/ 22 May 2021

We have become spectators in our own democracy

Graphic Tl Andile Democracy2 Twitter
(John McCann/M&G)

A new consciousness is spreading among South Africans. It is thrilling and monumental, subversive and dangerous: liberal democracy, and the economic order that it is bound to, cannot meet the needs of our society. Never before have people been so nauseated with discontent, aching for change but unable to summon the energy for its initiation.  How did we get to this realisation?

As news of former ANC secretary general Ace Magashule’s suspension stormed headlines, I shrugged my shoulders, feeling numb. A familiar pessimism settled and I wondered, “Does this change anything for the rest of us?” Does this spectacle stop the incompetence of government or transform the parasitic nature of the state? And if nothing changes, what can the rest of us do?

At this juncture I know people will plead for me to use my vote to transform our political terrain. With elections approaching there will be articles on disconcerting voter apathy. Some of our elders will be disappointed, almost to the point of shame, that so many of the youth appear ungrateful for a right paid for in decades of daunting, bloody struggle. 

Political apathy is not unique to the youth, nor does it spring solely from childish indifference. How can one expect the disempowered and the destitute not to feel apathetic? While political elites bicker, citizens stand on the sidelines, some cheering, others asleep, as the shock waves and tremors of unending crises fracture the ground beneath us.

It’s as though citizens have become afterthoughts in policy and governance. Finance Minister Tito Mboweni tries to amuse Twitter with pics of his mediocre cooking while increasing food insecurity starves millions, this plunge into scarcity hastened by Mboweni’s irrational commitment to fiscal austerity and the inability of his party to attend to the needs of citizens during a clumsily conducted, employment-devouring lockdown. 

As royal families fight for the riches of empty thrones, their so-called “subjects” in rural areas remain neglected by local government, their lands primed for corporate exploitation, surrounded by joblessness. Those who do work, labour for a life few would call dignified. 

At the coverage of King Misuzulu’s appointment to the throne, questions regarding his competency as a leader or the needs of his people were absent. Too enamoured by the artificial prestige of power, many forgot to ask what effect it would have on the lives of ordinary people. 

Much of the population has been politically pacified, lulled and often forced into submission, to watch or comment but never meaningfully to participate in the struggles for power that affect our lives. This pacification is an orchestrated and inescapable result of our political system. 

The forces of pacification

The demands of capitalism have invaded our lives, restricting our sense of control. Since Thabo Mbeki’s presidency we’ve been told economic growth is the highest priority as a remedy to widening inequality, poverty and unemployment. But economic growth isn’t always collectively beneficial. By design, most people will not reap the rewards of the labour which produces this country’s wealth because it is held by private interests. Citizens are isolated from concerns about how, where and for what purposes wealth is produced. 

Unjust as the economy is, the choice for most people is between work or starvation. After a day of long hours, bad pay and exhausting toil, who can summon the energy to engage in politics? 

It is a struggle for survival. Anxious planning and constant calculation occupy people’s thoughts because essential needs are commodified. People’s ability to satisfy their basic needs and thrive is threatened by factors outside their control: debt, retrenchment, price hikes, medical emergencies. Most people endure a precarious existence, one crisis away from plunging into poverty. 

Away from work, vitality depleted by the labour that occupies the majority of waking hours, there is a craving for intoxicating relaxation. It’s not hard to figure out why so many in our society soak their weekends in booze. There is a frantic need to escape the dullness of everyday life, to blur the memory of violence and trauma, to forget the social decay within our communities, which pours into our personal lives. 

Refuge from reality can also be found in the ever-expanding entertainment industry. Finding momentary respite in the fantasies of soap operas or the memes of Twitter is not inherently bad. Overconsumption is the risk. It can work to pacify us to our lived reality and the socio­political disasters that entangle us all. The primary objective in mainstream content creation is selling ad space. Making popular or “viral” entertainment is how this objective is achieved. 

What this results in is content that may be exciting, of a high quality or intellectually provocative, but not too challenging to our assumptions about the world. This is especially true in the South African entertainment industry. So much of it reflects what we already know, reinforces corrosive prejudice and legitimates dominant ideology. People will not be jolted into political action by the flickerings on their TV screens. 

In the years of our transition to the current, diluted form of democracy, the participation of people in the organisation of power was not in the interests of political leadership and their corporate partners. The unrelenting force of mass mobilisation — union strikes, student protests, street militancy, civil disobedience — had rendered apartheid unsustainable. The ANC was aware of how threatening a politically active citizenry could be to its project of compromise and with the former regime and with capital in the country and abroad. 

Russel Grinker argued: “The stabilisation of capitalism in post-apartheid South Africa demanded the neutralising of grassroots aspirations towards social change. In the sphere of politics, the main priority of the ANC regime was to ensure that the urban and rural proletariat should be deprived of its own organisational and political voice — its ability to represent itself.” 

Accompanying this silencing of the masses was the deliberate attempts to alienate or silence radical voices within the tripartite alliance. 

The lack of compelling alternatives beyond the ANC is not a coincidence. Outside mainstream political parties and a handful of grassroots organisations or NGOs, there is little room for ordinary citizens to mobilise. Even when people have the energy to protest and resist, it is sporadic rebellion, often expressing righteous rage rather than a programme with any long-term goals. 

Witnessing the brutality of the South African Police Service (SAPS) throughout the #FeesMustFall movement against unarmed students, one realises that the cost of political activism is high. Much like its apartheid predecessor, the SAPS — although to a different degree — exists to pacify a justly indignant underclass through the threat or use of violence. 

It can be tempting, reassuring for some, to blame the state’s brutality on poor training or a minority of rogue police officers. Sadly the vicious treatment of protesters is unexceptional. It’s often the first resort of the police services when facing mobilised citizens — particularly when they are black, poor and working class. The fear that violent police instil can be traumatising. And this violence is often accompanied by torture, harassment, surveillance and intimidation. Many are reasonably afraid of what they might lose if they were to engage in agitational politics.

The intensity of state violence acts to punish citizens for trying to exercise power beyond their status. It aims to protect an order in which we are spectators and not meaningful participants in democracy. Let us not forget, the decades-long resistance to apartheid was not solely a struggle for racial equality. It was a war for self-determination. This means constructing a society that grants the right and provides the means for people to decide how their lives will be spent. Such a vision necessitates that people have power and not that it be concentrated in the hands of a few. 

If we are so disempowered, what can we do? Do we just yield to pessimism? Certainly not. Engaging in politics is partly believing in what presently seems impossible. 

There are contradictions in our liberal capitalist democracy that make it ripe for new developments. Flaws within the system and massive blunders by the ANC will produce more discontent. The question is when and how that discontent can be spent towards mobilising citizens towards needed radical change, instead of aimless rebellion. 

I have faith that we can become more than spectators and victims. South Africans have conducted productive rebellion under much harsher conditions and we will do so again.