There is now a widespread sense that South Africa is in serious trouble. The fantasy that the authoritarian kleptocracy that festered during the Jacob Zuma years had been a deviation from our predestined collective ascent, a deviation solely consequent to one man’s failings and the corrupting influence of a nefarious foreign family, has been put to rest.
Its obverse, the fantasy that Cyril Ramaphosa would play the role of the good king riding in from exile to restore virtue, has also been put to rest.
We’re left with an increasing sense of panic.
For some, it is clear that democracy will not survive the inevitable rise of a new don at the head of a mafia state. For others, a new form of fascism, primarily articulated to the state rather than capital, awaits. It is frequently argued that there should be some sort of suspension of democratic norms to enable Ramaphosa to more effectively assert authority over the ANC, the state and society.
It has become routine for commentators to suggest that the state has run out of money, that the government lacks the political will or capacity to confront the interests that will oppose any turn to austerity, and that it is inevitable that we will have to give up our sovereignty to the International Monetary Fund (IMF).
There are commentators for whom this appears, in barely disguised racial terms, as a welcome restoration of competent rule, as the inevitable end of an ill-fated democratic experiment. For others, the idea that the IMF would insist on a massive structural adjustment programme in exchange for bailing out the state evokes a vision of social conflict so intense that democracy would almost certainly be curtailed in significant respects.
Pessimism extends across all kinds of ideological lines and social locations. It also sits in an increasingly profound planetary pessimism driven by the rise of hard-right regimes, a collapse in the sense that the public sphere and electoral democracy are sites for reasoned engagement and, of course, a rising fear that no one is willing or able to pull the emergency brake as we rush, eyes wide open, into an environmental catastrophe.
In global terms we inhabit a moment shaped by a crisis of liberalism. Broadly speaking it has four key components. One is that, with the collapse of alternatives premised on more egalitarian claims, the market has come to decisively dominate society. This has massively exacerbated inequality and rendered millions of people’s lives harder and more precarious. The logic of profit trumps both social and environmental concerns.
The accumulation of vast wealth by a minority has also turned many electoral democracies into forms of intra-elite contestation overwhelmingly mediated through money, leaving ordinary people with a sense of profound alienation from electoral politics. A grim cast of right-wing figures have, despite their obvious commitment to the rule of capital over society, been able to exploit the situation to present themselves as outsiders sweeping in to drain the swamp.
In every case the rise of these snarling right-wing figures, who shamelessly incite gross forms of chauvinism as they give capital free rein, has been enabled by the fundamental ways in which social media has changed the public sphere. Neither ideology, in the form of false claims dressed up as reasonable or scientific, nor outright propaganda, which dispenses with these niceties, is new. But social media has enabled the weaponisation of deliberate dishonesty, and explicit forms of chauvinism, in ways that were previously unimaginable outside of straight-up dictatorships.
The result is that statements are increasingly assessed by their provenance, and received as affirmations of motive, rather than being assessed in terms of the credibility of their claims to empirical and logical rigour.
But it is racism that sits at the heart of the crisis of liberalism. Liberalism was always, in theory and in practice, committed to rights for some people, in some spaces, at the direct expense of other people, in other spaces. It is no anomaly that each of the major liberal revolutions in the 17th and 18th centuries was accompanied by an expansion of the slave trade. On the contrary, this was perfectly congruent with the logic of liberalism.
The constitutive entanglement of liberalism and racism continued through the 19th century and into the present. Liberal freedoms at home were accompanied by bombs, coups and the IMF abroad. Now that migration is perceived to challenge the racial nature of the leading liberal states they are choosing to move towards explicit forms of racism and authoritarianism rather than to expand the sphere of liberal rights.
In this global context the ongoing commitment to liberalism by Ramaphosa and much of the commentary in the elite public sphere is no longer, as similar positions were even 10 years ago, an attempt to affiliate to the dominant global logic. Not long ago an uncritical affirmation of liberalism could be understood as the ticket required to board the train of a global consensus. Today it means standing forlornly at the wrong station for a train that will never come.
We are on our own, and our condition is undeniably serious. We contend with mass racialised impoverishment, systemic criminal, political and state violence, a deeply corrupt state that has become a mechanism for accumulation and domination by a predatory class in and around the ruling party rather than an instrument of democratic rule, an economy in rapid decline and marked by serious corporate corruption, a public sphere largely devoid of the institutions that could enable rational and inclusive discussion, and a ruling party so bitterly divided between two factions of oligarchic authority that it cannot have a lucid discussion, let alone find a path out of the crisis.
Both factions of the ANC contested for power at the party’s conference in late 2017 with vast sums of money rather than democratic forms of organisation and disputation. Ramaphosa has stated that the budget that he deployed to win over delegates at Nasrec was about R440-million. If it is correct, as has often been stated, that the budget for the pro-Zuma faction was even larger, it could be that up to a billion rand was spent on campaigning at the conference. This means that, among other things, it is difficult to see how contestation for authority in the ANC could ever be anything but an intra-elite battle.
Unlike in, say, the United Kingdom or the United States, where figures such as Jeremy Corbyn and Bernie Sanders offer at least some hope of an alternative rooted in some sort of popular organisation, and commitment to solidarity rather than chauvinism, we have no faction in the ANC, and no party or figure in our Parliament, that offers a credible route to a democratic resolution of our crisis.
The obvious solution to our crisis, building forms of democratic popular power from the ground up that could exercise enough force to enable a democratic resolution of the crisis by subordinating both the state and capital to society, is not immediately available. There is no reason why this is not possible in principle, and there have been extraordinary experiments in popular political work that show what is actually possible. But even if there was a concerted national attempt to undertake this work, attaining the scale required for effective national interventions would take time and a decisive break from the uncritical attraction by so many middle-class actors to the deeply anti-democratic idea that nongovernmental organisations, presented as “civil society”’, can substitute themselves for popular and democratic organisation.
The road ahead is certainly going to be hard and perilous. Confronting this, and dispensing with the illusions that have kept us in a state of intellectual and political immaturity for so long, is vital. Recourse to inane fantasies such as “social cohesion”, or naive trust in elections, the courts and the Constitution, will get us nowhere.
What is required is a serious commitment to shifting the ground of public reason to simultaneously foreground the lived experience of the majority, to ensure wider participation and to seek to make clear distinctions between claims that are credible and those made without regard to reason and evidence.
We also need to hold the line, wherever we can, against growing authoritarianism. This includes assassinations, the masculinisation and militarisation of political postures, attempts to use social media to both suppress free and open disputation in the form of organised harassment, and to undermine the value placed on reason and evidence.
It is also essential that attempts to build democratic forms of politics, organised around solidarity, are examined, engaged and supported, at home and abroad. It’s equally important that we pay careful attention to the mechanisms through which other societies have collapsed into authoritarianism and chauvinism.
It is particularly urgent that we oppose the rapid normalisation of xenophobic discourses and practices by the ANC, the Democratic Alliance, many state officials and a growing array of more popular actors. Once popular politics is successfully constructed around horizontal lines of antagonism it is extremely difficult to build forms of politics centred around building solidarity rather than enforcing exclusion.
Richard Pithouse is an associate professor at the Wits Institute for Social and Economic Research, the co-ordinator of the Johannesburg office of the Tricontinental Institute for Social Research and the editor of New Frame