/ 26 October 2022

Combat destructive nihilism to build an egalitarian South African society

Safrica Politics Election Vote
The Electoral Commission of South Africa hopes to trigger conversations among the youth about the importance of voting. (Photo by RODGER BOSCH / AFP)

Reflecting on the corrosive effects of what some describe as South Africa’s morbid symptoms, it is important to ask how such toxicity seeps into the deepest caverns of the mind, re-aligning cultural values and transforming social relationships across society.

Mass discontent, unemployment and poverty have not made South Africa ripe for radical change. Instead, the status quo has served to delegitimise the institutions of government, discrediting the idea that they can serve the interests of the majority. The clientelist logic, which emanates from the ANC, has transformed some social movements and unions. They now often understand themselves as factions fighting for state resources, rather than political agents fighting for an extension of democracy to the workplace.

If socialist politics has any value within South Africa, it must confront and combat this budding nihilism.

The American philosopher Cornel West describes nihilism as “the monumental eclipse of hope, the unprecedented collapse of meaning and the incredible disregard for human life”. According to West, nihilism results in “a numbing detachment from others and a self-destructive disposition towards the world”.

These insights from West are indispensable because they are an acute reminder that humans do not live on bread alone. Our fundamental needs, which require satisfaction so that we may pursue well-being, are material and psychological. The search for identity, the attempt to unearth meaning in one’s life and the arduous struggle to retain a sense of dignity in a world that is forever attempting to degrade human life — these existential battles matter, especially to the subjugated.

Most of South Africa’s weak and fragmented left organisations generally agree about the need for a new political party, led by the working class, pushing for radical economic reforms. Nevertheless, there remains no national mass movement or political force that has emerged to take up this project. Political fragmentation wrought by more than a quarter century of neoliberalism has served to demobilise the popular classes, undermining the prospects of a movement that could change this state of affairs.

A political culture required to build and sustain radical mass politics is incompatible with the values generated by nihilism. If one is indifferent to human life, unanchored of meaning beyond self-interest, and bereft of hope, pursuing radical change can appear impossible and also wholly undesirable. 

However, ideas alone do not provoke the storms of historical change. Political education, although indispensable to organising, is not the ultimate or only solution to this obstacle because cultural values are birthed and constantly shaped by our social being. And one’s social being cannot be untethered from the economic conditions and relations that form the foundation of society’s political order.

Understanding the rise of nihilism opens an opportunity to once again examine the source and purpose of culture in politics. As noted by sociologist Bernard Magubane, cultural analysis must “transcend the state of idealist improvisation” and instead be grounded in material realities that correctly identify the basis of human suffering in a capitalist society.

The left often struggles when asked to think critically about the kind of identities that triumphant capitalism has created. But it would be dishonest to deny the broad sense of resignation that South African neoliberalism has produced. 

In the absence of a viable left, people have come to distrust the institutions of government, taking justice into their own hands or giving up completely on the idea that the world in which they live can ever be improved. This outlook is fundamentally incompatible with mass politics.

If the left cannot link this sense of anomie to the broader economic and social structures that have caused it, then opportunists on the right will be happy to pick up this task. One such example can be found in 2020, when the Democratic Alliance (DA), the official opposition, attempted to win back white voters who were annoyed by the party’s embrace of affirmative action by initiating a campaign to tackle farm murders, which the DA declared a “national emergency”. Behind these calls to stem a national crisis was a chauvinistic appeal to whites anxious about their social status in the country.

Violence in rural areas is an urgent issue but far-right pundits and organisations frame criminal attacks in rural areas as a deliberate scheme orchestrated by an organised black racist conspiracy, explicitly or tacitly supported by the government, specifically targeting white citizens on farms. While farm attacks are common, there is zero evidence to support this fantasy, it is just another example of the general problem of violent crime that plagues South Africa.

The far right, in South Africa and abroad, points to attacks on white farmers as evidence of “white genocide” and not poor policing or inequality. Cynically appealing to these fantasies, DA leader John Steenhuisen called for violence against white farmers to be categorised as a hate crime. The white right in South Africa has adopted the strategy of framing its campaigns as defence of minority rights in line with the general language of international human rights.

Rather than address the conditions and social relations that generate violence in rural areas, the DA chose to breed more animosity and distrust amongst white citizens towards black people. They put themselves in the company of deplorable figures, such as Tucker Carlson, Katie Hopkins and Lauren Southern, who have worked to propagate the myth of violent white persecution in the new South Africa. Ironically, the main consequence of the DA’s reactionary position is a touch of added irony, which also fuels the politics of the more chauvinistic versions of black nationalism.

Other examples of the impacts of nihilism can be found in the social constructions that frame our perception of reality and rationalise or motivate action within the social world — religion, cultural values, legislation, art and identity — are primarily moulded, not totally determined, by material conditions, accented by the living shadow of history and ongoing political developments.

For example, observe the swift spread of the Prosperity Gospel since the triumph of neoliberalism. A form of Pentecostal Christianity that promises health and financial prosperity for not just the born again but the born again who attract success through tithes, generous offerings and an unwavering attitude of positivity. 

Inspired by American televangelists, along with their Brazilian and Nigerian counterparts, such as Joel Osteen, TD Jakes and the late TB Joshua, these immensely rich, self-declared prophets have seized a multitude of imaginations across South Africa. 

Prophet Shepherd Bushiri, known to his followers as “Major 1”, boasts an estimated net worth of $100-million, while facing charges of theft, money laundering and fraud. Pastor Chris Oyakhilome, who once encouraged HIV-positive congregants to forgo their antiretroviral drugs for the power of faithful prayer,  has an estimated net worth of $50-million, frequently filling up the country’s stadiums with tens of thousands of followers.

It should not surprise that in a neoliberal epoch of grand inequality, where wealth signals personal virtue and in which capitalist states are reluctant to aid human development, millions around the world are seduced by a religious ideology that promises respite from the shame and suffering induced by seemingly inescapable financial precarity.

The memory of sustained militant organising and civil disobedience that led to the end of apartheid continues. An imperfect and at times factional coalition of forces, the anti-apartheid movement excelled at expanding political consciousness. 

Hope, a vital element of transformative politics, endured because anti-apartheid movements provided a tangible vision of a better future while also opening space for political activity that demonstrated the real possibility of change through collective and continuous resistance. 

Living in the belly of an authoritarian state, the oppressed, although disempowered by capital and white supremacy and facing colossal obstacles, were able to challenge objective conditions that seemed insurmountable and reclaim their agency through shared political struggle.

These days, the hopeful visions of South Africa’s political order and economic structure are abundantly scarce, replaced instead by various competing, limited ethno-nationalisms and other forms of reaction. This is no coincidence — since the mid-1990s market forces and an ANC state have gradually closed off avenues for meaningful, democratic participation in the governance of their communities and country. 

Implementing policies that rendered human development a secondary concern and often failing to provide de-commodified public services of a dignified quality, citizens have been stranded to fend for themselves. The growing financial precarity has compounded the depoliticisation of the working class and poor. Millions are simply too exhausted to care about politics — their minds and bodies drained by the daily effort to survive.

When citizens can summon the energy, political movements that speak to the urgent concerns of the working class and poor are scarce. In its ascension to executive power, and soon after it became a ruling party, the ANC captured, absorbed or marginalised the sections of the anti-apartheid movement committed to substantively egalitarian, anti-capitalist and grassroots politics. 

Importantly, this included the defanging of the labour movement, a pivotal and potent force in the liberation struggle. Prominent unions devolved to become overly bureaucratised mouthpieces of the ANC, lacking an internal culture of democracy, alienating rank-and-file membership while cosying up to employers.

The recent internal battles of the National Union of Metalworkers of South Africa reveal the dire state of the country’s labour movement. Leading up to its national conference, 30 officials were unreasonably suspended, as voices within the union demand more transparency and accountability. At such a critical moment in the country’s history, it appears some prominent union leadership is interested in advancing self-interest instead of mobilising the working-class struggle.

The opposition parties that have emerged post-apartheid, although expressing some ideological divergence from the ANC, have failed to re-awaken popular imaginations and revitalise depoliticised citizens by offering a compelling alternative. If not reactionary or chauvinistic, such as the Inkatha Freedom Party or the xenophobic ActionSA, they appeal to and in governance serve narrow interests. The DA, which proudly brands itself as a non-racial, liberal party, exists primarily to protect suburban comfort and appease commercial investment.

Julius Malema’s Economic Freedom Fighters claims to stand for pan-African socialism but the party has done little to build working-class power. Like its political forefathers, the EFF is entangled in the economy of patronage, ambivalent to democracy within the party and moored to the local version of what Cedric Johnson terms race reductionism. With this barren electoral landscape, apathy blooms. Of the 42.2-million citizens eligible to vote, only 17-million turned out to vote in the 2019 national election.

In July 2021, South Africans witnessed the explosive potential of despair left to fester. Following the arrest of former president Jacob Zuma, protests, riots and mass looting took place in KwaZulu-Natal and Gauteng. Partly organised by the ANC’s kleptocratic faction and its foot soldiers, but also a consequence of ever-growing poverty, the unrest reminded many older South Africans of the bloody political violence that characterised the country’s rocky transition to democracy.

The scope and intensity of the turmoil required the South African National Defence Force to deploy 25 000 troops in affected areas. After a week of chaos, more than 5 000 people had been arrested and 337 people were dead. Since that bewildering week, there is a lingering fear that, without economic intervention, another such eruption could occur on a national scale, pushing the country into unprecedented levels of instability.

The left is dispersed, generally inactive at the level of mass politics and its most promising organisations violently suppressed by the government. The cost of resistance, whether as protest for housing or whistleblowing, is tremendously high, discouraging many from throwing themselves into radical politics. For millions, life sucks and nothing seems to change, while politicians offer hollow promises. It is the death of hope and in Mark Fisher’s words the “slow cancellation of the future”.

It should come as no surprise that those locked out of economic activity resort to desperate means for survival. Crime in South Africa is not defined solely by its overwhelming prevalence but by its violence as well. Life is stunningly dispensable to people cultivated by unsatisfied material needs and social isolation.  

If we listen to the stories of convicted criminals — gang members, drug peddlers, car thieves, homeless pickpockets, as well as more elite racketeers — we can quickly understand that some are callous and indifferent to the lives of their victims because they were pummelled by material and social forces. Safety can rarely be found with the police, who struggle to deter most crimes or bring criminals to face the courts — or even a holding cell.

Anxious and isolated, living in poverty or financial precarity, distrustful of others, we sink into ourselves, at times adopting self-destructive coping mechanisms. A mental health crisis among the youth is forming on the horizon. Unable to find jobs and meet the delusional expectations of bootstrap ideology, young people across South Africa are increasingly seized by depression, loneliness, anxiety and are resorting to suicide and substance abuse. 

The reluctance to engage in politics spreads because fewer and fewer people can invest trust in others. More and more of us are becoming cynics who believe in nothing but the selfishness of others and our own capacity to survive.

To overcome nihilism and reanimate political imaginations, we must recapture the viability of class struggle that can produce real change. Socialists appear to be reaching the consensus that a variety of strategies will be required over years of work: contesting the electoral space, to both spread a programme of radical reform on urgent issues and be a visible, effective presence in local governments; rebuilding a militant labour movement, from the ground up, to leverage power against capital and consistent solidarity, with and participation in, principled movements for social justice and placing environmental justice at the centre of left politics.

Democracy has provided invaluable room for righteous dissent. To combat the destructive power of nihilism, and the ruling class who allow it to flourish, tremendous work must be done to protect the vulnerable, inspire and persuade the dispossessed, and propel South Africa into a truly egalitarian future.

This is an edited version of an article first published by Africa is a Country.

Andile Zulu is with the Alternative Information and Development Centre in Cape Town. He writes in his personal capacity.

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the Mail & Guardian.