When It Is Much Too Late, We See.

July 19, 2010

The hopeless state of South African politics is gradually becoming clear to many, yet this clarity seems to lead nowhere in the direction of any improvement.
For instance, Raymond Suttner has, much too late, realised that the ANC is not a sound political vehicle. He knew, as who did not, that the SACP is a corrupt clique of self-seeking, ambitious, cynical capitalists. But he had thought that the ANC was different, even at the time when CoPe was forming. (CoPe suggested that conditions within the ANC had become so unbearable that even the self-interested were beginning to walk away in despair, and that large numbers of rank and file were willing to walk off with them. Subsequent events have shown that the prospects for such a party are not particularly bright, of course, because self-interest has become a universal plague.)
Suttner blames Thabo Mbeki, with Jacob Zuma as an also-ran. His contention is that Mbeki introduced patronage into the ANC, sowing the seed of its downfall, and that Mbeki’s nastiness mobilised people against him, sowing the seed of his own downfall — and with his downfall arrived Zuma. It is convenient to have a well-defined, impotent enemy whom everybody is instructed to hate.
The reality of the situation is painfully different. Mbeki certainly employed patronage, but he had no alternative. The end of apartheid destroyed the principal unifying factor in the ANC, and thereafter, it was impossible to naively mobilise the mass of ANC supporters. With the common enemy gone, pluralism within the ANC had to be accepted — and therefore, for the first time since 1960, the ANC leadership faced actual elections with alternative candidates in which it was necessary to campaign and build up allies, and that meant patronage. It doesn’t seem that Mbeki saw patronage as a goal in itself; he used patronage to get the Presidency in order to carry out his policies.
Who drained the policies away?
Mbeki’s patronage meant that he had to offer jobs to pals. That meant that jobs had to be denied to those who weren’t pals. Those denied jobs then screamed that they were being oppressed. Sometimes those who got jobs would use them against Mbeki, and in order to sustain his power-structure he attacked (or got others to attack) those who criticised or undermined him. This animal was most mischievous; when attacked it defended itself.
In spite of all this shabbiness, nobody was prevented from evolving alternatives to Mbeki’s vision, using them to critique Mbeki’s vision, and inviting people to rally together against Mbeki’s vision. Such actions could have undermined Mbeki effectively — provided that the alternatives were superior to his. The problem was not that Mbeki was tyrannical and unpleasant, it was that while Mbeki smacked down his critics, his critics could not effectively smack back, because they had no ideological or intellectual responses. They did not feel the need for policies, because their complaint was that they, personally, were not getting the privileges which they insisted, on no basis, that they deserved.
That drained the policies away, and that is where Suttner is mistaken. In the end it was the left which undermined itself. Mbeki, for all his conservative posturing and bullying persona, was more tolerant and more left-wing than most — certainly more than Mandela had been. The failure to make use of the space Mbeki provided, particularly after 2003, was a failure of the Left. Suttner cannot accept this because it would require him to be accurately self-critical, which is not something which the SACP has ever been good at.
Where Mbeki most particularly and disastrously led the party and the country astray was in his fear of popular sentiment. Afraid of demagogues and of the exposure of his own lies, Mbeki and his allies did not attempt to win over the populace to support their policies. Instead, they encouraged docility and submission as much as they could, calling on people to trust the government. Many did, of course; also, Mbeki’s enemies mostly rooted themselves in the same rhetoric of authority and trust. As a result they cut themselves off from the public. The SACP, ANC-linked bodies and Congresses, even COSATU, communicated with the broad public chiefly through press releases and photo-opportunities. As a result, the public is less and less meaningfully engaged in politics.
Suttner rightly concludes that what is needed is a new party. A party which is not corrupt and which has principles — all that is true and desirable. But then, he adds, it must be a party which does not exclude anybody. This is much more dubious. Granted, the exclusive nature of the ANC, borrowed from the SACP, has become a huge albatross round the Zuma administration’s neck, but it is only an expansion of the Mbeki government’s fear of the public. There are plenty of people out there who would be prepared to support a party which supported them. A party without a disciplinary policy, a party unable to exclude anybody, is a party which does not have any real significance — a blank slate.
Indeed, this seems to be Suttner’s ideal; although he himself is an unshaken socialist, he does not believe that such a party should be rooted in socialism. (Presumably he knows — or, more probably, he believes — that the mass of the public is not socialist. But if they aren’t, isn’t it likely that this is because of the disappearance of any socialist party to promote socialist ideals?) Either he has genuinely lost his faith in the organising power of socialism, or he is trying to fool the public into joining a party and hoping that a socialist vanguard will be able to take it over once the party is fledged. Either way he is probably grimly mistaken, for a vacuous party would be easily captured, not by the socialists, but by the far right, the way CoPe is currently being captured.
Perhaps it is better to turn away from Suttner and towards Richard Pithouse, who at least seems to know what he wants. But does he?
Pithouse is a disciple (lapsed now) of the fiery Indian cricket historian and so-called supporter of the poor Ashwin Desai. When they were an item, Pithouse and Desai endeavoured to make use of the Durban shacklords’ organisation Abahlali baseMjondolo. When Desai had to leave UKZN and went off to bourgeois Grahamstown, Pithouse trotted behind, leaving the shacklords to lord for themselves, but continuing to contact them via cellphone.
From this it’s easy to discern that the Creator is not a Pithouse fan, so it’s vital to emphasise that Pithouse is doing a fairly useful job, though not as vital a job as he thinks he is doing. The shackdwellers of any South African city have a hard time of it and any organisation within their community is worth supporting. An organisation which actually supports the interests of shackdwellers is obviously preferable to one which pretends to support them but merely exploits them for the benefit of its leadership. Pithouse’s contention is that Abahlali baseMjondolo really supports the shackdwellers, whereas other organisations (particularly those linked to the ANC) are merely exploiting them. There is probably some truth in this, since ANC-linked shackdwellers are inescapably aligned with an organisation which does not only support shackdwellers, but instead represents the whole municipality, a body which has done some good for shackdwellers but has also often worked vigorously against their interests and in favour of working-class and middle-class householders and ruling-class plutocrats. There is good reason for Pithouse to choose to support the people he supports, just as there is good reason to support the south Durban working-class leftists who protest about the quality of life generated by industrial pollution in the area.
On the other hand it’s impossible to listen to Pithouse without concluding that there must be something wrong with Abahlali baseMjondolo. No organisation could possibly be as perfect as Pithouse pretends. Doubtless there is the usual stew of self-interest and manipulative behaviour which one finds particularly in any working-class organisation whose membership is fairly desperate, and which Pithouse edits away in order to present his friends as paragons. There is, presumably, a reason for this misrepresentation which goes beyond Pithouse’s personal vanity; something to do with some oversimplification of analysis which might lead to problematic tactics.
Indeed, this is the case. Pithouse places his friends on one side, and everybody else on the other. Everybody else is an element of a nebulous mass called the State. If you ain’t Abahlali, you’re the State. This legitimates anything Abahlali does, from trivial scofflaws like electricity theft all the way up to murder, apparently. On the other hand, any attack on Abahlali, such as the thuggery in the Kennedy Road settlement last year, is launched by the State and is not to be seen as shacklords engaged in turf wars — no, that would be too trivial for Pithouse’s holistic vision. However, in reality, this “State” appears to be the ANC.
One of Pithouse’s profound concerns is to keep the middle class away from his friends. He is deeply troubled by middle class people trying to gain influence over the poor. His problem, particularly, is with NGOs, who often act on behalf of middle class funders and do not have the poor’s interests at heart. This is obviously a very valid point (the natural tendency of the bourgeoisie is to colonise and dominate), but it would be a far more courageous one if Pithouse were more conscious of the internal contradictions of his argument — the obvious fact that Pithouse and Desai and Bond and McKinley and Achmat and practically every other Trotskyite speaking in the name of the poor are all middle class people, who are presumably doing this with private agendas in mind.
However, Pithouse is almost incapable of class analysis. Why, for instance, should the State wish to attack Abahlali, or any other such organisation? Pithouse waffles about “modernization” as if it were not a cover for more substantive issues, and waffles about how the middle class has its own agendas which differ from the State’s. In that case, is the middle class not the same as the State? Indeed, Pithouse cites a middle class family which has come to terms with shackdwellers and concludes that this means that all middle class people can coexist with the marginalised “lumpenproletariat”. (Meanwhile Pithouse seems not to see any such thing as a ruling class.) This suggests that Pithouse’s romanticisation is driving him away from any meaningful socialist vision.
That raises another point. We can see that the ANC in the shacklands might hate Abahlali as competitors. We can see that the ANC in the municipality might find Abahlali an irritating nuisance. Nevertheless, there is no particular reason why powerful people have to hate shackdwellers who pose no immediate threat to them. Pithouse can’t find anything particularly convincing to suggest why this is so — he just states it. Of course, by proclaiming a hegemonic, omnipresent enemy, the result is that it becomes almost impossible to seek allies. Meanwhile, it also becomes impossible to distinguish between really dangerous enemies and innocuous but annoying enemies. In other words, the fact that Pithouse checks his sociological knowledge at the door when he enters the Abahlali chamber actually means that he has nothing to offer Abahlali except a bourgeois manner and a gift of the gab.
Furthermore, what has Abahlali baseMjondolo accomplished? Nearly nothing, actually. Anybody can set up meetings in shacklands and help people steal electricity. This is largely possible because the state doesn’t bother to act against such things, partly out of laziness, partly out of shame. As for the organisation’s court cases and generally high PR image, this almost entirely stems from the supportive environment in which they operate — which, ironically, stems from the fact that the state is not currently so hostile to them as it might be.
Pithouse complains that Abahlali baseMjondolo do not get a good press and that the press covers up their travails. This is probably in part true. It is, however, true that almost every mention of the organisation in the media is favourable. On Pithouse’s analysis this is inexplicable; if the state is hegemonic and opposed to Abahlali baseMjondolo, why is it that there are so many sympathetic observations about it in the state-dominated press? However, if the ruling class (which dominates, but is not coexistent with, the state) hates the ANC and wishes to outflank it on the left, promoting an organisation like Abahlali baseMjondolo is undoubtedly a convenient way to go — always provided that the organisation is weak and therefore dependent upon ruling-class assistance. Indeed, by Pithouse’s claims, the organisation represents little more than 2% of the shackdwellers of Durban, who are a quarter of the city population (and the weakest quarter). We may assume that Pithouse is not underestimating. Its lack of achievement is due to its weakness. Were it strong, the state would be much more likely to attack it more seriously, and the experiences of shackdwellers in Harare in 2008 suggests what this could lead to.
None of this renders Pithouse’s activities completely worthless. However, it is interesting that both Suttner and Pithouse ultimately fool themselves into supporting organisations which are weak almost by definition, because they have fooled themselves into believing that the enemy which they face is weaker than it actually is. Both Suttner and Pithouse were lyrical in their expression of the evil of their expressed enemies, the ANC and the “state” respectively. Both essentially ignored the danger of the ruling class and the corporate white right. Admittedly, Suttner, quite rightly, rejected the simplistic idea of launching the putative party as an anti-ANC campaign. Perhaps he was on some level aware that this would simply be kowtowing to reactionary politics. The danger with Pithouse is that he doesn’t seem fully aware of what reactionary politics means.
All rather depressing when one thinks that these two are probably among the best of their respective breeds!