15 May 2014

South Africa: Ideas Have Legs - Abahlali and the DA


After eight years of electoral boycott, Abahlali baseMjondolo controversially decided to support the Democratic Alliance in South Africa's 2014 National and Provincial Elections. The shackdwellers' movement claims to have suspended ideological concerns and to have made this choice on strategic grounds. The author suggests that this is not the case.

Abahlali BaseMjondolo (AbM), the acclaimed, leftist shack dwellers' movement which erupted onto the public arena in 2005, recently decided to give its electoral support to the opposition, centre-right Democratic Alliance (DA) in South Africa's 2014 National and Provincial Elections.

A ruckus has since coalesced around this decision. While some have called for respect for the movement's political agency, alongside a wait and see approach, others have outright condemned the decision.

Writing in the Daily Maverick, Julian Brown reminds us that 'almost no one seems to be interested in Abahlali's own explanation - that they are the target of violent repression, and that they have taken a pragmatic decision to oppose the power behind it'.

Let's take extracts from an interview in which Sbu Zikode, a founding leader of the movement, spoke about this decision. Zikode says, partly echoing Mr Brown's earlier statement, 'So for this decision, we have decided to suspend ideology for a clear goal: weaken the ANC, guarantee the security and protection of the shack dwellers'. He further goes on to say that this decision is a tactical one. 'Tactics lies in acknowledging that if the Left is going to have a real political future in South Africa, the ANC [African National Congress] must fall.'

So the logic becomes more apparent here: because of Abahlali's vulnerability, the only way forward is to weaken the ANC. And the DA is the vehicle to which Abahlali lends its support in order to do just that. Zikode further states, 'This decision is not one that is based on ideology. Poor people do not eat ideology, nor do they live in houses that are made out of ideology'. Again, it becomes obvious that Abahlali has suspended ideology because it believes ideology does not feed or clothe a person.

Surely anyone can sympathise with the argument that people do not eat ideology given Abahlali's struggle for housing. But it is very strange to suspend ideology. Reality, I argue, suggests that ideology decides who gets to live and how they will go about living - that ideas walk among us and are living and breathing constructs that have real consequences.

The nearly four-month-old strike waged by the Association of Mineworkers and Construction Union's (AMCU) members is a 'war of attrition' over ideas. R12 500 is effectively no longer a number, nor a bunch of digits lumped together. It has become an idea over how one should live one's life.

Abahlali's nearly ten year struggle cannot easily be compared to AMCU's nearly four-month-old strike, but at stake for both is the battle over ideas. With children and families to feed and loans to pay, the AMCU strike is a powerful indication that the struggle over ideas has real consequences.

You may not eat Fanon, Marx or Adam Smith, for that matter, but these authors' ideas and many others have structured how the world is currently, and how some people have chosen to respond to it. Therefore, you cannot suspend ideology. But you can replace it.

I remember, in my previous life, people saying that 'politics', with a small p, and 'Politics', with a big P, were different from each other. They argued that while the latter was about multiparty elections, democracy and party politics, the former was about struggling for basic services, about resolving inequality. I remember Zikode making an argument for small-p politics in a conversation with me a while back.

It must be noted that this conceptual delineation is part of the post-Cold War discourse that distinguished between government work and political work - with small-p politics regarded as dirty and detrimental to development. This steeped some in a logic of pragmatism.

So, the stuff of Politics was just a distraction from actual issues of class struggle, of politics. Presumably owing to its position towards multiparty elections and its alleged 'left agenda', Abahlali was said to be engaging in small-p politics.

So, let us say that indeed Abahlali did engage in politics, and that the stuff of Politics - ideas that organise political formations - masks the centrality of the class struggle. The consequence of conceptually making this distinction is that the idea of small-p politics lends credibility to the very false argument that we've now largely entered a class struggle. This is an idea that walks among us. And this idea has just recently walked from Abahlali to the DA.

The problem here is that while the distinction makes sense conceptually, practically, it runs into trouble. This is simply because you cannot practically separate a ward councillor from issues of community participation, where water and electricity are discussed, or party appointed Metro officials from issues of housing.

Furthermore, the idea that the class struggle is the primary struggle in South Africa, where issues of delivering quality basic services, building quality homes and generally managing government coffers effectively and prudently, has become even more appealing to some on the left. Accordingly, the DA then becomes an ally, according to this logic.

However, no political formation in South Africa can legitimately and successfully establish a threat to the ANC without an articulation of the race and gender struggles. The ANC wields a powerful discourse that delicately hangs all competing interests together.

Following on from Zackie Achmat's interview, unless a political project emerges which sufficiently grapples with the intricate nexus between race, class and gender in South Africa, 'there will be no alternative for the majority of ANC voters'. But this is the stuff of Politics - a realm in which Abahlali does not swim. In this context, it is doubtful that Abahlali has in actual fact suspended ideology. Ideologically, Abahlali seems to have stuck consistently to a very particular set of ideas.

Thapelo Tselapedi is currently pursuing a PhD on BRICS. 


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