South Africa Today – The Moral Responsibility Of Intellectuals

South Africa Today – The Moral Responsibility Of Intellectuals

Abstract: Neville Alexander’s analysis of post-apartheid’s challenges in South Africa has been submitted by the author as a realistic but hopeful view of what a transformed Palestine-Israel can be, as well as sounding salutory warnings on the complacency of a post-conflict state.

It is the role of the Arab intellectual today to articulate and defend the principles of liberation and democracy at all costs, and to do so by impressing the leadership of the Arab nation with these realities and values. Otherwise, our future if we are to have one at all is extremely grim, and in a sense not worth defending[2].

1. On the occasion of the 10th anniversary of the Foundation for Human Rights, it is appropriate to remind ourselves of the historic significance of the negotiated settlement that brought a formal end to the rule of the apartheid regime. Elsewhere, I have referred to this as the last act in the very gradual abolition of slavery. Above all, however, in constitutional terms, the settlement initiated the establishment of a liberal democracy in which civic, social and economic rights were entrenched. As one who has spent my entire adult life in the cause of the urban and rural poor of this country and beyond, I am, naturally, especially interested in the realisation and entrenchment of those rights that are relevant to them, such as the right to work, the right to form trade unions, the right to strike, the right to maternity leave, the right to use the language of one’s choice, in short, all those rights that potentially improve and secure the wellbeing of the oppressed and exploited majority. This is, to repeat the point, a momentous achievement of the new South Africa. However, as Edward Said’s words, cited in the epigraph, make abundantly clear, we would be failing in our duty as organic intellectuals of the working classes, were we to keep quiet about the very real dangers that are engulfing us in South Africa today.

2. The moral crisis of the elite in the new South Africa has been the subject of much recent media attention, and deservedly so. All of a sudden, examples of corruption, profligate spending of public money for the personal edification of political and other prominent public figures, incredible sexism, outright theft and fraud, and even murder and assassination, apparently linked to somehow shady business deals, among many other things, are reaching the headlines and front pages of electronic and print media on a daily basis. In this connection, the goings-on around the person of Mr Jacob Zuma are, not to put too fine a point on it, the tip of a melting iceberg. Within the circles of the elite itself, the question about the kinds of role models that a society that is supposedly committed to democracy, equality, freedom and, as incongruous as it already sounds today, to solidarity, should be projecting and preferring. The tidal wave of violent crime and abuse, which is the direct consequence of the structural inequality and the mental structures that characterise post-apartheid South Africa, demands of the radical intelligentsia that we go into emergency mode. And, while we have to consider seriously the pertinent effects of the legacy of colonialism and apartheid in this context, it is time that we stop justifying our intellectual timidity and lack of historical imagination with this threadbare mantra.

3. Ever more frequently, those of us who fought consciously and often at great personal cost for the liberation of South Africa from the shackles of apartheid and capitalism are left asking ourselves whether this is the kind of society we had in mind when, like Faust in Scene 2 of Goethe’s enduring drama, we dreamt of a country where we would be able to exclaim triumphantly: Hier bin ich Mensch, hier darf ich’s sein!

4. In the context of this celebration of 10 years of the Foundation for Human Rights, I am tempted to pose the question slightly differently: Why is it that in spite of a constitution that was arrived at in a 20th century model of democratic bargaining and consensus building and in which are enshrined some of the noblest sentiments and insights concerning human rights, we are living in a situation where very few of those rights appear to be realised, or even realisable, in practice?

5. Why single out the elite, and the intellectuals in particular, for special scrutiny? Is it not true that a people get the government it deserves? Did the vast majority of the people not choose this government in a free and fair election?  Are we not all to blame? The short answer to these questions is the simple word: leadership. Because it is impossible to analyse this issue adequately in the space of a short talk, I shall present no more than the outline of what I consider to be essential social research.

6. I wish to emphasise that this is not a critique of the government. That would be a different kind of exercise. It is, instead, a critique of and a challenge to South Africa’s elite, specifically the intelligentsia.

7. Elites are the inevitable result of asymmetrical power relations which are themselves the consequence of historically evolved class societies. Elites are not necessarily elitist. University students, for example, who in all societies continue to be among the privileged few hence an elite don’t have to behave in an elitist manner. Elitism is an aspect of the ideology of a ruling class that has become a class-for-itself, i.e., one that consciously acts on the assumption that if all people did as its members do, they would be doing the right thing. In the era of capitalism, it is an ideology that justifies privilege and inequality in terms of merit based on individual competition, regardless of how and why some of the individuals are endowed with a headstart while others are hobbled by handicaps at the starting blocks. Because capitalism is an integrated world system, this phenomenon is global in scope. It shapes the consciousness of all modern elites. Oscar Lafontaine, one of the leaders of the German Party of the Left, in a recent critique of the dominant neoliberal ideology[3], cites a statement by the German Chancellor, Angela Merkel, to the effect that the efficiency and productivity of the strong and powerful is the driving force of democracy and freedom. According to her, more freedom is dependent on us having many more strong and powerful people so that they can pull everyone else along with them and, thus, make available more to the weaker ones. We need a country where performance is the heart of the system and if we have the stomach for performance, then we should also have the stomach for more and ever more performance. To this, the left social democrat, Lafontaine responds with words that capture exactly the point I wish to make:

The fact that the weak and the strong ones go to the starting blocks endowed with very unequal skills, wealth and social capital is not mentioned in this way of seeing the matter. To take account of this would entail recognition of the right to freedom and to equality of opportunity of every individual. We see, therefore, that the neoliberal idea of freedom represents a regression to the prevailing ethos before the era of the French Enlightenment when it was already clear that it is law that establishes equality between the weak and the strong and that freedom without law is tantamount to oppression. Neoliberalism does not believe in strengthening the weak and promoting equality of opportunity. Their wellbeing is, instead, supposed to depend on the generosity and the uplifting example of the stronger ones. The weak are social ballast, able to relate to the strong only as dependants and beggars.

8. There are too many issues to be dealt with in the time at our disposal. Hence, I shall discuss a few of those I consider to be crucial to understanding and, more important, to acting towards the creation of a counter-current to that which seems to be prevalent at the moment.

(a) The discussion about whether or not the ANC has become an ordinary political party as opposed to a nationalist or even a quasi-socialist movement should be conducted in terms of whether the driving force of that organisation and of the millions it represents is constituted by passion or by interests. Edward Said, taking up a strand of social analysis originally suggested by Albert Hirschman in an attempt to explain why the Renaissance curiosity and the imaginative exploratory prowess of the Early Modern Europeans degenerated into the cynical expansion of capitalism that it became, concluded that it boiled down to the argument that human passion should give way to interests as a method of governing the world[4]. Once this pattern is established, the mind-set of those who have to coordinate and manage the system changes fundamentally and the continuities with the past weigh much more heavily than the discontinuities. To put it differently, in our specific case, the fact that there was no social revolution in the early 1990s means that the capitalist class continues to hold all the strategic positions and the new cohort of managers of the system (to use a traditional Marxist postulate) have had to adapt their ways of seeing and thinking about things. There is no doubt about this. Only vested interest prevents one from registering this phenomenon as fact.

(b) Capital is amoral. Ardent as well as reluctant racists of yesteryear have all become convinced non-racialists bound to all South Africans under the united colours of capitalism[5] in an egregious atmosphere of Rainbow nationalism. The same class of people, often the very same individuals, who funded Verwoerd, Vorster and Botha are funding the present regime. The latter has facilitated the expansion of South African capital into the African hinterland in ways of which the likes of Cecil John Rhodes or Ernest Oppenheimer could only dream. Be that as it may: it is simply foolish to think that it could have been otherwise. In this connection, it is pertinent to point out that the strategy of Black Economic Empowerment broad-based or narrow is immaterial is no more than smoke and mirrors, political theatre on the stage of the national economy. The only way that erstwhile Marxist revolutionaries in the liberation movement can justify their support and even enthusiastic promotion of these developments is by chanting the no longer convincing mantra: There is no alternative! Hence, we need to examine this particular mystification and abdication of intellectual responsibility.

(c) To begin with, this was never true. Human beings always have alternatives. Otherwise, they would not be human beings. In the extreme case, the alternative is death. But, it is unnecessary to be melodramatic. In our case, as in the case of so many other countries in the South, the alternative to the neoliberal hegemony of the past three decades has been, and continues to be, the long march. The very nature of the capitalist system guarantees not that it will collapse of its own accord, since wars and other forms of wanton destruction ensure that it can always be resilient hence the success in the Middle East of Bush and of the military-industrial complex behind him, but that it will reach the point where the wretched of the earth, under the leadership of organised masses of productive workers will bring it to a dead halt in one country after another. This is identifiably the master narrative of classical Marxism and of other brands of socialist thought. Whether or not it is still feasible after the collapse of the USSR and other state socialist entities after 1989 is irrelevant. The alliance of historical agents that will initiate the collapse of the system will in all likelihood look very different from that which we had had in mind even a few years ago. The important point is that the alternative to promoting the neoliberal hegemony is to undermine the capitalist system by strengthening democracy. In other words there is a profound truth in Marx’s aphorism that democracy as we know it is nothing else than the dictatorship of the bourgeoisie. I refer you again to the quote from Lafontaine. It is the inadequacy and the inconsistency inherent in bourgeois notions of freedom and democracy that have to be exposed by the intelligentsia. This is our continuing revolutionary task and our challenge, one that is particularly relevant to organisations such as the Foundation for Human Rights.

(d) I will not waste our time by discussing the vulgarity and the philistinism that characterise the behaviour of so many of the new elite as described in media reports and as one can observe at any gathering of these people. Bishop Tutu and other professional custodians of our moral wellbeing have albeit with very little success done this eloquently enough. More important are questions such as whether even in the context of a liberal democracy for example, it is necessary to perpetuate racial identities, the cynical, almost psychopathic disregard for ordinary human fellow-feeling that is supposed to lie at the heart of our vaunted African humanism of ubuntu, or, at a more mundane level, the utterly stupid custom of continuing to dress ourselves in the inappropriate garments that evolved in a remote European climate. (I am particularly irritated by the gowns and hoods that South African universities and even preschools think to be de rigueur!).

(e) Given the global paradigms within which we are willy-nilly operating and the imperatives of historical redress, it is one of the most tragic facts of post-apartheid South Africa that we have comprehensively fooled ourselves into believing that because we have black skins, we are automatically good people. This is the reason why all too often we have incompetent, inexperienced people appointed to positions that are way above their actual capacity at the time. This is a wrong and thoughtless, short-term response to the legacy of colonial and apartheid racism. There are other ways of dealing with this issue and with related issues of education and training. To fool ourselves, as we have also done in respect of the AIDS challenge, is the worst possible redress. We are going to pay bitterly in terms of socio-psychological and economic damage for this unnecessary strategy. Most instructive in this regard is the story of Khanya College, which was founded on, among other things, the fact that Bantu and other forms of apartheid education for black people, had to be recognised as having actually disadvantaged our children, the young activists of the 1980s, given the hegemonic educational mindsets at the time. Denialism in all dimensions of our society, including, devastatingly, – until very recently – that of crime, is the beginning of a disaster waiting to happen.

(f) The quality of all our lives has been ruined by the understandable paranoia that the ubiquity of violent crime in a thousand different forms has brought with it. This crime wave, as we see in comparable situations in countries like Russia, is one of the results of the democratic opening up of the apartheid society, where it had been confined to the black locations and the Bantustans, unseen by the inhabitants of the largely white leafy suburbs. It is none the less difficult to believe that a party that had prided itself for some five years in the early 1990s that it was preparing to govern had somehow not realised that this would be one of the immediate challenges to continuing bourgeois stability in the new South Africa. Now, it is imperative, for all the best imaginable reasons, including especially the protection and realisation in practice of our constitutional and natural rights to dignity and safety, that decisive action be taken, regardless of how such action will affect the popularity and the voting profile in future elections of any parliamentary party. Otherwise, the future of our children will be mortgaged to a kind of Bacchic dystopia as portrayed in Euripides’s ancient play. Already, we are witness to the brazen and systematic disregard for the law and for the orderly behaviour that are the hallmark and the precondition of a civilised society. And, this is the real point, it is not just the crazed taxi-drivers who are possessed by this Bacchanalian spirit.

(g) We are building a new historical community in South Africa. The Truth and Reconciliation Commission, whatever its virtues and positive legacies I have referred to these in my book An Ordinary Country could not establish the social basis for this new community. Reconciliation and forgiveness between two individuals or even small groups of people, such as families, is possible and often happens. Social reconciliation under conditions of cruel inequality such as we have in South Africa is not only impossible; it is a lie that has to be exposed. We will have to work very hard at bringing about social cohesion and national unity. How and for what purposes such a project should be undertaken is too big a subject to enter into here. Suffice it to say that unless the Gini coefficient is tackled seriously, all talk of social cohesion and national unity is so much nonsense. The implications of this apparently simple and apodeictic statement are profound. As profound, I am bold enough to say, as the Benedictine demolition of limbo as a site of sterile happiness for the luckless many that were consigned to it until a few weeks ago.

(h) What should we do? Is there a more or less clear road map to a different destination than the one on which we seem to be hell-bent at the moment?
The short answer is YES! There is, as this statement implies, a very long answer, almost as long as the long march, but that is precisely what I meant at the beginning of this talk when I referred to the social research that awaits those of us who are not satisfied to be towed along by the Bacchanalian drivers of the neoliberal tow-trucks currently controlled and deployed by President Mbeki and his colleagues. It has always been the task of the intelligentsia to speak out and to indicate what the alternatives are. In sum, I believe that we have to transform our uhuru into ubuntu[6]. We have to find our way back to the passion and the values of freedom, equality and solidarity that drove us to struggle against the apartheid system. We have to get back to the modesty and the generosity of spirit that inspired most of us then. Besides ensuring that democratic legislation in favour of the poor and the oppressed strata of our new South Africa is put on the statute book and implemented efficiently, we have to go back to the communities and to the grassroots in all their different forms. We have to rebuild our neighbourhoods on the basis of mutual trust and mutual aid, sharing our resources and our skills, by gradually establishing cooperative forms of production, distribution and exchange until these reach all levels of the economy. It is not true that human beings, including black-skinned human beings, are necessarily good or necessarily bad. We have to insist that we want to create the kind of society where, as the late Ernest Mandel said in a memorable speech on the campus of the University of the Western Cape in Cape Town in 1992, the Biblical simplicity of the injunction of the Sermon on the Mount becomes the practical programme of socialism.


Can we do this in South Africa today?

[1] Speaker’s notes for Lecture delivered at the 10th Anniversary celebration of the Foundation for Human Rights in Pretoria, 29 November 2006. An earlier version of this talk was delivered at the UCT School of Medicine in October 2006.
[2]Edward Said. 1995. On Nelson Mandela and Others. The Politics of Dispossession. The Struggle for Palestinian Self-Determination 1969-1994. London: Vintage. (p. 371).
[3] Privatisierung bringt keine Freiheit. Die Neoliberale Politik beschaedigt das Gemeinwesen. Frankfurter Rundschau, 23 September 2006.
[4] Edward Said. 1994. Culture and Imperialism. London: Vintage. (p.225).
[5] Heribert Adam. 1995. The politics of ethnic identity: tentative theoretical and comparative conclusions from the South African case. Paper presented at the World Congress of Sociology RC 05. Bielefeld, Germany, 18-24 July 1994. Unpublished mimeo.
[6] It is one of the most hopeful signs of the intellectual renaissance that is beginning to stir on the margins of our society that besides those of us who are intent on and serious about finding a new language for and a new approach to adapting the fundamental insights of historical materialism to the changes in the world capitalist system, there are many initiatives from within the system itself that are beginning to ask the right questions about alternatives to the barbarism of real capitalism as it becomes manifest in neoliberal practice, structured in line with the requirements of the primacy of finance capital. Searching analyses of the consumerist model and its manipulation and exploitation of desire as opposed to the determining effects of the principle of sufficiency – along the lines of the French economists and philosophers, Andre Gorz and Bernard Stiegler, such as those by Johann Roussouw in recent issues of Die Vrye Afrikaan as well as the numerous stimulating articles by Margaret Legum and other exponents of the South African New Economics (SANE) Network in which the possibility of creating model enclaves based on production and exchange for use rather than for maximising profit, point the way towards re-establishing the credibility and the viability of economic and systemic alternatives that transcend the existing system. For, unless we are able to do this, it will be virtually impossible to find the Archimedean leverage that will ultimately remove the mental blockages by which the system maintains itself.
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