The ruling alliance is increasingly resorting to limiting democracy, participation and freedom in South Africa. Much of it can be traced back to the tendencies that were so integral to the Soviets — most notably, the extension of freedoms only to party loyalists. This is not hysteria, nor is it a crude anti-communist statement. Joe Slovo wrote about this in the years immediately after the collapse of the Soviet Union. We will get to that later.
This tendency among the ruling elite throws into high relief a division within the ruling alliance that may help to explain its coming apart. This, anyway, is what I sense from long and hard discussions with a wide range of political actors and agents in the country and abroad.
Indeed, if you look hard and long enough, you may see, deep within South Africa’s abysmal politics, a faint flickering of this division. The subject is raised in discussions around dinner tables, and periodically in hushed tones elsewhere, but it never quite makes it above ground, and into public discourse.
In the crudest of terms, it is the division(s) between the exiles and internals, the African National Congress (ANC) and the United Democratic Front (UDF); between those who cut their teeth on the egalitarianism, the participatory democracy and the organic diversity and non-racialism that rose in the country in the early 1980s, and the ‘liberators’ who rode in on broken-backed mules, and flew in on free rides. They arrived in their numbers from the African savannah, and from the frozen tundra of the former Soviet Union. Some of them operated in the Frontline States and from the former East Bloc. Some of them had spent extended periods in types of detention camps, qua psikhushkas, as victims of extrajudicial punishment. They were a mixed bunch held together by party loyalty, and a veritable siege mentality; they trusted no-one.
Among them were stoics like Chris Hani, Zola Skweyiya, Thabo Mbeki, Kader Asmal and, until he drowned in deep tubs of his own excrement, there was Pallo Jordan. Although Jordan was fired from the cabinet at least three times, he was generally respected as an intelligent, trustworthy and honest person.
As a footnote, when I first met Jordan in a hotel in Harare, during the failed attempt to establish a patriotic front between the ANC and Pan Africanist Congress, he asked why the Sowetan had not sent ‘a black’ journalist. When I told him that I was black, he switched logic lanes, and said they should have sent ‘an African’. This is, however, not personal; Jordan was respected until he choked on faecal stew. We have to accept that.
The internals, not all of whom, it should be said, were morally upstanding, are well known today. The most prominent among them have left government, they are on the margins of politics, or have simply turned their back on alliance politics. Deputy President Cyril Ramaphosa is probably the highest profile of the internals but he is, arguably, the exception to the rule. My sense is that Ramaphosa may not be given the chance to lead the country, but I don’t believe in predictions. I could be wrong.
Among the internals were incorruptible people like Desmond Tutu and Albertina Sisulu. There are others, of course, but we cannot name them lest the midday sun turns dark on them … We should not valourise all of them. Among them, too, there were those who were seduced by the carnal flows and excesses and baseness of Syracuse.
When Plato travelled to Syracuse in 368 BC to establish his ideal society he was terribly unimpressed by the voluptuousness, the crassness and the baseness of life in Sicily. He recognised the impossibility of living a moderate life, and creating a just society, free from endless turns of despotism and from the obsession with sensual happiness, which consisted of ‘filling oneself full twice a day and never sleeping alone at night’. Most young men were seduced by this lifestyle, and never quite returned to the road of moral and ethical conduct. It is this lifestyle that has attracted so many of our own political leaders.
For the most part, at the start of our democratic journey in the early 1990s, the internals were swiftly co-opted, apparently without much resistance, and the externals took charge. Today, we seem to be confronted with increasingly undemocratic rhetoric and conduct, of casting political opponents as cockroaches and spreading talk of ‘extermination’. With attacks on the media and the judiciary, and to any independent thinking, they manifest a growing tendency towards restricting democracy and limiting freedom only to party loyalists. The antecedents of this limitation of freedom may be traced back to Soviet rule.
I should emphasise, as I have in an earlier column, that this is not neatly ideological, in the sense that it is not between communists and non-communists. As before, I should add, there are tensions and insoluble contradictions in capitalism as there are in communism. It is specifically the Soviet model of governance that is referred to, and in terms of which democracy and the emancipatory impulse are withheld from people who have not expressed complete obeisance to the party. This was justified by a real or perceived military threat against the Soviet Union and its allies. This culture of fear and a type of siege mentality pervaded official thinking in the Soviet Union, and from a very early period simply stunted the growth of democracy and participation.
In a seminal article Has Socialism Failed?, published in the immediate aftermath of the Soviet collapse, Slovo wrote that the very basis of communist rule, through a ‘Dictatorship of the Proletariat’, became a “theoretical rationalisation for unbridled authoritarianism” accompanied by a “steady erosion of people’s power both at the level of government and mass social organisations”. Slovo explained that elected officials, trade unions, women’s and youth movements were turned into “transmission belts for decisions taken elsewhere and the individual members were little more than cogs in the vast bureaucratic machine”.
There was a time when Slovo was somewhat sympathetic to the idea of limiting democracy. He explained: “Without a limitation on democracy there was no way the revolution could have defended itself in the civil war and the direct intervention by the whole of the capitalist world.”
There was no room for democratic participation; not even within the ruling elite. He explained: “The concept of consensus effectively stifled dissent and promoted the completely unnatural appearance of unanimity on everything. Fundamental differences were either suppressed or silenced by the self-imposed discipline of so-called democratic centralism. Under these conditions the democratic development of party policy became a virtual impossibility.”
Slovo did add, however, that the suppression of democracy was always meant to be temporary, and that it had to be replaced by the development of democratic participation by the people.
These deep tendencies may help to explain the either-or politics within the alliance, the fractiousness among its constituent parts, and the limitation of democracy and freedom that marks the alliance’s criticism and attacks on the press, the judiciary and independent thought in South Africa. All of this flies in the face of Rosa Luxemburg’s observation: “Freedom only for the supporters of the government, only for the members of one party — however numerous they may be — is not freedom at all. Freedom is always and exclusively freedom for the one who thinks differently … its effectiveness vanishes when ‘freedom’ becomes a special privilege.”
This message, by one of the great Marxist thinkers of the 20th century is apparently lost on the current crop of leaders in the alliance. What then, does this tell us about the division between the internals and the externals? Well, if it was not so dangerous an enterprise, we could probably draw direct attention to statements by old UDF (and Azanian People’s Organisation, for that matter) members and people who fought the apartheid state within the country, through the churches, and the courts, through the media, through public protest, through dialogue and by extending participation to all South Africans in a truly organic way. In doing so, we might find that there is a distinct difference between the former exiles and the internals. The old exiles — communists and capitalists — are scathing about anyone who criticises them, or who, legally, may challenge their excesses.
It is, however, not a clean division. There are, to be sure, quite odious characters on both sides of the divide. The seductiveness of Syracuse can help us understand this. What does seem clear, nonetheless, is that the internals have a much more egalitarian and emancipatory conception of democracy. As for the rest, they may have to be saved from themselves, or they will take the country down with them. DM
The 2016 Rio Olympic medals are already showing defects including rusting and chipping.