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.


Bert Olivier

Bert Olivier

As an undergraduate student, Bert Olivier discovered Philosophy more or less by accident, but has never regretted it. Because Bert knew very little, Philosophy turned out to be right up his alley, as it...

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