EXTRACT: Radical politics, yes, but with civility and humanity

Robert Mangaliso Sobukwe. New reflections, edited by Benjamin Pogrund, published by Jonathan Ball
Robert Mangaliso Sobukwe. New reflections, edited by Benjamin Pogrund, published by Jonathan Ball
In recent years, South African politics has been characterised by a distinct lack of civility and accountability. Racism and violent threats have become the norm and civilised, democratic politics is being replaced by the political mob. Some politicians and activists no longer engage in debate but rather vandalise property, threat­en journalists and spew racial hatred – all in the name of radical politics. Many of those who draw on the inspiration of radical thinkers such as Sobukwe, Fanon and Biko invoke these names but act contrary to what they stood for.

It is during times like these that we should think back to the era of leaders like Robert Sobukwe, who championed a politics that was civil and disciplined. Sobukwe's legacy is increasingly being evoked, but we need to ask whether our society is being true to his memory. To borrow Benjamin Pogrund's phrasing, Sobukwe has been 'airbrushed' out of the liberation history and, until recently, not much has been written about him. On the occasion of the renaming of Wits University's Central Block to the Robert Sobukwe Block, former Deputy Chief Justice Dikgang Moseneke remarked:

"It is … deeply disingenuous to suggest that any of our valiant heroes may be discarded or hidden under the rubble of history. Their ideas will tend to surface and resurface because they are a vital part of a progressive knowledge system."

Sobukwe's ideas are indeed resurfacing at a time when South Afri­cans are calling into question the ANC's leadership over the past 25 years. However, it is not only his ideas that need to resurface but also his style of leadership.

ANALYSIS | Letters reveal Robert Sobukwe's moral courage, and pain

Sobukwe, by all accounts, conducted himself with dignity and decorum and rejected the politics of militarism and spectacle that have come to define radical politics in South Africa today. The implicit assumption by some radical activists recently is that social mobilisation and progressive politics have to be undisciplined, threat­ening and violent if they are to be radical, a view that is at odds with the personal conduct of many of the grand leaders of the radical political tradition from whom these same activists draw inspiration. If these activists read widely enough, rather than relying on rhetorical statements and party memorabilia, they would know that Sobukwe, Cabral, Biko, Fanon, Alexander, Guevara and the like were often courteous individuals who underscored the importance of discipline. In their world, being ill-­disciplined could cost lives.

The Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) in particular has branded themselves as a radical political party, but are their actions truly in line with the radical politics of the past? Derek Hook argues that the EFF are 'in many respects Sobukwe's political heirs' as both the PAC and EFF are breakaways from the ANC Youth League (ANCYL) and some of their positions are similar to those of Sobukwe.

However, the similarities end there. The EFF, and particularly its leadership, favours a militaristic style of populism that operates more in the realm of spectacle than ideas. Further to this, Hook also points to the fact that Sobukwe had a 'pronounced distaste for wealth', which is hard to reconcile with the ostentatious tendencies of Julius Malema and others in the EFF leadership.

Perhaps the most telling difference is the manner in which the EFF leadership conducts itself and encourages its 'fighters' to behave. Criticism of the EFF is met with vandalism, threats and violence by its leadership and members. However, this behaviour is not limited to the EFF. In recent years, we have seen several incidents in which a political mob has mobilised over racist remarks or criticism of a politician. Many people's response would be: this is just an act of political spectacle by a political party or radical activists. But to allow it to continue without protest is to enable the naturalisation of such political behaviour in our society. Even at the level of the hard-­fought-­for democratic Parliament, we are regularly treated to a politics of spectacle in which name-­calling and fist fights are more common than robust debate on inequality in our society. These acts are not the evolution of a supposed progressive politics. At the core of the crisis in our democracy today is a lack of civility and accountability. We need to examine how this has developed and what the consequences are. We also need to look to how this can be reversed, otherwise the democratic foundations of our society will continue to be eroded.

Is civility important to democratic politics? The obvious answer is yes. But there are many in our democratic institutions who believe that civility is a bourgeois norm that has helped to mask the growth of inequalities in the last two decades. Civility is seen as being supportive of the status quo, a behaviour typical of older political generations who were unable to transform the economy and society. Too many young activists, and now increasingly politicians, speak with a sense of bravado about their politics being 'robust'. However, this has now become code for rudeness, uncivil behaviour, use of expletives, disruption and the violation of the rights of others, and sometimes even violence. Robust politics and engagement does not mean resorting to violent action.

Uncivil politics, as distinct from extra-­institutional politics, has its roots in the politics of the right and fascist movements in the interwar years. These movements were marginal political entities that used the rights (and never took on the responsibility obligations) of their democratic systems to build their bases and subvert democracy itself. A less toxic, relatively more peaceful and non-­racial, uncivil politics emerged in the student movements of the West during the 1960s and 1970s. These were extra-­institutional and disruptive mobilisations but were on balance directed at bringing people together across racial and ethnic divides.

Yet there were strands within the movement that overplayed their hand and increasingly became racialised and violent, and were quickly suppressed by their respective governments. In the developing world, we did not have the luxury of such incivility: abuse was a part of people's daily lives, activists were abused by police and the state's henchmen, and radical politics was increasingly about inclusion both in our ultimate goal and in our daily practice. Ironically, those in South Africa who have recently adopted this behaviour subscribe to radical or leftist thinking but have really adopted the strategies and tactics of the right.

How is it that radical politics in South Africa has come to this has its roots in the liberation movement itself. Competitive liberation politics in the later years of the apartheid era produced a toxicity that led to violence in some parts of the country. But this was overshadowed by the widespread violence unleashed by the apartheid state against all strands of the movement and communities. Perhaps this, together with the fact that all of us were excluded from the state, ensured that the intra­party and intra-­liberation incivility and violence was contained by a broader tradition of civility and comradeship within the liberation movement.

In the first decade of the post-­apartheid era, the ANC went out of its way to cultivate civility in public discourse and parliamentary politics. A significant part of this had to do with Nelson Mandela, who took on the responsibility of building bridges across South Africa's multiple divides in order to buy South Africa the political space to transform itself. Thabo Mbeki also continued the civil tradition in public discourse and parliamentary politics, perhaps assisted by his own intellectual orientation. None of this must be interpreted to mean that political discourse was in any way easy or not divisive.

The public discourse between Mbeki and DA leader Tony Leon was very polarising, as was Mbeki's public criticism of both intra­party and external dissidents. But these polemics occurred largely within the confines of the democratic system, even if they were unsavoury and may have affronted particular individuals. Where Mbeki was seen to have crossed the legitimate democratic line was in his treatment of some intra­party dissidents, particularly in the use of state institutions to settle party-­political battles. But these democratic breaches were confined to the ruling party, and mainstream public discourse and parliamentary politics remained relatively free of this kind of uncivil politics.

Jacob Zuma changed all of this. The impetus came with the firing of Zuma as deputy president after he was implicated during the corruption trial of Schabir Shaik. This prompted Zuma to launch the succession race for the ANC presidency, supported by the ANCYL, the Congress of South African Trade Unions (Cosatu) and the South African Communist Party (SACP). The latter two were not natural allies of Zuma but mistakenly believed that they could control him and thereby effect a more social-­democratic and inclusive political economy. Zuma and those around him fed the illusion by sprouting anti­-neoliberal rhetoric. Suddenly all and sundry, including dubious business figures, state officials and mainstream ANC and Youth League activists became ardent socialists, at least until they were safely en­sconced in public office.

But the more important effect of this succession battle was that Zuma breached all of the known ANC conventions in his use of strategies and tactics. Zuma, through the ANCYL in particular, pioneered a politics of spectacle that was mainstreamed into the popular discourse and in the broader public arena. This involved the advancement of an ethnic and/or racial politics, the public slander of individuals, threats of violence and a social mobilisation that trashed public facilities and private businesses and mythologised militarism. These tactics were most tragically deployed in the mobilisation outside the courts during Zuma's rape trial, particularly targeted at the rape victim, Khwezi, and were led in principle by leading ANCYL members at the time.

The tactics perfected outside the courts were also deployed against leaders within the ANC, and particularly against those associated with Mbeki. Unruly behaviour that was previously typical of ANCYL meetings became a feature of ANC gatherings. This, together with the Cosatu-­SACP alliance arrayed against Mbeki, and the latter's tragic miscalculation to stand for a third term as ANC president, delivered both the organisation's and the country's presidency to Zuma.

The unholy alliance around Zuma was soon to unravel. In Shaik brothers, Zwelinzima Vavi, Julius Malema, Floyd Shivambu, Blade Nzimande and the SACP – fell out with Zuma and were marginalised. Malema, Shivambu and the Youth League leadership initially held out and were alleged to have been involved in all kinds of tender irregularities in Limpopo province. But, in December 2011, as the scale of this corruption spread and the province was severely bankrupted, National Treasury, under then minister of finance Pravin Gordhan, was forced to intervene and clean up the mess. In the subsequent political fight, Malema and Shivambu turned against the Zuma leadership. As their antics became increasingly embarrassing to the party, they were tossed out of the ANC and went on to form the EFF from the remnants of the then Youth League.

Nobody expected the EFF to survive. It defied all predictions of demise and proceeded to become a thorn in the side of Zuma. Three features aided it in this regard – one structural and the other two agential. The structural feature was the increasing alienation of the youth, both within poor communities and among the emerging middle classes. This is a worldwide phenomenon but is more accen­tuated in South Africa by widespread poverty, increasing inequality within society and the toxic identity politics that this has spawned among black people in the mainly middle­class suburbs. The first agential feature was the financial support that Malema was alleged to have mobilised in some very dubious quarters, including among shady businessmen and tobacco smugglers. The second agential feature was the increasing divisions within the ANC, which came with an ever­increasing number of leaks that continually fed the EFF leadership. ANC factions of course believed that they were using the EFF to inflict damage on their intra­party opponents, but the EFF leadership used the leaked information strategically as and when it suited them to weaken the ANC and build their own capabilities.

If this had been all that the EFF did, it would have been perfectly legitimate. But the EFF went beyond this to perfect the politics of spectacle that they had learnt outside the courts during Jacob Zuma's trial and now deployed this within the parliamentary precinct and in the broader society. The politics of spectacle, reflected in the chants to Zuma to 'pay back the money' and in the continued haranguing of Zuma and other ANC leaders, was devastatingly effective. It wrong­footed ANC parliamentarians, whose overwhelming parliamentary majority was no antidote to the spectacle of disruption. Even when security measures were utilised and EFF parliamentarians were evicted, they would simply repeat the exercise on the next occasion. Focused solely on the unravelling of the Zuma administration and unconstrained as a result of having no desire to convince the electorate of their ability to rule, the EFF's strategies proved to be successful.

* This is an edited extract from Robert Mangaliso Sobukwe. New reflections, edited by Benjamin Pogrund, published by Jonathan Ball Publishers. Catch the book launch on Monday. November 4 at Exclusive Books in Rosebank and on Wednesday, November 6 at Exclusive Books in Cavendish.

** Professor Adam Habib is Vice Chancellor of Wits University. Dr Alexandra Leisegang holds a PhD from Wits. She has worked as a research consultant in the NGO sector as well as in political communications for the Democratic Alliance (DA).

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