We were driving down the N3 highway on our way back home from the Eastern port city of Durban, passing by the endless lines of improvised shacks that constitute the Katlehong township just outside Johannesburg, when we saw the flashing blue lights of a police car in the distance. As we approached, a horrific scene revealed itself. A local slumdweller, probably somewhere in his thirties, lay dead on the side of the road, his body awkwardly twisted into an impossible position, his eyes still wide open. Some two hundred meters ahead, a car had pulled over on the curb, its driver casually leaning on the vehicle while talking to a policeman. No one had even bothered to cover up the body. This man just lay there like a dead animal — another road kill in endless wave of needlessly extinguished lives.
Every year, more than 14.000 people are killed on the road in South Africa, an average of 38 per day — nearly half of whom are pedestrians. Of the other half, many die as overloaded buses, micro-vans or so-called bakkies crash during the daily commute from the townships to the city to work as waiters, clerks or house maids. Just today, a bus full of commuters slammed into a truck on a narrow and potholed road to Pretoria, killing 29. But in the aggregate, tragedies like these are only numbers in a cold statistical series. The front pages of the country’s newspapers remain splattered with horror stories and graphic photos of brutal killings, as fifty people are murdered daily. Another 770 people die from AIDS every day. A total of 5.7 million, or 18% of South Africans, is HIV/AID infected, the highest infection rate in the world. Needless to say, one of the bloody red lines that runs through the broken social fabric of this heartbreakingly beautiful country is that human life is accorded shockingly little value.
“They Only Care About Power, Not People”
All of this became painfully obvious in August last year when militarized police forces violently cracked down on a wildcat miners’ strike in the platinum town of Marikana. In the ensuing bloodbath, the most serious bout of state violence since the Sharpville massacre of 1960 and the end of apartheid in 1994, 34 workers were killed after being peppered with machine gun fire at close range. Needless to say, the Marikana massacre brought back painful memories of police brutality under white minoritarian rule. This time, however, the policemen and politicians responsible for the massacre were mostly black and represented the same party that had once led the struggle against racial oppression: the ruling ANC of President Jacob Zuma and the iconic freedom fighter Nelson Mandela. The Marikana massacre was the most powerful expression yet that little had changed below the surface. The violence of the state simply reasserted itself anew under the ANC.
Today, the ANC faces a growing crisis of legitimacy. While it is still on course to win next year’s elections, disillusionment with the party and its leaders has become widespread even among its traditional support base: poor people living in the shantytowns. “The ANC today is all about power, not the people,” union organizer Teboho Masiza said during the one-year commemoration of the massacre in August this year. “They are supposed to be here to listen to the problems of the people of South Africa. But they are nowhere to be seen. They only look after themselves.” Andile Nkoci, a young miner from the East Cape, said he felt betrayed: “They have abandoned us. They are only looking to make money for themselves.” Another miner, Alton Dalasile, more recently echoed the exact same frustration: “They have abandoned and betrayed us. The ANC is no longer the party of the poor man, the working man. They care only about enriching themselves.”
The Authentic Tragedy of the World’s Liberal Conscience
The story of South Africa over the last 20 years must qualify as one of the most authentic political tragedies of our era. Once upon a time, not very long ago, the country was held up as an example to the world. In 1994, when the apartheid regime finally came to an end and South Africans overwhelmingly elected Mandela as their first democratic President, the world looked to South Africa with a mix of hope and expectation. In this new era of globalization, the Rainbow Nation seemed destined to break down the lines between social and racial divisions. Legal scholars hailed the country’s new constitution as the most progressive in the world. Truth and reconciliation committees were to set up to transcend old grudges and to come to terms with the country’s racist past. The new South African flag, combining elements of the ANC’s party flag and the national flags of Britain and the Netherlands, was meant to symbolize a new harmony converging from racial segregation into “unity-in-diversity”. The new anthem combined elements from the Xhosa and pan-African liberation hymn Nkosi Sikelel’ iAfrika (God Bless Africa) with the old Afrikaner anthem, Die Stem van Suid-Afrika (The Voice of South Africa).
But don’t forget: these were the halcyon days of a triumphant neoliberalism. The Cold War was over, communism had been defeated, the Gulf War had reasserted American hegemony in the world, and Francis Fukuyama had just thrown the doors of the radical imagination shut by publicly declaring the End of History. From now on, global capitalism and liberal democracy were to reign supreme. South Africa, as it emerged from the depths of institutionalized racism, became a progressive beacon of this new world order — and Mandela its very conscience. In this brave new world, Mandela was a former revolutionary turned philosopher-king; an elder of the global village who came to represent not only the suffering and aspirations of black Africans, but also the hopes and desires of Western progressives. Mandela mingled with world leaders, the European royalty and multi-billionaires; he hung out with popstars and sports legends, but he also maintained a close friendship with Fidel Castro and Muammar Khaddafi. Father Madiba, in a way, was above politics. Or was he?
The Post-Racial Apartheid of Neoliberal Globalization
Today, both the revolutionary narrative of the ANC militants and the liberal narrative of the world’s progressives ring increasingly hollow. Racial segregation may have been institutionally lifted, but the socio-economic segregation that undergirded it continues unabated. South Africa is still one of the most shockingly unequal places in the world, ranking second (after Lesotho) on family-level inequality. In this middle-income country, forty-seven percent of the population still lives in poverty, which is actually two percent more than back in 1994. Unemployment formally stands at 25 percent, but the rate goes up to 50 percent for young black men. Twenty years later, blacks on average still earn six times less than whites. While a couple of pejoratively called “black diamonds” have made it to the top, crafting a small indigenous elite that slowly takes up residence in the old vestiges of white privilege, for the vast majority of South Africans nothing has really changed.
Of course, there are good reasons for this. Apartheid fell as neoliberalism rose, knocking down old walls on its quest for globalized market access but forever erecting new ones in its concomittant quest for cheap labor and natural resources. Samir Amin once wrote that “the logic of this globalization trend consists in nothing other than that of organizing apartheid on a global scale.” Apartheid here is not meant as a metaphor; it is what a philosopher might call an ontological category of the neoliberal world order. As Slavoj Žižek has argued, “the explosive growth of slums in the last decades … is perhaps the crucial geopolitical event of our times.” Shantytowns continue to arise around South Africa’s cities and mines as workers migrate in the hope of securing a humble living, even as new gated communities and shopping malls protected by private security guards bearing assault rifles spring up to cater to the consumerist desires of an emerging interracial elite. The Rainbow Nation may be blind to race at the top; but it still reproduces apartheid-era segregation at the bottom.
The Oppressive State and the Political Philosophy of Rights
None of this is a coincidence. In a way, the tragic outcome of the ANC’s liberation struggle was encoded into the very DNA of the party’s vanguardist strategy. First of all, the ANC decided to take over existing institutions — political and economic institutions that were based on systematic exclusion and massive inequality — and thereby ended up unwittingly reproducing these same oppressive structures with a new elite formation. Secondly, as Lawrence Hamilton explains in his book The Political Philosophy of Needs, the ANC leadership deliberately embraced a particular ideological vision of how to “transform” the country: a vision he refers to as the “political philosophy of rights”, in other words: liberalism. South Africa’s new constitution was the clearest manifestation of this: everything was put to work to secure the rights of individuals to vote and be represented, to own property, and to not be discriminated against in any way. Little attention, however, was given to questions of political participation, genuine popular sovereignty, and the satisfaction of basic human needs.
This state-centered and rights-based approach never truly broke with the legacy of apartheid; it merely extended the franchise while keeping the structural logic of separation between people and power, between property-owners and wage-earners, intact. Partly because of the reigning neoliberal ideology of the time, and partly out of fear of reproducing the Zimbabwean experience where Mugabe’s violent land expropriations had led to a white exodus and economic collapse, Mandela and the ANC opted for a gradualist approach that actually ended up turning the ANC into an agent of apartheid itself. Legally, the property rights of white landowners took priority over the human needs of local shackdwellers. Workers’ rights were increasingly hollowed out as the right to unionize gave way to the “right” to be “represented” by a corrupt and ANC co-opted union leadership. The state-oriented approach and the political philosophy of rights thus locked poor South Africans into a logic of representation and top-down decision-making whereby human needs, social autonomy and political participation came to be subordinated to the formation of a new political and corporate elite of former ANC revolutionaries.
Towards Autonomy and a Political Philosophy of Needs
But there are signs that things may be changing. In 2005, a completely different type of movement burst onto the scene when a large group of poor shackdwellers set up a roadblock in Durban to protest against the eviction of an informal settlement. The so-called Abahlali baseMjondolo, or shackdwellers’ movement, has since spread to Cape Town and Pietermaritzburg. With tens of thousands of members, Abahlali now constitutes the single largest grassroots organization of poor South Africans. Unlike the reactionary maverick, corrupt multi-millionaire and former ANC youth leader Julius Malema, who is now contesting the ANC on a Chávez-inspired populist platform, Abahlali stresses its autonomy from state institutions, political parties, businesses and NGOs, and rejects both the ANC and its principal rivals in the opposition, drawing instead on self-organization and direct action to secure improvements in living conditions, to defend communities under threat of eviction, to reclaim urban land for social redistribution, and to democratize society from below.
The ANC and all other so-called revolutionaries betrayed the poor the moment they made it their aim to take over the institutions of apartheid and reproduce them in a different form. But with the ANC’s crisis of legitimacy deepening following the Marikana massacre, more and more people who do not feel represented are being driven towards the only sensible conclusion. Earlier this year, in March, one thousand shackdwellers stormed a piece of land in Cato Crest in Durban, occupied it, and called it Marikana in honor of the slain miners. The action was just one more expression of the dawning realization around the world that, in these times of universal deceit, only an insistence on radical autonomy can take the revolution forward.
In South Africa, the only way to overcome the social segregation that continues to needlessly kill hundreds every day, is to embrace a political philosophy of needs that focuses on the empowerment of communities; that operates through democratic participation and militant direct action; and that — instead of trying to ’emancipate’ South Africans by becoming more like their former oppressors — actively breaks out of the cycle of exploitation by building interracial autonomy from below.
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