We need to find an escape from “choiceless democracy”

3rd October 2022 By: Raymond Suttner

We need to find an escape from “choiceless democracy”

Raymond Suttner
Photo by: Madelene Cronje

I have an aversion to being a political spectator and have been involved in politics since my youth in the 1960s, first in the Progressive Party and the National Union of South African Students (Nusas), then later joining the illegal ANC and SACP to work underground. On release from prison I worked openly in the UDF until the States of Emergency and after a second imprisonment and house arrest, worked in the unbanned ANC, after 1990.

I broke with the ANC/SACP in 2006 during the rape trial of Jacob Zuma. In the aftermath of Zuma’s election as ANC and state president, his corruption that many who had promoted his candidature knew about became a central feature of ANC and state life, and I have never returned.

My reason for joining all these organisations was because of my understanding of apartheid oppression, but primarily because of an ethical commitment that I wanted to live out by contributing to the realisation of freedom for all. The same ethical considerations led me to leave the ANC/SACP when they turned their backs on the oppressed.

With that background of acting out my beliefs, I find myself in a situation that is invidious in that I am making comments and criticisms, but I am not on the ground to try and remedy these, as I was taught. It is true that my computer and my mind are being put at the disposal of what I argue to be a future emancipatory project, but I find this inadequate.

No organisation to support

But there is something difficult about this situation, in that there is no immediately identifiable organisation or alliance of organisations to which those who feel this way can direct their energies. This relates to a wider problem of the current political situation, which leads many people to despair and be disillusioned and a range of other passive reactions.

I reject passivity. Words like despair, disillusionment, disappointment, voice emotions people experience, but they are not tools that can be used in understanding politics, except insofar as one is referring to groups of people who have these sentiments and consequently may withdraw support from the ANC or DA or any other organisation.

I do not use those words because I try (and encourage others to do so) to be an active member of the public in the ways that are open to me, to intervene as far as possible and point to a fresh direction out of the problematic present and towards realising the democratic future we had in mind in 1994. That is not to suggest that all that is at stake is a return to what was undertaken in 1994. Many have explored new ideas of freedom and emancipation and there is now a greater emphasis on some issues. including climate and environmentalism generally, than in 1994.

Changed perspectives

I write this when my reactions to political events are very different from what would have been the case a few decades back. When it was reported that the ANC had retaken the City of Johannesburg, I messaged a comrade with whom I've worked for 40 years and said “who would have thought that one would not be overjoyed at the ANC, retaking the City of Johannesburg?” Many of us who have been tied to the liberation struggle for very long are not overjoyed when the ANC strong arms its way into a position of power or buys its way into power or works with discredited organisations to achieve this.

The ANC is back in the City of Johannesburg, not because of malperformance of the Democratic Alliance-led coalition, but because of numbers that they were able to put together through mini parties and they are likely to try to achieve similar results in Ekurhuleni, Tshwane, and possibly Nelson Mandela Bay.

Understandings blurred

There is something very problematic about writing about politics in South Africa today in the sense that it is very hard to say that there is much of significance happening.

What we can say with the displacement of the mayor of Johannesburg and the DA-led coalition is that it illustrated the fragility of coalition politics where you rely on support from a number of mini parties who can easily be swayed by desire for positions or through “brown envelopes”, or a range of other factors independent of whether or not the party they displace and the alliance they displace is performing well or not.

That there are such limited alternatives is one of the reasons why I have argued the need to look beyond electoral politics. ( https://www.polity.org.za/article/the-crisis-of-our-times-is-not-resolved-simply-by-electing-anc-leadership-2022-01-17/searchString:Raymond+Suttner and https://www.polity.org.za/article/moving-beyond-disillusionment-means-recreating-our-political-life-2022-08-08/searchString:Raymond+Suttner).

Neither the ANC nor the DA are homogenous

Personally, I've seen in the last year or so that just as it is true that not all ANC members and branches and councils are the same, it is also true of the DA. I was impressed with some initiatives that were intended by the minority DA-led coalition in the City of Johannesburg, the fresh ideas that were brought to bear regarding certain issues (and with a stronger base in Cape Town) and the willingness of the former mayor, Dr Mpho Phalatse to meet with people who had grievances and to listen.

I have not made the type of study that would enable me to make an adequate evaluation. But I do recognise that a lot had to be negotiated with partners to keep them in the coalition, and some regrettable actions by partners, as with an ActionSA MMC calling for illegal action against street traders, went without sanction.

Now this attempt at common action has failed for the moment.

Where I live, in Ekurhuleni, there is a relatively low-key presence of the mayor and MMCs. But I have observed a local councillor from the DA on a WhatsApp group responding to complaints about continued water outages, broken pipes, electricity outages, independent of those of Eskom and keeping an ongoing contact and report back to her constituents.

This is Jill Humphreys of the DA who is performing her role as a councillor in the way that I would have thought that ANC councillors were supposed to do (and it may be that there are some or many ANC councillors that I do not know of who do perform in this exemplary way).

But at the same time, one recognises that while Jill Humphreys might well remain a councillor, the days of the DA-led coalition in Ekurhuleni may be numbered and there may be a return to the ANC-led Ekurhuleni, which has had decades of control over this area and not attended to roads that need repair, drainage, and a range of other infrastructure that is in very bad condition.

As has been demonstrated in articles by others with regard to Johannesburg (https://www.dailymaverick.co.za/article/2022-09-30-what-happens-in-joburg-now-no-mayor-can-stop-our-city-from-breakdown/ ), the same holds for both cities. But we are facing a situation where the DA may have attempted to remedy conditions beyond what the ANC will do and this may now be set back by the ANC returning, given its previous record, in control of Johannesburg and probably Ekurhuleni and Tshwane.

I'm not suggesting that the DA is immune to unprincipled politics. I believe that some elements of the coalitions, relying on the Patriotic Alliance and in some respects, the same holds for ActionSouth Africa, has forced them to condone certain practices that are improper and have no place in democratic politics, even though that democratic politics allows partners like the Patriotic Alliance to be elected.

Media analysis contributes to depoliticisation

While this is happening, the preoccupation of analysis in the media is with what is called the “elective conference” of the ANC. There is no such thing as an elective conference. If you look at the constitution of the ANC, there are just conferences and it just happens that every three years there is an election held for national office bearers, and at other times elections for provinces.

My problem with this preoccupation is not that who is elected is unimportant, but that the way it is being analysed, is feeding into a depoliticisation of South African politics. And if there is depoliticisation, that feeds into demoralisation, disillusionment, disappointment, and a range of other passive qualities that have taken root in South African society in recent times, among many people, who may well have voted for the ANC in the first elections in 1994. This mood also feeds into the reports of increasing numbers of black professionals and for a longer time whites, emigrating.

It is legitimate to be preoccupied with who is elected on election slates of the ANC in the conference in December. But it is not satisfactory if the analysis does not also focus on what different individuals stand for, not only who they will be paired with or have as part of their slates. That is only relevant to democracy if we know what the various people believe in, what they stand for, what they want to do with this country, how they want to address the multiple crises that we find in the country today.

Insofar as hardly any candidate of the ANC has said anything about ideology, about vision, and does not really live out any vision, it encourages us to be apathetic, to be indifferent to what is going on in politics, whether in elections into which the ANC enters as the strongest political organisation in the country, or other political activities.

Loss of liberatory vision and commitment

There is also the loss of a liberatory vision and liberating mission, which was embodied in the lives of the leaders and members of the ANC prior to 1990. There is no doubt when one looks back at the people who joined the organisation in a time of danger, and the leaders of the time, that they embodied the pain of the oppressed in their lives.

They tried to live out their ideas. Their ideas were derived partly from the Freedom Charter, but mainly from the connection between themselves and the people of South Africa where they felt the pain of the oppressed and sought to embody that pain and the remedying of that pain in the lives they lived, and they often forsook very important opportunities. Some lost their schooling, some lost opportunities to do various courses that would have prepared them for high earnings in the future. They gave up those to be able to contribute to the liberation of the country.

They were mainly Africans, like Looksmart Solwandle Ngudle, Steve Biko and others, but there were also people from the Indian, coloured and white communities. In fact, one of the first martyrs of MK was Basil February in the Wankie campaign of 1967 from the coloured community. There was also the revered Imam Abdullah Haroun and Dulcie September. We know that many Indian comrades died in detention like Ahmed Timol and Dr Hoosen Haffejee and there were white heroic figures, including Ruth First and Neil Aggett.

In those days, when one joined the Struggle, one had very little to look forward to besides being arrested and tortured or held in solitary confinement for lengthy periods, or death.

The idea of a future career where one would bend tenders to benefit oneself never entered the minds of very many people who were in the Struggle.

That is why the ANC enjoyed a special place in the hearts of the masses, where many believed they “were ANC” even without joining.

Finding a role in this situation: power takes many forms

Politics is about power to be used for advancing or retarding freedom. There is not any single vehicle through which power is deployed. That is why we need not treat the electoral system as the only site through which we play a political role. This is especially the case where many of our needs and aspirations for freedom are not being realised through conventional politics. We need to draw on other resources in order to find ways of making an impact that can resolve problems and open up opportunities.

In both the Covid epidemic and the 2021 floods the state has often failed to meet the needs of many who suffered under these calamities. In many cases communities stepped in or charitable organisations, big ones like Gift of the Givers or small soup kitchens and others who helped stave off hunger in some areas or more generally, ameliorate conditions in informal settlements and other places were existence is fragile.

We need to build a combination of forces beyond the electoral terrain, not necessarily excluding parliamentary political parties, to combine to realise an ever-expanding freedom and an end to illegality, criminality and violence. This combination of forces may do small-scale work to mitigate the harsh conditions under which millions of people still live 28 years after the formal inauguration of freedom.

It may also be built and become a political force that needs to be heard by virtue of its numbers and the constituencies it represents- hopefully from the working class, including the unemployed, women, LGBTQI communities, faith-based communities and institutions, business big and small and professionals from a range of sectors.

All who share common goals need to join in such an effort in order to retrieve democratic life and remedy the various ills facing those living in poverty and without homes and other basic needs being met.

Raymond Suttner is an emeritus professor at the University of South Africa. He served lengthy periods in prison and house arrest for underground and public anti-apartheid activities. His writings cover contemporary politics, history, and social questions, especially issues relating to identities, violence, gender and sexualities. His books include Recovering Democracy in South Africa, The ANC Underground and Inside Apartheid’s Prison, all published by Jacana Media. His twitter handle is @raymondsuttner