Opinionista Ismail Lagardien 27 March 2015

Fear in the land of laughter, song and dance

In so many ways, it is fear that stalks this land of the laughing leader, and singing and dancing cadres. It was fear that underpinned the spectacle on the grounds of Parliament on that dark night of the 2015 State of the Nation Address.

A question popped up during a seminar on the role of intellectuals and the state a few weeks ago that continues to tug at the sleeve of our sensibilities. During the extended question and answer part of the seminar, a member of the audience sought clarity, and at least a response from the main speakers, on the practices of ‘revenge’ and ‘banishment’ for speaking out against the ruling party in South Africa. As far as I recall, both issues were simply glossed over. My poorly scribbled notes refer only to “question not answered satisfactorily” and “THAT was dismissed rather easily”.

The general discussion was fruitful, and some contributions were outstanding – in particular the contribution by Khathutshelo Netshitenzhe. Nonetheless, by accident or design, the issues of ‘revenge’ and ‘banishment’ were passed over too easily. Yet both issues may be placed at, or somewhere near, the centre of everything that besets the country. In so many ways, it is fear that stalks this land of the laughing leader, and singing and dancing cadres. Some of us may recall the spectacle on the grounds of Parliament that was part of that dark night of the 2015 State of the Nation Address.

It is hard to ignore the fear that runs all the way down and across South African society. The poor and the unemployed fear that their lives will never improve, and may have given up on the state. This much can be deduced, anyway, from the resort to violence during service delivery protests. Fear also stalks the public service, the intelligentsia and civil society, in general: fear of speaking out against leaders; fear of speaking the truth; fear of admission of culpability; fear of expressing oneself fully in the arts; fear (increasingly) of writing and reporting on the causes of calamities that may differ from official stories, and above all, fear of actually admitting some kind of responsibility for the troubles that plague South Africa.

It certainly helps that all accountability for the state we’re in was conveniently lost along the passage between Jan van Riebeeck’s landing at the Cape in 1652, and the ANC’s 103rd birthday in 2015. If, however, we are intellectually honest about ourselves, we have to accept that our collective triumph against the iniquitous system of Apartheid should not be uncoupled from the misery of the venality and expediency of the order that followed. We seemed to have triumphed at breaking down the old order, but we are not that good at creating something more just and equitable in its place.

Let us set aside our leaders for a moment, given, as they are, to paramnesiac confabulation anyway, and given that South Africa belongs to all who live in it. Let us ask the difficult questions. How, exactly, did we get to 2015, with our country swaying paralytically on the edge of a precipice? How did we make it from the compromises that went into shaping the Constitution, as the ultimate social contract of a fractured society, to the scorched earth approach that the ANC has applied to almost every aspect of South African society? What has changed, since those epoch-defining years during the early 1990s? There are, of course, any number of ways to explain how we got to where we are.

One argument that has a solid ring of plausibility is the tension, and the insoluble antinomies, between South Africa’s liberal capitalist political economy, and the organisation of society, by the ruling elite, into a Soviet-era governance system. This is not a critique of liberal capitalism, nor of communism – both are riven with contradictions. It is simply a contention that it is virtually impossible to establish a liberal capitalist polity, with its inherent rights and freedoms, and preside over it with a crypto-Stalinist governance structure that places strict limits on rights – especially the right to free speech. To be sure, there should never be a time when limitations are placed on what we’re allowed to discuss, or think. The tension between society, between our political economy, and the state in all its formations, is, however, very real. To get a sense of this tension, imagine, for instance, that the Saudi governance structure is transported, intact, to preside over, say, Norway. We may see the values of a single family, the House of Saud, extended to the entire society, and everything else suppressed. It is this tension that is so palpable in South African politics. You cannot prescribe freedom, and proscribe it when it runs ahead of you.

To dismiss someone or groups of individuals as ‘Stalinist’ or as ‘Fascist’, or to liken individuals to Hitler, is just too easy, not to mention that it is intellectually lazy and expedient. Such accusations usually work rather well as rhetorical devices or as a political rallying call. Sometimes they are simply a means of making counter-accusations to deflect from one’s own conduct. If however, we consider the ruling party’s exile years – without minimising or trivialising sacrifices that were made by families and individuals – especially the fact that some of its most senior leaders, and other piss-willy types, were educated in the former Soviet Union, we may pry open a discussion that has some validity. When viewed this way, we may find powerful continuities between the structure of the Soviet Union, especially under Stalin, and the way that the ANC is driving the total transformation of South Africa.

Party loyalists are deployed across state and private institutions. A wise journalist may want to count just how many corporate directorships are shared among the ANC’s executive committee members and their spouses, and among former party activists and ‘stalwarts’. The party has filled almost all the country’s institutions, commissions and committees with its own people, or at least with party loyalists, very many of whom are too afraid to speak out. It would be career suicide. Under these conditions, the southern African sun will never set on the ANC’s dominance of the country.

In the first volume of his two books on the removal of Thabo Mbeki from office, Frank Chikane made reference, repeatedly, to the fear that stalks the ruling elite. He also wrote about fear of never being employed again, after one has spoken out against the state and the ruling party – the differences between the two now almost fully elided. By most accounts, this fear became most pronounced after Polokwane. Since then, activists, some of whom dedicated their lives to the liberation movement, were dragged through the sludge and slurry of our politics. Some were accused of corruption. As much as it fits the Stalinist analogy, the idea that we are experiencing purges remains dodgy. However, in the soft sibilance of shadow whispers, everyone seems to know that criticism of the ANC is ‘career suicide’.

The tragedy for South Africans is that we may not get out of this system any time soon. We seem to live constantly in that instant before a shattering. In this liminal space, fear lives side-by-side with song and dance, with the horripilating laughter of our president providing a haunting aural spectre. Suddenly everyone is afraid again. DM