United we shall stand
A ballot box is not the only means of democracy, and a factory not the only means of production.
Let me say upfront that this piece is not dealing with the larger (and I believe, organised) threat of attacks to key points, but on the widespread looting by ordinary, mostly poor South Africans.
Secondly, anyone who has been able to even engage in this commentary over the past few days, or has time to read this, is lucky to live in a so-far unaffected community, or privileged to be comfortably at home and not on the streets, or both. Myself included.
I have written this live in the middle of ongoing developments. As always, my thoughts are incomplete, imperfect, and open to change.
Many of the commenting classes have spoken about an event like this week for years - some playing at what “revolution” would look like, others held the “swaart gevaar”. Both, now frozen - “is this what we meant?”
They say a disaster unites. It offers a common trauma, and then, a common project - the “rebuild”. But in the middle of the trauma, some of us are running for cover, fingers pointing out with blame. If we are to come out stronger, together, in the moment to stabilise, and rebuild - we ought to be rushing out to lend a hand - hand held out, such that our whole position might change with the weight of what grabs it.
As imagery of a poor boy having gotten some new clothing and undies, or shop owners having lost everything, uncertain of if their insurance covers civil unrest, or not insured at all, spreads on social media there has been a lot of opposing commentary that suggests you are either “with the poor” or “with the economically included”.
If you empathise with the shop owner or the employee whose place of work has been destroyed, or the mother who can’t purchase bread as a result of the looting, you lack class consciousness and awareness of the struggle of the poor.
And on the contrary, if you empathise with the poor looter, you are sympathizing with and enabling lawlessness, “unruly forces” and “anarchy” (I think you mean “chaos” - anarchy is the absence of power relations and hierarchies).
Our un-opposable minds are not equipped with a fairness framework that can tolerate that there are victims on both sides. Our “moral taste buds”, as Haidt refers to them, are being tested here - our moral frameworks are shouting at us about the importance of:
care/empathy (for the suffering poor),
fairness/justice (for both the poor and for the shop owners and workers), and
the threat to traditional authority (rule of law), and
in some cases, also loyalty (to an ethnic group - be that Zulu, Indian, white etc).
With all of this happening at the same time, our instincts do battle at alerting us to which moral need is most at threat?
We would expect to see traditional “conservatives” butting up against traditional “liberals” on the weighting of importance of authority/rule of law vs. care and fairness here, but in the scenario we face as a country this week, even “liberals” (broadly) are conflicted.
We are all discomforted. And our minds seek to find a resting state. The easiest way to achieve this is to find data that confirms our existing world views and mental models.
But we are disrupted! An optimist might use this moment to seek a new model.
To my revolutionary friends who have decided it is care for the poor (looters) which is most important, I ask:
Is this really the offensive that will render the economy accessible to all?
To my conservative friends who have decided it is the authority tastebud burning strongest, I ask:
What society will justice really restore, for whom?
For some, liberty ends where economics begins - work is only a means to survival, and capitalism is not natural. For others, liberty starts where economics begins - work is creation and mobility. Depending on your worldview, we might never agree on which of these is true.
In this righteous debate, neither of us will win. To the revolutionary idealists who want a new order - something decolonised and feminist perhaps? - fragments of it exist inside you (and me) and communities, but mostly we will use those to adapt (to?) whatever is left after all of this is over - and whatever is thrown at us next. And to the ones who want everything to be perfectly protected ‘capitalism’, ‘democracy’ and ‘order’ - you will be disappointed too - capitalism does not have the answers to inequality, democracy takes work, and your view of order might not be your neighbours’. There are no shortcuts.
I remember attending a talk with Andile Mngxitama (yes, that Andile) back when he was doing New Frank Talks and he spoke about the “anti politics of guilt”. Biko was cautious about white people who “adopt class analysis, primarily because they want to detach us from anything relating to race”. Class analysis can be a defense mechanism against discomfort with other forms of privilege we hold.
Don’t ignore class, but don’t analyse only through the lens of class either - what’s happening right now is so much more complex than that. We will only be able to recover if we address all aspects - our history, the state of our state, class and race and gender, cultural production and economic production, social meaning and civil society and civic action.
The Paradox of the Masses
As we sat watching mass looting on our screens we know that we can’t join that “mass”. And we can’t stop that “mass”. But neither of those is the ask.
There are many lessons to be learnt from what Cape Town Together achieved over the past year and a half. It did not try to create a mass. Each Community Action Network was its own. It did not ask others to join it. Each collective worked autonomously, but in reach and with sharing and solidarity with the others.
Yesterday, I drew inspiration seeing communities in action coming together to decide what their own boundaries and rules were - how they would say no to violence and destruction, and promote care and safety. There was autonomy being expressed at a community level - with some exception to this where existing power dynamics might exist with illegitimate leaders within “communities” (that word that aggregates away all internal fractures and power dynamics), and racial profiling (racially profiling people and waving guns in their faces or blocking their right of movement ain’t civil mobilisation, that’s just lawlessness pretending to protect authority, without social legitimacy or fairness).
A living history of the future
As I wrote at the time, the “Zuma Must Fall” movement was “demandless” movement - it offered no common agenda for uniting people and said nothing of the shared vision for things which are now under attack - property, money, labour. And so here we are.
No one can honestly look at youth without incomes, families without land, people living in informal settlements, men killing women, and not believe that systemic change is needed. On a global scale, too - there is inequality within and across borders, a race against the clock on climate change, and, of course, a frickin pandemic and vaccine-apartheid.
As Noam Chomsky says - “it’s simply an issue of time scale. These developments, even if feasible, even if they’re the “right” thing to do, are not going to happen in the relevant time scale”.
The desire for something new is not wrong, the expectation that it can be created in a matter of a few years (or even decades, sadly) is perhaps a part of our problem. The type of social change we need to solve poverty, to address climate change, to address gender based violence, to address corruption, these are not going to happen over night, these can potentially happen over the next two decades - with immediate improvements in key areas, and intergenerational change, systemically.
“We will walk then the same path of history, but we will not repeat it; we are from before, yes, but we are new” - Zapatista
What can happen *immediately* is restoring calm using law, order and community structures. From there, I believe in a mix of actions that will build a capable state, disperse power, heal social trauma and generate economic wellbeing:
We need to stabilise so that we can continue with the restoration of good governance and building capability in SOEs, state departments and anti-corruption blitz, and arrests of those accountable for state capture. When Ramaphosa said we had “made significant gains”, some people nodded knowingly - ons was op pad - while others had no clue what gains he was on about - too abstracted are committee minutes and slow negotiations from daily bread. (And of course this is not a linear path #vibes). There is a lot that can be said here - it goes beyond changes in leadership, and to work that is ongoing on building capabilities for better service delivery, resilience and relevance to the 21st Century South Africa.
Start to de-ivory tower planning and services. I have ran programmes getting officials to do “walk and talks”, or “site visits” and “community visits” and can tell both horror stories on their initial resistance, reluctance and “views from the top”, as well as heart-warming stories of change as people changed from “officials” to “civil servants”, reconnecting with place, Batho Pele and redefining problem statements and solutions. I’m also not alone in my view of the importance of this practice - I once worked with a Municipal Manager who had “GOYAs” (get off your arse..) which was his version of taking officials out of the office and onto the street…Make it a rule for officials to spend 1/5th of their time in communities. If we could change from boardrooms to virtual calls, what’s stopping us from shifting to these meetings to streets, halls, or under trees? Who knows what might shift…
Introducing a basic income grant (BIGs). Most “welfarist” approaches to BIGs calculate a BIG at somewhere between R350 and R500 a month, aimed at preventing hunger. Economists, however, recognise that social grants are not merely social safety nets - every cent gets re-invested in the local economy, and that spend has multiplier effects. Furthermore, higher grants enable people to become productive in different ways - travelling to seek work, or starting their own businesses. One Kyle Smith, even suggests a BIG of as much as R6 460/month for this reason. Let’s not get paralyzed by the debate. Issue an immediate BIG grant on the lower end and take it from there, while investing in community service and skills-development linked expansion options tailored to local needs.
Mass expansion of EPWP or a similar community services programme (potentially linked to the BIG above), ideally one that also mobilises volunteers into rebuilding our country. The rotational nature of EPWP has often been critiqued from a household income stability perspective - as a BIG-equivalent, EPWP does poorly in this regard. But the rotational nature of the programme as social mobilisation, skills development and social organising principle has a lot too it - many movements have used this as a tool to ensure that “everyone knows what to do and how to do it”, and if we better matched EPWP to higher-order economic activities, the social exposure multipliers would further expand. So it depends - do we view EPWP as a community service programme, or an income creation programme? If the former, it can be a part of integrating people into local governance and management of the urban environment.
Localise procurement. As Ayabonga Cawe says, “[t]he toilets our people shit in, the libraries they read in and the parks they enjoy can and should be built with local resources (not only human but even raw and manufactured materials and the financial savings mobilised therein)”. This can be linked to the point above about EPWP etc, but it goes further than that into the way in which grants and transfers are spent at a local level, and event other locally generated funds are spent. Localisation is a contested topic with a lot of unproven narratives about economies of scale, etc. that often hide monopoly interests. The WCG once insisted that its procurement of energy-efficient lightbulbs in a facilities retrofit programme be locally produced - the only problem, at that time, there was no local factory producing energy efficient light bulbs in the Western Cape. Now there is (I think by now there are a few, this was a while back), and they supplied not only that contract, but many retailers from who we all happily (and unknowingly of this success story) purchase our (much cheaper, locally produced and job-creating) light bulbs. Let’s do this!
Get township development right. Hint: its not (just) malls. Greater connectivity of townships to places of economic opportunity through improved transport, more investment in social facilities and urban management in townships themselves, rezoning of areas (linear corridors usually…. i.e. the high streets of tomorrow) of high informal activity to encourage re-investment and growth of those businesses, and fostering youth-led collectives to manage new initiatives that address locally identified priorities (this can be anything from crime, GBV, tech/digital content clubs, sports, - it really doesn’t matter - the aim is to have an engaged youth in the social fabric of recovery and development).
Developing alternative energy systems (the IPP programme, local government procurement, and also enabling alternative service delivery through cooperatively owned micro-grids that light up communities and give them a stake in the means of energy production), reconstructing our cities (a huge topic, involving, firstly, increasing the capacity of municipalities to spend the grants and transfers they receive, upgrade informal settlements, improve urban management; and clearly a recovery strategies for the affected urban centres in KZN and parts of Gauteng) and fixing mass transport systems.
Recognizing that democracy does not start and end at the ballot box. And the means of production do not start and end at the factory door. The apparatus of democracy - the state - is defined as including the people. “We the people” at the national level, and in the Municipal Systems Act “the political, administration and community”. This is in recognition that the states role of creating and mediating public value is not only about “good institutions”. Similarly, production includes cultural production, informal production, the lending of knowledge, and the sharing of time. We, the people, have a role to play - development is greater than the relationships and patterns of productive forces, and the (often weak and ineffective) mediation thereof of the state. Many of us already “do our bit” - in direct “black tax” and “white guilt charity”. But it goes beyond this - we need active citizenry - “civic Saturdays” (literally, or equivalently), and political leaders who will enable that or at the very least get out of our way. This includes, embarking on acts of social change, as a daily practice - working on your own prejudices, widening your social circles, combatting practices of exclusion in your workplace, and It’s time for us to escape escapism, and become active:
Movement grows from there - my hope is that it will be collectives of movements, autonomous, sparked in places of rebuilding, supported by state stabilisation, and injections of redistributive and multiplicative financial flows.
And, in the end, call no other place home.
Do not politicise sadness. Centralise reflection. As always, we will find that we have “
meer ingemeen” (more in common/more in community)
than we believed.
*I am also not offering an economic analysis of the impacts of the past few days - of those I am sure there will be many. There is no doubt that the impacts are deep, and lasting, and will reach far beyond the affected towns into the national economy as supply chains are hurt, and constraints to growth and investment further triggered. I also believe that recovery and inclusion necessitate investment and growth - but the right kinds of growth - growth in fixing transport systems, fixing our cities, creating new & green energy, inclusive agriculture, etc.