On Air Feature

Politics of Violence - Prof Fikeni

Date: Apr 21, 2017

The Politics of Violence and Coercion and the weakening of an informed democratic discourse- writes Professor Somadoda Fikeni

❝The chains of habit are too weak to be felt until they are too strong to be broken❞; this observation by Samuel Johnson apprehends the essence of what, in the last decade, has been a cumulatively growing political culture of coercion and violent political rhetoric that sometimes translates into physical violence. 

Service delivery protests, strikes, industrial action, political protests and even political gathering are increasingly defined by coercion or violent rhetoric or physical disruptions. The violent security workers’ strike that left scores of people dead, regular taxi violence, Marikana labour dispute, the recent student protests around #Fees Must Fall, political killings of candidates in the recent local government elections, Vuwani protests against the new demarcation of municipal boundaries, scenes in our national, provincial parliaments and municipal councils are some of clear illustrations of this new normal political trend.

These are often organized by a relatively small but well-organized and intense components of bigger formations who then prevail over a relatively silent and often helpless majority. This this is often between and within political formations (political parties, student organizations, trade unions, community organizations and even churches). 

This political culture is increasingly becoming the defining feature of our political discourse and has a potential of weakening an informed rigorous democratic political discourse as catch phrases and slogans replace thorough examination of any subject at hand. The aim is to nullify, vilify and humiliate a political opponent than to persuade and convince them. 

In this political environment a careful examination of facts for validity and consistency becomes a nuisance and an excruciating inconvenience. More heat than light is generated by what has, at times, become a political tragic comedy. The stakes have become very high in this winner-take all political strife. This coinciding with increasing socio-economic difficulties that is choking a majority scrambling for a living and a majority of youth being unemployed has become a potentially explosive cocktail that could easily be exploited and ignited with deadly results that are too ghastly to contemplate.

Whilst these political tendencies are widespread across the cross-section of our population they are most evident, for obvious reasons within the ANC which has always been the dominant political player and societal leader since the dawn of our democracy.

The recent killings of ANC municipal elections candidates and now the rejuvenation of relatively young cadre of ANC MK military veterans and their active participation in both internal political contestations and in reaction to perceived external threat, the emphasis of discipline over an informed discourse as well as a zero-sum game of factional battles is a strong indicator of this emerging political culture. 

What accounts for this emerging political culture? There are numerous and complex reasons that cannot be elaborated in this short think-piece. I can only make a cursory reference to some of these reasons:

  1. The general failure of the realization of genuine socio-economic transformation as promised in the liberation struggle and as articulated in our foundational document, The National Constitution of 1996. This has left the scars of colonial and apartheid geography too obvious for one to hide.

  2. The failure to sustain our unfinished national reconciliation efforts that is now yielding to our pre-1994 default path of racial and ethnic mobilization either to preserve privilege or to access and control resources. Emotional settlement that would have come from an honest but difficult national conversation was not realized and the current leadership is too preoccupied with desperate partisan and factional struggles to notice this obvious reality and at times they may fan the flames if it is to be of any immediate political advantage.

  3. That our society has not been effective in nurturing and building societal productive entrepreneurial and innovative capacity as we sink further into a consumptive society that is increasingly dependent on state or public resources with many sectors of the political elite having a parasitic relations with the state; this has defined, for many aspiring political and business elite, politics as the only instant path for social mobility, change of lifestyle, access to resources thus making the struggle for control of, access to or retention of political power as a desperate narrow toxic corridor to good life with forever existing danger of losing it.

  4. Personalization of power and weakening of institutions often characterized by factions within political parties tend to violently or coercively defend their leaders or factional turf by all means but often with very weak, if any, rational arguments.

  5. Desperate lives of a majority of people to view both political and business elite as non-responsive and socially removed from their reality and failing to understand their plight. This happening at the time of diminishing resources, rampant corruption, increasing gap between the rich and poor, sustained high levels of unemployment and weakening capacity of government to deliver. The poor and desperate have come to realize that their violent reaction is met with immediate responses that bring attention to their plight, and this is feeding to the perception the only “the smoke will call” to paraphrase the HSRC study on this subject.

  6. Liberation movements that had conducted armed struggle often have its components that reflexively revert to para-military and autocratic tendencies when they begin to lose its popularity and its ability to recreate the aura of a party that brought emancipation to the nation. This also lead to securitisation of the state with securocrats holding relatively more powerful positions. This trend has been facilitated by the ascendance of a politically-besieged president Zuma who had been the head of ANC intelligence in exile and had empowered his comrades who had been in MK as trusted comrades. State reaction to increasing protests and political contestations including intra-ANC factional battles has increased securocratisation and use of force by the state. Very often liberation movements lose their sense of invincibility after 20 to 25 years and their rapture is often dramatic and sometimes violent especially there is a perceived or real loss of power.

With the ANC and society facing a busy political calendar of contestations and an uncertain economic future, 2017 may intensify and amplify the violent and coercive political culture. If this is not contained it may weaken the very foundation of our democracy.  

In this political environment national interest and national unity are often suffocated by sectional and factional contestations which may degenerate into the law of the jungle where the fittest will survive and the weak will be eliminated. South Africa is at the crossroads and the political choices made in 2017 shall define the medium to long-term future trajectory of this country.

Professor Somadoda Fikeni is Political Analyst based at the University of South Africa. Opinions, beliefs and viewpoints expressed in this article are that of the author and NOT of the SABC


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