Category Archives: Chris Rodrigues

Rolling Stone: Senzeni Na?

Senzeni Na?

by Chris Rodrigues

By the time you read these words, the miners of Marikana will have long crossed the river Styx. Contemplate dear reader: These men with dirt in their pockets, their ears ringing with the noise of exploding lead, the holes through their bodies.

Imagine some nocturnal body of water. And a boat, with such passengers, steered by a ferryman with a sure stroke. In this version, Charon, as the Greeks knew him, doesn’t require silver coins. And even if he did, he wouldn’t ask anything of these rock-drill operators who, long before they were mown down, had already begun sacrificing limbs and lungs.

Perhaps this river guide, as he places a blanket over their shoulders, quotes passages from Bertolt Brecht:

“You who will emerge from the flood/ In which we have gone under/ Remember/ When you speak of our failings/ The dark time too/ Which you have escaped”.

“And yet we know: Hatred, even of meanness/ Contorts the features./ Anger, even against injustice/ Makes the voice hoarse. Oh, we/ Who wanted to prepare the ground for friendliness/ Could not ourselves be friendly”.

These men are aware that they trouble so many more people now than when living with asbestos and bilharzia – they were faceless and unregarded. They are informed that the same company that point-blank refused to meet them has since offered – via one its shareholders – to pay for their funerals. When they were alive they knew that a sweetheart union had sent them up shit creek and at this moment in time – travelling down another wretched river – they couldn’t care less about future promises.

In this expanse these illiterate subterranean figures are, in the phraseology of Abahlali baseMjondolo, “professors of their own suffering”. They can draft PhD’s on the political economy of death. They can riff better than any broker about the price of platinum. They can wax like lawyers about police statements.

But what still embitters them is their understanding that they would have to be reincarnated many times over to earn what the CEO of Lonmin did in one single year. Comparing their salary of R48 000 per annum with Ian Farmer’s (2011) earnings of R20, 358, 620 amounts to an, approximately, 424 years discrepancy. Taking a recent estimate of average male life expectancy in South Africa (49.81) and deducting just 18 childhood years from that would mean even if they worked every day of their adult life – they would have to do so over 13 unlucky lifetimes!

Such is the normalisation of this capitalist metaphysics that the rival union has been universally rebuked for wanting to reduce it to a ratio of 1 year: 4.26 life spans. No wonder these strikers then entrusted the magic realism of a sangoma, for nothing today needs to be more urgently remedied than “reality”.

In the old myth, Charon takes our souls to the kingdom of Hades where we appear before three tribunes who decide whether we are worthy of entry into the Elysian Fields – an altogether middle-class sounding quietus.

Instead, picture a black-sooted boatman accompanying these men to a hill on which is gathered – from across time – hundreds of thousands of spectres just like them – an infernal rabble. They are mostly young because the poor die first. Amongst them are French peasants and Haitian slaves. There are Russians with pitchforks and Spaniards with rifles. There are Naxalites and whole generations of South Africans. Yes, some with knobkerries, machetes and spears!

They are all reciting Brecht’s words in the hope that they reach the ears of the living:

“But you, when the time comes at last/ And man is a helper to man/ Think of us/ With forbearance”.

South Africa’s World Cup is a disgrace

South Africa’s World Cup is a disgrace

It’s already the most unequal country on the planet. Now ‘the greatest marketing opportunity of our time’ is making it worse

o Chris Rodrigues
o, Thursday 6 May 2010

Examine the latest available Human Development Index (HDI) figures – a measure of education, life expectancy and standard of living – and you will find that the 2010 World Cup hosts are ranked 129 out of 182 UN member states. Or a whole 19 places below both Gaza and the West Bank. The effect of the blockade of the former is not yet included in the retrospective reports but the discrepancy between South Africa’s GDP and HDI makes it, as its Gini coefficient score also reveals, the most unequal country on the planet.

Much is, rightly, made of corruption. But little is said of how market state policies fashion business opportunities out of public sector needs. Neoliberalism has turned 16 years of “freedom” into a Trojan horse of disconnections, evictions and more shacks fashioned from corrugated iron and plastic. Over a period of 14 years, the 2006 Human Development Report calculated that 34.1% of South Africans lived on less than $2 a day. The 2009 version now estimates 42.9% do.

But as atrocious as these figures are, one statistic takes the breath away. Life expectancy has, according to the South African Medical Research Council, fallen by 13 years in a similar period. Read that again. It’s an apocalypse attributable not only to Thabo Mbeki’s HIV/Aids denialism, but to the way income inequality and poverty continue to impact the disease.

It’s instructive, then, that in its 2010 Index Of Economic Freedom review, the conservative Heritage Foundation gave South African government expenditure a rare approving score noting that, as a percentage of GDP, it was “relatively low”. The corollary is that South Africans are so often protesting the absence of any public service that the country has been labelled the “capital of protest”. Against these realities, the spending of close to 33bn rand (about £3bn pounds) on a football tournament is testament to there being no concern for the national welfare among its decision makers.

For if there was, it would have been clear that mega-events laid on for the benefit of tourists, while reaping financial rewards for an investor class, have few payoffs for the populace. Temporary, low-skilled and poorly paid jobs do not constitute a solution to South Africa’s attritional 40%-plus expanded unemployment rate, which post-2010 will witness a zero-sum increase. Nor do feelgood factors translate into effective investment in the longer term. On the contrary, as Orli Bass and Udesh Pillay of the Human Sciences Research Council insist, there is “scholarly consensus” that the multiplier for a mega-event will be lower than that for spending on local goods and services.

More pressingly, poor South Africans cannot eat a legacy discourse. With an education, health, housing and jobs crisis so severe it can only, indeed, be compared to the aftermath of a scriptural catastrophe, the government’s spending on the World Cup exacerbates an already extreme state of affairs. We should be outraged that a country with such a brutal history of forced removals has, in order to create the right brand attributes, evicted the urban poor and rounded up the homeless. Dumped into so-called “temporary relocation areas” and “transit camps” (during the preliminary draw street children were even held in Westville prison) these disowned South Africans make a mockery of the struggle against apartheid.

How apt, therefore, that among the brands that will benefit from this beautification strategy, will be a company that refused to disinvest during the darkest days of the old regime and which now, as an official partner of Fifa, gives it name to the Coca-Cola Park stadium? But not just anyone will be allowed to participate in what President Jacob Zuma calls “the greatest marketing opportunity of our time”. Informal traders – a significant part of the working poor – are subject to a verbatim “exclusion zone” from the bonanza in the fan parks, fan walks and stadiums. For them, the World Cup may as well be happening on another continent.

While 2010 Organising Committee CEO, Danny Jordaan, compares the staging of such an event to a “second liberation”, we shouldn’t be surprised if those who are struggling for a meaningful notion of citizenship continue their public protests during the tournament. Undoubtedly, they will be deemed unpatriotic for disrupting the whole PC-PR-Potemkin village atmosphere. They will horrify the press whose accreditation with Fifa hangs on not engaging in conduct that detracts from the sporting focus. The police will, as is routine, shoot at them with buckshot, rubber bullets and teargas.

Nonetheless, they would be right to try using the leverage afforded by this vanity project to remind the world that they – and not its elites – are South Africa’s best hope for a much-needed sense of reality.

‘Black boers’ and other revolutionary songs

‘Black boers’ and other revolutionary songs

by Chris Rodrigues

A hat tip to Mphutlane wa Bofelo for pointing out the subtext to the ANC’s claim to the “shoot the boer!” song: For is it not the case, as wa Bofelo points out, that the attempt to establish a heritage status for the song locates the struggle in the past? And what of the new songs that the poor sing today? Songs like, “amabhunu amnyama asenzela i -worry” — “black boers cause us worries”. Does this current storm in Julius Malema’s teacup not also divert attention from this reality?

Part of the problem resides in the fact that the media tends to follow the blindingly obvious — in this case, the day-to-day pronouncements of those who hold political office. The body politic is, however, capable of other forms. The University of Abahlali baseMjondolo — the University of the Shack Dwellers — is a case in point. University? Shack dwellers? What kind of politics is this that doesn’t seek parliamentary representation? Still, it’s unforgivable that in a country where protests occur with such frequency — there is no ink spilt analysing contemporary idioms.

Anthems, as the Uruguayan essayist Eduardo Galeano says, are often full of “threats, insults, self-praise, homages to war, and the honourable duty to kill and be killed”. The archetypal Marseillaise, for instance, warns that the Revolution “will water the fields with the impure blood” of the invaders. Terrifying stuff but once institutionalised, as Messrs Malema and Motlanthe are arguing, these songs of death and victory are sentimentalised and tamed. They are no longer sung outside the Bastille but inside the Stade de France. In the ANC’s case — we could draw a distinction between singing near Casspirs, and singing in the vicinity of parking lots full of SUVs.

It is, rather, the adaptation of a song, or a new song sung by the excluded that is, as the philosopher Slavoj Zizek argues in First as Tragedy, Then as Farce — the truly revolutionary anthem. Working from the premise that “universal humanity is visible at the edges” — a phrase he borrows from Susan Buck-Morss — he describes how the newly self-liberated black slaves of Haiti faced down the French soldiers sent to crush their republic, by singing the Marseillaise. As Zizek suggests, in that moment, they were asserting:

“In this battle, we are more French than you, the Frenchmen, are — we stand for the innermost consequences of your revolutionary ideology, the very consequences you were not able to assume.”

Could we not say the same with the “black boers cause us worries”? Not only are the poor demonstrating their non-racialism (a black person can also be a boer — a metaphor for an oppressor), they are simultaneously radicalising, through differentiating class from race, what the ANC’s theorists would call the national democratic revolution.

Indeed, it must be somewhat unsettling for the ANC (as in Zizek’s example, the French), who once held a revolutionary initiative, to hear new analyses of the struggle — like the following from Abahlali:

“It is the community organisations and poor people’s movements who are protesting around the country who are true to the spirit of the struggle against apartheid. The politicians who try to herd the people into stadiums to tell them that the politicians in their cavalcades are the true inheritors of the spirit of that struggle have made themselves our enemies.”

All it seems the ANC can say is that we once sang a seditious song and what is now required is — as represented by our regime — obedience to that heroic heritage. Regrettably, a judicial ruling has breathed new life into what is an anachronistic farce for, as Karl Marx might have said, the ANC “only imagines that it believes in itself and asks the world to share in its fantasy”.

Sixteen years of neo-liberal economics dressed up in leftist drag means that a new generation are singing real songs again. These old-new freedom songs are, routinely, met with rubber bullets. It underscores one of wa Bofelo’s points — that people have always known that “it does not only take a white skin to install or perpetuate a system based on unequal allocation of power and inequitable distribution of wealth and resources”.

Here, however, we enter a more thought-provoking terrain and, again, Zizek is useful. He inverts Marx’s old definition of farce by insisting that “contemporary cynicism” as regards ideology (post-modernism, if you like) only imagines “that we do not “really believe” in our ideology [for] in spite of this imaginary distance, we continue to practice it”.

In other words, is not all this attention on Malema, and on a long-in-the-tooth song, not an illusory fight that both the black and white bourgeoisie would prefer to a real one over, dare we say it, communism of some sort? Is it not that the bourgeoisie believe in capitalism so much that they would rather chose a Janus-faced soap-opera (with its empty posturing and hysterical condemnation) than confront the ideological challenge posed by the new anti-capitalist movements? Is it not the case that a clown prince is (even to the SACP) preferable to a real communist?

A few years ago, the Financial Mail, wrote something particularly telling in regard to the then president-in-waiting. It was in the edition entitled, “Be Afraid”. “It’s not the corruption and rape charges that investors and SA business think about when they think of Zuma,” said feature writer Carol Patton, “it’s the simple fact that he has a far more radical support base than Mbeki”.

That someone could be radical — let alone a class for itself — is the spectre haunting South Africa’s rainbow elites. The “shoot the boer!” song represents then, in a Freudian sense, only a symptomatic return of this repressed fear.

“But what about farm attacks/killings”, someone could ask? Are these not, as AfriForum and the Democratic Alliance assert, a literal enactment of that song?

This question also masks its ideology. We should first ask what a farm attack/killing is? And once both phrases also include the attack/killing of farm workers by farm owners, we should ask what motivates farm owners to attack/kill farm workers? The answer to that question will, no doubt, extend the initial inquiry well beyond the three words of a song.

There is, of course, a more obscure question — one that proves that the blind are leading the blind — and it’s whether the murder of an abusive white supremacist, like Eugene Terre’Blanche, is attributable to others’ “hate speech”?

Let’s stop changing the topic. South Africa has been dubbed “the protest capital of the world”. The recent Kennedy Road attacks, which left two dead and Abahlali activists hiding in safe houses, are harbingers of an intensifying class struggle. As one of its members said: “The ANC regards [Abahlali] — not the other official political parties — as their true opposition, because we are closer to the pain on the ground.”