A comrade from Pietermaritzburg has just brought to my attention an editorial in last Friday’s The Witness (‘Spectre of Censorship’, June 1, 2012). It is a confused piece of Cold War-era, pseudo-liberalism that betrays the political illiteracy of much of the media commentariat. Its entry-point is, as you would expect, outrage at the groundswell of popular anger and hurt provoked by the Brett Murray painting, The Spear.
The editorial, like so much of the rest of the pseudo-liberal commentary around this episode, seeks to present popular concerns and popular mobilisation as a threat to constitutional rights. In so doing it is conveniently elevating an important right (freedom of speech, in this case for artists and newspapers) above another cornerstone right of our Constitution – the right to human dignity for all.
But more importantly, the pseudo-liberals have tried to frame this debate (and just about every other debate) wholly within the domain of rights, while obscuring the equally important question of responsibilities. I am not a constitutional lawyer, but I am sure that an argument can be made that Ferial Haffajee the editor, or Brett Murray the artist had the right to do what they did. I am equally sure that an even more persuasive counter-argument about the right to dignity for all could be advanced in a court of law. But let’s not turn everything into a court-based dispute.
What about Ferial Haffajee, or Brett Murray, or all of the rest of us as fellow South African citizens? Like all of us, Haffajee and Murray have rights, but surely if they wish to see our country becoming a united, caring, and non-racial society (as I believe they both do) then surely they also have responsibilities? Hopefully, the relatively amicable resolution arrived at last week with both the Goodman Gallery and the City Press around The Spear matter (a resolution which has clearly miffed The Witness no end) will have helped to open up a country-wide dialogue on what our individual and collective responsibilities are.
But this isn’t what I want to focus on in The Witness editorial. Having attempted to whip up its readership into a frenzy of fear about the supposed threat posed by the ANC and SACP to our Constitution, the editorial then comes to its crowning piece of evidence:
“Significantly [the protests against The Spear] occurred while Jeremy Cronin of the SA Communist Party was lambasting democracy, calling for national unity and consensus, and promoting the concept of the one-party state. [!!!] Every authoritarian in history, Hendrik Verwoerd in the vanguard must be applauding Cronin’s view of South African society.”
Let me at once plead guilty to calling consistently for national unity and as much national consensus as possible around our major priorities – unemployment, poverty and inequality. However, it took me some time to figure out where on earth The Witness got the misimpression that I had attacked democracy, or supported a one-party state. Then I realised that the editorial was probably misreading (or mis-hearing) part of what I had said in Parliament in the course of the President’s budget vote last week. Here is the relevant section of my speech:
“One of the curiosities of our otherwise admirable Rules of Parliament is that they describe the parliamentary leader of the largest non-governing party in Parliament as ‘the Leader of the Opposition’. I wonder if the Honourable Buthelezi, or the UDM’s Honourable Bantu Holomisa, or the Honourable Mulder brothers of the FF+, or the Honourable Themba Godi of the APC – if any of them recognize the Honourable Lindiwe Mazibuko as ‘their’ Leader? Or if they see themselves as THE opposition, as part of some singular oppositional bloc?” [Please excuse all the “honourables”, but that is how we are required to speak in Parliament.]
I went on to say: “This notion of ‘the Leader of the Opposition’ is a hang-over from a typical, now increasingly stagnant, Western two-party democratic arrangement in which a Tweedle-Dum party and a Tweedle-Dee party, each supported by massive funding from the same multi-national corporations, rotate through office – and when they don’t do what’s expected of them, they get displaced by unelected, technocratic executives effectively appointed by German and French banks – as recently happened in Greece and Italy.”
Clearly I was trying to affirm and celebrate (admittedly for polemical, parliamentary debating purposes) the MULTI-party character of our parliamentary democracy. But of course The Witness, twisted by its anti-majoritarian dyslexia, couldn’t begin to grasp the point.
But what IS the point?
The April edition of the New York based Monthly Review carries a fascinating if sobering article by Robert W McChesney and John Nicols entitled playfully ‘The Bull Market – Political Advertising’. It is a study of the role that corporate money plays in the US electoral system, notably through funding political campaigns. Most of this corporate money goes into political ads, especially TV ads that are an absolute prerequisite for any aspirant politician, even for relatively lowly local office.
According to McChesney and Nichols, in 2010 the total number of political ads for House, Senate and Gubernatorial candidates was a staggering 2,87 million – a 250% increase in the number of TV ads for the same category of races in 2007. It is estimated that in the current US presidential contest some $5-billion (more than R40-billion!) will be spent on TV ads alone.
So why are major corporations prepared to fund political campaigns with these outrageous sums? McChesney and Nichols put it bluntly: “The federal and state budgets are enormous multi-trillion-dollar troughs and there is no sign that corporate interests are anywhere near their upward limit of what they will pay [in campaign ‘donations’] to have access to them and control the laws, policies, subsidies and regulations that affect their profitability.” In SA we correctly complain when there is any undue sense of narrow business manipulation of political processes – but in the US this multi-billion rand corporate manipulation of the political system is perfectly legal.
Unless you have massive corporate backing in the US, you stand virtually no chance of being elected into any significant, or even relatively insignificant, office. Whatever your campaign promises, and perhaps even genuine intentions, once in office you are hostage to those who have put you there. The fate of Obama’s health-care electoral platform being a case in point.
What has evolved in the US political system is the appearance of a “free market” choice for consumer-voters – but behind the appearance is the reality of an oligopoly, or, more specifically, of a duopoly. For all practical purposes, your choice is between a Republican and a Democratic presidential candidate – funded often by the same corporate powers. And so we have a duopoly, a two-party system in which the two competing parties are increasingly indistinguishable from each other (a Tweedle-Dum and a Tweedle-Dee party).
This is a perfect complement to the monopoly capital dominated character of the US economy itself. The massive political ad spending in US campaigns is simply the electoral counterpart to the “free market” “competition” between the major transnational corporations whose products are often virtually indistinguishable from each other (think petrol companies, or motor cars, or deodorants, or shaving blades) and where marketing is seldom about real social needs, or even about the product as such, and all about “branding”, and “packaging”.
This, in effect, is where the incessant media-led, anti-majoritarian pseudo-liberal campaign against the ANC and its alliance hopes to lead us. It is true that the one-party dominant (not the same thing as a single party) political reality that prevails in our country carries its own risks – ruling party arrogance, complacency, factional contests to get onto party lists and even corruption. This is one reason why, in our conditions, a multi-party parliamentary dispensation is an important (but not the only) corrective.
But to understand what really lies behind The Witness’s apoplexy it is necessary to remind ourselves of a long anti-majoritarian pseudo-liberal tradition in SA. For over a century, a largely white liberal tradition has been deeply preoccupied with what was once called “the Native question” – i.e. the awkward reality that in SA, unlike, say the US, or Canada, or Australia – despite genocidal colonial wars directed against them, the majority of indigenous South Africans (often armed with little more than, yes, spears) had survived as a majority into the modern, industrial capitalist era.
What to do? For unabashed racists like Verwoerd the answer was simple – separate “them” from “us” and keep them “disenfranchised” in “white SA”. For our pseudo-liberals this was rather too blunt, and they proposed amongst other things, as the forerunner of the DA once did, a qualified franchise for a suitably educated and propertied black minority. Of course, it is no longer possible (in fact it would be unconstitutional) for the DA or The Witness to call for a qualified franchise – but the same “Native question” phobia, the same anti-majoritarian instincts linger on.
The DA, ably supported by the media oligopolies, constantly harps on the “dangers” of “a two-thirds majority”, of “confusing party and state”, of “cadre deployment”, of the “anachronism” of the ANC still being both an electoral party and a liberation movement, of the “tail wagging the dog” (referring to the SACP and COSATU). All of these concerns amount to a single fundamental concern – SA’s post-1994 democratic dispensation has not (at least not yet) degenerated into a typical liberal democratic, two-party dispensation in which a centre-right and a centre-left political party, barely distinguishable from each other, rotate through office.
Happily for SA, there are powerful obstacles to this kind of corporate capture and political degeneration – notably the ANC’s persisting movement character, its branch-level organisation and mobilising traditions (however impaired they might have become during the 1996 class project period), and its continued commitment to an alliance with two avowedly radical socialist formations, the SACP and COSATU.
Above all, as a direct legacy of a long struggle against oppression, there remain powerful traditions of popular mobilisation and organisation. All of these factors mean that in the South African reality, the ruling party and therefore the state are accessible to the direct influence of class forces other than monopoly capital…and THIS is what bugs The Witness.
Jeremy Cronin is SACP deputy general secretary and deputy minister of transport.
This story was first published in Umsebenzi Online, the SACP’s online newsletter.
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