Bert Olivier
Bert Olivier

Power, Malema and the ANC

Could Foucault’s notion of discourse give one a purchase on South African politics? Indeed, it can, specifically by clarifying the relationship between ANCYL leader Julius Malema and the parent body of the ANC.

For Foucault, after the student protests of 1968 one could no longer really believe in the kind of (Althusserian) structuralist Marxist science which would supposedly rescue the workers (and the students) from “false consciousness” accompanying ideology — for Foucault (Truth and power, in: Power/Knowledge: Selected Interviews and Other Writings 1972-1977. Ed. Gordon, C. New York: Pantheon Books, pp. 109-133), this conception of ideology and its overcoming is still caught in the obsolete philosophical model of the “subject of consciousness”, which has been decisively surpassed by the so-called “linguistic turn”.

His own position is a complex appropriation of the advent of what is, in his archaeological terms, the “linguistic episteme”.

While he recognises the role of language as “discourse” (which denotes the convergence of power and meaning), for him there is something more decisive than what he calls the “great model of langue”, or the linguistic system of signs and relations of meaning. To understand the way that power relations function (everywhere, including within political parties like the ANC), one has to grasp what this something is, and what its consequences are. In his words (1980: 114):

“Here I believe one’s point of reference should not be to the great model of language (langue) and signs, but to that of war and battle. The history which bears and determines us has the form of a war rather than that of a language: relations of power, not relations of meaning. History has no ‘meaning’, though this is not to say that it is absurd or incoherent. On the contrary, it is intelligible and should be susceptible to analysis down to the smallest detail — but this in accordance with the intelligibility of struggles, of strategies and tactics. Neither the dialectic, as logic of contradictions, nor semiotics, as the structure of communication, can account for the intrinsic intelligibility of conflicts. ‘Dialectic’ is a way of evading the always open and hazardous reality of conflict by reducing it to a Hegelian skeleton, and ‘semiology’ is a way of avoiding its violent, bloody and lethal character by reducing it to the calm Platonic form of language and dialogue.”

This explains Foucault’s (1980: 123) reversal of Clausewitz’s formula concerning the relation between politics and war to read: “Politics is the continuation of war by other means.” What this captures, for Foucault, is that politics (an exemplary domain of shifting power relations, but certainly not the only one) is not merely a sphere where power functions negatively, in the shape of suppression or oppression, or control. Instead, it has productive effects of power; not merely of control, but also in the form of producing certain (sometimes new) modes of behaviour.

How, one may wonder, does this apply to the relationship between Malema and his seniors? As follows. It will be recalled that recently, when President Jacob Zuma was questioned about the possibility of Malema being suspended or expelled from the ANC as a result of the (possible) findings that may emerge in the course of his disciplinary hearing, he said something along the lines of suggesting that this would (or should) not be the appropriate course to follow. Instead of kicking the young hothead out of the party, Zuma suggested, he should be taught how to be a leader instead; he should be moulded into a good leader.

To many this must have seemed like very strange logic, given the suspicion that Malema has (more than once) “brought the party into disrepute”. Why not spare the ANC more embarrassment? Foucault’s contention, that politics is a form of (discursive) war casts light on the matter. Consider that, even if one does not have a thorough knowledge of Foucaultian theory, even at an intuitive level it must be clear to the ANC that Malema’s following among (especially) the youth is considerable, and is growing, given his appeal to the large numbers of unemployed (more among the youth than elsewhere).

Consider further that, as a political scientist friend of mine (who specialises in Africa politics) told me recently, the African liberation movements that came to political power after the end of colonialism, did not last long as political parties in government. Invariably they tended to be ousted by other parties, suggesting that it is one thing to be a liberation movement, and another to be a political party in the role of a government.

Hence, to frame this in terms of discourse, to expel Malema from the party would risk creating another discursive grouping in the political arena that might, given his growing support, pose a serious threat to the political power of the ANC from the outside. On the other hand, to keep him within the party would enable his elders to exercise discursive power over him, to rein him in by means of the very discourse that has so far prevented the party from disintegrating (in the face of all the tensions within it). Should he be expelled, and have the presumption to start his own party, ANC discourse would be useless against him, because it would be adversarial.

This is why Foucault claims that human actions should be understood in terms of the model of war or battle — even when we are “merely” exchanging words across political allegiances, these words are the bearers of discursive interests and priorities, to the exclusion of others. And by keeping Malema within the discursive stable of the ANC, they may hope to domesticate him via a discourse that has structuring effects on human behaviour. Whether they will be able to do this, or whether he will remain willing to operate in the shadow of the parent body in the long run, is anyone’s guess. It may depend on his degree of confidence in being able to win the support of a certain critical mass of people.

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    • von Clausewitz

      Holy cow!!! All that philosophical gobbledegook just to convey to us the message that, in relation to the vexing dilemma posed by Julius Malema, the ANC is abiding by the adage that it is better to have Julius Malema inside the tent pissing out, than outside the tent pissing in…….

    • Garg Unzola

      However, support for Malema is not increasing. Malema’s support is declining.

      Given that Malema is in hot water, it’s a no-brainer to see that Malema is creating diversions to take attention away from his disciplinary hearing and faltering support. Couple the oddly timed march with the truant playing flu and the release of the oil for food scandal reports by Zuma, which implicated Malema supporters in the ANC, and it all falls into place.

      Sticking with the warfare theme, “all warfare is based on deception”. Malema would try to appear more powerful when his support is in fact declining. I will not be surprised if Zuma ignored Malema until such time as Malema is in a position to threaten him openly at the ballot box. Expect another damning report from Zuma implicating Malema then.

    • Paul Whelan

      von Clausewitz (‘our’ SAn one, above here) does have a point.

      My belief is that such elaborate reasoning is required because neo-marxists, post-marxism, post-structuralists – whichever term applies – had and still have the greatest difficulties with any suggestion of a basic human nature that is self-governing. To concede anything on that point not only undoes their historic world-view, but any last hope of future ‘revolution': when the crunch comes, people, and especially the more comfortable classes, will always revert to being people – time-serving, ne’er-do-wells and layabouts that do not know what’s good for them.

      Does the ‘love of power’ explain ‘world history’? Certainly. Does it account for our private and personal behaviour? If by ‘power’ you mean what the eighteenth century called ‘interest’, very probably – most of it. But the interesting thing is the lack of certainty.

      Non-marxist historians will in time argue over the many motives President Zuma has for the way he deals with the Malema challenge. What keeps us going is the facts always turn out to be more interesting than our theories.

    • MLH

      Have to laugh! At one stage I wondered whether your students understand all you say…I certainly don’t. However, I do understand that keeping one’s enemies closer than one’s friends is, in this instance, a sensible precaution. Especially when this enemy has just pulled off a very obvious public event that showed himself, his cohorts and his followers to be thoroughly tamed. Until the next Malema disciplinary then…

    • Opstoker

      In other words” “Better to have him in our tent, peeing outwards….”. My, these tertiary types find complicated ways of saying simple things.

    • Jean Wright

      von Clausewitz. In one paragraph you’ve got it!

      But then a little short for an article/column. And dear old Olivier is into Foucalt currently Trotsky next perhaps?

    • Balt Verhagen

      @ von Clausewitz

      Pissing out or in… Exactly my reaction.

      But…the Malema phenomenon, with its early Hitlerian connotations, could possibly be a bigger (and productive) stick behind the door that we realise. In the face of the huge threat posed by this burgeoning populist, Zuma (i.e.elements in the party, perhaps even his new spokesperson and advisor Maharaj) have realised that the whole alliance structure has rendered itself so vulnerable through its massive fraud and resulting internecine strife, that their only salvation is to come clean – or as clean as they reckon circumstances demand.

      In other, more metaphorical terms: being far from convinced that Malema would remain more or less in the bosom of the party, as Bert puts it, Zuma, the erstwhile AK seeking populist, may be forsaking the devils, and the brew of their own making. With his sudden decisiveness regarding corrupt senior officials and the arms deal commission, he may be seeking the safety of the angels in the face of satan himself, an even greater and potentially much more dangerous populist.

    • Joel

      There is a presumption (both reactionary & fear based) that MALEMA parrots a popular & unavoidably real socio-political discontent. That he embodies a dis-empowered & growingly impatient majority. That he has the weight of numerical support (the common political denominator) & therefore ‘History’ behind him. This is surely an overstatement if not a fallacy for strictly speaking it is his sense of entitlement as president of the ANCYL, his right of access to the various tools of power (like the media) that underpin his legitimacy. His ANC profile according to this perspective is one of a symbol of inclusiveness, of ‘morality’ before money. 1. Expel him & neither party benefits. 2. Keep him & the ANC risks the tail wagging the dog. A 3rd option is for the Mother Body to cast the net wider for someone with a sincere ‘revolutionary’ world view but does not this represent the greatest danger of all to the status quo. As all this plays out Lenin’s ‘useful idiot/s’ comes subtly to mind.

    • benzo

      A complicated way of saying what “@von clausewitz” is saying.

      Please try again for those who do not have the books you refer to. I only hav an accountancy and IT background.

    • Brent Wilson

      An excellent analysis as always, Bertie. I would have thought that cunning Juju was ‘useful idiot’ enough for the ANC

    • Paul Whelan

      Another point our discussion has missed so far is that what we may be seeing here is not another way the Foucaultian ‘discourse of power’ operates, but the very opposite: that President Zuma’s words and actions in this instance cover for powerlessness.

      That is my personal view, which not many may share – just as I do not go along with the view that Mr Malema ‘speaks for millions’ and is necessarily a ‘kingmaker’. But events may prove me wrong.

      The issue for me is how we can know, or assess, to what extent individuals are agents of ‘history'; how we can explain human motive and ever justify offering a blueprint for it.

    • Rene

      Von Clausiwitz, you’re wrong – what you have phrased in scatological terms of pissing is not all that Bert is saying. He is making all this peeing comprehensible by means of discourse theory. But you missed that, didn’t you…..?

    • Partial Observer

      @von Clausewitz

      Perfect. Seldom does one see such wisdom in Comments.

      Bert, as a fellow philosopher who has spent 15 years studying and teaching in this field, including Foucault, I say this with affection – we should both feel humbled and duly instructed by this reader.

    • Matoro

      Agree and excellent analysis, but apart from the “in” or “out” scenario, the war between Zuma and Malema need also be looked at from “energy” produced by the confrontation … and what is behind the confrontation. Is Malema the mere conduit for the survival, or cultural replicator, of the genes (or memes if you wish) of Winnie Madikizela-Mandela?
      At this moment in time this ‘symbiotic organism’ is feeding off the poor. But which poor will better further the selfish memes of our: those poor who are invoking perverse incentives created by public policy and opportunity constraints? Or those poor that are viewed as maybe irrational; with traces of psychological dysfunctions such as apathy, limited time horizons and weakness of will ?
      Are we seeing Sun Tzu at work?

    • Jean Wright

      In Richard Leakey’s book ‘Origins Reconsidered’, there is a chapter ‘Murder in a Zoo’ which covers the jostling of position among males in a group of Chimpanzees whose behavioural patterns were under study in a Zoo in Arnheim. The account of changing allegencies in various attempts to challenge the old Alpha male together with the victory and final defeat of the instigator of the first challenger makes fascinating reading. And follows the power politics currently being engaged in the ANC….. and in Politics everywhere. The first challenger met rather a sticky end (after some time at the ‘top’) and the final Alpha was a quiet but ‘politically astute’ third male, who was prepared to ‘do a few deals’ on the side.

      An every day story of life (& politics) in the jungle… co-opting females, family members and ‘friends’. Sound familiar?

    • Shaman sans Frontieres

      Deja vu. Peeing in, peeing out. I remember discovering Foucault in popular English translation back in the late 80s and realising that academia will never be the same again, sort of. However, the Foucault moment has fortunately passed. Largely because the Althusser and Jameson schools have largely passed. Marxist theory is no longer broadly considered in the Humanities as de rigeuer. There is in fact a welcome return to more considered explorations of the topic of the ‘human subject’ and consciousness. Real historians go back to the eighteenth century and the German enlightenment, and the roots of modern psychology and explorations of the meaning of consciousness, and Foucault’s very useful views are no longer needful governing views. He drew on masses of revisionary historical data to substantiate his theories but we go back and do the same ourselves.

      Funny thing is, Foucault’s main emphasis being on the langue, the discourse, that is determined by state institutions, here in good old SA our state institutions are largely semi-articulate, hopelessly mired in corporate-style managerial speak, fast losing all sense of historicity, and by and large lacking in vision. The point is, if we have a Foucault-styled ‘war-by-discourse’, we have damn little in the way of discourse. Watch the lawyers, advocates, judges, and law reports. They are our last holdfast in a rapidly degenerating public discursive domain.

      Roland Barthes on chucking of plastic chairs?

    • Paul Whelan

      @ Shaman SF –

      ‘ …but we go back (to historical data) and do the same ourselves.’

      Well, do we, or do we do so enough? – that must be the question for the halls of academe and all concerned with education. To go by the vast majority of what we hear and read, SA appears to have ‘no history’ to draw on outside its poisonous race relations and borrows an intellectual life it fails to set critically in an historical context.

      Is it error, calculation or unavoidable? This is an area I personally would like to hear from Bert on.

    • Udo

      Thank the gods for some intelligent writing on Thoughtleader, and I am talking about Bert’s, not (most of the) commentators’!

    • Garg Unzola

      Thank the gods for value judgements devoid of content.

      @Jean Wright:
      I find that very interesting. Conspiring is part of primate behaviour and we’re primates after all. I put much stock in sociobiology.

      As an aside, I wonder how much of a transformative thinker Robert Axelrod is? (See the evolution of cooperation)