Reading the archive left by the struggles against colonialism and apartheid is a sobering experience. These days the host of grand visions for the future that populate that archive must be measured by close to a quarter of a century of rule by the ANC, as well as by the oppression under which better futures were imagined.
It may be true that, to bend a political cliché to new purposes, when a struggle moves from opposition into the state there’s a degree of inevitability about the poetry of struggle turning into the stolid prose of government. But the reality in which we find ourselves in 2019 is altogether more grim than the mere transition from soaring imagination on the barricades to bureaucratic routine in the corridors of power.
Like more or less every other colonised society that has generated a sense of the political as redemptive, as a collective force with the power to bend the arc of history towards justice, we have had to confront the capture of the political by a predatory elite who, cloaking its private interests in the name of the nation, has degenerated into what Frantz Fanon called “unutterable treason”.
A recent attempt to assign a value to the looting during former president Jacob Zuma’s second term in office puts it at R1.5-trillion.
There are all kinds of other metrics that we could use if we wanted to put numbers to the social cost of “unutterable treason”. We could, for instance, count the cost in lives, starting with the massacre at Marikana and the lives lost after patients were moved out of Life Esidimeni. Adding the figures for the lives lost in police custody, on protests, in shack fires, as a result of crime, neglect in public hospitals and so on would soon generate a devastating number.
But one metric that’s not often discussed is the extent to which, particularly in the elite public sphere, a reactionary consensus is taking root. It’s now often assumed that the rot in the state became so profound that all we can do now is to work towards clean government and conform to the political and economic orthodoxies as they were before the votes in support of Brexit, and for Donald Trump, in 2016 showed that the instability in the world system would not be confined to its periphery.
In so far as there is a debate about possible futures, it tends to take the form of measuring the prospects for the success of the project led by President Cyril Ramaphosa against the faction of the ANC that is organised around predation on the state, the Economic Freedom Fighters who, in practice, are engaged in a similar form of politics, and the group of organisations led by former propagandists for Zuma, all tiny but able to win media attention.
Trade unions, granted a grudging respect when they were anti-Zuma, are now routinely vilified in a manner that exceeds a rational engagement with empirical facts. Conspiracy theories and unsubstantiated malicious insinuations have become common.
Liberalism as we once knew it in South Africa has morphed into a strident version of a segment of the American right, complete with open support for imperialism and incoherent panics about academic critique of race, gender and capital at universities.
Attempts to delegitimate ideas and experiments outside of the logic of imperial power and the subordination of society to the market are taking on a hysterical tone and a form closer to propaganda than critique.
It should go without saying that it is vital that we move quickly and decisively to restore the integrity of our public institutions and to effectively investigate and prosecute the criminality that has festered in and around the state in recent years.
But what is lost in this lemming-like rush to the right is that, although the clean-up of the state is necessary, on its own it will not be able to contain, let alone resolve, our problems.
We must not forget that Zuma, like other populist leaders around the world, emerged precisely because the status quo — a status quo to which many protagonists in our elite public sphere wish us to return — was not viable for millions of people. Returning to that consensus, this time with a lot less money to spend, will not be sustainable.
To assume that we can sustain a restoration of that consensus when it has ruptured, generally to the right, across so much of the planet is a very silly fantasy. It may be that it is the obvious fragility of that fantasy that explains the increasingly hysterical response to the remaining attempts, at home and abroad, to pose alternatives.
In Fanon’s account of the pathologies of the postcolony, the “widespread scorn for the rest of the nation” on the part of what he refers to as a “bourgeois caste” dependent on the state for its enrichment “will harden thought and action”. This, he warns, “will lead to the reaffirmation of authority and the appearance of dictatorship. The leader, who has behind him a lifetime of political action and devoted patriotism, constitutes a screen between the people and the rapacious bourgeoisie since he stands surety for the ventures of that caste”.
That caste, always speaking in the name of the nation, will make it clear that “the vocation of their people is to obey, to go on obeying and to be obedient till the end of time”.
There’s no doubt that, under Zuma, we were moving away from the democratic gains established in 1994. The public sphere, including parts of the academy and the mainstream media, was effectively poisoned. Even middle-class actors such as people in nongovernmental organisations, journalists and academics were subject to the machinations of state intelligence.
Dissent on the part of impoverished black people was, from the attack on Abahlali baseMjondolo in the Kennedy Road shack settlement in Durban in 2009 to the Marikana massacre in 2012, increasingly met with the brazen use of violence mediated through both the ruling party and the state.
There has been a quick and significant restoration of basic democratic norms since the defeat of Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma at Nasrec in late 2017 and Ramaphosa’s ascension to the presidency about a year ago. The monomania with which much of the media focuses on state corruption often obscures this but it is significant. It opens space for organisation, mobilisation and the exploration of economic and political alternatives to the attempt to restore, although now with more than a tinge of austerity, a version of the pre-Zuma order.
It is generally understood that the democratic gains won in 1994 would have been subject to increasingly rapid reversals had the ANC faction who cohered around Zuma sustained its control over the party and thereby the state. But it is not generally understood that the restoration of basic democratic norms under Ramaphosa will not be sustainable as it becomes clear that, even if corruption is significantly curtailed, mass racialised impoverishment will continue to be the defining feature of our society.
As dissent, organised or not, escalates and support for the forces that aim to restore the pre-Zuma order declines, there will be a crisis of legitimacy. If an attempt is made to navigate that crisis by sustaining a commitment to the authority of the market the logical way to resolve the tensions between popular aspirations and an exclusionary economy will be to turn, like Paul Kagame in Rwanda or Narendra Modi in India, to a form of authoritarian capitalism.
At the moment, the primary political contestation is between the forces in the ANC who have been enriched by the market and those who have been enriched by the state. They both have significant allies outside of the ruling party.
In party-political terms, the Democratic Alliance, broadly speaking, has shared interests with the faction that has accumulated through the market and the EFF shares interest with the faction that has accumulated through the state.
But if we wish to sustain, and perhaps even expand, the democratic gains won in 1994, and to advance social justice, we need a third alternative, one built around a popular and democratic struggle to subordinate both the market and the state to the interests of society.
The reactionary consensus that has taken hold of much of the elite public sphere is profoundly inimical to this project. It may, in this age of dashed hopes, seem more than a little naive to seek to return to the grand hopes that animated the struggles against colonialism and apartheid. But without some kind of return to a popular and democratic project to centre social concerns, we’ll only lurch from one crisis to the next.
There is a reason Fanon ended his exploration of the pathologies of the postcolony with the injunction to “work out new concepts”. This is the time for new ideas, not the restoration of a globally discredited orthodoxy.
Richard Pithouse is an associate professor at the Wits Institute for Social and Economic Research