Jacob Zuma is now on track to be South Africa’s third president.
This alone does not worry me too much.
Maybe the most frequent question I get from friends, students, and acquaintances about African affairs is how I see South Africa’s long-term prospects. Up until the last year or so, my answer has been basically upbeat, with plenty of caveats. Yes, the problem of crime was depressing and serious. Yes, the issue of political corruption in the lower ranks of government was becoming more and more serious. Yes, structural poverty was depressingly intractable after the end of apartheid. Yes, HIV-Aids is a scourge. Yes, the unwillingness of the South African government to take a tough line on Zimbabwe infuriated me.
Basically, though, South Africa felt like it had a lot of things going for it that no other society in contemporary Africa has available. Certainly the relative powerhouse of the economy is a big part of that toolkit. However, there was also an indefinable something about South Africans themselves. Some fusion of hustle, ingenuity, passion, possibility. A big-souled feeling.
Maybe most important for me, however, was the sense that there was a strong national society in South Africa. Africanist political science as well as some development institutions come in for some criticism from historians and anthropologists for their attachment to the concept of “civil society” as a thing which postcolonial African societies lack and need to acquire. I’m sympathetic to aspects of that critique, for example, that “civil society” is often defined in terms of some extremely specific American or European cultural practices). However, I think there is something to the argument about the importance (and absence) of civil society in postcolonial Africa.
First, that the concept describes a productive relation between state and society in which the state understands itself as distinct from society, and as exercising no sovereignty over some important aspects of social and cultural life, that the state sees the citizens as rights-bearing subjects in and of themselves (rather than rights-bearing simply because the state generously grants them rights). Second, that the society as a whole recognize some of its social and cultural institutions as intrinsically “liberal” in their character and therefore necessarily self-regulating and independent of state authority, even if the national government is committed to socialist management of aspects of the economy.
I wrote an essay for the journal Global Dialogue a few years ago where I observed that Thabo Mbeki and the African Union’s vision of an “African renaissance” continued to have all the distressing flaws of early African nationalism on these critical questions. If you read Mbeki’s speeches, you’ll see quickly enough that his ideal vision of state and society is unitary. He agrees that postcolonial African government has been greviously flawed, but in his view, the flaw is in its lack of unification with its people. There isn’t much distance between this vision and criticizing civil society itself for its persistent refusal to subordinate itself or even merge with a perfected African state. And for the same reason, it’s a short distance to viewing “liberal” or independent civic institutions like the press, the universities, civic activism, sports organizations, small businesses, labor unions, churches and so on as the reason why the perfected state has not achieved simultaneity with its population.
In the last two years, I’ve seen increasing indications that Mbeki’s views are becoming an increasingly strong driver of ANC administration well below the ministerial or national level, that many vigorous institutions of independent civic life in South Africa are being gnawed away from the inside. The effect is most pronounced when it involves institutions that the state has direct access to, as in the case of governmentally-funded universities. But it’s even noticeable in things like the relationship between official power and the South African press.
This erosion begins to accelerate when fidelity to a national or nativist vision of a unitary state begins to set the pattern of aspiration for younger people, when attacks on the independence of civil society begin to be the right way for someone to make their mark, get noticed, lay claim to patronage. I’m seeing some of that kind of behavior accelerate as well.
Zuma is something of a sideshow to this set of issues. His ascension may be a sign of the erosion I’m detecting, but Mbeki is hardly someone who stood against it. Too many commenters are paying attention to the question of loyalty to neoliberal management of the national economy, and whether Zuma will continue Mbeki’s policies in that regard. Honestly, who cares? Authoritarians all across postcolonial Africa have no problem speaking a big populist line to their domestic audiences while enforcing neoliberal discipline, and I have no reason to think Zuma will be any different in that regard. I don’t think Zuma will personally accelerate an attack on civil society, but neither does he show any sign that he might try to check that attack given his established relationship to the press and his indulgence of nativist arguments within the party.
There’s an issue in contemporary South Africa, for sure. But it’s not Jacob Zuma, not really.