/ 23 May 2020

The past can guide the present

South African Defence Force (SADF) troops give sweets to Tokoza children as they pull out from the region, on April 13, 1994. - The SADF was replaced today by the new National Peace Keeping Forces (NPKF) who will take over control of security for this area. (Photo by Mike PERSSON / AFP)


The State of Disaster has been evolving since its declaration on March 15. Following local and global acclaim for its responsive, science-based approach, the government has come under increased scrutiny for its turn towards command and control. After the extended 35-day lockdown, President Cyril Ramaphosa announced a staged relaxation, which paradoxically included strict limitations that were not part of the preceding “hard” lockdown.

The government’s response appears awfully familiar. Different as the situations may be, to understand the present we should turn to the past.

Since 1994, South Africa has abided the post-Cold War international order to pave its path along Western liberal norms. The newly elected liberation party assumed the power of government at a time when it had little choice but to accede to these prevailing internationalist truths. It could either stand secure inside a global arrangement of states that ensured wealth and privilege along mandated rules and lines of thought, or it could perilously go it alone.

Based on hegemonic international practices and because of the injustices and vagaries of the country’s brutalised past, the ANC sought to salvage the state it inherited in accordance with the international system. It gave up an element of sovereign independence, chose to reconfigure its revolutionary strategy and became a casualty of its time by acquiescing to fantastical end- of-history persuasions. South Africa chose indirect governance over direct government.

This approach to power is captured in the dogma of good governance, the conformity to a set of prescribed indicators of administrative best practice; a managerial approach to political authority. Good governance does not interrogate peculiarities, nor is it based on the lay of the land. Instead, it accedes to specific standards. Having never executed power, the ANC alliance assumed leadership by following.

Through efforts to advance the rights-based democratic ideals that gave expression to the Constitution, it pursued development along international governance norms. The constitutive initial phase of democracy, characterised by consultation, policy formulation and institutional consolidation, adhered to this dogma. Government’s aspirational approach aligned to the aspirational character of the new Constitution.

The modalities of good governance were, however, as foreign to the ANC as they were to South Africa. In accordance with international norms, the history of the state was suppressed.

When Nelson Mandela ascended to the presidency, a new nation was not born. The South African state remained; it was just given another life.

This is the reason the Economic Freedom Fighters rebuffed former president FW de Klerk’s presence at the State of the Nation address earlier this year. This was no argumentum ad hominem. It was a politically astute move to delegitimise the government. It essentially charged the ANC with ruling over the state of De Klerk.

By rejecting the government’s legitimacy, its authority over law and order, the EFF seeks to bring down the edifice upon which the government rests. Potentially portending a move toward coup d’etat, it presciently recalls the architecture and history of the state.

While the ANC government prefers to limit the debate about the history of the state, the EFF critically reminds us of where we come from. It invokes an awakening to the history of the state.

To accurately perceive the frenzied national condition, South Africa needs to shed the veil of ignorance that conceals the history of the state.

The late 1970s saw the introduction of a total national strategy that was legitimised by what the state labelled a “total onslaught”; what others benignly referred to as the “struggle”. These analogous approaches shaped the national order that emerged in 1994. The total national strategy as laid out in the 1977 white paper on defence called for a “comprehensive plan to utilise all the means available to a state … A total national strategy is, therefore, not confined to a particular sphere, but applicable at all levels and to all functions of the state structure.”

As was the case under the total strategy, today’s concern is security. A security oriented government by decree is being justified in the fight against the nebulous Covid-19.

The rise of the ambiguous National Coronavirus Command Council begs serious questions. It reminds of how under the total national strategy, power moved from the Cabinet to be concentrated into the State Security Council and later the National Security Management System. Vigilance must persist against decreed rule by selective committees.

Whereas the pragmatic former president PW Botha essentially portrayed the role of a crisis manager, today the similarly astute administrator, Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma, regarded by some as a sort of prime minister, rules by regulation. Botha was obsessed with security; to maintain law and order he insisted upon an expanded militarisation despite the government’s recognition that there was no military solution.

Today command and control again reign supreme. Reminiscent of the 1980s, the defence force is again (mainly) wielding sjamboks in townships. With more than 70000 troops deployed to maintain law and order, we are clearly no longer in the domain of governance and have returned to a statist government. We are again seeing a total strategy whereby the resources of war are mobilised at political and economic levels.

What really is the perceived threat upon which government’s strategy is based? Is the defence force called upon because the state is fearful of its ability to maintain trust and legitimacy? Is it facing a potential loss in law and order? Though the virus is new, we have been here before.

The ongoing state of exception presents a Manichean situation whereby in claiming one’s rights, one necessarily stands outside the law. The threat of a normalised state of exception is the temporary if not permanent loss of freedom. In the words of the American whistle-blower, Edward Snowden: “A virus is harmful, but the destruction of rights is fatal.” 

South Africa’s bewilderment has largely been based on the perception that there is no precedent to demonstrable state control. Covid-19 may be novel, but limitation by government regulation is not. There is an urgent need to wake up to history, to view the past in order to discern the present.

Although the ANC government has consulted widely and the state of exception is administered under the relevant Act, any limitation of rights and privileges must be challenged. Learning from the past, South Africans must be cautious of securocrats’ use of security as a central means of government.

Klaus Kotzé is the AW Mellon UCT postdoctoral research fellow at the Centre for Rhetoric Studies at the University of Cape Town’s law faculty