The state against the people

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When Cosatu and the Communist Party have to rely on the police and their stun grenades, rubber bullets and, by some accounts, live ammunition to force their way into a stadium against the opposition of striking workers, it is clear that their assumption of a permanent right to leadership is facing a serious challenge from below. It's equally clear that the ruling party and its allies intend to force obedience rather than to seek to renegotiate support or enable democratic engagement.

The misuse of the police to defend the authority of the ruling party in Rustenburg is no exception to a broadly democratic consensus. In fact, it has become a routine feature of political life. At the same time as the drama was unfolding in Rustenburg on Saturday, a meeting with technical experts to discuss a plan to upgrade the Harry Gwala shack settlement on the East Rand was summarily banned by the police on the grounds that it was a "security threat". The settlement is in urgent need of services as basic as water and refuse removal, but millions have been spent on a pavilion in memory of Oliver Tambo, adjacent to the settlement.

The collapse of the ruling party's hegemony on the mines in Rustenburg is not the first time that the ANC has lost control of a territory where it once took its right to rule for granted. In early 2006, the ANC was, despite a large police presence and a large contingent of supporters bused in from elsewhere, unable to go ahead with a rally to be addressed by S'bu Ndebele, the then premier of KwaZulu-Natal, in the Kennedy Road shack settlement in Durban. Some years later, the ANC eventually took that space back with the open use of violence organised through party structures with the support of the police. But despite the announcement, made by a senior SACP member, that the state had decided to "disband" the movement that had won popular support in Kennedy Road, and despite tremendous intimidation and the gross misuse of the police and the criminal justice system to try to effect this ban, that movement, Abahlali baseMjondolo, endures. The rupture in Rustenburg may also cohere into an enduring force. And there will be more ruptures to come.

There are important respects in which the politics developed in and around Marikana is very different from that developed in and around Kennedy Road seven years earlier. But one of the things that these two points of rupture do have in common is a firm insistence on the right of people in struggle, people who have decided to take their future into their own hands, to speak for themselves. This rejection of the ruling party's local mechanisms for sustaining political control does carry the possibility for a renewal of democratic possibility.

 The path that winds from Polokwane to Kennedy Road and on to Marikana and Nkandla and then up, past the reach of our gaze and over the horizon, is not taking us towards anything like the kinds of societies imagined in the Freedom Charter or the Constitution. The only visible transition on offer is one in which liberal democracy is increasingly replaced with a system in which the political class is treated as if it is above the law, the state is openly used as an instrument for the political class to accumulate rather than to redistribute wealth and power, and people engaged in certain kinds of popular dissent are treated as if they are beneath the law. Police violence, including torture and murder, as well as state sanction for political violence by ANC supporters and political assassination have all become familiar features of our political life.

And powerful figures and forces in the ruling alliance from Jacob Zuma to Sidumo Dlamini, the Communist Party, MK veterans, Sadtu and others are openly speaking the language of war. They may say that the war is on the enemy within — enemy agents, neoliberals, imperialists, criminals, enemies of the national-democratic revolution and counter-revolutionaries —but what they really mean is that they do not intend to accept popular dissent as legitimate or to engage it through democratic institutions. Instead, it is proposed that dissent be dealt with by the police and on occasion the army, as well as counter-mobilisation that aims to destroy rather than to engage and which is already often armed, and, in Sidumo Dlamini's view, MK. War, generally not the war of open manoeuvre that we saw in Marikana but rather the scattered, often secretive and frequently highly territorialised violence of low-intensity war, of counter-insurgency, is upon us. The Kennedy Road, eTwatwa, Makause and Zakheleni shack settlements have all experienced this since Polokwane.

The figures in the ANC who talk of a return to principled leadership have no material base from which they could make a serious attempt to challenge the capture of the party and, thereby, the state by factions that are both predatory and authoritarian. For this reason, their discourse functions, irrespective of their intentions, to legitimate the party rather than to organise or represent a last-ditch attempt to save it. If there is to be a renewal of democratic possibilities, it will have to be undertaken against the ruling party and its allies.

Popular struggle against a post-colonial state is a very different thing from a national liberation struggle against an internationally discredited form of domination. But the time has come when we have to, like the generations that confronted the end of the illusions in postcolonial states elsewhere, face a future in which defeat of democratic and progressive aspirations is the most likely outcome of the ruthless intersection between elite nationalism and capitalism. There is no easy route out of this crisis.

Nonetheless, it is clear that the only viable resolution is one that includes the majority of us. But if an insurgent project of this nature is to have any enduring success, it will have to understand that the line dividing the political from the economic has been drawn to sustain both privilege and exclusion, and that wealth, power and the structures that sustain them need to be subject to serious critique. This would put such a project at odds with most of the media and civil society as well as the ruling party making it, to say the least, a risky endeavour. But if political empowerment doesn't translate into material empowerment—into land, housing, decent incomes and decent education —itwill be little more than a detour on the road that has already taken us from Polokwane to Nkandla.

The challenges that confront us are tremendous. But when war is announced, there are only two real choices — to resist or to submit. The urgent questions that we have to confront are these: what will be the nature of our resistance and how will we carry it forward?

  • Richard Pithouse teaches politics at Rhodes University. This article was published on The Witness..