Saturday, 16 June 2012

'Dropped Against the Rocks of Promise'

by Richard Pithouse, SACSIS

More than half of our young people are unemployed. For many of these people there is no formal route through which they can develop their energies and creativity and have them rewarded with a passage into autonomy and adulthood. Time becomes circular rather than linear and as life moves in descending and tightening spirals rather than up and forward. Pain and panic set into the bones.

Some people are able to keep their spirits up with the support of family, friends and congregations that sustain warmth and community amidst desolation. Others succumb to depression, cynicism, various ways of numbing pain or the temptation to blame other vulnerable people for their inability to bring their lives to bloom.

The deep roots of this disaster lie in the long night of colonial and apartheid dispossession. This is one of the reasons why we can't pretend to be a normal country until the question of justice has been properly attended to. But we cannot allow this reality, urgent as it is, to be misused to allow the ANC to deny its own complicity with the ongoing waste of human life.

The ANC's policy choices have often actively reinscribed the systemic exclusion of millions of young people from social opportunity. The failure, the gross failure, to adequately reform education; the ongoing resegregation of our cities on the basis of class and in the name of 'development' and 'delivery'; and the failure to develop rural and urban economies that can meet people's needs cannot be reduced to 'the legacy of the past'.

And, the authoritarian and predatory nature of some of factions in the political class cannot be denied. The limits to the messianic self-belief that has often led the ANC and many of its supporters to assume that the mere fact that it holds state power automatically changes the nature and consequence of that power are equally evident.

For some time, the ANC was able to contain people left out of the new order with a mixture of welfare and the collective optimism generated by the end of apartheid. But as it slowly became clear that time is not, as it had first seemed in the warm glow of liberation, on the side of the poor, containment has increasingly included clientelism and repression, both often organised through local party structures. There are now parts of the country where for many poor people accessing basic services, or some forms of work, requires a party card and where the police, or party members, openly repress dissent. And while Jacob Zuma's ascent to the Presidency was heralded by some as a victory for the left it was, from the moment of the Polokwane Resolutions, openly accompanied by a turn towards a policy agenda aimed more at the spatial containment and political control of the poor than at inclusion and political empowerment. Zuma's Presidency has been marked by a decisive shift towards a more authoritarian state complete with a militarised police force; phone taps, torture and mob violence in the shadows and a series of open attempts to formally reverse some of the democratic gains made in 1994.

But popular protest has continued to escalate and the ANC has continued to lose the support of intellectuals in the elite public sphere. The new weapon in the arsenal being prepared to sustain the ANC's hegemony in the rocky days to come is an attempt to capture popular anger and direct it against enemies, real and imagined, outside of the party. In terms of the numbers on the streets it has, thus far, been a real failure. But in a society as deeply structured in elitism as ours, the idea of a ruling party using confrontational rhetoric to summon popular anger into the streets carries a real charge in the elite public sphere even when it is not backed up with real material force.

As our more thoughtful commentators have noted, the reality is that it is COSATU, and not the ANC, that has a real organisational machinery on the ground and a real capacity to mobilise. This is one reason why COSATU's power within the alliance is rapidly increasing and why there is a real sense in which the ANC is now dependent on COSATU. But while the democratic currents in COSATU are certainly an important brake on the authoritarian nature of Zuma's project, and while COSATU is an essential bulwark against the dangerous liberal consensus that we should be competing as a low wage economy, the growing power of COSATU does not mean that the people as a whole are gaining more effective routes into participation in government. COSATU, as has often been noted, increasingly represents middle class workers and does not represent most precarious workers or the unemployed. Its record of support for the diverse set of struggles that have been waged by the urban poor in recent years is, to say the least, slim. These facts are not trivial.

In the thinking of the modern left the systemic denial of the fullness of human life has often been primarily conceived in terms of work as a vampyric or crushing force. This is well captured in Oswald Mtshali's 1971 poem The Song of Sunrisewhere it is work “that squeezes me like a lemon / of all the juice of my life.” Over time some measure has been taken of the ways in which work has been raced and gendered, and of unwaged work, from the plantation to the leaden longing in the kitchen. The anti-colonial struggles brought a concern with national oppression to the fore and also generated a concern amongst the radical intelligentsia for the agrarian question that continued into the postcolonial world. In some cases this became a romantic form of radicalism in that the 'true' nation was imagined to inhabit the villages.

And, especially since the end of the Second World War, and into the flowering of more open forms of radical thought in the 1960s, there has been a widening of the recognition of forms of dehumanisation that are not reducible to material exploitation. This enabled a fuller recognition of the political agency of students, gay people, migrants and others. But despite the opening in the 1960s it remains the case that the left has often viewed the urban poor, assumed to be cut adrift from the discipline of rural tradition and not subject to the discipline of modern industry, in terms that range from outright hostility to more moderate forms of suspicion and condescension.

In South Africa the material power and political quality of the political agency exercised by organised workers from the 1970s and, despite some dangerous alliances and compromises, into the current order is widely acknowledged. But its potency, often masculinised, should not blind us to other experiences and other modes of political agency. One of the reasons why this ethical necessity also takes on a strategic urgency is that today, a moment in which there are more workers in the mines and factories of the world than there have been at any point in history, the Communist Manifesto, with its sense of the relentless division of society into two contending class, both primarily articulated to the factory, increasingly makes a lot more sense in Surat or Shenzhen than in Detroit or Johannesburg.

In contemporary South Africa there are millions of young people whose oppression is characterised more by a lack of access to work than exploitation at work. For these people their suffering is less about being 'squeezed like a lemon' than, in a line from Head on Fire, Lesego Rampolokeng's new collection of poems, “living a stray existence where the township cracks / frustrated hoisted then dropped against the rocks of promise.”

The old grammar of the left, centred on ideas like work, exploitation, unions and strikes is inadequate to take full measure of the forms of contemporary oppression gaining ground in our own country and in much of the world - including places like Greece, Spain and parts of the United States that had come to imagine themselves as holding a secure place in the zones of privilege. 

Exclusion and redundancy are becoming as central to contemporary modes of oppression as the long history of dispossession and exploitation. Community struggles for access to land and cities; for services, education, housing and democratic decision making; and tactics like occupations, road blockades and vote strikes are central to the grammar of the new struggles, often less masculinised than the old, being forged by people who have been rendered surplus to capital rather than exploited by it.

Trade unions remain important and in South Africa, their importance could well be decisive. But the limits to their claims to representation are now classed as well as gendered. If we are to find a way through the crisis of the present, we will have to take the rebellion of the poor in all its diversity and in all its promise and peril, at least as seriously as trade unions. The old left dogma in which the organised working class stands in for the people as a whole, is a fiction from an age that is well lost.