Opinionista Mark Heywood 30 April 2013

Robbing the poor and giving to the rich: Of good apples, bad apples and apple barrels

“Politics, we said, is the art of the possible. We are the artists, and our craft: Embroidery.” – Jeremy Cronin, The Trouble with Reformism

In an article in Umsebenzi Online (18 April 2013) Jeremy Cronin, deputy minister of public works  and deputy general  secretary of the SACP replies to an article I wrote in the Daily Maverick, The state we’re in: the Good, the Bad and the Ugly. Cronin’s response is most welcome because it is based on a more substantive critique of what he thinks of the role of civil society in South Africa. It departs from the usual labelling invective which claims that organisations like Section27 are “neo-liberal”, “counter-majoritarian” and so on.

Following Cronin’s lead my reply adopts the same, hopefully constructive, tone in response to what I decipher to be Cronin’s four arguments:

  1. He celebrates the “exemplary” Treatment Action Campaign (TAC) struggle against “appalling Aids denialism” and for anti-retroviral medicines (ARVs) but questions the track record of TAC leaders who “branched out” and sought to replicate” the “rights based campaigning model of TAC in other sectors”.
  2. He criticises the term civil society as an “indiscriminate notion”.
  3. He laments that civil society adopts a “narrow anti-government focus” letting “class forces” off the hook for their own atrocities. He hints nastily that civil society’s agenda is guided by a hidden hand – but does not pursue this point.
  4. He complains that civil society campaigns are exclusively against “bad apples” in government and is oblivious to the rot that spreads from the barrel itself.

Let me start with a point of agreement. The term “civil society” is certainly problematic. There is no space in this article to examine the origins or evolution of its meanings. But I readily admit that it has become an envelope in which to stuff opposites; a term that obscures more than it assists. It has become lingua franca to describe all non-governmental organisations; it can encompass an AfriForum as much as an Equal Education. It is a term that reflects a laziness to figure out what different players are actually trying to do in our societies.

Groups like Section27 and the TAC certainly do exist within civil society – if by this we understand outside of government. But it is far more precise to understand them as organisations dedicated to achieving social justice, a quest that is legitimised in the preamble of our supreme law, the Constitution, which says its aim is to:

“Heal the divisions of the past and establish a society based on democratic values, social justice and fundamental human rights…”

The way in which the Constitution ties together these three concepts is important. Our founding mothers and fathers, Cronin among them, wanted more than just formal democracy. They wanted equality and dignity too! Sifuna konke! The Constitution’s reference to social justice therefore legitimises the ongoing efforts, within a democracy, to campaign for the fair and equal distribution of the resources that are needed to give people decent homes, quality healthcare and a basic education.

The Constitution is central to the quest for social justice, which is why we harp on about it so much. But the Constitution is a large matter that Cronin gives only small reference to. For him it is part of the problem: it seems that it is because the government has “constitutionally mandated public responsibilities to its citizens” that “NGO formations like Section27 have campaigning leverage.”

Let’s thank Nelson Mandela for that.

Cronin’s appreciation of the Constitution appears to be a narrow one. This is unfortunate precisely because he is a thought leader in a unique and privileged government. His government is privileged because it can call to its assistance the most far-reaching Constitution in the world, one which –even if born out of a necessary compromise that avoided civil war – vests government with great power and an inextricable mandate to use that power and authority to bring equality, dignity and opportunity to South Africa’s people. Although any government has many functions and responsibilities, crossing all spheres in life, the second chapter of the Constitution (the Bill of Rights) makes it clear that the primary and overriding mandate of ours must always be to better the lot of those disadvantaged by colonialism and Apartheid. The injunction to realise equality must infuse economic policy, foreign policy, political policy and so on.

Unfortunately it does not.

In this regard government (with all its parts and powers) can be depicted as both a sword for the poor and a shield against further post-Apartheid depredations. It is an instrument that is intended to advance rights. It cannot do this arbitrarily or irrationally, it cannot do this outside of the rule of law. But surely one great lesson we learnt from the 20th century is that any arbitrary use of power, however it may be justified, ends in tears – usually of the poor.

Now coming to the now! The problem, deputy minister, is that it is very difficult to fight the battle against the hydra-headed monster poverty with a dirty, dented or twisted sword. Our government carries (but is fast losing) the moral authority of sacrifice and then victory in the liberation struggle. But when a government  is riddled with corruption (as ours now is), when self-servers have come to occupy the seats intended for representatives of the people (as they now do)  and when the police are once more turned on citizens (as they now are), it is clear that we are in trouble.

The necessity for social justice activists, once more, to concentrate on fixing the government thus arises precisely from the need to have the capacity to go deeper and further in achieving social transformation, than would be possible by just taking on the robber barons that I referred to in my first article. Or, in Cronin’s own words, we have to deal with what is wrong with the barrel itself, not just with the bad apples. The barrel is the government .

This brings us to the example Cronin cites against me: the 2012 Limpopo text book crisis.

Cronin urges us to ask why the textbook crisis arose, and not just to concentrate on the bad apples. He suggests that the problems poor people face with service delivery are related to the “sunset clause” and the importation of thousands of Bantustan bureaucrats, unconcerned about delivery and rights, into the civil service. But this is a poor excuse for an analytical Marxist to proffer.

The real reason for the deepening social crisis that has blighted Limpopo in recent years, and that has imposed itself on top of the horrors left by the Apartheid Bantustans that pre-existed it, is that as a reward for critical support that helped President Zuma to win at the ANC’s 2007 Polokwane congress, the Limpopo government barrel (a very profitable one to mine, despite the poverty besetting the people of the province) was given to a gang of bad apples to milk (apologies for a mixed metaphor) to their hearts’ content (another!). This I have on authority from several once senior government officials in the province.

Once Limpopo had been gifted to political cronies it was used to enrich the desperate-to-be-rich at the expense of the poor. In the education department systems that were intended to strengthen schooling were diverted from delivery to personal enrichment. In the case of text books this meant the award of a tender to EduSolutions and the complete handover of responsibility for procurement and distribution of books to schools to this private company.

This type of privatisation had nothing to do with neo-liberalism (a much favoured scapegoat of communists because it is amorphous and hard to tackle) and everything to do with the politics of a part of our government.

Another little point to note, which has parallels with former President Mbeki’s Aids denialism, is that it took many months for the government, the ANC, Sadtu and the SACP to wake up to what was going on in Limpopo. Indeed, the first time a Cabinet member used the word “crisis” was only in September 2012. As with HIV/Aids, it was only when civil society (for want of a better word at this point) made the crisis impossibly open and visible, that government rushed to the rescue – more in its self-interest, I would argue, than in the interests of the pupils. I say this because now that the textbooks crisis is out of the headlines, the kids of Limpopo are being left once more to sukkel sans desks, toilets and teachers.

As a troubadour of equality and a father, Jeremy, the desecration of so many children’s rights should break your heart.

Which brings me to one final misunderstanding which requires a response. Cronin appears to believe that the TAC’s campaign was “largely “accomplished” after 2009 when the arrival of Dr Aaron Motsoaledi signalled a long-awaited commitment by the government to HIV prevention and treatment. This misunderstanding abets the notion that civil society loves a good scrap with government, but once the scrap is won it slinks back into its shell. Unfortunately this is not what happened.

The TAC did not sheathe its sword in 2009. Albeit out of the media, the TAC has continued its campaigns, with its efforts now directed at ensuring that ARVs are actually delivered at clinics, building the National Aids Council (Sanac) and trying to tackle the high prices of medicines set by multinational pharmaceutical companies. The TAC’s behaviour proves a point we would like you to register – where there are very good apples in government, such as our current minister of health, advocates for social justice will do all we can to assist them to achieve their goals. You might want to ask for a reference from the minister of health on this score!

Cronin closes his case by calling for “comradely discussion” on these and other issues. We would welcome that. A recent reading of Hitch-22, the autobiography of Christopher Hitchens, has sadly reminded me how socialists and social justice activists have been chasing their tails for over a century now. We may leave behind us polemics and poetry, but the condition of the world and 99% of its people has become ever more parlous. Is it not time to step out of ossified semantics and build a new alliance of good people who accept the fundamental principles of our Constitution? If we fail to do so we will find ourselves in a situation that Cronin the poet has himself lamented:

“Time passed on this earth as we debated…

We were experts on the final moment.

And time passed. And we debated.” DM


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