Friday, 20 May 2011

The Vuvuzela Election: Where Rhetoric Reigns & Labour Dithers

The 2011 local elections swept South Africa away in what seemed like another world cup production. The same 'fever' was in evidence across large swathes of the country. No longer is door to door politicking the favoured means of winning over voters. Nowadays, mass rallies are not platforms for visioning and re-envisioning the future of South Africans and all those who live within it. Rather, hooting car cavalcades and mass 'pop concert' styled rallies are the new modus operandi of the South African political elite, who have learnt that they do not need to listen to voters ... all they have to do is stir up their deepest insecurities and channel their frustration at an easy-to-identify enemy.

Election 'fever' even has the opposition leader, Helen Zille, out in the streets getting her knees up high, ‘toy-toying’ amongst the crowds; attempting to win over black voters who are discontented with lack of service delivery and rampant corruption at street committee and ward levels which the ANC has been reluctant to acknowledge. Similarly, Julius Malema (leader of the ANC youth league) whips up the marginalised black youth into a frenzy of nostalgia about a 'revolution' that in truth never occurred, stirring up even more race hatred than ever before, splitting the populace into black and white sectors that are irreconcilable - the very anti-thesis of the ANC that promised to bring a new unity to South Africa moving forward from 1994. Ironically, the DA now seeks to sell itself as the safeguarders of the legacy of Nelson Mandela, and instead of differentiating themselves from the ANC have adopted the same policies as the ANC, seeking only to do better than the ANC at delivering the same promises as their opponents. 

It is an interesting, if vexing time to be living in South Africa. Populism reigns in the absence of intelligent debate, and rhetoric reigns where leaders fear to tread. That is, where our problems are most complex we devote the least intelligence to solving them. A few days ago, Jacob Zuma declared upon visiting a location riddled with service delivery problems that he 'for the first time' understood the issues around service delivery. An appropriate question for the president in that regard is, 'where has he been for the past 17 years?" I'm sure he's been on every election trail, so why the late discovery of something that all South Africans have been aware of for a long time? How can he possibly only understand these issues now?

Electioneering has become the most prominent indicator of how farce has replaced politics in South Africa. No longer do individuals matter. All that matters are the statistics of victory. Like a soccer match, winning is everything. It matters little what the dimensions of the win are ... numbers are everything .... right? Wrong! The numbers can be used to tell many stories, but critically, if I was a shareholder of the ANC I would be worrying, while if I was a shareholder of the DA, I would be celebrating. The ANC has posted percentage losses in many municipalities while the DA has made significant percentage gains for what was thought of as an all-white party, and there is no hiding from this.

Moreover, the ANC itself has recognised that its own voter base did not come out in their full numbers. Yet, the ANC boasts (as did the head of the coalition of unions (COSATU), Zwelinzima Vavi this morning on television) that its voters would rather abstain rather than vote for an alternative. In itself, this is an empty boast ... it's real meaning is that we have not established a true democracy where the alternatives exist for frustrated left oriented voters to make their voices heard. It may be argued that COSATU itself is responsible for this lack of left oriented representation, as by remaining within the ANC as part of a coalition between the South African Communist Party (SACP) and the ANC leadership it has considerably distilled the might of South African workers, worsening their plight.

COSATU was complicit (even though it raised objection) in the decision to further privatise and de-regulate the South African economy in 1996, that has directly resulted in massive job losses amongst workers and rising unemployment way before the crisis of 2008 arrived upon the doorsteps of the planet. Yet, in a twist of logic comprehensible only to those directing the 'party line' of the ANC, Vavi hailed the election results stating that ruling parties all over the world have lost position since the financial collapse of 2008 and it is testament to the ANC's strengths that voters still gave the ANC a large majority win overall. Hogwash; the ANC is guaranteed the majority vote because the over-riding perception amongst loyal ANC voters is that no viable alternative exists.

It is precisely the unholy trinity between the ANC, COSATU and business (not the SACP who are in reality small players in the bigger scheme of ANC governance) that has created a power block that has helped establish a klepto-elitocracy that has hastened the migration towards even greater socio-economic inequality than existed during apartheid. COSATU no longer exclusively represents the interests of workers, but has to walk the ANC party line ... a line that may end up being a gangplank for COSATU in the future. South Africa has the highest Gini coefficient in the world and unemployment sits at 25%. Yet ostentatious wealth knows no bounds amongst the monied and each year more school leavers join the ranks of the unemployed poor. If the history of South African politics is anything to go by, this situation is unsustainable and it is only a matter of time before frustration at lack of service delivery and the exacerbated conditions of the poor return to the forefront of South African politics.

Moreover, it is the close alliance that COSATU enjoys with the ANC that deprives the poor voters who abstained from voting from having a viable choice. COSATU, the largest power broker within the ANC seems more concerned with its survival as an institution of power rather than a body that represents labour-oriented left wing politics. Instead, Vavi blames the sway towards the DA in the Western Cape on minorities whose fear of the ‘swart gevaar’ (or black danger) is informing their voting choices. In one fell swoop, those who were once thought of as an inseparable component of the struggle against apartheid are now declared minorities with racist fears – a slap in the face for those who, in the new South Africa, are now ‘not black enough’ and conversely, ‘not white enough’ to be trusted by either side – a mere appendage (in Verwoerds words) to be valued only if they vote your way. 

The majority coloured and creolised Western Cape, instead of being upheld as the rainbow in the rainbow nation, are cast aside because yet again, they are not ‘pure’ enough to join the ranks of either side. The scores of textile workers who lost their jobs after the ANC lowered trade barriers with Asia, allowing cheap Asian imports to destroy the textile and clothing industry in the Western Cape did not get a mention from Vavi. I suspect he’s forgotten they ever existed. It is Jacob Zuma that Vavi proclaimed he is willing to “kill for” in the previous election, and to whom his loyalty remains untarnished. Vavi challenged the previous ANC president, Thabo Mbeki, far more vociferously and regularly than he has challenged Jacob Zuma since he became president – yet the plight of workers has only worsened. So why the silence?

Since 1994, the number of union leaders who have joined the private sector, taking up large-paying positions is in itself a discredit to its role as a worker rights based party. Nowadays, scaling the ranks of political institutions such as COSATU or the ANC constitute one-way tickets to material success ... this is undeniable. The youth league is more reminiscent of the 'young republicans' in the US ... as they corner tenders and are invited onto boards, licking up that gravy. As a reminder to those who may have forgotten, Brett Kebble put together over 80 deals in two years that all involved youth league members. Conveniently, when gold prices soared this year all the noises they were making about nationalising the until now poorly performing gold sector, died down. 'Nationalisation' was just a bid for a quick payout. Indeed, this is what Jeremy Cronin of the SACP himself argued in response to the youth leagues call for nationalisation.

Absolute power of the ANC is an invitation to absolute corruption and absolute hegemony over business, the state, media and the workers. It drowns out all space for a truly democratic representation to emerge in South Africa. Indeed, the ANC would rather that disgruntled supporters abstain from the ballot than go out and exercise their hard won right and have viable alternatives that sit to the left of the ANC's current centrist position on socio-economy. What irony governs the logic of ruling party was unimaginable during apartheid, where the right to vote promised freedom from oppression and apathy. In the last election, another ANC representative boasted that the newspapers would not impact on the election because ANC supporters don't read ... this kind of logic works against everything that the struggle for liberation worked for. Indeed, it is disrespectful of the voting populace. We have a right to expect more from our leaders.

But rhetoric has a power all its own without having to make sense and that is what makes it appealing. When one has rhetoric on one's side, one does not need logic. All that's needed is a reliable hailer through which emotions and nostalgia can be roused, and like puppeteers they can pull on our heartstrings, promise us an enduring loyalty, and we, like a battered wife, welcome the abuser back into our homes, hug them and make peace with a plight that augers no good for our children. Rhetoric, and our inability to discern it from the genuine, consigns us and our children to life in a polarised society that will never become whole, and will never attain freedom. And so in the end, it is Hendrik Verwoerd whose legacy remains intractable in the South African psyche. As a friend of mine describes it, the “Verwoerdian software” remains within us, while only rhetoric remains outside of us. Both are empty of meaning, devoid of vision and are dangerous crutches upon which to limp forward. If this election can be named, it should be named the ‘vuvuzela election’, as there was a lot of loud noises that remained mostly unintelligible.

In reality, could either the DA or the ANC have remained the same for 17 long years? This is perhaps the most critical question to answer if one wants to unlock the obstacles to democratic representation in a future South Africa. Undoubtedly they have changed, and just as the entire country is still in transition, so are these parties. My bold prediction is that in the absence of a viable left-wing alternative to the ANC the DA will continue to grow in strength. It does not have the luxury of having the undying loyalty of the majority, and will hence be under more pressure than the ANC to provide a broad forum of representation whose politics can evolve with the multi-faceted needs of the populace. 

By necessity, the DA will have to be much more adaptive in how it concieves of itself and what politics it represents. Their current political standing, heavily criticised for being pro-business and apathetic towards the poor, will have to change if they wish to grow, and it most certainly will change. It may even re-brand itself as a 'new labour' of sorts (like Tony Blairs business-savvy labour) and if frustrated voters reach a point where they do not feel threatened by giving an alternative party a chance to govern they may win enough votes to rule in coalition in some of the major regions of South Africa.

What remains is for COSATU to show its cards. Indeed, if it cannot take up the leadership role it has in earnest, it isn't difficult to concieve of a DA run South Africa within 20 years. South Africans are not lovers of behemoths, and have a distinct liking for underdogs. If the DA transforms radically over the next five years and becomes a true multi-racial, gender transformed and multi-class alternative that people feel represented within, it is going to be increasingly difficult to hurl "madame" insults at the party. 

The DA's key challenge is to break through the barrier of perceptions that was built up during the Tony Leon 'fight back' era. Instead, the DA needs to become a 'fight with' party that wins the trust and support of the broader populace. Window-dressing, corporate style, isn't going to clinch it. The DA needs to have female and black (in the inclusive sense of 'black') leaders who have an aura of trustworthiness about them. They need to provide a forum where the youth can build a vision for the future of the country and the party, instead of feeling compelled to join the Malema crusade for lack of political alternatives. 

Ironically, the ANC still tends to sell itself as an underdog, even after 17 years of ruling unchallenged. Yet this ruse is fast unravelling ... and five more years of worsening conditions for the poor and unemployed in the face of ostentatious wealth being enjoyed by a few, is hardly likely to improve the plight of the ANC. The ANC has a proud history but a shaky future. It has strayed considerably from its original status as a liberator and is fast becoming an immovable behemoth that dictates rather than listens, and is a hundred percent confident of its unshakeability and right to rule. 

It is difficult to picture a liberated, diverse and democratic South Africa emerging from what is effectively a one-party state, and it is highly concievable that without humble introspection it will be gassed by its own hot air. One of the favourite phrases of ANC comrades is "our people". I have come to view this term with the disdain it deserves. The people of South Africa do not 'belong' to the ANC; the ANC belongs to them, and as long as the ANC perceives this relationship as configured the wrong way round it will be sowing the seeds of its own destruction. After all, the phrase "our people" is as offensive as the dictators of the Middle East who have no shame in referring to themselves as 'fathers' of the nation. It reveals a patriarchal attitude that relegates citizens to subjects and robs them of their true power as a society that owns its government and its state. 

Ultimately, COSATU's reluctance to break the alliance and take up the mantle of leadership within the broader political sphere is what will feed the growth of the DA. Indeed, Vavi's nightmare (i.e. of a President Zille) may become a reality in large part due to the fact that COSATU remains within the ANC alliance, sheltering itself from direct leadership on issues that concern the left. Should COSATU find the courage to step outside the ANC's rank and file it will find itself more powerful than before, and with a range of options as a kingmaker in a coalition-oriented democracy. 

Not only will the state of democracy be healthier, but coalition politics forces parties to both perform well, and compromise where necessary to achieve power. This, as opposed to a one party state, is far truer to the ideals and practicalities of ensuring democracy, and COSATU would then be in a position to hold both the ANC and the DA to account as it pleases as it will be courted by both. The independence that COSATU would enjoy to represent worker concerns from outside the ANC will free it up to be a proper left-wing party while the ANC will still remain a centrist convenor of different interests. Only, in this new world, the ANC will actually have to work for its votes and alliances rather than it being guaranteed, "until Christ comes" as they so arrogantly put it. In truth, there will be no true democracy in South Africa until government can change hands. It is not 1994 that we should celebrate, but the day when a new party is voted in and allowed to take the reigns of power. The alternative is not revolutionary bliss but unaccountable government.

COSATU is the most critical key to the future of democracy in South Africa. Without a true left wing party the DA will most likely take the most important metropoles in the next ten years, and the ANC will increasingly revert to courting rural voters in Kwazulu Natal, Mpumalanga and Limpopo. They may even conduct a few land invasions a la Zanu PF to maintain support, yet the future will remain bleak. And when all the cheering and ululations are over each election time, only the reality of one-party dictatorship will remain, to the detriment of all those who live in South Africa and on its borders. In order to move forward, one needs to relinquish the past, lest you stay trapped in a prison of ghosts and demons that no longer exist outside of your mind. The same is true of political parties, and the ANC is in danger of becoming trapped forever in a singular psychology and is too blind to lead anybody into the future and so constantly revisits the past.

To do what is right for the plight of the poor in a healthy democracy is the real struggle that is unfolding in South Africa. No longer does the Apartheid regime present any threat, and no longer does it exist ... yet the ANC conjures up its spectre to scare black voters into voting for it, sowing racial distrust at every turn and with every phrase and comment - a shamefully pathetic trick to turn on the voters, and one which cannot possibly be sustainable or inclusive. The real struggle is no longer about overcoming Apartheid but on building the future promised in the Freedom Charter. 

Doing what is necessary to achieve this is staying true to the struggle that still remains and which people endure on a daily basis in this vastly unequal society. Propping up a one-party state has nothing to do with this struggle, but has everything to do with maintaining institutional power bases. Should COSATU have the courage to move out of the ANC and represent the left in South Africa it will be staying true to the real objectives of the struggle itself, and perhaps bring about the kind of democracy that South Africans will have the faith in to go out and vote for. In the absence of action from COSATU the vacuum in representation will be taken up by other parties, and this could quite possibly do the left a disservice in the long term, rendering it powerless either way.

It is the absence of COSATU as a full player in the political spectrum that is driving black voters towards the DA. With no viable alternatives to back, they are drawn towards the only party that is actively eating into the ANC vote, and through which they can give voice to their discontentment with ANC performance (note: not vision, but performance). The unholy trinity of labour, government and business that the ANC has become can only damage democracy in the long term and erode the very freedom that those who fought for liberation sacrificed their lives for. 

By choosing to prop up what is essentially a one-party democracy, COSATU is creating the conditions for the DA to take up the vacuum that is clearly growing at the core of South African democracy. Should COSATU grow the courage to split from the ANC and court it on more equal terms, it will represent a significant new phase in South Africa's transition to democracy - one that can refresh politics in South Africa and possibly save it from a downward slide into apathetic one-party rule.

***This post was lightly edited on 7-2-2016. Paragraph spacing was changed; and the article was edited to reflect that COSATU did originally raise objections within the tripartite alliance to the decision to liberalise and de-regulate the South African economy in  1996..

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