The limits of politics

I think both the DA and the ANC might be on the verge of an evolutionary spurt that will change what they are and thus see them shifting into new ecological  niches in our political landscape.

I also think that the landscape itself changes much slower than we think or hope.

Voluntarism is a term for a species of political error – and I dredge this up from the gleaming days of my youthful involvement in the ‘mass democratic movement’ in South Africa. The taxonomic system we developed for naming and defining ‘mistaken beliefs’ was tiresomely thorough and self-righteous, but I have to confess that I still dip into that frame of reference and find there useful analogies and ways of understanding the world.

Voluntarism  means believing that through pure force of will, cleverness of organisation, brilliance of strategy, accuracy of tactics and shear hope, anything could be achieved no matter what the inherent conditions.

I am convinced that the Democratic Alliance foray into the townships and squatter camps is either a form of voluntarism or it will result in the DA becoming something else entirely – and ultimately something very similar to what the ANC has become.

This somewhat pessimistic view of politics is based on the assumption that politicians and political parties do not have a free hand to sell what they like to whoever (whomever?) they like.

The racial divide in South Africa and the racial solidarity of the groups which face each other across that divide is a deep structural phenomenon and not a casual consumer preference.

When Julius Malema talks about “the Madam and her tea girl” referring to DA chief Helen Zille and the DA MP and national spokesperson Lindiwe Mazibuko he finds a resonance.

This ‘resonance’ is not something created by clever marketing and it is also not something that can be got rid of like Vodacom changing its colours from blue to red.

Groups of people, their ideology, culture and attitudes can be changed – particularly in the powerfully denaturing environment of modern industrial cities. This is how an African peasantry became  the urban proletariat of South Africa’s modern capitalism. And it was this process that created the possibility of an ANC that represented all black Africans in the country and not just specific tribal groups.

But do not overestimate the power and speed of this process. Think of the ethnic boroughs in New York; think of the Xhosa/Zulu tussle in the ANC and think of the unbridgeable divide between the black and white experience in South Africa.

South Africa’s history, including colonialism and Apartheid, has a powerful momentum in our lives today. I think this means that the hope that the DA with more black faces and branches (but essentially the same ideology , structure and principles) could make a serious electoral challenge will remain just that – a hope.

A party still called the Democratic Alliance could displace the ANC, but only by becoming something very similar to its foe i.e. led by black people with a history of opposition to Apartheid and primarily about redressing the past,  directing state resources to benefit black people and  channelling wealth towards the emerging black elite.

The “rump” of the DA are good old white liberals (in the best sense of the word) who have their ideological roots in the closing years of Apartheid.

A party with such a “rump” will never (in any time frame that could be relevant to us) represent a majority of black South Africans – even urban professionals, even a significant minority. To represent those people the DA would have to be of those people, run by those people and be an instrument to further the interests of those people.

I do think urban African professionals are in the process of defecting, with disgust, from the ANC.

But I will be looking for a Movement for Democratic Change lookalike (to the ANC’s ZANU-PF) to emerge from the South African political dynamic.

That ultimately means I am still looking for an organised defection by the industrial working class and their middle class allies that will emerge from a split in the Ruling Alliance – that would probably put Cosatu on one side and the ANC on another.

On this basis the ANC could lose control of the cities to a political formation like the MDC –  although not one that could be portrayed, as the MDC has been by ZANU-PF and by the ANC (which can already sense the threat), as having been funded and set up by white farmers and other ‘enemies of national liberation’.

There is a part of me that hopes I am wrong … that we have it within ourselves to escape the awful gravity of our history; that we really are free to choose our future.

My view, however, is that the choices we do have are all within a narrow band of possibilities confined by the deep structural features of our past and present.

Thus the ecology of our society and our politics remains the same – or at least changes extremely slowly – but the creatures that inhabit the landscape are modified by natural selection and drift and displace each other in the niches that are available to them.

(My next post will deal with the question of what the ANC is becoming as it changes its niche as the party narrows and shifts – geographically, ideologically and socially.)

This added after publication:

The über-troll of South African political analysis R.W. Johnson added this gentle corrective to the version of the above article published on Politicsweb: “Am I the only person astonished by the fact that Mr Borain can’t spell voluntarism ?” He’s quite right about this – as he is about so much – although he is usually also interesting. He was, appropriately, hanging out with the racist bullies in Politicsweb’s comments section, so I shouldn’t be terribly surprised at his sneering tone.

The word is voluntarism (not volunterism, as I originally had it … I got it wrong because I mistakenly thought ‘we’  had made it up and I could therefore spell it as I pleased) and it means: “any theory that regards will as the fundamental agency or principle, in metaphysics, epistemology, or psychology”  – from Dictionary.com.

12 thoughts on “The limits of politics

  1. Excellent (and depressing) blog Nic. I do have my hopes raised by things like Cosatu opposing the classification of information bill, as they are today. Then again, the black middle class on Twitter are extremely doubtful of Cosatu’s ability to achieve anything, and particularly achieve anything in relation to this bill. My guess (and I’m not the country’s top political analyst and you are!) is that the elections in 13 years time will be the first to provide some real interest. Lets hope that it is for the right reasons …. such a long wait.

    1. Dankie Docta … it got republished on Politicsweb a few minutes ago .. always generates a bit of traffic for me, which is always welcome –

  2. Nic, like all of us, I enter a very selective and actually quite narrow strata of the collective South African psyche. I probably cross class and race a little easier than most. Hence I live in a peri-urban village that was a peaceful, crime-free bit of rural bliss 20 years ago. Today its a seething, simmering, angry, self-destructive, murderous township. I still find it a very chilled-out place.

    You’ll know that I hit (a selection) of Jozi townships on a regular basis, to party, chill, enjoy the sophisticated mind-sets that are emerging among post-Apartheid youth, but above all to marvel at the dramatic and constructive socio-economic development in places that were riddled by third-party violence 20 years ago.

    I spend substantive time working in deep rural areas (where urbanisation is a rapid dynamic in an unlikely setting; and value systems have disintegrated); and I can’t resist the regular lure of the urban setting I emerged from (which I find to be the most static and depressing in terms of people’s inter-relationships, as opposed to the extraordinary degree of creative material energy and renewal).

    You’ll get a hint of my comment on your piece above, in the juxtaposition of different living realities emerging over a mere generation (20 years). So I think your recent evolutionary readings (or maybe the impending media focus later this year on climate change) have made you a bit nostalgic for your old revolutionary energies, and provided perhaps a too-static time-rame for change.

    I am addicted to watching live games at our soccer stadiums. One of the reasons is the incredible diversity in group psyches that you encounter when you forage between Ellis Park and Soccer City; Orlando and a Diski venue in Katlehong; Nelspruit and Cape Town; Rustenburg and PE. Its a very revealing live comment on the unevenness of change in the South African psyche.

    I agree with the greater part of your analysis, bar a few minor distractions. I think you over-estimate COSATU’s influence. It has no hold on either the rural masses or the rapidly expanding black middle-class (although it provides a moral compass of sort, albeit mostly selectively promoted by a narrow class-based media). The so-called Xhosa/Zulu divide is a myth. It had a brief demagogic moment a generation ago, fueled by well-documented right-wing agendas. It really stands out as a myth in the Jozi townships, where Zulu has a defining hold on linguistic discourse, but the rest is banter. Unlike Mbeki, Zuma is a popular and regular visitor to the Eastern Cape (as is Malema). These visits are partially about symbolism, and partially about strengthening hegemony in a notoriously otherwise and fickle region.

    I find that your ‘unbridgeable divide between the black and white experience’ collapses spectacularly when white people let go. Its a peripheral issue from the ‘other’ side. And I disagree that ‘urban African professionals are in the process of defecting, with disgust, from the ANC’. Maybe the twittering model C’s. (Yes, stereotyping finds resonance; hence the Zille tea girl and THAT attitude speaks a (partial) home truth, but it is ingested mostly in jest. You’re mistaking robust criticism for disgust.

    Perhaps more indicative of the future is what I find to be a prevailing reality about the Mzansi youth: we don’t care about politics. Its an attitude that is most deeply rooted where opportunity is perceived; and where such opportunity is linked to local-level economic development and education. It is much less visible where hope is forlorn. It is here where the ANC’s demagogues are the beneficiaries. Perhaps – but I won’t know – this reality is mirrored on the Cape Flats, in favour of the DA. As I said at the beginning, I enter a very selective and actually quite narrow strata of the collective South African psyche. We all do. The ANC bridges it better than anyone else. That is its history, its core strength.

    1. Thanks for that Andre, really interesting as always- and you do bring an extremely unusual perspective that I always value … and one I am deeply conscious that I lack. I will not respond directly as you cover some of the ground of my follow on post which I am going to get busy with now … do yourself a disfavour and go and see the comment thread on this post on politicsweb (they republished it and have a much bigger readership) … do it and weep … or vomit, whichever is more appropriate …

      1. (smile) I value Politicsweb for generally posting useful stuff, but find that I just don’t have the time to read even a fraction. I’ve long learned to NOT even look at the troll comments on either Politicsweb or the Sunday Times. The real shocker to me is the moderating policies of these sites – why is this crap allowed? Its a dim reflection on the lack of understanding as to what builds quality content on the web. (Compare with web sites of quality British or American news, science or technology media – the comments invariably add quality content.)

  3. I added this to the text of the original post after reading the comments section on Politicsweb:

    “The über-troll of South African political analysis R.W. Johnson added this gentle corrective to the version of the above article published on Politicsweb: “Am I the only person astonished by the fact that Mr Borain can’t spell voluntarism ?” He’s quite right about this – as he is about so much – although he is usually also interesting. He was, appropriately, hanging out with the racist bullies in Politicsweb’s comments section, so I shouldn’t be terribly surprised at his sneering tone.

    The word is voluntarism and it means: “any theory that regards will as the fundamental agency or principle, in metaphysics, epistemology, or psychology” – from Dictionary.com.”

  4. I always thought Voluntarism was a type of insult, applied to or against those who were prepared to ride a wave of popular fervour and turn it in their favour. They were an annoying side issue, inimical to ‘the struggle’ and hence to be dismissed. I may never have understood the term but paradoxically this describes the approach of the ANC.

  5. @ Nic, Andre & Anthony:

    Please google the word ‘voluntarism’, and you will come to the same conclusion as I did: namely, that this word should not even exist.

    1. You know izese I am not sure I agree with you. I am sure you have heard the expression: “Politics is the art of the possible” …. politicians are constantly proposing to do things or achieve ends that are not actually possible. Often we will hear those politicians describing new and better administrative systems and strategies to achieve the goal, still not realising that it is not a matter of a lack of will or a lack of a good strategy, what you are trying to do is actually impossible. The best example of the error of voluntarism was Apartheid itself. The National Party tried everything to make the homeland system work – from brute force to an economic subsidy policy of decentralisatioin to encouraged big employers to move to the Bantustans. But Apartheid was never going to work in the long run, because the deep underlying forces – the pressure of urbanisation, the desire of businesses to employ the people streaming to the cities, the people voting with their feet – constantly undermined the policy, The Nationalist’s were guilty of racist oppression, but they were also guilty of voluntarism, believing that through pure force of will they could make a policy work that went against the market, went against the collective desires and hopes and action of millions of people. I can’t think of a better word … and that is a surprise, because as I said, I thought that “we” (lefty anti-apartheid types in and around the ANC in the early 80’s) made it up and I hadn’t though of it in years.

      Do google voluntarism and you will get this perfect explanation: “the use of or reliance on voluntary action to maintain an institution, carry out a policy, or achieve an end … a philosophical term emphasising the primacy of the will.”

  6. Thanks, Nic, for your perfect explanation. But I’m still flummoxed. There are other voluntarisms, you know … “metaethical and normative theological voluntarism” … “philosophical voluntarism” … and (my personal favourite!) “Hoover’s voluntarism”. Then there’s “voluntearism” (a lachrymose derivative of voluntarism?) which you attribute to the DA. I’ve even heard “volunteerism” and “voluntaryism” bandied about!

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