Friday, 22 April 2016

The Complexity of Racism: Reflections on the South African Context

A Post-Apartheid Anecdote: Racism; it’s Complex!

As with all good tales related about racism, it is perhaps appropriate to begin with a personal anecdote. From 1999 to 2000, I – like many other young South Africans – took advantage of the “working holiday visa” to travel to the UK, where I lived for a year in Southampton. I loved visiting London, and on one particular trip I met up with a group of South African Indians who were living and working in London on the same ticket. They were friends of a friend, and we went out that night, and enjoyed the sights and sounds of the city.

I entered into a long conversation with one of them, a male, about the struggle against apartheid, the various sacrifices that had been made, how precious our new found freedom was, and how zealously we would need to guard it and contribute to building it, in order that the new South Africa would be a success. We were in agreement on a broad range of issues, and I naturally began to feel comfortable with my new friend.

At the end of the night, as we were on our way back to the apartment that I was bunking over in that night we overhead several white South African males speaking loudly (and drunkenly) in Afrikaans while urinating against a nearby wall. My newfound friend shot a condescending look in their direction and blurted out the following words in his thick Transvaal Indian accent,

“These boers, they’re worser than the Kaffirs!”

The words struck a deep chord in me, as the confusion I experienced at his matter-of-fact statement forced me to confront how multi-layered and complex racism in South Africa was in reality, especially when compared to the remedy we had adopted as a nation in the 1990s i.e. cosmetic change and “rainbow” nation-building.

I had encountered a brown person who displayed racism to both black and white South Africans, while maintaining a strong ‘anti-Apartheid’ stance at the same time. As is typical of most South Africans he probably harboured prejudices towards a range of other groups who make up the South African population, which includes Coloureds (i.e. mixed-race), Jews, Muslims, Greeks, Portuguese, Lebanese, Chinese, and so forth.

It seemed to me, that undoing all these racisms with the simple narratives that nation-building was constructed around may prove ineffective – even futile – against the phenomenon it was trying to expunge from South African society. Racism appeared to manifest in society as a many-headed beast, which took on too many forms to trap and eliminate with a rudimentary set of tools. Something else was required; a strategy that recognised the complexity of the racism as a societal phenomenon.

It is perhaps the right time to contribute to re-thinking and re-imagining ways of understanding and dealing with racism in South African society.  For, many years later, I am again deeply enthralled with South African politics, as race has moved to the forefront of popular and academic South African discourse again. Not since the advent of black consciousness in the 1970s has there been so much interest in discussion in questions of race, racism and privilege in South African society. It feels as though the illusion of the “rainbow nation” is finally disintegrating. Most recently, the comments made by a little known real estate broker – Penny Sparrow – re-ignited stormy social media debates on race that had abated only over the festive period.

Systemic Racism as Complex Duality: Implications for Privilege Theory

But there is much to be said about the nature of the debates, discussions and positions that have been emerging on questions of race, whiteness and privilege theory on social media that emphasize race as a social phenomenon, and generally draws on Global North – predominantly North American and UK – literature to formulate its premises. Many of the arguments that have emerged are contradictory, even paradoxical.

At times they seem as though no suitable or amicable resolution between different standpoints can be reached. However, there is a starting point around which general agreement can be obtained. Most contributors are in general agreement that racism is systemic. In the debates that are positioned in terms of privilege theory in particular, the systemic nature of racism is attributed to structural privilege within society as a system, which awards advantages to white people in particular, from the moment of birth.

Privilege theory emphasizes the role of structuration[1] as a complex process, which reproduces systemic bias (i.e. such as racism), and acknowledges the duality of structure i.e. that actors are as much producers as they are products of societal structuration[2] (Guess, 2006[3]). This is how privilege theory addresses systemic reproduction of racism (and indeed other institutional prejudices in society) i.e. essentially by invoking “reflexivity” as a duality that governs actors and agency within the processes of structuration.

In addition, privilege theory emphasizes “intersectionality”; that the institutional prejudices that are embedded within the structure and agency of society cannot be separated from each other in the analysis of a single prejudice (e.g. such as racism, sexism, homophobia, etc.). Each actor that resides within the “system” hence negotiates their intersectionality within a complex process of structuration, for example; a black man is both subject to systemic racism, but may also benefit from sexism through patriarchal values, beliefs, norms and behaviours. A black woman may have to deal with both racism, as well as sexism. If she were to be a lesbian, then homophobia may also intersect with the aforementioned prejudices. The anecdote related earlier is also a case in point. Situationality, and context, govern intersectionality, as the processes of structuration are bound by these.

In summary, privilege theory focusses on systemic racism as a phenomenon that perpetuates itself through structuration. It hence de-emphasizes “racism by intent”. As one source states, “To talk about racism by intent is moot and somewhat unproductive” (Guess, 2006).

A complexity based understanding, however, would accept the central tenets of privilege theory, but from my perspective it would necessarily hasten to add a few more layers to this framework, as follows:

Duality: Firstly, in a complexity theory based perspective, duality is understood as that which exists between inseparable metaphysical opposites. That is, it emphasizes the duality (and not dualism) between conceptual binaries such as evil and virtue, life and death, light and dark for example. That is, the duality of metaphysical opposites implies that these cannot be defined except in relation to each other. Dualism, by contrast, would view them as distinct and separate binaries.   

Inter-relations: Secondly, complexity theory is based on systems theory, which places great emphasis on the importance of connections between parts of a system, as well as its connections with other systems. The more open a system is, the more complex its behaviour is likely to be. If one considers agency within such a system, then it is in good agreement with the notion of intersectionality as deployed in privilege theory, but would place more emphasis on interconnections than purely structure (perhaps this is only a semantic difference, but it is still worth pointing out).

Systemic reproduction/autopoiesis: Thirdly, complexity theory draws heavily on systems theory in envisaging how systemic reproduction occurs. In systems and complexity theory, when a system can reproduce itself (i.e. (2) above) it is referred to as capable of autopoiesis i.e. “self-reproduction”. That is, the system is autopoietic. In this perspective, the relevance of the debate around systemic racism is that it is concerned with how racism is reproduced within society as a whole, and its various systems and institutions.

When the term systemic is used, especially in respect of racism, it usually denotes that the systemic phenomenon occurs almost automatically within the system i.e. automatically or procedurally, relatively thoughtlessly. However, self-reproduction within a system can also be purposive, or deliberate. That is, when it comes to self-reproduction within a system, there is a duality in respect of the purposiveness (i.e. what is deliberate, and what is automatic) that lies behind its reproduction i.e. both processes – deliberate and automatic –  contribute to the reproduction of a system at the same time, and are co-evolving.

Autopoiesis, in systems terminology, is not just a product of reflexivity (i.e. that agents are both producers and are produced by bias contained within the processes of structuration). It is also a produce of purposiveness. This is especially the case when considering human systems (i.e. whether organisations of people, or the hierarchies and bureaucracies of organisations and institutions in society). Hence, to a systems or complexity thinker, it would not make sense to think or speak about one, without considering the other. In this casting, ignoring “racism by intent” (as privilege theory appears to regard it as “moot and somewhat unproductive”) would constitute a ‘half-baked’ analysis of the reproduction of systemic racism.

So while privilege theory acknowledges the complexity of racism as a phenomenon in respect of its contextual and situational multiplicity – i.e. as intersectional and dependent on context (i.e. its relationality or (1) above) – it does explicitly not address one of the central features of complexity, that is; the ability for a phenomenon to exist in a duality (i.e. the phenomenon of racism as simultaneously deliberate and automatic), which, as argued above, is key to its ability to self-reproduce (i.e. or (2) above).  

If we then adopt the perspective that racism may exist in society as a duality – that it may accommodate polar opposite causes in respect of how deliberate racist actions are generated in the everyday spectrum of experiences within the social and institutional fabric of society, and manifest as a complex phenomenon in this respect – as argued above, then a more nuanced appreciation of racism as a phenomenon may be obtained.

Moreover, in addition to regarding racism as duality (as outlined above), it can be further noted that historically it is clear that racism as a phenomenon possesses both social and economic dimensions. This is historically self-evident and requires no in-depth discussion or qualification.

Hence, to summarise the central proposition of this piece; racism can be thought of as a systemic socio-economic phenomenon that manifests as a systemic duality relating to its reproduction as both automatic and deliberate at the same time. To put it another way; racism is conceived of as a product of thoughtlessness (action which is automatic), and racism as a product of deliberate, purposive action (i.e. racism by intent) within the social and economic realms.

These inseparable ‘racisms’ (i.e. both thoughtless racism and purpose-driven racism) act together to invoke racism in both social and economic contexts. This duality can be further cast as follows:

Racism due to thoughtlesssness: Everyday systemic racism, which occurs as banal. It is a product of thoughtlessness and is what largely characterises systemic racism as a social phenomenon. Thoughtlessness, here, is the same as that written about by Hannah Arendt regarding the “banality” of the evil that characterised Adolph Eichmann’s actions in sending hundreds of thousands of Jews (if not millions) to their deaths in Nazi extermination camps. Privilege theory confronts this everyday thoughtlessness, but deals less substantively with the role of exploitation as a structural phenomenon in society (at least in as far as the arguments that have been tendered in the media are concerned)[4].

Racism due to deliberate intent: Systemic racism as deliberate, purposive. This takes on two forms; exploitative racism and hate-based racism, which can be explained in more detail as follows i.e. in terms of:
·         Exploitative racism, which occurs as a superposition of class on race. It is purposive, deliberate (i.e. not banal) – and is what largely characterises systemic racism as an economic phenomenon. Exploitative racism as an economic phenomenon is based on greed and the abuse of power (and/or a perceived necessity?). It also has social dimensions, where social status is attained through attachment to race-based identity. Often, this kind of racism is the last vestige of hope for working class whites to distinguish themselves from the black and brown working classes. As it is identity-based, it overlaps with hate-based racism (see next point). Both forms of exploitative racism no doubt entangle, especially when considering colonial and postcolonial contexts.
·         Hate-based racism, where racism is the extreme condition upon which a persons’ identity is constructed i.e. it characterises systemic racism as an extreme identity phenomenon. They derive their sense of self and belonging to society (at least a group within it) through ‘absolute’ or deep hatred for the races that they persecute. They are, in a real sense, extremists.

The two forms of racism co-exist (i.e. thoughtless and deliberate, respectively), constitute a duality, and cannot be separated neatly for the benefit of either diagnosing racism, or offering prognosis for racism. They are useful, however, for the purposes of understanding how racism manifests in society as a phenomenon. Thoughtless, everyday racism may contain some measure of deliberate racism and vice versa. Indeed, that is how they manifest as social realities. That is why these constitute a duality and not a dualism.

The categories are useful for understanding. That is, they should be considered as a framework constituted of co-evolving variables that prove useful in understanding how racism manifests as an emergent phenomenon[5]. This answers the deeper question here, that is; “what duality generates action in the reproduction of racism in society?”

The duality that privilege theory acknowledges is that of structuration, where actors both produce and are produced by racist structures. Their experience is shaped by structuration, and hence they reproduce what they have inherited; it is automatic and procedural, requiring less thought. This acknowledgement of duality is more concerned with the role of structure in the reproduction of racism; behaviour is constrained to a particular trajectory. Actions, in this framing, are more procedural than deliberate.

In contrast, the duality that complexity theory is concerned with is what mechanisms and actions drive self-reproduction, and considers the duality of action. This in turn highlights the gap between thoughtless and deliberate racism, because both are fundamental to autopoiesis. That is, a complexity perspective is would be concerned with incorporating both automatic and deliberate action in the reproduction of racism i.e. understanding and acting upon it.

The distinction is critical, as it is – broadly speaking – the difference between what shapes racism in society (i.e. structure), and who enacts racism in society and how it is enacted (i.e. action). When the focus is on action, it – in addition – shifts the focus towards considering how racism is experienced. And it is mainly experienced as alienation, where the fragmentation of the social realm results in an individuation of experience; experience is unable to manifest as a result of the broader reflections within society. It is relegated to the private realm.

Another key consequence of adopting this perspective is that through exploring the duality of action in respect of racism as a phenomenon, it clearly highlights the role of class as a factor in the reproduction of racism as a social norm. When one is forced to consider deliberate racism (or racism with intent), it is clear that the intention to exploit is a major factor; and that exploitation takes on both economic and social (especially in terms of identity) dimensions. Economic exploitation occurs in terms of who owns the natural resources, the means of production, the financial capital, the assets, etc. …, while social exploitation has more to do with identity and societal status. Together, however, these ascribe the main dimensions of class, especially in terms of hierarchy and differentiation.

By considering the duality through which actions are reproduced that reinforce systemic racism, the consideration of what was lacking in privilege theory i.e. racism by intent, unlocks the ‘missing’ dimension of privilege theory i.e. its engagement with class as a key factor – especially in the post-colonial context. Moreover, it highlights the importance of focussing on the actors, their actions, and what choices they have in respect of actualising adaptation or evolutionary change in society. Systemic constraints are a given, but to actualise a purpose requires something more; an understanding of how actions are generated, and how they are taken[6]. In this framing, we should seek to formulate actions that navigate the central duality of racism as a phenomenon in society, and to respond to the roots of actions that reinforce and reproduce racism in society.

Implications for Racism in South Africa

Confronting Racism and Decolonising Society
Racism is still a key undercurrent in South African society precisely because the “rainbow nation” driven attempt at nation-building embarked upon a programme of cosmetic change that quickly ran its course, but it was maintained as a key prop in the state and governments programme to maintain control over the electorate, as well as key institutions and organisations.  

Racism prevails because our past has not been resolved. That is, it is in many ways still present, and manifests in the interactions between people, as well as between people and institutions. In this way colonial and apartheid era hierarchies have maintained themselves far into the new democracy. People can be both racist and non-racist at the same time, that is; racism emerges in some interactions, spaces, and situations, while it can be absent in others. As it is with identity, prejudice is fluid and intersectional.

Racism manifests as situational, even though it is structural and systemic, so there is perhaps some merit in considering how we can address racism by confronting it in situations; whether these situations involve interactions with black or white people. Some considerations are necessary in this regard. Many people are oblivious to their racism precisely because they aren’t thinking about their views deeply enough, and some may even entirely lack the capacity to understand or acknowledge their own racism. Racism as an identity, is largely fluid, except under extreme conditions, as argued earlier. It can be challenged and overcome but it needs to be confronted when it emerges with a fair degree of understanding when it is thoughtless, and firmness when it is deliberate and exploitative. Moreover, deploying an aggregate macro-level framework on systemic racism in order to take action in individual micro-interactions is a tricky affair. These confrontations therefore require both a sensitivity as well as punitive measures where necessary, as is appropriate to the particular context. 

This brings us to the question of “decolonisation”, which has been used, in its simplest sense, as a remedy for racism, and in its more complex sense, a means of aiding the transformation of the institutional and social fabric of society. It is quite patently impossible to actualise decolonisation as a project of absolute removal (i.e. “deleting”) of racism from society and its institutions. This is because when one considers the complexity of racism (whether latent or manifest, thoughtless or deliberate), it is clear that it cannot be undone; it needs to be overcome instead. It is resident in both centralised and distributed forms within the fabric of society, and strongly informs memory and reproduction from both its centralised and consolidated structures, as well as its decentralised and distributed agents and micro-structures.

It cannot be ‘caught’, so to speak, and eliminated. It is an evolving, adapting phenomenon itself, and as such it requires a different, less reductionist approach. A sensitivity is required; an awareness. Indeed, a growth of consciousness of racism and its various latencies and manifestations that is required to outgrow racism by freeing up myriad small-scale adaptations to occur within society. In this understanding, simply hurling a slogan such as “check your privilege”, is hardly likely to engender the awareness that is required for racism to be self-diagnosed and grappled with at an individual or collective level. It cannot be eradicated through these means, it can only be controlled!

Neither can nation-building narratives serve as anything more than a means of orienting transformation efforts; they cannot serve as effective means for actualising transformation At worst, they places constraints on the modes of transformation e.g. through forgiveness, restitution, retribution, truth for amnesty, peace above conflict, and so forth. The emphasis should be on sowing the ‘seeds’ that enable transformative actions in society, and not on exerting undue control upon it.

The programme of cosmetic change, which has not and cannot address how the past manifests in the micro-interactions that characterise everyday life in South Africa, has hence eventually come to ring hollow, precisely because it is a top-down narrative that stifles acknowledgement and meaningful discussion, debate and dialogue . This narrative, effectively takes the power to resolve racist perspectives and actions out of the hands of ordinary people; and creates a false dichotomy between racism and non-racialism, that in reality is far more complex and inter-linked.

Rather, society will need to adapt and evolve its way beyond its racist condition. This is a far more complex challenge than can be addressed through simple prescriptions, or through shaming and recriminations. It requires freeing up the space for transformation in the public realm, and not exerting higher levels of control upon it.

The Control Paradigm versus the Evolutionary Paradigm
More freedom, rather than less, is the prescription that is being proposed here, so that new potentials and possibilities are created in the social fabric – for the purpose of transformation – and not less. Here, leadership can play a critical role, as the aim of leadership in such a context is to keep the space open long enough, and with adequate sensitivity, that the new can emerge in constructive, healing modes that can nurture change, rather than to bluntly enforce it. The leader as facilitator, can play a key role in the process of transformation and change, by providing principled guidance, but also allowing for innovative responses, interventions and disruptions to emerge, and to play a key role in allowing them to take on constructive transformative forms.

Whenever the impulse to exert control – or a set of controls – upon society are advanced, whether for worthy or unworthy causes (and whether “institutional” or “people-power”), it should be viewed with suspicion and considered with great care, for many societal prescriptions, while having virtuous intentions, inevitably turn to hypocrisy when they encounter the complexities of enforcing change in real societies.

When the claim to exert control over individuals and groups is made in society, with the reasoning that it serves the best interests of society, the imperative to demonstrate the virtue of control distracts from where power is being located in society i.e. in whose ‘hands’ power resides. Irrespective of its stated ends, such power often falters, and responds by entering into a state of denial and hypocrisy, and exerts ever greater controls upon society in order to actualise its intended virtues. It becomes a charade, where despite the failures of control, its imagined successes are vaunted and propagandised. Instead of less racism, it reproduces more, as it is driven underground, and festers unchallenged precisely because it is hidden.

The difference between facilitative and control-based leadership cannot be underestimated, especially in respect of dealing with societal transformations. It is tempting to lapse into a mode of reflection where exerting control appears to be a simpler, more linear path towards achieving social change. It is anything but. As history has shown, society needs to be coaxed at times, confronted at others, and nudged towards change through sensitive and insightful leadership. Control has its place, but it should be carefully measured and dealt out. All major transformations in society require time, good leadership and a fair amount of luck. Nothing is guaranteed; you either acknowledge that you are experimenting and learning along the way, or you create a false sense of security around your actions, and claim hollow victories, for the sake of continued possession of power. There are no quick fixes or prescriptions for social ills such as racism, aside from symptomatic treatments.

Race and Class in South Africa
Most importantly, however, the implications of a complexity-based perspective on racism as a phenomenon – one which acknowledges and embraces its duality – brings class back squarely into the debate on race (i.e. by considering exploitative racism as a product of deliberate intent). This is of critical importance in the post-colonial, post-Apartheid South African context, which has the highest inequality in the world, and where class is largely delineated along racial lines. It should come as no surprise that demands for racial equality are coupled with demands for “economic freedom”, restitution and land redistribution.

South Africa’s working classes and underclasses are predominantly black Africans, who have traditionally been excluded from both the social and economic spheres of power in South African society. They are excluded, not just in terms of class mobility; they are also spatially excluded, as neo-Apartheid spatiality has come to dominate the developmental landscape of South Africa. They live in spaces and places where services are often lacking; the law and police enforcement is considerably weaker (indeed, they often work against poor black people); informal systems of trade, service provision and employment characterise daily life; informal justice can take on scary dimensions as mob community killings of errant individuals is committed; and where xenophobic riots result in horrific deaths of foreign African migrants and refugees; and where service delivery protests and unrest characterise the realm of political protest.

Moreover, and consequently, class and racial identity cannot be easily separated in the South African context. In the post-colonial and post-Apartheid context, this relationship is inherited as almost fixed; and despite their actual economic condition most white South Africans are automatically awarded middle class or elite status in daily social interactions. The converse is true for black South Africans, who still negotiate middle class interactions with difficulty. The recent explosion of debates, protests and heated exchanges on social media has opened a Pandora’s Box of unresolved, simmering discontent with the status quo in South Africa. The rainbow nation narrative outlived its usefulness long ago. It was an important mechanism for negotiating the difficult transition to democracy peacefully, and maintain stability, but it has since become a serious and dangerous binding constraint on society’s ability to transform and transition to a wholly new, more desirable state where equality (in terms of race) is actualised in real terms, and can be experienced in the public realm as indisputably normative.

To conclude, a complexity based perspective on the phenomenon of racism, which draws on the duality that is core to the reproduction of racism (as argued in this piece), implies that racism is not a reversible condition i.e. the historical, direct causes of racism cannot be undone. Hence, aspirations to “decolonisation” (as used in popular discourse) cannot proceed simply on the basis of ‘righting’ the wrongs of the past, or through restitution and retribution (e.g. such as erasure of the symbols of history in the public realm). Tackling in racism in society requires that racism is recognised as an adaptive, evolutionary phenomenon in its own right, one that reproduces itself through a complex array of mechanisms and capacities in society. Programs of cosmetic change, in this regard are not full solutions to racism, and may well act against efforts to overcome racism in society.  

Considering racism as duality also ensures that both social and economic dimensions of racism are fully considered in generating leadership and institutional transformation strategies for overcoming racism. This ensures that class, as a critical factor in race relations, is not lost as a co-generative factor in the reproduction and intersectionality of racism. Moreover, it ensures that the folly and futility of exerting control-based paradigms as remedies for racism in society are recognised. Instead, opening up new avenues and possibilities for the evolution of society through creative, visionary, facilitative leadership is required i.e. leadership that is sensitive to the context within which racism arises and the specific dimensions (and/or attributes) racism takes on in that context.  

Lastly, in the South African, there is a need to acknowledge the specific conditions through which racism is produced and reproduced, and the history that has led to the prevalence of racism as a socio-economic condition. Moreover, there is a need to draw on intellectual contributions that are specific to its context, in the formulation of actions to tackle racism. In this respect, drawing on past thinkers such as Steve Biko and Rick Turner, as well as a plethora of contemporary thinkers such as Melissa Steyn, is essential for formulating context-based strategies for leadership and institutional transformation in South African society.  

***Note: This thought piece is not a formal academic paper, and is rather intended to provoke discussion and debate on how racism is diagnosed and addressed in society. It is, in many ways, a thought experiment, which draws on complexity theory based thinking to reconceptualise race as a phenomenon. It could probably benefit from further (and more in-depth) academic thought and analyses, but it is not the intention or motive of the author to generate a fully coherent theory of racism at this stage. Rather, it is an attempt to explore what may be achieved by applying complexity theory to a complex social phenomenon (i.e. racism), and to assess what additional and useful insights and contributions to the discourse may be obtained from that attempt.

[1] Where structuration refers to how structure is reproduced by the actions of individual agents (whose expectations in turn shape and are also shaped by structural constraints, norms etc.; see next footnote).
[2] Guess, 2006: “In Giddens, the duality of structure refers to the observation that actors are as much producers as they are also products of society’s structurations.” 
[3] Guess, T.J. (2006). The Social Construction of Whiteness: Racism by Intent, Racism by Consequence, Critical Sociology, Volum 32, Issue 4; online
·         [4] For with privilege theory thoughtlessness is treated as a cause, to be addressed in order to relieve the symptoms. This in itself is problematic as thoughtlessness is not as much a direct cause – as much as it hosts the potential to lead to a range of (often unpredictable) consequences.
[5] However, they do not govern its emergence in a strictly causal sense (i.e. as direct, linear causes of racism).
[6] These actions are generated from processes that navigate a central duality in its analysis of racism as a phenomenon, but they are not taken lightly.

Tuesday, 19 April 2016

Indigenising the Rainbow Nation: Justice or Utopian Folly?

“And so the real drama of revolutionary thought is revealed. In order to exist, man must rebel, but rebellion must respect the limits that it finds in itself – limits where minds meet, and in meeting, begin to exist. Revolutionary thought, therefore, cannot dispense with memory: it is in a perpetual state of tension. In contemplating the result of an act of rebellion, we shall have to say, each time, whether it remains faithful to its first noble promise or whether, through lassitude or folly, it forgets its purpose and plunges into a mire of tyranny or servitude.”
The Rebel, Albert Camus (emphasis added: bold)

Marginalised and impoverished youth in South Africa today face living in a post-Apartheid society that is characterised by a dominant middle class that has attempted to gloss over the enduring impacts and legacy effects of its Apartheid history and ‘sweep it under the table’. In turn, the ruling ex-liberation party – the ANC – has descended into fragmentation, corruption, self-interest and ignominy; and has lost the moral authority to provide visionary leadership. This has ensured that a disillusioned, fragmented and exclusive society still persists 21 years after the end of Apartheid. The ‘rainbow nation’ has lost its way, and finds itself devoid of a shared political vision.

Consequently, recent developments in the political spectrum in South Africa have elevated a new discursive niche to prominence. A program of indigenisation, masquerading as black consciousness, has come to dominate the politics of the marginalised black youth demographic. It has its roots in the emergence of two new radical ‘left’ political parties that seek to capture the urban youth demographic, who have been marginalised by deep racial inequalities, the failure of societal institutions to nurture and support them, as well as a dire lack of adequate basic service delivery.

When the Economic Freedom Fighter’s (EFFs) first came into existence, it touted a “Marxist-Lenninist-Fanonist” political ideology, sprinkled with black consciousness rhetoric. Later, however, the main founder of this ideology, Andile Mngxitama was unceremoniously ejected from the EFF’s ranks after being harassed and publicly humiliated (he was cornered and forced to remove his EFF shirt at a press conference). He has since formed his own political party, called Black First Land First, and now espouses a political ideology that purports to be a mixture of the ideas of Frantz Fanon and Thomas Sankara. Steve Biko’s ideas are also thrown into the mix here and there, along with the occasional Malcom X quote to boot.

In this new and emerging political ideological milieu, ideas are being mixed and matched with scant regard for their roots and premises, as well as the actual political examples that were set by latter day black consciousness leaders in Africa. Privilege theory, for example, is tactically deployed (even if theoretically incorrectly) in service of the development of this emerging political niche. To be fair, it is early days, and some room for experimentation is necessary when formulating a new politics.

Yet, even in black consciousness terms, the political ideology being espoused today presents a significant departure from historical understandings of black consciousness as a political and personal philosophy. In Steve Biko’s framing, for example, to be black was “not a matter of pigmentation” but “a reflection of a mental attitude”. Blackness, included all (non-white) oppressed peoples in South Africa. However, the boundaries of blackness have been revised to include only indigenous black South Africans. In this respect, it is not a true black consciousness movement, but is rather embarking on a programme of indigenisation i.e. the logical outcome of black consciousness is now seen as a programme of indigenisation. This flies in the face of the national project that the ‘new’ South Africa and the struggle against Apartheid, was based on, and which was central to the black consciousness movement of the 1970s in South Africa. According to Steve Biko,

“We see a completely non-racial society. We don’t believe, for instance, in the so-called guarantees for minority rights, because guaranteeing minority rights implies the recognition of portions of the community on a race basis. We believe that in our country there shall be no minority, there shall be no majority, just the people. And those people will have the same status before the law and they will have the same political rights before the law. So in a sense it will be a completely non-racial egalitarian society.”
Steve Biko, I Write What I Like, Interview with German TV

And so there is rightly, a fair amount of concern over what is emerging as an attractive revisionist political alternative for the youth of South Africa. It is questionable, given the historical context that the democratic South Africa has emerged from, whether indigenisation can play an effective role in consolidating the constitutional modern nation state that South Africa has become. Until now, the South African nation building project has been one that was mainly premised on building a national identity. While it has to be acknowledged that the manner in which this has been approached – i.e. primarily through the “rainbow nation” narrative – is in dispute, and that nationalism itself can prove to be a dangerous precondition for xenophobia and exclusion, it is undoubtedly a nationalist trajectory that post-Apartheid South Africa embarked upon.

In this, it has drawn on the leadership examples provided by visionary African leaders such as Julius Nyerere, to establish a national identity that rises above tribal, religious and other identity markers, and provides a sense of national unity that overcomes local and historical differences to hold together a geographical region that was bounded by colonial intervention. In a nationalist framework, once you are born in a country you are a full citizen and are native to it. Even a “settler” becomes a native through this project. In the long term, whether settler or native, everyone becomes part of the nation’s identity as a whole. That is, the nationalist framework focuses on the history of belonging.

In contrast, indigenisation projects are quasi race/history-based and implies diluting or doing away with nationalism and substituting it with indigeneity instead. That is, indigenisation focuses on the historical “right” to belonging instead. This right to belonging is also intimately tied up with the right to ownership, and this is the central mechanism through which colonial and post-colonial injustices are confronted and challenged.

In the nationalist framework of nation-building different accounts of how people come to constitute the historical mosaic that ascribes the national identity are validated. In contrast, indigenisation goes far beyond addressing historical imbalances and exploitation; it is – as a national philosophy – a program of exclusion. It is not about overcoming colonialism; it is about invalidating it altogether. That is, it attempts to “dispense with memory”; to eradicate memory in service of a utopian past.

One of the profound ironies of this approach is that the genuine ‘first peoples’ of South Africa (i.e. the San and Khoi San) get no mention and are still fighting to have their languages recognised. That is, a programme of selective indigenisation has emerged; one that selects an imagined memory for political expedience.

Yet indigenisation is not automatically fascist, especially in the postcolonial context. It is, however, more a reaction to the past, than it is an actionable framework to shape the future. Moreover, the presumption that a specific history exists, and is attached to us, purely by virtue of birth, is always a dangerous idea, precisely because it places a fantasy that explains every facet of our existence at the centre of it. The tyranny of indigeneity is not a mirage or an imaginary; it is a fact of 20th and 21st Century existence, as much as it was a fact of colonial existence. Indeed, indigeneity is also the backbone of settler identity, where settlers view themselves as transplants from cultures that they are long removed from. When indigeneity is invoked in contrast and in opposition to humanitarianism, it ceases to occupy the space of moral or principled action; instead, it becomes a vehicle for division and polarisation. No true struggle against oppression can escape the fact that it has a universal obligation to oppose all oppression, everywhere that it exists, and in whatever form. That is, to give itself up in service of the many, and not a group, a few or an individual.

Twenty one years into the post-Apartheid democratic dispensation, South African revolutionary politics is suffering from an identity crisis, which is perhaps best captured in the statement by Albert Camus quoted above. The emergence of new, radical ‘left’ politics suffers from a compulsion to eradicate history, rather than to overcome it. In a desperate effort to resurrect black identity (ironically, in a post-colonial context), a forgotten and imagined past is being resurrected. That is; an attempt to reinstate indigeneity at the heart of national politics is being conducted at the expense of memory.

There can be no healing without memory; no utopian project of indigenisation can undo the colonial and apartheid projects. Indigenisation cannot replace memory; it can only offer a utopian set of virtues (e.g. 'ubuntufication') that make hypocrites of those who attempt to locate themselves solely within its self-referential frame. We cannot imagine away the past; we have to live with it as it manifests in the present in order to overcome it. Utopian aspirations are commendable, but utopia can only exist as a pretence, and virtue can thus only be inhabited by hypocrisy. And so when hypocrisy becomes the norm, challenges to it are met with tyranny, for only tyranny can expunge all dissent, and make reality of artifice. Indeed, that is the purpose of tyranny; to subjugate all before a norm, irrespective of what it is.

A profound bifurcation has emerged in the political realm in South Africa, one that finds expression as a profound gap in intergenerational politics. The disillusioned, marginalised youth have adopted a philosophy of renewal that seeks to cleanse the public and political realm of its fraught past, rather than embrace it as definitive and irrevocably resident in the present; a fact of our existence that cannot be eradicated. At the same time, the ANC has become a mere shadow of itself as a former liberation organisation, succumbing to self-destructive party politics that loyally submits to the bureaucracy of internal processes, and concedes misplaced loyalty to a discredited leadership. The inescapable conclusion is that while the ANC seems to have been plunged into the mire of servitude, its radical left opposition appear to have been embarked upon the path to tyranny.


 ***Note that the opinion presented in this piece does not seek to deter from the many legitimate struggles of first and/or indigenous peoples, which has an important role to play in contemporary politics, but merely to point out the very apparent and potentially grave mistakes that are being made by invoking indigenisation as a politically and socially exclusionary ideology in the South African context.

Thursday, 7 April 2016

Zuma and the Decline of the Post-Concourt ANC

“The President thus failed to uphold, defend and respect the Constitution as the supreme law of the land. This failure is manifest from the substantial disregard for the remedial action taken against him by the Public Protector in terms of her constitutional powers.”
“President Zuma was duty-bound to, but did not, assist and protect the public protector so as to ensure her independence, impartiality, dignity and effectiveness by complying with her remedial action.”
Chief Justice Mogoeng Mogoeng, Constitutional Court Judgement on Nkandla

The ANC is currently in a threefold crisis. It is wracked by corruption, internal conflict, fragmentation, a loss of political leadership and direction, and is stuck with an immovable, paranoid executive. It is also increasingly the target of large scale societal discontent and is in danger of losing significant territory to an urban ‘protest vote’. Lastly, it is characterised by duplicitous loyalty, self-preservation, and a dire lack of accountability and transparency, which manifests mainly through a tendency to put the processes of the ANC before that of government and the state, and to treat ethical and constitutional matters as though they are subordinate to the logic of the ANC.

Hell No We Won’t Go!
The recent constitutional court judgement, which declared that the president of South Africa – Jacob Zuma – and the entire national assembly of parliament, had violated the constitution, acted illegally, and failed to protect the “dignity” of the public protector, was an historical landmark judgement in democratic South African history. The drama of the constitutional court judgement reading, delivered by chief justice Mogoeng Mogoeng, eclipsed even the events of Polokwane, even though both were equally significant events in South African political history in their times.

There was no mistaking what the constitutional court found. It delivered a damning indictment upon the abilities of the president to make decisions that are constitutionally sound, and of his majority ANC-led government to operate within the ambit of the constitution, and uphold its key tenets. This was not a wrap on the knuckles; this was expulsion from school altogether. It was a vote of no confidence in both the president and his majority ANC led parliament. It was an event that should, under normal circumstances, in a healthy democracy, lead to substantive changes in the body politic and government of a country. In the normal course of democratic action, the right an honourable thing to do would be for the president to resign, and for the national assembly to dissolve parliament and hold elections.

And so, the “top six” leaders of the ANC – including the president – met soon after the constitutional court judgement to “discuss” the matter. Predictably, they expressed their full support for the president. Soon afterward, the National Working Committee of the ANC met at a plush hotel in Cape Town to hold further discussions, and emerged professing reinforced support for the president.

The facetious and misleading response of the ANC leadership has been that the constitutional court did not ask for the president to be removed nor did it specifically state that he violated his oath of office. However, this is a thinly veiled ruse; the constitutional court cannot ask for the recall of the president (due to separation of powers), only parliament can decide on that.

The constitutional court judgement states that, “This imposition of an obligation specifically on the President still raises the question: which obligation specifically imposed by the Constitution on the President has he violated? Put differently, how did he fail to uphold, defend and respect the supreme law of the Republic?” It can hence reasonably be concluded that the judgement that he did indeed fail to “uphold, defend and respect” the constitution directly implies that he did violate the constitution, and his oath of office.

At the same time, the South African Communist Party (SACP) strongly criticised the president, in contrast to the Council for South African Trade Unions (COSATU) which professed its support for the president “at all costs”. Both are key members of the ruling alliance, yet while the SACP has grown in strength in recent years, COSATU has split dramatically, with its eight largest unions having departed from it last year. The tripartite alliance has never been more fragmented and discordant in its history

Moreover, mixed messages are emerging from both the ranks of the ANC, as well as its veteran leaders. Kgalema Motlanthe, Ahmed Kathrada, Dennis Goldberg, Ronnie Kasrils, Sheryl Carolus, Trevor Manuel and Zwelinzima Vavi have all called for the president to step down. The South African Council of Churches and other religious leaders have joined forces with some of the abovementioned leaders to establish a united civil society front that intends to take mass action to call for the president’s resignation.

After senior Umkhonto we Sizwe top level generals called for the president to step down, the South African National Defence Union also chimed in. The Gauteng chapter of the ANC has rebelled, calling for the president to step down, while the Sefako Makgatho branch in the Greater Johannesburg region has called for the president to step down, or face internal ANC disciplinary procedures that apply to all members equally.

It is not just the constitutional court findings that have placed pressure on the president and his leadership. The president’s bizarre comments regarding geography, economics and the rights of women, coupled with the Nkandla, Nenegate, the nuclear deal and the numerous Gupta scandals – as well as the blind, illegal defence of the president by his administration – have rattled the faith of many ANC loyalists.

Zuma’s handling of these recent affairs are a strong indication that his decision-making – when it comes to the affairs of the state – is not well formulated, while his handling of ANC and government top structures indicates that his decisions are well calculated; a wily attempt to secure loyalty amongst his government and state organisation(s) networks, and thereby to exercise control over the state. However, this loyalty has come at a grave cost to the ANC and the country, and the pressure on parliament and the ruling party has mounted to crisis proportions. The ANC, is at its most defiant, however, and ironically, this defiance has clearly precipitated its decline.

In the theory of the big bang, there are speculations as to how the universe will come to an end. Will it end with a bang, as it came into existence (i.e. a “bang-bang” universe)? Or will it be a “bang-whimper” universe, where it slowly and incrementally fizzles out of existence, its decline barely noticeable except to an observant few? The same question could be posed of the current ANC leadership, as the manner of the ANC’s decline will have significant and dire consequences for the country as a whole.

Our democracy’s dependence on the ANC, in all spheres of government and the state, as well as in the homes and communities of the voting majority, cannot be underestimated. The ANC has also come to be a central marker in the identity of the post-Apartheid South African voter, whether one loves or loathes them. In this sense, they have become indispensable to how to understand ourselves as a nation, as a body politic and our historical narrative is intimately tied up with it. So it is not insignificant or irrelevant what the manner of the ANC’s decline is.

Should the ANC go out with a bang, splitting from within and losing its majority as a result of rapid fragmentation and collapse (i.e. the departure of the SACP, COSATU and senior leaders within the ANC), it will leave a massive vacuum where the majority voter could thoughtlessly place their vote. A natural, automatic home for many would suddenly be bereft of the power to effectively act as a voice for the majority. There are many potential consequences of this, not least of which is the potential for increased frustration, anger, marginalisation and resentment in the public sphere, leading to political instability. The balance of power, if suddenly lost, can easily turn into a scary scenario for the country as a whole, as the question of who fills that vacuum and captures the public imagination most effectively in that vacuum, becomes relevant. Should it prove to be an angry, populist voice, it may precipitate a quick decline into paralysis and recrimination.

Should the ANC limp on, weakening incrementally but steadily over time, slowly dissipating in terms of power and electoral majority, there is a strong likelihood that the “eat first” philosophy will intensify as the ANC’s patronage networks make hay while the sun still ‘shines’. Indeed, should Jacob Zuma see out the rest of his term, his now discredited leadership will likely make every effort to profit off his lame duck presidency before it expires. If he is then replaced by a similar leader, along with a similar leadership who effectively copy-cat the precedent that he and his leadership have set (as it has proven itself to be a model that works effectively to capture power within the ANC, government and the state), then a process of erosion that ultimately degrades and renders defunct all our critical institutions will likely result. And when the damage is done over a long period of time it may prove difficult to undo.

Societal Discontent and the Protest Vote
Either scenario hosts significant potential risks and hazards; this is critical to remember in the current political climate in South Africa. To add to the confusion from within the ANC and the political domain, societal discontent is at an all-time high in South Africa. The memory of the Marikana massacre refuses to slip away quietly into history and subordinate itself to the liberation-party narrative that the ANC’s rhetoric so desperately depends on. Economic growth has stalled, unemployment (especially amongst the youth) has skyrocketed, and inequality is amongst the highest in the world. The rising costs of goods and services is bound to hit already stretched South African households very hard.

Dissatisfaction, and discontent with crippling state corruption that runs all the way from the very top to the bottom of the ANC, and failure to ensure basic service provision, has resulted in an extremely high number, rate and intensity of community-based public protests. These are commonly termed “service delivery protests” but they encapsulate a much broader set of dissatisfactions with the ANC led government.

In the lives of ordinary, everyday South Africans, corruption, maladministration and exploitation and nepotism has become an unavoidable and stark reality. Just recently, protests against the ANC’s appointment of its own choice of councillor, above that of the community’s (in Katlehong) led to full scale riots, with youth engaged in full stone-throwing battle with the police (which was met of course with buckshot and rubber bullets).

The protests are an indication of the levels of dissatisfaction that exists within the voter base of the ANC. It is worth remembering that dissatisfaction naturally seeks expression; it is a disturbance within an individual, community or organisation of people that becomes amplified when it is bottled, as it resonates more when it is trapped and bursts out dramatically when it finds an outlet. The number of ‘service delivery’ protests have steadily and unflaggingly risen to scary heights under the Zuma administration. It is only a matter of time before the protests on the streets find their way into the voting booths.

The lack of believable accountability, sends the message that the aim of attaining power in South Africa is to rise above the law itself, instead of subordinating to it in service of the people and in the interests of safeguarding and strengthening the key institutions of society. The problem with the trajectory that the ANC-led government is on (i.e. for its own sustainability) is that it progressively renders ordinary people powerless in the face of their government. As they increasingly feel forced to exercise their voice through channels of protest, rather than the formal channels that are available to them (because they are seen to be futile avenues for political expression and action), the more likely ordinary voters will be to choose to make a protest vote at the ballot box.

A vote away from the ANC used to be viewed as an exercise in futility. However, the political landscape is changing rapidly. One indication of this, is the high percentage of votes that the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) garnered in its very first election (i.e. around 6 per cent). They, being an illegitimate child of the ANC themselves, are symbolic of the extent of frustration – especially of the youth – with the futility of engaging power and taking political action through ANC structures. Until the former ANC Youth League leadership constituted the EFF, and entered the political sphere, it was common to assert that political life “outside the ANC” was doomed to disappointment.

The EFF has since managed to capture the public imagination at large – for better or for worse – and have undoubtedly energised the political sphere in a manner that all other opposition parties, until now, have failed to do so. They took the president to the constitutional court and won, and they did so dramatically, with the eyes of the public resting squarely upon them as they agitated for change through open confrontation in parliament and broke the yoke of inter-generational hierarchy in society and the political spectrum. As they increasingly demonstrate that life outside the ANC has become viable and significant two consequences become more likely; (1) more may be tempted to leave the ANC fold, and seek their political fortunes elsewhere, and (2) voters may become more emboldened to exercise their protest vote.

The notion of a significant protest vote emerging at the ballot in the next local election thus seems plausible. This is more the case precisely because it is not a national election. By casting a vote away from the ANC in the upcoming local elections in August, those wishing to make their dissatisfaction clear to the ANC can do so without incurring national consequences. There is a strong likelihood that some of the major metropoles, such as Johannesburg and the Nelson Mandela Metropolitan Municipality may exercise this protest vote in significant and telling numbers.

And if they do at the upcoming local elections, perhaps then the president will find himself bereft of support, especially as his tenure as an outgoing president is effectively a lame duck one, and those seeking to secure their positions within the next administration would have to make their moves now in order to guarantee their political currency does not expire with his presidency.

After all, there is a new leadership on its way, and that is what many political actors within the ANC will be setting their sights on. If association with Zuma discounts them from the possibility of holding public office in future, they will ditch him as quickly as he ditches those that become expendable to him. Of that there should be little doubt by now; many in the ANC operate in an atmosphere of fear and denial, mouthing platitudes and routine statements of loyalty to stay within the fold of the ruling elite, and are ultra-cautious about being ‘stabbed in the back’ or having their skeletons exposed.

It is a game of high stakes and the survivalist instincts of many that were kicked into gear a long time ago. That is why it is so difficult to find anybody from within the ranks of the current ruling elite who are willing to speak out against clearly gross violations and abuses of power. They will be watching, waiting and calculating in an effort to guess which way the dice will fall, so that they can survive the end of the Zuma administration with their political careers intact. When the president makes decisions that provoke a backlash, they get the opportunity to exhibit their fierce loyalty to the ANC through him, making them perfect candidates for continued service should he eventually be replaced by a similar leader after the next national election.

Survival Tactics: Bluff and Bluster
This begs the question; what is required for survival within the troubled ranks of the ANC leadership these days? Their loyalty and defensive tactics are not complex. It involves toeing the party line, and raising the internal processes of the ANC up above all other processes; making the pretence that it is normal that these processes should take precedence over that of government and the state. A similar ruse was conducted when parliament attempted to supplant the findings of the public protector by conducting its own internal inquiry into the Nkandla matter, effectively leaving it in the hands of the ANC to pronounce judgement on its leader(s) and thereby itself.

Even though the constitutional court found that the president and the national assembly had violated the constitution and failed to protect the “dignity” of the public protector, the speaker of Parliament Baleka Mbete feigned confusion when asked whether the national assembly would apologise to the public protector. ‘Apologise for what?’ was the essence of her response. Her compatriot presiding officer, Thandi Modise (NCOP chairperson), denied that the constitution had been violated, stating instead that previous court judgements had given them the impression that the findings and recommendations of the public protector could be revised by parliament, and thanked the constitutional court for clearing the matter up.

The ANC and its leaders in government have treated the searing judgement of the constitutional court as a mere procedural, bureaucratic exercise. In truth the judgement was anything but a lenient or perfunctory one; it effectively found that the national assembly and the president had failed in their constitutional mandate, and had thereby engaged in the worst form of illegality that parliament can be accused of. This constant “rewriting” of judgements and findings, however, appears to have no end when they are hijacked by processes that the ANC have majority control and power over.

More troubling is that should the president and the ANC-dominated national assembly face no serious consequences for violating the constitution, future leaders will be emboldened and will treat the constitution lightly, making it more likely that the Nkandla affair will not be the last successful assault on the constitution but the first. Viewed in this light, it is not “state capture” that is most troubling for the future of South Africa, but rather the capture of the ANC itself.

President Jacob Zuma’s hold over the key leadership structures of the ANC is undoubtedly strong, and they are in large part loyal to his leadership (and indeed were selected to be so). He himself is not an authoritarian, but as a self-regulating system, the network of patronage around him wields authoritarian power over government and the state. It is because only with guaranteed loyalty, whether through fear or favour, can such power be so thoroughly omnipotent as to sabotage every attempt to hold him accountable.

The president therefore cannot be held to account through direct confrontation from within the ANC or inside parliament. The only direct confrontation that can stir the president into action is if mass public protest literally converges upon the doorsteps of power, as the #FeesMustFall student protesters demonstrated last year.

Effectively, the only option for Zuma’s removal that presents itself in the absence of a mass uprising or defeat at the polls, is to wait for the president to implode the power of his own standing and his office by himself, precisely by allowing him to make his own decisions, and to script his own responses. In the final analysis, it is more likely that it will be the very politics of survival that Zuma has so skilfully exhibited and entrenched within the fabric of the ruling elite in the ANC that will ultimately prove to be his undoing. For it is no doubt true, that morally bankrupt leaders are often undone by the moral bankruptcy of their partners in crime. The old adage that there is no honour amongst thieves, is an eternal truth that bears remembering in the times we live in.

The precedent that the ANC has set under the Zuma leadership, and what the impact of that will be in the long term, is perhaps of more concern than anything else; more of the same will destroy our democracy. After what people sacrificed for it, there shouldn’t even be a question about what is right and what is wrong. And the ANC, above all, should not need to be dragged kicking and screaming all the way to the constitutional court to know the difference. It is the one party in South Africa with unprecedented historical moral authority in the political sphere, and should be setting and upholding the standards of our body politic and our democracy.