South Africa in the Twilight of Liberalism: Richard Pithouse

[Note: Recent events in South Africa – from raging student movements across university campuses to xenophobic violence in the streets of Durban – seem to echo so many struggles both inside and outside the university “here.” This is the first of hopefully several posts from South Africa, that seek to listen and travel across.]

Guest Post by RICHARD PITHOUSE

South Africa was supposed to be different. We attained our freedom, such as these things are, after everyone else but Palestine. It was late in the day but the afternoon sun was glorious and the best people, people who had passed through the long passage of struggle, told us that we would be able to avoid the mistakes made everywhere else.

There was a mass movement that, whatever its limits, had won tremendous popular support and carried some noble ideals through its travails. Its leaders cast long shadows. Our Constitution, we were always told, was as good as they get. Liberalism, apparently vindicated by history, had its evident limits but there was, it was said, lots of room for deft manoeuvre within those constraints. We were assured that there was room for everyone at what Aimé Césaire had called the ‘rendezvous of victory’.

For a long time the presence of all kinds of features of the past in the present was widely understood as something that would be resolved in time. Land would be redistributed, schools would flourish, houses would be built, there would be jobs – the kind of jobs that reward hard work – and universities would emerge, bright and bold, from their cocoons spun by settler culture. Time, it was generally believed, was on the side of justice and the eventual redemption of the suffering, striving and struggles of the past.

The theory and novels of the postcolony were seldom read as portents of our own future. The beautiful ones were widely thought not just to have been born but to be on television, in parliament and in power. It was not often imagined that our turn would come to inhabit what Salman Rushdie described as a society “adrift, disoriented, amid an equally infinite number of falsenesses, unrealities and lies”.

It’s been a good while since the sun set on that glorious afternoon. The political class, entwined with capital but not reducible to it, has become a predatory excrescence on society. Millions find themselves without real possibility for their lives to unfold into adulthood living, in the words of Lesego Rampolokeng, “a stray existence where the township cracks / frustrated hoisted then dropped against the rocks of promise.” Emancipation is now a private project, one that often takes the form of competing to access patronage via the ruling party.

A stone’s throw from gated opulence children die from diarrhoea or in shack fires. What Anna Selmeczi calls “the lethal segmentation of the urban order” is sustained with the routine exercise of violence. This is no longer just a matter of men with guns in the uniforms of the police or G4S. In the province of KwaZulu-Natal, where the degeneration of the African National Congress (ANC), and the state it manages, is most advanced the party now organises its own violence and this, together with torture, assassination and the open suppression of the right to organise and to protest, is now part of the everyday grammar of the actually existing political terrain.

The nation, forged in struggle and written into grand documents with ringing declarations, can still congeal in response to certain kinds of events. But on ordinary days it is steadily splitting into all kinds of chauvinisms constituted around nationality, race and ethnicity. Queer people are murdered, their bodies left mutilated on back streets. Migrants from elsewhere in Africa and from Asia are hounded by the police, the broader state and now, again, subject to open popular violence on the streets. In recent days streets in Durban, streets now named for Pixely kaIsaka Seme, one of the founders of the ANC, and Mohandas Gandhi, have looked like a war zone. In 1906 Seme, in a speech that he gave at Columbia, anticipated the moment when Africa, Africa as a whole, shall “waking with that morning gleam / Shine as thy sister lands with equal beam”. In recent days life on the street that carries his name has diverged, more or less absolutely, from this vision.

Today, as the ANC loses all capacity to generate a credible vision for an inclusive future, there are plenty of people offering dogmatic reassertions of old ideas swept into insignificance by the great tide of support for the ANC in the 1980s. But in most cases they are radically alienated from actually existing popular struggles and strivings. It is only the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF), an off-shoot from the ANC, that are making a serious attempt to capture escalating and rapidly mutating popular discontent, a river of sorrow and rage that carries potentially progressive and reactionary currents and eddies.

But as Achille Mbembe has noted the return of what he calls “the hunting season” is, this time, being accompanied by an emerging ideology. Attacks on migrants may often be organised at the local level by petty business interests with prosaic material interests but the language of the ideology summoning this violence into motion is that of blood, soil and the call to war – the poetry, such as it is, of fascism. It is articulated to ideas that also fester in the ruling party, and its allies in traditional authority. Politicians regularly make statements hostile to African migrants. The Zulu King has described African migrants as ‘lice’ that need to be excised from the body politic. From time to time this emerging ideology also marks South Africans who have roots elsewhere in the country, or who are of Indian descent, as unwelcome aliens. It could not be more evident that the desire to restore an imagined primordial wholeness has a very dangerous, and potentially catastrophic, aspect. Frantz Fanon could have been writing of the here and now when he observed, in 1961, that: “From nationalism we have passed to ultra-nationalism, to chauvinism, and finally to racism. These foreigners are called on to leave; their shops are burned, their street stalls are wrecked.”

In the days before the new hunting season reached its climax in Durban there was a very different kind of attempt to erase some of the signs of a foreign presence. Two statues were defaced in the city. One was a statue of King George V standing in the gardens that look onto the harbour from the campus of the University of KwaZulu-Natal. It was reported that at a protest against the statue a member of the EFF, mobilising, precisely, an apartheid fantasy, threatened students of Indian descent with deportation. A bronze bust of the Portuguese poet Fernando Pessoa was also defaced in Durban. An altogether more modest presence than the statue of the British King, it was erected by the Fundação Engenheiro António de Almeida – a foundation in Porta, Portugal’s second city, in 1987. It sits in a small and rather dilapidated paved space, often used for street theatre, adjacent to an equally run-down multi-story parking lot in a part of the city largely used by people who are black and working class. The statue was defaced in the name of the EFF and Vusi Khoza, speaking for the party, welcomed the defacement of the bust which he described as a “symbol and reminder of apartheid oppression.” Pessoa arrived in Durban in 1896, at the age of 7, and left ten years later. An argument could be made that, although Pessoa died in Lisbon more than forty years before Afrikaner Nationalism ascended to state power in South Africa, there is a reason why Fanon wrote that there is a moment in the anti-colonial dialectic in which “When the native hears a speech about Western culture he pulls out his knife—or at least he makes sure it is within reach”. But there is no dialectic that redeems the kind of nativism practiced by Khoza. He was convicted for participation in a fatal assault on African migrants in 2009. A statue of Mohandas Gandhi was also defaced in Johannesburg along with statues in other cities closely tied to Afrikaner nationalism and British imperialism.

The defacement of these statues followed the successful campaign by students to have the statue of Cecil John Rhodes removed from its plinth at the University of Cape Town (UCT). The political logic of that campaign was clear. Rhodes was a crusading psychopathic racist who laid waste to much of the region and put in place social structures that became central to apartheid and continue to shape South Africa today. It is plainly obscene to honour Rhodes. But neither English colonial power, nor its primary ideology, a very white liberalism, has been held to much account after apartheid. By taking on Rhodes the students raised questions of urgent import that relate directly to the exercise of oppressive modes of power in the here and now that stretch from the UCT to Rhodes University in Grahamstown – a small rural town named for a colonial butcher – to the platinum mines where striking workers were massacred in 2012.

By all accounts the students in Cape Town created an extraordinary space of discussion – insurgent and autonomous – in which women, queer people and people from elsewhere on the continent, were often in the forefront. At Rhodes University, where the faculty is even whiter than at UCT, students quickly organised in response to the initiative in Cape Town. Their challenge took the form of an impressively deliberative mode of politics organised around the search for collective consensus. This process enabled an extraordinarily gifted generation of post-graduate students, a golden generation, to emerge as political actors in their own right and to offer a direct challenge to the coloniality and endemic racism of the university. There are important differences between the forms that the new student activism is taking within and between different universities but in Grahamstown, as in Cape Town, students also issued a clear refusal of the hegemony of English liberalism.

Their intervention – lucid, rational and often carried by the surfacing of a deep pain consequent to the innumerable ways in which routine racism has refused the desire of the young to, in Fanon’s words “come…into a world that was ours and to help to build it together” – has been egregiously misrepresented via a set of enduring colonial tropes as the unthinking politics of the mob.The university issued an extraordinary statement to its alumni in response to the new student struggle that was rank with colonial tropes. In the reactionary imagination, black and white, the response to the new student politics emerging across the country has, as Camalita Naicker has noted, placed the students together with self-organisation of impoverished black people as barbarians about to storm the gates of civilization. This has not only been a matter of symbolic violence. In Cape Town the students were subject to a degree of violence both on the campus and by the police when they went to parliament to protest against the ongoing violence on Africans from elsewhere in the continent.

Liberalism has always been fundamentally tied up with the poisonous fantasy of its barbarian other. In 1859 John Stuart Mill, the great philosopher of English liberalism, declared, in his famous essay On Liberty, that “Despotism is a legitimate mode of dealing with barbarians”. The essential logic of actually existing liberalism – freedom for some, despotism for others – was never merely, as they say, academic. In 1887 Rhodes, speaking in parliament in Cape Town echoed these sentiments when he declared that: “we must adopt a system of despotism in our relations with the barbarians of South Africa”. Yet in 2015, in a society still fundamentally shaped by the historical weight of this idea of freedom for some and despotism for others, a text book for first year politics students, written and prescribed in South African universities, a text book in which not a single African person is presented as a thinker worthy of study, declares that “Most discussions of freedom begin with John Stuart Mill’s On Liberty”. This sort of academic consensus, which seemed entrenched a few weeks ago, no longer seems to have much of a future. The students have made an intervention of real weight and consequence.

It is true that in Cape Town this intervention has excited some statements that are crude, authoritarian and easily compatible with the most reactionary forms of nationalism. But as the hegemony of the ruling party unwinds South Africa has become a society in which crude sloganeering and opportunistic attempts to exploit struggles to generate political capital frequently takes on what Fanon described as “a certain brutality of thought and mistrust of subtlety”. This has always characterised parts of the independent left after apartheid and there is a degree to which it is now, more or less, an inevitable backdrop to any political intervention of any significance. For instance, to take just one recent example, efforts to affirm solidarity with Palestine have been marred by the expression of gross anti-Semitism. As this debacle has shown the temptation to reify one evil as the only evil of consequence and to make dubious alliance for short term gain can result in progressive causes legitimating deeply reactionary modes of politics rather than, as is presumably hoped, harnessing their energies behind a emancipatory project. It has become vital to both affirm emancipatory principles and practices and to distance these from the various kinds of crude political opportunism that are increasingly present in our fractious public sphere.

The students in Cape Town have, very rapidly, punched a gaping hole into the continuum of English liberal hegemony over the university, and a set of linked sites of a certain kind of elite power, and, thereby, a mode of white supremacy and coloniality that has not been subject to sufficient critique and opposition. It is an extraordinary political achievement that will, no doubt, inscribe itself into the history of the South African academy, and the wider society.

Their anti-colonial intervention has been warmly received by everyone from some of our best intellectuals to grassroots activists engaged in increasingly dangerous and difficult struggles against both the local state and the forms of popular chauvinism often articulated to it in various ways. But it has also been welcomed by various kinds of evidently reactionary forms of nationalist politics in and out of the state. And it could be argued that the students’ appeal, prior to their assault by the police, to the ruling party rather than to their own constituent power, and alliance with other progressive forces, to continue to force their agenda was ill considered. The decision to appeal to the authority of a state that sustains colonial arrangements of various kinds, along with new forms of predatory accumulation, and is evidently willing to use torture and murder as modes of social control, is not to be taken lightly.

In many instance the new student politics has often spoken with clarity, with luminous clarity, about its opposition to both the enduring coloniality of some of our universities, and the pathologies of the post-colony. But it seems that the wider public sphere is often still structured, to some degree anyway, by what Fanon called the primary Manicheanism of the colonial condition. This means that many people just don’t hear what is being said and read political interventions through the distorting lens of this Manicheanism. When that Manicheanism does give way, what Antonio Gramsci called the common sense of society often seems to find itself in a situation well described by Fanon: “The clear, unreal idyllic light of the beginning is followed by a semi-darkness that bewilders the senses”. There isn’t a language, or a set of concepts, ready-to-hand, that enables a clear grasp of the fact that one can, without contradiction, oppose both the coloniality and racism of universities like Rhodes and UCT, the degree to which wider society retains colonial features, or liberalism in general, and the authoritarian and chauvinistic forms of nationalism being actively promoted in various quarters from the President, to the Zulu King, to the form that the EFF is taking in Durban and various kinds of popular reaction. There is also no political instrument that can oppose both enduring forms of coloniality and reactionary forms of nationalism at scale and with real force.

It would seem that the task now is, to stay with Fanon, to “work out new concepts” that can, from within the vortex of a new struggle linking a new generation of intellectuals to popular struggles, generate a set of ideas and practices that confront the pathologies of the colony and the postcolony simultaneously.

6 thoughts on “South Africa in the Twilight of Liberalism: Richard Pithouse

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