First of Generations: Richard Calland on South Africa’s First 20 Years of Freedom

[7 May 2014]

By shathley Q

I hit the playback on the recording, and we begin with a chuckle. Not at all unlike the opening fire truck of Stephen Graham Jones’s Demon Theory, where there’s immediately an over-coding of information that pushes an emotional response from the audience. The chuckle belongs to my subject, Richard Calland, currently Director of the Democratic Governance Rights Unit, and Professor in the School of Public Law at the University of Cape Town’s Jules & Wilfred Kramer School of Law. It’s a chuckle filled with mirth, and one that hints at grander, more hidden depths. It’s a chuckle at my half-the-way insouciant, half-the-way innocuous opening question—“What do you make of the Law School Library?”

A handful of hours before, I’d been treated to a tour of the Brand van Zyl Law Library where the artwork makes a secular cathedral of South Africa’s Truth & Reconciliation Commission, the country’s come-through-slaughter moment some 15 years in the past now. More than a come-through-slaughter moment for South Africa, the “TRC” is a spiritual and cultural catharsis. It is the sociocultural mechanism of a bloodless democratic revolution, and the political institution of redress that gives scope to Matt Damon’s chilling line from the sports drama Invictus, spoken of Nelson Mandela, “How do you come out of a cage after 27 years, ready to forgive the people who put you there?”

While the TRC-inspired art in the van Zyl Library might seem to outsiders like ‘80s era pop-art versions of true crime magazine covers, there is a deep and abiding, uniquely African, possibly even unique in the world, tale of withstanding racial oppression following on the heels of colonial oppression, and living long enough to enjoy the boundless fruits of democracy.

But even as I write, that exact formulation is already beginning to recede into a more mythic stature. South Africa goes to the polls again today, 20 years on from its first democratic election that saw the globally iconic Nelson Mandela elected as the nation’s president. But the 2014 election is not marked only by being the first election after the passing of Mandela, it is also marked as the first election wherein the “Born Frees” (those born after SA liberation) are eligible to vote. Now 20 years have passed, and South Africa is arguably more fractured than in those five fraught years between Mandela’s release from prison, and his assumption of the Office of President.

But with the experience of the older generation receding from immediacy, a new bridge is a being built through popular culture. Civil discourses like “access to justice” or “access to governance” that mark out second generation socioeconomic rights are being reintroduced across the generational divide by books like Calland’s The Zuma Years. It’s in his most recent book that Calland offers an incisive new argument for why service delivery has been so slow in South Africa—not because of any infrastructural problems, but because of cultural ones. Particularly in two South African presidents’ (former President Thabo Mbeki and current President Jacob Zuma) public wrestlings with defining the political cultures of their respective administrations.

Calland’s approach in the book has been to view the inherent broad-based appeal of democracy as a kind of ongoing popcultural project, one that can even bridge the intergenerational gap. When we get round to it then, Calland’s laugh is one of genuine mirth, looking back over the years, and forward to different years. The question about the true crime stylized art catches him off-guard.

“The truth is, I don’t spend much time in it. That’s not because I don’t take my academic responsibilities seriously, but that’s because I probably spend more time in what one might call ‘practice’ or ‘the field’ than most academics. I rely heavily on my instincts, and I rely heavily on my engagements with the people and the institutions I think are critical to a political economy. And political economy for me runs through everything. If we don’t understand political economy, we can’t understand the world we live in.

So it’s very important to me to, yes on the one hand one does need a theoretical and a conceptual framework for understanding life, but you’ve got to have your feet in the mud, so to speak. And that for me means not sitting in the library, but being out there talking to people, watching what happens, seeing Parliament in action and so on and so forth. And that’s where I tend put my attention—into engaging people, understanding them. Because politics is made of organizations which are made of people.”

It doesn’t take long before we get to the heart of Calland’s book—the polarizing current head of the South African state, Jacob Zuma. An intellectually rigorous gambit in Calland’s book is to begin to unravel Zuma in a non-demonizing way, beyond the more familiar political caricatures that grace some of the nation’s papers. “You’re right, (Zuma’s) an extremely difficult individual to be profound about. It’s easy to be glib about him, very easy,” as the conversation turns to the president, Calland’s voice turns smoke-and-whiskey. I’ve caught him in a moment of grappling with something, something deeper and perhaps unfathomable.

Zuma rose to national prominence in a power-play with former President, Thabo Mbeki. It was a media-fueled campaign that saw Mbeki dismiss then-Deputy President Zuma from his post, only to see Zuma 18 months on elected as president of their political party, the ANC.

Calland continues “And I’ve talked to a lot of people about him. And why is he, in inverted commas, ‘dangerous?’ It’s a combination of things, I think it’s because of the way he uses power. Unlike other ANC leaders there’s no ideological character there. He’s not putting into his use of power a sense of theory or political motivation. It’s very much about occupation of power for the sake of it. And that in itself is dangerous.

Secondly of course, he has his own very direct, personal interest, which he needs to protect. Which are partly about money, partly about not going to prison, partly about satisfying a lot of people who’ve helped him. Put all that together, and those two things are a toxic mix.

Thirdly, and this is very ‘dangerous,’ for me, or for any commentator—it’s very easy to be snobbish about Zuma. It’s very easy to ridicule his use of English or be snide about his turn of expression. Again, that’s glib to do it, and having worked and had the privilege to spend some time with Evo Morales in Bolivia and having had the privilege of taking him around South Africa shortly after he was elected, I do recognize a worker leader. I do understand what one can talk about when one says ‘a person from modest background,’ who doesn’t have a formal education. Who wins power, but can do so with integrity.

I don’t believe Zuma is in that category. Evo Morales I’m sure has many faults, I’m sure he’s making many mistakes, but what I know of him, what I’ve seen of him, what I’ve seen of him since he’s been in power the last few years is that he’s trying to govern honestly and trying to remain loyal to his principles. He has principles. I don’t believe one could not say many of those things about Zuma. So when people defend him and say, ‘Well he’s a simple man who’s representing the ordinary interests of everybody,’ I don’t believe that.

And I don’t believe the public accept that now, because of Nkandla. Nkandla becomes a leitmotif for all of these ideas, because here is a guy, if he was genuine and authentic in being a representative of the people, the rural community in particular. He wouldn’t be spending public money and wouldn’t be building such a place, because that would run counter to that. So that show’s me he’s willing to risk his reputation and the reputation of the ANC moreover, to secure his personal interests.”

Aerial view of a voting place in the first democratic election in South Africa in 1994

Aerial view of a voting place in the first democratic election in South Africa in 1994

We continue talking about the cultural differences between the ANC as a liberation organization during the Apartheid era, and as the governing party under democracy. “One of the most complicated things about the ANC that is almost impossible to get one’s head around is the differences in political culture between political exiles and ‘in-ciles’ for want of a better word.

And then within both, what you call the political prisoners. So there are competing cultures within the ANC, which are still waters that run very, very deep. And into which one dives at one’s peril. And in trying to get to the bottom of those rivers and their tributaries and understanding the way in which the water flows, is really difficult. I don’t think anybody has a full handle on it.

You can’t have a 360º view of the ANC. You only ever get bits of it. And the job is to add it up, and figure out what it adds up to. The tensions between the two means that there’s no one ANC culture, for starters, there are competing cultures, just as there are competing ANC ideologies. The role of the leadership of the ANC, the leadership not the leader, is to manage those tensions and somehow keep them under control. Zuma’s not doing it as well as his predecessors. What you’ve got now is really the disintegration of the ANC. Slowly… well, the ANC is certainly destabilized, but slowly it’s also beginning to disintegrate.”

It wouldn’t be unfair to call Richard Calland a political commentator. But his bio on UCT Law School’s homepage correctly identifies him more correctly as one of the secret shepherds of South Africa democracy, nurturing and nudging where needed, building the institutions and watchdog groups that would secure these freedoms and popularize the notion of democracy.

“Let me draw on two simple words, expressed by other people,” Calland begins as he meditates on the implications of a South Africa that may have plateaued culturally, implications prompted by a question of mine. “One is ‘ordinary’ and the other is ‘mediocrity.’ So Peter Vale, Professor of International Relations and subsequently Politics at Rhodes University and now University of Johannesburg, a friend, a mentor of mine, Peter Vale once said in relation to South Africa’s foreign policy, that South Africa had become ‘just another country, an ordinary country.’ It had stepped down off it’s pedestal of principle and idealism, and become just another pragmatic, self-interested, self-centered country. That’s one thought. The other is Ferial Hafferjee, now the Editor of City Press newspaper, I think a very fine person and Editor, very principled person, she wrote and editorial once, an absolutely brilliant editorial, probably six, seven years ago, when she was Editor of the Mail & Guardian where she said the South African project is ‘becoming submerged beneath a sea of mediocrity.’ In other words we’re doing ourselves no favors, we set our standards too low, we’re too forgiving. One of the things that’s curious about this country is it’s very pragmatic—it likes to take things to the edge, and then pull back from the edge. That’s a sort of South African instinct, I think. And it gets quite hyperbolic in the process, it suffers from manic depression—one week we have the best rugby team in the world, the team loses once, we now have the worst rugby team in the world. The swings in emotion, but what does that all add up to?”

Calland pauses to interject on his own thinking, “I’m rambling now,” he says, but this is also Calland at his most raw and most emotionally honest. He doesn’t quite hang down his head, he doesn’t quite look off in another direction, but there’s a shift in the room’s tension, and in Calland’s voice. I’m confronted with the portrait of a man measuring the years, and measuring the weight of the years upon him and the things he built.

Caught in this moment, a realization hits. Maybe exactly what’s needed in South Africa right now, in Africa, for democracy to took root and flourish, is a popculture project like Calland’s. As the grand narrative of South African liberation recedes from the horizon of personal, lived experience, cloaked in its own kind of mythology, what’s needed now is perhaps the kind of ordinary-people-in-our-everyday-lives, bottom-up vision of democracy as its own kind of popular culture. Calland’s style of action-democracy, instantaneous pop-democracy is built around using academic tools like theoretical analysis and statistical scrutiny in the service of understanding lived experience. And the next phase beyond that? Selling the idea of democracy itself. There’s a kind of fantasy-story mythology version of South African liberation to be told, Calland is very much about the opposite.

“What does that all add up to,” Calland continues, “It’s a country that remains in transition no doubt, it’s also kind of got into a rut, it’s lost it’s sense of direction.” Calland’s voice pendulums in and out as I find myself still caught in a moment ago with Calland smiling stoically as he confronts the road still ahead. I hear the words “foreign policy,” “promise,” and I concede the point of legal scholarship as a tool of popular culture.

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