Waiting for Superman*

South Africa’s Mail & Guardian reported a few days ago that the secretary of Shabir Shaik (the Jacob Zuma associate comvicted of fraud) once testified in court that her boss “has to carry a jar of Vaseline because he gets fucked all the time (by politicians), but that’s okay because he gets what he wants and they get what they want.” If South Africa is going to escape its current social malaise, we heed Shaik’s prudent advise and cease waiting to be violated by our political class (with the help of capital). The idea that leadership is the panacea to South Africa’s varied troubles, is asserted as an almost axiomatic truth amongst South Africa’s monotonous punditry. If only we had responsible, efficient, dedicated and competent leadership we would be on the road to economic growth and the subsequent real transformation derived from an increase in GDP. This fantasy is expressed in various forms from the consistent growth of the Nelson Mandela cult (see the recent op-ed by former New York Times editor Bill Keller’s about South Africa; he ended by proposing Mamphela Ramphele for South African President) to the opposition Democratic Alliance’s vaunted Cape Town model, to — a recent entry into the nation — the debate of the so-called ‘Lula Moment.’

This vapid bullshit deserves to be condemned to the same grave of irrelevance as Tony Leon (remember “Take Back”), Herman Cain and Ja Rule. I say this not only because it is bullshit, but because it is dangerous bullshit. It promotes a depoliticized technocratic vision of social change which is meshed with a contradictory worship of politics as a game of big men and the occasional woman. Real talk: If South Africa’s president wasn’t principally concerned with increasing the size of his family and avoiding jail, he wouldn’t make too much a dent in terms of shifting South Africa towards a more equitable and humane society.

The key concepts missing from this discussion are structural power and collective agency. In this a misleading narrative of the apartheid story has come to dominate, namely that of bad people in the form of the National Party (who almost nobody admits to voting for) and of a messianic ANC descending from the heavens to rescue the nation personified in a beatified Mandela. Lacking is a continuous discussion of the nature of the link between apartheid and the form of South African capitalism and the persistence of such awkward features as structural unemployment and an economy sagging under the weight of exploitative monopolies.

Also absent is the collective agency of millions expressed by millions of South Africans in the struggle against apartheid, from individual acts of defiance to the growth of genuine mass movements in the form of the resurrected UDF (United Democratic Front which dominated internal resistance throughout the 1980s) the black trade union of movements, both containing a culture of mass participatory democracy. Ideas of collective leadership and participatory structures which emerged particularly in the 1980s have been subsumed in the search for technical solutions among experts and calls for ‘leadership’.

The language used to describe people has even shifted from ‘citizen’ — an enabling term which has its roots in an idea of democracy being an expression of the will of the people — to the more placid and dull ‘stakeholder’ — with roots in the lexicon of corporate management. Stakeholders wait for services, citizens demand their rights. Citizens participate in the running of the country, stakeholders merely have some stake in it.

Where has this shift from citizen to stakeholder left us? It has left us in the position of waiting passively for some leader to descend from the heavens, solutions in the bag ready to change South African society through implementing technical solutions to the problems of poverty and inequality. In effect it is encouraging a culture of political apathy and a passive population. What this perversely does is in effect encourage incompetent and corrupt leadership. If leaders don’t face the pressure of a political active and engaged citizenry, they are unlikely to seriously challenge the policy status quo which 18 years into our ‘democratic experiment’ leaves the majority in the rut. Furthermore if leaders are not terrified of their citizen’s anger they can get away with looting the trough with encouragement from the private sector.

It seems like the build up to the ANC’s elective conference at Mangaung has been going on for years, millions of words have been written about the clash of the titans finally underway this week: Jacob Zuma vs Kgalema Mothlanthe, Zuma vs Julius Malema, Mothlanthe vs Cyril Ramaphosa and numerous other political battles. Despite the insistence of those within the ANC that a conference is also about policy direction, it has been mostly viewed (and rightly so) as a clash between competing factions seeking to protect their access to power and resources rather than presenting significant ideological or political differences.

If the ANC’s last conference at Polokwane was anything to go by, even if the majority of ANC delegates push through a policy agenda of pro-poor and working class policies, not much will change at all. In the years since that landmark conference in which Zuma came to power on the back of mass support from the SACP and COSATU — the force of the official left — we’ve had Marikana. The majority of South Africans saw little change in terms of their material conditions or ability to hold the government accountable and, in my view at least, the prospects for an actual implementation of the Polokwane resolutions or a new set of pro-working class policies have become even worse.

Instead we have a corrupt and venal political class who have deformed much of the ANC. The ANC, particularly at a branch level, has degenerated into a network for patronage. ANC members are murdered by other ANC members in order to secure one individual or factions access to the particular set of benefits and resources which can be gained from a position in the party or local government. And when people are desperate the fighting gets worse.

Let’s also not forget the price-fixing, monopolistic practices and sheer criminality that passes for normality in the private sector. One need only look at one’s cellphone rates (the highest in the world), one’s banking rates (the highest in the world), the appalling work conditions in say the mining sector or the agricultural sector, or how our corporate leaders siphon off billions to offshore accounts to see that corruption is not confined to politicians.

And the Democratic Alliance of Helen Zille? Far from offering a model of efficiency, accountability and good governance which they trumpet as the ‘Cape Town model,’ they offer nothing more than a party committed to the protection of existing class and racial privileges (basically white privilege), hostile to organized labor and the poor and almost entirely committed to whoring out the country to foreign capital. The safe and allegedly cosmopolitan city center exists side by side with the concentration camp of Blikkiesdorp and much of the Cape Flats. The dirty secret of Cape Town is that it is the most violent city in South Africa, despite the notorious reputation of Johannesburg.

Rather than waiting for a new Mandela to descend and redeem us or for unaccountable technocrats to provide solutions, we should invest instead in building movements capable of putting the heat on our ruling class and building social change from the bottom up. In this we should take inspiration from the wildcat strikes that swept the country earlier this year, we should well do it ourselves instead of outsourcing the responsibility for social change.

* Title changed following a tweet by @bongani_kona.


12 thoughts on “Waiting for Superman*

  1. These changes sweeping our country are e culminations of years, hundreds of them, in which the people have resisted colonial greed and subjucation. Our recent history in the 1950’s saw mass participatory democracy through people’s power leading to the adoption of the freedom charter in 1955. It is and has been people’s power which carried us through the Defiance Campaign in the 1950’s, the Sharpeville uprisings, the treason trial in the 1960s, the Soweto 1976 student uprisings and the 1980s uprising bringing to an end apartheid. We however comprised the building of a people driven society to one in which we appeased the oppressor continuing with white greed and seeing our comrades enjoying the entrapment of the system whilst the people go hungry.
    So the time has arrived for the people to come together again, this time to get our country out of this mess, because we are the only ones who can build a society in which we live Peace and Friendship. A society not dominated by a political party system but one in which the people govern. Instead of greed we will share the country’s wealth, the farmworkers will own the land they work and we will build a caring society. It is not impossible, it is necessary.

  2. Good to know that there are more and more people waking up to the power that lies within. Aluta Continua! A social revolution is on the horizon if things do not change. The ideals of “Social Democrats” will gain more momentum. Lets avoid the “Arab Spring” scenario by active engagement!

  3. Could the author please substantiate the statement about the DA – it would help me determine for myself whether I agree with the author or not ” they offer nothing more than a party committed to the protection of existing class and racial privileges (basically white privilege), hostile to organized labor and the poor and almost entirely committed to whoring out the country to foreign capital. “

      • Fair point, though I don’t see how this service delivery failure and the failure to treat these vulnerable people with dignity is anymore evidence for their racism than the failure of ANC municipalities to do the same for their citizens, yet presumably the ANC municipalities and party is not assumed to be racist? If the outcome is the same, why is it _assumed_ the reasons behind it is not the same? I also don’t see that this is evidence of “whoring the country out to foreign capital”?

  4. It’s not just the outcomes, it’s the tone of the DA when it deals with racial issues and it’s the fact they picked up most of their support base through appealing to ex-NP voters, which gives them a lot of racial baggage. In terms of the whoring, read the DA policy documents, they want to privitise much of the school system in the Western Cape and want to cut labour right and create free trade zones ala Mexico to attract foreign capital with super low cost labour for example

    • Ok, I can see where you are coming from w.r.t to the free trade zones. Fair point. Of course, such free trade zones or similar tax incentives are also used in China, Brazil, India, Malaysia, Indonesia amongst other developing nations. Whether the benefits outweigh the disadvantages is up for debate perhaps, but no one can deny that China, India, Malaysia and Brazil are not all creating new middle classes from their previous poorer classes. One only has to see how much employment has been lost from the USA and Europe to realise that the same employment opportunities are instead being picked up else where. All things being equal, would it not be better to also pick up some of that employment than have it only go to those countries I have listed and watch their middle classes grow at the expense of SA’s poor having that same opportunity? Of course, I concede that _how_ it’s done and what concessions are made is important in determining whether its a good strategy or not, but other countries have shown that it is possible to get it right. The alternative is to let other countries take the risks and rewards.

      W.r.t the ex-NP supporters… My recollection of history is that most the ex NP party leaders joined the ANC, so whilst the DA may have picked up some ex NP supporters, the ANC instead picked up ex NP leaders. In a democracy there is nothing wrong with that, but it makes the ANC at least as “morally tainted” as the DA, perhaps more so if they allowed the NP to join with them for the sake of expediency. As an aside, I would find it hard to believe that _most_ of the support for the DA comes from ex NP supporters: the DA picked up 17% of the vote in the last election, and yet all of the NP voters pre 1994 wouldn’t have made up more than (at a rough estimate) 5%. Even if every past NP voter now voted for the DA, it stands to resason that a further 12% or so of their support base (the larger % of their support base) must be people who were not previously NP supporters, and further more, based on the demographics of the country, were probably not eligible for racial reasons to vote before 1994.

      Incidentally, whilst it is clear that struggle credentials in the new SA have little relevance to people’s integrity any more, was Helen Zille (DA leader still right?) not one of the journalists who exposed the apartheid governments murder of Steve Biko? My recollection also is that she was a member of organisations opposed to the apartheid government (Black Sash or end conscription campaign or something similar) and likely was not popular with the apartheid government for that, If so, why would she be a supporter and promoter of the old NP apartheid policies now – it wouldn’t seem logical to me?

      • uhh if my memory serves me correctly the NP got about 20% in the first election and not all of those were white… You can ask the DA and they will admit they campaigned to get conservative voters shored up. Zille’s struggle creds are irrelevant in my view, most in the ANC did far more than her.

  5. Most of the older generation did more than her – correct. The newer generation (ANCYL) did nothing at all. The point though was not about measuring credentials, but rather questioning why it would seem logical that someone with that past would wish to return SA to apartheid (as some members of the ANC accuse her) – seems inconsistent with her track record to me. Seems more likely that her approach to solving SA’s problems is at odds with the ANC’s views (and its likely both the DA and ANC approach have elements of merit) and they just throw the race card at her rather than debate on specific facts.

    If you are correct about the 20% in the first election, and that not all of those were white (_at most_ 9% could possibly have been white) then 11% of people who were not benefiting from apartheid (and not therefore NP supporters) must also have believed the DA had policies which were of benefit to the country. Does that not contradict the belief that the DA is a party of ex NP supporters?

    • the DA doesn’t want to return SA to apartheid rather protect existing priviliges and help out white capital. You miss out on what is substantial coloured resentment towards the ANC, partially out of racism stoked for generations and partially out of ANC fucks ups in Cape Town. Also there are people, who vote for the DA as a sort of revenge against the ANC. I’m basically contending that most of the DA’s new voters are people who voted for the NP in 1994. Zille’s own policies seem more thatcherite than anything else and I seriously doubt the DA will ever pick up a substantial black vote with that approach.

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