Revolution Watch

South Africa balanced on a knife’s edge

Revolution brewing in SA’s shack lands

“Murder as a tool for political containment is back in South Africa, as the country is gripped by a largely unacknowledged paroxysm of popular ferment.

“A new authoritarianism is in the making, organised in the name of tradition and patriotism, and mediated through a shift in power to the police, intelligence and traditional authority,” wrote Dr Richard Pithouse in a recent article on the website of
South African Centre for Civil Society Information Service.

Pithouse, who teaches politics at Rhodes University, concludes that “... from our increasingly riotous streets to our ever more fractious parliament, it is undeniably clear that South Africa is not a country at ease with itself.”

He argues that as those defending President Jacob Zuma and the ANC grow “more hysterical and set themselves against imagined ‘agents’, ‘criminals’, ‘Satanists’ and ‘Nazis’, the weakness and panic at the heart of the Zuma project becomes increasingly evident.

“What were once hairline cracks between the reality of the ANC and the idea of the nation are rapidly widening and deepening into real fissures,” he writes.

He also concludes that “... the idea of an enlightened state that steadily moves us forward is now an ideology rather than a reality...”, and that “our ‘ceremony of innocence’ has been drowned in murder, corruption, lies, the failure to build an economy and institutions that can redeem the promise of democratic citizenship and all the everyday brutalities and degradations that mark the lives of millions”.

Options to turn things around for the present “social contract” that he rejects, include the notion that:

• any of the present formal political formations in the country, from Julius Malema’s Economic Freedom Fighters to a possible, still to be formalised new party to the left, can forestall the escalating popular ferment;

• “good leadership” can “redeem our current social arrangements”, as illustrated by the attempt, personalised by Mamphele Ramphele, that had ended in a “farce”;

• NGOs, equated with “civil society”, have “both a legitimate claim to represent the people as a whole and the power to counter the excesses of the state and capital”. Since they often have very little claim to represent any constituency other than their donors they lack real power or credibility; and

• the courts are the route to attain an effective and responsible government. For while courts are at times important sites of contestation, they are not in the full sense of the term democratic institutions and we are also increasingly confronted by a state that acts in routine disregard of the law and, at times, the courts. “On their own the courts guarantee nothing.”

Describing the existing dispensation in South Africa as “systemic elitism”, Pithouse seems to be doing some theoretical groundwork for an anticipated situation where “the people as whole” exercise their “... potential (as) political protagonists in their own right, and as potential agents of social change, rather than as a vehicle for the election or authorisation of one faction of the elite against the others”.

He does not call such an event or situation a revolution, but the implication of widespread confrontation with the existing order is clear in how he ends off his article:

“If there is a monster stirring, be it out in the wastelands imagined in Yeats’s poem (The Second Coming, 1919) or in the citadels of power, it draws its power from our collective elitism, an elitism that unites everyone from Malema to Zuma and Zille, as well as business, and much of civil society and the official left, against the sort of resolution of our crisis that would take the power of the demos, of the people, seriously.”

How real is the danger?

One does not have to fully concur with either Pithouse’s analysis or his apparent conviction that a confrontation between the state and the broad citizenry is inevitable, but evidence is mounting that the “social accord” reached in 1994, and formalised in 1996 constitution is under pressure.

The heart of the problem is that the legitimacy of the constitution has been seriously undermined by the fact that effectively its core institution, being parliament as assembly of representatives of the citizenry, has been robbed of all meaningful power. The power has been shifted to the structures and bureaucracy of the majority party, the ANC.

Even when the MPs of the ANC have to fulfil one their most basic constitutional duties, holding government executives to account like in the Nkandla affair, they do so under the direction of the ANC’s National Executive Committee and enforced by the party’s secretary general, Gwede Mantashe. The SG even sits in on ANC parliamentary caucus meetings, although he is not a MP himself.

To what extent the party has not only taken over functions of state institutions, including the police, and in disregard for the law while side-stepping the authority of the courts, is illustrated by the following paragraph form a recent article about evictions of residents at Cato Crest in the eThekwini municipality:

“The (ANC) Task Team Committee was launched to carry out the illegal eviction of the nearby Sisonke settlement. Sisonke Village, formerly known as Madlala Village,” and … “the Constitutional court found that the Eviction Order obtained by the Member of the Executive Council, Ravi Pillay, was invalid as it was made in breach of the Constitution”.

The report also refers to “… a similar strategy at the Marikana Land Occupation in Cato Crest on Friday 26 September when ANC members began demolishing shacks”.

Even more disconcerting is the picture that emerges from a collection of articles in the same edition of Pambazuka News of “armed ANC members acting with police support [who] now openly attack people struggling against corruption and for land in Cato Crest. They are even hiring assassins.”

The reports list no fewer than five members of Abahlali baseMjondolo, the largest shack dwellers social movement in South Africa, having been killed since last year.

Further afield a clear sign of the revolt that is brewing among a substantial section of the citizenry in the wake of ever-escalating service delivery protests, is the fact that the Department of Local Government and Human Settlements in the North West Province has established a Joint Operation Centre to deal with any threats and anarchy that might arise in Ngaka Modiri Molema District Municipality.

If these symptoms of anger building up within large chunks of the broader community are read together with the institutional and physical infrastructural stresses, reported on recently, to say “South Africa is not a country at ease with itself”, is to put it mildly.

Social stability in the country is in fact on a knife’s edge.

by Piet Coetzer

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