*Retired lecturer in political science, University of Stellenbosch and currently DA-councillor at the Municipality of Stellenbosch
Many affirmative action appointments exhibit a pattern where people who have acquired generic skills in one walk of life can successfully transfer these into life’s other spheres. If we take affirmative action to mean what liberals in the USA recommend as a method to bring about a more legitimate social order in a society which has historically been plagued by all the ancient forms of coercively enforced inequality that human flesh has been heir to, including Apartheid, then no one in South Africa should object to this remedy.
But our homegrown version of affirmative action is not inspired by a liberal ethos similar to the one that rendered this remedy to historical injustices so popular in the United States. It is underwritten by a social metaphysic of a completely different order. The cardinal intuition underpinning the notion of what passes as affirmative action in present day South Africa entails “liberation” from foreign encroachment and control over the institutions of power in South African society. Liberation requires the replacement of the personnel that serviced the system of state domination erected under the auspices of colonialism, capitalism and imperialism (CCI) with a service personnel consisting of the members of the aboriginal populations. It is premised on the notion that social justice and democracy can only be achieved in South Africa when the aboriginal populations regain control of what they were deprived of through the actions of the agents of CCI.
“The people” as the repository of democratic legitimacy, is defined in terms of a criterion that excludes those who can be regarded as the beneficiaries of Apartheid. “The people” as a “social formation” is variously defined as “the previously oppressed”, “those who suffered under colonial and imperialist oppression” or as what has now become commonplace in the discourse associated with affirmative action, “members of the previously disadvantaged communities.”
This amandla awhetu logic has its foundations in the influence that Bolshevism exercised over liberation ideology during the extended period that the ANC and the SACP conjoined in a war for liberation under the tutelage of the Soviet Union.
Bolshevism was a heresy within the Marxist tradition that deviated from the class struggle logic of orthodox Marxism and embraced the notion that wars of national liberation from imperialism and colonialism replaced class war as the major emancipatory project of “progressive” humankind.
A successful war of liberation restores self-determination to a moral community called “the people” which has to rule for the polity to be worthy of the name of democracy. In the liberation lexicon, democracy ceases to describe an arrangement whereby the people decide how and by whom they were to be governed. National independence from outsider rule (national self-determination) becomes the principal characteristic of democracy. The central feature of such a notion of democracy is captured well in a reply by the African leader Sekou Toure, when it was pointed out to him that many of the newly independent African states were ruled by dictators: “Yes, but they are our dictators!”
Those political forces contesting elections against the vanguard of the people, the ANC, are not, as they would be in a normal democracy, only opposition to the ruling party; they are in opposition to democracy itself. To oppose the ANC is to oppose democracy. To oppose the ANC is to oppose liberation. The democratic moment requires ANC incumbency to power. If the ANC does not, for example, govern Stellenbosch municipality the people of Stellenbosch cannot be regarded as being democratically ruled. Under eg. DA rule it was commonplace to call Stellenbosch a ”non-liberated zone.” The efforts of the DA to gain the ascendancy over the ANC in the electoral arena is” really” (deep-down, subliminally, unconsciously, in the hidden recesses of the white conscience collective, in the primal ooze of the white libido dominandi,) an attempt to restore outsider control over the people. To restore the invidious subjugation of “the people” as it obtained under CCI and Apartheid.
From such a premise it is easy to draw the inference that getting rid of the personnel who do not qualify as “previously disadvantaged” is a necessary step for the advancement of democracy and its cognates such as national liberation, social and economic emancipation, freedom, amandla awethu, etc. The moral compulsion associated with the project of liberation is a demanding taskmaster. It requires unflinching loyalty and commitment to the “broad church”. Employment is a function of deployment rather than a independent form of occupational engagement.
Another saying goes that in every fat man there is a thin man trying to get out. The irony of the constitutional dispensation in South Africa is that here we have a government endowed with a Bolshevik mindset but trapped in a liberal constitution. Ideologists in “Our Movement” talk about “two stage revolutions”, “wars of position”, “sunset clauses” etc. in the debates about how the goals of liberation can be advanced despite the liberal “straitjacket” into which opposition parties like the Democratic Alliance want to confine their “progressive” liberation projects. The liberal notion of the separation of the powers exercised by state organs so that they can check and balance one another in the service of protecting the freedom of the individual is abjured as an obstacle to liberation. Liberation requires the fusion of power.
Liberation ideology advocates the notion that the state must serve as the engine of liberation and the project of liberation, especially the achievement of its egalitarian goals, requires the state’s administrative, judicial and legislative organs be fused in the fold of the “organizational expression of liberation”, the African National Congress. What is called affirmative action in South Africa describes a process of mounting a systematic form of hegemonic control of the party over state institutions. It has nothing to do with the logic of distributive justice that underpins the notion of affirmative action in the United States. There affirmative action has a liberal ancestry and is geared towards distributing the opportunities and rewards of society in an equitable manner. The logic of affirmative action in South Africa has a Bolshevik ancestry. It is about amandla awhetu. Amandla awhetu is justice. It is the necessary and efficient antecedent condition that has to be realized for justice to become possible in South Africa.
In the “straitjacket” logic of liberal constitutionalism, public officials are enjoined to suppress and privatise their political convictions. After all, they serve a body of citizens which holds all sorts of diverse political points of view and who can be expected to demand as a matter of right to be treated as citizens of equal standing even if they had been the tormentors of the “people” in the past. In a constitutional state like ours, political legitimacy is rooted in the notion of a citizenship of equal value. We might be socially and economically unequal, we might by happenstance be members of communities that benefited under Apartheid, we might be Afrikaans-speaking and white, we might be members of “capitalist social formations” or members of the exploited masses under internationally organized Western imperialism, but constitutionally we are regarded as equal.
As a corollary we all have equal rights. The constitution makes no mention of the “people” as the annointed of history with special claims to advantages that can in the service of justice and righteousness be denied those who are not of the “previously disadvantaged”. After all, the old partisan Apartheid state that treated whites as the only fully paid-up members of the political community is behind us. We are all South African now. The “national question” might not be resolved in the turgid philosophy of liberationist ideologues but as far as the constitution goes, it is passé.
In a liberal democracy public officials are supposed to be subject to the effective operation of the principles of equal citizenship and the autonomy of the state and in order to give effect to it, public employment practice is required to be rooted in the norms associated with the professionalisation of careers in the civil service and using rules of recruitment and placement which deliberately separates positions in political parties and representative institutions from positions in the state apparatus. The requirement that these should constitute two distinct career trajectories is the norm in working constitutional democracies. Deference to this norm is essential to bolster the autonomy of public institutions to a level where they are protected from a regression into the sort of partisan state where publicly generated resources are dedicated to the advantage and benefit of some of its citizens and to the detriment of others. History is replete with examples of political classes acting as predators in society and most of institutional advances in the building of democratic political practices in the West have evolved in response to the needs of counteracting political predation and to tame the power of would-be political predators. We have no wish to return to a situation where the logic of social justice becomes a warrant, which allows predatory political elites to weaken the fortifications our constitution has erected to fend off their greedy impulses. We have seen enough of that under Apartheid and in the Mugabe-esque behaviour of our venerated African neighbour states.
What we have seen of the employment practices of the ruling party in South Africa at large undermines both the norm of preserving the autonomy of public institutions and upholding the principle of citizenship of equal value.
The illusionist trick the ANC is trying to play works like this: Historical justice is served by “affirmative action.” The application of circular reasoning to amandla awhetu premisses confirms that affirmative action benefits those that were the downtrodden under Apartheid. An unprecedented opportunity looms for the “the previously disadvantaged” in the form of a liberation dividend. The enormity of this dividend is such that they are easily persuaded by amandla awhetu benefits that can accrue to them that the entry qualifications for a successful public career demand enthusiastic endorsement of the ruling party. (Careerism is born.) Every two-bit intellectual with a third class B-degree can now benefit from the category mistake which holds that the colour of one’s skin is irrefutable proof of where one is located in the great divide between the advantaged (white) and disadvantaged (black). This despite accumulating evidence that the only blackness that really counts is the blackness that comes from being quickened in the political uterus of the ruling party. (For example in utero fertilised blacks can become very rich without forfeiting the privileges of being members of the “historically disadvantaged”. Even those that grew rich and powerful under Apartheid or benefited from being co-opted into collaborating with that regime do not forgo their status as “previously disadvantaged.”) This being so the venal and ambitious quickly flock to the party fold from whence they proclaim their loyalty to the cause and hence their candidacy for becoming the beneficiaries of “liberation”. (Careerism becomes feasible. The cynical pursuit of personal gain in the name of commitment to the goals of the Struggle becomes commonplace, so commonplace that our state president has publicly diagnosed it as one of the principal reasons for the failure of local government in South Africa).
Since historical justice (liberation) can only be brought about by those who can be trusted with the accurate implementation of the liberation program the party faithful are privy to a magnificent monopoly on jobs. (Naturally only the People’s people can govern when the People govern. This precept follows from the amandla awethu logic alluded to above.)
The self-serving circle is completed by floating one’s loyal cadres into the apex of every institution where power is exercised, rewarding them with lucrative salaries from public funds and from there control the institution’s behavior. Parliament becomes a major ideological nursery to hone the skills of the political priesthood and if MP’s are “redeployed” to top jobs, space is created for new recruits to the nursery. All at public expense. Like a conquering army, the movement feeds of the land through which it marches.