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The continuing crisis: can we find a way forward?

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The continuing crisis: can we find a way forward?

Raymond Suttner
Photo by Madelene Cronje
Raymond Suttner

2nd October 2023

By: Raymond Suttner

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“To the oppressed, and to those who suffer with them and fight at their side”- Paulo Freire, Pedagogy of the Oppressed (Penguin, 1996, dedication).

Very many people now have a sense of the scale of the crisis that we face in South Africa.  New features seem to emerge with some regularity and with tragic yet dramatic effect, as with taxis flying through the air and the road cracking open after an explosion in the Johannesburg CBD.  (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3NRI3C6nxq0 ).

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Every one of us is aware, our senses are bombarded with a range of events that have never happened before, that impact on all of our wellbeing - but especially the poor and those who live in fragile conditions or have become homeless through recent disasters.

Alarmingly, many face the possibility of death or take their own lives and sometimes that of their children because of the apparently insoluble problems they face, resulting in extreme hunger and/or starvation. (For example, https://www.dailymaverick.co.za/article/2023-09-12-desperately-poor-eastern-cape-mom-kills-herself-and-three-of-her-four-children/ and https://www.news24.com/news24/southafrica/news/eastern-cape-mom-accused-of-killing-3-children-herself-as-cops-investigate-poverty-as-motive-20230912 ).

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What is becoming more and more clear is that the solutions to the problems often require long-term work and also resources sometimes diverted from one dire situation or focus to another, potentially solving one problem at the expense of others. 

At the time of writing there are in any case systematic steps to cut back on spending that, if implemented, will have consequences for key social welfare and health programmes that are already not delivering adequately and may also increase unemployment.

We all know that there is something very wrong with the way the country is being run or mismanaged or not managed or governed at all, in the sense that those who bear responsibility may be nowhere to be found at a time or situation of crisis. Everywhere “Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold”, in WB Yeats’ frequently quoted words. Sometimes government is there to say that this that and the other is being done to remedy it - more or less convincingly (because government now has little credibility) or sometimes they are simply absent.

Today there is less of the fatuous preoccupation with who will be the next president of the ANC and whether Ramaphosa will remain in the position. Nor is it a key question to know what the skeletons in the cupboards of certain other contenders are and so forth.   But the problems go beyond exposés that may disqualify one or other person from leadership.  This is partly because who is leader, while normally a crucial component of governance, is overshadowed by the broader critical situation.

People are aware that the ANC has been gripped by a deep and paralysing crisis for some years. It can no longer by any stretch of the imagination be seen as the bearer of the broad-ranging liberatory or emancipatory vision which earned it so many followers in an earlier time. The rhetoric remains, but it is so different from the practice that it convinces very few and may not even be believed by followers, and the many who are gorging state funds are indifferent to ideas and visions.

ANC and state collapse

What is new about the present situation, which may not have featured in earlier overviews of the crisis, is the scale of the collapse of the state and its institutions and infrastructure and functioning in general. Corruption on a large scale has become part of the fact of life in South Africa at all levels. When one hears of some large-scale state project one has come to expect criminality of one or other kind and one is seldom wrong in these expectations.

One of the results is that state performance in key sectors of public life like health, roads and other areas of transport, energy and a number of other features of public life have come to be marred by wrongdoing that has limited the reach of such institutions and the character of their interventions in our lives. Even the few successes until recently, as with disbursing of various social grants, have come to be marred by corruption and callous indifference.

Doctrine is not the issue

As argued earlier in the year, the problems we face do not derive from doctrine, following this or that ideology and implementing or potentially implementing it to the detriment of the economy, social wellbeing, infrastructure and so on.

That some individuals claim to advance “radical economic transformation” and to be standard bearers against “white monopoly capital” is purely rhetoric and bears little relation to the practices of the adherents of such doctrines. In any case these do not form part of a serious programme of action.

Some may fear that to avert these EFF and other “leftists” from taking power is to prevent wholesale nationalisation or socialism. But there is little to indicate that these individuals or parties actually care about the ideas relating to the poor that are supposed to derive from the slogans they advance.

This is little different from Cyril Ramaphosa, who is not bothered about the people whose suffering he purports to embrace and be in solidarity with (as with his delays in visiting the Hammanskraal community when stricken by cholera, among many examples). (https://www.timeslive.co.za/sunday-times/opinion-and-analysis/opinion/2023-06-11-a-distant-president-and-a-callous-government-add-up-to-an-imminent-flood-of-tragedy/, behind paywall).

The question we need to ask is not only what policies the alternative political parties offer but whether or not they care about the poor and vulnerable. Do they share the pain that the oppressed experience? Do they make the pain of the oppressed their own? Does it become an important part of their lives to share the burden of the poor and other marginalised people, as with the quote from Paulo Freire at the beginning of this contribution?

I am aware that some people may be uncomfortable with this type of discourse in politics.   They may say it should be left to religious sectors and others who are directly concerned with morality. My sense is that those of us who come from the Struggle need to ask ourselves why we were there and it may not be articulated in this precise vocabulary, but the reasons are similar. 

In my own case some of these ideas do derive from readings and contacts with religious people and writings from liberation and feminist theologies. I make no apologies. In the last 15 or more years this writing has influenced me more than any contemporary Marxist works. This work speaks to what we need.

Alternative parties: intellectual rigour maybe - but compassion?

Quite clearly those who may form part of a coalition that aims to displace the ANC have sometimes displayed intellectual rigour and a capacity to dissect policies and budgets, but they have generally not demonstrated compassion. They may sometimes have clear logic, but display little evidence of empathy and identification with the plight of the poor and marginalised.

That is not to paint everyone with the same brush. In my own background, I come - some time back - from the earliest predecessors of the DA, the Progressive Party (of which my parents were founder members) and some of those I met were fine people who cared greatly -like Donald Molteno QC, (who had been a “Native Representative” in Parliament in the 1940s, and whose constituents referred to him as Dilizintaba, in isiXhosa, “He who removes mountains”), Colin Eglin, Ken Andrew and some others less well known than Helen Suzman whose fine work has been justifiably recognised. No doubt some people with similar strengths remain in the DA - though it does not seem that there are many.

Cleaning up the mess is part of what is necessary but insufficient. We need a different ethos - not everyone will absorb it, of course, but it’s necessary to have a hegemonic commitment to a humanistic, solidaristic, compassionate, empathetic ethos. 

Some will say that the ethos is already there with ubuntu, and I agree, though ubuntu does not mean the same thing to everyone. As indicated before, ubuntu has been claimed by both the late Archbishop Desmond Tutu and Ubuntu Armed Response. It must be engaged with as part of this struggle to secure the foregrounding of care and compassion. That is what Pope Francis is attempting to achieve in the Roman Catholic Church with his condemnation of the “globalisation of indifference”. (With a slightly different angle, see: https://www.vaticannews.va/en/pope/news/2023-06/pope-francis-world-poor-day-message-politics-tobit.html).

The way forward: developing a coalition of forces

Regrettably I am not able to conjure up - from my brainpower and without a movement behind my ideas - a coalition of forces that can displace the ANC and its allies and win majority support electorally, or in some other way that can lead a transition back to democratic and transformational rule in the interests of everyone, but especially of the poor and the marginalised.

What I have argued before I stand by, and it is not something that can be built immediately - that is an alliance between the few social movements that exist (like the shack-dwellers’ movement, Abahlali baseMjondolo), faith-based organisations, professionals, labour unions, business big and small, and existing political parties that may ally themselves with the emancipatory goals of such a coalition.

Although Rise Mzansi has an electoral focus, it devotes much time to listening to the oppressed, and may, consequently, be attracted to such ideas and develop areas of commonality. (https://www.risemzansi.org).  That remains to be seen in what lies ahead.

As can be seen, I am departing from the UDF or earlier ANC-type models of alliances by insisting on the importance of business. Business is not a monolith, but it shares with the poor an interest in stability, which depends to a significant extent on basic needs being met. Business and these other sectors are committed to constitutionalism and the rule of law. Corruption can have no place because all of these sectors want to see the state performing properly and delivering a better life for all and producing or manufacturing what it needs for rebuilding the economy and spreading welfare to all.

In short, if we need a new alliance of forces, it needs to comprise powerful and respected forces, united behind emancipatory goals. But it must share a common sense of compassion with all who continue to experience apartheid-type oppression. This body of forces must have clear ideas, but they must also unite understanding with emotions, emotions that feel and bear the pain of the oppressed as their own.

Raymond Suttner is an Emeritus Professor at the University of South Africa and a Research Associate in the English Department at University of the Witwatersrand. He served lengthy periods as a political prisoner. His writings cover contemporary politics, history, and social questions. His twitter handle is @raymondsuttner.

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