Quote of the week

[Nostalgia] is rarely the past as actually experienced, of course; it is the past as imagined, as idealized through memory and desire. In this sense … nostalgia is less about the past than about the present. It operates through what Mikhail Bakhtin called an ‘historical inversion’: the ideal that is not being lived now is projected into the past.

David Medalie
16 April 2012

“Anti-majoritarian liberals” have a right to speak up like everyone else

It is easy to lampoon Minister Blade Nzimande (without resorting to childish references to his high voice): the often turgid and almost unreadable prose (if that is what one can call it); the seemingly unhinged paranoia; the champagne socialism; the long stays at the Mount Nelson Hotel; the million Rand car. But the Minister seems to have some influence in the Zuma cabinet, so one might do well to try and understand what he is saying and engage critically with his ever more incoherent missives against “anti-majoritarian liberals”.

Lurking at the heart of these missives, it seems, is a narrow, completely diminished, understanding of democracy. Minister Nzimande seems unaware of (or he is ideologically opposed to) the fact that our Constitution establishes more than a representative form of democracy in which passive voters are given the opportunity every five years to vote for the party of their choice (which the state broadcaster tells them should be the ANC). In his latest missive, he has the following to say about a supposed liberal ideological third force:

As part of the ideological armoury of the anti-majoritarian liberal offensive are attempts to assemble elite voices in society that appear to be either neutral or authoritative to try and discredit the ANC. The mainstream liberal media, some liberal NGOs, and of late business voices like Reuel Khoza, are all part of an ‘ideological third force’, decrying the ‘threats’ to our constitution and ‘lack’ of leadership in the ANC and society. Similarly, all of our institutions supporting democracy are either affirmed or condemned in the media, purely on the basis of whether they find positively or negatively against the ANC or government, often irrespective of the issues at hand.

That, according to Nzimande, is why the masses should be mobilised behind the ANC/SACP programme of action (as if anyone belonging to the masses are not capable of thinking for themselves and having a view that contradicts that of the movement) and why cadres should not believe a word they read in the print media (the SABC being ideologically less problematic and therefore more believable – unless they report on Julius Malema).

It has not occurred to Minister Nzimande that there might be reasons why the print media are criticising the movement and why NGO’s are taking the government to court. There might be very good reasons for protesting when our government does something reactionary, venal, corrupt or undemocratic. Whether the criticism is provided by an 84 year old granny who voted for the ANC or a newspaper editor – it remains valid no matter what Nzimande thinks. He has not considered the possibility that many of the ANC critics are fighting for a better life for themselves or the communities they serve, something the government is not doing so well because many of its leaders are fighting with each other for positions, which will bring with them the status that a blue light convoy and stays at the Mount Nelson can bestow, along with immense wealth that flows from access to government tenders and bribes by others who wish to access these tenders.

When the President tells an interviewer of The Sowetan: “We don’t want to review the Constitutional Court, we want to review its powers,” a few days before his own case which might revive corruption charges against him is heard by the Supreme Court of Appeal (SCA), one need not have a special ideological hatred for the ANC to worry about a threat to the Constitution. When the President appoints the least qualified and most right-wing member of the Constitutional Court as Chief Justice, and is lauded by the social conservatives and by Blade Nzimande for doing so (Blade saying those who pointed out Mogoeng’s conservative anti-women and anti-gay credentials did so only to spite the President!), then one should surely be aware that liberal and conservative, progressive and reactionary has stopped meaning what it used to mean and that Blade’s rant about an ideological third force is utterly meaningless.

And when North West Human Settlements MEC, Desbo Mohono, says that municipalities need to create stringent by-laws to prevent the “mushrooming” of informal settlements, in effect declaring war on the poor and sounding remarkably like an apartheid era Minister, then any thinking person would surely take Blade Nzimande’s attack against NGO’s and liberals with a pinch of salt. How can one not and begin to think that he is hiding behind his revolutionary language to try and pull the wool over our eyes about the movements true ideology (and ideology that has more to do with wealth accumulation and demonization of the poor than with providing a better life for all)? By the way, the MEC seems to have given the game away on Saturday when he made the following statement:

I would like to urge all local municipalities, to come up with rigid by-laws that would ensure that we do not see another informal settlement mushrooming in our land… We cannot win this battle if we continue to be held to ransom by our people, who continue to occupy land illegally and continue to add numbers to the ever emerging informal settlements.

In this view, it is the people – especially the poor that comrade Blade claims to fight for – who have become the enemy and who is holding the government to ransom by having the cheek of existing and actually wanting to have some kind of roof over their heads every night when they go to sleep. I mean, these people must be part of the liberal ideological third force, cunningly relying on the Constitution which states that everyone has a right of access to housing and placing a positive obligation on the state to take reasonable steps progressively to provide such access to those who need it.

Now, the supposedly liberal NGO’s are the ones who often assist the homeless and those who live in informal settlements and help them to take the government to court when the government that Blade is part of heartlessly evicts the marginalised and vulnerable poor from their often makeshift homes or the dilapidated inner city buildings where they live, often in desperate conditions. The supposedly revolutionary movement of which comrade Blade is a member is often the one who demonises these same people (as the MEC did on the weekend) and who takes steps to try and get them out of sight. (I guess it must be distressing to have to see these informal settlements flash past as one is chauffeur driven in a blue light convoyed R1 million car to another party where one will sip champagne on hehalf of the masses to celebrate the 100 year birthday of the ANC – staying in the Mount Nelson far away from these horrible poor people who dare to want to get a roof over their heads must be so much more soothing and fun.)

In any case, at the heart of all this is a deeply undemocratic attitude to the “masses of our people”, to debate and to criticism of any kind. Citizens are seen as passive voting fodder who must be galvanized every five years to vote for the movement and otherwise must shut up. In the Doctors for Life case, Justice Ngcobo made it clear that this is not the kind of democracy established by our Constitution. The commitment to principles of accountability, responsiveness and openness, wrote Ngcobo, shows that our constitutional democracy is not only representative but also contains participatory elements. This is a defining feature of the democracy that is contemplated. This means that all citizens (even the liberal ones) have a right to have their say and to participate in the discussion. Not even Minister Nzimande can try and shut up anyone who raises concerns about the manner in which the government is “governing” the country.

When the 84 year old granny, Ntombentsha Phama, who welcomed a TV news camera crew into her home and spoke about her plight, and was then berated by a delegation of ruling party councillors sent by Mbhashe Local Municipality Mayor Nonceba Mfecane, they are showing the same kind of lack of understanding or respect for democracy as Blade Nzimande. During a second visit, this time with Mfecane in tow, Phama was again scolded, given two blankets and a business card, and told to call the mayor – not the media – when she had problems.

Like Nzimande the mayor and his cronies never stopped to think that Phama had a RIGHT to invite the TV cameras into her home and that instead of berating her, they might have done something about the criticism. They never thought that the embarrassment to the ANC came not from the granny, but from the way in which the council had behaved. Similarly, Nzimande does not seem to understand that the criticism of the ANC in the media might – at least sometimes – be based on the fact that the ANC is stuffing up. I guess it is far easier to launch a tirade against the granny or against a so called ideological third force, than actually to governing responsibly and effectively and to deal with the criticism. I find that even those evil liberals in the media will praise the government when it does something well. The only problem is that there is not often that much to praise – unless we set our sights so low that anything the government does better than the apartheid state is seen as worthy of praise.

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