South Africa: Strategy issues for service delivery protests


The central issue of South African politics seems to be that poverty and inequality are growing after 17 years of government by an ANC that claims addressing these are its top priorities. Various attempts are currently underway to build movements of poor people capable of actions to lessen and end poverty and inequality, or at least of forcing the state to take such actions. It is hard. People are depressed to be fighting a struggle they thought they had won. The lack of resources and organisers make movement building an exhausting responsibility carried by a tiny group of activists. Yet the main challenges are political; five issues confront these activists, and the approaches they develop to them will largely determine the liberatory potential of the movements they manage to build. These issues are 1. Racism 2. The political system 3. Forms of protest and organisation, 4. Sexism and 5. Alienation.

1. Racism

The end of Apartheid understandably did not end the racism that it depended on, but the expectation was that it would steadily lose power and die out in the new South Africa. It did not die, today it is arguably stronger. White identity and self awareness, which is racism’s starting point, is as acute among the young generation as among the old. South African whites officially belong to the most privileged ethnic group on the planet. Nevertheless, so steeped are they in the racist expectation of white superiority and black nothingness, that they saturate every discussion forum with enraged complaints about the minute minority of blacks among the business and state elite. Every black capitalist and manager, every black rugby player, is held up as evidence of racist discrimination against whites. The creation of anti-racist politics is thus made both urgent and difficult.

The first difficulty concerns definition. Whites can only be imagined to suffer under racism if it is defined as any feeling or act of hostility against a group identified by the colour of their skin. Under this definition to dislike people or deny them something desirable because of their whiteness would indeed be racism. But this definition does not describe the racism that happens to black people. Racism to blacks is a system that invests hundreds of years, billions of any currency of capital, and the lies and violence of generations of humans into establishing their inferiority. Until this inferiority becomes real, a socially created and recreated reality, but still real. Blacks become less; less good at mathematics, less good at leadership, they live in lesser housing, do lesser jobs, are less tolerant of lesbians, and whether they live or die in dirty, overcrowded hospitals is less of an issue. The sum total of this is what constitutes racism. Whiteness, the white identity, the white community was specifically created to mobilise enough people to do this thing to black people. It is this racism that goes unnamed in South Africa.

Several things flow from all of this. Merely describing yourself as white is a racist act if it is coupled with a claim that whiteness must be accommodated. White people do not experience racism as there is no system that condemns them to inferiority. In fact the opposite is true, there are good anti-racist reasons to dislike whites and deny them positions of privilege. Racism survived and is growing not in spite of the manner in which Apartheid ended but because of it. The new South Africa was based on the agreement that white people would keep the property and privileges they accumulated through colonialism and Apartheid; to take it away was made unconstitutional. By this same act the dispossession and inferiority of black people was made a side issue, something the government would try to address after they have protected the property and other constitutional rights that everybody, but whites in particular have. Who has property and access to media, housing and healthcare? The old idea of non-racialism pioneered by IB Tabata’s Unity Movement was completely inverted, and thereby subverted. This idea held that everyone would enjoy equal protections after the abolition of white privilege. Instead we have equal protection for white privilege and black inferiority.

In this society of virulent but misdiagnosed racism the assertion of black solidarity is made to seem nonsense. Black people are compelled to try and get together and do something by the sheer weight of their marginalisation, their lack of housing, their landlessness, their crappy schools. But as who, against whom? To come together as blacks against whiteness would break with the cherished myth of the rainbow nation with its glorious constitution, its beloved heroic first president and its oldest movement of national liberation. So racism cannot be named and the role of the constitution and the ANC in defending it cannot be identified. And even where it can be, it seems too powerful to be amenable to the intervention of people with so little.

Therefore, instead of asserting black solidarity against whiteness and its collaborators people act out the anti-black structure of the society by asserting against other blacks whatever alternative identities available to them. They are South Africans against foreigners, Indians and coloureds against Africans, Africans in particular against minorities, proper men against women and gays. As ever the purpose of scapegoats is to be sacrificed in the place of others that are actually guilty of the deed that needs atonement but are more valued and powerful than the luckless goats.

Scapegoating among black communities is perhaps the most powerful obstacle to movement building at present. To overcome it activists have to win a struggle to put racism in its place so to speak. Protests, discussions and mobilisations must direct attention to what racism is and to how it systematically impoverish and humiliate all black people (even if not equally so) at the same time as it endows privilege on every white person, although also to different degrees. The struggle is therefore against whiteness as a category of privilege, even in cases where the immediate targets of mobilisation are black people such as politicians and business people, the gripe is that they play a role in maintaining the system of white supremacy. This is the only way to overcome the disabling divisions among blacks and lay the basis for a powerful movement of the poor. Attempts to create a non-racial unity focused not on racism but either on a common citizenship such as the liberals suggest, or a common class agenda such as the Marxists want, are bound to fail. People have an acute and ultimately realistic sense of the importance of race. Therefore the key to building strong movements of the black working class is the willingness to centre the struggle against whiteness and racism.

To do so, to address the so called national question that is as old as South Africa itself, might enable the building of movements of the black poor that can mobilise enough resources and people to enforce their will, but the liberatory potential of such movements depend in the last analysis on the type of social relationships they create in the place of the racist ones of the present. Historically the movements of black people against racist oppression fought under the banner of nationalism, the goal was the foundation of a new nation or the refoundation of an old one, free of racist discrimination. The present generation of anti-racist activists will either continue in this tradition or they will create a new one that starts with the interrogation of the essential failure of anti-racist nationalism. Just as an attempted anti-racist capitalism is severely limited by capital’s dependence on the exploitation of blacks, the weight of racism is such that the creation of a nation state with its subjection of the majority to the authority of presidents, ministers, generals and judges, make those in authority predisposed to be co-opted by the ruling classes of Europe and America and thereby leaves the subjects under the reign of racism. This is certainly what happened to black nationalism up to now. In fact, available evidence suggests that black liberation is incompatible with any kind of authority and is an anarchist project striving in all spheres of society for relationships based on self-management, direct democracy and voluntary mutual aid. Even those activists not comfortable with this position has the task of explaining how anti-racism can avoid the formation of black elites that lead the people right back to subjection under global white supremacy.

2. The political system

A group of six policemen killed the unarmed AndriesTatane by beating him savagely and then shooting him twice without showing the slightest hesitation or remorse. Tatane was taking part in a protest march through which impoverished black residents of Ficksburg was trying to put pressure on the municipality to improve the delivery of certain crucial services, particularly water that has been cut off for long periods. The irony was as cruel as the beating as the police targeted Tatane because he intervened when they turned a water cannon on elderly people and the town’s mayor was later shown to respond by saying ‘People complain that there is no water in this town. But what is this?’ as he opened a fridge in his office and took out a bottle of mineral water. General Bheki Cele, the commissioner of police, visited the town to plead with the family of AndriesTatane for forgiveness, to reassure the community that the killer policemen would be prosecuted, that police brutality against poor protestors was the responsibility of a few corrupt police officers and not the police as a whole. National and local ANC leaders swarmed the town promising the Tatane family a house and the community quick corrective action. In the local elections, shortly after, the township residents voted overwhelmingly for the ANC.

What was exceptional about the situation around AndriesTatane? Perhaps only the media broadcast of his death and the subsequent public outcry. The other elements of the story are quite usual, even day to day, in South Africa. Poor people protesting against getting bad or no services from municipalities, and being met with indifference or condemnation from politicians, and contempt and brutality from police; this happens all the time. The assault and killing of protestors is becoming a regular thing. Even the elements that resulted from the protestors succeeding in winning public attention beyond their locality have happened many times before. The examples of Khutsong and Harrismith come to mind, with national state leaders visiting to distance themselves from the hated local ones and promising decisive intervention. Likewise, people in these protest hotspots continued to vote for the ANC, with the exception of the once off 2006 boycott in Khutsong.

The question facing black working class activists is the relationship between their struggles and the political system. The death of Hector Pieterson symbolised the utter antagonism between the system of Apartheid and the emancipation of the black masses. For the one to triumph, the other had to die, and both sides understood it to be so. The police killed Andries Tatane in a more brutal manner than they did Hector Pieterson, the images of the deed that were broadcast were also more graphic in the Tatane case, yet the death of Andries Tatane has not acquired a similar political meaning as that of Hector Pieterson. The black masses and their activist champions see the political system as their flawed, unfaithful friend. In this view, some institutions and people that are part of it may be corrupted, some policies and structures may be clearly anti-poor, some trends towards self-enrichment among the ANC may be worrying, but by and large the ANC, parliament, municipalities, the courts, the police, the government and, of course, the constitution is seen as allies rather than enemies in the struggle against black poverty and its associated social ills.

The more self-consciously anti-neoliberal groups among the black working class are instructive in this regard. Often they condemn a particular act or part of the political system, while calling on the support of another one. Even the ones that have socialism written into their basic programmes do not in their public activities give the impression of a rejection of the political system as a whole and the constitution in particular. Frustration with the political system runs deep but at the same time it is clear that the black masses are not involved in a revolutionary struggle against it as they were against Apartheid by 1976. South Africa’s politics has to change, but how exactly?

Starting from the least radical scenario to the more so, the possibilities would include the following:

1. The ANC stays in power, but corrupt, incompetent and selfish leaders are replaced by conscientious ones. The new leaders implement existing policies better.
2. A party with similar policies but with less corrupt and incompetent leaders defeats the ANC in elections.
3. The ANC stays in power, but its policies shift towards egalitarian, redistributive ones.
4. A party to the left of the ANC wins the elections and shifts state policy in an egalitarian, redistributive direction.
5. A leftist party or group overthrows the ANC and seizes control of the state, which it uses as an instrument to enforce redistribution.
6. A revolutionary socialist party leads a mass uprising, overthrows both the ANC and the capitalist state and founds a new, socialist state.
7. An anarchistic mass uprising overthrows all political parties and states and puts an end to political institutions that give any one person the authority to make decisions for any other person; instead it creates a political system based on self-management, direct democracy and voluntary co-operation and solidarity.

Of course a changed South Africa with greater inequalities of wealth and power might be more likely than any of these seven scenarios. The value of these scenarios lies in their power to prefigure, not predict. Free beings do not predict their future, they create it.

Every act of resistance against the politics of neo-liberal capitalism contributes to some extent towards bringing one of these scenarios into reality. If activist groups confine themselves, as many do, to working for the removal of some ANC leaders, but do not challenge either the party’s hold on state power or its fundamental policy direction, then surely they are working towards scenario 1 above and nothing more. If they challenge the ANC’s policies, but, also as many do, loyally defend its power, then they are working towards scenario 3. In this manner all acts and groups can be understood in terms of the particular outcome they are working for, some self-consciously having considered and rejected all the other options, others by default for not having done such a consideration.

This work of consideration is now urgent. It is simply not possible to build strong movements without clear, considered political vision to provide motivation and unity of purpose. In addition, the dominant ideas in a society tend to be supportive of its dominant classes, therefore the default position in South African politics tend to give preference to the interests of whites over blacks, rich over poor, male over female, and those with power over those without. The default position is the constitution, with its promise of equal protection for the exploiters and the exploited. It is in any case not worthy of people who want to be free to allow themselves to be determined in this way! Lastly and most importantly, the results of considering which of the above scenarios to fight for will determine the limits of a particular group’s liberatory potential and its ethical orientation.

Scenario 7 speaks of a political system where no one person has the power to make a choice for any other person. In addition all the participants in the system are committed to work together to increase the available choices for everyone. It breaks with the antagonism between collective, communal endeavour and individual freedom that is the basis of capitalist society. Instead it declares that the purpose of free communities is to protect and expand the freedom of its individual members. It is implacably opposed to the state, to political parties, to any organisational form that concentrates the power to make decisions in the hands of some, thereby taking it away from others. As such, anarchism is the greatest political freedom so far imagined. All of the other scenarios include the maintenance of oppressive political relations where some people make decisions for others, and force them, by means of the state, to obey. Only an anarchist approach can express in politics the old humanist ethical perspective of a ‘categorical imperative to overthrow all relations in which man (sic) is a debased, enslaved forsaken, despicable being…..’ It is the commitment to fight the oppressive conditions that confronts us now, and the ones that can confront us tomorrow. Therefore every activist in the struggles of the black poor has every reason to make this his or her guiding perspective. After all, why build movements today that will produce the oppressors of tomorrow? Again?

3. Protest and organisation

The so called service delivery protests, such as the one Andries Tatane was taking part in, started in the late 1990s and grew to become an integral part of the political situation in South Africa. Estimates run into thousands per year, with a high of 10000 for some years. Some of them may be initiated by individuals or small unorganised groups, but most are enacted by established community organisations after deliberation around failed attempts to spur state organs to action through courteous communication. In the more spontaneous cases, people then tend to move quickly to establish a crisis committee, community forum or concerned group. If this gives the impression of a strong movement of the black poor, it would, at least in some ways, be wrong.

Thousands of protests is of course a high number if it is compared to zero, but certainly the true measure of protest action lies in its effectiveness. How to measure this? The typical service delivery protest starts as a march to the municipal office to hand over a memorandum to the mayor setting out the problems, detailing previous efforts to solve them and making demands. The mayor gets a specific time period to respond, to set up an urgent meeting of the stake holders, and to take action. Failure to do so will invite more protest action with greater disruption such as the burning of tyres and the erection of barricades. National and provincial government will be called in, and perhaps also the Human Rights Commission and other such institutions. The withholding of votes in the next election is threatened. The numbers of participants in these marches are typically low. Even in the big cities a march of say 500 people would be unusual, the participants tend to number closer to a hundred. In instances where protestors burn tyres and erect barricades the number of participants tends to drop. The idea behind the protests is to put enough pressure on municipalities, or whichever state organ in question, to get them to include the poor in decision making and deliver basic services to them.

From this point of view, how effective are these protests? The people who initiated, organised and took part in the service delivery protests of the last decade and a half are the true carriers of the best traditions of the struggles against colonialism and Apartheid. To do what they did they often had to risk their resources, their peace of mind and, yes, their lives. Some, like Andries Tatane, paid the ultimate price. Yet it would hard, and perhaps disrespectful, to argue that they have succeeded to any significant degree to win for the poor the deeply desired democratic power and social resources that form the inspiration behind the protests. For the protestors and their supporters the urgent question should be, ‘How to make the protests more effective?’

The experiences of the protests offer some lessons that are borne out by and itself bears out lessons of the histories of liberation struggles more generally. These include:

• Escalate the protests in scale and disruptiveness. The constraint to this is in large part a lack of resources, but often it is a question of perspective. State representatives demand of activists to tone down or abandon protest while dialogue, investigations and interventions are in progress, but the behaviour of these very representatives calls such a position into question. Without the protests the marginalisation of the poor is effected and then accepted as a given. It is protest that gets these officials moving and it is actions that disrupt at least part of the system that gets them moving faster. Have a march and expect at least a letter to acknowledge receipt of the one you sent months ago, block a major road and expect an audience with a national leader. Have several local groups co-ordinate these kinds of actions and see the flurry of the power elite. As a rule even the most limited social changes that support the emancipation of the poor require radical activist action that breaks with the norms and even laws of liberal capitalist politics.
Sometimes activists are distracted from a focus on protest action not by an express demand but by a process that appears quite friendly, where government, NGOs or political groups offer support by inviting community leaders into dialogues, consultations, workshops and projects that saps the time, energy and inclination for protest. The results are not quite the same, but in both cases the interests of the majority has no chance of a hearing.

• Prepare for the probability of state violence and repression. Protestors have various tactics they can choose from to protect them from state violence and repression. These include making arrangements for recording, communications and publicity as well as practicing for mutual protection and self-defence. Few protests in South Africa are preceded by these kinds of preparations. This despite the presence of police violence from the earliest days of the service delivery protests and the signs lately that the state is becoming more authoritarian. Perhaps people are lulled into a sense of safety by the constant propaganda in praise of the constitution and the rights it is supposed to bestow on everyone, even on poor, black people. The facts of police brutality speak otherwise. Black skins are still an invitation to violence, and the planners of protests have to take this into account and make the necessary preparations.

• Favour direct action over indirect. The groups that had the most success both in terms of forcing concessions from the ruling class and in terms of building their own capacity for action were those that were able to directly lay hold of resources and transfer them to the poor. Occupying land, removing water blockages and connecting households to electricity all address impoverishment directly. It does not wait for state officials to do so. It is this self-emancipation of the poor that the rich and their governments fear more than anything else. Even when the power elites make forced concessions in the face of indirect actions such as marches and negotiations it is because they fear the protestors might go ahead and seize what they need.
The necessity for direct action also flows from the need of activist groups to capture the imagination of the masses. It demonstrates a seriousness of purpose and a depth of feeling against injustice that not only requires but also inspires the bravery and commitment characteristic of successful movements for social change.
Finally, movements of the poor need direct action precisely because they are movements of the poor. The poorest sections of society, the temporary workers, farm dwellers, rural people in former homelands, the unemployed and shack dwellers, are also the least organised. Poverty leaves no money to sustain organisers, the struggle for survival leaves little time and energy for the work of organising. Groups flare up and then die out quickly or become the turf of a more or less bureaucratic group that use their leadership positions to strike bargains for their own benefit with political parties, state organs or NGOs. Movements of the poor can only survive for any length of time if it fuses the struggle for survival with the work of organising. Only direct action makes this possible.

• Oppose the organisational methods of capitalist society. Participation in the service delivery protests is uneven. A minority of people have more time, commitment, resources and energy to contribute, which puts them into a position of a vanguard that through a process of organisation inspires, mobilises and co-ordinates wider circles. From their ranks come the presidents, chairpersons and executive members when the seemingly unavoidable time comes to establish a formal organisation. In many if not most protesting communities the establishment of a formal organisation, going as it does together with the election of executive members, are followed by internal conflicts about control that often paralyse. At issue is not only the different options the organisation must choose from, but who gets to make the decisions and who must carry them out. The essence of community struggles is arguably co-operation between equals. One can go further and argue that in its most emancipatory and therefore truest form, the struggles of oppressed communities seek to change society into a gigantic association of freely co-operating equals, the abolition of all oppression. The methods and structures of the organisations of capitalist society make a careful distinction between leaders and followers by bestowing on the former a privileged role in decision making as well as an apparatus for enforcing this privilege. Capitalist society needs to operate through presidents, CEOs and chairs precisely because it needs to diminish the decision making power of the majority, of those at the bottom. When working class organisations adopt the same methods and structures the results are the same – a constant conflict over the suppression of the majority, or of a dissenting minority for that matter.
Two factors make these conflicts especially paralysing in the case of the current service delivery struggles. Firstly, the organisations are new with limited resources and capacities; therefore they often lack a leadership whose authority is accepted to a sufficient degree to ensure the functioning of the organisation in spite of the conflicts. The smallest of challenges to the leadership are then enough to destabilise the organisation and consume its time and resources. Secondly clear differences on the big political questions have seldom had time to find expression. Among the factions contending for the positions of chairman and secretary, who are the revolutionaries, who the reformists? Communities do not know and cannot unite behind one or the other in a manner that will create a leadership with the authority to run strong organisations. Organisational methods that oppose the establishment of hierarchies of power are therefore an immediate tactical necessity for the current service delivery struggles to grow.
Ultimately activists have to make a choice. If they want an organisation that is nothing but a free co-operation between equals, they will have to break away from organising in the manner of capitalist organisations and find the methods such as assemblies, spokescouncils, affinity groups and recallable, rotating delegates that make such an organisation possible. If they want a society of freely co-operating equals then they have no choice. The executives and presidents and general secretaries will never take them there. The types of organisations they decide to build now determine the types of organisations they will achieve in the future; it determines even the type of society.

4. Sexism

Who was the world’s first feminist president?

Thabo Mbeki was a determined neo-liberal capitalist when he was the president. It is not that he was indifferent to the suffering of the poor; he just acted as if the solution to poverty and its associated ills could only be achieved if the businesses of the country were able to compete and win on the world market. He therefore, like Nelson Mandela before him, took care to satisfy and exceed the policy demands of the people that control the most lucrative sections of that world market – the World Bank, the IMF, the World Trade Organisation, the governments of the US and European Union. Domestically he used the policies and resources of the state to support those businesses most able to compete, meaning big business. Within this framework, Mbeki confronted sexism or at least aspects of it.

He certainly cracked the reinforced glass ceiling that sees women so scandalously underrepresented in the upper levels of politics and business. Under his presidency the numbers of women in senior positions in the state grew so fast that it outstripped countries that had similar programmes for much longer. A woman became deputy president of the country, and women made up half of the provincial premiers and ANC municipal councillors. State rhetoric and even policy began to take on a focus on women’s empowerment and it became more difficult to tender successfully for government business without at least one woman as business partner. In his person he represented an enlightened, liberated approach to women and sexuality, rather than a traditionalist, patriarchal one. It could be argued that under the presidency of Thabo Mbeki the empowerment and upliftment of women was taken as far as it could go within a neo-liberal capitalist framework.

This was of course not far at all as it did not change the fact that neo-liberalism is inherently supportive of male supremacy. The dog eats dog competition it pretends to stand for is actually a dog eats puppy struggle where powerful politicians and rich businessmen prey mercilessly on those poorer and more vulnerable than them. Generations of sexist discrimination has made black women the poorest and most vulnerable group, and neo-liberalism therefore made them the targets for the worst violence, unemployment, precarious work, inferior social services, HIV/AIDS, landlessness and poverty. Black working class women were no better off, and in some respects worse off, at the end of Mbeki’s neo-liberal presidency than at its beginning.

However, the feministic rhetoric and the gains by middle class women were enough to provoke an enraged reaction. An important element of the motley alliance that backed Zuma against Mbeki was a patriarchy exasperated by the numerous pinpricks associated with the Mbeki era and determined to make certain things very clear. Women’s rights were fine, as long as it is understood that there was nothing wrong with men’s rights, which happened to include the right to have and be proper leaders, not incompetents foisted on the people by quotas, as well as the right to have culture and tradition and enjoy the privileges bestowed on males by these. The reaction affected broad circles in the black community as manifested for example in the rise of violence against lesbians.

Activists seeking to conduct the struggles for decent social services and democratic power for the poor with a consistent feminist focus on sexism are likely to get into trouble with this patriarchal reaction, which sometimes lead people to see feminism as a distraction and divisive. The temptation to compromise and drop or water down feminism for the sake of peace among the poor in the war on the rich will be intense, but the reasons to stick to a feminist approach are strong. It is of course not feminism that divides people into men and women and enlists the former to participate in the oppression of the latter; it is sexism. Women will and do revolt against this oppression, the only question is – will the current service delivery protest groups be vehicles or targets of this revolt?

Wherever service delivery protests have crystallised into movements, women have tended to be in the majority among members precisely because they have had the status of most-favoured-targets with neo-liberal states and companies for the longest time. Invariably and inevitably the women members demand of these movements, their movements, what amounts to action against sexism. In the cases where male leaders and members were able to suppress or ignore this demand it had a demobilising effect, with women either dropping out, or members becoming involved in paralysing conflicts, or the movements becoming more moderate in their opposition to neo-liberalism, or a combination of the three. The movements that have listened to this demand and made it their own, in contrast, could count on the energetic participation and courageous loyalty of their women members as a source of inspiration and growth.

Of course this does not mean that a feminist focus guarantees short term success. The opposite is quite possible; the reactionary reassertion of the patriarchal rights of men often makes it more difficult for feminist orientated activists to organise. In the short term groups that steer clear of a feminist approach might find the work of mobilising people if not easier then at least more comfortable. They would seemingly avoid having to fight on yet another front. It does not take long, however, for the strategic benefits of a feminist approach to service delivery struggle to overshadow the discomforts patriarchal defensiveness are able to impose on its challengers. The struggles of the poor cannot be separated from the struggles of poor women.

A society without poverty and inequality will have done away with the social practices and relationships that cause these evils. Violence, forced separation, unrewarded labour, discrimination, regimentation, inferiority, exclusion, dehumanisation – all of these types of things will have to go. But these are the stuff that sexism is made of. If the service delivery protests are animated, as they arguably are, by more than just a desire for a specific service, then it is also driven by an assertion of a human dignity that is incompatible with impoverishment and the inequalities it produces. This dignity and sexism are mortal enemies.

5. Alienation

What are the obstacles to an approach that seeks to integrate the struggles of the poor for decent services and democratic power with attempts to do away with white privilege, the capitalist state, authoritarian organisations and institutionalised sexism? The truth is that whatever the weight of reason and evidence behind such an approach, it goes against the common sense and assumptions that underlie most social interactions in South Africa today. In the scope of the liberation it seeks, and in demanding of itself immediacy in the practice of this liberation, this approach goes against the very grain of capitalist society, its institutions and its culture. The state and business corporations are here, like elsewhere, the crucial institutional bearers of this culture, but in the black community long excluded from membership of these bodies except in the most menial roles, the ANC was the main embodiment of capitalist social relations in the political sphere.

This reflects firstly in the relationship of the ANC to its individual members. In the official ideology of the ANC, the movement is everything, the individual nothing. The members relate to the movement as subjects to a god. Even the words ‘the movement’ is said with a religious awe, and the most powerful ANC leaders always present themselves as simple, disempowered ‘deployees’ that go wherever they are mandated to go, and cannot imagine living outside the movement. This attitude is promoted as an anti-dote to capitalist ‘individualism’, but it actually reproduces the type of oppressive relationship typical of capitalist society.

In pre-capitalist societies oppression typically involved subordination to a particular person. In unstable situations such subordination was based on interpersonal violence; in more stable ones the violence was supplemented by the power of the idea that some are just born to rule over others. Even that great abstraction, the state, was based on subordination to a particular person, the king. In the capitalist era the violence continued in a different way, the idea of born rulers was largely replaced by an idea (found in a million guises) of carefully selected and specially qualified rulers, and both were supplemented and overshadowed by the idea, or rather the fetish of collective service to a great, supra-personal abstraction.

Workers in a particular firm are not subordinated to their bosses in the same way as serfs, slaves and commoners were to their lords and masters. In the capitalist firm the lord and master is the pursuit of profit, which both workers and bosses experience as a relentless external pressure, a fetish that everyone has to obey on pain of deprivation by an impersonal force called the ‘market’. Workers accept subordination to bosses not because they fear assault or they think the bosses are a superior type of human, but because if they refuse they either face dismissal or the firm will go under, with the same result. When it comes to society as a whole profit’s pursuit is called ‘economic growth’ or ‘the national economy’ and is similarly fetishized. Capitalist parties may differ in their methods but serving ‘the economy’ is their unquestioned goal.

But when a capitalist party is based in a community where capitalism is discredited a problem arises. Such a community do not share in the fetish of pursuing profit, not at the level of the firm and not at the social level, so something extra is needed to ensure their subordination to the capitalist system. Historically such parties used two options, firstly to increase levels of violence against dissidents within the community, and secondly to make the pursuit of its own power into a fetish. The party itself becomes the great abstraction demanding of members to alienate their human capacities to freely think, decide and create jointly, and hand it over to the ‘the party’ or ‘the movement’. People then become the subordinates of capital through subordination to this party. This is precisely what happened with the ANC.

The problem is that whenever service delivery struggles have produced stable movements there has been a tendency to reproduce this alienating ideology of the ANC with its hatred of personal liberty and human individuality. Of course these movements are at an early stage of development with less centralisation and more appreciation for local autonomy. But the early signs are of similar attempts to create a closed off world with strict distinction between outsiders and insiders and a total identification of members with the idea of the movement, an identification that demands sacrificing public dissent and even diversity. There is no recognition of the possibility of loyal, public criticism. In public people are either uncritical of the movement or enemies of the poor.

Since at least the middle 1980s most political and activist organisations of blacks have started as breakaways from the ANC that was dissatisfied with policy and leadership, but have not developed a critique of the ANC’s organisational ideology. Without such a critique it has proved impossible to avoid and overcome the reproduction of the problems associated with authoritarianism and subordination inherent in this ideology. If this makes change for service delivery protest movements very difficult it is because that is exactly what it is intended to do. Courage and encouragement are required. In the absence of one of the recurring mass revolts against capitalist society the promoters of revolutionary change for universal emancipation are likely to be a put upon minority. Such an uprising will come soon enough.

Ronald Wesso, July 2011

Leave a comment