In his speech at the memorial service for the soldiers who were killed in the Central African Republic Jacob Zuma presented us, and not for the first time, with the idea that we should receive another accumulation of bodies – of black bodies – as a tragedy, as a cruel consequence of the random movement of the wheel of fortune. Thabo Mbeki, watching our steady accretion of 'tragedies' from the sidelines, might, perhaps, have recalled a line from Shakespeare: “Our remedies oft in ourselves do lie, Which we ascribe to heaven: the fated sky.”
This latest tragedy, Zuma implied, will be redeemed by its insertion in the long march of nationalist and Pan-African aspirations from the shattering on the anvil of colonial subjugation and onwards and upwards towards collective and world historical redemption. He quoted from a prize winningoration that Pixely ka Isaka Seme, a central figure in the founding of the ANC, gave at Columbia University in New York in 1906:
Seme looked forward to a future historian who would record how the “onward tide” that had led to “the future's golden door” was “often swelled with tears”. Our soldiers died, Zuma insisted, on this tide and in pursuit of this soaring vision rather than the altogether grubbier picture painted, in some detail, in our newspapers.
These days quotes from Seme's famous speech are frequently spliced into the invariably more stolid speeches of ANC leaders. Even John Block, whose energies seem focussed on matters other than realising Seme's redemptive dream of an Africa that, “walking with that morning gleam” will “Shine as they sister lands with equal beam” sees the utility in opening and closing an otherwise entirely prosaic speech, its dreary technocratism itself as mask of sorts, with quotes from Seme.
While Seme was giving his famous speech in New York an anti-colonial rebellion was gathering momentum in Natal, his home. Two days before he gave his oration a settler militia under the command of a colonial soldier, Duncan McKenzie, clashed with rebels who had rallied to stand with Bhambatha kaMancinza Zondi in the Mome Gorge in the Nkandla Forest. A week later hundreds of Bhambatha's soldiers were massacred in the gorge. The colonial state claimed that Bhambatha was killed, decapitated and buried. Popular myth asserted that he, like so many heroes real and imagined and across time and space, had escaped alive and was preparing a triumphant return.
Seme was a modernist and an internationalist and he saw Bhambatha's rebellion as an outmoded form of revolt. But he was no armchair critic - he went on to become a key figure in the founding of the the ANC in 1912 and to found the newspaper Abantu-Batho where a nationalist and internationalist anti-colonialism was first given the sustained space required to come to voice in the new Union of South Africa. In 1998 Ntongela Masilela observed that for Seme it was 'axiomatic' that international Pan-Africanism mixed with African nationalism in South Africa and infused into the organisational structure of the African National Congress would produce the “Regeneration of Africa and Liberation of the African People.”
Bhambatha never returned. But in 1990 the ANC was able to make a triumphant return from prison, exile and the underground and, four years later, into power. Almost twenty years on millions have flourished, and in some respects society has flourished, in the wake of the opening, partial but real, that marked the end of apartheid.
However our country remains acutely and often violently divided between, as it is sometimes expressed in sites of popular dissent, those who are inside and those who have been spat out. The hope that time is on the side of those who were spat out has been dashed. The process of spitting out is on-going. It is there in the way in which we honour the rich and dishonour the poor every day. It is even being built into the material landscape of our cities in the form of the return of thetransit camp - a colonial technology of urban control.
And popular rebellion, repressed by massacre in 1906 and again at various points as the century wore on until it was eventually contained with the seductions of nationalism in 1994, has returned. Under Zuma it is contained with beatings, torture, people being driven from their homes and murder at the hands of police officers and party thugs that are often able to act with impunity. And, of course, Zuma has presided over the ANC's first massacre.
Zuma wants to repeat Seme's axiom in which the ANC is the only mode of organisation that can mediate the inevitable and glorious realisation of collective aspirations – aspirations framed in nationalist terms. His speech at the memorial for the men who fell outside Bangui after, by all accounts, making a tremendously brave stand, was, above all, a demand for our silence and obedience. The path to national glory has, he implied, been laid out. The ANC is taking us down that path and asking questions about where we are going and how we are getting there is simply disloyal.
It has been argued that we had good reason to have our soldiers in the Central African Republic. But even if this proves to be the case there is a critical difference between a conception of the nation in which government seeks to be as open as it can, citizenship entails the right to freely debate and discuss the issues of the day and democracy is understood as an on-going popular practice as opposed to a conception of the nation in which government does not subject its reasoning to public scrutiny and democracy requires us to vote every few years and spend the rest of the time in dutiful and unquestioning obedience to our leaders.
The logic that equates virtuous membership of the nation with unquestioning obedience to the ruling party, which sometimes extends to presenting the now entirely heretical idea that the people should govern, or even just be able to express their views freely, as treasonous has long been imposed on the bottom of society with considerable brutality. It now stalks the higher reaches of society with gathering stridency. But of course nothing is said about the contrast between Seme's grand vision of a state that could facilitate an African renaissance and the tawdry mess of Nkandla, the spectacular horror of Marikana, the more routine horror of the murder of Mido Macia and all the other scandals and everyday brutalities, venalities, and dishonesties that have come to mark out the degeneration of the state into an increasingly predatory instrument.
The moment that we are living through has been endured, to varying degrees, by all post-colonial societies. It is the moment in which, as Frantz Fanon observed in Tunis in 1961, “ The party, instead of welcoming the expression of popular discontentment, instead of taking for its fundamental purpose the free flow of ideas from the people up to the government, forms a screen, and forbids such ideas.”
Membership of the party, or performances of support for it, is increasingly undertaken with outright cynicism. People sometimes refer to the purchase of a party card as ''Tata ma chance'. But although the reality of the ANC is so obviously debased the idea of the ANC retains its compelling power for many. And for many people the prospect of voluntary exit or forced expulsion from the idea of the ANC remains a painful prospect. You may find, for instance, that a local activist is murdered after months of threats from a ward councillor and his armed thugs but when her family arrive from their village to claim the body they find it much easier to, just like the party and the state, explain the murder as random crime, as tragedy, rather than to explore the possibility of political assassination. To have been spat out of society in material terms is one thing. To voluntarily exit the shelter of the party, one of the few available route for symbolic inclusion into the nation, is another.
The power of nationalism will not dissipate until its political work, its urgent political work, is done. But as Fanon warned just over fifty years ago “the battle against colonialism does not run straight away along the lines of nationalism” and nationalism without social commitment will end up taking over and legitimating neo-colonial arrangements. Zuma's attempt to discipline us in the name of nationalism, to demand our unquestioning obedience in the name of the nation, is nothing but propaganda designed to mask the narrow interests of a predatory elite and it should be contested as such.