Self-organisation, not magic, the drive behind mine action

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The National Union of Mineworkers has informed us that workers organising their own strikes are being covertly “manipulated” and their strikes and protests “orchestrated” by “dark forces” and other “elements” that amount, of course, to another manifestation of the infamous “third force”.

Backward” and even “sinister” beliefs in magic consequent to the rural origin of many of the workers are, we’ve been told by an array of elite actors – including the Communist Party – central to this manipulation.

Frans Baleni, horrified at the insurgent power of self-organisation, has not just informed us that his union is trying to “narrow the demands” and persuade workers to “return to work”. He has also called for “the real force behind the upheavals” to be “unearthed” by the state on the grounds that “It is completely untrue [that] the workers are responsible” for the ongoing revolt.

Neither Baleni nor anyone else demanding a witch-hunt to penetrate the depths of an elaborate conspiracy and dig up the real source of the miners’ rebellion seems able to realise that they’re on a hunt for nothing other than their own paranoid fantasies.

And we’ve yet to see a statement pointing out that there is no part of society in which people don’t look towards some sort of magic to strengthen themselves against the vicissitudes of life.

Many aspects of the ANC’s vertiginous decline are, indeed, “alien tendencies” to the ANC as it has existed at certain points in the past. But paranoia about “sinister forces” covertly manipulating popular action has a long history in the party.

During the struggle, Steve Biko was, notoriously, presented as a CIA agent and dissent in the ANC’s camps was automatically ascribed to traitors working for the apartheid state.

But the ANC’s history of having to operate amid often genuine intrigue does not mean that every time ordinary people challenge the party they are the unthinking dupes of some conspiracy.

Since its assent to power the ANC has, in striking continuity with apartheid and colonial discourses, frequently named the white agitator as the sinister Svengali, manipulating ordinarily deferent people into rebellion.

The white agitator is frequently assumed to have all sorts of fantastical powers. He (and it appears to always be a he) has sometimes been presented as hoping to bring back apartheid and at other times has been presented as an agent of foreign governments “hell-bent on destabilising the ANC”.

Baseless allegations about the covert manipulation of other political parties, and, on occasion, imagined ethnic plots, have also been used to explain away popular dissent as a conspiracy on the part of a rival elite. But now it seems that responsibility for the rebellion across the platinum belt is being ascribed to Julius Malema and the factional battles in the ANC.

The ANC has no monopoly on a paranoid world view founded on a systemic inability to grasp that workers and other poor people have precisely the same capacity for political thought and agency as all other people. The tendency to respond to popular organisation via the paranoid lens of a moral panic in search of a folk-devil is a general feature of our elite public sphere. The DA, for instance, has blamed drug dealers and the ANC Youth League for protests in Cape Town that are clearly both selforganised and genuinely popular. Some NGOs have invented their own folk-devils to explain their lack of influence over popular politics and to delegitimise popular organisation. And various factions of the left outside of the ANC have shown themselves entirely unable to think about popular politics organised both independently of the ANC and outside of their control without recourse to their own, and equally fantastical, version of the white agitator thesis.

These realities mean that the particular form of the paranoia that follows the ANC’s inability to comprehend popular political agency is in no way a unique phenomenon. On the contrary, it is typical of elite politics across the political spectrum and across a wide variety of organisational forms. 

This is consequent to the fact that we live in a class society where elites undertake bruising battles against each other, sometimes in the name of the poor, but share an investment in the ongoing manufacture of a fundamentally irrational “common sense” in which the full and equal humanity of oppressed people is denied. It is this shared paranoia at the prospect of people effectively considered as barbarians entering, and thereby desecrating, the hallowed ground of the terrain on which elites conduct their battles and negotiations that explains why some of what Blade Nzimande says about self-organised political action is no different to what the business press says about it.

This is hardly unique to our time and place. Any cursory study of the historical record reveals a tremendous wealth of examples of people whose humanity and equal capacity for political thought and action was denied by all the experts of the day but who, nonetheless, succeeded in providing the most practical refutations of the irrationality of that consensus. From the slave rebellion against ancient Rome led by Spartacus, to the rebellion of the Zanj slaves in ninth century Iraq and the Peasant’s Revolt in fourteenth century England, these have constantly demonstrated that it is the various hypotheses of a graduated humanity, rather than the people whose full humanity is denied, that are truly irrational.

But even in defeat elites have frequently been unwilling to accept the very concrete evidence before them and have instead ascribed the material refutation of their assumptions of superiority to conspiracy. And it has frequently been assumed that conspiracy is animated by diabolical or irrational forces. There was, it was said, devil worship behind the peasants’ revolt in England, evil African rituals at the heart of the Haitian Revolution and sinister rituals and manipulation rather than, say, the demand for land and freedom, behind the Mau Mau rebellion in Kenya.

The ANC’s own history during the struggle is not, as it likes to pretend, one of an enlightened political elite leading a nation to freedom from above.

On the contrary, the party was frequently alienated from popular initiative when it first emerged and, in fact, often hostile to it.

In many cases the party was only able to draw new sequences of popular dissent into the fold, and to enable them to function as a source of renewal, after they had already proved their power in action. This is broadly true of the women’s riot in Cato Manor in Durban in 1956, the Pondo Revolt in 1960, the Durban strikes of 1973 and the Soweto uprising of 1976. But since it captured the state it has lost the capacity to be renewed by absorbing popular political initiative, which it has consistently seen as illegitimate irrespective of the degree to which it is lawful.

It is inevitable that all kinds of people are going to show up in the wake of a successful mobilisation. They may range from demagogues to activists, academics, journalists, NGOs and churches. Many will be opportunists looking for a constituency. Others will just want to make a quick splash for themselves before moving on. But some will be genuinely interested in understanding and perhaps communicating what is happening and some will be genuinely interested in negotiating solidarity.

Whatever their intentions, people higher up the class hierarchy are likely to get more media attention than the people whose political initiative they are responding to.

But the fact that people have shown up after a moment of insurgent popular action hardly means that they orchestrated it.

And if people do decide to form alliances across the social divisions that usually mark our society they have, irrespective of whether or not someone like Frans Baleni approves, every right to do so in a democracy.

The idea that it is automatically dubious and even “sinister” for workers and other poor people to make their own decisions about who to form alliances with is, to say the least, paternalistic, paranoid, antidemocratic and, in many cases, rooted in a barely masked desire to keep oppressed people in their place.

Of course popular action, on its own or in alliance with other forces, may or may not take a democratic or progressive form, but that is a different question.

  • Richard Pithouse teaches politics at Rhodes University. This article was published on Weekend Post.