For several years, the relentless focus on the rapidly worsening debacle of Jacob Zuma’s presidency offered considerable cover to Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) leader Julius Malema.
His authoritarianism, his often hyper-patriarchal public posture and evident corruption were overlooked as public attention honed in on Zuma, the Gupta brothers and their chief enablers and propagandists rather than on the form of politics that they had come to lead.
It has now become clear that the contestation between a form of authoritarian nationalism organised around accumulation through the state and a more liberal politics articulated to the market did not end with the Zuma presidency. As has often been noted in recent weeks, the EFF has now assumed at the national level public leadership of the political project that had previously been led by Zuma.
The EFF’s scurrilous use of slander, intimidation and chauvinism to defend what Frantz Fanon called the “little greedy caste, avid and voracious, with the mind of a huckster” has put an end to the media’s long indulgence of the party and its leader.
President Cyril Ramaphosa has not been willing or able to mount a compelling public defence of his attempt to restore the liberal centre. But Patrice Motsepe, his billionaire brother-in-law, has invested huge resources in an attempt to restore the political hegemony forged at the end of apartheid by an alliance between the ANC, corporate power and what used to be called imperial power, with Nelson Mandela as its transcendent figurehead.
From a huge religious gathering against corruption to visits by FC Barcelona and everyone from former United States president Barack Obama to Oprah Winfrey and Beyoncé, vast resources are being invested in an attempt to restore a hegemony that had seemed to have lost its hold over history.
Religion, sport and celebrity all wield a great deal of power and this extraordinary investment to re-establish the radiance of a very liberal idea of Mandela will cast a considerable sheen on Ramaphosa and his attempt to restore the liberal centre.
But the social realities that led to the breakdown of the ANC’s hegemony both predate and go beyond the party’s descent into gross forms of corruption under Zuma. In 2004, the Landless People’s Movement made the first call for an electoral boycott and road blockades were organised around the country. It was out of this ferment that the break with the ANC on the part of organised impoverished people emerged.
Neither the rebellion in Marikana in 2012 nor the expulsion of the National Union of Metalworkers of South Africa from labour federation Cosatu in 2014, both of which severely weakened the ANC’s hold over organised workers, can be reduced to disgust over Zuma.
If the attempt to restore the liberal centre under Ramaphosa is successful in the ANC, there will be no prospect of significant progress towards a viable, let alone just, social order. Impoverished and working-class people will continue to organise outside of and against the ANC. With systemic unemployment and collapsing state services, significant popular dissent seems inevitable.
How the ANC responds to this will be a critical factor in determining the contours of the road ahead. We should not forget that the shadow of Marikana falls across the entire ANC and not just the Zuma faction. We should also not forget that every popular struggle that has emerged outside of the ANC has been subject to serious repression and that this sorry history predates Zuma’s rise to the presidency.
The fact that Ramaphosa and Motsepe are prepared to appear on the same stage as Rwandan President Paul Kagame is not encouraging. Under Kagame, as some of his supporters gleefully proclaim, the shopping may be better in Kigali than in Sandton.
Kigali is certainly, as is often pointed out, cleaner than Johannesburg. But, although many of the same aid agencies that support Global Citizen operate in Rwanda with Kagame’s support, he runs a regime that is simultaneously pro-capital and brutally repressive. It is often described as a totalitarian state.
There are no beggars or sex workers on the streets because they are rounded up and taken to “transit camps” where they are detained and flogged. There is no free press and many journalists have disappeared, been jailed or exiled. People who have tried to organise against Kagame’s regime, including moderate opposition politicians, have faced similar repression, including misogynistic attempts to shame and intimidate women on social media.
Capital and some technically rather than politically orientated donors and nongovernmental organisations can flourish under repressive conditions.
But, for those committed to a democratic resolution of the escalating economic and social crisis in South Africa, Kagame’s repressive approach offers a deeply disturbing model for an authoritarian resolution of our crisis, which could, like Kagame’s regime, win considerable support from domestic elites and foreign states, donors and NGOs.
Both the commitment to oppose corruption in and outside of the ANC and the new criticism of the authoritarianism and chauvinism of the EFF are necessary contributions to our public sphere. But if they are not matched by rigorous examination of the ways in which millions of people continue to be excluded from meaningful access to economic and political power and subjected to often brutal forms of exclusion and grossly inadequate state services, we will not find a democratic way out of our current crisis.
The political has both a debased and an elevated meaning. The term can describe the self-interested contestation for resources and power, and the movement of ethical commitment into the realm of social contestation. Politics can be a matter of avarice, pettiness, dishonesty and cunning, and it can be a matter of courage, invention, sacrifice and principle.
In South Africa, attempts to evoke powerful memories of the latter are constantly misused to mask the former. We are relentlessly subject to the farce of people like Carl Niehaus and Hlaudi Motsoeneng presenting themselves as revolutionaries.
But this strategy has its limits. Zuma eventually became a kind of caricature of politics as nothing but a rotten business. Malema and his deputy, Floyd Shivambu, have now, and not without good reason, found themselves placed in the same category.
When an entire political class comes to be seen as rotten it is not uncommon for people to become deeply cynical about liberal democracy and to turn to forms of either bottom-up popular democracy or authoritarian populism.
The attempt to restore the potency of the mythology surrounding Mandela is, at least in part, an attempt to confer its authority on both the Ramaphosa project and the broader liberal consensus. It aims, to borrow a turn of phrase from Karl Marx, to reassert the tradition of a dead generation on to the living.
When there is genuine commitment to a political ideal, there can be considerable diversity in its logic and aspirations. In much of the contemporary world, there is an urgent contestation between forms of politics that lean towards either what French philosopher Etienne Balibar terms ethnos or demos.
Ethnos refers to a sense of the people imagined in terms of a community constituted by shared descent.
Demos refers to a sense of the people as a community of citizens each carrying an equal right to participation in public disputation and decision-making.
When forms of politics organised around a commitment to an ethnos are a demand to sustain domination they are, like the politics that cohered around Donald Trump, plainly reactionary. But, because most conceptions of the demos have some sort of mechanism for exclusion, insurgent forms of identity and organisation constituted around descent that aim to win access to the demos can be progressive.
When claims to affirm a demos assert an equal access to rights in abstraction from the material basis required to exercise rights they may be preferred to reactionary affirmations of an ethnos, but are wholly inadequate from a progressive perspective. Abstract rights are not the same thing as real entitlements.
In South Africa any attempt to deny the overwhelmingly racialised nature of impoverishment and exploitation can only be complicit with at least some of the ideologies that sustain oppression. But to advance a project constituted around an insurgent ethnos without taking the demos seriously runs a real risk of resulting in an authoritarian alternative in which one elite strives to replace another.
The Ramaphosa project may be able to contain the worst excesses of the degeneration of the ruling party and the state under Zuma and restore some credibility to the state and other institutions. But no matter how many global celebrities are brought in to reaffirm Mandela’s radiance, the pro-market liberal centre represented by Ramaphosa cannot build a genuine demos. We find ourselves in a situation that is simply not viable for millions of people, a situation in which no party in Parliament offers a credible alternative.
If we are to avoid an interregnum without apparent end, an ongoing stalemate or an attempt to emulate Kagame and achieve an authoritarian containment of the crisis, serious thought needs to be given to new and genuinely democratic political alternatives.
Richard Pithouse is an associate professor at the Wits Institute for Social and Economic Research