2021: The signs and signals of a new Dark Age
‘If we are on the outside, we assume a conspiracy is the perfect working of a scheme. Silent nameless men with unadorned hearts. A conspiracy is everything that ordinary life is not. It’s the inside game, cold, sure, undistracted, forever closed off to us. We are the flawed ones, the innocents, trying to make some rough sense of the daily jostle. Conspirators have a logic and a daring beyond our reach. All conspiracies are the same taut story of men who find coherence in some criminal act. But maybe not.’ – Don DeLillo, ‘Libra’
How do we sum up a year like 2021?
Let’s try this: Both Helen Zille and Jacob Zuma published books over the course of the past 12 months.
Somewhere within these literary parentheses, we can begin to make sense of 2021, during which two of the planet’s most celebrated democracies suffered Cirque du Soleil-style insurrections, one of which was led by a man in a bear suit.
Now, Helen Zille didn’t cause either the American or South African coup attempts. But her intellectual lodestar – the now-mainstream anti-woke American right-wing shout-o-sphere – was at the centre of Donald Trump’s attempt to subvert a free and fair election, in which he won a mind-bending 74 million votes but still got pipped by doddering old Joe Biden.
Zuma, however, did cause an insurrection – the four-day South African boondoggle that followed his incarceration for contempt of court in July. Or, rather, his jailing was used as an excuse by an opposition faction within the ANC, and also by a vast gangster network in both KZN and Gauteng, to try to bring South Africa to a smouldering standstill, oust Cyril Ramaphosa from the presidency, and grab the levers of political and economic power.
Both insurrections failed, which is to say that they didn’t meet their immediate objectives. But in the United States, the Big Steal narrative is now accepted by nearly half the population, and it is the guise under which election “reform” has brought the swing states like Georgia, Pennsylvania, Michigan and elsewhere under the direct sway of the Republican Party, which has no intention of pursuing traditional democratic pursuits in the future. Donald Trump holds the GOP in his idiot grip, and he’s not letting go: the 2022 midterms will return to him the House and possibly the Senate, and – given the pandemic economic fallout – it’s difficult to conceive of a Republican candidate losing in 2024. American liberalism, which failed to deliver on its manifold promises, is entering a period of darkness. Its durability is not assured.
Meanwhile, the recent trouble in SA is a textbook case of how failing post-liberation societies come apart at the seams. One thing is certain: the violence was sparked intentionally. It formed the latest salvo in a battle between ruling ANC “elites”, which on the one hand constitute the establishment aligned with mainstream media and the formal economic sector; and on the other hand the illiberal outcasts, aligned with the fringe media and the economic underworld. After Zuma’s incarceration, the latter faction employed the techniques of 21st-century civil warfare, in which individuals are weaponised on social media along ethnic and racial lines. The strategic objective was the shutdown of the country’s two most important provinces, in an attempt to subject the logistics, transport and food industries to rapid capture by shadowy players. This in turn sparked a species of popular uprising – a scream of anguish from the poverty-stricken streets.
As far as enforcement is concerned, such an attack can only be countered by solid intelligence work, backed up by responsive policing. But over the course of his two terms in office, Zuma brilliantly co-opted the security cluster, using it as a sort of Republican Guard in order to protect his rule and choke out meaningful opposition to his State Capture project. Many of the stronger operatives have remained loyal to that ongoing operation.
The new guys, having failed to re-repurpose the repurposed State Security Agency, have used the intelligence services to keep a lazy eye on their opponents within the ANC – the usual way in which most former liberation movements consider “intelligence”. Worse, in the long run, the security cluster has no operational intelligence for the trouble brewing over South Africa’s numerous borders. The country is now left without sovereignty in the strict sense of the term.
This insurrection, insists President Ramaphosa and his cheerleaders, has failed. But again – has it? Parts of KZN have been destroyed, much of it forever – a pure example of reverse development. Relations between Africans and those of South Asian descent fester like an open wound, promising more violence. Massive army presence in poorer communities is now a normal South African occurrence.
The taxi cartels – mafiosi dressed up as minivan drivers – have in some cases taken over community governance, often in consultation with the governing party. There is a creeping fetishisation in the press and in government for vigilante groups, assuming their leaders are articulate and black; less so if they are inarticulate and white – nevertheless, these groups exist, and they successfully protect their own small laagers. Ramaphosa himself, in a portion of his speech after the violence, urged a sort of moderated vigilantism when he called for “community policing forums”, presumably some sort of hybrid public-private structures in which the monopoly of violence is extended to include the average armed citizen.
More critically, much like the universe, the Executive expands by the day, as Ramaphosa is forced to bundle more and more governance under the care of the presidency. Of the truly big questions – what caused the Big Bang? Is God dead? How many superhero films are too many? – none is bigger than the following: How did South Africans get saddled with a Cabinet stuffed with such mind-bending mouthbreathers?
Probable answer: Ramaphosa and his predecessors have bought loyalty with Cabinet positions, and must then try to govern by fiat. When the next guy comes along, likely to be less of a mensch than the current guy, he will find that he has the monarchical power of King Mswati of Eswatini. The temptation, as always, is to abuse it.
While the community response to the recent troubles has been admirable in many cases, it’s not nearly enough to paper over what has allowed the illiberal forces to weaponise average human beings in the first place: systemic, brutal economic inequities.
The fallout has been severe: Ramaphosa’s ANC was battered at the polls during the municipal elections in November – it was wiped out as a force in major urban centres, and its rural hold was also scraped away. This leaves Ramaphosa extremely vulnerable –there are no longer any guarantees that he will hold the leadership in the looming 2022 ANC elective conference. The men waiting in the wings are not kind, but it isn’t like Ramaphosa hasn’t been a complete failure – even his apologists no longer pretend that corruption has been “tackled”, and that sustainable economic growth is just one coal-fired power station away.
The twin insurrections in two different but linked democracies point to a series of ruptures that have occurred over the course of this century. The first is driven by social media and the information overload that has caved in any sense of consensus truth. Populations are split not on points on ideology, but on which set of facts they believe. Mistrust of political elites has become so extreme that nutso groups like QAnon earn legitimate political footing, while here in South Africa social media groups drove the narrative that Zuma was “jailed without a trial”, a victim of a political attack that saw him locked up without due process.
In America, the loss of truth is linked to the loss of status: namely of the white under- and over-classes for which America’s bounty was a birthright. They have now forged an unlikely cross-class alliance, and have managed to create a coherent revanchist campaign to roll back rights and entitlements won by women and minorities since the 1960s. It is a war to the death, and only one side seems to know it. The landmark Supreme Court abortion ruling, Roe v Wade, looks set to be undone, while – as we’ve already mentioned – it will be much harder to cast a vote in America come the midterms. One half of the population is about the Big Lie. The other is about the Big Steal. They are tribes that no longer share the same universe. Their only recourse is rupture.
In South Africa, social democracy has produced only a small number of winners. We need not relitigate how the country’s inequities remained entrenched since apartheid, but the status quo that has held since 1994 is no longer viable – a new supremacist cabal hopes to grab the initiative from the sclerotic ANC elite, while destroying the formal – in this case, the white – economic base. Again, this faction runs on its own set of facts, its own prescribed narratives, its own alignments with anti-vaxxers and evangelical doomsayers. Their bespoke multiverse exists because it fills the hole that the South African establishment dug for itself when it refused to be either munificent or efficient – alternative truths exist in the yawning gap between promise and possibility.
Can any of this be reversed? At the moment, that seems unlikely. The liberal elites don’t seem to grasp the urgency. Entire swathes of America remain unknown to Democrats; entire provinces of South Africa are mysteries to the ruling ANC elite. In the fog of their ignorance, entire institutions crumble without their noticing – the press; the police; the courts; the public square. It’s dire. The technocratic state moves slowly, but the lies and disinformation are swift – and now runaway global inflation is tearing a new imaginarium into global politics.
And hanging over us all is the spectre of climate change, the knowledge in our bones that the planet is desperately sick, but there is no will to heal it. And perhaps that is the lesson that 2021 has inflicted upon us: without will, there will be steady, irreversible backsliding. As a new Dark Age looms directly ahead of us, perhaps it’s time to take the signs and portents seriously. If both right-wing Zille and “radical” Zuma are producing literary efforts, maybe it’s time to reject these ridiculous dichotomies. The right is dead. The left is dead. At its best, under all the face masks and hand sanitiser, 2021 has delivered a call for a new politics. The question is: Will we answer? DM168
This story first appeared in our weekly Daily Maverick 168 newspaper which is available for R25 at Pick n Pay, Exclusive Books and airport bookstores. For your nearest stockist, please click here.