Waiting for Superman

The idea that leadership is the panacea to South Africa's varied troubles, is asserted as an almost axiomatic truth amongst South Africa's monotonous punditry.

The ANC headquarters, Luthulu House, in downtown Johannesburg. Image: Paul Saad, via Flickr CC.

South Africa’s Mail & Guardian reported a few days ago that the secretary of Shabir Shaik (the Jacob Zuma associate convicted of fraud) once testified in court that her boss “has to carry a jar of Vaseline because he gets fucked all the time (by politicians), but that’s okay because he gets what he wants and they get what they want.

If South Africa is going to escape its current social malaise, we heed Shaik’s prudent advise and cease waiting to be violated by our political class (with the help of capital). The idea that leadership is the panacea to South Africa’s varied troubles, is asserted as an almost axiomatic truth amongst South Africa’s monotonous punditry. If only we had responsible, efficient, dedicated and competent leadership we would be on the road to economic growth and the subsequent real transformation derived from an increase in GDP. This fantasy is expressed in various forms from the consistent growth of the Nelson Mandela cult (see the recent op-ed by former New York Times editor Bill Keller’s about South Africa; he ended by proposing Mamphela Ramphele for South African President) to the opposition Democratic Alliance’s vaunted Cape Town model, to — a recent entry into the nation — the debate of the so-called ‘Lula Moment.’

This vapid bullshit deserves to be condemned to the same grave of irrelevance as Tony Leon (remember “Take Back”), Herman Cain and Ja Rule. I say this not only because it is bullshit, but because it is dangerous bullshit. It promotes a depoliticized technocratic vision of social change which is meshed with a contradictory worship of politics as a game of big men and the occasional woman. Real talk: If South Africa’s president wasn’t principally concerned with increasing the size of his family and avoiding jail, he wouldn’t make too much a dent in terms of shifting South Africa towards a more equitable and humane society.

The key concepts missing from this discussion are structural power and collective agency. In this a misleading narrative of the apartheid story has come to dominate, namely that of bad people in the form of the National Party (who almost nobody admits to voting for) and of a messianic ANC descending from the heavens to rescue the nation personified in a beatified Mandela. Lacking is a continuous discussion of the nature of the link between apartheid and the form of South African capitalism and the persistence of such awkward features as structural unemployment and an economy sagging under the weight of exploitative monopolies.

Also absent is the collective agency of millions expressed by millions of South Africans in the struggle against apartheid, from individual acts of defiance to the growth of genuine mass movements in the form of the resurrected UDF (United Democratic Front which dominated internal resistance throughout the 1980s) the black trade union of movements, both containing a culture of mass participatory democracy. Ideas of collective leadership and participatory structures which emerged particularly in the 1980s have been subsumed in the search for technical solutions among experts and calls for ‘leadership’.

The language used to describe people has even shifted from ‘citizen’ — an enabling term which has its roots in an idea of democracy being an expression of the will of the people — to the more placid and dull ‘stakeholder’ — with roots in the lexicon of corporate management. Stakeholders wait for services, citizens demand their rights. Citizens participate in the running of the country, stakeholders merely have some stake in it.

Where has this shift from citizen to stakeholder left us? It has left us in the position of waiting passively for some leader to descend from the heavens, solutions in the bag ready to change South African society through implementing technical solutions to the problems of poverty and inequality. In effect it is encouraging a culture of political apathy and a passive population. What this perversely does is in effect encourage incompetent and corrupt leadership. If leaders don’t face the pressure of a political active and engaged citizenry, they are unlikely to seriously challenge the policy status quo which 18 years into our ‘democratic experiment’ leaves the majority in the rut. Furthermore if leaders are not terrified of their citizen’s anger they can get away with looting the trough with encouragement from the private sector.

It seems like the build up to the ANC’s elective conference at Mangaung has been going on for years, millions of words have been written about the clash of the titans finally underway this week: Jacob Zuma vs Kgalema Mothlanthe, Zuma vs Julius Malema, Mothlanthe vs Cyril Ramaphosa and numerous other political battles. Despite the insistence of those within the ANC that a conference is also about policy direction, it has been mostly viewed (and rightly so) as a clash between competing factions seeking to protect their access to power and resources rather than presenting significant ideological or political differences.

If the ANC’s last conference at Polokwane was anything to go by, even if the majority of ANC delegates push through a policy agenda of pro-poor and working class policies, not much will change at all. In the years since that landmark conference in which Zuma came to power on the back of mass support from the SACP and COSATU — the force of the official left — we’ve had Marikana. The majority of South Africans saw little change in terms of their material conditions or ability to hold the government accountable and, in my view at least, the prospects for an actual implementation of the Polokwane resolutions or a new set of pro-working class policies have become even worse.

Instead we have a corrupt and venal political class who have deformed much of the ANC. The ANC, particularly at a branch level, has degenerated into a network for patronage. ANC members are murdered by other ANC members in order to secure one individual or factions access to the particular set of benefits and resources which can be gained from a position in the party or local government. And when people are desperate the fighting gets worse.

Let’s also not forget the price-fixing, monopolistic practices and sheer criminality that passes for normality in the private sector. One need only look at one’s cellphone rates (the highest in the world), one’s banking rates (the highest in the world), the appalling work conditions in say the mining sector or the agricultural sector, or how our corporate leaders siphon off billions to offshore accounts to see that corruption is not confined to politicians.

And the Democratic Alliance of Helen Zille? Far from offering a model of efficiency, accountability and good governance which they trumpet as the ‘Cape Town model,’ they offer nothing more than a party committed to the protection of existing class and racial privileges (basically white privilege), hostile to organized labor and the poor and almost entirely committed to whoring out the country to foreign capital. The safe and allegedly cosmopolitan city center exists side by side with the concentration camp of Blikkiesdorp and much of the Cape Flats. The dirty secret of Cape Town is that it is the most violent city in South Africa, despite the notorious reputation of Johannesburg.

Rather than waiting for a new Mandela to descend and redeem us or for unaccountable technocrats to provide solutions, we should invest instead in building movements capable of putting the heat on our ruling class and building social change from the bottom up. In this we should take inspiration from the wildcat strikes that swept the country earlier this year, we should well do it ourselves instead of outsourcing the responsibility for social change.

Further Reading

Just Us for Palestine

Africa Is a Country is proud to present a partnership with the popular South African podcast Just Us Under a Tree. On this episode, the Just Us crew analyze South Africa’s case against Israel at the ICJ.