How can SA stop the rot?

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By Richard Pithouse

MANY societies before us have travelled the well worn path that winds down the slope, gentle at first but then precipitous, that runs from the bliss of a new dawn and into the stench of a rotting dream. And many societies have discovered that neither shared participation in the great drama of a national struggle nor a founding leader that, like Kwame Nkrumah, Jawaharlal Nehru or Jomo Kenyatta, matched a real stature on the world stage with an ability to express a collective sense of historical destiny at home, guarantee anything.

Novels like Ayi Kwei Armah's The Beautiful Ones Are Not Yet Born, Salman Rushdie's Midnight's Children or Ngugi wa Thiong'o's Wizard of the Crow are full of the overwhelming sense of rot that a particular generation of Indians, Ghanaians and Kenyans had to confront.

Corruption, not just in the sense of financial corruption, but the corruption of institutions, organisations, memory, language and relationships — including intimate relationships — is at the heart of all of these books. And with this corruption comes sycophantic performances of adoration for naked emperors, endless rhetoric, empty and pompous in equal measure, that is increasingly detached from any connection to reality, attempts to sustain loyalty and suppress dissent by trying to bind the evasions of the present into the drama of the past, fabricated threats to the new order, ethnic politics, patronage, violence and the constant rescheduling of the moment of national redemption always reported to be on the horizon but never attained.

As the ANC returns to Mangaung in its centenary year the SACP has informed us that criticism of Jacob Zuma is criticism of the national democratic revolution.

A couple of months ago the party declared that criticism of Zuma was "imperialist aggression" aimed at "recolonising the country".

It is the language, in its classic form, of dictatorship. And as the ANC acquires more of the accoutrements of a classic dictatorship — a presidential palace, wailing cavalcades, bodyguards and other performances of overweening personal power, the right for some to plunder with impunity, a steady escalation in the murder of protesters leading up to a massacre, regular political assassination, activists tortured, burnt out of their homes and denied the right to protest - it is no wonder we inhabit a growing sense of rot.

Of course there are good people in government, with Aaron Motsoaledi being the most frequently cited example. Some of the most penetrating critiques of the degeneration of the ruling party have, like Pallo Jordan's response to the Marikana massacre or Zwelinzima Vavi's critique of the predatory currents in the political class, come from within its own ranks.

The idea that the ANC can return to what is imagined to be its true self, an idea that certainly has real popular resonance, is frequently advanced from within the party.

We have been told that Mangaung could mark the moment at which the party confronts its weaknesses, casts off its slough and moves towards renewal, a second transition or a Zuma Moment. Those of us who are not privy to the plans being hatched and deals being cut within the party have no clear idea of the real nature and relative strength of the forces within the ANC.

But it is clear that without a strategy to contest the degeneration in the party effectively, and without a base within the party to enable this strategy to be politically viable, the public expression of internal critique does not amount to an effective counter-project within the party.

On the contrary it could, whatever the intentions of the people calling for change, only function to offer further legitimation to the party and buy it a little more time.

Given the extent to which the party has come, from the very top to the very bottom, to be built around the circulation of patronage, it may well be that it has now reached the point where its degeneration is so entrenched as to be unreformable.

Media attention tends to focus on the leading figures in the party.

But we need to recall that in some parts of the country it has become routine for councillors to approach their constituents with the police or bodyguards, and for the goods and services that the state does provide to be brazenly mediated through local party structures and denied to people who refuse to perform their loyalty to the party.

For many people simple democratic practices like offering oneself as a candidate for office or organising a protest have either become practically impossible or have to be undertaken with considerable courage and at real risk.

Corruption is not, as it is often reported, merely a matter of personal accumulation.

It routinely functions as another form of social control.

Accepting an offer of incorporation into the discipline of the party — and offers are, sometimes alongside simultaneous repression, frequently made to effective grassroots activists can mean that a young person, with no real to the plans prospects for regular work or access to housing, can suddenly, even from a position in a local party committee, leverage tenders, buy a new car, perhaps also a gun, and be someone. But sustaining access to the resources that flow through the party structures requires one to remain useful and that can mean, in practice, disciplining your old neighbours and comrades.  

The salient fact here is that there are large numbers of people for whom the party is an organisation that functions very efficiently to advance their own aspirations by leveraging resources out of the state. Attempting to challenge this and to reorganise the party around a democratic and social logic would require a direct and effective challenge to the people whose personal interests and future prospects are directly tied to both the party's degeneration and the growing authoritarianism with the leading which that degeneration is being protected.

We should not make the mistake of misunderstanding the party's degeneration as a mere question of failure or, in the ANC's language, the invasion of "alien tendencies". On the contrary it is also a question of the success of a predatory political class.

If this class has come to dominate the ANC, or even merely to have attained a firm hold over some parts of the party, it may have to be contested from outside the party for the simple reason that it has become the actually existing party. To make sense of this prospect it is necessary to look at political potentials that lie within what currently exist but carry the potential to move beyond what currently exists. These potentials are certainly not all progressive or democratic.

Civil society has often been presented as our democratic trump card, and its true that it has won real gains and held the line in some battles, but we do need to remember that the organisations that are usually referred to as civil society largely make up a middle class space constituted by professional activists that is frequently white dominated and dependent on donor funding rather than popular support.

For as long as civil society remains unable or unwilling to grasp the simple political truth that democracy is the rule of the people, and that it should be both the form and the goal of democratic organising, it will lack the capacity to mount a decisive challenge to the spreading rot.

The fractious character of our citizenry could develop, or explode, in a variety of directions. It could be captured by various forces.

There's no question that, beginning in urban shack settlements and then on the mines and the farms, our citizenry has demonstrated its willingness to contest social exclusion. Although this popular ferment has sometimes taken the form of a counter-brutality it has also often rooted the legitimacy of its dissent in the name of a moral economy that asserts a right to dignity rooted in a shared humanity.

It is here that the greatest positive potential for the renewal of our polity lies.

Richard Pithouse teaches politics at Rhodes University.

This article first appeared on the SA Civil Society Information Service website, www.sacis.orga

Source: The Herald newspaper