Saturday, 1 October 2016

#FeesMustFall: Convenient Myths - The ‘Radical’ and the ‘Silent Majority’

  "The opposite of love is not hate, it's indifference.
   The opposite of art is not ugliness, it's indifference.
   The opposite of faith is not heresy, it's indifference.
   And the opposite of life is not death, it's indifference."


The World According to Black: Racism and Exclusion in the Neoliberal State

The recent 2016 student protest actions in universities across South Africa have been explained by invoking a convenient, yet enduring myth; that of a radical minority who hold the ‘silent majority’ hostage to their demands and methods of protest. In the case of recent protests, the aim of student protesters (who are calling for universal access to education in South Africa), has been to attempt to disrupt the activities of universities in order to force a stalemate with national government and to force it into action.

If the whole higher education system came to a standstill in South Africa, government would be forced to act more decisively on the issue. That’s not radical; it’s common sense. The empirical evidence for the prevalence of this strategy, and its effectiveness; is the exponential rise in service delivery protests since 2007. Major service-delivery protests numbered double digits in 2004. By 2008 they were up to around a hundred a year. In 2012 they climbed to over 400. In South Africa, if you want government to act on pretty much anything, you have to bring about a crisis. It is only through crisis that societal agenda’s get elevated in the state and ANC’s machinery and become actionable priorities. And the bigger the crisis the better. We have Jacob Zuma's ANC to thank for that, not the new generation of student protesters.

So the reality is that the student protesters are adopting a well-informed strategy, although some of their tactics may be interrogated. Political action that succeeds from the grassroots (i.e. truly bottom-up action), however, needs to draw attention to its cause, but also to ensure that their cause becomes better appreciated and supported by greater society.  And herein lies the reality of the intent behind the current narrative that has been spun out by university administrations, the government and mainstream media houses; that of the militant, violent ‘radical’ protester and the ‘silent minority’ who are too afraid to speak out against them. The narrative is intended to alienate the protesting students and their cause in society, by casting them as anti-majoritarian radicals. 

It invokes visions of radical fascists bounding about in groups, silencing the ‘normal’ average student who just wants to get on with life and is not that interested in stirring up any trouble. In this version of reality, the structural and systemic balance of power – and privilege – that is enjoyed by the ‘majority’ is inverted; it is the black radical militant student activist who is unfairly wielding power over the ‘silent majority’. In this model, the greater reality that the country – South Africa – is embedded in, and its history and reproduction of systemic, spatial and structural racism and inequality is entirely ignored. Indeed, who are these student activists to claim representation of a greater majority of their generation?

Indeed, the Minister of Higher Education clearly stated that he didn’t think that the student protesters were really protesting on behalf of the poor; in his view they had a deeper political agenda; to topple the ANC government. Many in the middle classes in South Africa share an equally disparaging view of the protesters; they are privileged just by virtue of having access to tertiary education; they should just get on with their educations and become productive members of society instead of embarking upon all this ‘useless’ protest stuff.

Yet South Africa has been a democracy for 22 years and the status quo – and the existing systems and institutions that underlies/reproduces it – has relegated South Africa to the ignominious honour of being the most unequal society in the world. This should be unconscionable, and it is, to many working class and poor South Africans; who remain effectively excluded from access to services, opportunities, the law, justice, dignity and political power. To the political and middle classes who hold power within the systems and institutions that govern society and social relations in South Africa, however, this inequality isn’t taken as seriously; it is presented as a fact of life and circumstances. It is how things are, even if they should not be that way. The middle classes and the elite are removed from this reality; it might as well be a object sealed in glass; one that they can observe at a distance, but do not experience. Their lives will continue as ‘normal’ whether they act (or not) on the systemic and structural factors that effectively reproduce the same system that generates more of the inequality and historical injustice that South Africa has endured for centuries.

Perhaps “system” is not a complete description of the phenomena; perhaps it is more of an assemblage; one that is so deeply embedded in systems and so effectively territorialises every sector, that the reproduction of historical patterns – and even their worsening – is engendered through its persistence. The more it is fed, the more it grows, and the more severe its impacts on society becomes.

The most recent face of this system/assemblage has been dubbed neoliberalism; as it is rooted in a political-economic ideology that has effectively enabled globalisation to function in very similar, if not the same, ways to the colonial projects that spanned the centuries in the lead-up to the advent of neoliberalism, and which persisted beyond the end of the second world war. Yet what is seldom appreciated is that neoliberal precepts – that markets self-organise, that self-interest is good, and that the reach of the state into the economy and society should be curtailed in favour of the good of ‘market forces’ – were originally regarded as radical, far outside of the mainstream economics of the 20th Century.

Indeed, the anti-taxation, pro laissez faire, small state political economic ideology was regarded as radical and ran contrary to the consensus of the 20th century until the 1970s. Neoliberalism was never understood to be an unquestioned norm until the 1990s struck, bringing about an era of CEO-leaders and organisational theories that steadily infected the leadership and organisation of the public sector, as well as civil society. Since then, it has become a norm; it is thoughtlessly deployed as a set of logics about how institutions, groups, individuals and economies operate and function as part of society. It is the means through which the establishment reproduces itself and the systems that support it, in modern society.

The neoliberal world is one in which billionaire CEOs are the norm; where Elon Musk can tell us that we can reach Mars in six years, but one in which a student protesting for universal access to education is regarded as radical. It is fitting that the neoliberal world has produced a Donald Trump as a candidate for the presidency of the most powerful country in the world, but where an occupy Wall Street protester who wants to hold Wall Street accountable for the 2008 financial collapse is viewed as radical. Here again, a profound inversion is at work; occupy protesters were subjected to state violence, arrested and thrown in jail, while the financial sector’s fraudsters went free.

Myth 1: The ‘Radical’ Protester

And herein lies the first dimension of the convenient myth of the radical and the silent majority; the casting of the radical as a “militant”, an extremist; a label not unlike the ‘anarchist’ label that was attached to those who took to the streets in the Battle of Seattle – against the World Trade Organisation – in 1999. The “militant” South African student who is protesting for universal access to education is viewed – in a neoliberal society – as naïve, impractical and unrealistic, and is characterised as having an attitude of “entitlement”.

They are viewed as young hot-heads who won’t listen to reason; who don’t know how to compromise. Their radicalism – especially with respect to identity politics (black consciousness, feminist and queer movements) and socialist/communist leanings (worker rights, nationalisation) – is wielded as evidence that their views constitute that of a minority.

Yet the claim for universal access to education is not radical. It is an entirely normal demand in a post-colonial post-Apartheid society where the majority were thoroughly enslaved and disenfranchised and relegated to many centuries of exploitation, indignity and outright theft. Their land, the resources on them, and beneath them, were all thoroughly exploited and enjoyed in the colonial and apartheid eras, and it is that structural privilege that has reproduced itself into the 21st Century despite the political freedoms that have been achieved through democracy.

Simply put, universal access to education is the most effective and realistic way to transition South African society towards equal opportunity, access and mobility in society. This is not rocket science; it is not about reaching Mars in six years, it is about the political will to realise a new dimension in our society, one that can benefit all within it, and re-set the trajectory of society i.e. socially and economically.

It is not the first time that the quest to make the impossible become possible has been sought after in South African society; for a long time a peaceful end to the fight against Apartheid was regarded by broader South African society as impossible, but it happened! We had a different quality of leadership then though, and perhaps that is what lies at the heart of what Salim Vally recently referred to as a “spectacular lack of imagination” when addressing the issue of leadership around universal access to education in South Africa.

The radicalism of student protesters, demanding universal access to education in South Africa, 22 years after the end of Apartheid, pales when compared to the radicalism of neoliberalism, and the profound impact it has had, not just on institutions of higher education (i.e. their commodification and professionalization), but on all sectors of society. At worst, the radicalism of student activists is merely a reaction to the extremism of the radical economic and political system they have been subjected to; one that merges neoliberalism with inherited Apartheid norms, where the language has changed, but the system essentially delivers the same results.

Myth 2: The ‘Silent Majority’

And along with the myth of the radical protester, another myth – that of a ‘silent majority’ – has been invoked. It has been invoked in reference to the majority of the student body, who may be sympathetic to the cause, but who are not part of the #FeesMustFall protests and/or who do not agree with university shutdown. In the main, this ‘silent majority’ are more concerned with completing their degrees as scheduled, and not a moment later.

They are not a silent majority that are constituted around a principle, or a greater agenda that elevates them to the level of a coherent political force for action of any kind; they are predominantly acting in their own self-interest. They are acting in concert, exercising their freedom, but not for any political stand, apart from their own right to access a service they had paid for. This silent majority – are not the ones who rise up during a revolution – for revolutions are typically carried out by one per cent of the population of a nation or country. Change, is not the ‘business’ of the majority, it is the business of niche innovation; being able to envision a new offering, and commit to it. It requires leadership and vision; and the ability to plan and implement accordingly.

The ‘silent majority’ should hence rather be referred to as the self-interested majority. They constitute the bulk of middle class South African society, who understandably, but not unforgivably, elevate their own interests when faced by an unforgiving society that has left them exposed to the vagaries of a neoliberal system. One that renders the poor destitute, and unable to access wealth, power and opportunity. The dearth of a real, substantive middle class who exist as a majority in the South Africa, is evidenced by the extreme levels of inequality that prevail in South African society.

The silent majority are motivated by the same impulse that immobilised the greater majority of South African society into inaction and apathy at the height of Apartheid; they are the ones – irrespective of their colour – who ensured that Apartheid survived until as late as 1994. They are not ‘agents of change’; they guarantee the status quo and its reproduction over time. They are part and parcel of the assemblage that maintains itself through successive generations; it ascribes the ‘normal’ that we’ve come to identify with modern society. And that normal is a neoliberal one, even if it is true that most South Africans do believe in and subscribe to a social contract of sorts, that is; it is a functional society despite its undeniable abnormality!

That social contract manifests in a mutual agreement and shared understanding of the importance of public spending, and most South Africans see the sense in reducing and eradicating poverty and ensuring that all of society recovers from its history and is re-birthed as a modern liberal egalitarian welfare state, as envisioned in the Constitution and the Freedom Charter. South Africans generally agree that they want people to enjoy equitable access to public services, and expect the government to undo the impacts of the Apartheid state using the same bureaucracy as the Apartheid state. South Africa is a rarity amongst peers due to its high tax compliance rates. In comparison to other developing or transitional economies in Latin America, or Africa, South Africa is blessed with a large tax base.

The biggest contribution that the ‘silent majority’ makes to South African society, is their taxes, and it is this that emboldens them to lay claim to primacy in the question of how national resources are spent and distributed. Yet the truth is that the South African economy was built upon the backs of cheap black labour, on their exploitation and disenfranchisement, and the theft of their resources and lands.

The ‘silent majority’ may be majority taxpayers, but the historical debt that was incurred so that they could be the majority taxpaying base in South Africa today is undeniably and unequivocally orders of magnitude larger than any contribution they make today. They have a responsibility to ensure justice is done and that restitutions are made; and ensuring universal access to education is a small, but significant step towards ensuring that intergenerational chains of poverty, exclusion and indignity are broken. Without this, no amount of talk about reconciliation and forgiveness will be legitimate; there will be no reconciliation, just a perpetual polarisation that rises to prominence periodically threatening to undermine the fabric of society itself in increasingly more desperate and extreme ways.

However, the silent majority moves on anything that threatens the status quo. It has a strong interest in maintaining it, so it is motivated to act, sometimes with impunity, in its own interest. The silent majority within greater South African society – and to whose silence and inaction those in power depend on for the reproduction of the status quo – are not interested in change, whether incremental or radical.

Yet at their root, the silent majority are anything but a true majority. They are only the majority within a tiny minority that centuries of oppression and privilege have produced and reproduced through the ages. They are neither representative, nor are they a discernible sector or force within the polis; they are an imaginary whose opinions and voices change with circumstances and remain unbound by principle, but bound by self-interest.

They do not constitute a political force of any kind, as they do not subscribe to any clear political agenda. Their agenda is to preserve their ability to achieve their personal ambitions, irrespective of the politics that prevail, irrespective of what their actions and inactions ultimately help reproduce in society.

The Problem with Myths: Misdirection

At no point in history have young black people – whether in South Africa or elsewhere – possessed the measures and degrees of freedom that they do now. So perhaps it makes sense that a catharsis of the black condition has manifested in the discourse around race, society and inclusion; that there is a focus on black bodies, black pain and exclusion in societies across the world, that there is a need to express and disentangle the black experience, and to engage society and its institutions directly on its shortcomings.

This is not radicalism, nor is it militancy; it is simply an attempt to express and have society acknowledge and recognise the inter-generational effects and impacts that systemic racism has wrought upon black people over centuries of oppression, to gain consensus on the prevalence of racist, exploitative and exclusionary practises in society that have their origins in systems we claim to have left behind us as societies, or as humanity.

Neoliberalism, however, acts as a noose that tightens whenever its subjects wrestle with the foundations of it. It reigns them in with the insidious threats of the ‘silent majority’; that you are in fact alone in this world, and that if you do not adhere to the constraints of the system and seize your piece of the action you will be left out in the cold; literally jobless, moneyless and with nowhere to turn. It acts as the new slave-master, yanking the yoke when its dutiful labour and consumer force wavers from its dictates; work, consume, compete, hoard.

The silent majority are a reminder that there is no system to catch you when you fall in a neoliberal society, that the risks you take to improve society are borne by you alone; that they will happily enjoy the spoils of your victory with you, but will not fight alongside you for it. It is the ultimate opportunistic society; one that readily laps up what it has not earned. They are hunters of the spoils of crisis; they win whether the market moves upward or downward, whether the climate changes, whether wars abound, whether resources run dry or not. It is the ultimate neoliberal society; it profits off everything. That is its central aim, to make gains irrespective of the how the territory changes; that is what it means to be a “winner”.

Yet ironically, the silent majority are not winning anything but short term personal gains. They remain neutral and passive in the face of major political threats to the medium and long term stability of society and the social compact in South Africa. They are too afraid to “rock the boat”, and will not move to plug its holes even though it is sinking. In comparison to the silent majority, even minor deviation is likely to be perceived as radical; even reasonable demands appear over the top. Indeed, when Apartheid was in force, the silent majority upheld it; they did not move to challenge it and did not believe that it could be challenged in a manner that would bring about a lasting and welcome result.

Though you would be hard pressed to hear them admit it today, they were not keen on democracy and change; they feared black people, black communists and black power. They feared handing black people their human rights as it would impinge on their own lives, their own ‘normal’. And yet they remained the most powerful brokers in the transition to democracy; cosmetic change was – in large part – an attempt to ensure the silent majority that change would not threaten the normal that they had become accustomed to; that the new normal would not shift them out of their comfort zones. That nothing ‘radical’ would unfold and threaten the basis of the society they enjoyed.

The radical and the silent majority can be better understood when cast as the ‘progressive’ and ‘conservative’ elements of society; the progressive elements want change that is viewed as radical (i.e. in a neoliberal system that is itself a radical ideology), and the conservative elements prefer incremental or no change, to maintain the status quo. The need for change in a post-Apartheid society that is severely wracked by inequality, poverty and unemployment is obvious. What is clear, is that ‘more of the same’ is hardly likely to bring about any new results, but will reproduce the same condition, worsening it over time (as it has over the past two decades). When the preference and focus of leadership and decision-making is largely directed at appeasing the ‘silent majority’, there is scarce hope of any meaningful change occurring in society. When the pragmatics of the short-term negate the realities of the long-term, political action amounts to merely kicking the can down the road; making it somebody else’s problem (i.e. the next generation).

The profound irony in this casting is that the silent majority uphold, reinforce and reproduce radically unjust systems that benefit themselves, while those who dare challenge the system are denigrated as non-representative of greater society. That is; the radical ‘minority’ is cast – pejoratively – as the savage native invaders whose primary goals are to attack the settler enclave and disrupt the settler commons.

This casting is ironic, even paradoxical; the silent majority is in fact a minority, enjoying a radically abnormal system of privilege in this society, while the radical ‘minority’ more likely represents the majority view in broader society. And this is the trick that the settler enclave plays on perceptions, to normalise itself while relegating any differing perspectives as outliers. It is a slight of hand that US society, for example, has responded to the Black Lives Matter movement with. It is the response that France has reacted to concerns over Islamophobia with. It is a neutralising tactic; “all lives matter”, they say, “it is a threat to our way of life” they say.

The silent ‘majority’ does not need to voice itself very loudly or with urgency; it enjoys the full support of the systems and institutions that hold power in society. It merely has to provide simple counter arguments to the complaints and demands of the ‘radical’ minority; to invalidate them and render them to the fringes of the public discourse. Indeed, it can remain silent mainly because it does need to raise its voice too high; its echo chambers do the work!

So perhaps it’s time for the mobilisation of the real majority in South Africa. It may take years, but the time is ripe now to begin sowing the seeds of a mobilised majority that can raise its voice above that of the powerful, and the privileged. Alliances between the working class, that have been betrayed and abused by their unions, and grassroots community organisations ranging from religious organisations to rights-based and issue-based interest groups and coalitions, as well as the youth – whether students or not – and those who remain excluded from and marginal to real power in this society, have become a necessity. Bringing down the bulwark of the normal requires it. And it must begin now! Let its emergence dispel the myths of ‘silent majorities’ and ‘radical minorities’ for once and for all, through active political representation that cannot be ignored. This is ultimately a country whose majority are historically oppressed and disadvantaged, and that is where the power to effect change in society should emerge from, and prevail. It is clear that a programme of action to eradicate the neoliberal, neo-Apartheid system that prevails over the majority is necessary.

The question is, who will lead it? My guess is that the radical minority of today will be the unquestioned majority of tomorrow. The EFF has already shown how quickly the message and demands of the ‘radical minority’ can take root in South African society, what great potential and capacity exists for a youth and working class driven political agenda that seeks to rectify the errors that were made in the transition to democracy, which have resulted in the drastic inequalities and severe exclusion that South Africa suffers from. It won’t be easy, and it will suffer great resistance, but it is undoubtedly necessary, and worthy of every effort that anybody concerned with social justice can engage in.

What is certain, however, is that the ‘silence of the lambs’ – that archetype of long-suffering white settler fragility, a fragility now enjoyed by the middle classes in general – is not about to provide any such leadership, and as such should be disregarded with the contempt it deserves. The ‘silent majority’ is not a political force by any measure; they are the politically passive and apathetic minority (one that holds disproportionate wealth and power) that neoliberalism relies on for its unquestioned perpetuation and reproduction, and they willingly give themselves to it for lack of imagination and resolve to venture into the new. 

The ‘silent majority’ has never rallied to any cause but that of guaranteeing their own personal interests; it is not political. They will sit back and watch as a one trillion rand nuclear deal gets passed, they will sit back and watch while more Marikana massacres occur, they will shake their heads at corruption and maladministration, get riled up when university libraries are burnt, and gripe away at their television screens in their living rooms, but they will never take action towards any objective that is greater than that within their personal realms. They are not a force for transformation or change, they are the very buttress that guarantees the sanctity of the settler enclave. They are not the hope for a new future. That hope, can only emerge from those who are willing to challenge the status quo and actualise new ways of seeing, thinking and doing; it can only emerge from those who have an interest in a different future. The silent majority are indifferent! They do not hate, but neither do they love.

Change can only emerge from those who are uncomfortable with the way things are and seek to challenge it and destabilise it. The myths of unruly anarchists versus the good, decent peace-loving pilgrims who only reach for the gun when forced to, is an old settler-colonial myth. For those who are tired of the ‘cowboys and Indians’ version of current affairs at our higher education institutions, and see through it, the need to take concerted action against the systems that oppress the majority is clear and self-evident.

The question is no longer that of appeasing the privileged ‘silent majority’ but that of addressing the dire needs of the real majority, who suffer under the grip of a system that renders them to the peripheries, unable to access power, unable to make their voices heard, begging for a seat at the table; the silenced majority, who if they ever spoke, would speak volumes of their patient suffering under a deaf and blind system of injustice that masquerades as normal and representative, but in reality services the interests of a tiny minority to the exclusion of those who cannot afford a seat at the table.

First posted: 1 October 2016
Edited: 7 October 2016

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