Wednesday, 7 April 2010

Why class, not race, defines South Africa's turmoil.

In a video provocatively titled "Kill all the Black People," YouTube poster R3NDI3R makes the argument that "Kill the Boer, kill the farmer" - the ANC's anti-apartheid struggle song - is of no relevence to the present and is in fact racist. His argument, strongly worded, seems to have merit. BBC News has reported that "South Africa's ruling African National Congress (ANC) has told its members to refrain from singing the anti-apartheid struggle song "Shoot the Boer"."

Of course, this new development can hardly be attributed to a single man or a single video on YouTube. Racial tensions have been rising recently, and the murder of white supremacist leader Eugene Terreblanche has only further ignited this. "His supporters have blamed ANC youth leader Julius Malema for inflaming the situation by singing the song," as the BBC tells us. Indeed, this is the point of R3NDI3R's rant.

However, it is worth arguing that the issue of this song is nothing more than a distraction.

Not because inflammatory anti-white songs are acceptable, far from it. The controversy surrounding the song represents a distraction because it is superficial. Not only does it fail to strike at the heart of the real injustices of ANC rule in South Africa, which I've covered previously, but also because - as apartheid itself did - it throws up race as a dividing line whilst the country is suffering heavily on the basis of class.

On LibCom, Chris Rodrigues sheds more light on this little-analysed perspective;
A hat tip to Mphutlane wa Bofelo for pointing out the subtext to the ANC’s claim to the “shoot the boer!” song: For is it not the case, as wa Bofelo points out, that the attempt to establish a heritage status for the song locates the struggle in the past? And what of the new songs that the poor sing today? Songs like, “amabhunu amnyama asenzela i -worry” — “black boers cause us worries”. Does this current storm in Julius Malema’s teacup not also divert attention from this reality?

Part of the problem resides in the fact that the media tends to follow the blindingly obvious — in this case, the day-to-day pronouncements of those who hold political office. The body politic is, however, capable of other forms. The University of Abahlali baseMjondolo — the University of the Shack Dwellers — is a case in point. University? Shack dwellers? What kind of politics is this that doesn’t seek parliamentary representation? Still, it’s unforgivable that in a country where protests occur with such frequency — there is no ink spilt analysing contemporary idioms.

Anthems, as the Uruguayan essayist Eduardo Galeano says, are often full of “threats, insults, self-praise, homages to war, and the honourable duty to kill and be killed”. The archetypal Marseillaise, for instance, warns that the Revolution “will water the fields with the impure blood” of the invaders. Terrifying stuff but once institutionalised, as Messrs Malema and Motlanthe are arguing, these songs of death and victory are sentimentalised and tamed. They are no longer sung outside the Bastille but inside the Stade de France. In the ANC’s case — we could draw a distinction between singing near Casspirs, and singing in the vicinity of parking lots full of SUVs.

It is, rather, the adaptation of a song, or a new song sung by the excluded that is, as the philosopher Slavoj Zizek argues in First as Tragedy, Then as Farce — the truly revolutionary anthem. Working from the premise that “universal humanity is visible at the edges” — a phrase he borrows from Susan Buck-Morss — he describes how the newly self-liberated black slaves of Haiti faced down the French soldiers sent to crush their republic, by singing the Marseillaise. As Zizek suggests, in that moment, they were asserting:

“In this battle, we are more French than you, the Frenchmen, are — we stand for the innermost consequences of your revolutionary ideology, the very consequences you were not able to assume.”

Could we not say the same with the “black boers cause us worries”? Not only are the poor demonstrating their non-racialism (a black person can also be a boer — a metaphor for an oppressor), they are simultaneously radicalising, through differentiating class from race, what the ANC’s theorists would call the national democratic revolution.

Indeed, it must be somewhat unsettling for the ANC (as in Zizek’s example, the French), who once held a revolutionary initiative, to hear new analyses of the struggle — like the following from Abahlali:

“It is the community organisations and poor people’s movements who are protesting around the country who are true to the spirit of the struggle against apartheid. The politicians who try to herd the people into stadiums to tell them that the politicians in their cavalcades are the true inheritors of the spirit of that struggle have made themselves our enemies.”

All it seems the ANC can say is that we once sang a seditious song and what is now required is — as represented by our regime — obedience to that heroic heritage. Regrettably, a judicial ruling has breathed new life into what is an anachronistic farce for, as Karl Marx might have said, the ANC “only imagines that it believes in itself and asks the world to share in its fantasy”.

Sixteen years of neo-liberal economics dressed up in leftist drag means that a new generation are singing real songs again. These old-new freedom songs are, routinely, met with rubber bullets. It underscores one of wa Bofelo’s points — that people have always known that “it does not only take a white skin to install or perpetuate a system based on unequal allocation of power and inequitable distribution of wealth and resources”.

Here, however, we enter a more thought-provoking terrain and, again, Zizek is useful. He inverts Marx’s old definition of farce by insisting that “contemporary cynicism” as regards ideology (post-modernism, if you like) only imagines “that we do not “really believe” in our ideology [for] in spite of this imaginary distance, we continue to practice it”.

In other words, is not all this attention on Malema, and on a long-in-the-tooth song, not an illusory fight that both the black and white bourgeoisie would prefer to a real one over, dare we say it, communism of some sort? Is it not that the bourgeoisie believe in capitalism so much that they would rather chose a Janus-faced soap-opera (with its empty posturing and hysterical condemnation) than confront the ideological challenge posed by the new anti-capitalist movements? Is it not the case that a clown prince is (even to the SACP) preferable to a real communist?

A few years ago, the Financial Mail, wrote something particularly telling in regard to the then president-in-waiting. It was in the edition entitled, “Be Afraid”. “It’s not the corruption and rape charges that investors and SA business think about when they think of Zuma,” said feature writer Carol Patton, “it’s the simple fact that he has a far more radical support base than Mbeki”.

That someone could be radical — let alone a class for itself — is the spectre haunting South Africa’s rainbow elites. The “shoot the boer!” song represents then, in a Freudian sense, only a symptomatic return of this repressed fear.

“But what about farm attacks/killings”, someone could ask? Are these not, as AfriForum and the Democratic Alliance assert, a literal enactment of that song?

This question also masks its ideology. We should first ask what a farm attack/killing is? And once both phrases also include the attack/killing of farm workers by farm owners, we should ask what motivates farm owners to attack/kill farm workers? The answer to that question will, no doubt, extend the initial inquiry well beyond the three words of a song.

There is, of course, a more obscure question — one that proves that the blind are leading the blind — and it’s whether the murder of an abusive white supremacist, like Eugene Terre’Blanche, is attributable to others’ “hate speech”?

Let’s stop changing the topic. South Africa has been dubbed “the protest capital of the world”. The recent Kennedy Road attacks, which left two dead and Abahlali activists hiding in safe houses, are harbingers of an intensifying class struggle. As one of its members said: “The ANC regards [Abahlali] — not the other official political parties — as their true opposition, because we are closer to the pain on the ground.”
The situation in South Africa is more intense than elsewhere only because the great injustice that was apartheid only institutionalised the illusion that injustice was entirely based on race, with class playing no part. The ANC have been keen to maintain that illusion, even as it is shattered by the sight of poor blacks rising in protest against rich blacks.

Race is an issue, of course, and will continue to be an issue. But it is not the central one. The end of apartheid did not bring about the end of poverty or injustice. South Africans (or anybody else) will not realise such a goal until they tackle the one issue that subsumes all others. That is, the issue of class.