18/04/2017 03:56 SAST | Updated 18/04/2017 08:39 SAST

Let The People Recall Jacob Zuma

How long can movement based on preserving law and order be sustained when the forces of law and order shot down miners at Marikana?

Mike Hutchings / Reuters
Demonstrators carry banners as they take part in a protest calling for the removal of South Africa's President Jacob Zuma in Johannesburg, South Africa April 7, 2017.

Never let a good crisis go to waste. A bad crisis is another matter. As the contradictions pile up, we become trapped in the wreckage of the conjuncture. We might as well reflect on how we landed up in a situation where the correct progressive position is to prostrate ourselves before global rating agencies, especially as these are the same conditions that impede change.

On the surface, opposition to a baleful president should be our great unifying event. South Africans of all political stripes allying against against a crook whose financial self-sabotage will hurt the poor most of all. The reality is that, at least for now, activism doesn't much extend beyond the Economic Freedom Fighters' urban organising structures or the social media cadres of leafy suburbia.

Pravin Gordhan has called for grassroots organising, urging South Africans to remember our venerable history of mass mobilisation. But the masses have never stopped mobilising. How is it possible in "the protest capital of the world" that we take the public to be complacent? Gordhan's point is presumably about the need for politically conscious leadership to shepherd mass dissent into productive action. But for whom and to what end?

As we face a crisis of governance, it's convenient to suppose there's room for a strategic convergence towards a more effective technocracy. But as Richard Pithouse put it: "Once all protests are automatically understood to be about a demand for 'service delivery' they can be safely understood as a demand for more efficiency from the current development model rather than any kind of challenge to that model."

Zuma's birthday roast was a heartening spectacle, and - who knows anymore - could even prove a tactical success. The proximate demand is relatively modest: not a coup, or even a reconfiguration of parliament, just a recall. But to force change, and to ensure executive accountability, needs an inclusive coordination of dissent that established political structures are constituted to deflect. That's because the goals and the messaging of truly popular politics are not merely at strategic odds to elite preferences, they are irreconcilable with them.

The forms of symbolic restitution that can be accommodated by our political structures are designed to buttress the reigning model - 'black economic empowerment' - while those that disrupt the model - 'give back the Land' - must be contained and neutralised.

How long can movement based on preserving law and order be sustained when the forces of law and order shot down miners at Marikana - a crime that should end a government - when they executed Andries Tatane on the street, when Mido Macia was brutalised and killed for standing up to thugs with badges?

Overcoming history, reclaiming dignity, these are not reducible to questions of efficiency. (A tendency most prominent in liberal opponents of popular movements, but also identifiable in crudely universalising white socialist men in cardigans.) Equating any genuinely popular politics with crude populism has an ideological function, but it is dangerous. An elite politics that denies the popular will leave space for actual demagogues to play on our worst tendencies.

It takes an enormous amount of energy to create the illusion that socialism and barbarism are the same thing, to pretend that pan-Africanism and black consciousness are the cause of xenophobia and intolerant nationalism when in truth they are antidotes to these diseases of imperialism.

But the long con has paid off, and when the machinery of governance finally grinds to a halt, the true bearers of monopoly capital, who have opposed the genuinely popular politics that would have made reform possible, will look back at their old home and say "I told you so."