The African National Congress has been captured by a predatory elite that is cynical, corrupt, ruthless and reckless. It is actively reinscribing unbridgeable inequalities into the deep structures of our society. The transit camps and new townships in the cities, the enduring ways in which the former Bantustans remain separate and unequal zones in the countryside, the state of public education and the growth of unemployment and precarious work all mark out this out with undeniable clarity. Workers live in shacks while their bosses gather unimaginable wealth. There is an abundance of land for game farms and golf courses but from Johannesburg to Cape Town the state sends out its men with guns to illegally and violently dispossess people that seize just enough land, often wasteland, to erect a one room shack.
Attempts to find some ground for basic survival in an inhuman society are treated as criminal and consequent to sinister conspiracies. The ANC is violently intolerant of independent thought and organisation amongst the grassroots constituency in whose name it assumes a natural and permanent right to speak and act. It arrests, beats and tortures its grassroots critics. It fabricates criminal cases against them, drives them out of their homes and openly threatens to kill them.
Neither the fact that there are and have been many governments far worse than the ANC nor the reality that progress, sometimes profound progress, has been made in many areas since the end of apartheid are sufficient to redeem the party. After all it itself has, in its better moments, invited us to judge it on the basis of the Freedom Charter, the Constitution and, most of all, the aspirations of our people for dignified lives. The increasing frequency of the suggestion that distance from apartheid rather than proximity to some positive aspiration is the proper metric with which to take the measure of our progress is simply another mark of defeat.
Jacob Zuma and Julius Malema, both evidently corrupt and authoritarian men, present us with deeply masculinised, and at times even militarised, images of a mode of personal power that seeks to ground itself in the symbolic economy of violence rather than democratic organisation and debate and to legitimate and express itself outside of both liberal democratic institutions and popular democratic practices. Of course its true that the ANC retains the supports of progressives, liberals and technocrats of various sorts. But while there are prospects for progress in some areas, like health care, the reality is that in most instances bringing these people into various projects within the party is a mode of legitimation and containment rather than sincere engagement.
Different people will, on the basis of both their principles and experiences, call the precise moment at which the ANC became indefensible differently. But now that the very public massacre in Marikana has followed the very public murder of Andries Tatane - and now that the grotesque authoritarianism within the police, the union movement and the Communist Party has been openly laid out in our public sphere - only the wilfully naïve and the cynical can sustain their professions of faith in the democratic aspirations of the ANC.
Neither the fact that some among the striking miners had killed nor the fact that as a group they had prepared themselves for battle justifies their slaughter. The strikers were certainly not killed to defend the sanctity of life or to contain political engagement in liberal democratic institutions. The ANC, from Zuma to the trade unions, routinely acts outside of those institutions. And when people have been killed in xenophobic attacks, or in the midst of COSATU strikes, the state does not respond with mass slaughter. A trade union federation aligned to the ANC can destroy property, intimidate people and beat people up in public without a violent response from the state. Yet a poor people's movement that organises independently of the ANC and engages in protest action that results in no harm to any person, makes no threats of harm against any person and does no damage to property is quite likely to be subject to serious police violence. This reality is at the heart of the matter. The ANC's support is fracturing amongst both organised workers and communities and its response is typically characterised by recourse to conspiracy theory and then slander and violence rather than self-reflection and dialogue.
There is no doubt that this massacre marks a historic turning point. But while it is essential that
we take full and collective measure of the ANC's failures it is equally essential that we do not take the easy option of only ascribing the distance between our faltering aspirations for a democratic and just society and the altogether more bleak and brutal realities of South African life to the ANC.
Party politics is a farce in which different factions of the elite pretend to represent the people as a whole. There is no party that seriously speaks to, let alone for, the aspirations of the majority. And civil society also has a lot to account for. The arrogance that undergirds its habitual conflation of NGO power with popular power and the routine and often racialised paternalism with which it frequently engages or presumes to speak for poor people is predicated on a simple contempt for the equal humanity of people who are poor. Its widespread reliance on technocratic and legal solutions to deeply political problems has proven to be both culpably naïve and complicit with the professionalisation of certain modes of political engagement that has entrenched the expulsion of ordinary people from our public sphere.
The media, with its systemic disregard for the equal humanity of poor people, also shares some of the responsibility for bringing us to this point. The academy, in which the elitism and personal ambition that undergirds much of the attraction to the constituted power of international institutions, the state, donors and NGOs rather than attempts to develop solidarity with the oppressed, and especially solidarity that can contribute to the constitution of nodes of popular and democratic counter-power, is also culpable. Religious leaders have often preferred to share the stage with politicians rather than to be present amidst the day to day suffering and struggles of their congregations.
The left has often been far more committed to building a base on the NGO and donor terrain than to building solidarity with actually existing popular struggles. When it has engaged popular struggles it has often done so in a manner that is profoundly patronising and, in some cases, more about legitimating its own donor backed projects rather than building real solidarity. It has also failed to mark a clear distance from the real authoritarianism and, in some cases outright thuggery, that it has long sheltered and sometimes even celebrated.
Business, which has been corrupt at the highest levels and which is often ruthlessly predatory, is deeply implicated in the morass into which we have descended. Middle class South Africa likes to think of itself as virtuous, hard-working and untainted by the excesses and corruption of the really powerful people in our society. But when the fear of the poor and contempt for the poor that often swirls just beneath the surface is masked that mask is seldom firmly fixed.
This massacre is no tragedy. It is an outrage that will leave a permanent stain on our society. It is also an outrage that was perpetrated by an increasingly predatory and repressive regime. But while it is essential to face up to the reality of what the ANC has become it is equally essential to acknowledge that the ANC is not solely responsible for the situation in which we find ourselves. It is time for a collective facing up to the broader realities of our society and a collective rethinking of a way forward.
- Pithouse teaches politics at Rhodes University. This article was published on South African Civil Society Information Services website.