The Debasement of Politics in South Africa by Michael Neocosmos (The Con), 30 January 2017

31 January 2017

There is a general debasement of politics in much of the world. Figures such as Trump in the US, Modi in India, Dos Santos in Angola and Erdogan in Turkey (not forgetting Berlusconi in Italy not too long ago) have become some of the proper names by which this trajectory is often known. South Africa is no exception. Although the debasement of our politics exceeds Zuma his name has come to stand for a certain kind of political decline.

One of the terrains of contestation where this debasement is evident in South Africa is on university campuses. This contestation is riven by a clear contradiction. The demand for free higher education is clearly progressive. However some of the methods used by some students to achieve this demand have been fundamentally reactionary.  Demagogic authoritarianism, the emergence of crude chauvinisms (homophobia, xenophobia, anti-Semitism etc.), the mobilisation of dishonest personal attacks, intimidation of fellow students, and the burning of public buildings, including libraries, are all typical of reactionary forms of politics. The possible death of a worker at WITS at the hands of protestors, the stabbing of a student leader at Zululand, the assault of a security guard at UCT, the attempt to set an occupied building alight at Rhodes and the arson attack on an in-service bus in Johannesburg cannot be condoned.

In some quarters millenarian fantasies about redemptive violence and destruction have been embraced in theory and in practice. In reality nothing can arise from the ashes of libraries, residence halls and lecture theatres but weakened institutions and more authoritarianism. These kinds of actions inevitably provoke increased state repression, and a high degree of societal sanction for repression.

The reification of destruction and violence as the ultimate or pure form of radicalism is thoughtless. The thought of politics is simply missing – after all central to any serious emancipatory political activity is the necessity to build alliances in order to broaden support. Moreover as Achille Mbembe has remarked, it is easy to destroy the public university but much more difficult to rebuild it after it has been destroyed.  Very little account has been taken of the experience elsewhere on the continent where many universities have never recovered from entrenched conflict with the result that many students and academics aspire to study and work aboard and imperialism has strengthened its hold over domestic intellectual production via the power of donors. Indeed the idea of Africa has often been deployed as a metaphysical abstraction, an aspiration, rather than a concrete history. This can inadvertently erase African experience.

At the same time the violent action deployed by state power (police and private security guards), frequently called onto campuses by university bureaucracies bereft of ideas, has seemingly been designed to terrorise students back to class with little thought as to its consequences.  The random arrests, the firing of teargas into student residences, the use of stun grenades, the rubber bullets, the curfews and the throwing of rocks and bricks (back and forth) has generally served to inflame the situation making reasoned debate and the resolution of conflict considerably more difficult. The method of policing that has been imposed on the campuses is fundamentally colonial.

Underlying mutual recriminations and violence is, arguably, a generalised crisis of politics.  Politics is not simply to be understood as what occurs at the level of the state, and the various power struggles attendant to its occupancy. More fundamentally it refers to the collective thought and practice through which problems are identified and various actors devise solutions to them. In progressive or emancipatory politics this work is carried out in the general interest.  There must be a commitment to the constitution of a national community within which all are worthy of dignified lives.  In addition, an idea of equality is at the heart of any radical conception of politics. The notion of the common good itself does not necessarily assume equality, merely the commitment to unity by all.

The problem is that the idea of the general interest, or the public good, has largely disappeared from public discourse.  It had been raised, particularly in the struggles of the ‘70s and the ‘80s, but it was never successfully constructed from the 1990s onward.  In the absence of a generalised understanding that there are some overriding concerns that exceed private interests and identities, in the absence of universalistic conceptions adhered to by all, we cannot conceive of ourselves as forming a nation and therefore there can be no will to unity and to the peaceful resolution of differences. In the absence of a minimal understanding of universalism in politics there can be no commitment to resolving differences and contradictions in a peaceful way. The inevitable consequence of this is that  authoritarian forms of contestation – often under demagogic forms of charismatic authority – displace the thought and practice of politics as equality.

It is the clear absence of a principled understanding of the universal in South Africa that I refer to as the absence of politics. This absence accompanies the absence of thought as, of course, an idea of a true universal is not given by liberal capitalism. It has to be imagined and it has to be imagined in struggle.

All politics worthy of the name concern imagination. They must make reference to some idea of the universal, either in a present form or in its process of construction.  All people must be able to be confidently engaged in the process of the construction of a world in which they feel some control over their lives.  In the absence of such a conception, politics becomes nothing more than the mobilisation of antagonistic interests and identities to the detriment of the construction of a public interest, independent from and above all private interests, in which all may feel at home. It is the collapse of the idea of the public or general interest that has enabled the debasement of politics in South Africa. And this debasement of politics has resulted in the consequent centrality of attempts at rhetorical annihilation, as well as destruction and violence, in conflicts between interests.

This has often been the case on both sides of the #feesmustfall impasse. The only state institutions with some – but very limited – idea of the general interest at the moment are the top echelons of the judiciary, parts of the tax office and the ministry of finance. In the latter’s case that universality is tenuous to say the least (despite the heroics of the current minister) given the inability to solve the problem of poverty affecting, by all accounts, over half of the population and its location within on-going worldwide processes of growing inequality. The minister’s brave refusal of the gross forms of corruption and predation that have captured parts of the state has not extended to an equally brave refusal of the logic of fiscal austerity and the presentation of corporate profiteering as being in the general interest.

The culture of violence and the failure of national construction

There is a deeply entrenched culture of violence in South Africa.  This state of affairs has its roots in colonial brutality but it has not been overcome as a result of the inability of the state to construct a new nation in which all feel included.  The popular movement of the 1980s was in the process of constructing a new nation through the mass involvement of all people in politics.  But from the early 1990s it was felt that that process could now be entrusted to the state rather than the people. The result was that the idea of ‘the people as nation’ (the ‘new nation’) was rapidly replaced by that of the nation-state.

A central mechanism in this development was the top down TRC process which, while enabling a ‘transition to democracy’, simultaneously ‘victimised’ erstwhile popular agency.  This process was accompanied by and contributed to the systematic ‘de-politicisation of politics’ through which political agency was restricted to a handful of professionals – politicians, bureaucrats and NGO professionals (so-called ‘civil society’).  This new class was meant to ‘represent’ interests in society, but ultimately failed to do so as there was very little popular control over their actions.  As a result, the TRC largely succeeded in bringing out (some of) the truth and exonerated perpetrators, while failing lamentably at reconciliation and at compensating victims. It left people who hitherto were able to deploy their agency to the control of NGOs and to the ‘state-party’ through their construction as supplicants and victims which they had bravely shown themselves not to be . . . and then cynically abandoned them to poverty.

Various other parties setting themselves up as alternatives to the state-party have remained firmly within the politics of the representation of interests, equally failing to propose a thought of the universal public interest.  The post-apartheid state has been socially and politically divisive not unifying, and it is becoming more so by the day.  The fundamental reason is because, rather than attempting to dismantle the culture of its colonial and apartheid predecessors, the state simply included the previously (racially) excluded into an existing colonial-type state structure.  Rabidly racist ‘separate development’ has been replaced by equally racist ‘assimilation’ but the underlying racist structure remains.  Of course we know historically that assimilation is only offered to a small group of people from among the black middle class, while the vast majority still remain among the permanently excluded colonised who, now subordinated to both neoliberal capitalism and rent-seeking party elites, and disciplined by colonial forms of policing, have, for the most part, little prospect of ever working and becoming a proletariat in the standard sense.  Neither nation-building nor a more generalised conception of equal rights can possibly be achieved on this foundation.

For much of society violence has become the primary way of resolving differences rather than a last resort (‘when all else fails’).  The middle class are constantly surrounded by privatised systems of violence designed to protect their privilege. But most people live under conditions where survival is made possible only through entering patronage relations with powerful figures (businessmen, councillors, NGO officials, gangs, police, etc.).  These figures often enforce their dominance through violence as the liberal legal system is largely detrimental to their interests.  The whole structure enables a mode of state rule, and resistance to it, where violence is, in practice, widely considered as a legitimate way of resolving differences.

This use of violence does not resolve anything; it simply subdues for a time, and for a price.  The behaviour of the police is the most obvious example of this and was displayed to all during the Marikana massacre in 2012. But expressions of violence on a grand scale preceded this by several years, the most notorious being the xenophobic pogroms of 2008.  In both cases, despite the distinction between perpetrators, the ‘politics’ were the same, not simply because of the violence deployed, but because in both cases that violence was deployed to defend narrow interests: those of the state, capital, the NUM and the ANC for the first, and those of a set of supposed national ‘entitlements’ for the second.

Colonialism, racism and the contradiction between liberalism and national grievances

Capitalism has always been raced. The experience of capitalism in the global South has always been that of colonial capitalism.  It continues to be so.  Liberal capitalism has always been founded on the (political) exclusion, (economic) exploitation and general oppression of the colonised – if not their total annihilation when their labour-power was not deemed necessary.

Derided as ‘barbarians’ and racially abused, the overwhelming majority of the people of the world have not (and arguably cannot) be allowed into the charmed circle of liberalism where individual freedoms in relation to the state are protected by law.  Their existence as labour to be exploited, or as economic waste, is necessitated by a system that creates an oligarchy of the super rich (bank accounts in Switzerland and residences in Dubai) and bribes a small and often indebted middle class with the glittering allure of market trinkets.  The latter are provided with the ‘right to choose’ in the form of the capacity to buy.  The masses of the excluded (over half of the population in South Africa) are for the most part are not even connected to the market as workers.

In South Africa racism also affects the black middle-class who rightly refuse to be assimilated into a white world (this is what the #Rhodesmustfall student movement expressed in 2015).  Given that they are still a minority within this middle class they experience their access to the market (as consumers or as employees) to be mediated and limited by the white middle class majority.  Their relative exclusion from the domain of choice has made apparent the spurious character of the liberal conception of universality. It has also shown the weakness, if not the emptiness, of the state politics of national universality.

The promises of national liberation were primarily jobs and housing given that this struggle was overwhelmingly urban.  The redistribution of racialised property ownership and market access was the foundation of the struggle for freedom, along with access to education, housing, health, land and culture for all without exception.  In the words of the Freedom Charter for this to be possible ‘the people [had to] govern’.   Among the majority of the excluded, given the continued dominance of a state subjectivity (it emanates from power) of accumulation, corruption and ‘upward mobility’ (to use the sociological jargon), the dominant identitarian subjectivity is understandably that of national entitlements. As Frantz Fanon noted this easily results in xenophobia.  Within a culture of violence the outcome is unfortunately quite predictable.  The constant stress on identity under conditions of continued racist oppression can easily collapse into inter-ethnic or inter-racial violence.

The oligarchy and the middle class of all kinds have found an adherence to a conception (however attenuated recently) of human rights a useful expedient.  This not only gives them access to and acceptance by globalised democratic norms. It is also the foundation of private property ownership without which accumulation is not possible under capitalist conditions. On the other hand the recognition of national grievances – principally concerning the racial distribution of private property ownership – and hence their ultimate redress, is the foundation of any nationalist movement if it wishes to retain a semblance of legitimacy.  The failure of the ANC to address this issue partly accounts for the rise of the EFF.  Moreover the contradiction between individual rights and national grievances has been at the core of state practices since the Mbeki presidency, at least as evidenced by the policy towards Zimbabwe, the so-called African Renaissance, and the policy on HIV-AIDS, etc.  The problem is that a resolution of this contradiction is quite impossible while remaining within the confines of private property ownership.  There is nothing within the utterances of any of the political parties that suggests that a resolution of the issue of white land ownership (for example) will benefit the people of this country, or would provide for a development of the home market that is vitally necessary for socio-economic reasons.  At the moment this particular question is addressed solely on the basis of the transfer of private property currently held by white owners to black owners. The central problem of the private ownership of property – that is invariably detrimental to the poor – is not considered. There is equally little consideration given to various forms of collective property ownership founded on African tradition that could be beneficial on a much wider scale than the mere de-racialisation of private property.

Who represents the national interest in South Africa?

The idea of the ANC as representative of ‘the nation’, and consequently the characterisation of the ANC as a nationalist party, is quite simply false.  The ANC has enabled the massive accumulation of a few at the expense of the nation. Initially this was largely achieved by the party becoming a simple agent of capital. The state was totally penetrated by capital.  It is not just that the state had been ‘captured’, but more fundamentally that we could not speak in terms of a distance between state and capital.  Their interests became largely identical as was demonstrated forcefully at Marikana. Under Zuma another form of private accumulation, also mediated via the party, has come to the fore: forms of rent-seeking that target the state, and in particular its developmental programmes and projects, rather than the market as such.

The ANC still adheres to the language of democracy and revolution but is evidently not intent on either.  Yet the language of the ‘national-democratic revolution’ is not simply a quirky leftover from the past that frightens white liberals.  This slogan is necessary for the state to legitimise itself by offering an empty performance of adherence to the ANC’s political roots in a context of total de-politicization.  In fact it can be maintained that the ANC in state power is the guarantor of the de-politicisation of the people-nation by maintaining the fiction of universality.  It maintains the fiction of a universal politics precisely through its category of ‘national-democratic revolution’.  The latter is neither national nor democratic, nor (quite evidently) revolutionary, but a subjectivity that is reactive to the ‘people’s power’ movement of the 1980s.  It is therefore false to describe the ANC as nationalist in the sense of representing the nation.  It speaks in terms of the nation but in actuality it simply represents a predatory oligarchy that acts in nobody’s interest but its own.  In this sense its politics, if we can still call them that, are simultaneously identitarian and marked by competition between factions seeking to extract rents from the market and the state.

Of course this is not to deny that there may be individuals within the organisation, some at high levels, who still adhere to the ANC’s original national-representative ethos. But overall, the above characterisation has been developing from the beginning of the new century.  It is not a simple characteristic of the Zuma presidency. Under Zuma predation became much more crass but it had been evolving long before that. In fact its roots can be traced back to the exile period.

The absence of a universalistic politics, the dominance of interests and identities including narrow nationalist ones, combined with an overflowing culture of violence as the guiding precepts of collective action can easily collapse into fascist-like actions.  This is much easier to achieve than is usually thought.  One doesn’t need black or brown shirts terrorising people in order for politics to be thought in fascistic terms.  All one needs is a dominant subjectivity characterised by the reification of violence as politics and the absence of the thought of the universal so that a particular minority is blamed for wider systemic problems.  It is not simply the anti-Semitic utterances and graffiti at Wits that are noteworthy in this respect, but the gradual slide of social-democratic vocabulary into national-socialist utterances. Such subjectivities are enabled by the absence of a true universalistic politics, by the false identification of violence and destruction as political in themselves, and by the fear of national exclusion.

Moreover in conditions of massive exclusion, and the apparently habitual deployment of violence in daily experience, a desperate turn to forms of millenarianism becomes possible.  The preaching of violence and mayhem from the pulpit is having effects on a minority in conditions where politics are absent: “The Black question can only be resolved on the battlefield where it was created.  This country will burn, from its ashes a new country will be born. Then there will be no former slave and there will be no former master, for the former things will be gone. Behold, everything will have been made new!” These utterances are from an extreme form of millenarian Pentacostalist preaching in Cape Town, a form of Pentacostalism linked to one of the most crass propagandists for the faction of the ANC committed to extracting rents from the state.  All one has to do is destroy this corrupt world and then, as magic will have it, a brave new world will arise like a phoenix from the ashes.  Such apocalyptic conceptions are clearly apolitical but if they win more support the slaughter and mayhem they will produce could set the country back for many years.  One need only think about Rwanda and the traumas slaughter has produced in both victims and perpetrators.  Similarly apocalyptic conceptions are, of course, to be found emanating from a number of religions worldwide whether in the Middle East, India, the Southern United States or elsewhere.  Confronting violence with violence in this way is to confront authoritarianism with authoritarianism.  It is the politics of death, ‘necropolitics’ as Achille Mbembe calls it.  In fact it is no politics at all; it is simply the initiation of a never-ending spiral of violence.

Privatising education or education as a public good?

Toward the end of 2016, events in South Africa universities seemed to have outlived #feesmustfall and to have collapsed into destructive violence and arson, or, at least, the distinction between the struggle for free university education and later arson attacks was not at all clear.  The latter events were completely foreign to the struggles of students in 2015 that often took open and democratic forms.  Part of the reason for this I would venture to suggest was because of the failure to emphasize the universal demand for free public education (not just university education).  Apart from a small number of exceptional voices, the dominant cacophony from ‘concerned staff’ was merely to oppose university administrations’ atrocious collaboration with state violence.

The use of repressive litigation (interdicts), and the calling of police and private security on campuses, certainly had the effect of inflaming rather than calming the situation.  The important point to be made here, however, concerns the inability of the decision makers to move beyond a discourse of the market and subsidised funding, to one where a genuine debate could be held on the necessity for an understanding of education being in the public good or the national interest.  The underlying problem facing higher education worldwide is quite simply derived from its commercialisation.  This is quite incontrovertible.  It is the increasing higher pricing of a university education that means that it becomes unaffordable to the poor and only affordable to the middle class at the expense of long periods of indebtedness.  The ANC has systemically underfunded university education. Given the ANC’s original commitment to a national vision whereby ‘the doors of learning [were to] be opened’ to all the black population, the state has found itself within a variant of the contradiction noted above: between its commitment to redressing national grievances and the ‘exigencies’ of a rapidly commercialising global educational market place.

Broadly speaking, two sets of arguments seem to have emerged against the demand for free higher education.  The first suggests that ‘free’ higher education is an impossibility as ‘nothing is free’ anyway, that the tax base is too small, that increasing taxes on the rich will not be acceptable or sufficient, and that the ANC was rash to propose such a thing in the first place.  The solution is to provide more loans for study – to finance education via student debt.

The second insists that free education would be unfair as it would advantage the middle classes and the rich who can afford to pay. It is maintained that this is grossly iniquitous in an unequal country.  What is required, it is argued, is rather increasing the government subsidies for students from poor backgrounds and for some of the middle class.  In other words more subsidies from the state are called for but the commercial character of the university remains basically unquestioned.

The important point to insist on is that education (all education) is an investment for the future, not a frivolous expenditure.  The dominant trend in the state and society being quite anti-intellectual (‘clever blacks’; ‘it is easy to make a career without education: look at me I started a successful business’, etc. etc. ad nauseam) and the constant extolling of the market and commercialisation of everything by the media, have created the impression that education is something of a luxury which the country can ill-afford.  What is required, we are told, are more business people and everything will be fine. How an uneducated population will be able to be competitive, eschew violence and make informed choices in an unforgiving global economy is not considered.

Much has been made of the fact that ‘free’ higher education will benefit mainly the wealthy and the middle class.  In fact we should not worry about the wealthy, they will send their children abroad and buy their way into the private system. But, what about the middle class? Should the people of South Africa be concerned about them benefitting from a state-funded public system?  It is a well-known fact that, worldwide, as soon as the middle class shows no interest in institutions and state supported projects, funding and other forms of support grind down and there is rapid decline.  To refer to a simple example, it is well known, worldwide, that as the middle class have turned to drinking purchased bottled water, the public water utilities have been allowed to deteriorate.  As Lewis Gordon has often noted there is also a racial dimension to this process in racist societies like, for instance, the United States, where white exit from public institutions is associated with a rapid decline in investment. If we wish to save our public universities and schools it is imperative that the middle class retain a stake in them.  Moreover the continued commercialisation of education could conceivably lead to a point where the state reduces its funding to education even further on the grounds that, given that the majority of the population is unlikely to be employed, there would be no point in wasting money on their education.  Under conditions of commercialised education, much as under apartheid, some new version of ‘bantu education’ could easily make a comeback.  This is well within the realm of possibility.

The point, then, is that it is imperative to give the middle class a stake in the public education system while simultaneously creating access for the children of working people and the unemployed.  It is therefore imperative to begin to think of free quality education (not just at the level of higher education) for all.  We need to begin to accept that there are some values that must be provided for all for the benefit of all in the nation.  These must include education (at all levels), housing, land (urban and rural) and health in addition to the provision of clean drinking water and electricity.  These are to be considered as public goods to the benefit of all residents in the country. People must have a stake in them so that they can consider public goods as theirs.  If people see themselves as owning public resources they will not be led to burn down schools and libraries for they will understand the importance of collective ownership.  Of course all this would require transforming the economy so that more are employed and more are subject to direct taxation which they know will not be diverted into the pockets of a predatory elite but will be used for public benefit.  This would therefore also mean ending corporate looting via the massive export of profits, expanding the domestic market, and ensuring that local businesses invest locally rather than simply waiting for FDI.

As far as one can tell from the outside, the students seem to have made three major political errors.  First they simply insisted on university fees ‘falling’ (the slogan was itself inadequate) rather than stressing that education should be thought of as a public good.  They therefore remained within the bounds of interest politics and eschewed a politics of universality.  Second they seem to have demanded that the government decision for ‘fees to fall’ should be made immediately rather than insisting that the government should commit itself to instituting free education by a certain date (say 2020).  Had the government agreed to that, the debate could have shifted to discussing a road map to this outcome.  Finally students seemed unwilling to make alliances with popular forces outside higher education – although several political parties attempted to exert their influence on events for opportunistic reasons with various degrees of success.  After all the issue of free education is of interest to all, not just to students.

The university authorities for their part were not seemingly able to think beyond the fake Manicheanism of militarisation versus chaos.  The issue then shifted to the maintenance of ‘law and order’.  Given that the police are one of the main instigators of violence and disorder in this country, the outcome was quite predictable.  The upshot of it all was more violence feeding on violence.  The underlying problem was the absence of a thought of politics.

What we require is a shift in the parameters of reason. It is quite clear that the state, riven as it is by internal contradictions marked out to a significant extent by one camp obsessed with market liberalism and another aiming to extract ever more rents from the state, is unable to think a universal politics other than the liberal utopia that is unavoidably racist and exclusionary.  The political inventions of the 1970s and 1980s have been obliterated along with mass de-politicisation and the consequent debasement of state politics.  It is time for democratic egalitarian experiments to resurface so that a true universality can again see the light of day.

Michael Neocosmos is the director of UHURU at Rhodes University and a Distinguished Visiting Scholar at the University of Connecticut Humanities Institute.  His latest book, published by Wits University Press, is called Thinking Freedom in Africa. It was awarded the 2017 Frantz Fanon Prize.

Main Photo: Police arrest protesters during violence that spilled out of Wits University and onto the streets of Johannesburg last year. The writer argues that while the students’ call for decolonized, no fees education is a progressive one, there are worrisome authoritarian currents also emerging within the movement — by Daylin Paul