A dangerous contradiction mires South African politics: a rhetorical commitment by government to the empowerment of people, which is then rendered hollow by the increasing alienation of citizens from the levers of power.
We are beginning to see the explosive potential of this contradiction. It is sustained, partly, by a fatal misunderstanding of power.
In recent years, the industries of political discourse have bemoaned the gradual death of democracy in South Africa. This language reveals how meagre dominant political imaginations have become, particularly in academia and the media.
I don’t think democracy is dead. To declare democracy dead relies on the delusion that it ever possessed any significant vitality in the first place.
Generally, there is a liberal consensus which defines democracy as a mode of popular self-governance, where the will of citizens is enacted through their elected representatives. Resting upon this foundation, the other fundamental features are equality before the law, civil liberties and political competition.
It’s the form of democracy we’ve known in South Africa since 1994, and since the 1990s around the world we have witnessed its rapidly accelerating implosion. Nationalist repression in India, corporate coup d’etat in the United States, right-wing populism spreading across Europe and the never-ending plunder of state resources by authoritarian leaders across Africa.
How is it that those who are supposed to act as instruments of the will of the people frequently show an unapologetic disregard or deliberate subversion of it?
In the South African context, the passivity of politicians to the interests and needs of citizens must be seen as systemic and not just an endemic flaw in a particular government. The reaction from the president’s office to recent events across the country displayed the lethargic manner with which the government tackles its duties and responsibilities. Worse, the reaction from the public displays how many of us are willing participants in our political emasculation.
Throughout the past week, womxn marched alongside their allies in protest, refusing to further endure the terror unleashed by men on their bodies.
Simultaneously our republic was shamed by leaders across the continent as migrants again became victims of misdirected fury and frustration.
Oddly, the halls of Luthuli House remained silent. The chambers of Parliament seemed vacant. Where had the leaders of government gone? The president himself, Cyril Ramaphosa, whose smiling face often crowds our TV screens and newspapers, remained loudly absent from the public eye. As thousands of protesters gathered on the World Economic Forum on Wednesday, demanding accountability from their president, the South African Police Force met citizens’ grievances with teargas.
The president’s eventual address on national television proved unsatisfying. The legislative solutions proposed to end gender-based violence failed to confront the systemic nature of the issue. Ramapahosa’s condemnation of xenophobic violence made the usual ineffectual appeals to African unity. Disappointed by the mild flavour of government solutions, a familiar question menaces the minds of citizens: Will our leaders actually do anything?
Reflecting on this question, a bitter realisation gripped my mind — we’ve done this before: the scandals of Nkandla, Marikana, state capture, gender-based violence. A certain crisis will become unbearable and will be followed by outrage and protest. Justified demands for accountability and response from government will be made. Politicians will respond with the expected statements and promises, followed by little legislative change or policy action.
The depressing irony is how we, as citizens, expect earnest concern and effective solutions from an institution that often exacerbates our socio-economic issues through its gross negligence or at times holds direct responsibility for the deformities of our society.
Not a week goes by where one doesn’t hear political commentators complain about the absence of ethical leadership in South Africa. This grievance is valid. Unethical leaders are a liability to the progress and stability of a society.
But, the moral failings of individuals don’t exist in a vacuum. One must ask: What structure or structures create an environment that allows such behaviour — and in some instances encourage it?
Liberal democracy rests on a belief that people ruling over their own lives is a moral good and political necessity. And I agree that a society should be controlled by its people. But, this belief is undermined by the ways through which it has been implemented historically. In other words, a very limited vision of “government for the people by the people” is enacted. The power to make tangible the will of a society’s people, through state resources and institutions, is outsourced and concentrated in the hands of a political minority.
Another form of dominant power exists alongside the state, one whose character is often misconstrued and rarely criticised in our political discourse: the titanic power of capital.
Small collectives of individuals, acting through corporations and big business, wield a kind of power that has little to no parallels in the history of human civilization.
One of the fathers of modern economics, Adam Smith, referred to those who held such industrial and commercial capacity as “the masters of mankind”. His remarks are more than just poetic hyperbole. Control over how resources are distributed and sold as goods or services, on which our livelihoods depend, is a potent form of control over a society.
What results from these formations of power? A significant portion of our lives function under the authority of elites: politicians, high ranking state bureaucrats and high ranking individuals in the private sector. Power in and of itself is not a problem. But highly concentrated power, largely unaccountable and wielded over others, corrodes the moral consciousness of those who possess it and is often used to oppress those who live in its shadow.
Because many still cling to a liberal conception of democracy, we do not see the true faces and functions of power — to our own detriment. This is particularly true of civil society. Yet in our daily experiences we painfully endure its destructive effects.
It seems that our political thought drowns in what Karl Marx described as “false consciousness”. Basically, this describes the methods used by economic elites to trick the working class into accepting their exploitation. The term can be transplanted on to the South African landscape to describe how the current structure of political and economic power works to pacify citizens into accepting their disempowerment.
False consciousness cements its place in our minds and reproduces through the mythology we produce about our political leadership. One emotionally compelling myth is that of a great leader who will save us from falling into chaos.
This messianic figure will be too intelligent to mismanage the state, too virtuous to be seduced by networks of patronage and so in touch with the principles of ubuntu that they will serve the interests of all South Africans.
Ramaphosa was such a figure — eloquent, educated and supposedly ethical. Nelson Mandela was, in our minds, the ideal manifestation of ethical leadership. Such storytelling is emotionally nourishing but dangerously detached from reality.
Even our solutions flow from flawed assumptions. Voting is an indispensable instrument of democracy but it can only potentially remove individuals who are corrupt, while leaving the structures that create conditions for corruption (and other abuses) intact.
And we know that the issue of corruption goes beyond the ANC. All political parties become involved in the issue, albeit in varying degrees, when the state becomes an arena for individuals and groups to advance their personal status or financial interests, rather than serve the public’s well-being.
One witnesses the mounting rage and disillusionment among citizens in the frequency of protests and strikes. Martin Luther King Jr noted this when he said: “A riot is the language of the unheard.” The concentration of power among an elite few erects barriers between government and its people. When the citizens’ disenchantment with their leaders erupts into violence, they must face the barricade of the South African Police Service.
I don’t doubt that this tool of the state exists to maintain law and order, but the question remains: Who are these laws designed to protect? Whose interests are served by this order? The potential of the media to speak truth to power has largely been quelled by the pervasive presence of poverty and inequality.
For a massive portion of the population who are badly educated and preoccupied with survival in an inhospitable economic environment, the media is largely inaccessible.
The achievement of substantial freedom and equality is thwarted by democracy’s limbo in adolescence. Its development is stunted by a belief that saviours await us at the next election. And so, the principles of democracy aren’t allowed to progress to their revolutionary conclusions. People can only tolerate so much destitution. If power reflects the interests of those who wield it, then let it rest firmly in the hands of the millions who want to better their lives.
Andile Zulu is a writer and cultural critic and has a blog called Born Free Blues