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Climbing Jacob’s Ladder


Durban, South Africa.

Christmas in Durban is all glorious blue skies, litchis, mangoes, fish curry, white beaches and the shimmering ocean. Of course the ocean, beautiful and inviting as it is, is full of shit because shack dwellers are denied sanitation. And this Christmas two of the shack settlements up in the hills burnt because shack dwellers are denied electricity and decent housing. Its the holidays though and there’s celebration everywhere, meat and beer everywhere, and down on the promenade along the beach, the city’s only really inclusive public space, it feels like we’re all in this together.

But on the cusp of the new year the Sunday newspapers open a window into the sheer fucking horror of South Africa. Seven people, we are told, died in pursuit of opportunities to become trainee traffic officers. There are some differences in the reports currently available, which all stress that details are still sketchy, but the basic story, as it currently stands, goes like this. Up the road from Durban, in Pietermaritzburg, 90 positions were advertised for trainee traffic officers. Around 34 000 people applied for the 90 positions. They were divided into two groups and the first group were told to show up at the local stadium on Thursday and the second on Friday. When the first group of 15 600 arrived on Thursday, some having woken very early and traveled hundreds of kilometers in the burning heat to get there, they were informed that they needed to perform a fitness test which took the form of a 4 km run. At least some, and possibly all of the participants in this sadistic recruitment process were not given any proper explanation of what to expect before they set off for the day. They were not given any water. No medical care was provided. Unsurprisingly people collapsed in the heat. Six died. Another person died after he cut his own throat. Incredibly the media reports indicate that the exercise was repeated the following day by which point 230 people were in hospital.

Outside of a magical realism novel like, say, Ngugi wa Thiong’o’s Wizard of the Crow, you couldn’t, as they say, make this shit up.

In recent years there have been a number of well publicised cases in which thousands, or tens of thousands of people, have applied for a handful of boring, badly paid and frequently precarious jobs. There have been stampedes and riots. In January this year a woman, queuing with her son who was hoping to be admitted to the University of Johannesburg, fell under a throng of prospective students. Her neck was broken and she died. The horrific events in Pietermaritzburg, like the massacre of striking miners in August this year, are neither an accident or a tragedy. On the contrary they are a perfectly logical culmination of a set of political choices. And when popular desperation, and the sheer contempt with which both state and private power often respond to it, is placed in the wider context of growing state and popular violence it is clear that South Africa is on dangerous ground.

The police have been militarised and extra-judicial execution, torture and deaths in custody have become part of the backdrop to everyday life. This year the police have killed at least 38 protesters. Last year they killed at least 11 protesters. Political assassinations have become an equally routine part of life in some parts of the country. The ANC recently said that it had lost 38 members to assassination in the province of KwaZulu-Natal in the last two years. Many of these murders are related to internal power struggles within the party but as murder becomes normalised as a mode of political engagement its inevitable that activists outside the party will increasingly be at risk. And, going back to at least September 2009, violence has been openly organised against grassroots activists through local party structures with the clear support of the police and senior politicians. The best information that we currently have on the violence that culminated in the massacre of 34 striking miners in August this year is that it was started by the National Union of Mineworkers, which is affiliated to the ruling party and close to its President, Jacob Zuma. Popular violence, which has often been xenophobic and homophobic, is also becoming normalised. In Khayelitsha, in Cape Town, where the police have acquired a particular reputation for holding the people they are meant to serve in contempt, there have been just less than 80 vigilante killings in just over a year.

In the midst of all this the President, when not expressing views on social issues that would fit right in to the outer reaches of the Republican Party, or making links between business and politics in a way that would make Silvio Berlusconi feel right at home, has seemed to be dedicating some of his most focused attention to building a dictator-chic mansion in an ocean of rural destitution. But no one was surprised when Zuma swept into his second term as party President early this month. Neither the fraud and thuggery, with the latter including an assassination, in the lead up to the party conference, nor the Orwellian histrionics of the South African Communist Party, or the ethnic sentiment that animates some of Zuma’s support are irrelevant to understanding his triumph. His background as a senior figure in the ANC’s notoriously paranoid and brutal internal intelligence unit during the struggle, and his subordination of the intelligence services, police and criminal justice system to his own interests while in office are also salient factors. And of course its an enduring fact that there’s simply no accounting for taste.

But one of the key factors animating support for Zuma in the ANC is the brazen way in which the party has become an instrument for private advancement from the top to the bottom of society. Support for the party is often required to win the sort of government contracts that turn people into millionaires and its often required to access even the most humble jobs. In the last couple of years, and this is particularly acute in Durban, party cards and the performance of support have been openly demanded for access to various kinds of welfare. Even the pathetic support offered to people after a shack fire now frequently requires allegiance to the party. And individual fidelity to the party can, especially when it has clear political utility for a party seeking to contain an increasingly fractious citizenry, enable an almost magically swift transformation in an individual’s personal circumstances. The people in the party are often the equivalent of the 90 people, out of more than 30,000 that will, stepping over or around the bodies of the seven that didn’t survive the contest, have a shot at becoming traffic cops and climbing Jacob’s ladder.

Richard Pithouse teaches politics at Rhodes University in South Africa.

Dr. Richard Pithouse teaches politics at Rhodes University in South Africa.

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