Crocodile tears in Sweetwaters

2010-05-27 00:00

LAST week, Jacob Zuma visited the Sweetwaters shack settlement near Orange Farm in Johannesburg. He informed the nation that his shock at seeing human beings living like pigs almost reduced him to tears. He also visited the Siyathemba settlement in Balfour where he, like a typical bullying ward councillor, berated angry residents for asking the questions that mattered.

Zuma’s spindoctors must have been much happier with the Sweetwaters visit, but newspaper editorials and commentators were quick to scorn his display of stage-managed compassion for the poor. It was pointed out, quite rightly, that Zuma has spent the past 16 years at the heart of the government that is responsible for the crisis in our cities. It was also noted, again quite rightly, that if Zuma was really shocked by the conditions in Sweetwaters, then he is bizarrely and culpably ignorant of the realities of the country that he governs.

But there was an important and novel admission in Zuma’s account of his conversation with people in Sweetwaters. He remarked that “When I came, I thought there was no councillor here because they are supposed to help the people ... [but the people] say the councillor comes with the police, he shoots them.”

It is a fact that councillors do often visit their poorer constituents with the police. Some go with their own thugs. But outside of a few poor people’s movements, there has been very little willingness to face up to the authoritarianism with which ward councillors and local party structures habitually confront the poor.

The ANC, like professional civil society, has generally preferred to take refuge in the fantasy that the problems at the interface between government and communities are essentially technical rather than political. This leads directly to the delusion that they can be rectified, or at least contained, with technocratic strategies such as “public participation organised via new participatory instruments”.

When the hard-fought struggles of the organised poor have forced the ANC to confront the authoritarianism that often stalks local politics, the response has usually been an immediate descent into ridiculously paranoid conspiracy theories hingeing on the cunning machinations of powerful agent provocateurs.

But when Zuma says that the poor are being forced to live like pigs he sounds more like a grass-roots activist than a contemptuous politician. When he bemoans that fact that councillors visit their constituents with the police, he sounds like he is speaking from the heart of the rebellion that has raged against local government since 2004. There have been elements of this willingness to acknowledge some aspects of popular anger in Zuma’s public statements since his 2009 election campaign which often berated “lazy councillors” more than the opposition parties. But local government elections are not far off and it is at the local level that the ANC confronts sustained popular opposition in terms of protests and vote strikes. It is here that oppositional ideas and practices have begun to reach the point of critical mass at which elites can no longer ignore them and have to repress, co-opt, redirect or accept them. Zuma’s ANC is perfectly willing to engage in repression. But repression can escalate resistance, and co-option and redirection are usually more attractive options.

A number of time-honoured strategies are being used to achieve co-option. One is government support for sweetheart civil society organisations that take on some of the language of popular opposition while avoiding all of its substantive content. Another is to bring activists into the party, local government or the anti-political mainstream of civil society.

But the really dangerous strategy is for government to acknowledge the legitimacy of popular demands for vertical social inclusion but to tie them to the entirely perverse popular demands for horizontal social exclusion. Demands for vertical inclusion and horizontal exclusion often have their roots in the same suffering and desperation. But there is a world of difference between recognition of that suffering and desperation that moves against injustice, and recognition of that suffering and desperation that turns some or other vulnerable group of people into aliens and then moves against the people it has scapegoated.

There was a chilling moment in Zuma’s performance of compassion for the poor in Sweetwaters. As he, by his own account, almost wept, he simultaneously ascribed some of the blame for the inhuman conditions in the settlement to “foreign nationals” with “forged documents”.

This apparent presidential confirmation of one of the key myths that drove the xenophobic pogroms in 2008 was entirely reckless and self-serving. There are real grounds for concern that this new willingness to acknowledge popular suffering and desperation with a view to co-opting or redirecting the consequent anger will take the form of scapegoating rather than a willingness to face up to the ANC’s role in reproducing systemic injustice.

For a start, we are already a society in which migrants, gay people, women and the urban poor in general, and political minorities and people who appropriate land and electricity in particular, have all, in different ways, been publicly scapegoated for our social crisis.

Zuma’s record at taking effective action to affirm the full and equal place of all these groups in our society is simply atrocious. The fact that he is, at the time of writing, still unwilling to condemn the prison sentence handed down to Steven Monjeza and Tiwonge Chimbalanga in Malawi is a clear indication that he is willing, when it suits him, to pander to the most perversely reactionary politics.

The crisis of citizenship in South Africa is a direct result of the ANC’s systemic economic, spatial and political elitism and authoritarianism over the past 16 years. It will not fade away or be easily beaten into submission by repression. As the people in Balfour showed Zuma, to his evident displeasure, there is a genuine willingness to sustain confrontation with authority even when that authority is presented in the person of the president.

If the ANC was a genuinely democratic organisation it would allow itself to be radicalised by the progressive demand for vertical social inclusion, while taking an active position against the reactionary demand for horizontal social exclusion. But given that the dominant factions in the ANC are not genuinely democratic, the battle to determine the trajectory of escalating popular anger will, in the main, have to be waged from within that anger and not from within the ANC.

• Richard Pithouse teaches politics at Rhodes University. This article first appeared on the website of The South African Civil Society Information Service (

‘When we are the prey and the vulture.’

— Aimé Césaire, ‘Batouque’, Miraculous Weapons, 1956.

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