Is civility important to democratic politics? The obvious answer is “yes”. There is a belief that social mobilisation and progressive politics has to be undisciplined, threatening and violent if it is to be radical; a view that is at odds with the personal conduct of many of the grand leaders of the radical political tradition from whom these same activists draw inspiration.
Civility is seen by some young activists and politicians as being supportive of the status quo, a behaviour typical of older political generations who were unable to transform the economy and society. If these activists read widely enough — rather than rely on rhetorical statements and party memorabilia — they would know that Sobukwe, Cabral, Biko, Fanon, Alexander, Che Guevara and the like were often courteous individuals who underscored the importance of discipline.
In their world, being ill-disciplined could cost lives. Too many young activists, and now increasingly politicians, speak with a sense of bravado about their politics being robust. This has now become code for rudeness, uncivil behaviour, the use of expletives, disruption and the violation of the rights of others, and sometimes even violence.
Uncivil politics, as distinct from extra-institutional politics, has its roots in the politics of the right and fascist movements in the inter-war years. These movements were marginal political entities that used the rights (and never took on the responsibility obligations) of their democratic systems to build their base and subvert democracy itself. Ironically, those in South Africa who have adopted this behaviour subscribe to radical or leftist thinking, but have really adopted the strategies and tactics of the right.
How is it that radical politics has come to be interpreted to mean uncivil engagement in South Africa? To be fair, part of this has its roots in the liberation movement itself. Competitive liberation politics in the later years of the apartheid era produced a toxicity that led to violence in some parts of the country. But this was overshadowed by the widespread violence unleashed by the apartheid state against all strands of the movement and communities in the later years of the apartheid era.
Perhaps this, together with the fact that all of us were excluded from the state, ensured that the intra-party and intra-liberation incivility and violence were contained by a broader tradition of civility and comradeship within the liberation movement.
In the first decade of the post-apartheid era, the ANC went out of its way to cultivate a civility in public discourse and parliamentary politics. A significant part of this had to do with Nelson Mandela who took on the responsibility of building bridges across South Africa’s multiple divides in order to buy South Africa the political space to transform itself. Thabo Mbeki also continued the civil traditions in public discourse and parliamentary politics, perhaps assisted by his own intellectual orientation. None of this must be interpreted to mean that political discourse was in any way easy or not divisive.
The public discourse between Mbeki and Tony Leon was very polarising, as were Mbeki’s public criticisms against both intra-party and external dissidents. But these polemics were largely within the confines of the democratic system, even if it were unsavoury and may have affronted particular individuals. Where Mbeki was seen to have crossed the legitimate democratic line was in his treatment of some intra-party dissidents, particularly through the use of state institutions to settle party-political battles.
Jacob Zuma took this behaviour outside the party once his position was under threat. He found allies in the ANC Youth League, Cosatu, and the SACP and together they pioneered a politics of spectacle that was mainstreamed into the popular discourse and in the broader public arena. This involved the advancement of ethnic and/or racial politics, the public slander of individuals, threats of violence and a social mobilisation that trashed public facilities, private businesses, and mythologised militarism.
These tactics were most tragically deployed in the mobilisation outside the courts during the Zuma rape trial, particularly targeted at the rape victim Kwezi, and was led in principle by then leading ANC Youth league members Julius Malema and Floyd Shivambu. The tactics perfected outside the courts were also deployed against leaders within the ANC and particularly against those associated with Mbeki. Unruly behaviour that was previously typical of ANC Youth League meetings was taken into ANC gatherings.
It is then unsurprising that the EFF, born from the ANC Youth League of Zuma’s presidency, is employing a similar strategy and tactics. It has perfected the politics of spectacle that it had learnt outside the courts during Jacob Zuma’s trial and now deployed this within the parliamentary precinct and in broader society. The politics of spectacle was reflected in the chants to Zuma to pay back the money and in the continued haranguing of Zuma and other ANC leaders. It was devastatingly effective. It wrong-footed the ANC parliamentarians whose overwhelming parliamentary majority was no antidote to the spectacle of disruption.
Even when security measures were used and EFF parliamentarians were evicted, they would simply repeat the exercise on the next occasion. Focused solely on the unravelling of the Zuma administration and unconstrained as a result of having no desire to convince the electorate of their ability to rule, the EFF effectively destroyed what democratic civility remained in the Zuma years.
Gradually other parties began to realise the value of the EFF’s tactics. But constrained by their own desire to rule, and perhaps by their own inabilities, none could replicate these tactics. So these opposition parties decided to do the next best thing, align with the EFF inside and outside Parliament to increase the pressure on the Zuma administration.
The result was a series of broader campaigns within society which greatly enhanced the image of the EFF, especially among students and the broader youth. It also enhanced the image of the movement among journalists and analysts, who had been at the forefront of exposing the corruption and ethical breaches associated with the capture of the state by the Gupta family.
But while uncivil and spectacle politics may have been devastatingly effective in unravelling the Zuma administration, it has been found wanting in an era of reconstruction. This has become increasingly apparent as the EFF’s spectacle politics and destructive potential is unleashed against the very partners such as the Democratic Alliance who opportunistically aligned with it to keep the ANC out of power in Johannesburg, Tshwane and Nelson Mandela Bay.
Journalists and analysts who were only a year ago gushing about Malema’s political wisdom have also found themselves on the wrong side of the EFF’s ire as they increasingly became critical of the party’s destructive politics, including its propensity for racist attacks on individuals and the violent actions of some of its leaders and members.
But some of its other partners — the UDM and Saftu in particular — still continue to find the EFF’s tactics valuable because of a coincidence of interests in unravelling the DA administration in Nelson Mandela Bay and undermining outsourcing arrangements in selected corporates. They too are likely to be turned off when the EFF’s propensity for destruction is unleashed in occasions which compromise their interests.
It goes without saying that I believe that this uncivil and spectacle politics is dangerous for our democracy. Not only does it fan ethnic and racial hatred and deepens divides in our society, it also continuously violates the rights of others and is on many occasions violent. So where do we go from here to contain this kind of politics?
Two options have emerged. The first, co-option, is seemingly preferred by many in the leadership of the ANC. Ramaphosa and David Mabuza have both hinted at it, as have figures from the Gauteng provincial leadership such as Panyaza Lesufi. Yet none has recognised that it is not in Malema’s short-term interest to do this.
After all, why would Malema trade his current position — and the ability to unravel all and sundry that comes with it — for going into the ANC for one or other Cabinet position? He would want a position that is far more substantive, one that puts him in place to be the ultimate successor to Ramaphosa.
It would seem that this would be the price the ANC would not be prepared to pay. But more important than individual aggrandisement and ambition is the likely effect that such a co-option would have within the ANC. The party has already witnessed the shifts in its internal culture with the influx of individuals from the IFP. Doing this again with followers of uncivil and spectacle politics would forever erode the party’s internal dynamics and make it a parody of the liberation movement it once was.
The second is what I would describe as the accountability option. The ANC and other parties need to develop practical plans for addressing the concrete problems on which the EFF mobilises. This does not mean pandering to the EFF as the ANC did in the case of the land issue. Rather it involves developing their own concrete plans, distinct from the populist and spectacle agenda of the EFF, to sustainably address the challenges of inequality.
Ramaphosa’s victory in the ANC election and his accession to office was interpreted as a new dawn by many in South Africa, but he is increasingly squandering this by creating the impression that he is merely responsive to the EFF. Leadership requires one to be seen to lead. The same goes for the opposition parties.
The reason that the EFF has the resonance that it has — even though it commands only about 10% of electoral support in selected municipalities — is because it has become the kingmaker. If parties such as the DA were simply to walk away, even at the cost of short-term political gain and power, the leverage and effectiveness of the EFF would be eroded.
There is a cost to opportunistic alliances, as Zwelinzima Vavi and the SACP found out so tragically in their dalliance with Jacob Zuma. The accountability option must also entail a firm response to the violence and violation of rights perpetrated by the EFF and others within the ANC.
Violent actions must have consequences, as must the threats that critics are regularly subjected to. It is also unacceptable that public institutions and the courts respond firmly to the racist diatribes of individual white citizens, and then remain silent when the same is done by political leaders and activists. Our Constitution and the law is meant to apply to all and it must also be seen to be the case.
There were many progressives in the 1990s who warned the ANC and the newly ascendant leadership that the adoption of a neoliberal economic programme would have the consequence of socially and politically polarising society. It was a warning that went unheeded and we are today living with the consequence of that choice.
Similarly, 14 years later, there were many who warned about the dangers of electing as corrupt an individual as Jacob Zuma. Again, that warning went unheeded and we are living with the consequences of widespread corruption in our public institutions and state-owned enterprises, and the economic effects of State Capture.
Now today, there are many who are warning about the dangers of uncivil and spectacle politics. If this warning is again unheeded, South Africa will pay the consequences through the emboldenment of a proto-fascist party that practises an uncivil politics that divides rather than unites, and destroys rather than builds. This will ultimately erode the democratic foundations that were so painstakingly built and paid for with the lives of so many previous generations of South Africans. DM
Professor Adam Habib is a professor of political studies and the vice-chancellor and principal of the University of the Witwatersrand.
A lightning bolt is 5 times hotter than the sun's surface.