Thursday, 3 November 2016

After the Sun Sets: A Country Divided

The stark contrast between the protest actions taken yesterday is itself indicative of the real threat that South Africa needs saving from. Instead of cross-class and non-partisan unity the fragmented polis of South Africa exposed itself for what is has become. The split screens on television were revealing; corporate, political and civil society leaders, whose silence for so long enabled this crisis on the one hand, and the marginal and excluded working class on the other, with the DA firing off tangentially to it all. 

We need to quit the addiction to momentous moments - as desirable and inspiring as they are - and put in the real work to build real broad-based unity, even if it is issue and interest based. I'm not keen to rain on the parade, but it's worth remembering that sustained effort, rather than momentary expressions of discontent, is what is actually missing in this country. To be frank, we need to save South Africa not only from its current leadership, but from ourselves; as we are the society that has allowed this mess to spiral out of control. We need to spend a lot of time looking in the mirror as a nation before this ship gets turned around.

Yesterday’s events, saw the launching of the new Save South Africa campaign, as well as an attempt by the Economic Freedom Fighters to occupy the Union Buildings and Pretoria in a bid to force the resignation of the President, and a largely tangential gathering by the Democratic Alliance that also called for the President’s head. The race, class and political ‘geography’ or territories ascribed by these movements reveals a great deal about the profound divisions within South African society.

The newly launched Save South Africa campaign largely consists of a temporary alliance of old activists and political leaders with corporate and civil society leaders. That is, it clearly consists of the elite of the political and business classes, who until very recently remained reticent to enter the fray and denounce the president and his current leadership. Until now, they have largely played a game of self-interest, extracting what benefits they could from the derailed and dysfunctional political leadership of the country.

It is worth mentioning that they have only ‘come to the party’ – so to speak – and found their political voices when the economic and institutional decline of the country teeters on a precipice. It remains to be seen whether their efforts will result in the revision of state and government policy that is required to address the deeply entrenched socio-political and economic challenges facing the country. Over the past ten years, protest action at grassroots level and amongst workers has grown exponentially, yet they have been largely ignored by the middle classes who, secure in comfort in their gated enclaves, remained largely unaffected by failures in service delivery and access to the law and justice. Only in recent years, have problems with services such as energy and water impacted them directly, if temporarily and intermittently.

Widespread ‘service delivery’ protests in poor and marginal communities rarely deserved mention in the press; indeed, South Africans are more likely to hear about service delivery protests on traffic reports rather than in the reports of the mainstream media. It is only when the student protest movement brought that level of disruption, disorder and violence to the hallowed halls of the tertiary education sector did it provoke a response from the enduringly silent middle classes and elite. And their responses have been largely reactive and unreflective, unable to integrate the discontent that has been building amongst the poor in this society into their analysis of the moment.

This profound disconnect – which lies at the core of the troubles of the new South Africa – and which is reflected in the drastically high levels of inequality within it, played out with uneasy predictability in the protest actions that were undertaken yesterday. The fractures along which the ‘rainbow nation’ is split was revealed in plain sight.

While the Save South Africa and Democratic Alliance events were characteristically outspoken, they remained measured and typically benign. They voiced their discontent in an orderly fashion, and did not undertake any direct action; they made demands, but there was no exercise of power (e.g. sit-ins, occupations, confrontations) apart from the political and economic power they hold as the elite of the political and business classes, and the middle classes, respectively. That is, the power they have is self-evident enough not to have to engage in drastic action; they have the luxury of being able to express discontent and be ensured that it will ripple across society and the world.

In contrast, the Economic Freedom Fighters march was an exercise in disruption, intended to bring all of Pretoria – the administrative capital of South Africa – to a complete standstill. There was no overall plan for the protest action undertaken by the EFF; marchers split into groups to disrupt business and traffic through the city (some looting ensued), and converged again at certain points, eventually marching on the Union Buildings in an attempt to occupy its lawns and force the president’s resignation thereby. The EFF’s power has not come automatically. That is, it is not derived from unquestionable political and economic power; rather, its power has been derived, from its very inception, from its willingness and capacity to disrupt the status quo with revolutionary fervour and zeal.

It is worth remembering that the political status quo proved very difficult to shift and destabilise until the EFF entered parliament and embarked upon its program of disruption at the very highest levels of power. They’ve held parliament ransom with relentless filibustering, open protest action (e.g. singing “pay back the money!”) and refusal to back down, often resulting in them being physically thrown out of parliament.

They’ve taken occupy protest styled practises directly to parliament, and have shaken up South African politics immeasurably; the opposition, as well as dissenters within the ANC have benefited from their antics. Hence it must be stated that it is the EFF who called out the large elephant in the chambers of parliament and relentlessly stuck to their guns, drawing the attention of broader South African society to its pressing political challenges. They disrupted the status quo and demonstrated that direct challenge to those in power was not only possible, but effective.

This method – of direct confrontation – is also what lay at the heart of the student movement, as it pushed for changes and won out against institutions of higher education and government. They’ve effectively shut down the national system of higher education, and forced its agenda to the very highest levels of power, yet not without enduring great controversy and disdain towards their methods. Both their willingness to engage in disruption, which veers into intimidation and occasional flare-ups of violence, has been roundly condemned. Yet the condemnations have conflated disruptive protest with violent protest, and conveniently ignored the fact that institutional brinkmanship and heavily securitised responses have led to a breakdown in communication and have scuppered efforts to channel discontent in useful and positive directions.

Yet it is all too easy to level harsh criticism of the EFF and the student movement(s); criticisms range from fascism to anti-poor accusations of ‘entitlement’ and sneering disdain at demands for radical change such as “decolonisation” of curricula and institutions. Notwithstanding, the fact remains that it is precisely these direct confrontations with power that have elevated the agenda to unseat President Zuma and his compromised leadership, and have created the climate of direct confrontation that has emboldened the previously silent middle class, as well as political and business elites, to make their voices heard.

While the engagement and participation of the middle classes and business and political elites are welcome, it would be wholly disingenuous to present the actions of Save South Africa and the Democratic Alliance as that which underlies the push for change in South Africa. As the euphoria of this moment does its rounds, and hyperbolic claims are made about ‘the people taking to the streets’, it is worth remembering who has been out in the streets dodging bullets and batons to create the potential for this moment to be actualised.

It is worth remembering that it is not just a call for the current leadership of the country to resign, but for deep structural changes to be made within the state and economy, so that the combination of structural and system racism and inequality that is tearing this nation apart is addressed. It is worth remembering that there are dual systems of service provision, access to infrastructure, education, policing, access to justice and employment in this country, and that this dual system perpetuates the division that lies at the heart of South African society i.e. between the poor and the middle classes and elites. That the neo-Apartheid spatiality of South Africa only serves to entrench and reproduce these divisions, and that as a society we remain divided.

We are ironically united only in our disunity; in our inability to reach across class and race divides to build a cohesive society that cares for all equally within it. It is worth remembering that the last time we took our eyes off the substantive issues we fought for, and fell prey to sentiment and adopted compromises that went too far, our national political project was compromised and the status quo prevailed. The late arrivals into the space of action in South Africa, bring with them the risk of ensuring that the status quo is preserved and the potential for radical transformative change is lost in this historic moment.

If there is to be unity, it needs to be built on the common understanding that it is our divided, fractured and ailing society that lies at the heart of the problems we are experiencing as a country, that we can change leaderships like we change underwear and still end up perpetuating more of the same. It is time for those who are entering the space of action in South African society to begin listening to each other, and building consensus around a key set of issues (e.g. access to services, education, poverty and inequality for starters) and to formulate a programme of action that it puts before the state. Irrespective of what party is in power, there is a clear need for a state-led set of priorities that South African society stands to benefit from, and this needs to be the first priority of the protest actions that are currently being undertaken. Merely toppling the president and all his ‘men’, will not cut it in the long term, because as the sun sets on each new day in this country, the all too entrenched realities of sharp inequalities, social divisions and tensions remains and festers into the next.

1 comment:

  1. The EFF are funded by Londons Chatham house & Lord Robin Renwick(Mandelas personal advisor) .