Saturday, 29 August 2015

Thinking Together

An old adage says that the secret to marriage is not in thinking alike, but in thinking together.  Partners in marriage may not agree on everything, but if communication breaks between them, the marriage can fall apart.

This line of thinking needs to be applied to the next 2 elections in South Africa – the local elections in 2016 and the next national elections in 2019.  In any democracy you get checks and balances not only from the division of powers between the legislative, executive and judicial branches.  You also get it from different levels of government – national, provincial and municipal.  In South Africa there are really only two moments of choice for voters – national and local.  Because provincial legislatures stem from the national voting results, and premiers are even ministers in the national cabinet.

Two articles in the press this week really hit this home.  The first was written by Andrew Chirwa, the chairman of NUMSA.  It is a key player in COSATU which is one of the three forces in the “ruling alliance”.  However, it has begun to raise questions of late about WHY the trade unions – normally leftist - are in a centrist government?  His article points the finger at one of COSATU’s allies in the tripartite alliance, the Communist party.  The article is titled “SACP is leading the Inkandla cover”.  It is a brutal expose.  It ends with the following 3 paragraphs:

“The SACP has had to formulate a theory for its rotten political practices. In a political programme adopted at its national congress in July 2012, it identified two “opponents” that had to be defeated: first, the “new tendency”, which it described as “a populist, bourgeois nationalist ideological tendency with deeply worrying demagogic, proto-fascist features”, and, second, what the party calls “liberal constitutionalism”.

“The “new tendency” referred to the ANC Youth League rump led by Julius Malema.

“Liberal constitutionalism” included those who insist on good governance, the rule of law and action against corruption.”
This is very insightful.  The two largest opposition parties – the Economic Freedom Fighters and the Democratic Alliance should NOT in my opinion be seen as the left and right poles, on either side of centre, occupied by the ANC.  The reasons why are best explained by Mzukisi Qobo writing in the Sowetan.  His article is titled “SA caught between two extremes”.  Here follow a few excerpts:

“There is, on the one hand, the Democratic Alliance, which has a long history on the opposition benches, and remains a significant numerical force, although its clout as an alternative government is fast diminishing.  It relies, in the main, on reformist strategies to tackle the governing party.  It has largely used legal channels to hold the ANC to account.”

“On the other hand is the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF), whose youthfulness is its greatest asset.  Many of its leaders come from a tradition that prizes slogans, rhetoric and militancy – all cultural repertoires of the struggle that used to be associated with the ANC and other grassroots movements.  Remarkably, the EFF has succeeded in hogging the political limelight even though it is still in its infancy.  This has been made possible precisely because its symbolism and militancy resonate deeply with the frustrations of a significant section of the black majority.

“Historically, expressive forms of protests have always captured the imagination of blacks in South Africa until the ANC and the National Party government set the dynamic of elite negotiations in motion in the early 1990s to end apartheid. 

“SA’s experience of an elitist outcome of political transition is nothing unique.  To borrow from Vaclav Havel’s work The Power of the Powerless, beyond its formalism in setting out rights and responsibilities, the constitution has limits to guaranteeing a rich, humane and dignified life.  Havel suggests that constitutions limit themselves to whether or not the laws are upheld rather than improving the quality of life substantively.

“That there is no consistent logic in the radical policy propositions of the EFF is something that is overlooked by many who are blinded by its messianic illusion.  Equally, socio-economic change through the DA is more of a fairy tale.

“In the wake of its parliamentary theatrics, the EFF received greater applause that the DA got for extracting the spy tapes – though the latter had more tangible outcomes.  For our politics to be redeemed from the current extremes in the opposition, there remains a need for a strong voice of moderation on the left to champion the urgent issues of social justice alongside the imperative of defending our fragile constitution.”

In closing, he raises the prospect that real change may only come from a “powerful social agency in the civic sphere”.  These are almost exactly my views, for the very same reasons.  EFF and DA are like two strong oxen pulling the cart of the “loyal opposition”.  But they need to start pulling together, and in one and the same direction.  How will that ever happen?  Who can possibly put their hand to such a plow?

I sense that faith groups can do this.  Not by forming a Coalition, but simply by voicing a demand for both social justice and constitutionalism.  Government has shown repeatedly that its once noble ideals have given way to elitism and triumphalism.  A prophetic voice must be heard again, crying in the veld…

St Francis of Assisi has been a huge influence in the Catholic and mainline churches.  The first Pope from the South symbolically adopted his name.  This suggests an intention to prioritize Poverty, as John Paul the Polish Pope addressed Communism.  Most Reformation churches adhere to the Lausanne Covenant which adopted the slogan “Live simply, so that others can simply live.

Faith groups, churches mainline and African-initiated, Christian families and individuals could provide mortar to bond the red EFF and blue DA bricks together.  There are old and new movements pushing in this direction already.  For example, the “secular Franciscans” and also Unashamedly Ethical.  There was once a group in the USA called the “Moral Majority”, whose political influence was felt in the politics of that democracy.  South Africa needs voices like that at this juncture.

Even the force of prayer should not be under-estimated in this regard.  One hadith says that Mohammed taught that the prayers of a person who prayed and gossiped at the same time were interrupted for 40 days.  The point is, don’t invade other people’s privacy, for they even have a constitutional right to it.  Don’t practice habits that are unethical and self-serving.  Equality stems from such holy values, because the focus on health (i.e. shalom) can displace the focus on wealth.

If we pray and act for BOTH social justice and the rule of law, and intentionally so, while at the same time doing a self-audit of our lifestyle and practice, we will be drawing the two powerful oxen together to pull one and the same plow, in the same direction.

Oliver Tambo said that a nation that doesn’t think of its youth doesn’t have a future – and doesn’t deserve one.  The triple-conundrum of poverty, unemployment and inequality is a time bomb, because it is youth-centred.  Every species protects and nourishes its young.  The resources of this country are concentrated in the hands of older people, black and white.  The time has come to be “unashamedly ethical” and also to “live simply, so that others can simply live” - namely, our youth.

Saturday, 15 August 2015

Affluence Extremism

I coined the phrase “affluence extremism” for the title of the last C4L bulletin.  It was a counter-balance to the allegation that Pope Francis must be a Marxist for using terms like, “unfettered capitalism”, and “a new tyranny” and “the new idolatry of money”.

Since then I went to see a movie called The Wolf of Wall Street.  Without suggesting that all rich people live in that kind of depravity, he lived very extravagantly.  He extended the roof of his personal yacht to make it a helicopter pad.  To smuggle cash out of the country he literally taped it like football pads around the arms and legs of his “mules” before they headed through Customs at the airport.  He mocked his investigators because their salaries were so low they had to travel by subway to meet him. 

Reviews of the film raise questions about its excesses.  Director Scorcose contends that this was done to expose “affluence extremism” not to condone it.  But like the “conversion films” of earlier generations, most of the entertainment focuses on the story before they say the prayer of repentance, not after.  Then suddenly… they live happily ever after.

Now I am looking forward to seeing another move – Twelve Years a Slave.  Although it takes place in another era (the 1850s instead of the 1990s) it is once again about a depraved system.  A wealthy free black man gets captured in the USA and sold into slavery in another state.  His brutal master, who is evil personified, resists social change.  No doubt if he were alive today he would call Pope Francis a Marxist!

What I have recognized is that today’s economic imbalances between rich and poor, North and South, even still men and women, and in South Africa whites and blacks - are systemic like Slavery was.  Change agents are needed, like the Abolitionists and later the Suffragettes.  Calling them “Marxists” says more about yourself than about them!

Saying No to both Socialism and Capitalism?

As both Left and Right crowd around the Centre, the question is whether “welfare capitalism” and “market socialism” are the only two options?  Market socialism brought New Labour and Tony Blair to the fore, and welfare capitalism brought you George Bush and his PEPFAR – said to be the biggest gift ever given (to fight HIV/AIDS).

Radical centrism

I am getting to the age where I can start quoting myself… here is something I wrote in 1988 in my book Thinking Communally, Acting Personally (page 136):  “One new agenda - communitarianism - is gaining momentum. According to one advocate, Amitai Etzioni, “radical individualists confuse the right to be free from government intrusion with a nonexistent right to be free from the moral scrutiny of one’s peer and community...  Communitarians, in other words, differ from classical liberals (known confusingly in America as conservatives) by challenging the idea that individual self-interest is a decent basis for a society. But they differ from socialists in championing small social units: the family, neighborhoods, school, churches...”  

But “ideological communitarianism” is still centrist, because it combines leftism on economic issues with moralism or conservatism on social issues.

In the book Bowling Alone, Robert Putnam observed that nearly every form of civic organization has undergone drops in membership exemplified by the fact that, while more people are bowling than in the 1950s, there are fewer bowling leagues.  This results in a decline in “social capital”, described by Putnam as “the collective value of all ‘social networks’ and the inclinations that arise from these networks to do things for each other”. According to Putnam and his followers, social capital is a key component to building and maintaining democracy.  So Communitarians seek to bolster social capital and the institutions of the third sector or Civil Society.

The Occupy Movement (Indignados)
Also called the 99 Percent Movement, this was sparked in 2011 by Occupy Wall Street in response to what I call “affluence extremism”.  Its manifesto started as follows:

“As we gather together in solidarity to express a feeling of mass injustice, we must not lose sight of what brought us together. We write so that all people who feel wronged by the corporate forces of the world can know that we are your allies.”

Marxist scholar John Holloway asserted that you can “change the world without taking power”. However, many in the new generation of activists have become painfully aware that in order to achieve real change you also need to take power; that in order to really scare the 1%, you also need to occupy the state.  So some veterans of the Occupy Movement are considering a turn towards electoral politics. This change of direction reflects an increasing awareness that there is a limit to what you can do out of Civil Society.

Fighter Andile Mngxitama wrote: “The indigenous people of Mexico declared a different path and very boldly told the world: “We are going to rise up to overthrow the supreme governments, to overthrow corrupt officials, to throw the rich and powerful out of this country and begin building a new Mexico with humble, simple people.”

“The Zapatistas refused to choose between two bad systems: they proclaimed dissidence to both Capitalism and Stalinism. They denounced the party and the cult of the leader, and even state power.  John Holloway's book Changing the World Without Taking Power can be read as the Zapatista manifesto.

“The Zapatistas, consistent with their new ideology against money and power, refused to participate in the mainstream political process to try to take power.  Instead, they formed their own autonomous governments, which get no assistance from the Mexico state.  This experience is not without weakness and hardships; the indigenous people have gained visibility but not economic or cultural freedom.  Twenty years later, they remain under attack and are all but quarantined in their territories.”

Economic Freedom Fighters
The front page story in today’s Saturday Star is about Wiekus Kotze, an Afrikaner who was so impressed by Nelson Mandela that 20 years ago he joined the ANC and has voted for them in 3 elections.  But he has just switched allegiances - to the party of Julius Malema.  He is now wearing a read beret.  Why?  He feels that the ANC is not closing the gap between rich and poor, largely because of all the self-enrichment going on.  He sees Malema as a visionary like Mandela who is talking sense and has the courage to challenge the status quo.