Although all too familiar with the hard, even bitter, kind of South African political “debate” on the left and centre-left that too often turns potentially comradely exchange into a mind-numbing dialogue of the deaf, even I was a little taken aback by the tenor of Jeremy Cronin’s response to my questioning approach to the celebration of the ANC’s 100th Anniversary (both texts published in Amandla!, March, 2012). Readers can assess our respective arguments side by side in that issue for themselves so I won’t reiterate them again here. I will, however, take note of the hectoring, even demeaning, nature of Cronin’s intervention since it seems to me to exemplify one very real problem that we have in making further progress on the left in South Africa.
For his intervention is framed by two observations that can only be characterized as mere sneers, as crude insults. He begins by suggesting that I feel “personally…let down” by the ANC failure to realize a more progressive practice post-apartheid. But let me be clear: I do not feel, nor does my writing for even a moment evoke, any sense the ANC owes me or my “cohort” (whoever that might be taken to be) one damn thing. Surely one can feel disappointed with an outcome without feeling one has been personally betrayed!
But is it not, instead, the poor of South Africa who have been “betrayed”? I’m not sure that this is the exact word I would use; nonetheless, the point of my article is, precisely, that the ANC continues to owe the poor of South Africa a much greater effort than the party has yet demonstrated to expand the meaning of South Africa’s liberation beyond simple “national freedom” (and beyond, as well, the sort of “liberation” promised in the name of private-sector, elite-centred, “Black Empowerment”). Bluntly put, the ANC should be seeking to help realize a much more fulfilling and egalitarian future, in class, gender, democratic and even racial terms, for the vast mass of poor South Africans. Yet, instead of “liberation” cast in such expansive terms, the party (and the new black elite it chiefly represents) has, all too comfortably, settled for a bald “recolonization” of South Africa by global capital.
What then follows in Cronin’s Amandla! article is a text in which he seems more often than not simply to concede ground to my substantive arguments (and those of Peter Alexander whom I quote). Yet he then chooses to conclude his piece by capping his broader “argument” against my original intervention with yet another ad hominem slur, one designed, apparently, to altogether dismiss my right to speak with any credibility. After all (Cronin here quotes Zizek to crown his case) I’ve been pursuing, all these years, “a well-paid academic career in the West” and now merely “rage against” the ANC when “it in any way disturbs my complacency.” Kid’s stuff, this.
The real question: does the ANC (or the SACP for that matter) have the capacity to right itself and become a real instrument of genuine liberation of the South African people in the post-apartheid period? Worth arguing about soberly and carefully, I would have thought. Some of us were already somewhat skeptical about any such prospect for South Africa under ANC leadership during the apartheid period itself. Now our worst fears have been realized and we broach, seriously and circumspectly, the case, and the social basis, for a counter-hegemonic alternative. In such a sober context, just do me one favour, Jeremy. Please don’t trash the messenger.
John S. Saul