Part 1: Our dream is turning sour
There was a time when South Africans, particularly the formerly oppressed, believed that democracy would bring about a just constitutional state. But this dream is in danger of being destroyed, writes Njabulo S Ndebele in the first of a two-part series.
The public space in South Africa today reflects a society in a state of critical disorientation.
The word "disorientation" implies that, as a country, we - particularly those once oppressed - had a shared knowledge of, and solemn commitment to, the nature of the democracy and society we established as the outcome of our votes in 1994. The spirit and letter of that consensus are captured in the South African constitution.
But that sense of consensus appears to be fracturing.
Further, there was a profound understanding that those once oppressed were custodians of our constitutional vision, that they would lead in the pursuit of that vision and that they would provide the future of South Africa with leadership on behalf of, and to the benefit of, all.
Since 1994, we have gone through a great deal as South Africans. The contours of our transformation in our first 17 years are vast and complex. But against many initial achievements, there have been increasingly visible signs of stress - emanating not from the larger society, but from the governing party and its government.
The sources of stress involved disturbing indications of corruption related to the purchase of new arms for the South African Defence Force; anxieties over the successor to president Thabo Mbeki and related news that he would try for a third term as either the country's president (which would be unconstitutional) or as president of the ANC, or both; fracture within the tripartite alliance over allegations of centralisation of power in the presidency; and the use of state agencies to fight intra-party conflicts.
It is the manner in which the ANC responded to these and related events that began to define its relationship to the requirements of constitutional government and its various institutions. Internal organisational behaviour and the electoral mandate to pursue state development objectives became blurred, to the detriment of both.
At that point, the ANC began to lose South Africa.
The ANC, by conduct, if not by design, began to have an uneasy relationship with constitutional accountability. The Constitutional Court's finding against the ANC government after the Treatment Action Campaign resorted to the court for adjudication over government policy and actions on HIV/Aids antiretrovirals was one of the early embarrassments in respect of the ANC government's formal accountability to the public through the constitution.
Intra-party anxieties have deepened under Zuma's presidency. Not only have vigilant media been characterised as behaving like "the opposition", so has the Constitutional Court, according to no less a person than Gwede Mantashe, secretary-general of the ANC. The Deputy Minister of Correctional Services, Ngoako Ramatlhodi, has also cast doubt on the role of the court. These characterisations are thus far accusatory and threatening, rather than intellectually substantive. They carry political rather than philosophical significance.
But the characterisations by senior ANC personalities prompt serious questions. Is the ANC having second thoughts about our constitutional democracy? Is it a philosophical questioning or is it diversionary behaviour to disguise or deflect attention from serious ethical decline in the ANC as a result of internal conflict and corruption so endemic that it has become structurally visible (Chancellor House being a quintessential example)?
If this is the case, it could lead to an opportunistic outcome: the bringing about of a political environment in which the structure of corruption already in place, which is fundamentally unconstitutional, can be accorded a semblance of formal legitimacy, thus turning South Africa into a formally corrupt country.
If the ANC has effectively abandoned an ethical future, it can only seek to acquire an appropriate state to support its new version of morality. This is the state the ANC appears to be pursuing.
But it is impossible to declare such a pursuit openly. It can only be pursued incrementally through tactical cadre deployment throughout the entire institutional and administrative state infrastructure; or through tactical questioning of the role of the Constitutional Court, leading to a gradual diminishing of both constitutional authority and the value of democracy.
Such a state brings itself about through secrecy and concealment. The diminishing of formal spaces for public deliberation through such interventions as the media tribunal and the Protection of Information Bill, in its current form, may be diagnostic tendencies.
This is a process of attrition whose underlying rationale is the pursuit of the mythos of the National Democratic Revolution, which, for whatever ideological purity it may have ever had, may itself have become corrupted by the attractions of instant wealth from state control, and the desire to maintain materialistic advantage by whatever means. In which case the rigours, sacrifices and responsibilities attendant to the pursuit of the original purity of ideals are abandoned for both the National Democratic Revolution and developmental democracy - as well as the constitutional imperatives which, until not too long ago, energised the ANC.
The deviation from visionary idealism is not necessarily indicative of its abandonment, but could, more significantly, be a retreat from organisational rigours demanded by the constitution, which requires a more professionalised organisation.
Years of oppositional struggle have made the ANC behaviourally resistant to a strategic transition from a politically over-determined organisation to one in which its politics is underpinned by a professional orientation, with capability competencies commensurate with meeting the complexities of a modern constitutional state. This is a state of being, rather than a state of politics.
From this embedded disposition, the state of which the ANC assumed control in 1994 was then seen as a reward, rather than as the foundation enabler of a future. Despite an abundant discourse of transformation, the received state was a commodity to be consumed, rather than material to be transformed.
This situation may explain the slow encroachment of rule-devoid arbitrariness, of the zeal of sentiment, of lowered thresholds of aspiration, and of systemic decline in professional intentions. To paraphrase avant-garde jazzman Evan Parker, abandoned skill gave rise to chance, and chance to (new) skill.
While the former skill was in pursuit of noble objectives, the latter is in pursuit of everything that negates what April 27 1994 ever meant to the people of South Africa.
This is the source of the current sense of public disorientation. Public life is no longer experienced as affirming of the aspirant self-esteem and sense of dignity of the broad citizenry. This reflects a potentially catastrophic collapse in the once cohesive understanding of the post-apartheid project as embodied in our constitution.
I am interested in how certain events in the public domain have engendered the sense of public affront in the context of which an increasingly organised, syndicated approach to state management will ultimately result in either a seizure of the state by attrition, or the loss of the state through a disastrous decline of control as a result of a total collapse of organisational capability. Both scenarios are too ghastly to contemplate. But, in the unfolding logic of the drift of current politics, they are not impossible.
The conditions of state that preoccupy my mind have ranged from the brazen display of questionable leadership conduct in the competition for power to the means for maintaining that power. We have witnessed the now common displays of acts of public hostility in which internal organisational disagreements - whether in political or private-sector institutions - are resolved through the disruption of public life. With time, these displays of public hostility seem to take on - at least from the perspective of their participants - the look of political virtue.
They are suggestive of a fateful hubris in the self-concept of an organisation that fatally equates itself with the state. In effect, it functions as a state within the state and it thinks it is the state. That is why things such as the constitution may be deemed an impediment, an intolerable imperative located outside the span of control of the state-party entity.
There is another condition of public life that affronts public sensibility. It is the obscene display of private wealth and the resulting, in some cases, of public doubt regarding the means by which it was acquired. There is, of course, a great deal of wealth that has been honestly made. But there is also the different form of "new", almost "instant" wealth flaunted by many who benefit from patronage through close association to the ruling party. Some of the most publicised examples involve lavish weddings and birthdays; conspicuous consumption; and sushi eaten off the half-naked bodies of women, all sponsored by wealthy public claimants to membership of the state-party entity.
Celebrations are natural and wonderful events, but where celebrations of a certain kind occur with the regularity of a trend that takes on the semblance of an obscene public message in a situation of enormous social and economic disparity, they prompt the recall of the legendary utterance of Queen Marie Antoinette, apparently as the clouds of revolution gathered in France. At the very least, they are a display of crass insensitivity. Today, Marie Antoinette, when told the people were angry because they had not bread, would say, "Let them eat sushi."
Together, such events have a large impact on the way South African citizens view public life and what possibilities it offers us for acting out meaningful citizenship in pursuit of the objectives of social justice.
To elaborate, it is difficult to resist the topical issue of the disciplinary case against Julius Malema, the president of the ANC Youth League, against the foregoing background. The disciplining of Malema is a culmination of a sequence of events. Indeed, the recent violent actions of supporters of Malema outside Luthuli House, the ANC headquarters, have their antecedents in the rituals of choreographed singing and dancing just outside the courts during Zuma's rape trial in 2006.
Although Zuma was acquitted of the charges, the public messages he sent out as participating leader and beneficiary in those events have remained. This is the message he delivered to us: if you are a political leader on trial on allegations you consider unfair and unfounded, to clear yourself, even while the trial is under way, you must undermine the systems of legal rationality, legitimately created by public consent and designed to address and resolve even the very problem facing you. In doing so, resort to non-rational public displays of hostile defiance and convey an attitude that denudes public institutions of respect and authority accorded them by the reasoning public.
When, a few years later, the youth in his organisation emulated him, logic would suggest that he should applaud their actions as those of good students who have learnt their lessons well and absorbed their messages. We saw them in public singing and dancing. They went further. They trashed the streets (emulating their trade union role models), threw stones at police, and then, God forbid, burnt T-shirts that bore the face of their leader, Zuma. They burnt, too, the sacred flag of their party.
Why? Did they expect Zuma's understanding or even approval? They would have remembered that, a few years earlier, his supporters burnt T-shirts bearing the face of a sitting president, Thabo Mbeki, who was deemed by them to have caused the sufferings of their leader. Such acts at the time did not elicit public outrage from their leader, the intended chief beneficiary.
The ANC might accept such conduct within its party, but I cannot accept such outrages against the president of my country. But, then, the current president of my country has done and said (by speech or silence) a great deal to indicate that he may be a lot more loyal to the leadership of his party than that of his country.
By definition, he indicates that he values less my citizenship than the citizenship of those who belong to his party. He repudiates and devalues in my eyes the symbolic weight of the office he occupies which means so much to me, but can be seen to mean far less to many who follow him. This is one diagnostic feature of the state-party entity.
- Next week: Youth on the brink of anarchy
- Ndebele is an author and research fellow at the Archive and Public Culture Research Initiative at the University of Cape Town