Tuesday, July 7, 2009

Politics after Liberation II

Harry Guruba

Greetings to all JWTC participants and outside readers. I write in response to a set of remarks made by Harry Garuba and Steven Robins under the heading “Politics After Liberation” on Monday afternoon’s studio session.

As its title suggests, this panel inaugurated debate on one of the central questions posed by the JWTC: What forms does the practice of politics take in the post-colonial/post-apartheid period? The title of the panel, of course, begs a number of further questions. How do we define “liberation”? In what sense can contemporary South Africa be understood to exist chronologically “after” liberation (a question raised by Garuba during his presentation)? How—both descriptively and normatively—can we define “politics” (a term problematized by Kelly Gillespie in her reaction to the presentations)? But let me bracket this second set of queries, at least for the moment, to sketch the visions of politics after liberation set out by the speakers.

Garuba began by providing a helpful genealogy of the discourse of liberation struggles across Africa and the African diaspora, and pointing out that the leaders of these struggles self-consciously presented them as ethical or moral movements that were “above” politics. In part because of the compelling moral visions that they elaborated, these leaders were able to maintain a strong connection with the masses. Garuba then asked two key questions: what kinds of politics are possible in this wake of this “apolitical” struggle, and why is it that leaders are no longer connected to the masses of people they supposedly represent? The answer that Garuba provides to the first question begins to explain the troubling phenomenon of “middle class disconnect” at the heart of the second. After 1994 in South Africa, he claims, elites diverted political struggle into the realm of the legal (including the constitutional, the bureaucratic, and the notion of citizenship aligned with neo-liberal democracy). This created an enormous gap between (1) the political elite and members of the middle class more broadly, empowered as citizens to employ the language of rights, law and citizenship, and (2) the majority of the population who found themselves outside the domain of the law, and thus without access to institutional centers of power. Garuba suggests that the gap between the middle class and the poor has become so great that the only mode available to the poor for expressing demands and desires is that of spectacular, violent action. The xenophobic riots of last year can be seen as a case in point. What is needed in this situation, he powerfully argues, is the bridging of this gap through the construction of a politics stemming from the needs of people on the street.

While Robins’ presentation actually came first, I describe it second because it both reinscribed and challenges us to think in complex terms about an assumption that seems to underlie Garuba’s analysis as well as to be widely diffused in recent social theory. This is the idea that (to quote Robins’ quotation of the Comaroffs) “class action has replaced class struggle.” Like Garuba, Robins suggested that politics after liberation has increasingly migrated into the realm of the juridical, where it has been reshaped into rights-based legal claims grounded in the new constitution. In response to this situation, however, Robins posed the following questions: Does litigation always produce de-politicization? Are rights-based movements always counterproductive? He then attempted to answer these questions by drawing on his ethnographic work on social movements in South Africa. Without presenting a falsely rosy picture of the possibility of neo-liberal discourses to generate “emancipatory practices,” he suggested that the language of rights and indeed the strategy of conducting lawsuits can be helpful (at least temporarily helpful) as well as harmful. His rich analyses of social movements revolving around issues ranging from land claims of Nama-speaking people to demands for antiretroviral drugs showed that local groups can gain access to and transform global legal discourses like that of human rights, de- and re-territorializing them to actively and productively struggle for control over things ranging from natural resources to cultural identity. Does this conclusion trouble the model set out by Garuba, I wonder, or confirm it?

Perhaps what was most striking to me about the session overall was the convergence, noted above, of Garuba and Robins on the idea that contemporary politics has been displaced into legal action. To put it differently, this is the idea that politics after liberation is always what Julia Hornberger termed “politics in the shadow of the law.” This very convergence seems to call for continued interrogation from many different angles. One is historical and descriptive: How and why is politics transformed into a matter of law in the neo-liberal, post-liberation moment? How and why does neo-liberalism separate out the domains of the legal, the economic, and the political? Another is moral or normative. Building on a comment made in the discussion by Shalini Randeria, shouldn’t we be trying to find ways of revising the definition and boundaries of “the political” as created by neo-liberalism to bring other domains within it? Why shouldn’t legal or rights-based activism be considered “politics”? Finally, an analytic question: what aspects of postliberation politics are being lost or obscured by this focus on the legal or juridical?

Kerry Bystrom in conversation with Bernard Dubbeld

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