This studio session, presented by Steven Robins and Harry Garuba, interrogated the character of politics in post-Apartheid South Africa. Both departed from the idea that mass political mobilization during the 1980s has been displaced by a transformed society, where government capacity, and the law as a mechanism to create a more just society, appears to compromise political radicalism.
Robins focused on recent local struggles. Ethnographically tracing several cases of everyday activism which he argues are not grasped by overarching theories that do not contend with the strategic and sometimes unintended ways in which the language of rights and constitutionalism have been used by activists. From the blurring of indigenous and land struggles in the Northern Cape and Kalahari, claims to rights over adequate housing and economic survival in Cape Town, to the Treatment Action Campaign (TAC)’s use of the language of biological citizenship to successfully demand state provision of Antiretrovirals (ARVs), Robins suggests local contestations that challenge the political landscape. Further, by showing how the TAC organized international and local humanitarian aid, following the 2008 attacks on foreigners, Robins implies that these local forms of politics cannot be reduced to single-issue matters, allowing him to argue that while concerns with liberation may have shifted since the Anti-Apartheid struggle, it is unjustified to dismiss the existence of a transformative politics and the law as a site for politics in contemporary South Africa.
Garuba focused more theoretically on the kind of ‘closure’ of political space following the liberation struggle. Against claims (made by some within government and on the left) that the struggle can be continued or a second stage of revolution is possible, Garuba suggested that we approach present conditions in South Africa as a moment in which the struggle has definitively ended. Analyzing post liberation politics, Garuba drew on Fanon’s essay “The pitfalls of national consciousness” to argue that political possibilities have been fundamentally compromised by the accession to political power. The postcolonial elite, by continuing to claim the moral (as distinct from political) authority from the liberation struggle, foreclose political struggle. Indeed, Garuba identifies “a disconnect” between an elite who have access to rights talk and a disenfranchised poor who have little purchase on a transformed political terrain. The gap produced by this disconnect is the realm of the spectacular, to be filled only by fundamentalisms. Garuba seems to suggest that for a (transformative?) politics to emerge it has to contest the elite’s moral hegemony, and yet he seems deeply pessimistic of this prospect.
Although pitched at different analytical levels and in different tones, both presentations suggested the value of resistance for politics. Subsequent discussion within the group revealed tensions over definitions of what the political might constitute, for instance whether politics necessarily entails some kind of threat or sacrifice, and the fragile relationships that the political may hold between the legal and the economic. For me, three comments arise:
1) The character of resistance, either in past or present South Africa, as a positive political value, cannot be taken for granted. It seems to me that the articulation between different levels of social reality, between the immediate need for ARVS and the discourse of individual responsibility, between the struggle for an actual house and a secure place in the world, far from straightforwardly calibrates into a political project. Even in struggles that we may be inclined to call ‘progressive’, we have to be aware of trajectory of forms of resistance that may subside after immediate demands are met or even produce ossified and anti-political identities. While it is easy to valorize resistance and struggle, the effects of these are not always immediately clear or adequately analyzed.
2) Following from this, more analytically, what is the place of social critique in these struggles, and what are stakes of focusing on what may be the most visible emissions of discontent without reckoning with people’s often unnoticed everyday difficulties and anxieties? Is politics predicated upon finding a language of disagreement or discontent? And further, is resistance the most useful diagnostic for politically informed social critique? Can we easily accord ‘authenticity’ to particular struggles over time?
3) How do we adequately contend with the state in “post-liberation” contexts? Although the law certainly can become a space for both contestation allowing unexpected victories and a space for hollowing out of political alternatives, as the presenters alternatively show, are there ways to think about the state outside the law? Is it given that the state will become a depoliticizing instrument? Are there ways of posing the contestations over the constitution of the state and its policies, both in the legal and extra-legal dimensions, in a manner that does not reduce the state to a progressive/reactionary binary and seeks to understand the layers and contradictions of the state practice itself?
Bernard Dubbeld in conversation with Kerry Bystrom
Bernard Dubbeld in conversation with Kerry Bystrom