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Questions about current politics

Professor Raymond Suttner joins Polity to discuss current politics and the road to Mangaung. Camera: Darlene Creamer & Shane Williams. Editing: Darlene Creamer. Recorded: 05/12/2012.

5th December 2012

By: Raymond Suttner


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South African politics today appear to be primarily concerned with the forthcoming ANC elective conference in Mangaung.  Repeated analyses of the fortunes of various electoral contenders and how one or other ANC constituency may decide to allocate its votes have become the standard feature in our news.  There is little to suggest that choices relate to political programmes or ideas and analysts generally do not speculate on these.  There is almost no discussion of lessons to be drawn from history (the ANC centenary passing with considerable expenditure but little reflection). None of the analysts offer any real scrutiny of broad strategic approaches.   Mapping the future is difficult.    That there is no rigorous discussion on policy and choices is dangerous.  The run-up to Mangaung suggests that it will not lead to stability and current fixation with personalities and fortunes of individuals is going to be an ongoing feature of our politics.

Lack of ideological and policy analysis and reduction of politics to elections is relatively new in liberation politics. Much contestation in the past related to ideological questions, how inequalities were understood and alternative transformational routes.  Some of these understandings, often conducted in a time of danger, may now be found wanting.  But that has not been adequately examined.  We need some basis, beyond statistics for measuring what has been achieved and what is required to break the stranglehold of the past. South Africa needs a sober evaluation of the practices in the present that are antagonistic to the development of an emancipatory future.


Apartheid may have suffered a defeat in 1994 but many of the trajectories of black South Africans remain very similar to that of the past.  They are much more likely to suffer violent death than white South Africans, over-represented (in relation to their proportion of the population) amongst those without water, adequate education, electricity, toilet facilities and basic healthcare.  Black South Africans are also over-represented amongst those who inhabit our prisons.  The word ‘criminal’ continues to primarily signify black people and the discourse around the problem of crime and its dangers and the ‘war against crime’ in practice primarily targets black people.  To change this outcome requires analysis going beyond macho discourse.

While there is little debate there is plenty of evidence of communities living in dehumanised conditions.  With the dawn of representative democracy more and more people drifted to the cities and it was obviously difficult to keep pace in the provision of infrastructure and basic needs. This is part of the process of urbanisation experienced by many societies undergoing transition. South Africa needs to learn from these when planning for the present and preparing for the future.


In the meantime, in places like Bushbuckridge, people are shown on television drinking polluted water.  People in Bramfischerville live with sewerage seeping through walls, children spend more than half the year without textbooks, in Limpopo and who knows where else? 

In some communities there are dangerous social phenomena –including videoed gang rapes of schoolgirls some of whom have mental disabilities or girls raping boys with similar disabilities.  We do not have the analytical categories for characterising some of these phenomena.  Patriarchy and other analytical tools are not adequate explanatory devices.  We need space for proper deliberation of these critical phenomena and addressing the crises they represent.

But what we can conclude at the very least is that in some of these places a social fabric has never been built or where there have been communities that fabric has eroded.  People living in dehumanised conditions cannot easily bond with one another to create sustainable organised forms for channelling grievances and aspirations in a coherent manner. 

These are not only crises in the social existence of human beings or the erosion of communities or the failure to create a social fabric in various settlements.  These represent objective phenomena. 

But there is an alarming subjective side, that the plight of the poor and the failure of the state do not evoke compassion from those who purport to represent the people.  When it was claimed that clean water was provided in Gert Sibande district the Minister of Water affairs was asked whether she would drink it. In response, she laughed.

The ANC and allied leadership have been very slow to express commiseration to the families of those mowed down in Marikana.  Judging from emotions that have been voiced, one has the impression that outrage is reserved primarily for the ‘real crime’ in Marikana, the emergence of a union challenging the NUM.

A deep ethical crisis faces the ANC.  It may be ready to re-elect a president who evaded corruption charges and has continued to reap benefits for himself, family and various cronies in the period since his election. Even if only 10% of the alleged irregularities are valid, is the ANC not concerned?

Professor Raymond Suttner engaged in underground activities from the 1970s and served two terms of imprisonment.  He is attached to Rhodes, Wits and UNISA.


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