Beware the thing that might pick up power lying in the street*

There is something that seems to have been missed in the public discourse about Marikina.

Without wanting to be over dramatic, I think Marikana is a clear warning that we are under immediate and serious threat; in ways that I will discuss below.

What happened – both before and after the police shooting – has been exhaustively examined and there have been excellent discussions about the untransformed migrant labour system, the collective bargaining system, the gradual implosion of Num, the awfulness of the conditions in Nkaneng, the micro-lenders explosion, the sadness and despair of families of victims in the labour sending areas  … one might have thought that every conceivable angle has been exhaustively pursued.

But we can be swamped by the details and the anger and grief.

I think something has been missed, perhaps in emphasis, rather than facts – and  because, rather than despite, the sheer attention to detail in the media coverage.

So take one step back and look carefully.

Ask: what is most essential about what happened here?

  • The police shot and killed 35 striking mine workers.
  • At least 10 other people had been killed beforehand – including 2 police officers – mostly by the strikers.

Now take another step back and let a slightly, only very slightly, broader picture come into focus:

  • It happened now, not in the apartheid era – and there is nothing with which to compare it in our 18 years of democracy.
  • The closest proximate cause was the implosion of the National Union of Mineworkers.

One more step:

… and one last step:

  • Num is Cosatu’s biggest affiliate, is the mainstay of ANC support in Cosatu and is one of 3 key pillars of support within the ruling alliance backing the re-election of Zuma (with the SACP and Kzn);
  • Amcu, Julius Malema and the wildcat strikers and their committees found each other from the beginning of the cascade (of which Marikana was a part) after the Implats strike in January.

As I focussed backwards and forwards through those perspectives I suddenly, with a surge of adrenalin, realised the danger we are in.

This is the essence of that realisation:

We have had 18 years of a comfortable ANC majority. Whatever the problems with the ANC’s performance I have mostly believed the party would continue to enjoy the overwhelming support of the majority – of so-called African black South Africans – well into the future, beyond any point worth worrying about.

Despite growing evidence to the contrary I have come to rely on the inherent stability that comes from the ANC sitting like a collapsed star at the centre of our political solar system; with that dense cinder, in turn, held together by the ANC’s own leadership sitting at the core of the party, heavy and stultifying, but essentially stable.

Marikana (in the violence, in the institutional collapse, in the momentum given political  evangelists of the Malema stripe) is about Jacob Zuma’s ANC spinning off pieces of itself, of its members and supporters, of its voters and potential voters.

The most obvious metaphors are from physics.

The centripetal force decreases as the set of interest at the centre narrow (please check my science here). The Nkandla patronage networks are in an ever tighter and more mutually dependent relationship with the SACP and a faction of Cosatu (a faction most closely identified with the Num). The narrower the centre, the less able it is to hold in place the system orbiting around itself. Ultimately, the bits are flung out of the orbit.

Forgive the scattering of a few lines from YeatsThe Second Coming, but they are so apposite here as to be inevitable:

Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;

And the narrowing centre’s response? Well, that would be the massacre of the 34 mineworkers.

The blood-dimmed tide

The other metaphor is the vacuum, and as we know nature abhors a vacuum so it sends the first things that come to hand to fill it.

There seems to be a universe of hopeful voices out there that the first thing that will ‘come to hand’ is either a more democratic version of the ANC or a DA somehow more rooted in the nation (especially that three-quarters of the nation that is poor and black).

But what were the first things to rush into the vacuum, the vacuum left by the rapidly narrowing set of interests at the centre and by its precipitous loss of moral and political authority?

The communists had it right in 2009 already.

If the communists are good for nothing else, they are excellent at spotting fascists (I always think it is because, like alcoholics and drug addicts in recovery, communists feel the call of the beast within … but that is an argument I will need to explore elsewhere).

Already in late 2009 the SACP warned about the emerging tendency within the ANC (the tendency that coalesced around Malema, but has its roots deeper in elements of the emerging elite and their allies in the private sector):

Because of its rhetorical militancy the media often portrays it as “radical” and “left-wing” – but it is fundamentally right-wing, even proto-fascist. While it is easy to dismiss the buffoonery of some of the leading lieutenants, we should not underestimate the resources made available to them, and the huge challenge we all have when it comes to millions of increasingly alienated, often unemployed youth who are potentially available for all kinds of demagogic mobilization.

See what I mean? The communists are almost prescient as far as fascism is concerned. I covered those issues in more detail here.

Amcu and Julius Malema are part of the same phenomenon in the sense that they are both drawn into existence by the collapse of the centre and in addition share a number of features in ideology and style.

The extreme levels of violence, especially the violence of the state (deployed to defend the weakening centre) is also an essential and predictable element of what must flood in to fill the emptiness at the centre.

This is not some threatening future. Marikana threw aside a veil and revealed that this is where we are already, this is what is filling the vacated centre.

When a vast image out of Spiritus Mundi
    Troubles my sight: a waste of desert sand;
    A shape with lion body and the head of a man,
    A gaze blank and pitiless as the sun

  And what rough beast, its hour come round at last,
    Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?

(Note: I know it is such a cliché to use The Second Coming, but it is almost irresistible given the points I want to make here. Read the whole poem at the link I provide earlier … it is not really meant to be dipped into in the way that I have here. Consider its post-First World War context. )

*It was Vladimir Ilyich Lenin who famously said the Party “found power lying in the streets and simply picked it up” – and he would have known a thing or two about that. For the most sturdy readers you can find a discussion of that here.

Lenin knew how easy it was to pick up power when it was lying around

5 thoughts on “Beware the thing that might pick up power lying in the street*

  1. Hi Nic,

    Cannot say I did not see violence coming to SA since 1994. It was always just my gut feel, based on no facts.

    Now that you are getting worried, it changes things a bit for me, for when experts like yourself are getting worried, it is worrying.

    Keep on posting, I will keep on reading for one thing I know and believe in is that here in SA, we are strong people. We just need the leader to bring that out in all of us.


    Jaco Reinecke

    1. Hi Jaco – thanks for the feedback … I am turning into a bit of an “always look for the danger” kind of a person … I feel the personal need to try to look for more positives than I am doing …

      BTW your comment came through with your telephone numbers, a disclaimer and various bits and pieces on the end … I took those off, in case you included them unintentionally … I will happily put that all back (I saved what I took out onto a word document) … which way would you like it? (my worry is that you put that info there inadvertently and you might end up being called or contacted by lots of people that you were not expecting.) Thanks – Nic

  2. Hi Nic

    Thanks for the History Guide link at the end of your piece; it is a treasure trove of accessible information that is well written.

    Your metaphors are well chosen. An extension of these is offered by Chaos Theory which suggests that there are hidden islands of order (what happens within the vacuum) that are often difficult to discern when disorder dominates the landscape (weakening of the centripetal forces).

    Chaos Theory predicts that there will be changes of magnitude and focus but that the basic structure and function will remain the same. Hence the abiding sense that the more that things change the more they remain the same and that history repeats itself.

    What I find intriguing is that so many in SA seem to have been lulled by the narcissistic belief that we are a special case entitled to our socio-political development without having to endure the growing pains of other societies.

    In my view this is nonsense and the trick is to sell high just before the next bout of growing pains sets in and buy low just after the growing pains have peaked. As such now is a time to judiciously buy for the long term (20-30 years) although things are likely to get considerably worse before they get any better.

  3. Hello Nic

    You manage to articulate things many people don’t want to think about (that is a compliment, not a criticism). Using a scientific analogy as you do makes it powerful, and plausible. May I run with your argument a bit, and add a couple of things that jumped out at me from the City Press website today. After reading this article, I googled “Democratic Socialist Movement” and clicked through to
    which, in my understanding, is a possible application, however uncomfortable, of your theory.

    If there is any good news in this, and I like to think there may be, it might be hidden in this article Although one should “never say never”, I can’t personally see the DA ever taking majority power in South Africa, but as a kingmaker in a scenario where the ANC has ruptured into two or more parts …..? Sending someone like Ryan Coetzee to analyse the successes (and failures) of the Lib Dems’ tactics in the current political landscape in the UK sounds like an inspired idea to me.

    Thanks, Nic, for indulging me, enabling me to bounce ideas around on your blog.

    Kind regards
    (Please note my new e-mail address – I’ve gone android)

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: