By Andile Zulu
Last week the true nature of South Africa’s post-apartheid order was unveiled. Not through a righteous revolution or illuminating national discourse, but through mass food riots and looting, racial violence and organized efforts by anti-democratic forces within the ruling party to destabilize the country.
A precarious order has been restored and one feels citizens relishing in the relatively calm atmosphere. But no one will rejoice in this frail peace. The death toll continues to rise and the destruction was vast in its reach. And so palpable anxiety about the immediate and distant future of the country looms over us all. This anxiety has injected persuasive power into a loud yearning for a return to normality. We have been called to rebuild, but one must ask: in this re-construction, what is worth redeeming and what must be discarded?
This question must be asked because South Africa was never a just, humane or normal society. Violence – whether as rampant sexual assault, child abuse, crime or political repression – is an accepted fact of daily life. 32.6% of the labour force is unemployed and over 70% of youth are unable to find work, languishing in despair that is intensifying a mental health and drug use epidemic. Millions do not have consistent access to basic services of a humane quality. Political elites are a combination of incompetent, indifferent and parasitic individuals. We remain the most unequal society in the world, which cultivates class antagonisms, nourishing racial divisions and as we recently witnessed, this inequality has explosive power.
Having viscerally confronted the reality of these issues, there is a growing consensus that the economic structure and political order of our society must be reassessed and changed. This change will require political organization on a massive scale, led by a coalition of progressive forces such as grassroots movements, principled unions, community leaders and activist collectives. It will need the reinvigoration of politics led by the dispossessed: the unemployed, the working class and the working poor residing in rural and urban areas. Keeping the valuable critiques and limitations of electoral politics in mind, it’s clear that progressive political organizations will certainly have to enter into the space of electoral politics to amass structural power.
Crucial in this long march towards a new order will be in the intellectual labour of building and spreading a radically different political consciousness. The events and reactions to the recent crisis revealed two things: many minds are still captured by ideologies that stop us from seeing, understanding and acting against various kinds of societal dysfunction. Secondly, as leftists some of us have not done enough work to combat these dominant modes of thinking. Beyond critique, a compelling vision of politics and life, in general, must be offered.
The popular dehumanizing descriptions of protesters as barbaric, the self-righteous criminalizing of poverty by some mainstream media houses, narrow-sighted calls for harsh military intervention, the abiding valorization of president Zuma as a revolutionary and the attempts by communities to justify discrimination and lethal force against black people; these reactions to crisis all point to a collective consciousness that will plummet us further into a society where life is “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short”.
Louis Althusser defined ideology as “representing the imaginary relationship of individuals to their real conditions of existence”. Therefore political education must work to practiclly unmask these relationships, but also expose the conditions in which we are all entangled while pointing towards a future beyond them.
Reawakening a sociological imagination
What would such political education entail? One witnessed how communities quickly organized themselves to provide necessities as food and medicine became scarce in Gauteng and KwaZulu-Natal (KZN) in the aftermath of the recent crisis. Sadly such cooperation is rare. A class hierarchy, a state unable to provide basic services for millions and capitalism’s imperative to encourage ruthless competition, means that normally we exist in atomized isolation from one another. One of the prevailing ideals is an obsessive focus on “Me, Myself and I”. The notion that the best features of our humanity are enhanced through our relationships with others and being apart of a community, is corroded by the glorification of individualism.
The uncritical adoration of excessive wealth and the inability of most to access prosperity has produced a society where many are unable or unwilling to see the threads which connect personal success and failure not only to the lives of others but to broader historical legacies and material conditions. It can be hard to care for others when one’s own survival or well-being rests on fragile foundations.
As people witnessed some of their fellow citizens appropriating food and “luxury goods”, many were quick to condemn rioters as lazy and entitled, as though the successful had achieved their comforts through the sheer power of a good work ethic and willpower. The branding of protesters as lazy or entitled is a common feature of South African discourse, emanating from both the working and upper classes. People have been fooled into thinking our country is a meritocracy, numbing their capacity for empathy. Moreover, it dims the awareness of Apartheid’s imprint on the present or the workings of an economy unable to make space for the collective well-being of all citizens.
A sociological imagination sparks an awareness of life beyond one’s singular perspective and experience. It provokes the realization that we are the subjects of political structures, that we at times are driven to irrationality by certain cultural norms or ideals, that history makes our present possible and so its footprints must be examined.
Equipped with such an imagination, one may reflect upon their unemployment, not as a personal failure to be ashamed of. Instead one could see how mass unemployment is a result of a capitalist economy not designed for full employment, a broken education system or the concentration of jobs in urban areas partly a result of colonialism’s and apartheid’s spatial planning.
Most importantly a sociological imagination, connected to a larger political program, is empowering. Through understanding how society functions, one begins to realize that the present circumstances, dire as they may be, are not eternal and that in fact, people can gather to change the present order. The second part of this essay, which will be published on Friday, will argue why political education must confront the reality of race as a social construction and be shameless in speaking the language of class politics.
The writer is a politics commentator based in Durban, South Africa.