Political tolerance on the wane in South Africa

Political tolerance has been seriously undermined in recent times in South Africa – in the sphere of party-political contestation, between the ruling party and other members of the tripartite alliance, and between the state and the independent poor people’s movements, writes IMRAAN BUCCUS.

South Africa enjoys a vibrant party political system, albeit one primarily driven by personalities rather than real debate around policies. However, it has become clear that when the power of the ruling party is under threat, as in the Western Cape, the limits of political tolerance are quickly reached.

The opposition Democratic Alliance (DA) recently made a major ethical and tactical miscalculation in its approach to resolving a dispute over open-air toilets in areas of Cape Town, but the response of the ANC Youth League indicated a worrying willingness to exploit the situation with out-and-out thuggery.

At local level, there has been a vertiginous decline in political tolerance, particularly in areas where there is a genuine political threat toward councillors. A number of councillors and their rivals have been murdered across the country, and in March this year the dwellings of Congress of the People (Cope) party supporters were vandalised and burnt down in the kwaShembe informal settlement area of Clermont.

Within the ANC alliance, political tolerance is at an all-time low since the democratic era began in 1994. Previous allies have been publicly insulted and slandered, surveilled and spied on, and subjected to disciplinary procedures, in what has become a polity organised more around intimidation than rational and open debate. The behaviour of Youth League president Julius Malema has been particularly worrying, as have the threats of disciplinary action against Cosatu General Secretary Zwelinzima Vavi.

Outside of party politics the state is responding with hostility and violence to the ongoing wave of popular protest. It has now become the norm to see the police on the TV news needlessly at protestors with rubber bullets. Journalists have become so used to these scenes that many are slipping into the habit of referring to police violence as if it were a legitimate tool to manage public space.

But perhaps the most concerning aspect of the decline in political tolerance has been the attacks on two of the leading poor people’s movements in South Africa. Both Abahlali baseMjondolo in KwaZulu-Natal and the Landless People’s Movement in Gauteng have been subject to ethnically based and state-backed violence that has resulted in deaths, arrests and the creation of no-go areas. This regression to the worst aspect of the politics of the 1980s has drawn considerable concern from local churches and major international human rights organisations, such as Amnesty International, but has not been taken particularly seriously by our own media and much of local civil society.

On the whole the mainstream media and NGOs are functioning freely. And, with the exception of isolated nodes of authoritarianism (not all of which are directly informed by the state‘s politics – the authoritarian left remains spectacularly intolerant), the same is largely true of the academy. But the fact that middle-class civil society is largely free should not blind us to the rising intolerance in party politics in the Western Cape, within the ANC alliance and between the ruling party and the state on the one hand, and the independent poor people’s movements on the other.

Repression, as the famous song by Ben Harper goes, preys on the weak. It never starts with the strong. It may seem that the political rights of a Cope supporter in a shack in Durban or a Landless People’s Movement activist in a shack in Durban have little to do with middle-class civil society as we debate freely via espresso and facebook. But when violence and intolerance become normalised it’s only a matter of time before we’re all at risk. As the old trade union slogan has it – an injury to one is an injury to all.

If we are to have a real chance of defending the values enshrined in our Constitution we’ll have to draw a clear line the sand. The rights of all people, including the most marginalised in our society, to associate, speak and organise freely need to be defended with real urgency. This will require good research, good media work and, perhaps most of all, committed legal support.

Perhaps it is time for civil society to come together and to form, in each of the major cities, something like a Political Freedom of Expression Institute with a research, media and legal capacity.

The Freedom of Expression Institute, in Johannesburg, did incredible work on media freedom under the leadership of Jane Duncan and with basic resources and dedicated leadership similar progress could be made nationally in defending political freedom against the rising tide of intolerance. Thankfully, the new leadership is going in the same direction.

Of course this will not be an easy task. The ‘tenderpreneurs’ and the blue-light brigade, not to mention those who demand special privileges for their private jets at King Shaka Airport, have already been allowed to develop a feudal sense of a privilege that sets them above society. The real roots of the rising tide of political intolerance lie in this sense of superiority over society that characterises much of our political elite. Just as the poor have to be bought within the protection of mainstream society, the rich and powerful have to be bought within its constraints.

The defensive work of exposing intolerance and offering legal support to its victims is essential if the political elite are to be brought under social control. But, ultimately, defensive work, as important as it is, is not enough on its own. We also need to develop a positive vision of a more inclusive society. That process is already underway in some of the more advanced poor people’s movements, in the Conference for a Democratic Left and in some of the remaining dissident spaces in the SACP and in Cosatu. For this process to gather critical mass, these different streams need to merge into a powerful river that can generate real political change towards a more democratic and egalitarian system.

 Imraan Buccus is a research fellow in the School of Politics at the University of KwaZulu-Natal and the Democracy Development Programme (DDP) in Durban.

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2 Responses to “Political tolerance on the wane in South Africa”

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Dear Imraan and Kate,

This is a significant article. It is comforting to find more and more like-minded thinkers and actors. Thank you, Imraan.

I wholly agree with the argument and am glad to heed the call, but, in fairness, the circumstances surrounding the attack on Abahlali at Kennedy Road are hotly disputed. There is evidence that the dead were ANC members, and the deaths occurred in the context of an internal conflict within Kennedy Road, perhaps aggravated by outside forces. Until there has been a thorough investigation we should avoid citing this case – there is plenty of other evidence of state intolerance towards critics, whistleblowers, journalists and protesters.


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