An acute deficiency in generosity

Some journalism and "analysis" about postapartheid South Africa by outsiders amounts to hysteria dressed up as analyses.

President Jacob Zuma with Premier of Mpumalanga David Mabuza in Bushbuckridge, Mpumalanga (GovermentZA, via Flickr CC).

In one of the oddest welcomes to the new year, Eurasia Group included South Africa as one of ten entries on a list of “Top Risks for 2012.” Other entries included North Korea, Pakistan and Venezuela. On Al Jazeera English’s program “Counting the Cost,” during an interview with 2 representatives of Eurasia, risk no.9 became “South Africa (ANC).”

The same kind of hysterical sentiment (because it is not analysis) informs media coverage of the ANC’s one hundredth anniversary celebrations this past weekend. From the media you’d get the impression that the party’s celebrations were being held to an empty stadium (with only Jacob Zuma and Julius Malema present) and that the ANC’s support (largely grassroots) had deserted it. Instead we know, as the New York Times had to point out, that “tens of thousands” filled a stadium in the Free State provincial capital Manguang. Elsewhere we learn that millions watched it live on TV. A quick scan of the hashtag #ANC100 on Twitter suggest most people who watched or talked about the celebrations got the significance of the date and the achievement as well as the ANC’s continued pull in South Africa. So did people’s status updates on Facebook. They know the ANC is not just Malema and Zuma.

Anyway, as Jonathan Faull has written here, reporting on South Africa basically amounts to parachute journalism. But even media outlets that should know better, like The Guardian, can’t help themselves.

At best these media depictions or analyses express an acute deficiency in generosity. A little worse is the ignorant display of history. But the most irritating for me of specially the (UK) Guardian’s pre-ANC centenary commentary is the inability to reposition their lens from caricatures of African political life.

As usual, according to this narrative reflex, African politics is bound to disappoint. The coverage of the centenary celebrations defaults to the tired clichés of African liberation movements’ consistent decline into authoritarianism. It’s not only a lazy and boring analytical frame, but it’s damaging to posterity too.

In one article, the usually incisive Alistair Sparks is quoted bemoaning the “airbrushing out of history” – that fashionably over-used critique of communist totalitarianism popularized by Milan Kundera – of important liberation or opposition figures to Apartheid who were independent of the ANC. In particular, Sparks laments the fact that there are no streets named after Desmond Tutu or Helen Suzman, but plenty after ANC stalwarts.

But the thing is, to take the case of Tutu first, the national policy framework for naming of places and streets, which trickles down into municipal naming practices suggests that the living should not be memorialized. No-one would be breaking the law naming a park after a living person, but the principle attempts to encourage a thoughtful transformation of the memorial landscape of the country and an anti-authoritarian one at that.

In many respects, the ANC has extracted much of the political content out of its post-Apartheid memorial practices and has bureaucratized the processes of memorializing the past in much the same way that neo-liberal states trade politics for technocratic procedure or rather, trade on a politics of technocracy. The Johannesburg Municipality had in fact wanted to rename an important thoroughfare in Houghton, the suburb where Nelson Mandela has a home and was the long-standing constituency of Helen Suzman. It was proposed that the street be named “Helen Suzman Drive” (when Suzman was still with us). But she objected. Perhaps on the basis of principle. Perhaps in the knowledge that her name could come to mean something other than what it means today on the basis of its association with a street (such as potholes or road accidents). But whatever her logic, the sentiment to honour her through a street name was there. (Suzman passed away in 2009.)

The one living person who has official and substantial recognition throughout the country is Nelson Mandela. As he does in the international milieu, at home Mandela seems to stand above politics, much to his own consternation, and remains the one figure around which all political persuasions can rally. Indeed, there have been numerous discursive battles in the last number of years over which political entity is continuous with his legacy. The parliamentary opposition Democratic Alliance often claims that the ANC today is anathema to the generation of Mandela and, instead, it occupies the position of principled leadership that rhymes with the ANC’s ‘golden age’. If we were to talk about airbrushing history, this would have to be it.

The ANC’s hegemonic ambitions have not, for the past 18 years of democracy at least, been transfixed with the molding of public memory around anything more substantial than the nebulous notion of promoting ‘social cohesion’. If anything, the ANC pays too little attention to history. In some ways, it is because it takes history for granted and takes to heart the revolutionary’s logic that “history is on our side”. But we know too that history’s battles are not just material — they play out on the field of discourse and narratives.  It is in this sphere where the ANC has dropped the proverbial ball. Not only has the commemorative domain been largely privatized in South Africa, but the ANC has left much of the artillery of colonial memorialization intact.

The ANC-led municipality in the country’s capital city has been attempting to change the city’s name and its streets since 2000 and has been met with virulent protest that has paralyzed its endeavor. The technocratic proceduralism that informs the transformative agenda has locked the municipality in court battle after court battle designed to retain the status quo. The new country’s capital city has thus far kept the name, Pretoria, a memorial to the Boer general and colonizer, Andries Pretorius. And it’s not that the name change itself was offering a revolutionary break. The municipality within which the capital city is located has been named, Tshwane. Tshwane was a pre-colonial traditional leader who is remembered in oral narratives of local residents, but whose existence is called into question by archival historians. Nevermind the historical debates, the elevation and vivification of Tshwane hardly articulates a ruling party bent on populating the landscape with its dead heroes. The only new ‘political’ street-name in the capital city is Nelson Mandela Drive (or Nelson Mandela Rylaan in Afrikaans). Although largely embraced by all, some mischievous right-wingers recently spray-painted out the ‘Nelson Man’ on street-signs leaving ‘delarylaan’ (translated as Delarey Avenue) alluding to a heroic figure in Afrikaner nationalist historiography.

This statement that the ANC’s attention to history has been anemic at best, should not be confused as a call for nationalist authoring of a universalist narrative. But it is a call for not forgetting the relationship between capitalism and apartheid. It is an appeal to remember how they have colluded to produce a society that remains doggedly inequitable, an inequity that is racialized and gendered, in the absence of which these injustices continue to be naturalized, with black and female impoverishment but the sad face of nature’s state.

Besides for ‘airbrushing’ people out of history, another peculiar Guardian story is headlined thus: “ANC celebrates its centenary trading on past glories”. It is rather an odd headline since it suggests that this is somehow not the obvious thing for a 100 year old entity to do–celebrate its past 100 years. It is also suggestive of a cynical organization that is no longer glorious and can only trade on its past to retain its legitimacy. That may be so, but left under-analyzed it assumes its own nostalgic prism of a past once unsullied subjugated to the political needs of a corrupted present.  But let’s try and give credit where credit is due: this ANC is no fly-by-night entity. It has withstood the test of time. It has stood principled in the face of deep repression while pragmatically altering its course to respond to increasing suppression. It formed a broad-based opposition that ultimately overthrew a seemingly intractable militarized racist state. It built its opposition on multiple pillars of struggle that did not rely on militarization alone. It is an organization that has overwhelming electoral support and has ensured that no president has overstayed his constitutional welcome (there have been four in almost 18 years of ANC rule). No doubt the ANC historically and contemporaneously has numerous and deep weaknesses and fault-lines, and we should not lose sight of those. But on its 100th anniversary, let’s find it in ourselves to salute this institution of anti-colonial liberation. It has been the ANC, after all, that over 100 years, has nurtured a unity in the once assumed unimaginable community that is contemporary South Africa.

* On Eurasia’s “top risks of 2012,” a friend who knows a thing for two about risk analysis asked: “I guess they have to pander to the size of markets vis-a-vis the relevance of, and what constitutes “risk” (risk for whom?). I would have put the upcoming Zimbabwe election, Sudan and South Sudan’s teetering peace and economies, Cote d’Ivoire, and the post-eelections situation in the DRC all above the palace intrigue of the ANC.  Other obvious ones would include the prospects for terrorism/instability in Kenya (2012 election there too), the famine in the Horn and the Sahel, and ongoing sectarian violence in Nigeria.” Another opined: “… I think they needed a sub-Saharan story somewhere. I don’t disagree with the risks they cite, but they blow them out of proportion when casting them against the global risk landscape (ranking alongside Egypt and Venezuela?!). It also ignores the good news out of South Africa (tiny budget deficit compared to OECD), courts/statutory bodies asserting their influence, etc. Things are definitely far from perfect, but the South Africa narrative has become one of a singular focus on all things ANC … it just gets a little tiresome.”

Further Reading

Goodbye, Piassa

The demolition of an historic district in Addis Ababa shows a central contradiction of modernization: the desire to improve the country while devaluing its people and culture.

And do not hinder them

We hardly think of children as agents of change. At the height of 1980s apartheid repression in South Africa, a group of activists did and gave them the tool of print.

The new antisemitism?

Stripped of its veneer of nuance, Noah Feldman’s essay in ‘Time’ is another attempt to silence opponents of the Israeli state by smearing them as anti-Jewish racists.