When language is alive and searches for new ways to illuminate reality and possibility, it can attain real power. Philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre wrote:
Words wreak havoc … when they find a name for what had … been lived namelessly.
But when language is dead and takes the form of deliberately making statements that no-one believes to be true, it is often little more than a worn and dreary mask for power. The same is true when it repeats concepts and clichés that have lost any meaningful connection to reality.
For more than 100 years there have often been moments when South Africa’s governing African National Congress (ANC) and its leaders have been able to speak to and for the nation with the resonance and moral authority that can come from matching the right words with the right actions at the right time.
And when the ANC has not been at the forefront of political innovation, its organisational strength has often enabled it to eventually absorb much of what has been achieved by independent initiative. This has allowed the party to renew itself and to sustain its vitality, connection to the present and moral authority.
Loss of credibility
But at the end of 2015 the ANC’s credibility and its claim to represent the nation were rapidly eroding. In many quarters Jacob Zuma had become a particular liability. He was booed at Nelson Mandela’s memorial. He is regularly insulted by Julius Malema from the radical Economic Freedom Fighters and is increasingly condemned in popular protest.
At the end of last year the debacle around the firing of Nhlanhla Nene as finance minister led many to conclude that Zuma was unashamedly willing to place his own interests before those of the nation.
As the new year began, the reaction to estate agent Penny Sparrow’s racist obscenities relieved some of the pressure on both the ANC and Zuma. But the ANC cannot afford complacency – not with a floundering economy, escalating popular protests, declining trust in the president, entrenched conflict within the party and upcoming local elections.
Despite this, the anniversary statement by the party’s National Executive Committee, read out by Zuma in a half-empty stadium in Rustenburg, showed no sign of any willingness to venture an honest assessment of the state of the party and the country.
As usual it sought to place today’s ANC in a heroic lineage and present it as the principle actor in the grand drama of the people. But Rustenburg is not too far from the scene of the Marikana massacre where 34 striking miners were killed by the South African police. And it’s not been long since students, mostly organised outside of the ANC, seized the political initiative and embarked on protests against racism and rising university fees.
The annual restatement of the ANC’s basic political catechism – non-racialism, the National Democratic Revolution, and so on - carries very little weight in a moment in which the party’s ideas are routinely spurned in the public sphere, particularly by young intellectuals.
And everybody knows that to speak, say, of “the highest standards of revolutionary morality” in the wake of Marikana or the Nkandla scandal involving the spending of public money for Zuma’s private homestead, is simply not credible.
To affirm success in the project of “providing quality basic education”, as Zuma did in Rustenburg, is just not honest. In the wake of the more or less complete abandonment of the party by intellectuals, no-one can believe that the mere statement of a call to “the intelligentsia” to “join hands with the ANC” carries the resonance of language forged on the anvil of reality.
An era of profound cynicism
When words become this radically disconnected from actions and the imperatives of the moment, politics enters a terrain constituted by a profound cynicism.
On this terrain it’s not even possible to campaign, reminisce or imagine a future in the energised language of inspiration. The stolid prose of the committee that must give a ritual nod to each constituency is almost all that there is.
So, as Zuma read out the NEC’s statement, there was a nod to the economic mainstream via an utterance committing to reduce debt and attain growth, and a nod to the unions via a commitment to a minimum wage. The National Development Plan, the ANC government’s new long-term macroeconomic plan favoured by liberals, received a nod. So did the declaration of solidarity with Cuba, favoured by communists in the governing tri-partite alliance.
But there was no sense that adequate measure had been taken of the country’s situation, difficult decisions made, and new commitments affirmed. In the main the statement is saturated with a sense of stasis and an unwillingness to think the now and the new.
Where there is some novelty it appears as concessions to new forms of political innovation, often well able to produce a language with real-life and genuine resonance, that have emerged at a distance from the ANC.
Space was made for the EFF’s reframing of the land question in terms of colonial theft. Reference was also made to the necessity of increasing funding for tertiary education and the growing public refusal to tolerate overt expressions of racism.
Following instead of leading
But in each of these cases the ANC is following, because it has to, rather than leading.
The cynical conflation of state power with people’s power was a clear indication that the ANC remains committed to containing the escalating crisis by centralising power rather than seeking to resolve it by dispersing power. The same applies to its equally cynical framing of legitimate forms of political engagement undertaken outside of the party as anti-democratic.
The only time Zuma’s comments carried any real life was when he departed from the script. His instruction to the Youth League to defend the party was certainly a direct intervention into the heat of the moment.
The ANC has often spoken truth to power. But the statement was, at its core, a matter of speaking power to truth.