In recent days Ronnie Kasrils has been referred to as ‘a rebel, a Judas, a scoundrel’, as ‘Satan’, and as a ‘disruptive, reckless and counter-revolutionary’ figure spitting on ‘the long struggles and the sacrifices of our people’.
Alistair Sparks, who is routinely introduced as ‘Respected journalist Alistair Sparks’ despite the fact that he’s often little more than an unthinking hack for conservative orthodoxies of various sorts, has opined that the campaign led by Kasrils and Nozizwe Madlala-Routledge would not make an "iota of difference" and that the “ANC will not be shaken at all." He’s right in so far as the campaign is unlikely to make an iota of difference to who wins the election and by how much. But the often cartoonish vitriol directed at Kasrils in particular, as well as the ‘Vote No’ campaign in general, shows that Sparks is entirely wrong about the ANC being left unshaken by the campaign.
The ANC’s moral authority and its hold on the idea of the nation, along with popular hopes for its redemption, were never absolute but for a long time they were overwhelming. But they are both in precipitous decline. On the electoral front COPE and the EFF have split off, on the trade union front AMCU and NUMSA have stepped out of the fold, there is mass protest on the streets, some of it taking the form of sustained independent organisation, and in the symbolic realm Jacob Zuma is squandering the symbolic capital built up over a century with the same sort of abandonment as his architect squandered public money on Nkandla.
It is no small thing when figures like Pallo Jordon and Mavuso Msimang make their disquiet clear. It’s no small thing when the ANC, despite having turned the SABC into its own instrument rather than a public project, setting up its own newspaper and effectively buying a good chunk of the established press is still unable to find any credible intellectuals to sing its praises in the public sphere. It’s no small thing when its President is booed in public and its leading figures booed, insulted or chased out of communities when they go campaigning.
On Saturday Gwede Mantashe lost his cool campaigning on hostile ground in Soweto. Potential voters stood firm on their critique of Nkandla, corruption and unemployment. In an exchange that neatly illustrated the contradictory political potential in growing popular anger one resident asked what the ANC was doing about ‘foreigners’ while another declared that “We feel like outsiders, foreigners, non-South Africans”.
Last month, in Jacksonville in Port Elizabeth, Zuma was booed and heckled by an angry crowd. John Fillies, a local resident argued, “We are victims of a corrupt state. We live in shacks while those we voted for are living in luxury. Zuma should not have come here. We don’t want him here, he is not welcome in Jacksonville until we have decent houses like other people.”
A couple of days before that the police and ANC officials opened fire in Bekkersdal, at a taxi rank now named Marikana, as angry residents protested at the ANC’s presence in their community. In October last year Gauteng Premier Nomvula Mokonyane told protesting residents in Bekkersdal that “People can threaten us and say they won’t vote but the ANC doesn’t need their dirty votes.” Thabang Wesi from the Bekkersdal Concerned Residents Association responded that “If the ANC does not need our dirty votes anymore, it is fine. We will take them to other political parties that will wash them and once they are clean utilise them effectively, taking care of the voters, unlike the ANC.” In moments like this the wider process in which the ANC is steadily losing its once grand stature are illuminated with striking clarity.
The ‘Vote No’ campaign certainly resonates with a growing popular sentiment. It’s very common to hear people, usually expressing a personal view but sometimes part of a collective project, declaring that they will not vote. And since 2004 organised popular movements have often actively called for a boycott of the polls. Of course the ‘Vote No’ campaign is asking for spoilt ballots or votes for smaller parties other than the DA. But the sentiment animating this, a desire to withdraw support from the ANC, sometimes in the hope of waking it up, is often the same as that informing decisions not to vote at all. The ‘Vote No’ campaign also has a certain resonance with NUMSA’s decision not to campaign for the ANC, or to offer it financial support, during this election.
Nonetheless the ‘Vote No’ campaign is not rooted in popular organisation and struggle. It is a move on the part of a dissident elite, some of whom have drifted into the kind of dubious version of left politics that takes the form of bussing in poor people to attend NGO meetings over which they have no control and pretending, perhaps to themselves as much as anyone else, that this paternalism – a world apart from mass democratic politics - constitutes movement building. But while this campaign is located at a considerable organisational distance from the struggle on the streets, our public sphere is very much an elite space and people of the stature of Kasrils and Madlala-Routledge have a genuine capacity to shake it up.
José Saramango, the communist writer, and winner of the Nobel Prize for literature, began his final novel, Seeing, first published in Portuguese ten years ago, with an election in an unnamed city in an unnamed country. The novel opens on election day and there’s a hard rain, an almost Biblical rain falling. No one comes in to vote. At around four in the afternoon voters start trickling in. When the votes are counted 70% are blank. Error is assumed and a second election is set for a week later. This time, despite considerable pressure from the media, 83% of the ballots are blank.
The politicians suspect an anarchist conspiracy. With the legitimacy of the politicians called into question they turn on the people and there are arrests, interrogations, an avalanche of propaganda and even a siege of the city as the politicians become ever more desperate to insist that the people must offer them the ritual show of support on which their power rests.
The point of the novel is that the power of the political class in certain kinds of democracies depends on people accepting the reduction of democracy to the prospect of making a choice from a set of entirely inadequate alternatives. The novel has acquired a certain contemporary resonance in recent years as electoral boycotts have been staged against the venality of the political class, its intersections with corporate and other elites, and its complete lack of social imagination, in countries like Greece, India, Mexico and Spain.
The ‘Vote No’ campaign does not assert electoral abstentionism as a principle. On the contrary the suggestion that votes are either spoilt or given to smaller parties is understood as a conjunctural and tactical intervention that is in part a holding operation until a credible electoral choice or choices emerge and in part an attempt to make it clear that there will be fertile ground for credible alternatives.
The campaign can’t claim to be genuinely rooted in popular struggle and organisation. But the hysterical response to it from the ANC is telling. It shows that as the party limps and stumbles into its decline, sustained by the idea of the ANC rather than its tawdry reality, and buttressed with patronage and repression, it feels itself to be vulnerable to symbolic interventions that mark out the steady accumulation of withdrawal from participation in its fantasies about itself.
It’s clear that the ANC sees heretical ideas that have the temerity to question the notion that this election offers voters a credible choice, one that would, as its slogans imply, meet the approval of Nelson Mandela and Chris Hani, as a threat to its political legitimacy.
Picture credit: Ronnie Kasrils, Former Minister of Intelligence Services in South Africa
Pithouse teaches politics at Rhodes University.
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