Neoliberal South Africa and the Narrowing of Democratic Space
By Vishwas Satgar
Member of CDL National Convening Committee
Presented to the 1st National Conference of the Democratic Left
I want to talk about this new category but by trying to place into perspective where we are as a country and the world. I am hoping through this contribution South Africa and the world would be much clearer about what the Democratic Left stands for.
I want to start with a sharp and provocative question: How Did Afro-Neoliberalism steal the South African Dream?
How Did Afro-Neoliberalism Steal the South African Dream?
In South Africa the struggle against racial and capitalist oppressions spawned a dream of a ‘liberated South Africa’. Such a dream was not just the words in document called the Freedom Charter it was also the everyday longing of the oppressed majority for a life better than the irrationality of apartheid. It is these multiple yearnings for hope and for dignity that framed the South African post-apartheid dream. This South African dream has not been realised but has been stolen by an indigenised transnational neoliberalism, a neoliberalism with African characteristics.
Such an Afro-neoliberalism has remade the accumulation model, state form, state-civil society relations and our international relations. It has imposed a re-imagined present on us. But how did Afro-neoliberalism steal the South African dream?
The short answer to the preceding question, which is both opportunistic and misleading, is that the glorious National Democratic Revolution was hijacked by a ‘1996 Class Project’. This explanation, which has become common sense amongst the mainstream national liberation left, and which has been used to propel a neo-Stalinist populism to the centre of South African politics, does not tell us how the South African dream was stolen. It is inadequate to say the least. Neither was the South African dream stolen by a conspiracy or by the parasitic and corrupt elements in our society.
The South African dream of hope and human dignity was stolen from the people through a new form of class rule. It is a form of class rule that has globalised the South African economy on the terms of transnational capital, has reduced the state to a technical manager of the ubiquitous market and has reduced citizenship to a formal ritual of passive voting. This structural shift had an agent, a champion or more precisely a bloc of popular and class forces. Central to this has been the ANC-led alliance which has made the choices that have brought us to where we are. It has done this as the ruling force in South Africa today. It has chose to rule South Africa in the interests of transnational capital and not in the interests of the people and ecological web that sustains life. This ANC-led Alliance must to take full responsibility for the fear, the despair and deprivation still endured by the majority particularly the workers and the poor. When millions remain unemployed, when inequality widens, when hunger stalks many households in the land, this is the product of ANC-led Alliance rule. This cannot be blamed on apartheid! Changing one ANC President with another, changing one ANC leader with another is not going to change this. Voting for the ANC at every election is not going to change this.
This theft of the South African dream has merely plunged South Africa deeper into crisis, a double conjunctural and structural crisis and a double squeeze on democracy.
South Africa’s Double Conjunctural and Structural Crisis: Afro-neoliberal Dystopia and the Global Civilisational Crisis
South Africa is not exceptional. Despite the specificity of Afro-neoliberalism the world over has been locked into a neoliberal trajectory of development over the past few decades. This globalised expansion of capitalism on a global scale has placed finance capital in the driving seat of global restructuring. The analogue for this is what happened in the 1920s and 1930s sometimes referred to as the great depression. Ironically under conditions of the great depression the world witnessed the rise of fascism. Today the world is in the grip neoliberal dogma and superpower imperialism. Actually, I would like to contend that transnational neoliberalism is the face of a new global fascism in which the rule of capital prevails on a planetary scale. Its own extremism is also engendering other extremes like religious fundamentalism, xenophobia and racism for instance.
However, besides transnational neoliberalism driving a global restructuring process in the interests of transnational capital it has also brought about a civilisational shift. It is about a civilisation of endless capitalist accumulation at the expense of human life, the ecological web of life and even democracy. In short, the crisis of transnational neoliberalism today due to the unravelling of global financial markets, which is a conjunctural crisis, is also a civilisational crisis. It is a civilisational crisis which could lead to the demise of planetary life in all its forms. This conjunctural and civilisational crisis has also added to the crisis of a globalised South Africa. A country which is tied into volatile global capitalist circuits of accumulation and which has made itself a willing node of reproducing capital and its exclusions. As a result it has brought to our shores the loss of one million jobs. Trevor Manuel’s macro-economic policy did not work!!! Afro-neoliberalism has not worked. This is South Africa’s second crisis.
All indications globally suggest that through the G20, the Cancun Summit, the World Economic Forum and even the crisis response of the United States that the global ruling class is not willing to define a world beyond capitalism and its total crisis. The solutions that go to the root of the global conjunctural and civilisational crisis are not on the agenda.
South Africa’s Double Squeeze on Democracy
The neoliberalisation of South Africa over the past 17 years has not produced a democracy responsive to the needs of the people and the ecological web. The internal re-engineering of democracy has produced the first squeeze against democracy. First, the disembedding and deterritorialisation of the market, has utopianised the market.
It has made the market our present and our future. The trap and cage of the market master narrative is profoundly undemocratic. It has been propagated in our public sphere such that its values of greed, possessive individualism and competition are hegemonic. It has become naturalised in everyday South African life. The values of Afro-neoliberalism guide our everyday social choices and has produced a dog eat dog society. In this way it closes and it ends history at the same time. There is no alternative. Now human beings in South Africa and the world over love to fantasize, to dream and rearrange reality through hoping for more and for something better.
Without this disposition an intrinsic part of what makes us human is killed. To dream of a better world and South Africa based on hope and dignity is a use value. It is outside capitalism. But the undemocratic and authoritarian nature of neoliberalism wants to take this away from us. It is narrowing democracy in a way that may not be visible but is actually terrifying.
Second, and part of the domestic squeeze against democracy has been a narrowing of the boundaries of democracy and the meaning of citizenship. Our dream of a peoples democracy has been shrunk from the triad of strong representative, associational and participatory democracy dynamically working together, to a form of weak representational democracy. Our politicians have become technocrats in this context merely to serve the market and ultimately the power of capital. Politicians must manage ‘market democracy’ such that the juggernaut of accumulation is not contrained and growth is realised at all costs. This means a shallow performance or semblance of democracy is enough. The index of electoral voting is a measure of market democracy. A ‘free and fair elections’ with a voter turnout is adequate to legitimate the rule of capital and give a formal meaning to citizenship: I am a voter.
Actually, in this context we are not citizens but still subjects of capital!
The external squeeze on democracy emanates from the restructuring of the South African state. Besides globalising the economy, a globalised state has also reduced democratic space. This has happened through locking the South African state into a global power structure serving and reproducing the rule of transnational capital. The WTO, IMF, World Bank, G20, World Economic Forum, and the UN are all crucial tansnational policy making for a. These institutions are not there to serve global citizenship but are there to ensure global capitalism thrives. South Africa is a key player in all these institutions. Through its participation in this global power structure South Africa transmits a global consensus on what capital wants back into the domestic context. A weak representative democracy is literally a transmission belt of this global consensus.
Redefining the Category ‘Left’: Authoritarian Left versus Democratic Left
specifica or specific characteristics of who we are? What makes us a democratic left? This is an important question for this conference and process. I want to suggest that the best way to understand who we are is by distinguishing ourselves from the authoritarian national liberation left.
So then what are the specific characteristics of an authoritarian national liberation left? Simply there are three defining characteristics. First, the authoritarian national liberation left is implicated directly and indirectly, consciously or consciously, intentionally or unintentionally, in engendering the double crisis of South Africa and the double squeeze on South African democracy. It is a left not transforming capitalism but trying to manage it even through sacrificing democracy. It is a left not willing to go beyond it. This has and will express itself either as neoliberal variants of state capitalism, social democracy or African capitalism. The Democratic Left on the other hand is seeking transformative alternatives to the double crisis of South Africa and is seeking to renewing democracy as a weapon against capitalism. The Democratic Left is anti-capitalist.
Second, the authoritarian national liberation left is locked in a state centric practice. Society must be engineered from above and through the state. The coercive apparatus of the state, its intervention capacity, must be harnessed to bring change to the people. The people are passive recipients of what is deemed in their best interests. The Democratic Left on the other hand is seeking to democratise and embed the state in civil society. It is about building the capacity of the people, particularly the working class and the poor from below, to lead societal change. It is about a relational understanding of the state in which the power of the people determines the power of the state.
The third defining characteristic of the Democratic Left is about our vision of hope and dignity for South Africa. Unlike the authoritarian national liberation left our
vision is not technocratic or defined by an ideological vanguard. Our vision is people driven. This then speaks to how we construct a vision.
Capitalism the Enemy of Hope and Dignity: Guidelines for Reclaiming an Anti-Capitalist Vision of Hope and Dignity
First, to develop a South African vision of hope and dignity necessitates an appreciation that history does not have a predetermined outcome. There a no certainties that capitalism will end up in a post-capitalist world. At the same time, this necessitates an appreciation of having a utopian orientation in our practice. It means being conscious of the passions, dreams and aspirations amongst the people that frame a vision of hope and dignity. It means taking seriously and being attentive to the expressions of peoples utopian ambitions as expressed through various cultural forms like music, art, poetry, architecture, essays, stories and so on for a life world beyond capitalism.
Second, that a South African vision of hope and dignity, a utopian dimension to democratic left practice is born out of struggles and is therefore concrete. It has to be a vision forged on the frontlines and battlefronts against the multiple oppressions of capitalism. It is a vision that has to anticipate the making of another South Africa possible and necessary by articulating a grass roots appreciation of what it means to build a South Africa beyond and outside capitalism. It has be a vision shaped and formed by the values, aspirations and alternative understandings that have emerged in grass roots struggles. All we can do is create the conditions for these voices to emerge from below to articulate this vision in a coherent way.
Third, and flowing from the preceding point is that, we do not have the answers and do not have a blue print for the future. As a political process we will create the conditions for the social character of knowledge to prevail. We will learn from and with the people about the way forward beyond capitalism. The Mine-Line factory occupation is a clear example of this. Such a learning process will ensure a collective intellectual endeavour of equals prevails inside the CDL process. Workers, street traders, the unemployed, academics and so on will learn from each other and ensure a collective wisdom frames a new South African future.
Long live the Democratic Left!
Another South Is Possible!
Forward to a People Driven Vision of Hope and Dignity for South Africa!