Hein Marais assesses last week’s election results in South Africa:
The election outcome presents the ANC with little more than temporary respite. Disgruntlement and community protests will continue, and the party’s authority will be tested, not least by its own supporters.
These are not teething problems. They are anchored in deeper economic and social crises that date back to the 1970s, and which the ANC government has not yet been able to resolve. It has worked to improve the lives of the black majority, yet close to half the population lives in poverty; jobs are scarce, the country is more unequal than ever, and insecurity is rife.
These realities will keep generating insubordination and eventually will spark instability. With the scope for material change seemingly cramped, other ways of bolstering authority and building consent have to be found.
One tried and trusted way of defusing uproar is to affirm and valorise bonds that can muffle discord, or channel it in diversionary, more manageable directions.
Exclusionary interpretations of belonging, entitlement and rights might soon prove to be politically rewarding – even, or perhaps especially, in a society that was split asunder by apartheid.
There is a real danger of a recourse to rousing affirmations of identity and entitlement, and to populist discourses of authenticity – who is a “real” South African, who is a “real” African, who is black, what is a man, and where women fit into all this.
These manoeuvres might be accompanied by ever more “narrow and exacting” interpretations of culture and tradition. Antipathy toward the “alien luxuries” of liberal constitutionalism might gain support; indeed, heartfelt misgivings about “hollow rights” and a “paper constitution” already circulate.
Left unchallenged, this might well develop into a form of populist nationalism. Some in the ANC seem willing to risk such an experiment, in which social conservatism can be combined with licence for acquisitiveness and immoderation, with targeted largesse serving as a lubricant. Some recognise in the Julius Malema spectacle the prototype of such a “project”.
The outcomes are difficult to predict. No doubt such moves will be hotly contested, from both inside and outside the ANC. But it would be foolish to assume a progressive outcome.
Too many coarse tendencies and brazen interests now rub shoulders with power.
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