Opinion: A cry for deep structural change

29 07 2009

July 29, 2009 Edition 1
Imraan Buccus – Mercury

The service delivery protests that have swept the country are a demand for an end to the contempt of the ruling elites for the poor

OUR country is burning, and the leading lights in the new cabinet are out shopping for expensive cars. The long-standing disconnect between the political class and ordinary people has become a chasm.

The rebellions have made it abundantly clear that we cannot go on as before.
The political class thought that replacing Thabo Mbeki with President Jacob Zuma would pacify the people. The people have smashed that illusion to smithereens. Every day they are burning that illusion in the streets. It is clear that all politicians are now objects of popular suspicion.

This is a time of real risk and real opportunity for the country. Most of the recent protests are a progressive demand for social inclusion. This is a demand that we can all support and, if heeded, could result in real changes.

However, some of the protests have indicated a deeply disturbing return to xenophobic attitudes in which foreigners are blamed for the failures of our political class.

Our task is to oppose xenophobia as militantly as possible and to support the progressive protests and try to link them up so that their demand for social inclusion becomes impossible to ignore.

But it is clear that there is a long way to go. When politicians say that a basic income grant is unacceptable because it will cause “dependency”, they are clearly living on another planet.

A basic income for all will free people from the shame and frustration of poverty. It will empower. It will give everyone a sense of real citizenship.

But the machinations of some among our political class in Durban are cause for even greater concern, especially the obscene attempts to stir up anti-Indian racism around the Early Morning Market issue.

There have been many societies in which elites, confronted with a rebellious populace, have tried to channel the people’s anger towards foreigners, minorities and so on.

The Nazis did this in Germany in the 1930s with their anti-Jewish politics. More recently, Robert Mugabe did this in Zimbabwe with his attacks on homosexuals, and the BJP has done it in India with its anti-Muslim and anti-Christian politics.

If our own local elites are so morally bankrupt that they are willing to try to stir up anti-Indian sentiment to channel popular anger away from where it should be directed – to politicians and big business – it is essential that we all unite around the values of the Freedom Charter and the constitution: South Africa belongs to all who live in it.

On this principle, there can be no compromise. We cannot tolerate any form of racism or xenophobia, whether it comes from our so-called leaders or from the base of society.

Trevor Ngwane’s recent article in The Mercury is an exemplary form of the kind of clear ethical principles that we need to engage into allaspects of our social engagement. The incredible ongoing anti-xenophobic work by grass-roots movements around the country is also exemplary.

Some political leaders think they can keep their game going by turning the poor on one another.

But if people of principle can succeed in opposing this, then it becomes clear that the only real way out of this crisis will be deep structural change in our society.

That structural change will have to be economic – everyone needs a decent life and everyone needs it as quickly as possible. This means that a basic income grant is an urgent priority.

We also need radical land reform and a mass public works project to create employment and build houses.

However, that structural change will also have to be political. Grass-roots movements have been rebelling against ward councillors and refusing to vote since 2004. They are not anti-democratic.

But they are against a form of democracy in which parties exert a top-down control over communities. There is a clear demand for a radicalisation of democracy. People want a bottom-up politics.

The deep structural change that is required has to be ethical. Our society is rank with crass materialism, corruption and a general contempt towards the poor. The political classes have to live simply and to forgo the BMWs and Johnnie Walker Blue. Politics has to be about service – not plunder.

The rebellions that have swept the country are a demand for deep change, and they will produce deep change. The question is whether this change will be progressive or reactionary. If we pass this test, a promising future beckons. If we fail this test we will slowly sink into disaster.

This may sound dramatic. But when burning barricades block so many of our streets, when the police shoot at protesters every day and when hundreds of protesters are sitting in jail cells, the situation is very serious. We ignore the seriousness of the situation at our peril.

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