By Richard Pithouse
March 01, 2010
In recent days it has been revealed that Nonkululeko Mhlongo, mother of two of Jacob Zuma’s children, has a multi-million rand contract to provide catering services to the KwaZulu-Natal legislature. And Zweli Mkhize’s wife and daughter have just secured a R3 million rand tender from the Department of Correctional Services. This sort of thing has been going on for years and cannot be ascribed to a few problematic individuals. On the contrary in cases like the arms deal and Valli Moosa’s double dealing between Eskom and the ANC fund raising committee, the organisation as a whole has been deeply compromised. It has also been collectively compromised by the systemic failure to take a clear position against individuals involved in dubious practices.
It may be true that the fish rots from the head but it is essential that we understand that the degeneration of the ANC is not just a question of the increasing power of a predatory elite within the party. Empowerment used to be imagined as a collective and political project that could transform society from below. It is now understood, at all levels of the party, as a matter of personal incorporation into the minority that is able to profit from our increasingly unequal society. This process does go some way towards the deracialisation of domination but there’s not much ground for social hope if that’s the limit of our aspirations.
The ANC has abandoned the language of social justice for the fantasy of a post-political language of ‘delivery’. This language assumes that the state only has to meet people’s most basic needs for survival and that this is a simple question of technical efficiency. The first problem with the language of delivery is that delivery itself is often a strategy for containing popular aspirations rather than a strategy for achieving universal human flourishing. Dumping people in ‘housing opportunities’ in peripheral ghettos where there is very little hope for much more than a child support grant and the possibility of a short term ‘job opportunity’ might keep them from blockading a major road but its only development in the most perverse sense of the term.
The second problem is that the fantasy of development as a post-political question of government working faster, harder and smarter fails to engage with the deeply political realities that shape any attempt at development. Political decisions have to be taken on questions like whether or not the social value of land and services should come before their commercial value. When the politics of these questions is not addressed ‘service delivery’ can only be ‘rolled out’ in the margins of society with the result that it itself becomes a process of active marginalisation.
But the inevitably political nature of development is not just about the competing interests of the poor on one side and the rich and corporate power on the other. There is also a politics that plays out between people on the ground and local party elites. Time and again officials, often trying to follow directives from senior politicians in good faith, find that their attempts to implement technocratic development are captured by local party elites and appropriated and redirected for their own purposes. This is not always a case of simple plunder. Often the allocation of housing and services, as well as all the contracts that go with this process, is subsumed into the systems of clientalism and patronage by which the ANC often cements political support within the party at the local level. In many cases development projects justified in the name of meeting the needs of the people become projects that are primarily orientated towards cementing alliances within the micro-local structures of the party. Its ward committees and local Branch Executive Committees are populated by a multitude of mini-Malemas.
In Fanon’s analysis there is, inevitably, an authoritarian underside that accompanies the degeneration of the party into a ‘means of private advancement’. He writes that the party ‘helps the government to hold the people down. It becomes more and more clearly anti-democratic, an implement of coercion.’ A party that says and that must continue to say that is for the people when in fact it has become a means of private advancement via complicity with domination will inevitably collapse into paranoia and authoritarianism as it tries to square the circle by pretending, to itself as much as anyone else, that private enrichment is somehow the real fruit of national liberation.
In contemporary South Africa it is not at all unusual to find that people live in fear of local councillors and their ward committees and Branch Executive Committees. In fact it is no exaggeration to say that we have developed a two tier political system with liberal political rights for the middle classes and increasingly severe curtailment of basic political rights for the poor.
Poor people’s movements have long been subject to unlawful and violent repression carried out with impunity by local political elites. But as these practices become normalised they are carried out ever more brazenly. The enthusiastic support from key figures in the local and provincial ANC for the attacks on Abahlali baseMjondolo in Durban in September last year stand as one of the lowest points to which the ANC has yet descended in post-apartheid South Africa. But the fate of Chumani Maxwele, the Cape Town jogger on whom the full and at times lunatic paranoia of the ANC descended last week, has done more than any other event to reveal to a wider public the paranoid authoritarianism that is deeply entrenched within the ANC.
Of course there are people and strands within the party that are opposed to the way in which it has become another predatory excrescence on society. But the ANC no longer has any real political vision and is deeply and often violently suspicious of any real politics that emerges from below - be it from within or outside of the party. It can issue statements against corruption but the fact is that the political machine by which it is elected is built on systemic patronage, clientalism and corruption. It cannot oppose any of this without fundamentally opposing what it has become. And it’s not at all clear if there is any real prospect for the organisation to develop a meaningful political vision with which it can mobilise itself against itself – against what the National Union of Metalworkers has called the ‘marauding gang’ that has compromised the ANC at every level. If the task of posing an alternative political vision can be still be taken up effectively it may well fall to those unions, poor people’s movements and churches that have already become the conscience of our society.