Tragedy or farce?

2013-03-17 10:00

There are few positives to take from the prospect of a second term for the president, writes Devan Pillay

The president’s state of the nation address did little to indicate that the ruling party was getting ready to lead the “second phase” of the “national democratic revolution”. Instead, the re-election of Jacob Zuma as ANC president reminds one of the famous quote from Karl Marx: “Hegel remarks somewhere that all great world-historic facts and personages appear, so to speak, twice. He forgot to add: the first time as tragedy, the second time as farce?.?.?.”

The rule of the ANC certainly can be described as a tragedy of unmet expectations, and the Polokwane “revolution” in 2007, supported by trade union federation Cosatu and the SA Communist Party (SACP), was meant to change that.

Somehow, we were led to believe a man with socially conservative views and unresolved corruption charges hanging over his head would lead this revolution. While there have been important changes in some areas since then, on the whole, the tragedy has deepened.

In many ways, the Marikana massacre of August 16 2012 epitomised this tragedy. On the one hand, the country is hailed as a miracle of reconciliation, constitutional democracy and socioeconomic progress in many areas; and on the other it is a story of a dream deferred: rising unemployment and job insecurity, widespread poverty amid expanding inequality, increasing crime and corruption, sexual violence, rural decline and displacement, urban homelessness and slummification, state dysfunctionality and public disservice, corporate greed and ecological degradation of various kinds.

The savage power of the dominant class revealed itself in all its ugly nakedness on that day in August, as 34 striking mine workers were mowed down by

a police force acting on the instructions of the economic and political elite.

This elite is fractured along racial lines and through various differentiated interests at the economic and political levels and, as such, may not come across as a coherent “ruling class”.

Indeed, at the political level, legitimacy is constructed through alliances that carry the dead weight of past symbolism and allegiances, keeping in power a liberation movement that has long ceased to be revolutionary.

To remain alive, this alliance needs to breathe the oxygen of the national democratic revolution rhetoric that seemingly excludes an economic elite that still primarily resembles the old order.

But when faced with a determined challenge from below, the power elite sees, crystallised before it, its own true class interests. If, before, the cacophony of petty squabbles struck discordant notes, now the orchestration of raw power sang a coherent, if hellish, melody.

The Marikana tragedy exposed the interlocking common interests of the power elite, and the disciplinary power of capital in the form of the minerals-energy-financial complex. A further tragedy is that it does this with the aid of subordinate classes, including organised labour, beholden to its network of patronage.

And when it comes to ordinary workers, from Marikana to De Doorns, the mainstream media also often reflects only the views of the power elite.

Nevertheless, if it is fair to label the “first phase” a tragedy, is it fair to expect that the “second phase” will be a farce? After all, despite his billionaire status and involvement in Lonmin, Zuma’s new deputy, Cyril Ramaphosa, comes with impeccable credentials.

He was, after all, one of the key architects of the country’s Constitution, and is bound to defend the democratic rights embedded in it. He is likely to play a more pronounced role as deputy president after the 2014 general elections, to the point of acting as a de facto prime minister.

Will he excite the imagination and unite the country around a new developmental vision, or will he act as the polished spokesperson of the power elite, protecting the the status quo? Indeed, is Zuma likely to sit back and allow this “clever black” to upset his apple cart?

These are questions that are likely to dominate the so-called second phase of the national democratic revolution. The forthcoming New SA Review 3: The Second Phase – Tragedy or Farce (Wits University Press) shows that the challenges are enormous, and are about the content of policies as well as

their implementation.

The book has chapters written by experts in their field, and covers a range of topics including: the nature of the power elite; how the ANC, a party in decline, resembles the former National Party; the politics of alternatives and of climate change; the dangers of fracking for gas; arguments for worker-led black economic empowerment, wage-led development and worker-centred “nationalisation of a special type” in the mining industry; the impact of cadre deployment; the tension between traditional cultural practices and the Constitution; the challenges of education and skills development; the vexing problem of health sector reforms; as well as South Africa’s engagements abroad.

With Zuma likely to be re-elected as president of the country in 2014, his uninspiring and tainted leadership suggests the challenges portrayed in this volume, among a range of others, are unlikely to be met. Indeed, the tragedy of unmet expectations may very well become a farce, as the radical rhetoric (cheered on by the SACP) increasingly bears little resemblance to actual practice.

Meanwhile, workers and the marginalised continue to mobilise and organise, sometimes through ANC, SACP and Cosatu alliance structures; at other times independently.

New parties are poised to enter the scene, hoping to dent the dominance of two parties representing different shades of the power elite. It will be a while yet before workers and the marginalised, who form the majority of voters, finally see that the emperor has no clothes.

»?Pillay is associate professor and head of the department of sociology at Wits University, and is a coeditor of the New SA Review (Wits University Press)

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