Hope amid the gathering fog of populism

Posted on August 13, 2018


Is there really any serious prospect for change in South Africa, or are we facing yet another false dawn? This is a crucial and pertinent question that, incidentally, has nothing to do with the Thuma Mina New Dawn promised by President Cyril Ramaphosa.

It is a question that relates to what would be a hard slog toward truly radical economic and social transformation; not the illusion of something akin to instant gratification via a vote for one or other political party.

The question emerged on the national agenda following the weekend long “Working Class Summit” organised in Johannesburg by the SA Federation of Trade Unions (Saftu). The summit received fairly scant media attention but, on Tuesday, the widely listened to radio talkshow hosted by Eusebius Mckaiser took the issue one step further, asking: “Can we live without states?”

This broadcast featured radical, and now Johannesburg-based, academic Richard Pithouse and the Makhanda (Grahamstown) community activist, Ayanda Kota. It opened up to a wider audience the argument that there exists the possibility of a different, non-hierarchical way for society to function.

As Pithouse pointed out, the idea of “anti-statism” has a long history, and the term “democracy” means that the people should rule. which, clearly under the present system of “liberal democracy”, they do not. And there are also, of course, instances where collective and co-operative communities have existed.

All of this, along with the comment by Kota that Karl Marx had spoken of the prospect of the “withering away” of the state, raised a multitude of questions about the words we all use that, as US President Donald Trump might say, “mis-speak” reality. Prominent among these are terms such as democracy, socialism and communism.

The media, across the board, tends to refer to “Communist” or “Socialist” states — many now bearing the prefix “former” — that were or are presented as alternatives to the dominant “Capitalist” system. And, of course, most, led by the now newly emerging Russia, have failed while “Communist China” continues to progress along what can only be described as a highly pragmatic capitalist path.

What the debates over the past week have shown quite clearly is that the once simplistic, and essentially Cold War, analysis is no longer accepted by many who are now searching for a genuine alternative. That some 1 000 delegates from 147 trade unions and community organisations could gather to discuss such matters is, alone, a hopeful sign that clarity is being sought.

And the decision of that summit was that the debate should continue on the ground throughout the country, at neighbourhood, local, regional and provincial level. It also seems unlikely that last week’s brief airing on radio about real social, political and therefore, economic, alternatives will not continue.

This provides hope that the domestic genie of critical thinking has finally been released from the bottle of rainbow illusions and party dogma in which it has been trapped; that new thinking will lead to new action and, ultimately, to a truly new way of operating.

However small the beginnings, such a development would have global repercussions, reminiscent of the time South Africa provided something of a moral and ethical compass to so many around the world.

I admit that I may be clinging to straws in an increasingly turbulent political sea. Because this whole project — perhaps essential for humanity’s future — may simply run aground through a combination of lack of resources or be wrecked on the rocks of personal ambition.

Should that happen, we will probably be unable to escape the gathering fog of poisonous populism that already threatens everyone.

Posted in: Commentary