South Africa

To queue or don’t Q: Bureaucracy explains South Africa’s failure

By Richard Poplak 31 May 2012

The critical theorist and historian Ben Kafka has been tracing the once radical idea of the “administration of things”. What started out as a utopian ideal has curdled into a mine dump of paperwork and garbled SMSes. And when it comes to bureaucracy, few nations know the game better than South Africans. By RICHARD POPLAK.

Several weeks ago, I called a company called Don’t Q. I’m a busy man, and I explained to the woman at the other end of the phone that I needed to get a South African passport, quickly. I had called the right place, she assured me. We arranged for an appointment at their Sandton offices early on a Thursday morning, and the expedited process would unfold smoothly from there.

Don’t Q isn’t designed as a service to help white people through the bureaucratic minefield of home affairs – it is, of course, a colour-blind business – but the people in the van that Thursday morning were all white, and moneyed. Nor is Don’t Q intended as a means to subvert the equality all of us are guaranteed in our Constitution. But it is a reminder that, if you’re willing to pay, bureaucracy becomes merely a pain in the ass rather than a granite wall of intransigence that is as impossible to scale as it is to comprehend.

My forms duly filled out on the drive to town during rush hour, I was whisked through the crowds by an officious set of Don’t Q’s most important resource – the women paid to stand in line for those too busy to queue for themselves. They hustled paperwork over the counter, pushed me into the lift, and translated the insolent bureaucratese spat at me by the women on the other side of the counter. Paperwork buried me, and the essential human nightmare of being crushed between the cogs of a machine was made real, visceral, as I pinballed between counters for four long hours.

It occurred to me, as I facilitated the unfairness that is local bureaucracy’s hallmark, that in a society as uneven as our own, paperwork becomes a weapon. It always has been a means of control – the apartheid regime justified white supremacy by producing reams of legislated segregation. Apartheid wasn’t a choice, you see, it was a set of laws that all of us had no choice but to obey. The regime’s dark stroke of genius – its bureaucratic motherlode, if you will – was the pass law. It robbed the black person of her body, and turned the country into a maximum-security prison. It was a technocratic masterstroke, and behind it the regime could rule unbidden.

The utopian ideal espoused by apartheid’s engineers, in which the races and ethnicities of South Africa would live in separate but equal circumstances via the mechanism of the homelands, was one in a long line of utopian ideals that ended up getting a lot of people killed. In a recent, superb essay called “The Administration of Things: A Genealogy”, published in the periodical West 86th, Ben Kafka quotes from a speech Isaiah Berlin gave at Oxford, in 1958:

“[T]hose who put their faith in some immense, world-transforming phenomenon, like the final triumph of reason or the proletarian revolution, must believe that all political and moral problems can thereby be turned into technological ones. This is the meaning of Saint-Simon’s famous phrase about ‘replacing the government of persons by the administration of things’, and the Marxist prophecies about the withering away of the state and the beginning of the true history of humanity. This outlook is called utopian by those for whom speculation about this condition of perfect social harmony is the play of idle fancy.”

Kafka notes that Saint-Simon’s phrase is falsely attributed, and actually belongs to August Compte. The notion of administration as utopian ideal grew out of the revolutionary fervour of the 18th century, borrowed from foundational political texts like On Public Happiness (1772), by Marquis de Chastellux. How were societies supposed to deal with all the damn paperwork?

“Starting in the late 18th century observers realised that they would need new words and new ideas,” writes Kafka. “The most famous of these was, of course, ‘bureaucracy.’ To democracy, aristocracy, and monarchy – rule by the many, the few, the one, respectively – the political economist Vincent de Gournay added rule by a piece of office furniture.”

It’s an idea that has never really gone away. But it is one that has curdled, soured, become the tincture of the dystopian, à la Terry Gilliam’s Brazil. Leo Strauss understood the threat posed by an “administration of things” as opposed to a “government of men”. So did Hannah Arendt: “[A]fter all, the world in which we live has to be kept. We cannot permit it to go to pieces. And this means ‘the administration of things,’ which Engels thought such a marvelous idea, and which actually is an awful idea… is still a necessity.”

If Lenin believed that running the state would become so simple that even a cook could do it, than the perfect society was to be run by the feeblest of minds, while the best of us are relegated to what tasks, exactly?

This was the Marxist fantasy manifest: the withering away of the state, replaced with a faceless technocracy that didn’t govern so much as administrate. Insensible to the woop and warf of real life, the true technocracy moves through the exigencies of a post-historical world with all the subtlety of a bulldozer. In The Coming of the Post-Industrial Society, Daniel Bell was most chilling of all: “In the evolution of technocratic society, things ride men.”

This is, of course, the experience of being in a Johannesburg home affairs office: it feels like one is being ridden. Even with the beta-blocking Don’t Q flunkies surrounding me, I felt the crush of paperwork. When the filing of documents triumphs over rational, responsible governance, the logical extension is that every individual is controlled, because there is no space for individual agency. The most banal expression of this is De Gournay’s evergreen coinage, gloriously brought to life by home affairs’ dedicated functionaries. 

A recent journalistic assignment in the Democratic Republic of the Congo brought home one of the sorriest facts of post-liberation Africa: the only colonial legacy still extant in all its failed glory is the bureaucracy. From its maw, all manner of evil and brutality emanate. Even when the rule of law has died, the bureaucracy remains. We see this in India, in Senegal, in Uruguay, in South Africa.

The bureaucracy’s tenor may change somewhat—we may remember it as having been more efficient during colonial times—but it remains, for the most part, intact. And we come to understand its true nature: it is a wall between us and those who purport to govern us. I say “purport”, because they have essentially outsourced governance to administrators, and can concentrate on what the African state has been designed to do in the first place.

In most cases, the design is simple: power belongs to an extractive elite that runs a filigree of patronage reaching down into the core of society. This may not apply to all of those who work at home affairs offices, but public service is a means of tapping the trickle of money that greases bureaucracy’s wheels.  Do Don’t Q’s queue-folk bribe home affairs workers to give their client’s special attention? I do not know the answer to that question. But in my few hours at the offices, I saw numerous instances where money changed hands when it shouldn’t have.

Always, the horrors of previous regimes echo through the machinery of current one. In the cogs and wheels of the ANC monolith, we see reminders of the mechanism it was built to replace. The wielding of power via the post-historical technocratic state is built on a thrilling truth: you rule for your own benefit, while the state muddles along on the backs of the men and women with stamps. We were warned that Jacob Zuma would rule as a ruthless populist, but when we see how reluctantly he roused himself to engage in The Spear debacle, we understand that he rules as the head of a technocracy, shielded by reams and reams of paperwork, never to govern, but rather to administrate.

Administration was an idea that grew out of the notion that the masses would govern themselves, while the state’s job was to police them, and to manage their books. Big government or small government, conservative or liberal, the state now rubber-stamps every aspect of our lives. This hasn’t freed us, it’s enslaved us. Administration can never be cut out of statesmanship, but it should never be its raison d’etre.

Don’t Q is a sorry attempt to take some agency back. It hasn’t worked for me. I don’t have the passport. And the machine is sucking me back in, calling me for more. DM

Read more:

  • “The Administration of Things: A Genealogy” in West 86th by Ben Kafka.

Photo: Zimbabweans recieve forms as they queue to apply for residence and study permits outside the Home Affairs office in Cape Town, December 31, 2010. REUTERS/Mike Hutchings.


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