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Umsebenzi Online

Volume 9, No. 20, 20 October 2010

In this Issue:


Red Alert

Liberals or the Left - who are the real defenders of our Constitution?

Jeremy Cronin

Over the past months, a range of liberal personalities and formations have networked together and persuaded themselves and all who care to listen that the ANC and SACP are bent on undermining press freedom as part of a general offensive against our democratic Constitution. The DA and their Dependent-Independent Democrats, both COPEs, the IFP's Ambrosini, the FW De Klerk Foundation, various academics, and an assortment of newspaper editors have all joined the fray. Some left-leaning NGOs and social movements have also been swept up into what is, fundamentally, a conservative anti-majoritarian liberal agenda. We have even had the ambassador of the US (the land of the embedded journalist) lecturing us on "media freedom".

Yes, there are rogue elements within our broader movement, and particularly within the ANCYL, who have shown scant regard for media freedom, or any other constitutional or legal nicety. They and others who lurk behind them may well want to censor the media and subvert our Constitution. But notice how it is precisely these demagogic forces (or at least the most prominent amongst them) whose sense of self-importance gets to be constantly stroked by headline treatment in the media. The print media in particular has a love-hate obsession with them. The more they insult journalists (and everyone else - including the President of the ANC, the SACP and COSATU), the more coverage they enjoy.

In many respects, these forces are, at least to a considerable extent, a media creation. If you had read newspapers in the run-up to the ANC's September National General Council, for instance, you would have had the impression that ANCYL personalities were going to pose a serious challenge to the incumbent ANC leadership. Very few newspapers in SA predicted that this clique would be utterly marginalised and roundly condemned by the overwhelming majority of ANC NGC branch delegates. And after the NGC, who set about re-floating these forces once more? The media of course.

So what is the media up to? Partly it is the narrow commercial imperative of presenting the news and particularly politics as a shallow spectacle, a daily melodrama. Serious political analysis and debate are marginalised.

Sometimes, the flirtation in the media with right-wing demagogy in our movement has features that are ominously reminiscent of liberal flirtations with the buffoonery of an incubating Nazism in the early 1930s. Back then it was a tragic flirtation driven by the delusion that a still small fascist right-wing was a useful counter-balance to what had been a powerful social-democratic and communist left in Germany.

At least some parts of the South African media have occasionally inclined in this direction. Consider a recent column by Business Day editor, Peter Bruce ("The Thick End of the Wedge", 30 August). Bruce refers approvingly to Julius Malema's interventions at the ANCYL's August NGC:

"Even Julius Malema sounded strangely comforting...Denouncing the way political families (read Zuma's) are enriching themselves in black economic empowerment deals...When the guy leading the charge against the increasingly ridiculous SACP starts talking that kind of sense, you have to listen. It may be time for business to start taking Malema more seriously as a partner ... with an eye on the future of our country."

Fortunately, the majority of newspaper editors and their journalists would, I think, disagree wholeheartedly with Bruce in this regard. Being the political dilettante that he is, Bruce himself has probably since changed his mind. But there is something more fundamental at play. It is not that many media practitioners actually approve of these demagogic personalities and their antics, but the liberal (and often sub-consciously racist) paradigm that prevails in many news-rooms needs demagogic populists to "prove" an ideological point - "You see what happens when THEY take over?", "We told you so, politics is a corrupt business", "The state (especially in Africa) is always-already on the brink of failure", "The ANC and its Stalinists allies are inherently anti-democratic", "If the media blinks for a moment, we will become like Idi Amin's Uganda".

And so we have an ongoing symbiotic relationship between liberal journalism on the one hand, and right-wing demagogic populism, on the other. The populists are high on media attention which goads and flatters them into increasingly outrageous behaviour. Media commentators then like to conflate this right-wing demagogy with the ANC-led movement in general and by this sleight of hand the media presents itself as the last bastion of defence of our threatened Constitution against an anti-democratic, demagogic assault for which, in fact, it is acting as a megaphone.

The two faces of liberalism

This symbiosis is part of a much broader issue - the progressive and deeply reactionary sides of liberalism. The origins of liberal values can be traced back to the European enlightenment and the struggle against feudal autocracy. Individual rights were affirmed in the face of arbitrary despotism. Formal equality of citizens was upheld against entrenched and largely hereditary social hierarchies. These liberal values played a crucial emancipatory role in human history. In 19th century Europe, the basic right to individual liberty ("self-determination") was conceptually transferred also to aspirant nations. Various peoples suffering under Tsarist or Austro-Hungarian feudalistic imperial oppression took up the struggle for independent nationhood and stretched the liberal notion of self-determination to embrace the idea of a collective right to "national self-determination". This tradition was carried into the 20th century and taken forward by oppressed peoples in the colonial world. The dominant oppressors were now no longer so much feudal as monopoly capital imperialists. There was a major debate within Marxist circles in the second decade of the 20th century as to whether this appropriation of a liberal notion (self-determination) was progressive or not. Rosa Luxemburg believed not, Lenin differed. He argued that the national liberation struggles of oppressed colonial peoples were a crucial pillar in the general struggle to defeat global imperialism.

This Leninist approach to the national question has helped shape the dominant left tradition within SA. It lies at the heart of the eight-decades (and still going strong) SACP/ANC alliance. But ANC liberation culture has also been influenced by progressive values of liberal origin through other channels as well - notably those transmitted through 19th century liberal humanist traditions particularly by way of philanthropic missionary education. Basic notions of human equality ("we are all made in God's image") soon acquired a radical edge in a racialised colonial setting. However, in the course of struggle over many decades, and particularly with a shift towards a mass line within the ANC in the 1950s, the class limitations of classical liberalism were soon felt. The Freedom Charter of 1955, for instance, embodies many classical liberal demands, but it goes well beyond the boundaries of a liberal paradigm - one reason why the Liberal Party of the day refused to participate in the Congress of the People.

The political culture of the ANC represents a fusion of militant nationalist, liberal humanist, and radical left values. It is a unity forged in the anti-apartheid struggle around the political objective of achieving democratic majority rule. Let me repeat that: DEMOCRATIC MAJORITY RULE. By contrast, throughout the 20th century, the mainstream of liberalism in SA (and, indeed, in most other places) never envisaged entrusting governance to a democratic majority. The fore-runners of today's DA argued for a "qualified franchise". They even believed they were not racist because, after all, they were willing to bestow the franchise upon a handful of "civilised" (and "propertied") natives. Of course, the majority of "natives" just happened not to have property (never mind that it was because they had been colonially dispossessed!)

In the 21st century, arguing for a qualified franchise in SA would, of course, no longer remotely fly. But the underlying anti-majoritarian liberal agenda remains the same - if we can't have a qualified franchise, then let's do everything to devalue the potential `
collective power of a one-person one-vote franchise. That means, amongst other things, continuously sowing mistrust in and scepticism about the democratic state and the majority party - which, by a sleight of hand, are continuously presented as the key "threat" to democracy.

It is important, at this point, to be quite clear, especially for those of us in the SACP. There are sobering lessons from the 20th century that we need to internalise. In the course of the last century the left, everywhere, played an heroic and often leading role in opposition - whether, for instance, against Tsarist autocracy, or in the national liberation struggles of South East Asia or Southern Africa. In power, however, bureaucratic authoritarianism often swallowed up the revolutionary and democratic impulses (and even cadres) of an earlier period. That is why it is so important that the left, especially the communist left, should be in the forefront of defending a strong constitution that safe-guards individual and collective rights, and that entrenches effective checks and balances on the state. There is nothing inherently "liberal" or "anti-left" about this.

However, and this is where the left begins to part ways with liberals, we also need to check, balance and transform OTHER forms of concentrated power that can subvert democracy and development. Notice how in the debate around press freedom, liberal voices have had a great deal to say about the state and the ruling party, while being largely silent about the massive market (and therefore ideological) power of the three capitalist conglomerates that dominate the print media. The one is an apartheid-era corporate construct suckled on Afrikaner croney-capitalism, another is controlled by Irish media tycoons, and the third has as its major share-holder the embodiment of BEE mining money. We sometimes speak of the media as "the fourth estate", but the dominant print media institutions in our society are very much part of a ruling "first estate". In the present media debate, the recurrent message is: "The ANC government wants to take away YOUR right to know". The message sets up a paradigm of a big, nasty government, on the one hand, and 48-million individual citizens, on the other. In this liberal fairy story, a supposedly benign print-media is guided by the purest intentions of bringing the truth to these millions of individuals.

But there are truths that they won't bring you. For instance, Independent Newspapers, for all their full-page boasting about speaking truth to power ("WE'RE INDEPENDENT...ARE YOU?"), won't ever dare to tell us that their Irish-owners have been shipping out some R400-million a year in profits from our country while asset-stripping their increasingly impoverished South African newsrooms.

Liberals emerging out of the woodwork

Emboldened by the recent liberal offensive against government and the ANC, all manner of liberals have now crept out of the woodwork - among them Dave Steward the executive director of the FW De Klerk Foundation. I wonder how many fellow liberal "defenders" of the media and of our Constitution winced when Steward nailed his colours to their mast. After all, Steward headed the apartheid communication services between 1985 and 1992.

But it is precisely this indelible past inked into his CV that compels Steward to be a more honest and consistent liberal than some others strutting about today who are happy for us to forget the historic role of their anti-majoritarian liberalism.

In his most recent intervention (" 'Democracy' declares war on freedom", Cape Argus, 12 October) Steward breaks that greatest of all contemporary SA liberal taboos - he dares to imply (twice!), ever so subliminally, that there is a continuity between "the best" of post-1994 SA and "the best" of the last decade of apartheid rule.

He begins his "defence" of our Constitution with the following ringing assertion: "Not since the days of John Vorster have liberal values been under such attack by government as they are now." Note how Steward neatly skips over PW Botha and FW De Klerk - after all, from Steward's point of view, the last two apartheid heads of state were liberal reformers. The scandal is not that Steward believes this, but rather that he has a point. Botha and De Klerk were anti-majoritarians who understood that liberal-leaning reforms (including market de-regulation and privatisation) were the best chance of defending the ill-gotten gains of their white minority constituency in the face of looming change. This is the scandal that most of today's anti-majoritarian liberals would prefer us to forget.

Steward goes on to tell us that "the GEAR based macro-economic policies that are now so widely denigrated helped to ensure 17 years of uninterrupted economic growth until the global downturn in 2008." Again, if they bother to do the arithmetic, this will not please many contemporary liberals. But do the arithmetic for yourself: 2008 minus 17 years takes you back to 1991. Steward is breaking another (related) liberal taboo. He is reminding us of the continuity in macro-economic policy (and in the actual neo-colonial growth path it has underpinned) from the latter years of apartheid rule (with its Normative Economic Model) through more than a decade of GEAR-dominated policies.

Anti-majoritarian liberalism and the attempt to hijack the South African Constitution

But it is in the manner of his "defence" of our Constitution that Steward is most revealing. "On the battlefield of ideas", he tells us, "those who are fighting for liberal values can count on the support of the Constitution." However, in seeking to claim our Constitution for his own anti-majoritarian liberalism, Steward has a small problem. True to the mainstream of liberalism, Steward makes the classical conflation of two very different things - "freedom", on the one hand, and the (so-called) "free market", on the other. In this paradigm, as Maggie Thatcher famously put it, "there is no such thing as society, just individuals." Freedom consists in "maximising" the choice (on the market) of individuals/consumers by privatising, de-regulating and generally liberalising.

To claim our Constitution for liberalism Steward proceeds to tell us that the Constitution "does not recognise 'collective rights': all rights devolve on individuals ...there is no idea that individual rights can ever be 'over-emphasised'.".

Now this is very interesting, because even a cursory reading of our Bill of Rights will reveal that it has many references to a variety of collective rights. For instance, Clause 9 on Equality reads:

"To promote the achievement of equality, legislative and other measures designed to protect or advance persons, or categories of persons, disadvantaged by unfair discrimination may be taken." (Clause 9 Equality)

Likewise, Clause 23 on Labour Relations reads:

"(4) Every trade union and every employers' organisation has the right - (a) to determine its own administration, programme and activities; (b) to organise; and (c) to form and join a federation.
(5) Every trade union, employers' organisation and employer has the right to engage in collective bargaining..." (Clause 23 Labour relations)

Clause 25 on Property asserts that:

(6) A person or community whose tenure of land is legally insecure as a result of past racially discriminatory laws or practices is entitled...either to tenure which is legally secure or comparable redress.
(7) A person or community dispossessed of property after 19 June 1913 as a result of past racially discriminatory laws or practices is entitled...either to restitution of that property or to equitable redress."

So why does Steward make the ludicrous claim that there are no collective rights in our Constitution? It is partly because of his liberal individualist bias, but, linked to that bias is an inability (or unwillingness) to confront the systemic realities hard-wired into the structure of South African society by more than three centuries of colonial oppression and white minority rule. And it is precisely because it DOES recognise these realities that our Constitution is not just about checking and balancing the state, it is not just about defending individuals against political power. It does embody these important constitutional principles, yes, but it is ALSO a clarion call to use power (not least political power underpinned by a democratic majority) to TRANSFORM our reality. And this is what our anti-majoritarian liberals fear. This is what they hope we will not notice. This is why they pose as the grand protectors of our Constitution...but they can only do so by cherry-picking an item here and there from the Constitution while grossly distorting its overall thrust.

A constitution to preserve what exists...or a constitution to advance transformation?

Many liberals will object that I have conveniently focused on an easy target in the shape of a former apartheid functionary, Dave Steward. I accept that there are many variants of liberalism and some of its proponents might be more adept at covering their anti-majority and therefore anti-democratic phobia than the CEO of the FW De Klerk Foundation. But this phobia is the consistent thread that runs through the ebb and flow of liberal chatter in our country.

It is a phobia that is detectable in, for instance, the Centre for Development Enterprise's Dinokgeng scenarios - which conveniently render "unthinkable" (because they are allotted to two mutually excluding scenarios) the possibility of both a strong developmental state (= bad scenario) AND an active citizenry (= good scenario).

It is a phobia detectable in an otherwise interesting recent contribution to the media debate by Mark Berger who tells us: "I will support the opposition until we have a balance of power". In other words, for Berger democracy is not about creating the conditions to change reality, but rather a mechanism for creating a stale-mate. The fragmentation of a democratic majority capable of driving transformation is what informs the hypocritical praise of COSATU leadership whenever there appears to be a glimmer of a split from the ANC-led alliance. And it is the same pursuit of an anti-transformation stale-mate that informed the media's premature celebration of the arrival of COPE.

With COPE imploding, the anti-majoritarian liberal agenda on the party political front is once more back to square one. This is why, over the past months, in their unceasing offensive against the consolidation of democratic majority power, we have seen these liberal forces shifting their focus to an alternative terrain - building a civil society front "in defence of media freedom and the Constitution". In meeting this challenge, we on the left must not be clumsy. Above all, we should not be half-hearted in defending the Constitution - the actual Constitution, that is. It is a Constitution that carries a profound message of liberatory transformation that goes way beyond the narrow confines of 19th century liberalism.