Monday, 28 July 2014

Does civil society automatically represent the will of the people?

 by Emily Corke

1.     Introduction: Sticks and stones won’t break your bones but your gun will break mine

A massacre is the closest sign we have to show how fragile human life is and how backward humanity still is despite how far we purport to have come from the Dark Ages. However, silencing a voice in the media that follows that massacre is just the same as loading a gun and shooting people down again. The event on 16 August 2012 in Marikana was, I argue, a massacre that left 34 miners dead and 78 injured (Duncan, 2013: 1). The early press coverage of the massacre was explored from the perspectives of actors considered “official accounts of the massacre that overwhelmingly favoured business sources of news and analysis” (Duncan, 2013: 1). The miner’s voices were not present in the coverage of a massacre despite the fact that it was the mineworkers who were shot. In fact, the only time the miner’s voice was consulted was through main trade unions which was problematic in and of itself because miners did not feel that they were sufficiently represented by the trade unions. The mine worker’s voice was silenced regardless of the exasperated media coverage that followed the massacre.

            Distinctions of the official and unofficial accounts are perpetuated through the civil society, exclusive “to a small section of the culturally equipped” (Chatterjee, 2004: 42).  It is precisely this reason why, despite the media’s editorial failure in covering the Marikana massacre and politics that exists externally to civil society, public understanding of an event such as this is still “constructed by the agenda setting press” (Duncan, 2013: 5). Its construction corresponds directly to the power relations in society.

            I intend to argue that the media is the perpetuation of civil society which is fundamentally flawed in providing the will of the people in using the media coverage of Marikana. Civil society does not automatically represent the will of the people because it is a fundamentally exclusive. I will begin by providing the context on which I set my argument, namely the Marikana massacre and it’s coverage as well as the media landscape of South Africa. Secondly, I will define key concepts used in this argument, namely civil society, uncivil society and the political society, accepting the Chatterjee’s classification of the political society. Following this, I will argue that civil society is exclusionary and does not represent the will of the people using Duncan’s research on the Marikana massacre coverage. I will then conclude my thesis in arguing that the political society better represents the will of the people through subaltern studies.

            I begin with the events on a tragic day in August.

2.     34 minors shot dead, no one to tell their tale

Alexander (2014) dubbed the Marikana as a turning point in our history, it was “a rupture that led to a sequence of further occurrences, notably a mass wave of strikes which are changing the shape of people’s lives”. He warned that we have not yet felt the true consequences of the event (which he speaks of in similar terms as Badiou) and the “scale of the turning point remains uncertain” (Alexander, 2014). The massacre showed a possibility of an alternative to state politics because the “illusions in post-apartheid democracy” dissolved with every miner shot (Alexander, 2014).

Officials, unsure how to describe the event and its importance, compared Marikana to the images that surfaced after the Sharpeville massacre in 1976 where strikers fell to the ground at the hands of the police. (Alexander, 2014) In 2012, the South African Police Service (SAPS) opened fire on mineworkers participating in an unprotected strike over salaries aimed at a mine owned by British multinational company Lonmin PLC (Duncan, 2013: 1). According to Duncan (2013: 2), they refused representation and the formal procedures of protected strikes because they “felt that they had been let down by the formal bargaining system”.

In the wake the massacre, President Jacob Zuma declared and appointed the Commission of Enquiry. Contrary to the video shot behind police lines that first surfaced after the massacre, “emerging evidence suggests that the violence against the miners was more premeditated than the police were willing to concede” (Duncan, 2013: 2). Duncan argues that these developments against the police’s claim of self-defence suggest that the criminal justice system (which exists within the civil society) is not serving South Africans as it should. Therefore, the will of the people is not being represented by civil society.

The media was fundamental in “forming public perceptions about the massacre, including events that took place, the causes and the blame apportioned to various actors” (Duncan, 2013: 5). Duncan (2013: 4) argues that the media is undoubtedly more representative of the society and largely free since the abolition of the apartheid government. That being said, the commercial media model has allowed market forces to shape the media system with limited public funding for public service content. Furthermore, this commercial model exists in and for the elite in the civil society, another perpetuation of whose voice is heard who is not heard.

Duncan conducted research into the kind of coverage of the events leading up to 16 Augusts, the massacre and the immediate aftermath. Out of the total 153 articles analysed, only 3% actually consulted the mineworkers out of the trade unions and of that 3%, “only one article showed any attempt of a journalist to obtain an account from a worker about their version of the events” (Duncan, 2013: 6). The remaining articles only consulted mineworkers because of rumours that miners had attacked the police on 16 May because a sangoma had smeared muti on their bodies, leaving them impenetrable to the police bullets (Duncan, 2013: 12).

A second point of the quantitative analysis was on the primary definers in each article which is useful “in assessing how social power is expressed through the media” (Duncan, 2013: 7). Once again the mine workers only consulted as primary definers in 2% of the articles. The other end of the spectrum was business voices and Lonmin management as well as journalists and politicians.

Lastly, Duncan analysed the language used to describe the event which is significant in how we view the parties involved. The word massacre was used the day after the event but was soon replaced by the variations of the word killing because “massacre carries with  it a value of judgement...that police used excessive force” (Duncan, 2013: 8). This is unthinkable for the civil society to comprehend. Trouillot (1995: 72) makes that claim that when “reality does not coincide with deeply held beliefs”, humans will try to “phrase interpretations that force reality within the scope of these beliefs”, so as to ignore the unthinkable. This is most certainly relevant to how Marikana was framed. Duncan (2013: 8) argues that these three points of analysis shows the “symbolic annihilation through underrepresentation or non-representation”. For the purposes of this paper, this can be translated to the fact that the will of the people is not automatically represented by civil society.

Alexander (2014) framed Marikana as an event enabled actors to envisage alternative futures where their political will would be recognised. However, on this point I disagree with his interpretation. As I will argue in the third section of this paper, actors were not able to envision an alternative future because their alternative will was shot done and left unreported. The miners attempt to assert an alternative political will or future by participating in the unprotected strike when unnoticed by civil society. The direct consequence of an exclusive civil society was perpetuated through the media. Furthermore, as I am about to establish, civil society does not represent the will of the people and it most certainly does not allow for an alternative political future.

To discuss the civil society and its flawed representation, I will first define it and its counterparts, the uncivil and political society.

3.     The uncivil and the civil: the inescapable exclusionary spheres of democracy

            The enlightened modern nation is both universally and particularly defined by the twin ideas of freedom and equality, though in reality, both frequently pull in operate directions. Civil society as an ideal in a formal structure of a state “as given by the constitution and laws, everyone is a citizen with equal rights and therefore is regarded as a member of civil society” (Chatterjee, 2004: 38). Civil society as a concept exists in modern democracy and says that any form of state is legitimate, as long as it is “nested in a network of norms in civil society that prevail independently from the state and consist with laws” (Chatterjee, 2004: 40). Neocosmos refers to “civil society insofar as its political character is concerned (the institutional organisation of groups in society)” which is separate from the state and “it is its organisational and institutional forms, which give that society a ‘civil’ (political) character” (Neocosmos, 2003: 345). It is an “arena of choice, voluntary action and freedom” (Neocosmos, 2003: 345) that exists in between the individual and the state. 
    Civil society exists within a domain of politics that emphasise law, however, it is distinctly different from the government. While ideas of what civil society is may differ, “associational life constitutes an integral element of civil society” and government gains its legitimacy be from this associational life in a liberal democracy (Bayat, 1997: 5). That being said, civil society “is only said to exist when it is granted formal recognition by the state” (Neocosmos, 2003: 346). The implication is that the civil society, and those who are recognised as a part of the civil society, is at the preference of the state. The two are closely intertwined and responsible for the other.

Herein lies the difference between civil society and the political society (or uncivil society). This domain of politics is not granted formal recognition from the state, irrespective of if people in this domain recognise the state as legitimate (in voting and political participation). Enlightened modernity offered to other colonial people who had in “the meantime found out that there were limits to the promise of universal citizenship and they suffered more than a broken leg” (Chatterjee, 2004: 38). Consequentially, an alternative domain of politics was established, one which I argue is more reflective of the will of the people.

In trying to understand the entanglement of elite and subaltern (inferior) domain Chatterjee (2004: 40) proposes the idea of the political society. He argues that there is a difference between people who are recognised as citizens and those recognised as populations. Modern democracy tends to rule in the favour of the latter. Populations are looked after and controlled in the state and they are treated as subjects and not as citizens. (Chatterjee, 2004: 40) As populations are controlled within the state’s territorial jurisdiction, they do enter a political relationship with the state. However, this relationship does not always exist within what is “envisioned in the constitutional depiction of the relation between members of civil society” (Chatterjee: 2004: 38).

The state cannot treat them in the same way as people in the civil society who follow legitimate social pursuits because it would “only invite further violation of public property [land] and civic laws (Chatterjee, 2004: 40). However, they cannot be ignored. What follows, according to Chatterjee, is a form of negotiation where on the one hand, the state has an obligation to the poor and underprivileged in this terrain an on the other, they only receive attention “according to calculations of their political expediency” (Chatterjee, 2004: 40). These negotiations could come in the form of police forming negotiations with subjects in the poor peripheries in their attempt to police the areas. In the Bekkersdal community in Gauteng, police do just this in operating with and for the makeshift municipality that was established at the beginning of this year. Therefore, the political society exists where populations have acquired a specific relation with the state, “a widely recognised systemic character and perhaps even conventionally recognised ethical norms” (Chatterjee, 2004: 38).  

Neocosmos offers an alternative name for this domain of politics. He (2011: 373) notes that in a liberal democracy, the state does not extend its rule in a uniform manner across society which entails the political distinctions between the civil society and what Chatterjee calls the rest of the world. Spatial distinction is not fundamentally central to this claim but rather modes of rule applied to the civil society and the alternative domain. Neocosmos refers to this domain as the uncivil society, not in the normative sense because citizenship is not the way people in this domain relate to the state. Rather, as Neocosmos (2011: 375) argues, they do not “arguably possess a (full unquestioned) right to rights”. Neocosmos sites Botswana as exercising completely sets of laws on the uncivil society.

The politics that emerges from this domain is built on controlling populations who often transgress the strict lines of legality in their daily struggles. Populations in the poor peripheries, where the political society is embodied, “are ambiguously rights bearing citizens in the imagined constitutional sense” (Chatterjee, 2004: 42) but in the practical sense they are not members of the civil society and therefore should not be regarded by the state. The name uncivil society that refers to the way the state relates to the people outside the domain of the civil society.

The tenuous status of people who exist in the civil society is followed by the absence of the rule of law, violence develops into the everyday life. This violence “spills out into civil society and it is only then when it is recognised”, often through the mass media (Neocosmos, 2011: 375). The Marikana massacre was not an anomaly that began and ended on 16 August, it was only on August 16 that the violence spilled out into civil society that it was recognised. People in the uncivil society face “extraordinary obstacles when they wish to assert rights as a citizen” because the mode of rule is an extinguishing and distortion of what it means to have political agency (Neocosmos, 2011: 376). It is common that people in the uncivil society must accept that they have to go through trustees, like NUM and Cosatu, to be heard. The alternative of trying to organise in attempt to make their political voice known “is often unashamedly criminalised by the state” (Neocosmos, 2011: 376).

Legal systems and the policies are government operate on the assumption that all people have the money to partake in these laws. People who cannot afford anything but to live on the periphery have to exist outside the law. Therefore, Chatterjee argues that inequality undermines freedom despite being twin ideals. The state and the ruling class “regard the poor peripheries as pockets of crime” (Zibechi, 2012: 196) who lie outside the space of civil society and “transgress the lines of legality in struggling to live and work” (Chatterjee, 2004: 44).

For the practical purposes of this discussion I will use Chatterjee’s terms, the civil society and political society. However, when I speak of the political society I include Neocosmos’ analysis of the uncivil society. Chatterjee (2004) made the argument that civil society is an exclusionary concept that is demographically limited to an elite space that the people of the urban peripheries cannot engage in. In the next section of this discussion I will make the argument that the exclusionary nature of the civil society is precisely the reason that it does not automatically represent the will of the people.

4.     Political society: silenced and depoliticised

Marx criticised the notion of the civil society, saying that it was exclusionary and restricted for the few. This is true of the way civil society exists in contemporary democracy and Neocosmos (2003: 350) argued that the role which the state plays in the politics of the “hegemonic [elite] groups and those of the subaltern [poor] groups in society” was the fundamental reason for the differences between the two. The elite classes establish their hegemony through their civil society mechanisms like the media whilst the poor are criminalized, depoliticised, stripped of any political agency and excluded from civil society by the same mechanisms.

Chatterjee (2004) argued that the ‘rest of the world’, often those who cannot afford to operate within the law, are instead considered part of a political society where, he claims, real democratic expansion takes place. The “gulf” has been perpetuated and reproduced between the advanced democratic nations of the West and the “rest of the world”. Chatterjee is correct in his analysis of civil society, it is an exclusionary concept. On face value governments of democracy promote autonomy, inclusion and equal treatment of all. Below the surface in reality, “government at the same time display apprehension about losing political space” (Bayat, 1997: 61).

As such the state reacts in a way so as to silence and discipline the poor. Trouillot made that claim that when “reality does not coincide with deeply held beliefs”, humans will try to “phrase interpretations that force reality within the scope of these beliefs”, so as to ignore the unthinkable (Trouillot, 1995: 72). Just as Trouillot theorised, the elite will interpret politics happening in the political society in a way that simplifies their voices of the ‘rest of the world’. In South Africa today, there is clear line between those who are included in civil society and those who are depoliticised as subjects to the political society. The consequence of Chatterjee’s claim for a South African is that the voices of the poor majority are not taken seriously nor are they given any political authority. 

The miners who were killed or injured in Marikana were silenced by civil society in three ways. Firstly, the way that the state reacted towards the small mining town in the days the days before and after the strike is in violent and obtrusive manner. More negotiating approaches towards protest policing the fringe were gradually “edged out in the favour of more a more militarised response” deployed in protest hotspots including Marikana” (Duncan, 2013: 4). Secondly, the strike on August 16 was immediately criminalised when the Minister of State Security, Siyabonga Cwele framed the strike as “violent industrial action [that] tended to be illegal, unprotected and disruptive to key sectors of the economy” (Duncan, 2013: 4). Referring to the strikes in the platinum sector (which are ongoing today) as illegal is problematic because the mine workers have the constitutional right to strike. Granted the Labour Relations Act makes a distinction between protected and unprotected strikes but Duncan (2013: 4) makes the point that workers have chosen to go on unprotected strikes as “protected strikes have proven increasingly ineffective in raising the workers standards of living”. In some cases the striking worker becomes poorer.

Thirdly and probably the most silencing mechanism, the miners were silenced by the editorial failure in covering the event. In South Africa, Chatterjee’s argument is very relevant in understand the poor or the unprotected striking miner, who exist in the political society are “inaudible or invisible or to be pushed out” (Selmeczi, 2012: 504). I argue that it is due to the exclusion from civil society that the poor will not be taken seriously in civil society and this manifests within the media which exists in and seemingly for civil society.

As I mentioned above, the number of journalists who made an attempt to understand the massacre from the perspective of the miners independent of a trade union was dismal. Marinovich, one of the few who tried to understand the story beyond the official accounts, argued that “there is a preponderance within the media to rely on the spokesperson” where stories relay on what the spokesperson does or does not say (Kardas-Nelson, 2012). The reliance on these accounts implies that the account of the person on the ground is not heard unless the spokesperson said the words. Therefore, the majority of the media who relies on the spokesperson who does not automatically represent the will of the people. 

Marinovich (2012) argued that the Marikana massacre has been covered from various viewpoints, but the dominant narrative fed by the police, various state bodies and soon the media, was that the strikers provoked their death by charging at the police. Schmidt’s central term of the nomos is useful in understanding why such a flawed representation of the people’s will is normalised as the universal. He maps three asymmetrical distinctions or nomoi accepted as globally legitimate at certain points in our history. The concept began in a Eurocentric order of Christian/ non-Christian, moved to civilised/ uncivilised dichotomy followed by one that was racially translated as white/non-white. (Farred, 2004: 592) The anti-colonial delegitimized the latter distinction which meant that the apartheid was fundamentally unsustainable in the nomos it occurred in. However, in the new order of post-apartheid South Africa, the illegitimacy of  evicting a black woman from her home in Joza, was replaced by the legitimacy of the rich/ poor, the illegal eviction of that same woman because she is poor is legitimate (Farred, 2004: 592). In the case of the Marikana coverage, criminalising and silencing striking miners through a highly censored media during the apartheid on the basis of their race was illegitimate in the nomos of the time. However, in post-apartheid South Africa, the editorial failure of the same nature in Marikana in post-apartheid on the basis that the miners were poor and existed in the political society is legitimate according to the technocracy of the current nomos.

For the elite who are allowed in civil society, organisation from within the political society is the uncomfortable. The interpretation of the massacre would therefore be framed in one of two ways, either the miners were framed as victims of human rights abuses or criminalised in the narrative of an “illegal strike” and the reports that three policeman were killed by people wearing NUM shirts three days before (Marinovich, 2012). Either way, their voice as political actors is silenced in the press if not by being undermined by official accounts (seen as more acceptable), than by being excluded altogether as was done in 97% of the coverage Duncan analysed. In both interpretations of the miners from the political society and their will is not automatically represented.

As an aside, I would also like make a point about the further consequences of silencing the political society in framing them in the ways I mentioned above. Ranciere (2010: 167) defines emancipatory political project as a moment where there is a movement out of a situation or position of minority where you have to be controlled. The striking Marikana miners took action against the state as an emancipatory project. In the emancipatory struggle, the people who emerged in a sphere where they should not have, expressing political agency are forced into a human rights discourse. While the miners emerged to exit a situation of minority, the way the media and official accounts of civil society framed them forced them back into a situation of minority.

On a broader spectrum of media coverage of politics of the protests in South Africa (many of which are the direct consequences of Marikana), Chatterjee’s argument is very relevant to what I have come to term the Service Delivery Phenomenon. “Service delivery protests” have been given as a one size fits all description for any activity that exists in the peripheries or the political society. It ignores the political participation and citizenship of the poor. It is unthinkable to believe that these protests are about “‘citizenship’, understood as ‘the material benefits of full social well as the right to be taken seriously when thinking and speaking through community organisations’”, as Pithouse understands them to be (Alexander, 2010: 25). The Service Delivery Phenomenon does not allow for this.

Marikana, though more explicit, is not an isolated example or a “bad apple” as Duncan refers to it. The Bekkersdal community in Gauteng is often the sight of these “service delivery protests”. The people in Bekkersdal recently took part in an illegal land grab that was again reported as a service delivery issue because they had not received housing from the government (Corke & Kubeka, 2014). At the grassroots level however, was the people of Bekkersdal were participating in an alternative form of politics where they were forming and operating their own government. It is unthinkable that even in the police were operating and working for this kangaroo government in Bekkersdal. The idea that the land grab was a service thinkable in the paradigms that exist in civil society.  They were criminalised and framed in a way that they were stealing privately owned land. Civil society is not only demographically limited but it is demographically walled, the poor emerging where they are not allowed is immediately framed as a threat.

The editorial failure to represent the will of the political society perpetuates exclusionary forces of the civil society and implies that the political has no political will. Therefore, as I will argue in the final section of this paper, the political society and the theory produced thereof is more representative of the will of the people. One lens that would be better applied to the Marikana massacre is the Subaltern Studies tradition.

5.     Subaltern studies and the will of the people

The politics of the subaltern emerges from people who exist underneath another. It developed as a theoretical lens when the similarities of elitism between the colonial tradition of history and the nationalist tradition of history materialized. It also emerged out of a moment in India in 1967, known as the period of disillusionment, where disillusion about the state and what its roles should be dissolved in mass uprisings (Guha, 1997), a moment like the Marikana massacre where the state turns on its own people.

Subaltern Studies, which emerged from the political society, has an “insistence on a solidarity that would not reduce individual’s voices, styles and approached to an undifferentiated uniformity” (Guha, 1997: ix). The particular interpretation and the knowledge that had for so long been “granted and authorised academically as well as politically” is questioned in this tradition (Guha, 1997: xii). It is a commitment to a politics where it is no longer sufficient to just consult the hegemonic civil society.

Understanding the Marikana massacre through this lens would question the official accounts placed over the accounts of the miners. It is a school of thought that would automatically represent the will of the people in the political society because it emerges from a place that understands the ontological experience of an event. Political society is, as Chatterjee would argue, the site of democratic expansion and political participation.

While civil society is exclusionary and fundamentally flawed, it is the sine qua nom of modern democracy and legitimate in the current nomos. I am not condoning its existence regardless of its legitimacy. However, there are the actors who act as a doorway for the will of political society to be translated to civil society. They have a foot in the civil society and in the political society as a matter of speaking. Julius Malema has presented himself as this type of actor where he claims to have the will of the people at heart in running for president. At his first appearance in parliament (a space in the civil society), he was dressed in worker’s attire making the statement that he was with the workers and for the workers (Makinana & Underhill, 2014). He has presented himself as a candidate to represent the will of the people who are silenced and depoliticised by the ANC government.

Malema (who was at that point very critical of the ANC) was one of the first politicians on the scene after the Marikana massacre was even termed a massacre. He was quick to grab an opportunity to say “President Jacob Zuma should step down as should Police Minister Nathi Mthethwa”, as well as imply that Cyril Ramaphosa was partially responsible for the death of the miners (De Wet, 2012). The Service Delivery Phenomenon has been said to be the disorganised movement which once organised will form a greater rebellion of the poor (Alexander, 2012). If Malema does emerge to automatically represent the will of the people in parliament and by extension civil society this prophecy could prove to be true.

6.     Conclusion: voices forgotten, history untold

Central to my claim that civil society does not automatically represent the will of the people was the three ways in which the miners voices were silenced, depoliticised and criminalised by the state. The first was the militarised reaction the state took to “hotspots in Marikana” which is by no means unique to the area. Bekkersdal has also been declared a hotspot with heavy police presence there during the elections this year. Secondly, the problematic labelling of the industrial action in the area as illegal and violent simply criminalised any further action the miners would take (including the massacre), ignoring the possibility that protected strikes led by the trade union were ineffective  in making their political will heard. Lastly, I argued that the most silencing mechanism of the civil society in this case was the editorial failure in covering massacre where 97% of the articles that came from the massacre did not consult the miners.

I have argued that this editorial failure is a minute demonstration of the flawed and exclusionary civil society. I argued that the media is the perpetuation of Chatterjee’s (2004) argument that civil society is an exclusionary concept that is demographically limited to an elite space that the people of the urban peripheries cannot engage in. I also argued that in the political society, the rules are bent “and the majority are only tenuously rights-bearing citizens” (Neocosmos, 2011: 374) which makes the criminalisation and depoliticisation of their voices unproblematic and legitimate. The current nomos of a rich/ poor dichotomy that exists within the technocratic order of post-apartheid South Africa further legitimates the dominant narrative of the massacre fed primarily by official accounts of the police and business which overwhelmingly contradicted account of the miners. Finally, I offered the possibility that the political society and theory that emerges from political society is more representative of the will of the people because it emerges from the people.

Alexander (2014) dubbed the Marikana as a turning point in our history, it was “a rupture that led to a sequence of further occurrences, notably a mass wave of strikes which are changing the shape of people’s lives”. We have yet to see the full consequences of the massacre for our country and the mining sector. Regardless, Marinovich (2013) declared that journalists have the responsibility to cover the full story¸ “as accurately as we are able, but in context…the dead of Marikana deserve no less”.
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