the United States and Western Europe.
There was a time, of course, when the liberal order built across much of the world at the end of the Cold War had enough hubris to proclaim itself as the “end of history”. But that moment is now well lost. As we all know, in countries across the world neoliberal technocrats and governments have been falling like dominos.
They are rapidly being displaced by forms of politics generally termed “populist”. These forms of politics may emerge from the left or the right, or they may be inchoate new forms of politics that are neither typically left or right. What they generally share, though, is a claim to restore the place of the people, always conceived in an exclusionary manner in right-wing iterations, in politics and in society.
The assent of Zuma to the presidency placed South Africa at the leading edge of this curve. But President Cyril Ramaphosa, like many others with their roots in the trade union movement or the mass politics of the UDF, has been integrated into a conception of the liberal centre that is now in crisis across the planet. His attempt to appeal to the international markets for investment with the hope of generating more jobs seems highly unlikely to succeed while he must simultaneously support the expropriation of land without compensation in order to sustain his political credibility at home. In the absence of a viable plan to develop the productive capacity of society without foreign capital this is an untenable situation.
Ramaphosa has, of course, enjoyed the relief that millions of people felt at the departure of Zuma from the presidency. But that can only carry him so far. And although vigorous efforts to stop the looting from state-owned enterprises may be appreciated, the damage that has been done is so severe that it will be difficult to avoid pressures to implement austerity measures and partial privatisation.
At a time when budgets for vital social expenditure are being cut, prices are rising, there is mass unemployment and the state is increasingly mobilising forms of everyday violence, often mediated through casual sadism, to govern impoverished people, it seems highly unlikely that Ramaphosa will be able to stabilise a new political and social consensus.
Under these circumstances it is not clear whether he will have the political strength to act against the remnants of the Zuma project, including the extraordinarily corrupt and violent politics in Durban, and other parts of KwaZulu-Natal. It is also not certain whether Ramaphosa will be able to take decisive action to oppose the new forms of chauvinism festering in our society. His craven conduct in the face of the sabre-rattling by the Zulu monarch does not augur well for his presidency. It may well be that, instead of the sudden brilliance of a new dawn, we find ourselves in some kind of stalemate, in an interminable interregnum.
Although Antonio Gramsci’s famous comment about the dangers of the interregnum is often overused, it retains a certain power. “The crisis consists,” Gramsci argued, “precisely in the fact that the old is dying and the new cannot be born; in this interregnum a great variety of morbid symptoms appear.” As we can all see, morbid systems are all around us.
An attempt to return to the forms of politics that produced the crisis so effectively exploited by Zuma will not enable the birth of a new consensus. In much of the world the most effective response to the way in which capitalism has failed so many has been the rise of authoritarian forms of politics organised around the active cultivation of forms of chauvinism. If we wish to avoid this fate we need to look for new forms of politics, democratic forms of politics that extend democratic forms of authority over the state — and land, cities and the economy.
Business as usual just won’t cut it.
Richard Pithouse is an associate professor at the Wits Institute for Social and Economic Research