Bert Olivier
Bert Olivier

The fatal hermeneutic divide in South Africa

Many people are bound to have thought of Alan Paton’s novel, Cry the Beloved Country, in the wake of recent events in South Africa. And everyone who have thought of it as a suitable response to these events may be forgiven. But there’s a saying, that people get the government they deserve, and it is unfortunately applicable to South Africa today. South Africans have only themselves to blame if irresponsible people in positions of political power are not removed by democratic means, which, incidentally, includes civil disobedience – something that too few people seem to realise is part and parcel of legitimate democratic responses to irresponsible or reckless actions on the part of governments. Read Thoreau’s famous essay on civil disobedience ( http://xroads.virginia.edu/~hyper2/thoreau/civil.html )

The word ‘hermeneutic’ in the title of this post has to do with interpretation – the principles, ‘rules’ and pitfalls of interpretation. In the present unfolding of events following El Presidente’s sacking of Pravin Gordhan and his deputy, Mcebisi Jonas, what strikes me as most regrettable is what might be called the ‘hermeneutic divide’ in this country. Sometime in the future linguists, sociologists, psychologists and other social scientists will be conducting studies on the grounds for such a salient chasm between and among various people (groups as well as individuals) as far as their interpretation or understanding of these events is concerned.

There are those who, when realising what the president’s actions would mean for South Africa’s relative economic standing in the world, as well as for the cost of living for South Africans, immediately condemned his decision to remove two ministers who, to the best of my knowledge, were doing their job well, with a strong sense of responsibility to the people of this country. Then there are those who believe that Jacob Zuma acted in the interest of the ANC, or worse, ‘the people of South Africa’ (whoever they may be) and against what is nowadays termed ‘white monopoly capital’, forgetting that El Presidente is himself deeply compromised regarding capital through his cosy relationship with the Gupta family – capitalists to the hilt.

And sadly, there are clear indications that all too many people support the evidently unscrupulous person and his allies who are responsible for acting in a manner manifestly NOT in South Africa’s interest – all indications are that the actions concerned were performed in the interest of a small group of people alone, who are bound in relations of patronage. This alone is reason for great concern – that so many thousands, if not millions, do clearly not understand what is at stake, and are falling for the empty, contradictory rhetoric, that the president’s actions were in the interest, particularly, of poor people in this country. Those people should try to familiarise themselves with elementary economics. If the ‘radical economic transformation’ promised by the president and his newly appointed minister of finance, Malusi Gigaba, is to go ahead along lines that resemble the economic road embarked upon by Robert Mugabe’s government in Zimbabwe, only suffering and deprivation lie ahead for South Africans.

In fact, even people who oppose capitalism, like myself – given its demonstrable breaking up of social and natural ecologies – cannot claim to live, or to be able to live, outside capitalist economics and society. For better or worse, we all live, for the time being, in a world suffused by neoliberal capitalism, and therefore have to consider the consequences of our actions in economic terms, if we want to survive economically. Hence, to believe that the actions of any president, here or abroad, can FREE people from the stranglehold of capital, is simply wrong, disingenuous and stupid. (The fight against capitalism is underway at many levels – read Hardt and Negri, or David Harvey, or Naomi Klein, or Manuel Castells, and you’ll start understanding why I write this.)

On the contrary, the utter, mindless stupidity of our dear president’s actions regarding the well-being of people in the country, that is (as opposed to his own interests), is concretely evident for all to see in the fall of the Rand against major currencies, in the billions of Rands that have been lost by South African banks since the ministers were dismissed and the country downgraded, and – although most of those who are trying to justify Mr Zuma’s actions don’t show even a remote awareness of this – in the inavoidable fact that the impact of the Rand’s devaluation, together with the country’s rating falling to junk status, will be felt most severely in the deleterious changes that are bound to ensue in our local economy. Food prices will go up, fuel will probably go up significantly, in general the cost of living for everyone, from the stinking rich to the miserably poor, will go up. For the rich, including Zuma, it does not matter that much, but for the poor it does. The people supporting Zuma don’t seem to know this; in fact, I’ve come across a number of articles that show clearly that they don’t understand this at all, in their blind applause for a person who has even incurred the justifiable wrath of many principled people in his own party.

When I read R.W. Johnson’s recent book, How Long Will South Africa Survive? The Looming Crisis (Jonathan Ball Publishers, 2015) (see http://thoughtleader.co.za/bertolivier/2016/09/19/the-unbelievable-cost-of-south-africas-bloated-public-sector/ and http://thoughtleader.co.za/bertolivier/2016/10/12/what-most-south-africans-dont-know-but-can-probably-guess/ ), I was struck by Johnson’s sober and realistic, if pessimistic, diagnosis and prognosis. I am very sorry to say that the credibility of Johnson’s prognosis has been validated by the turn that events have taken in this country. I am not a fatalist, however, but instead agree with Michel Foucault that the contingent decisions and actions of human beings determine the direction in which history develops; we are not subject to some deterministic historical law.

What this means, of course, is that we should not give in to Afro-pessimism, by saying something like: ‘Here we go again – Africa reasserts its pattern of greedy political leaders capturing the organs of state for their own, and their cronies’ benefit, and to hell with ordinary people’. Instead, ALL South Africans should organise democratically, as ex-minister Pravin Gordhan has urged them to, to bring the president and his beneficiaries to face and accept the consequences of his irresponsible and self-serving actions as far as justice goes. The one very good thing that has emerged from this debacle is that the thousands (if not millions) of people who have rallied to oppose his actions are from all race groups in South Africa – this is not a racial thing; it concerns justice and responsibility, regardless of race.

I hope fervently that the opportunity afforded by this crisis – and a crisis it is, for the ANC and for ordinary South Africans – will be used to good effect, namely to get rid of a kleptocratic, and given his Gupta-connections, plutocratic president, and restore responsible government. The ANC can always ‘recall’ El Presidente; if they do not, they face the likelihood, which (unbelievably) they do not seem to have noticed yet, that he will probably succeed in destroying the party of Oliver Tambo and Nelson Mandela single-handedly, albeit with a little help from his friends (with sincere apologies to the Beatles).

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