With local government elections coming up in August 2016, South Africa’s biggest political parties recently launched their manifestos at mass rallies. The focal point was the stadium itself. Or, rather, the stadium become ἀμφιθέατρον (amphithéātron): a place for viewing politics from both sides.
An ancient philosophical quarrel is being rehearsed here. It is the quarrel on the uneasy relationship between truth and appearance, between rationality and feeling, that famously made Greek philosopher Plato expel the poets from his ideal city in his book, “The Republic”. It is what philosopher and cultural critic Walter Benjamin called the fascist tendency to aestheticise the political.
If there is a spectacular political party in South African at the moment, then it is the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF). And whether we love or loathe them, we sure enjoy talking about their provocative use of colour, dress, insignia and general theatricality.
Dressed for parliament in their red overalls and hard hats, and domestic worker’s uniforms and doeks (head-wrappings), the EFF distinguished themselves from their suit-and-tied political rivals by performing their politics as a politics for the dispossessed and marginalised. At rallies, their supporters proudly don the party’s red berets, which you can order online. They make for a powerful visual display that signals a militant and unapologetically confrontational yet disciplined political intent.
The meaning of the red berets
What does the EFF’s political aesthetic really signify though? Can we, for instance, read their signature red berets for a deeper insight into their politics? Or do these kinds of paraphernalia carry no actual political weight?
The answer to this question is the philosopher’s (perhaps infamous) “yes and no”. For it all, of course, depends on what we mean by “politics”, “aesthetic” and "significance”.
To cut a long conceptual elaboration short, however, let us look at one of the best ways to conceive of the relationship between the aesthetic and the political. It comes in the form of Paul Ricoeur’s philosophy of the imagination.
The aesthetic and political dimensions of our lives intersect at the point where the social imagination does most of its work. That is the mechanism that makes the political bond we have with others available in the first place.
The capacity to imagine
A large part of our sociopolitical lives is necessarily imaginary. That is because we cannot engage in face-to-face interactions with all other selves in a nation-state or even a large town. Neither can we engage in face-to-face interaction with every institutionalised system of authority in large, complex human societies.
Our capacity to imagine allows us to travel mentally through time and space at extraordinary speed and in surprising depth. This is possible, says Ricoeur, only because of the imagination’s capacity for active mediation. In other words: its ability to produce “works” that we can decipher; “props” that we can play with.
In the case of political aesthetic, the sociopolitical imaginary gifts us with the props of “ideology” and “utopia”. Those are two works of the imagination that present us with imaginative variations on the theme of citizenship.
As political animals, the fulfilment and dissatisfaction of our needs hinge upon the versions of citizenship that are available to us. It is the figure of the citizen who alone truly contests and receives social recognition; the genuine citizen alone who contests and receives (re)distributed economic and legal benefits and rights.
The political reality of citizenship mediated by the political imaginary can take an “ideological” form. Through this form the inclusion of certain people as citizens is strengthened and systems of authority legitimised. It can also take a “utopian” form, through which the exclusion of certain people as citizens is questioned and systems of authority delegitimised.
A prop in a serious adult game
The red beret is a prop in this very serious adult game. Just like any prop, its significance is therefore inextricably tied to the game itself.
In the game of “figuring” South African citizenship, the EFF gives us a political aesthetic that makes those people who have actually been excluded from full citizenship visible and audible. Their “improper” dress in parliament says: imagine me, the miner, and me, the maid, as a real citizen, equal to any other, with equal political significance to any member of parliament. How dare anyone, and especially the ruling ANC, proclaim that the black labourers on whose backs this country was built are “improper” in the house of parliament?
Criticising the EFF’s parliamentary insignia for not being decorous enough thus entrenches the major divide characterising South Africa post-apartheid. There are the few for whom democracy brought or further fortified full citizenship. Then there are the majority for whom the right to vote has yet to give them access to all the benefits and rights of citizenship proper.
More than two decades after the official end of apartheid, the broad unemployment rate hovers at close to 40%, while more than half of all South Africans’ monthly income falls below the upper-bound poverty line.
To counter this stalemate, the EFF uses its political aesthetic to draw on imaginaries of war, battle, masculinity and militancy. This says, “imagine us as those who are no longer helpless, those who no longer talk but do.” And against an ageist, patriarchal tradition, “imagine us no longer as boys, but as men who are ready to lead.”
Then there is also, of course, the EFF’s general theatricality. Theirs is a type of theatricality that is finely choreographed – bitingly rude when speaking truth to power and perfectly poised when presenting their claims to authority as the truth.
Julius Malema, the party’s commander-in-chief, can interrupt parliamentary proceedings. He can threaten the state with violence, and make rude jokes and comments about other politicians. He can do this while simultaneously exhorting his followers to remain disciplined, to march without violence, or even much display of any emotion whatsoever, to major centres of capital and economic power in Johannesburg.
As they delegitimise current systems of power, they leave their parliamentary stage in chaos. As they legitimise their incumbent system of political rule, they fill an entire stadium with disciplined bodies dressed in uniform.
A new social order
We can say, then, that the EFF is presenting us with a utopian imaginary through which the possibility of a new social order emerges in force. This is excellent politics. Yet, there is still – and always will be – a gap between possibility and actuality. Ricoeur speaks of the “political paradox”, or the inescapable fact of power and its intertwinement with rationality.
The positive function of the utopian imaginary becomes sick as soon as it deludes itself with the impossible dream of a social order without any form of exclusion, and no systems of power. Authoritarianism and oppression are therefore not alien to utopianism. The apartheid state’s utopian projection of a separate-but-equal multiracial society, for instance, is synonymous today with racial hatred and oppression instead. And so are most of the various communist utopias around the globe.
Yet, the ruling ANC continues to enforce its increasingly unbelievable imaginary on citizens – entrenching growing exclusion and legitimising ever more repressive power. The state’s slaughter of striking mineworkers at Marikana in August 2012 stands out here as perhaps the most dramatic instance of this. The result is that the counter-force of the EFF’s performance of possibility strengthens its hold on our political imagination.