South Africa

Maverick Citizen: Letter to the Editor

SA is slipping into ‘politics of eternity’: Things won’t automatically get better

Looting in Ndofaya on July 12, 2021 in Soweto, South Africa. (Photo by Gallo Images/Papi Morake)

Ticking time bombs. Tipping points. Moments of reckoning. All accurate statements to make sense of the South Africa we find ourselves in this week. But what led to it?

Fakie is Equal Education’s senior manager: operations, Madubedube is Equal Education’s general secretary.

There are many plausible theories to explain the lead-up to the violence that unfolded this week: The arrest of former president Jacob Zuma, the anger of his supporters, ANC factionalism, current president Cyril Ramaphosa wresting power from his predecessor or vice versa, intelligence operatives and hidden plots, taxi wars, looming local government elections, xenophobia.

Or are there more entrenched factors, ones that speak to the infamous structural oppressions we can all rattle off by rote because they deeply mark our consciousness and daily living experience in our communities? This might be especially so where the politics of hunger have broken through our country’s fragile and divided consciousness and attention — gripping the neck of the middle class, turning its face this way to make it look in the eye the face of starvation, injustice, deprivation and the indignity of hunger.

But this is not an unprecedented crisis. South Africa experiences these “tipping points” all the time. It’s almost a ritual. Something bad happens, so bad it’s above the background noise of daily life in this country. We’re alarmed, statements get made in a rush, there are condemnations and denouncements, calls for reform, calls for political resignations, calls for something to fall. Then the Two Minutes Hate settles, maybe there’s a commission of inquiry, and then the background radiation fades back to its false-normal state. And then another crisis emerges.

Why do we get stuck in this cycle? Why are we still here after the SANDF violence of last year, after the obvious failures of fiscal austerity, after Fees Must Fall, after xenophobic attacks, after hate crimes against queer people, after State Capture, after Marikana, after Andries Tatane, after Khwezi, after arms deals, after Guptas and Shaiks, after the AIDS crisis, after Mbeki denialism. After apartheid.

It is because our fundamental understanding of how time affects history as history gets made is not well understood.

In the framing by historian Timothy Snyder, he deploys the concept of the politics of inevitability against the politics of eternity. Inevitability says progress is natural, that the triumph of the West in the Cold War brought an acceptance that the free market and democracy would bring progress and that famed pursuit of happiness. That the failure of the Soviet Union meant no more alternatives. So, all nations had to do was simply wait for the inevitable progress that would come about, one way or another.

This framing is a trap South Africa fell into post-1994 and we haven’t managed to climb out of it. We don’t even realise we’re in this conceptual Escher staircase, where propaganda and bouts of fascism displace politics that effectively serve the majority.

South Africa didn’t have effective policy from the get-go, to get displaced by the Rainbow Nation of false racial reconciliation without economic restitution. But we bought the lie of inevitability nevertheless. No matter how much we call for and acknowledge and judge correctly the racialised capitalist political economy for the violence it enacts on the black poor underclass, we still expect a natural progression to a better state. How many times is the phrase “How is it that in 2021 (or whatever year)?” invoked, even in casual discourse to decry an outdated act or lack of progress made on any societal factor? That shows how deeply entrenched we are in that expectation of inevitable advancement.

With every crisis of the scale we’re currently in, we slip into what Snyder calls the politics of eternity. There’s a widening realisation that things won’t automatically get better. While his location of this concept is rooted in the faux nostalgia of 1950s Americana, where everything was just better, our politics of eternity might be a collective resignation to a status quo of oppressions, a state of being of pessimism where enemies lurk in every corner, for South Africa has always been thus — whether for the white minority during apartheid or xenophobia now. Here there is no real future, just a denial that the future exists because of the very real and legitimate critique that we aren’t getting the benefits of the fruits of liberation. Young people in South Africa, in fact, understand us to be in a crisis of constitutionalism.

Eternity places South Africa in a cyclical story of perpetual victimhood. “Time is no longer a line into the future, but a circle that endlessly returns the same threats from the past,” Snyder writes.

This is a tricky conceptual space for us to navigate. Easily misinterpreted or misunderstood, it can land us in the aggravating meme that “life was better during apartheid”, far from the point made here. But the status of victimhood can be made a legitimate critique of civil society. Why is South Africa’s civil society weak, why are we reactive, why are we toothless to the oppressions of an increasingly illiberal authoritarian “liberal” democracy, displaying natal fascist tendencies?

Rejecting the politics of inevitability and seeing unemployment — and inequality especially — as a deliberate stabilisation of structural oppression by powerful oligarchs is a way out of the never-ending staircase. There is a global, co-ordinated assault on the poor, to hoard wealth for the few and entrench hunger: Three trading giants, Cargill, ADM and Bunge control 90% of the global grain trade.

Perhaps it’s cynical, but to assume the government wants to do something to ease inequality and unemployment for the working poor and unemployed is a failure of critical imagination by leftist progressives. Perhaps that itself is a politics of eternity. Yet how do we see this for what it is but still dare to hope? If we don’t hope, we’re saying there can never be any new choices. And that is truly fatalistic. To break from such fatalism we must sow seeds where young people in South Africa take the will and space to dream to break our cyclical trauma and systemic poverty.

This period of unrest and chaos and killings and traumas, created and reignited, has left us reeling — one of us is now reflecting on our childhood in the 1985-1986 states of emergency, when there was detention without arrests of older kids, tear-gassing of our primary school, burning tyres, Casspirs roaming with malicious intent. Most of all, there is the memory of the fear, uncertainty and the feeling that no-one was in control.

One of the authors of this piece is grappling with the deep sense of hopelessness and hurt among young people. While we do not want to see our streets burning, this burst of turmoil has shown what our idle siblings are willing to do when further pushed into the depths of hunger and dispossession. Should inequality and state repression persist, young people will cross the railway line and disrupt life on the other side. While we cannot condone regressive acts, how should we harness this generational rage towards a hopeful and progressive movement for meaningful change?

Whether it’s inevitability collapsing into eternity and then, for South Africa, repeating that cycle — from apartheid to “freedom” to neoliberal austerity apartheid — we’ve been here before. We are always here.

Whatever the way out of the inevitability-eternity conundrum of injustice is, we must find it. If we don’t, South Africa will get swept up in the global rise of “democratic” fascism. We require a potent, transnational, socially progressive Global South response to strengthen our opposition to injustice and then destroy oppression everywhere. We must dream that boldly. DM/MC



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