It is during times like these that we should
think back to the era of leaders like Robert Sobukwe, who championed a politics
that was civil and disciplined. Sobukwe’s legacy is increasingly being evoked,
but we need to ask whether our society is being true to his memory. To borrow
Benjamin Pogrund’s phrasing, Sobukwe has been ‘airbrushed’ out of the
liberation history and, until recently, not much has been written about him. On
the occasion of the renaming of Wits University’s Central Block to the Robert
Sobukwe Block, former Deputy Chief Justice Dikgang Moseneke remarked:
is … deeply disingenuous to suggest that any of our valiant heroes may be
discarded or hidden under the rubble of history. Their ideas will tend to
surface and resurface because they are a vital part of a progressive knowledge
Sobukwe’s ideas are indeed
resurfacing at a time when South Africans are calling into question the ANC’s
leadership over the past 25 years. However, it is not only his ideas that need
to resurface but also his style of leadership.
Sobukwe, by all accounts, conducted himself
with dignity and decorum and rejected the politics of militarism and spectacle
that have come to define radical politics in South Africa today. The implicit
assumption by some radical activists recently is that social mobilisation and
progressive politics have to be undisciplined, threatening and violent if they
are to be radical, a view that is at odds with the personal conduct of many of
the grand leaders of the radical political tradition from whom these same
activists draw inspiration. If these activists read widely enough, rather than
relying on rhetorical statements and party memorabilia, they would know that Sobukwe,
Cabral, Biko, Fanon, Alexander, Guevara and the like were often courteous
individuals who underscored the importance of discipline. In their world, being
ill-disciplined could cost lives.
The Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) in
particular has branded themselves as a radical political party, but are their
actions truly in line with the radical politics of the past? Derek Hook argues
that the EFF are ‘in many respects Sobukwe’s political heirs’ as both the PAC
and EFF are breakaways from the ANC Youth League (ANCYL) and some of their
positions are similar to those of Sobukwe.
However, the similarities end there.
The EFF, and particularly its leadership, favours a militaristic style of
populism that operates more in the realm of spectacle than ideas. Further to
this, Hook also points to the fact that Sobukwe had a ‘pronounced distaste for
wealth’, which is hard to reconcile with the ostentatious tendencies of Julius
Malema and others in the EFF leadership.
Perhaps the most telling difference is the
manner in which the EFF leadership conducts itself and encourages its ‘fighters’
to behave. Criticism of the EFF is met with vandalism, threats and violence by
its leadership and members. However, this behaviour is not limited to the EFF.
In recent years, we have seen several incidents in which a political mob has
mobilised over racist remarks or criticism of a politician. Many people’s
response would be: this is just an act of political spectacle by a political
party or radical activists. But to allow it to continue without protest is to
enable the naturalisation of such political behaviour in our society. Even at
the level of the hard-fought-for democratic Parliament, we are regularly
treated to a politics of spectacle in which name-calling and fist fights are
more common than robust debate on inequality in our society. These acts are not
the evolution of a supposed progressive politics. At the core of the crisis in
our democracy today is a lack of civility and accountability. We need to
examine how this has developed and what the consequences are. We also need to
look to how this can be reversed, otherwise the democratic foundations of our
society will continue to be eroded.
Is civility important to democratic politics?
The obvious answer is yes. But there are many in our democratic institutions
who believe that civility is a bourgeois norm that has helped to mask the
growth of inequalities in the last two decades. Civility is seen as being
supportive of the status quo, a behaviour typical of older political
generations who were unable to transform the economy and society. Too many
young activists, and now increasingly politicians, speak with a sense of
bravado about their politics being ‘robust’. However, this has now become code
for rudeness, uncivil behaviour, use of expletives, disruption and the
violation of the rights of others, and sometimes even violence. Robust politics
and engagement does not mean resorting to violent action.
Uncivil politics, as distinct from extra-institutional
politics, has its roots in the politics of the right and fascist movements in
the interwar years. These movements were marginal political entities that used
the rights (and never took on the responsibility obligations) of their
democratic systems to build their bases and subvert democracy itself. A less
toxic, relatively more peaceful and non-racial, uncivil politics emerged in
the student movements of the West during the 1960s and 1970s. These were extra-institutional
and disruptive mobilisations but were on balance directed at bringing people
together across racial and ethnic divides.
Yet there were strands within the movement
that overplayed their hand and increasingly became racialised and violent, and
were quickly suppressed by their respective governments. In the developing
world, we did not have the luxury of such incivility: abuse was a part of
people’s daily lives, activists were abused by police and the state’s henchmen,
and radical politics was increasingly about inclusion both in our ultimate goal
and in our daily practice. Ironically, those in South Africa who have recently
adopted this behaviour subscribe to radical or leftist thinking but have really
adopted the strategies and tactics of the right.
How is it that radical politics in South
Africa has come to this has its roots in the liberation movement itself.
Competitive liberation politics in the later years of the apartheid era
produced a toxicity that led to violence in some parts of the country. But this
was overshadowed by the widespread violence unleashed by the apartheid state
against all strands of the movement and communities. Perhaps this, together
with the fact that all of us were excluded from the state, ensured that the
intraparty and intra-liberation incivility and violence was contained by a
broader tradition of civility and comradeship within the liberation movement.
In the first decade of the post-apartheid
era, the ANC went out of its way to cultivate civility in public discourse and
parliamentary politics. A significant part of this had to do with Nelson
Mandela, who took on the responsibility of building bridges across South Africa’s
multiple divides in order to buy South Africa the political space to transform
itself. Thabo Mbeki also continued the civil tradition in public discourse and
parliamentary politics, perhaps assisted by his own intellectual orientation.
None of this must be interpreted to mean that political discourse was in any
way easy or not divisive.
The public discourse between Mbeki and DA leader Tony
Leon was very polarising, as was Mbeki’s public criticism of both intraparty
and external dissidents. But these polemics occurred largely within the
confines of the democratic system, even if they were unsavoury and may have
affronted particular individuals. Where Mbeki was seen to have crossed the
legitimate democratic line was in his treatment of some intraparty dissidents,
particularly in the use of state institutions to settle party-political
battles. But these democratic breaches were confined to the ruling party, and
mainstream public discourse and parliamentary politics remained relatively free
of this kind of uncivil politics.
Jacob Zuma changed all of this. The impetus
came with the firing of Zuma as deputy president after he was implicated during
the corruption trial of Schabir Shaik. This prompted Zuma to launch the
succession race for the ANC presidency, supported by the ANCYL, the Congress of
South African Trade Unions (Cosatu) and the South African Communist Party
(SACP). The latter two were not natural allies of Zuma but mistakenly believed
that they could control him and thereby effect a more social-democratic and
inclusive political economy. Zuma and those around him fed the illusion by
sprouting anti-neoliberal rhetoric. Suddenly all and sundry, including dubious
business figures, state officials and mainstream ANC and Youth League activists
became ardent socialists, at least until they were safely ensconced in public
But the more important effect of this
succession battle was that Zuma breached all of the known ANC conventions in
his use of strategies and tactics. Zuma, through the ANCYL in particular, pioneered
a politics of spectacle that was mainstreamed into the popular discourse and in
the broader public arena. This involved the advancement of an ethnic and/or
racial politics, the public slander of individuals, threats of violence and a
social mobilisation that trashed public facilities and private businesses and
mythologised militarism. These tactics were most tragically deployed in the
mobilisation outside the courts during Zuma’s rape trial, particularly targeted
at the rape victim, Khwezi, and were led in principle by leading ANCYL members
at the time.
The tactics perfected outside the courts were also deployed
against leaders within the ANC, and particularly against those associated with
Mbeki. Unruly behaviour that was previously typical of ANCYL meetings became a
feature of ANC gatherings. This, together with the Cosatu-SACP alliance
arrayed against Mbeki, and the latter’s tragic miscalculation to stand for a
third term as ANC president, delivered both the organisation’s and the country’s
presidency to Zuma.
The unholy alliance around Zuma was soon to
unravel. In Shaik brothers, Zwelinzima Vavi, Julius Malema, Floyd Shivambu,
Blade Nzimande and the SACP – fell out with Zuma and were marginalised. Malema,
Shivambu and the Youth League leadership initially held out and were alleged to
have been involved in all kinds of tender irregularities in Limpopo province.
But, in December 2011, as the scale of this corruption spread and the province
was severely bankrupted, National Treasury, under then minister of finance
Pravin Gordhan, was forced to intervene and clean up the mess. In the
subsequent political fight, Malema and Shivambu turned against the Zuma
leadership. As their antics became increasingly embarrassing to the party, they
were tossed out of the ANC and went on to form the EFF from the remnants of the
then Youth League.
Nobody expected the EFF to survive. It defied
all predictions of demise and proceeded to become a thorn in the side of Zuma. Three
features aided it in this regard – one structural and the other two agential.
The structural feature was the increasing alienation of the youth, both within
poor communities and among the emerging middle classes. This is a worldwide
phenomenon but is more accentuated in South Africa by widespread poverty,
increasing inequality within society and the toxic identity politics that this
has spawned among black people in the mainly middleclass suburbs. The first
agential feature was the financial support that Malema was alleged to have
mobilised in some very dubious quarters, including among shady businessmen and
tobacco smugglers. The second agential feature was the increasing divisions
within the ANC, which came with an everincreasing number of leaks that
continually fed the EFF leadership. ANC factions of course believed that they
were using the EFF to inflict damage on their intraparty opponents, but the
EFF leadership used the leaked information strategically as and when it suited
them to weaken the ANC and build their own capabilities.
If this had been all that the EFF did, it
would have been perfectly legitimate. But the EFF went beyond this to perfect
the politics of spectacle that they had learnt outside the courts during Jacob
Zuma’s trial and now deployed this within the parliamentary precinct and in the
broader society. The politics of spectacle, reflected in the chants to Zuma to ‘pay
back the money’ and in the continued haranguing of Zuma and other ANC leaders,
was devastatingly effective. It wrongfooted ANC parliamentarians, whose overwhelming
parliamentary majority was no antidote to the spectacle of disruption. Even
when security measures were utilised and EFF parliamentarians were evicted,
they would simply repeat the exercise on the next occasion. Focused solely on
the unravelling of the Zuma administration and unconstrained as a result of
having no desire to convince the electorate of their ability to rule, the EFF’s
strategies proved to be successful.
* This is an edited
extract from Robert Mangaliso Sobukwe. New reflections, edited by Benjamin Pogrund, published by Jonathan Ball Publishers. Catch the book launch on Monday. November 4 at Exclusive Books in Rosebank and on Wednesday, November 6 at Exclusive Books in Cavendish.
** Professor Adam Habib is Vice Chancellor of Wits University. Dr Alexandra Leisegang holds a PhD from Wits. She has worked as a research consultant in the NGO sector as well as in political communications for the Democratic Alliance (DA).