Given the assault of mainly repeated ideas, by a party with a significant majority and far more speaking time than anyone else, where did the screaming come from? How did the representatives of this behemoth get themselves into a situation where they felt it important to drown all other thought? By BELINDA BOZZOLI.
It was the screaming that was most disturbing, that Wednesday. The crowd of over 500 was shut in a room with excellent acoustics, a sort of echo chamber – yes, of course Chamber, that was the word – and there were a number of women standing near the back who had stentorian voices, who shouted in unison, making a sort of high-pitched, deafening, ringing noise, so that one’s ears throbbed and one’s psyche shuddered. Many who were there sat stunned into silence, staring forward, a little dazed, alternately displaying anger and bewilderment on their faces.
That was six days after the beatings.
Back then, in that same Chamber, into which an even greater number were crammed, there had indeed been screaming, and even some uncomprehending or sometimes hostile laughter. But more shocking had been the sight, so close you could touch it, of men, some with a professional air and a wrestler’s physique, grabbing, thumping, dragging, the miscreants, who themselves fought as though they had been ready for it, wielding hard hats and bottles, getting in the odd early punch too. And after that, we escaped, only to find hordes of armed men outside, ready to attack, some of them seemingly hyped up with fear and anger, gathering in formation, surrounding the wrong people, manhandling others, some of them absurd in their elaborate protective outfits when they were the only ones armed.
By the time the Wednesday arrived, nearly a week later, the public had already expressed its despair, its wrath, at the beatings and all that went along with them. But this was not the end of it. For that very fury now found its way into the hearts and minds of those representing the ANC, in the theatre that was in fact the Parliamentary Chamber.
In that echoing Chamber that Wednesday, those who thought of themselves as “rulers”, and of opposing parties as “enemies”, spoke. Their familiar narratives were all on display. As usual, the mythologised past was evoked across the board as an inspiration for the present. Sometimes this proved an awkward fit. All paid their respects to their political ancestor Tambo and some mentioned Castro, Gandhi or Mandela. All claimed to adhere to the traditions of these men — to be “non-racial” – but their very speeches were littered with racial references and racist asides. All seemed to think of themselves as progressive constitutionalists and democrats, but their speeches reeked with authoritarianism and bitter resentment of those who differed from them.
Following their leader, many spoke of an allegedly new idea – “radical economic transformation”. But at least four different definitions of this term were proffered, while it was used as a phrase to attach to multiple proposals and plans, few of which appeared to be radically different from what was already on offer – preferential procurement (already signed into law), the Defence plan (old news). One got the sense that the real meaning of the term would never really be made explicit causing some puzzlement – was this deliberate and therefore somewhat sinister, or was it simply neglectful? Of course, inevitably, mention was made of the National Development Plan (NDP), and the Nine Point Plan, as inspirations for action. And Operation Vula – a military strategy from the liberation movement – was newly evoked as a slogan to mobilise support for “radical economic transformation”. Plans, Operations, Visions, Programmes – the Chamber was bombarded.
The ANC speakers were a mixed bag. Some spoke incomprehensibly. Some followed elaborate scripts haltingly, word for word, suggesting that not only had they not written their own speeches, but they did not fully understand them either. Some spoke in World-Bank-esque jargon, with sentences as long as paragraphs and all meaning subtracted. Minister Rob Davies reached considerable heights in this respect; as he put it, movingly:
“A rearguard action from defenders of the status quo has sought to shift the blame for the evident economic insecurity and widening inequality on to the technological changes of the fourth industrial revolution: the emergence of digitised technologies like robotics, three-D printing, the Internet of Things etc, that are predicted to lead to disruptive changes in the organisation of production across entire value chains.”
Given the assault of mainly received ideas, by a party with a significant majority and far more speaking time than anyone else, where did the screaming come from? How did the representatives of this behemoth get themselves into a situation where they felt it important to drown all other thought?
Well first there was indeed the shame at the brutality of the previous week, shame translated into fury. But there was also unease at being subjected by the opposition to a litany of their failures in a way which gave rise to a certain perplexity.
Failure in government was easy to specify, and part of the everyday discussion in Parliament. The incompetence, corruption, venality and looting have been well documented and could be referred to in an instant. Recent particularly severe failures in governance in many fields, including health, social services, education and employment were pinpointed on that day by the opposition.
But there was another much more subtle form of failure which began to become evident that day – ideological failure. What could this mean?
The contours of the ANC’s ideology are so familiar they have become invisible to most people, as is the case with hegemonic ideologies.
Their discourse tends to be made up of three main ingredients: First they constantly hark back to the Struggle, portraying themselves as being in an endless battle, for which unceasing mobilisation is necessary, invoking old heroes and episodes of glory. The present and future are but extensions of what they see as a glorious past, giving their views of the world a quaintly Soviet air.
Second, they cast the society in binary terms – us/them; good/bad; white/black; ANC/not ANC; rich/poor, leaving no room for nuance and complexity, or for a history independent of their dualistic vision.
And finally, they organise their thoughts around the vague clichés of “transformation” (now labelled both radical and economic), as well as the Freedom Charter and the multiple plans and programmes whose names are more familiar then their content, thus capturing us all in their version of “what is to be done”.
Using these and other related methods, they have controlled the South African discourse successfully for the past 23 years, closing the minds of their own followers as well as much of the rest of society. Many opposition speakers, including the EFF, have echoed, or at least spoken in terms of, ANC discourse themselves, an indication of its successful dominance of rhetoric. Most of the press and other media also communicate in terms shaped by ANC thinking most of the time. But this hegemony has now begun to crumble.
The disjuncture that Wednesday lay in the fact that this dominant ANC discourse barely appeared in opposition speeches, even as a reference point. Importantly, these included speeches made by the many young, black South Africans who took the podium. This presented an almost unanswerable challenge to ANC hegemony. White speakers, coloured speakers, Asian speakers – all can be dismissed in the manner of the contemporary ANC. But black speakers? The only option is to label them “sell outs”, but that is proving to have limited sway over the wider public or indeed over the black opposition politicians themselves.
And thus many opposition speeches did not echo the mantras of the ANC at all. In place of the old, backward-looking Struggle rhetoric was an embrace of the 21st Century; in place of the old binaries was a more complex realisation of current realities and social and cultural divisions; and in place of the old clichés of transformation, the Struggle, the Freedom Charter and the multiple incomprehensible plans and programmes, were simpler, more direct contemporary ideas.
This implicit rejection of ANC discourse, perhaps only subconsciously comprehended, angered the mass of members sitting there. Not only had their political authority been challenged by the miscreants of the previous week and by the endless lists of their failures in governance; their ideological authority as those who controlled the hegemonic concepts and values of society was profoundly disturbed.
By frequent interruptions of opposition speakers – and this sometimes entailed an interruption per sentence, or more – on spurious “points of order” the ANC intended to disrupt the flow of alternative ideas. And when this failed, the screaming began. The ANC side of the House was whipped up into a frenzy of anger. Trembling with rage, ANC members, many of them right in the furthest reaches of the back benches, roared and shouted, chanted and stamped, cursed and swore. Their emotions were far beyond the reach of rationality, their fury almost impossible to tame, even had their whips wished to do so. It seemed as if they were asking: how could an organisation that they believed was so good, be so unambiguously bad? How could ideas that to them represented all that was true and right, granted authority by nothing less than history itself, now be rejected by a new generation?
We should fear this rage, for as the ANC continues to fail, to divide and to flounder, so those who regard it as a church and its ideology as a system of absolute belief, will, out of bewilderment, shame and a sense of irrevocable loss, vent their hatred upon the rest of us. We live, today, in what has been called “the age of anger”. Is this, and not the EFF, to be our local equivalent? DM
Prof Belinda Bozzoli MP is Shadow Minister for Higher Education for the Democratic Alliance.
Photo: Members of the ruling party African National Congress (ANC) sing and dance during a Motion of No Confidence in President Jacob Zuma debate in the Parliament in Cape Town, South Africa, 10 November 2016. EPA/NIC BOTHMA
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