Richard Pithouse, SACSIS
When the ANC raised Jacob Zuma above the rule of law and the scrutiny of parliament they repeated, on live television, an aspect of the logic with which the subaltern classes are routinely governed. The democratic rights that have been enjoyed by the middle classes over the last twenty years are frequently denied to people who inhabit zones, like the former Bantustan or the urban shack settlement, where different rules apply.
In these zones, despotic forms of power are not uncommon. Putatively democratic spaces, like ward committees, are frequently just extensions of the local Branch Executive Committees of the ruling party, which are in turn the instruments of ward councillors. It is not unusual for ward councillors to conflate the state with the party, and themselves with the party, in a way that has very little relation to the law. The police and government officials of various kinds often collude with the presentation of the ward councillor as if they were, on their terrain, and in relation to particular kinds of people, the law.
When Reneiloe Mashabela stood up in parliament and publically declared the President to be a thief she repeated, on the national stage, an act that has often been performed, in many cases by women, in gatherings held under trees and in dingy halls around the country.
When the police were sent in to parliament to establish the limits to what can and cannot be said they too repeated, on the national stage, an act that, with notable exceptions like the murder of Andries Tatane and the Marikana massacre, has more usually been undertaken under the radar of an elite consensus that does not consider intimidation or violence against certain kinds of people in certain places to be a matter of any real consequence.
When the ANC MPs sang their support for the deployment of the police to silence their critics in parliament in the form of a song in honour of Solomon Mahlangu they also repeated the political logic of how repression is organised off stage. Whether carried out by the police or local party structures, repression is routinely framed in the language, often militarised, of the struggle for national liberation. When the political nature of contemporary forms of resistance to the state cannot be completely erased via its presentation in terms of criminality and it has to be conceded that it has some political content this is often presented by the ANC as the work of imperial forces or rogue remnants of apartheid intelligence. In this fantasy, the ANC is always fighting the good fight, the old fight, even when they are, say, engaged in the violent repression of unarmed and democratic opposition to unlawful evictions. An attack on a group of impoverished black people is framed as if it is really resistance, in the interests of the nation as a whole, against the boers.
Over the last twenty years the dominant forces in the elite public sphere - much of the media, a good deal of civil society and the academy, trade union bureaucracies and political parties – have largely accepted that, aside from voting, basic democratic rights should not, in practice, be for everyone. With important exceptions the routine violence and, in strict legal terms, systemic criminality with which the ruling party and the state act to deny the most basic democratic rights of people who are poor and black has seldom been acknowledged in elite publics. When this reality has been acknowledge it has seldom been taken seriously. Even assassinations of grassroots activists are often treated as if they are matters of little consequence. But on Thursday parliament looked, for the first time, like everyday reality in many of the zones of exclusion and subordination across the country.
By raising Jacob Zuma above the law the ANC have broken the social contract on which a parliamentary system depends. The opposition now have a right to rebel. In fact, if they are genuinely committed to the idea of parliament as the primary seat of popular sovereignty, they now have an obligation to rebel, an act, which denies the legitimacy of parliamentary sanction to the ruling party and to sustain their rebellion until the ANC is willing to subordinate itself and its leader to the law.
The idea of the ANC continues to have real resonance for millions of people. And the actually existing ANC, tawdry as it is, holds the support of a coalition of public sector workers, traditional leaders, Stalinists, the religious right and all kinds of people, from the Guptas and Mpisanes down to the ward councillors and their committees, enmeshed in the patronage machine. Nonetheless, the capacity of the ANC to constitute, lead and represent the nation is in rapid decline. The self-organised strike, the road blockade, the land occupation, declining participation in elections and declining support among those who continue to vote, splits in the party, the collapse of the authority that the SACP used to exercise over the unions, the loss of support from intellectuals, the growing expression of youthful dissent in the flows of digital contestation and the new spirit of defiance in parliament are all corroding its ability to conflate itself with the nation. The emergence of a black opposition with its roots in the broader liberation movement on the terrain of elite politics will make it increasingly difficult for the ANC to spin every contestation as a continuation of the old struggle.
As the ANC brings the practices that it has long deployed against people whose equal citizenship is not, in practice, recognised by most elites into the terrain of elite politics there are obvious dangers to society as a whole. In countries like India, Mexico and Bolivia violence in parliament has often marked an arrival at a limit to a shared consensus on the parameters of acceptable discussion. This can produce long political stalemates, authoritarian practices aimed at forcibly containing dissent, as well as, on occasion, the constitution of new political actors within nodes of extra-parliamentary dissent that have been able to shift the centre of political gravity, in and out of parliament, in ways that have enabled more expansive conceptions of the political.
There is no guarantee that the novel alliances emerging in response to the reality that the actually existing ANC has effectively abandoned the idea of liberation as a national project and sought, instead, to constitute itself as an authoritarian and predatory excrescence on society in the name of the nation, will have any success. But if this project, fluid as it is, aims only to expel Zuma from the Presidency and to restore the rule of law and liberal democratic norms to the zones of privilege, it will not take a form that is remotely adequate to the reality that the scenes witnessed on national television on Thursday have been an everyday reality for many South Africans for many years.