Post-1994 South Africa is founded on the principle of progressive access to privilege. This principle implies that those in the suburbs will continue to live there while those in shacks will be progressively admitted into the ranks of those with houses and amenities. It also implies that those that earn decent salaries will continue to earn while those earning pennies will be progressively admitted into the ranks of those with a living wage. This suggests that those who have access to tertiary education will continue to learn whie those who are struggling for access will be progressively admitted into higher education. It is a principle for progressively admitting the have-nots into privilege.
This principle functions to maintain the socio-economic structure of SA, while progressively expanding access to the marginalised. It functions to enable those in suburbs, those earning salaries and those with access to higher education to continue enjoying their privilege, precisely because there are those who consent to live in shacks, earn pennies and not have access to higher education. This principle not only functions to stabilise the socio-economic status quo, but its invisibility too, and it acts as a veil to shield the privileged from the discomfort of their having privilege.
The workability of this principle is founded on there being implicit consent from the marginalised. Its workability is premised on the patience of the marginalised and their tolerance of the lottery of life outcomes this principle occasions.
But with the advent of Marikana, EFF, #FeesMustFall, #RhodesMustFall and the Pretoria Girls High hair protests, this principle is being made visible and is thus starting to unravel. The implicit consent, on which our system has so been dependent, is being revoked by the marginalised. The revocation of this implicit consent is creating a crisis of governance in SA – a crisis beyond any single protest event or protest cause. This revocation is a crisis because the stability of the status quo is premised on this implicit consent.
A crisis of governance has never been music to the ears of those in power. This crisis has led them to conclude that this implicit consent must be coerced out of the marginalised. This conclusion implies that, the administration of power in this country must become progressively securitised in order to coerce and maintain this consent. This is what, on a fundamental level, is behind the killings at Marikana and police brutality at Wits.
The marginalised in SA are making both a quantitative and qualitative challenge to this founding principle of progressive privilege.
The challenge is quantitative to the extent that the marginalised wish to change the measured rate and pace at which they are being admitted into the ranks of the privileged. They are making a quantitative demand for a R12 500 living wage. They are making a quantitative demand for zero-fee tertiary education. They want to fundamentally change the rate at which they are being granted access to privilege.
On the other hand, the challenge is qualitative to the extent that the marginalised wish to change the very nature of the privilege into which they seek admittance. This qualitative challenge is illustrated by the decolonisation movement as exemplified by #RhodesMustFall and the Pretoria Girls High hair protests. Here the marginalised are saying ‘we want access to the privilege and we also want this privilege to speak to the principles of the Constitution’.
In light of the historical question of race in SA, the principle of progressive privilege has served to preserve white privilege. This preservation is a deep rooted anxiety of the Democratic Alliance’s core constituency. Notwithstanding the race question, the class stratification which has occurred in SA since 1994 has meant that some blacks now, in various ways, enjoy privilege.
This class stratification of blacks is adding to the crisis of governance. This is because it is in part the very people whom the ANC government got admitted into the ranks of privilege who are now deconstructing the system of privilege – a system through which the ANC has governed.
The ANC upper echelon has been found wanting and is failing to sense the present moment. This echelon is failing to speak to the moment and provide political leadership. This failure is compounding the governance crisis and unravelling the compact on which SA is founded – a compact based on the principle of progressive privilege. The ANC’s failure to speak to the moment is emboldening the ANC government to coerce this revoked, implicit consent by way of the securitisation of governance. This failure to speak to the moment is making the ANC government question whether people are too free and whether the marginalised think their consent is theirs to revoke.
Protesters are adamant that the system of privilege should be collapsed and this must happen now. But it is the sad and tragic truth (of our times) that immediate collapse of the system of privilege will result in a situation where no one enjoys these very privileges in the first place. Mugabe failed to acknowledge that reality; the EFF revolutionaries also seem stubborn to this acknowledgement
Economic, political and social justice in South Africa is possible, but only achievable by acknowledging reality.
Protest action creates scope for change and cannot be the change we seek in and of itself. Any premature move towards dialogue, as protesters correctly point out, will only serve to demobilise the struggle and perpetuate the status quo. However, we must acknowledge that protest action creates scope for change and only a negotiated programme of change can ever bring about transformation.
On the question of whether to engage in protest action, all disciplined revolutionaries should always ask: what further expanded scope do we want to create before we return to the negotiating table? The answer to that question should inform continued protest action.