Anton Lembede, Nelson Mandela and the generation that formed the formerly radical wing of the African National Congress, the ANC Youth League, are famously remembered, immortalised and invoked by many liberal thought leaders of post-apartheid South Africa, on selective terms.
These are individuals described as humble, disciplined, respectful and a plethora of other terms that are viewed as constitutive elements of civility in politics. What many of these liberal thinkers tend to conveniently omit are the social conditions that formed these individuals and how they entered and characterised politics in the dark days of apartheid.
They were an impatient, youthful group, who were pivotal in the radicalising of the ANC and garnering the necessary mass support required to confront the apartheid regime. They described the bourgeois sensibilities that plagued the ANC at the time critically and with a vigour deemed disrespectful at the time.
They lamented an ANC led by a group of gentlemen with clean hands, with old ineffective tactics of silent petitions, and letters to the Queen with pacifist opening statements such as “we humbly request” and “We pray oh master”. These are the conditions that led to an ideological break by the ANC Youth League with a tired and soft ANC, with radical policy shifts such as free education, radical redistribution of the wealth of the country from the hands of the white minority and many other means of social reconstruction that would alter the lives of native African people.
In the conditions of the time, such an attitude, internally organisationally, and externally when confronting injustice that manifested itself during apartheid, was important, and it spoke defiantly against the wind of tired respectability politics that were more concerned with decorum than confronting power robustly.
Decades from then, one Vice-Chancellor of the University of Witwatersrand, Adam Habib, pens an article titled Beware the uncivil and spectacle politics of the EFF, that is marginally different from many of his dismissive, uninformed and unsubstantiated bashings of the Economic Freedom Fighters. Laden with the usual phrases such as fascist, racist, violent, thrown hither and thither with what is a shocking sign of lack of grasp of these concepts by a public intellectual, it got me reflecting on an old conversation of what constitutes civility and acceptable political conduct in epochs of injustice.
Who determines civility and from what position do such determinations come? So, after having ignored a weak attempt at tongue-in-cheek critique by Richard Poplak in his article titled The making of the BLEFF – Post-Zuma, there is nothing left of the left, I figured there are at least some theoretical concepts to work with, and duly so, I penned a response that will hopefully capacitate both Habib and Poplak with a basic understanding of leftist theory, and how the EFF honestly is revealing its weak conceptual capacity.
Let’s start with the Vice-Chancellor. He begins by asserting the importance of civility in democratic politics, but does not really delve into the crux of what constitutes civility. I am sure this is because he assumes there is wide consensus as to what that is, which is why the piece degenerates into elementary name-calling, but for our collective benefit I will unpack the implicit meaning of what civility entails in his terms that reveals itself as the piece goes on.
Habib contrasts what he calls uncivil, disrespectful discourse among the youth and the EFF with former presidents Nelson Mandela and Thabo Mbeki in their terms as statesmen. He writes:
“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.”
The lauding of the Mandela approach to post-apartheid social relations is a sentiment that has lost its traction in a society that dwindles by day in terms of inequality on very real racial terms. It is a dishonest muzzle that no longer has its desired effect of pacifying the impatient cries of a poverty-stricken and exploited majority in this country, whose lowly social standing is administered by an unethical, ineffective and captured ruling party.
It is an approach that the EFF rightly contradicts. An approach that is concerned with building bridges over a country in havoc and squalour for the majority. An approach concerned with maintaining a fragile lie of social unity, in the face of economic and social inequality.
To continue with that approach, considering these realities is what Einstein correctly coined as madness. It is what Habib considers civility. The pompous praise of intellectual technocrat Thabo Mbeki reveals to us further the meaning of civility in democratic politics.
It is the unfiltered accent, the tailor-made suit, the poetic enunciations on the state of Africa. Civility is the valourising of intellectualism over and above the altering of the dire conditions our people exist in. Habib’s conceptualisation of civility is classist, and it comes from a place of a detached, somewhat anthropological academic diagnosis of our current situation, and in the same spirit detached modernist responses, does not fully understand the urgency that is required to change that conditions of our people.
The youth of this country, the membership of the EFF, are then arrogantly deemed as rude, conceptually, are incorrectly tagged as racist, for not falling within these ambits of civility.
As an administrator of a university that has meted out unspeakable violence on student activists, expelled and suspended countless activists, Habib is doing what Steve Biko termed as kicking us and then wanting to prescribe our response to the kick. In doing this, he attempts to use post-modernist understandings of rationalism, civility to discredit radicalism as a tool for change, and dismisses these legitimate voices, strategies and tactics of confronting unyielding power, racism, neoliberalism and capitalism with more conceptual errors in terms of understanding fascism.
He accuses structurally disempowered people of racism for speaking truth to racists in a robust manner. He accuses the EFF of violence, for shutting down exploitative and racist private entities, not understanding that their continued function under such conditions is violence.
Acclaimed decolonial scholar Lwazi Lushaba writes about this skewed view of civility, and the alternative means of existing, and perhaps in this case confronting power (which Habib deems as spectacle) of Africans in his paper titled Theoretical Reflections on the Epistemic Production of Colonial Difference and the presumptive logic of Occidental Authority. He writes:
“Stated with brevity, legitimation denotes the process by which the ‘legislator’ is authorised to set the minimum conditions each statement of necessity must satisfy in order for it to be considered scientifically true. Intricately linked to the right to decide what is true is the right to decide what is just… The right to decide what is true and the right to decide what is just accordingly then stem from the same perspective, the same ‘choice’ if you will – the choice called the Occident… Essentially, modernist thought claims for itself and its categories universal validity, that is, it thinks of itself as existing outside of cultural, historical and temporal structures.”
What Lushaba illustrates here is exactly the presumptive authority assumed by Habib as a privileged scholar, with a cultural superiority complex. The current mode of addressing injustice used by the youth and the EFF are not in line with Habib’s post-modernist sensibilities of conduct and decorum, civility and modes of protest.
They are not palatable to him, and he presumes his analysis as truth, with universal standards of political conduct, language, demeanour being created as category, and anything falling outside of that being ridiculed as spectacle, and deemed as something to beware of, as uncivil. It is power complaining about how it is being responded to.
Habib, as usual, reveals his adoration for the ANC by once again appealing to the ANC to brainstorm ways of addressing what he calls the real problems the EFF mobilises on, through, of course, means of spectacle and populism.
He urges the ANC to develop concrete plans, which is ironic, as his dismissal of the EFF as populist is counterintuitive. He accepts on the one hand that Cyril Ramaphosa has been responsive to the EFF at a level of policy, particularly on land, but in the same breath attempts to paint the EFF as merely a rhetoric-driven party. Unlike the ANC, the EFF does have concrete plans to address the socio-political disparities in the country; it is quite amusing to watch him plead with a clearly inept ANC to develop policy, in vain.
It is a rant posing as an analysis, one that is underpinned by very classist sensibilities. He laments the eroding of democratic principles, fearmongering around a possible ascent to power by the EFF. There is a plethora of elementary conceptual and ideological mistakes in understanding political and sociological phenomena and the relevant terminologies. It is a piece grasping at straws.
In all honesty, analysis on the realities of South Africa and how to address them is a matter of perspective. The youth of this country speak with an unsettling urgency that is not palatable to those who are detached from their realities.
Habib speaks from an air-conditioned office with a hefty salary as he presides over one of the most prestigious, yet exclusionary institutions of higher learning on the continent. DM