Revolution appears to await us on the horizon; it seems not only inevitable but necessary for this country’s survival.
This prediction isn’t founded in a romantic or naive lust for political upheaval. Rather, a familiarity with history’s cautionary tales coupled with a sobering awareness of conditions in the country suggests we are approaching a rupture in our politics.
The rainbow nation is broken. The present order of our politics cannot be fixed by reform. Not only is it beyond redemption, but post-apartheid South Africa in its current form is unsustainable.
To understand the magnitude of the present problems that face us, a brief reflection of history is required.
What apartheid did was comprehensively disempower black South Africans. The ability to build intergenerational wealth and secure the well-being of one’s family, enrich one’s mind with knowledge or advance one’s career with skills; the ability to live and work where one sees fit, to participate in the governance and building of one’s society; the chance for existence to become more than a harsh struggle for one’s daily bread — such sovereignty over one’s life for people of colour, especially those branded as black, was violated by apartheid.
Keeping this history in mind, one must ask: 25 years later, are black citizens still alienated from power? Are South Africans in general free not only from external oppression, but free, possessing tangible power as citizens, to rule over our own lives? Taking a sober look at the quality of life for many in this country, I would say no.
Faith and trust in government withers and wanes with each passing year. For an increasing number of citizens, government fails not only in its lethargic pace of service delivery, but the culture of corruption and the prevalence of networks of patronage has muddied the moral integrity of politicians in the eyes of civilians.
Such perceptions cause people to disengage from formal politics because their elected servants are seeming unable and unwilling to solve issues.
Worse, the relationship between the state and civilians has deteriorated, accelerating into mutual hostility. The 300 000 preventable deaths caused by Thabo Mbeki’s HIV denialism, the 34 miners murdered in 2012 at Marikana, the R215-million of taxpayers money wasted on former president Jacob Zuma’s home, Nkandla — these moments unmask a political elite that actively acts against their citizens, often without fear of repercussion.
The most volatile factors are the record-breaking levels of inequality, coupled with poverty. We all know the host of socioeconomic dilemmas rooted in the destitution of millions: people terrorised by crime and drug abuse, the despair of unemployed youth, mass malnourishment, individual lives trapped in low-paying, exploitative and spiritually unsatisfying labour.
And what do the poor and working class see besides their impoverishment? Mayors lounging in limousines and state bureaucrats parading ill-gotten wealth that could feed those they fail to serve.
Across the squalor of squatter camps, one can often see the beauty of pristine suburbs and elegant gated estates. Let’s not forget the sharp disparities in education and healthcare.
The intensity of inequality is evidence that, truly, South Africa does not belong to all who live in it.
The historical and logical outcome of such inequality? Explosive revolt. Not because of envy for the rich and privileged. The mounting anger at inequality is a righteous kind of fury at the despotism of injustice.
The past 25 years have displayed the general lack of ability in government, and I’d argue in all major opposition parties, to produce legislation and policy to tackle our crippling socioeconomic issues.
Historically, governments that fail to respond to disgruntled citizens while also failing to overcome crises, increase the likelihood of their power being usurped. The question is whether the ANC’s power will be challenged through the formality of elections or subverted with unconventional instruments.
Having taken stock of how severe and unbearable social and material realities of the country are for millions, I think we must seriously confront two possibilities for the future: the second coming of authoritarianism (this time wearing a black face) or the harnessing of this discontent into a popular, democratic and intersectional revolution.
The first possible future would be our collapse into the post-colonial nightmare that many other African countries have become. This possibility doesn’t seem far-fetched when one notices the circles in the ruling party (and some opposition parties), that detest criticism and have no tolerance for dissent.
We’ve witnessed these tendencies in political parties expelling reasonably rebellious members or threatening, at times violently, journalists serving their duty to our democracy. At a local level the values of democracy are undermined through the increasing frequency of political assassinations.
The appetite for brutality in the police force didn’t disappear with the end of apartheid. The behaviour of the police during the Marikana massacre, the #FeesMustFall protests and its vicious harassment of activists belonging to movements that seriously threaten the hegemony of the government, such as Abahlali baseMjondolo, is evidence of the state’s muscle being exercised to pulverize agitators in the name of law and order.
Crucially, we can’t forget to remember that police brutality is rarely punished; no member of the police service has been prosecuted for the killing of protesting miners in Marikana — this sets a dangerous precedent for state power to be wielded with impunity against citizens breathing life into their rights. It remains to be seen if our hard-working democratic institutions can continue to hold against these regressive inclinations in the state and government.
Besides the government and state, two actors that remain key to a slow march towards authoritarianism are the private sector and a country’s citizenry. Across lines of class and race a discontent seems to be swelling.
This dissatisfaction results in anger at economic instability and the deterioration of social life.
Popular discontent can be manipulated by governments anxious to retain power. Often this plays out as the surrender of civil liberties and rights for the promise of order and security. It is a dangerous exchange which we have seen unfold around the world with the election of right-wing leaders such as Jair Bolsonaro in Brazil, Donald Trump in the United States and Narendra Modi in India.
The Democratic Alliance’s call to “secure borders”, the deployment of the army to the Cape Flats, Rich Mkhondo’s unashamed call for an enlightened dictatorship in the Sunday Times — all responses to crises in our country that didn’t seem to leave enough citizens outraged.
To maintain power, authoritarian leadership often enters into a partnership with the private sector of the economy. The overarching mandate of business, particularly large corporations, is the pursuit of profit. Ethical practices and moral commitments can and often do exist in corporations but these concerns are subservient to producing profit.
The soliciting of President Cyril Ramaphosa, formerly a board member of Lonmin plc, to co-ordinate “concomitant action” against “criminal protesters” in the days leading up to Marikana, alongside Lonmin’s refusal to negotiate with the striking miners is an example of an almost callous disregard for the practice of human rights if they interfere with profits.
The second possible future offers a chance for South Africans to start anew the project largely abandoned in 1994. Present alongside authoritarian tendencies in our political landscape is a counter-culture of radical compassion articulated as activism, charity and advocacy.
Besides the chapter nine institutions, there are organisations and there have been grassroots movements in our recent history motivated by a deep disdain for injustice: the fight for affordable housing and against evictions by Abahlali baseMjondolo, the battles for quality education waged by Equal Education campaigns, The Casual Workers Advice Office’s struggles to protect neglected casual workers, the Treatment Action Campaign’s work to make antiretroviral drugs available to South Africans in the early 2000s.
There is an aching among citizens for a new form of politics. The activities of organisations and movements listed above shows the eager willingness of some civilians to contribute towards a radical renewal of economic and political life.
What is lacking and desperately needed is organisation that involves masses of people, as seen recently in Libya, Lebanon, Hong Kong and not too long ago with the Arab Spring in the Middle East and Occupy Wall Street in the United States.
A movement towards expanding freedom through a reclamation and the just redistribution of power, steered by democratic principles and attuned to the needs of all categories of citizens, particularly those who are our most vulnerable appears to be the only way to realise a truly liberated South Africa.
Andile Zulu is a blogger and cultural critic