It isn’t easy to destroy things which the overwhelming majority wants to preserve. You can set fire to the Reichstag, but there’s always a chance that someone will rebuild it; you can slash a painting, but even if it is irreparable, someone will paint another painting. Destroying democracy, destroying art, destroying hope — this is difficult. It takes time to prepare it. First you have to make sure that the majority is powerless by securing all power for a minority; then you have to persuade a big chunk of that minority that it will gain from the destruction, then you have to sideline, silence or intimidate the rest of that minority. Even then, when you go ahead with the destruction, you must be careful to proclaim that you are merely clearing space for the triumphant creation of a New Jerusalem which everyone who experiences will praise and delight in.
What is being destroyed, in this case, is the developmental state adopted by the ANC in the early 1990s, the democratic consciousness of such developmentalism evolved in South African political struggle from the late 1970s, and the hope that someone might save us from the catastrophes into which colonialism, apartheid and neoliberal neocolonialism have plunged us. It is tricky. Outside the white community, very few South Africans have openly called for these things to be done. Instead, these actions are introduced by stealth, and with great care and caution, until they are implemented fully and hailed as the solution to all our problems.
The latest example of this process is the 300-page prologomena to a proposal for a memorandum of understanding regarding the possible development of a National Plan at some stage which has been issued to tremendous official acclaim by the Minister of Planning. It isn’t exactly an impressive document; it’s rather a 100,000-word truism, like being trapped in a lift with the most boring person you’ve ever met who won’t shut up for five hours straight.
But, on closer inspection, the truism is not innocent, either. The line coming down from the National Planning Commission is that we have all got to accept that the government cannot necessarily do anything for us. We need to do things for ourselves. Yes, we have all been sitting here, doing nothing, waiting for the government to do things for us. It is easy to remember how we were doing that under apartheid. Now we must cast this process aside and stand up for ourselves and do things for ourselves. We must create our own jobs, we must build our own houses, we must apparently do our own policing and our own healing and educating. The fact that we don’t know how to do these things, don’t have the resources to do these things, and in any case, that we pay taxes so that the government will do these things (and the government is not proposing to remit those taxes in exchange for us taking over the erstwhile work of the government) is trivial, unimportant.
What makes it unimportant is that the planners of the government are proclaiming that the government, ideally, shouldn’t do anything; therefore, incapacity doesn’t matter, weakness and helplessness don’t matter, the only thing that matters is that the government should not waste money on helping the people, who must help themselves. Whose money must they not waste? The money of the people who do not wish to pay taxes, that’s who. So, ultimately, what is going on is serving the interests of the rich against the poor.
No surprise there? No, no surprise. However, in the past people pretended to care about these things. Conditions have been so improved for the ruling class that their agents no longer need feel hampered by human feelings or compassion of any kind.
What actual “development” is envisaged by the Zuma administration? Electricity, certainly. Vast power plants built at great expense to pour carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, and vast power plants built at still greater expense to pour radioactivity into the soil (one hopes, not into the atmosphere, although we can never be certain of that). Healthcare — vast amounts of money to be spent on sending a minority of the poor to rich hospitals. Transport — vast amounts of money to be spent on superhighways built by large construction companies, financed by electronic tollbooths whose proceeds go to multinational corporations.
Of course one needs electricity and healthcare and transport, but all these things could be acquired in a developmental way — a way which promotes domestic employment and investment and does not cost so much foreign currency. So, in a sense, these things are being provided in an anti-developmental way. Why the Zuma administration has chosen to do things in this way is unnerving.
There are, however, signs of worse to come. An important issue is the Ministry of Human Settlement, which used to be Housing, which used to provide houses for the poor. Now, this Ministry has allowed the immense backlog of public housing to expand, because it has openly declared that it is no longer concerned with providing such housing. (Indeed, it has said that it is more concerned with mending the houses which have already been built, although it is not clear that this is actually happening — as with most Zuma administration declarations, this seems to be chiefly a publicity stunt.) Instead, the Ministry of Human Settlements says that henceforth people should attempt to acquire their own houses, with assistance from the private sector. Meanwhile, Human Settlements will supposedly devote a great deal of attention to providing service for informal settlements, although this does not seem to be actually happening.
The problem here is that the original RDP houses were supposed to be start-up houses for people who couldn’t afford their own houses. They were “matchboxes”, not because the ANC thought that people should live in matchboxes, but because they were supposed to be the core of bigger structures which people could build for themselves once they had somewhere stable to dwell. What Human Settlements is saying, therefore, is that the state will no longer provide this assistance — will no longer encourage people to live in better houses. So although the plan is being sold as a promotion of self-help (and an explicit attack on the previous promotion of self-help as being, supposedly, a handout which would promote dependence) it is actually an attack on the poor. Needless to say, the Left is saying absolutely nothing about this, because the person chiefly responsible for this project is a billionaire property-developing Leftist.
Unfortunately, there’s more. President Zuma has declared that the people need to take charge of their lives and stop expecting the government to do things for them. Then he went to Cannes and, addressing a business forum, declared that he was strongly opposed to protectionism (that is, to the economic policy which enables economies to grow rapidly and develop new industries). Various Ministers have echoed these sentiments, fundamentally saying that everybody needs to become entrepreneurs, under the most unfavourable business conditions imaginable, and that the government is not going to do anything at all to make these business conditions better. Communities must look after themselves, says the Minister of Planning, working through such developmental agencies as churches and sports clubs.
All this has not yet been wholly translated into policy, but the point is that Cabinet Ministers and the President and the Deputy President are all sounding off in a vein which nobody dared to open under Mandela, and which, under Mbeki, was essentially confined to the white-controlled press and business community. Effectively, they are attacking the notion of the developmental state, saying instead that people can go and develop themselves if they want any development. (This, so soon after they espoused the verbal concept of developmentalism, copying Mbeki’s born-again developmentalism which followed the end of GEAR.)
Of course, the concept of developmentalism is itself a bit suspect. The idea that the state, as separated from the people, can or should provide what the people want is an absurdity, and is often the process through which developmentalism becomes pure ruling-class control. But at the same time, the democratic state has a responsibility to provide the people with what they want, or to make it possible for the people to obtain what they want. Zuma and his merry men are repudiating this contract, not because they genuinely don’t believe that the state could do this if it were prepared to. They are repudiating the contract to discourage their audience from believing that the state can help them, because they want the state to help someone else — namely, the people who benefit from the exorbitant projects which Zuma and company are imposing on South Africa.
This is not really any different from the kind of state which evolved in the West — the Anglo-American model of do-nothing regime. But since this is happening courtesy of the ANC, it means that South Africa’s people are now being told that their liberation was for nothing, that in effect, the new state, which was supposed to serve the people, is in fact going to do nothing for them. What is more, this is what we have been told endlessly by the enemies of the ANC, since long before the liberation — that there would be no improvement, only a seizure of power by the corrupt and the incompetent. This idea saturates white South African politics and is the source of most of the comments that you will find posted by white reactionaries on South African weblogs.
But it’s scary to think that the ideas of those white reactionaries are now dominant in the minds of people who once fought for South African liberation. If this persists, it means the destruction of expectations and of historical hope. And then the terrorists will finally have won.