ANGELO FICK: Beyond the dealership of leadership

OPINION

Ours is a way of being we build, day by day, through one action after another, some deliberate, others unthinkingly or out of ignorance (both not knowing and deliberately ignoring the consequences of our habits). This is not to say that we did not have an interest in how things would and did turn out, or that many of us were not invested in ensuring that we live the way we do now. Our towns and cities are ones we have built over the last generation; their inequalities, inequities, and iniquities are our collective endeavour. These social and political deformities claim us as their creators, even as we abjure them.

It is easy to blame someone else, even if not consciously, to exculpate ourselves. It is the politicians, we say, those who govern: their conduct brought us to this crisis point. There is little point in denying we live in crisis – some, doubtless, in conditions more tolerable than others, able to shield themselves from its ugly consequences. Inequality and its excrescent twin precarity, as the political theorist Isabell Lorey shows in State of Insecurity: Government of the Precarious (2012), are no longer only existential states, but modes of governing populations.

We all played and continue to play a role in the making up of everyday life; many of us may be disempowered, but not one of us are truly powerless. We negotiate, every moment and in many different ways, from the poorest to the richest, from the most vulnerable to those seemingly most secure, that complex relationship between the institutions and structures that enable and limit our choices. This does not absolve our governors and politicians; on the contrary. They have governed for nearly 30 years in a democratic order in which they are nominally accountable to us, the people who elect them. They call themselves leaders even when they are meant to serve in public office. They bemoan their million rand annual salaries funded with public money in a state in which millions of children go hungry, in which the majority of young people, after more than a decade of poor schooling, remain jobless partly because they are un- and under-skilled, partly because of corruption, and partly because the ways in which change is talked about in this society is often limited to maintaining the status quo as long as a few exceptions are celebrated. One thinks of how Steve Biko’s 1970s warning about changing the actors in but not the structure of governance now describes the post-millennial, post-apartheid order.

The last few days have reminded us how unstable the fiction of contemporary South Africa’s functionality is. Urban violence rather than "load shedding" marks the middle of the winter of our national discontent. News reports have prioritised attacks on private businesses and property destruction, from the torching of lorries transporting goods (including food and other essential goods) between the urban centres and the blocking of arterial roads connecting scattered towns and cities across this vast land, to the invasion of shopping centres on the peri-urban and suburban peripheries and the commercials districts of town- and city centres long abandoned by the bourgeoisie. The impact these disruptions have had on health services during a public health emergency, or on human safety for a country as violent as this one, has yet to be fully explored in the news coverage.

Politicians are offering explanations and remedies, not least because this is an election year. They want the adult survivors of the pandemic they have mismanaged to vote for the organisations to which they belong. Those who belong to governing parties as well as those on the opposition benches in our various municipal, provincial, and national legislative assemblies, see the crisis of the pandemic and the current violence, connected in ways we cannot in yet fully comprehend or explain, as opportunities for political gain. They offer to lead us out of this desert of the real into the imaginary promised land, once more.

Much of the public response, especially among the middle classes and those who aspire to their fast-eroding security, invests in the same trope of "leadership" the politicians rely on. In the main people focus on whether the current governors are either leading well or poorly, with some suggesting it is time for new leaders to be given the reins of power. There is little debate about abandoning leadership for other, more imaginative, and truly democratic solutions not possessively invested in party or class vanguardism. There are calls for government ministers and other elected officials to take to public platforms and explain the events so that their leadership qualities (or lack of such) may be evaluated by the public. Sometimes the standards for evaluating such leadership or potential leadership remain vague and unarticulated. At other times the yardsticks derive only too obviously from North American corporate management discourse from the 1980s and the debased version of such that circulated in 1990s and early 2000s US daytime television "talk shows" via the pseudo-gurus of that facile genre. These have since filtered down to the bathetic but popular and ubiquitous "reality television show", which have become equivalent to those 18th and 19th century European conduct books that the feminist cultural historian Nancy Armstrong, in Desire and Domestic Fiction (1987), outlines.

Political parties and politicians have long claimed to be leading the rest of us, even as their explanations trail science and research, and as their 20th century conceptions of social dynamics are repeatedly proven inadequate in their failed policy interventions and their blindness to unfolding crises, local and global. Some politicians are praised for "showing leadership", a vacuous slogan in a society overfed on such, ignoring Njabulo Ndebele’s caution about the dangers of "pamphleteering the future" in Rediscovery of the Ordinary (1991). Others are derided for their lack of charisma and for their failure to "inspire" (the term shares a root in old words for breathing, and these have long histories of connotations with divinity), as if style of delivery and substance of solution are synonymous.

It does not surprise that opposition politicians across all the major parties want to exploit the administrative failures of those parties that do govern. It is not even that surprising that those opposition politicians exploit the crises in public health management and social stability for their own potential electoral benefit. That is how the system is designed to work, after all. What does surprise, even though it should perhaps not, is the near uniformity with which our interpreter classes have simply slotted into this habit of thought inside the status quo, some refusing and others incapable of more creative analyses of and responses to the situation, addicted to quick "interpretations" and "explanations". But then, the post-apartheid order’s failure to deliver critical literate education accounts not only for the politically misdirected and potentially self-destructive responses of ordinary people; its dire consequences can also be seen among its educated elites.

Some explanations from self-styled progressive folks project their desire for social change invested in 20th century habits of thought and being, see the eruptions of violence as "the return of the repressed" of this unequal society whose elites have been complacent in their absurd Top Billing lifestyles founded on material accumulation amid widespread deprivation; the physical violence mirrors the structured violence which constitutes this society. Other "explanations" come from reactionaries possessively invested in nineteenth century scientific racism and Eurocentric tropes of cultural essentialism that survived so long in 20th century South African liberal politics and social institutions as Saul Dubow demonstrated in Illicit Union: Scientific Racism in Modern South Africa (1995) and A Commonwealth of Knowledge (2006); things are as they are because people are who they are.

Ironically, and perhaps tragically, accounts in both these camps, and in many of the explanations that do not neatly fit inside them, cannot seem to come to terms with the reality that we are one-fifth into a century that scientific observers have for more than a generation warned us will be blighted by precisely the kinds of problems we are seeing: food and water insecurity and the social and political instability that follow these. Far from being the special people birthed by the fires of a unique history (and other such shibboleths of the late 1990s nationalism here), we are enmeshed in unfolding global patterns. As Gayatri Spivak once observed to an audience that insisted on the exceptionalism of their historical experience: the rest of world history continued to happen.

What we need more than "leaders" and "leadership", is civic-minded human beings possessed of critical, literate education, so that ordinary people would no longer need others (whether they are messianic vanguardist politicians or intellectuals, or opportunistic populists) to tell us what to think and how to conduct ourselves. We would be able to think for ourselves and exercise our civic responsibilities collectively and in ways that would remind the politicians that they should serve us, and not the other way round.

Angelo Fick is the Director of Research at the Auwal Socio-economic Research Institute (ASRI) in Johannesburg. After twenty years teaching in several disciplines and faculties in various universities, he briefly worked in broadcast television.

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