When you close your eyes and shut down all senses other than hearing, politicians all sound the same — at least they do when they present themselves as saviours and saints… Here is a pop quiz. Without doing an online search, who said this?
“The reality is that the vast majority of those that were marginalised in the past, remain condemned to a life without dignity, and [no] opportunity for upward mobility… Imagine a South African nation where race, gender, sexuality or any other demographic factors are no longer an indication of the barriers people are likely to face in life. A nation where all citizens live in dignity, with equal opportunities for upward mobility.”
If you have read this far without using an online search engine, that statement could be anyone from Oliver Tambo to… well, it actually was said by Herman Mashaba. The point here is that as public intellectuals and social commentators, we have an obligation to strip away public statements and reveal the ways in which we prepare a face to meet the faces that we meet, with apologies to Mr Eliot.
In preparing the faces to meet the faces that they meet, the politician and technocrat, the business person and the objective writer and economist, would imagine, all of them, that they are simply practical, pragmatic and even realist. Mr Keynes reminded us, however, that “Practical men, who believe themselves to be quite exempt from any intellectual influences, are usually slaves of some defunct economist.”
Pragmatism denuded of ideology
Here we are, then, with Herman Mashaba and Gayton McKenzie, who has said of Mashaba: “He’s a great businessperson and he’s a greater person in real life. I have got a lot of respect for Herman Mashaba.”
Ever the practical, McKenzie trades on some of his immediate material gains, and we should probably not traduce their local value and impact. He also says the right things.
“Politics,” McKenzie said, “must be about the needs of the people, and not slogans.” It’s really difficult not to agree with that. Consider McKenzie’s anti-politics: “…politicians in this area have set the bar so low that any basic services people receive is seen as going above and beyond.”
This, too, is a sleek move. One problem is, of course, that patchwork material achievements are necessarily good in patches and particular places, but say or do little beyond the immediate. In the run-up to elections politicians readily pick up brooms and buckets, until they don’t. Their achievements are more like charity, when it is justice that is needed.
McKenzie and Mashaba play anti-politics and present themselves as practical people. With this, they join many of the parvenu politicians as non-ideological with their pretences and performances of anti-politics.
Their pragmatism, drawing more on recent perversions and anti-politics that is so part of the intellectual laziness of endism (end history and end of ideology) rather than the more understandable pragmatism of Charles Peirce and John Dewey.
The anti-politics of Mashaba and McKenzie is morally ambiguous in the sense that it makes no clear, visionary, trans-historical and inter-generational statements beyond what should be done.
Their anti-politics is quite different from the more sophisticated discussions of tensions between the state and society, or whether state and society should be elided. It is more a reminder of how public activity has been shaped by a belief that politics should be removed or ignored and driven by slogans like “don’t think, just do”. (We, more radical political economists encounter similar ideas among orthodox economists who want nothing to do with discussions of methodology, philosophy or even theory).
This approach does two immediate things. It removes consideration for the character of the state, especially the way that power and influence are manipulated by the bureaucratic elite, factions (the nomenklatura) for pecuniary gain.
It also draws on that old neo-liberalism that is driven by the Foggy Bottom and Bretton Woods institutions, whose economists and public policy operatives cast themselves as purely “technical”, politically neutral people who can and should necessarily oversee transformation according to the cookie-cutter patterns agreed upon along the Wall Street-Washington Axis.
To be clear, implementation is fundamentally important for effective public service delivery and for improving the daily lives of people, but implementation cannot be approached through bricolage. It has to be part of a coherent vision and plan that is integrated across policy areas and intergenerational.
For example, the work done on transportation networks at any given time must consider communication networks, a range of public goods, and human and social capabilities. Implementation should be durable so that future generations may benefit.
Amartya Sen’s capabilities approach, a theoretical framework, includes normative claims; the freedom to achieve well-being which has to be associated with people’s capabilities and functionings. These are the things that people can achieve, and have the opportunity to do and actually achieve, like education, or starting a family.
The latter, what Sen described as the “functionings”, are necessarily forward-looking. The point is not so much whether you can live in a clean city, or enjoy public amenities today, but (also) what type of society you want to live in and leave for future generations.
Without these visionary and deeply moral considerations, implementation becomes performative, manipulation-for-votes and meaningless. Fixing a public swimming pool today may help you get votes, but what happens when McKenzie leaves the stage…
On the face of things, the pointed views of Mashaba and McKenzie seem harmless, even positive. But their anti-politics has more in common with the delusions of free-marketeers and ideologically lost bandits who make things up as they go along (the other fellows simply flip-flop) as long as everyone follows their dictum of “don’t think, just do” — coupled, as it typically is, with ahistorical and empirically vacuous claims of free markets.
Fashions take time to make their way around the world. In the era of the internet, this process has sped up significantly. It is surprising, therefore, that the anti-politics that so pervaded especially the US after the collapse of the Soviet Union as part of the claimed end of history and the end of ideology, is becoming populist in South Africa, today (although the Centre for Development Enterprise, as an extension of the Wall Street-Washington Axis and carrier of successive phases of neo-liberalism, has carried that flag since the end of minority white governance.)
Nonetheless, marginal groups (led by the likes of McKenzie and Mashaba, the more overtly active two) seem to be dragging South Africa into an age of anti-politics, the age that pushed ideological debates towards dominance since the early 1990s.
The turn to classical liberalism in South Africa, as in the rest of the world, draws significantly on anti-politics, cast quite often as “apolitical”. In general, and in lieu of identifying the cause of this anti-politics is the loss of trust, diminishing ethics and the rise of corruption and criminality in government and the ruling alliance.
Altogether these have driven people away from politics and participatory democracy and thereby undermined democracy itself. For this, the blame should be laid squarely at the door of the political leadership of the past three decades.
Philosophically we may need to consider the extent to which the postmodernists (and their opposition to grand narratives) and the neo-conservatives (end of history and ideology and the triumph of liberal capitalism) have contributed to anti-politics. This is for another discussion.
My view is that the right (the neo-conservatives, neo-liberals and classical liberals) have made the greater contribution towards anti-politics.
We should, ultimately, not be fooled by the niceties of Mashaba and McKenzie. They are slaves of Keynes’s “defunct” economists, and simply “prepare a face to meet the faces that they meet” — as TS Eliot wrote, poetically. DM