Wednesday, 17 October 2012

How should we at this moment in South Africa make use of contemporary theory?

by Nthabiseng Modjadji, 2012

Contemporary theory can be used at this moment to properly explain how a country like South Africa which presents a picture of a rainbow nation, full of possibility, where democracy seems to be working is actually a xenophobic, corrupt, often violently authoritarian, poverty stricken society were majority of the people feel a sense of betrayal in terms of the dream that was sold to them as to the kind of society South Africa would become post-Apartheid. This essay will look at the firstly the issue of land in South Africa which has sparked a lot of unrest and has often been incorrectly labeled as being an issue of service delivery when it is actually a political problem. Also looking at the role of civil society in further marginalizing the masses and the manner in which people have been separated from politics though engaging with them as populations and not as citizens.  Politics in South Africa has become technocratic, everything is about how much the government can provide, not how much people can influence government and exercise real political power and lastly the essay will engage with Lewis Gordon’s argument about how people are turned into problems which he draws off Frantz Fanon’s idea of the lived experience of oppression.

                           The issue of land and space in South Africa has been the most dominant cause when it comes to popular uprisings. The current situation is one where poor black South Africans are still as economically and politically disenfranchised as they were during apartheid; they remain landless and spatially or geographically excluded from the rest of the society. The “liberation” of South Africa has resulted in no real transfer of power into the hands of the people, what has occurred now is that South Africa is in a state of what Nigel Gibson refers to as “neoapartheid” (Gibson, 2011: 6). There has not been any real systematic change that allows power to work from the bottom up, the system is still the same, it just has a black face to it.  In The Wretched of the Earth, Fanon writes that when a true, complete liberation has occurred the proof “lies in a social fabric that has been changed inside out” (1961[2004]:1). In a complete revolution every part of the society must be “changed inside out” and Fanon also states that “the last shall be first” (1961[2004]:2). This has not occurred in South Africa. The people at the bottom, the disenfranchised remain the last and are systematically excluded from exercising any economic or political power. The system of oppression still exists except in contemporary South Africa it is not through systematic racism like during apartheid now it is the poor who are oppressed. South Africa is painted as this rainbow nation with an emerging powerful black elite, but the majority of the previously disadvantaged people in South Africa are still exactly that, disadvantaged.           

                                                                A colonized world is divided into two different worlds, the world of the dominated and the world of the oppressor. This speaks to the land issue in contemporary South Africa, which is rooted in the actual transition from apartheid to the “new South Africa”. “Fanon challenged the newly independent nations to deal with the legacies of colonialism by redistributing land and decentralising political power horizontally” (Gibson, 2011: 12), the new South Africa has not risen to the challenge. The end of apartheid did not occur through a total revolution but through a compromise between the old apartheid regime and the  African National Congress (ANC), “this means that only a government succession occurred instead of state succession…the ANC leadership and its negotiating partners – in the same manner described by Fanon – pressurized by the USA, Britain, France, Germany, Japan, the World Bank and IMF, among others, and obsessed by an intense desire to destroy racial apartheid, opted for a nonracial liberal democratic model but not for true independence ” (More, 2011). That is why land has not been redistributed and power has not been horizontally distributed, the system of oppression still exists, it just does not oppress non-white people anymore, it is the poor who are marginalized.     

                                                                                                        Unlike in the apartheid era where there were these two totally different spaces occupied by two different groups according to race, now it is separated according to socio-economic power, which has never touched the hands of the people outside the elite club of the ruling bourgeoisie. The land issue in South Africa can be highlighted by looking at the mass mobilization of the shack dwellers movement, Abahlali baseMjondolo who are challenging the spatial layout of the “new democratic South Africa” which mirrors the spatial layout of apartheid South Africa. Abahlali came about as a result of the people living in shack settlements, where the conditions are terrible; there is a constant struggle for decent housing, clean water, electricity and against the introduction of Slums Clearance program by former housing minister Dumisani Makhaye. The Slums Clearance program allowed the state to forcefully remove people from their shack settlements which are close to the city centers and move them to areas outside of the city (Zikode, 2009: 10). The Slums Clearance program was fundamentally undemocratic because none of the actual people who were being removed where consulted, the decisions were made from the top-down. As a result of the government succession and not a state succession, post-apartheid South Africa is democratic in the sense that everyone has equal rights but not everybody has a right to govern. The ruling party has created a political arena where only they have the right to make decisions that affect ordinary South African’s without any consultation and the ANC legitimates this kind of behaviour where the party acts like it knows what is best for the people by its continued use of history of the struggle for liberation. The ANC continues to remind people that it is the party of Nelson Mandela, Oliver Tambo and Walter Sisulu, constantly reminding people that it is them that liberated South Africans the chains of apartheid (Zikode, 2009: 9).  Fanon speaks about this when he argues that the liberators end up betraying the people and will use their history and will wave their national flags as a way of masking the simple fact that they have failed the people. In South Africa’s case the ruling party failed too, in terms of the promise that “the people shall govern”. Fanon writes “The leader pacifies the people. For years on end after independence has been won, we see him, incapable of urging the people to a concrete task, unable to open the future to them or of flinging them into the path of national reconstruction, that is to say, of their own reconstruction; we see him reassessing the history of independence and recalling the sacred unity of the struggle for liberation…During the struggle for liberation the leader awakened the people and promised them a forward march, heroic and unmitigated. Today, he uses every means to put them to sleep” (Fanon, 1961[2004]).        

                                                                                                                     Abahlali are against this idea of power being used in a top-down system and people being excluded from really governing themselves. S’bu Zikode, speaks about a living politics which is the politics of lived experience, living politics goes against the idea that ordinary people cannot take part in politics or that they do not have the ideas or the knowledge necessary to take part in politics. Living politics says that you do not need to be a politician to know that you do not have adequate water, electricity, housing and other social services, “it is not complicated; it does not require big books to find the information. It doesn’t have a hidden agenda-it is a politics of living that is founded only on the nature of living. Every person can understand these kinds of demands and every person has to recognize that these demands are legitimate” (Zikode, 2009).               

                                                                      Michael Neocosmos argues that Abahlali baseMjondolo are the closest attempt by South Africans be stay committed or faithful to period between 1984-1986 where there was mass mobilisation against apartheid. “In the period between 1984-86, it can be described as an ‘event’ in Badiou’s sense of the word, meaning a process after which the political reality of the situation could no longer simply be understood in the old way it had before (Neocosmos, 2007: 20). Badiou argues that emancipatory experiences do not come out of the ordinary and they have the ability to transform a particular space. Badiou argues that emancipatory politics cannot happen through the states as the state is oppressive and it limits the possibility of an event occurring, the state is “the system of constraints that limits the possibility of possibilities...the state organizes and maintains, often by force, the distinction between what is possible and what isn’t. It follows clearly from this that an event is something that can occur only to the extent that it is subtracted from the power of the State” (Badiou, 2010: 7). Emancipatory events require political will, which is autonomous free will that cannot be achieved through representation, it is about direct engagement. “An exercise in political will involves taking power, not receiving it, on the assumption that (as a matter of ‘reason’ or ‘natural right’) the people are objects” (Hallward, 2010: 125). Abahlali baseMjondolo’s term ‘living politics’ is again relevant here as it shows how they as a movement are not going to wait for someone to bring them power, for their humanity to be presented to them from another source, they are taking it into their own hand. They have decided to take part in politics themselves not through NGOs and they are not going to wait to be told when they are ready or worthy of taking part in politics that effects them. The kind of politics they are promoting is about equality and direct participation (Hallward, 2010: 126).                   
                                                                                                                                 The United Democratic Front (UDF) between the 1984-86 space but also generally was engaged in the kind of emancipatory project that Hallward and Badiou speak about where there is collective political will, people stood up for themselves and decided to take power into their own hands. The UDF was a mass movement, that mobilized everybody from the trade union to students organizations, sports club, churches and many more who became active citizens in the fight again apartheid and the UDF to a large extent succeeded in making South Africa ungovernable (Neocosmos, 2007: 21). The UDF was not a political party, although there was a leadership, the leadership was expected to be accountable, had to report back directly any information that needed to be reported back because the movement saw knowledge as power and the leadership had to be open to criticism (Neocosmos, 2007: 24). The kind of leadership demanded within the UDF is a far cry from the leaders in government and the ANC, which absorbed the UDF, who take any form criticism as an attack.      

                      When the ANC came out of exile and it and other anti-apartheid organizations were unbanned, the UDF disbanded into the ANC. What resulted was “the gradual de-politicisation of civics and the renegotiation of their role vis a vis the state” (Neocosmos, 2007: 26). Not only were the masses depoliticised but they also lost their agency in terms of the role they had played in bringing down apartheid, the whole struggle against apartheid was historicized into the struggle of the ANC against apartheid. Post Apartheid South Africa has not stayed faithful to the event of 1984- 1986. Max du Preez wrote a newspaper article in response to the recent attempts by non-profit organisation Proudly Manenberg to relaunch the UDF and the negative response they received from former UDF leaders Trevor Manuel and Pravin Gordhan among others. These former leaders now part of the ANC or the part of government in general have responded by saying that the ANC has stayed committed to the mission of the UDF, Du Preez writes “If anyone told me in the mid- to late-1980s that the UDF would one day be “an integral part” of a party that had turned its back on the masses; sold out the youth by criminally neglecting education; harboured corrupt leaders; celebrated politicians recklessly driving expensive limousines in blue-light convoys, I would probably not have believed it. Manuel, Cronin, Mfeketo and Gordhan serve in senior ANC and government positions. I accept that they are truly concerned about the sullying of the good name of the UDF. But they will forgive me if I’m a wee bit cynical and ask them exactly what they have done to get the ANC to stick to the UDF’s mission to bring freedom and dignity to all the people of SA” (du Preez, 2012). South Africa has not shown any fidelity to the event of 1984-1986 except in the form of Abahlali who employ the same tactics of taking power into their own hands and working outside of the state.  

                                                              Other than grassroots organisations like Abahlali, social movements and civil society in post-apartheid South Africa have often also taken the form of Non-Governmental Organizations (NGOs). Partha Chatterjee claims that "Civil society as an ideal continues to energize an interventionist political project, but as an actually existing form it is demographically limited" (Chatterjee, 2004:39). Chatterjee talks about how during Marx and Hegel’s time, civil society used to include anything that was not part of the state including for example corporations, the family and the market, however now it only includes NGOs. Civil society as it is today, Chatterjee claims is an “ideal (that) continues to energize an interventionist political project, but as an actually existing form it is demographically limited" (Chatterjee, 2004:39) in that civil society (NGOs) are seen as being there to speak for the people, that civil society is good and inclusive when in reality, civil society is undemocratic and all NGOs have their own agendas. The spreading of the neoliberal ideology is an example of some of the agendas (Chatterjee, 2004:39).  NGOs are not accountable to people but to their donors or to the state.    

                                                                                                   Chatterjee uses the French Revolution as a focus point from which the idea of the nation-state or popular sovereignty was born (Chatterjee, 2004:27). With popular sovereignty came the idea of people not being treated as subjects but as citizens, who can make decisions on social life, “to have modern and free political communities, one must first have people who were citizens, not subjects” (Chatterjee, 2004:33). Chatterjee mentions that although the notion of the free, political citizen still exists in theory, in practice the introduction of the concept of population has separated people from the political domain and turned them into demographics or statistics (Chatterjee, 2004: 34). Chatterjee uses Michel Foucault’s emphasis on the idea that power is no more about the citizen as participators in how the state function but power is in how well the state can provide for the population (Chatterjee, 2004:34). The state is no more subordinate to the citizens and under their direct rule, the state now has its own principles and logic of governing, the state operates through policy and numbers. People have no real access to government or how it functions. All citizens do now is vote in elections, in the case of democratic states, and the politicians or the government experts make the real decisions (Chatterjee, 2004: 35). Chatterjee uses the word “governmentality” to describe how government has become all about providing social welfare, it is all about healthcare, education and housing which is a big issue in South Africa (Chatterjee, 2004:35). Although these social needs are obviously important and the government should not neglect them, the main concern is that the provision of these social needs is all that legitimates governments in modern societies and the citizen has no real power or decision making capacity. In the case of say the housing situation in South Africa, the government has made it all about the number of houses it has built for people,  however almost all of those people were not involved in deciding where the houses where being built or the type of housing. The issue of housing and land redistribution has been made into just being about service delivery which is actually missing the point, Nigel Gibson writes this about Abahlali, “what does the movement want? To have a house, to be safe? Certainly...the organised shack dwellers don’t simply want things, they want to be recognised as human equals. They are fighting for freedom and justice and the right to the city, a struggle that fundamentally challenges the production of space. In other words, they are challenging the post-apartheid ‘global city’ which remains characterised by the bourgeois values of constant accumulation” (2011: 18).     

         People fought for the right to be citizens and not subjects, it might have been during the French revolution, the struggle against colonialism or apartheid but the common idea was that people did not want to be treated as subjects anymore; people did not fight to be treated as numbers therefore totally removing them from politics because statistics cannot be political. Chatterjee states that there needs to be a political society where people can really engage with real issues, civil society as it is now cannot be allowed to be the one to exercise that power for people because civil society itself is not democratic.                                                  At the moment in post apartheid South Africa, the masses of the people are removed from real power as they were during apartheid, there is a lot of frustration around unemployment, lack of housing, proper water, electricity and toilets and government corruption and policies which fail the people or leave them worst then they were before (Gibson, 2011:6). Although the government and the ruling elite continue painting a picture of happy, rainbow nation where everybody is content, the truth is that the percentage of people living below the poverty line in South Africa has not changed since the end of Apartheid, in fact there has been an increase in the number of households living in poverty and South Africa is the most unequal society in the world, with the widest gap between the rich and the poor (Gibson, 2011:20).  It only makes sense that people are discontent. However instead of fighting the government or the rich elites, some South Africans have turned their anger on foreign nationals as seen in during xenophobic attacks which spread across shack settlements in 2008. The attacks and the general xenophobic attitude that many South African have is a result of the discourse of people believing that foreigners are take South African jobs and houses and all the things that people feel they are entitled to as South Africa (Gibson, 2011:7). South Africans who do not have access to those things not because they are being occupied by the ‘illegal aliens’ but because the government and the ruling elites who make it impossible for them to gain access to these resources. The frustration of the masses was not the only factor that played a part in the xenophobic attacked, the politicians and the mass media also played a role in creating national intolerance of foreigner by coining terms like “illegal aliens” and by the government launching campaigns to crackdown on illegal aliens, all of this as a distraction from the real issues, the issues of unemployment, landlessness and increasing levels poverty (Neocosmos, 2010: 138). Simply blaming the xenophobic attacks on poverty is not good enough because there needs to be an explanation as to why it is that South Africans in general have a xenophobic attitude, from our government, to the police and people of all races and genders, it varies from the different groups of course but poverty cannot explain how a whole nation suffers from the same phobia (Neocosmos, 2010: 123). The explanation has to be political; it is a result of the structures within the society that makes it so intolerant.                                                                                                             Frantz Fanon wrote about the lived experience of racism and how people were experiencing systematic oppression, inequality and rejection and they were being treated as if they were the problem and not the society. Fanon wrote that “reason had a tendency to exit whatever room he entered” (Gordon, 2006: 11). He wrote this because he recognised that he was never going to be seen as an adequate human being who has the capability to reason. “The black is either flawed by virtue of not being white or flawed by virtue of appearing “too white” which is abnormal for a black” (Gordon, 2006: 12). An example of this happening in South Africa, post Apartheid, is when looking at young black people who for example speak fluent English, there will be people who say things like “you speak very good English for a black person” and they will ask what school you went to and so on but the same questions will not be asked to a Afrikaner person for example, for whom English is also not their mother tongue.    

                                                                                                                      Lewis Gordon, drawing from Fanon’s experience of being a problem, uses the term “theodicy” to show how dominant perceptions like that of everything that is white being considered universal and making it as if that system or theory is perfect,  and that it is the people outside that are the problem. This creates a situation whereby people who are oppressed by the system are made into seeming not adequate enough to operate within the system. The theodicy argument basically states that God is ultimately good as He is omnipotent and omniscience which can be argued in two main arguments firstly God is all knowing and has an ultimate plan for humans even if there are bad things occurring, it for the greater good. The second argument is that God gave us freewill and he has allowed humans to do as they will, even if it is bad. What the theodicean argument tries to prove is that it is not God that is problematic but the problem is with humans (Gordon, 2006: 6). Contemporary theory operates in the same way that theodicy works. Society is seen as being good, the system is good but it is people who are problematic. This is a methodological and ethical problem because it alienates people and makes it seem as if there is something fundamentally wrong with people who are outside of the dominant discourse.  Poor people are turned into the problem and not the political circumstances. This can also be applied to the miners who work for the British owned Lonmin in Maricana who went on a strike that become very violent on both ends but the South African polices showed more extreme brutality.  These miners are turned into the problematic ones when most of their demands are very rational. Instead of looking at the real issues that lead to the strike, stories about traditional doctors giving muthi to the miners to give them strength, makes the miners look like they are incapable of reason, it just makes them appear irrational and superstitious. The reality is that the miners have serious concerns, the fact that the mine union which was supposed to protect them from exploitation has neglected on a large part to do so, it has been inclined to side with the mining companies then with the miners. There is nothing irrational about feeling such frustration (Mail and Guardian, 19 August 2012). The fact that most popular protests in South Africa are just thrown under the banner of service delivery problems also shows how poor people are not viewed as being able to think beyond that.                                   

                 Contemporary political theory can at the moment be used in South Africa to give a proper explanation and understanding of why a country that is supposed to be a rainbow nation, full of possibilities, where democracy is working for everyone is actually a xenophobic society, a society where the poor are even more marginalized then during apartheid, a society where the police and government are becoming more aggressive. Poverty is rip, unemployment and corruption at extreme levels. A society were the leaders are totally separated from the masses, leaders who do not except any criticism and are not accountable to the people. Contemporary theory can explain how the goals and dreams of South Africans who mobilised and took power into their hands in the 1980s and defeated the monster that was apartheid, how their dream of a better South Africa has not yet been fully realized.


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