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The looming spectre of authoritarianism haunts South Africa


Ismail Lagardien is a writer, columnist and political economist with extensive exposure and experience in global political economic affairs. He was educated at the London School of Economics, and holds a PhD in International Political Economy.

A great test awaits the ANC in December when, or if, the Radical Economic Transformation faction and the hollow men and women in the liberation movement who have not (yet) shown their colours, align more overtly with the EFF and get rid of Cyril Ramaphosa, and then there is no longer any reason to conceal their authoritarianism.

It has been almost three years since I wrote that our focus on the way that the EFF was slouching towards fascism was taking our attention away from the ANC, and we do this at our peril.

As the ANC faces the possibility of decline, demise or disintegration, it is becoming clearer that its leaders are quaking in their Salvatore Ferragamos and Manolo Blahniks – and becoming increasingly authoritarian. This authoritarianism is driven by a perverse sense of propriety; a belief that the ANC liberated the people of South Africa from apartheid, that they are allowed to do as they wish, and nobody has a right to question them or expect a peace dividend.

A careful reading of Bheki Cele’s recent screed against Ian Cameron of Action Society during a consultative stakeholder meeting to address the high crime rate in the Western Cape, reveals the homologies with the smarmy comments by Jessie Duarte in April 2019, when she told a journalist “you want to defend freedom of speech you never fought for”. 

In his response to Cameron, Cele made repeated reference to the apartheid era and the way Africans were treated at the time. While Cele’s “public outburst” has been reported on extensively, as has a tentative “apology” by the minister, ANC leaders, faced with the possibility of decline, demise or disintegration, are retreating into a laager, and a mentality that they are the sole proprietors of South Africa’s liberation and future.

In this imaginary world, only those who fought for liberation (as Duarte made it clear) have a right to freedom, and anyone who questions the ANC necessarily invokes references (by the spaza liberators) to questioners treating Africans like “garden boys”. That reference is a pure conversation-stopper.

Leaning on non sequiturs

Much of the content of Cele’s “public outburst” consisted of reminders of fallacious reasoning and of invalid premise-conclusion arguments, and was loaded with non sequiturs. In other words, statements or suggestions that Cameron (for whom I hold no office) treated Cele as a “garden boy” do not follow from statements about poor policing outcomes.

It suggests, also, that Cele has simply run out of ideas, much like the rest of the ANC who ran out of ideas after the first 15 years or so, and are now circling the wagons as they approach the point of mass accountability for the misdeeds of the 2007 Polokwane Class Project that gave rise to the Jacob Zuma presidency.

The Zuma years gave momentum to corruption, looting, maladministration, corrosive ethical gaps and confrontational views on the common good in South African politics and government. This clash over the common good is essentially over who has a greater claim for a peace dividend, the creation of a sliding scale of justice with attendant pecuniary and opportunity gains, and the perversion of affirmative action as an end in itself.

This clash denies diversity, emphasises a type of singularity of a South Africa-specific African ethno-nationalism, and generally dismisses the multiplicity and overlapping of affiliations that are necessary for a successfully functioning democracy.

We seem to be approaching a period (we’ve probably been in this period for a while) where it’s the ANC’s way or the highway. Most recently we have seen the ANC’s approach to Russia’s war against the Ukrainian people prevail – arguably because of relations established between Zuma’s presidency and Moscow.

All of these, and more, point to a de-democratising of South Africa’s political economy. In an homogenised society it would be easy to say that the ANC has preferenced atomisation over the collective common good. Though “atomisation” does not adequately capture the elevation of ANC membership or fealty over the collective common good, if we bear in mind the elision of state and party, there are faint echoes of Benito Mussolini’s famous statement: “Everything in the State, nothing outside the State, nothing against the State.”

It does not get any easier, as the ANC leans on non sequiturs and forms of fallacious reasoning (which I usually associate with the EFF). It goes something like this: criticising the state is criticism of the ANC, and criticism of the ANC is criticism of “liberation” which means the critic is hankering for a time of “garden boys” and “tea girls” – apartheid!

It would be easy to refer to this as the escape clause of idiots (if your mind is sufficiently twisted you may call it the ANC’s “safe word”), but it’s more of an authoritarianism by stealth. While I have noticed this stealth authoritarianism and drift towards fascism in the EFF, the rise of the Radical Economic Transformation (RET) faction and hollow women and men in the ANC are working desperately to perpetuate power through “legal mechanisms” of democracy. In a previous incarnation I was taken to task for suggesting something may be legal, “but is it ethical?”

Anyway, the new authoritarianism, repressive practices and claims to propriety of liberation (the Jessie Duarte Freedom Condition) is couched in legal-speak and concealed behind façades of democracy and legitimacy.

Read in Daily Maverick: “The RET faction wants total control of everything in the state and society, as an end in itself

This concealment, fallacious reasoning and exclusive ownership of freedom point to undemocratic principles and authoritarianism by stealth. We traditionally think of authoritarianism with reference to despots from Jair Bolsonaro of Brazil to Rodrigo Duterte (Philippines), but stealthy use of legal structures can secure the most democratically elected political leaders from public scrutiny, and secure dominant-party rule; this is when a single dominant party (like the ANC) governs subject to political opposition.

It is this fear, that the once-omnipotent ANC faces the possibility of decline, demise or disintegration, that may account for the drift into authoritarianism. A great test awaits the ANC in December when, or if, the RET faction and the hollow men and women in the liberation movement who have not (yet) shown their colours, align more overtly with the EFF and get rid of Cyril Ramaphosa as president of the ANC, and then there is no longer any reason to conceal the authoritarianism.

Read in Daily Maverick: “The RET is becoming more brazen, showing their faces amid a swelling of ranks

As it goes, the Covid-19 pandemic has led some activists and scholars to identify authoritarian tendencies in democracies. Jeffrey Smith and Nic Cheeseman, writing in Foreign Policy magazine, arguably a media tentacle for Washington’s Ptolemaic parochialism, found it “unsurprising that over the past several weeks the world has witnessed an unmistakable authoritarian surge, in which leaders around the globe have manipulated the coronavirus threat to consolidate their own political power and to run roughshod over democracy and human rights… [with] a growing tolerance and troubling acceptance of anti-democratic responses”.

In South Africa, there are contending views on how the initial Covid lockdown was handled. There was the view that it was a test “for the future of South Africa’s democracy”. A more sober analysis pointed out that some democracies did better than others, and that South Africa got some things right and some things wrong, which mirrored the haves and have-nots divide.

Overall then, given the growth of the challenges to Ramaphosa by more stealthy authoritarians (and other dodgy characters), combined with the wilful throwing about of non sequiturs and fallacious reasoning, where all criticism of the ANC is necessarily a hankering for apartheid, it’s not terribly difficult to imagine that South Africa faces creeping authoritarianism – and not just by the EFF. DM


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