South Africa – Happy Mandela’s Birthday – And While We’re On The Subject, There Remain Some Genuinely Radical Ideas in South Africa These Days – 18 July 2012

Happy Mandela’s Birthday!

I’d like to do what I can in the name of constructive radicalism – which I take to be what Mandela’s life has really been all about – by taking the pulse of democratic theory in today’s South Africa.

This discussion journal on the African National Congress’s website is fascinating, because it features – get this, folks – members of the South African Communist Party (SACP) saying helpful and useful things about the importance of participating in a democratic government. The SACP, if you didn’t know this already, is one of the three members of South Africa’s governing “Tripartite Alliance” (the African National Congress, the Congress of South African Trades Unions, and the SACP).

The articles on this page refer to a concept called the “National Democratic Revolution” which is treated by South African communists as their rationale for participating in post-apartheid governments in South Africa ever since the first free elections in 1994. (SACP members do not run under their party’s banner, but under the banner of their ANC allies, but SACP members have also been ministers in ANC governments ever since 1994.)

Communists typically view participation in the executive of a government in a “capitalist” country as dicey: remember Marx’s snarky little chestnut in the Communist Manifesto about how “[t]he executive of the modern state is but a committee for managing the common affairs of the whole bourgeoisie.” Granted, in France the Communists have been given some minor ministries in Socialists governments, but they’ve never played a role so large in those governments that they couldn’t storm away later, when it suited their ideological purposes, ostentatiously complaining about how they’ve been locked out of major decisions by capitalist-roading Socialists serving their masters in a mere “bourgeois democracy”.

But South African communists have not had that luxury, because from the very beginning the ANC has given the SACP’s members access to the halls of power. And a weird thing happened when they did – they arrived at the stunning insight that…guess what…apparently sometimes democracy can do everyday people some good, even when they’re not in the “bourgeoisie”.

This is a point I’ve been making on this side of the pond for some time now – in the face of an increasing number of arguments to the contrary. We are increasingly told that elections don’t matter because “plutocrats already have won, so what’s the point”. That’s an argument reminiscent of the snarky Marx comment – the capitalist state is so wholly captured by big business that really there’s no reason to see it as a possible force for good.

But interestingly, the South African Communist Party disagrees. Even if South African communists want to deepen the “revolution”, they feel they are already a part of one that has won something important – democracy – and they insist on defending democracy’s very real achievements. There is no blather about how the country is “not really democratic”, like we often hear in this part of the world, about governments which have even delivered far greater successes than is the case in poor, beleaguered South Africa. On the contrary, there is a defiant insistence that democracy has brought gains and will be defended.

I wish other countries with functioning democracies felt that way. Yes, there are so many things our democracies can improve, but we have the right to vote and we have civil liberties – things so many people in South Africa didn’t have until 1994. If only we understood how valuable those rights are. Even Communists in South Africa get it. But we don’t.

The article by Jeremy Cronin, an SACP member who is also currently South Africa’s Minister of Public Works, is especially indicative of just how much some of South Africa’s communists get. Most interesting is his description of what he considers the goal of the South African state – to be “developmental”, rather than merely welfarist, and rather than bureaucratic and command-oriented. This policy goal, that South Africa conceive of itself as a “developmental state”, is endorsed by the ANC as well, and is also largely the result of the influence of liberal and decidedly non-communist economist Amartya Sen. (If you’ve never read Sen’s book “Development As Freedom”, you’re denying yourself a real education, by the way. It is an outstanding book, both for its economic analysis and its philosophical investigation into what the proper goals of economic policy should be. The basic idea put forward by Sen is that building economic capacities, and not mere distribution, should be the goal of sensible economic policies. By the way, when Barack Obama appeals to Americans to enact stimulus packages and invest in infrastructure, he’s appealing to that same goal – spurring the economy in order to _liberate the capacities of everyday Americans to save themselves_, rather than creating permanently dependent individuals.)

Sadly, communists have a habit of trying to make any new ideas which revise the ideological canon sound like they’re consistent with that canon – in the way that reformist Christians try to make their new ideas sound as Scriptural as they possibly can…so no one will call them heretics and cast them out of the tribe. Unfortunately, because it does try to situate new, good ideas in a tradition of old, bad ones, Cronin’s article is not entirely free of the turgid prose that infects so much communist writing. But the new and good ideas are there.

I don’t want to make this commentary alarmingly long, so I’ll wrap it up there, but suffice it to say that, on the day Nelson Mandela turns 94, I’d like to say this – fake radicals showily declare war on perceived bad guys, but real radicals try to find ways we can all work together. South Africa today does have its share of fake radicals – Julius Malema, in particular, leaps to mind. But Mandela was not the only real radical South Africa ever spawned. There are quite a few people in that country that could teach us a few things…and some of them, amazingly enough, are even communists.


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