The downside of legitimacy

Alf Stadler warns that there is a danger in too fervent a belief in majority rights.

The term legitimacy attracts approval which is almost visceral. We believe that while legitimate states may sometimes make bad policies, they have a claim on the obedience of citizens precisely because they are legitimate. By contrast, an illegitimate state cannot do anything right, not even when it does something which if done by a legitimate state would be accepted as right. Thus an African National Congress (ANC) leader once described a birth control programme conducted in apartheid South Africa as an act of genocide against the African people.

There is however a downside to the ethical surplus enjoyed by the legitimate state. Legitimacy not only permits governments to go about their business with a clear conscience, but also permits them to dismiss opposing views as illegitimate or trivial. Legitimate governments can impose greater hardships on their subjects than governments enjoying weak legitimacy. During the Second World War the British government imposed stricter rationing than the Nazis did in Germany.

The columnist Michael Prowse, of the Financial Times, recently suggested that the root cause of errors and incompetence in British government lay in a political system that gives governments with a large parliamentary majority near-dictatorial powers. “This excessive power leads politicians to adopt a contemptuous view of their fellow citizens. Rather than seeking to consult, rather than taking differing points of view seriously and gradually building a consensus in favour of reforms, they try to dominate and control every part of civil society.” In short, the large majorities which bestow legitimacy upon governments in democratic societies also make it possible for them to behave contemptuously and dictatorially.

Beyond the majoritarian principle which defines democratic rule, the distinctive feature of the legitimacy of democratic states rests less on what they are than on what they do. Governments in democratic states are continuously active in making policies which will attract electoral support. They are highly interventionist in their search for policies which might bring them support, responding both to specific interests and to what they believe to be general interests. Intervention in the management of the economy is central to democratic governments’ search for support. There are advantages, but also serious problems.

The ANC has now won two general elections with comfortable majorities. There is no political party in sight with a remote chance of defeating the ANC in an election so long as the ANC remains united and its two partners in the Tripartite Alliance, the South African Communist Party (SACP) and the Congress of South African Trade Unions (Cosatu), continue to accept the ANC’s leadership. The ANC treats the parliamentary opposition parties with unconcealed contempt. The New National Party (NNP) is a dependent client, enjoying the ANC’s patronage in return for delivering votes in the Western Cape. The Democratic Alliance (DA), with its long experience of parliamentary opposition, is isolated and ignored by the ANC.

The state president, Thabo Mbeki, recently warned opposition parties against “mobilising the minorities”, as though minorities (however defined) had no legitimate interests separate from those of the majority, which the ANC claims to represent. Ingeniously, he aligned this criticism (aimed mainly at the Democratic Alliance), with the critique on what he termed  “ultra-left” elements in the SACP and Cosatu.  The ANC chief whip, Nkosinathi Nhleko, declared that the survival of minorities “depends on a good and positive inter-relationship with the majority” and should protect themselves by “isolating elements such as Tony Leon and others from our society.” The leader of the official parliamentary opposition ought to be isolated as though he were a contagious disease.

From time to time strains have appeared in the Tripartite Alliance, but it has remained broadly committed to a common project. Recently, however, threats have appeared which could upset the alliance. The threat arises, not because the SACP and Cosatu partners want to mount an alternative political project, but because the Mbeki presidency has attempted to impose its will on them over the government’s privatisation policy, and more broadly, the government’s pursuit of the interests of the new elite occupying important positions in the public and private sector.

Some members of Cosatu and the SACP believed, along with this shift in policy, that the Mbeki presidency had changed its style of government from being “people driven” to policies delivered from governmental positions.  In his interview with the Irish historian, Helena Sheehan, in January 2002, Jeremy Cronin, the deputy secretary-general of the SACP spoke of the “Zanufication of the ANC… a bureaucratisation of the struggle. ‘It was important that you were mobilised then, but now we are in power, in power on your behalf. Relax and deliver. The struggle is now counter-productive. Mass mobilisation gets in the way’.”

For Cronin, the eclipse of the Reconstruction and Development Programme by the Growth Employment and Redistribution policy (GEAR) was symptomatic of the displacement of a policy “informed by popular aspirational struggles. Increasingly policy is formed by directors-general of government departments and their senior management, and even worse still, by external and very often private sector consultants”.

The ANC and its cadres were “very often distant from key policy formation”. The private sector conducted a major offensive against the RDP, portraying it “simply as a kind of wish list… The ANC in government fell for this …” and translated it into a “kind of bureaucratic management by performance objective… The SACP was being marginalized, shouted down, subjected to heavy presidential attacks on us… we have been losing at the level of policy formation”.

Cronin’s analysis is not unique, either in the context of South Africa or of post-colonial sub-Saharan Africa, nor indeed of the history of social democratic parties. The participation in elections before 1914 of the then revolutionary Swedish Social Democratic Party purely for its propaganda value eventually diverted it from its revolutionary aspirations. Over time it entered what Foucault termed the “regime of power” which  “secured legitimacy not by the participation of citizens in matters of state but by claiming to provide for the well-being of the population”.

A politician of Cronin’s calibre must have recognised that the ANC’s entry into the regime of power in 1994 might limit the range of options available to radicals in the ANC and SACP. But the consequence for socialists would not necessarily mean that their efforts to work for the reform of the political economy would be halted.  On the contrary, given the constitutional and political context of South Africa in the 1990s and 2000s it was probably the only way for them to gain access to or influence over the policy-making process.

Moreover, this was by no means an unrealistic prospect. The ANC and the SACP had enjoyed a long and intimate relationship. Many leaders were members of both. Many ANC cadres were committed to a socialist project, or at least to degree of state intervention that their opponents would identify as socialist. Nelson Mandela had continued to speak of the possibility of nationalisation even after he had become president.

The links between these two parties and the new union movement were less well established. While there was no doubt of the enthusiasm with which the unions and the United Democratic Front (UDF) aligned themselves with the ANC and SACP during the 1980s, the union movement from which Cosatu emerged was the leading edge in the resurgence of popular protest from the early 1970s. It was located in a more open and flexible practice than that employed by either the two parties in the alliance or the older union movement which the Nationalists had smashed during the 1950s and 1960s.

However important conditions would need to have been met for the left to be effective participants in shaping policy and not simply make-weights there to legitimise the policy process. In his interview Cronin spoke of the need to keep the unions “mobilised and energetic and watching every move, that poor communities are able to articulate their concerns and frustrations, that they are able to add power to the process, otherwise it gets deflected off into the short-termism of profit-taking and so forth…”

This passage suggests that he had assimilated the experience of social democratic movements elsewhere —that the potential for reform or reaction hinged on the balance of forces within the Alliance.

The significance of his analysis lay in the unique vantage from which he spoke — a critical insider who did not fudge the distinctive elements within the Alliance and indeed within the ANC, nor shirk the responsibilities which he believed he carried. It lay too in the clarity of his analysis (for instance the link he made between the organisational imperatives towards concentration of control over the Alliance and the neo-liberal policies introduced by the Mbeki presidency).

The ANC executive responded to Cronin with a degree of hostility unique in the public transactions of the Alliance, demanding and getting an apology which was widely publicised and gleefully hailed in the neo-liberal press. The ANC accused “the Left” of joining forces with an international campaign against the ANC. Possibly sensitive to Cronin’s reference to mobilisation of the unions, Mbeki has made the extraordinary declaration that it was “politically not possible to mobilise workers to act against this government which they elected, to act against the ANC. Politically it can’t be done; they will not respond like that.”

The president defined the ultra-left as “anarchists, anarcho-syndicalists, socialists, fourth internationalists”, to be found in Cosatu, the ANC and the SACP.

The director of the Centre for Policy Studies, Steven Friedman, has suggested that the group identified as the “ultra-left” was not particularly left — one of its leading lights seemed more impressed by Sweden than Cuba and Keynes than Marx. He concluded that “we are faced with the uncomfortable possibility that their critics’ left-wing credentials are being exaggerated for effect by a leadership which does not enjoy constant criticism…”

He suggested that those who listened carefully to Cosatu’s leaders “would have heard not a rejection of privatisation in principle, but a plea to negotiate it”. (The state president avers that there has been negotiation.)

Friedman may have under-estimated the fears of the Mbeki presidency and over-stated its play for effect. The “new” union movement of the 1970s had an extraordinary impact on the developments which led to the demise of apartheid — at least, if not more, effective than the armed struggle conducted by the ANC. The co-option and marginalisation of union leaders and of the United Democratic Front  since 1994 was a backhanded compliment to a movement which had in the past demonstrated its exceptional capacity for mobilisation.

The recent developments in the Alliance are qualitatively different from the marginalisation of the parliamentary opposition, and possibly even more serious. The contempt displayed by the ANC towards the DA and the NNP gives fresh evidence of the emergence of a dominant party regime. The outcome of the struggles going on within the Alliance will dictate the character of that regime.

Finance Week hailed the (apparent) victory of the government over Cosatu after the strike of early October, paying Mbeki’s government the dubious compliment that it had been tougher than the right-wing French government in confronting the unions.  This triumphalism is not merely misplaced; it is laughing in the face of disaster. The defeat or marginalisation of these groups threatens to eviscerate two elements which are important in building a lasting democracy in South Africa. The one is to maintain the conditions in which an independent union movement is able to participate co-operatively in policy-making. If this is not done the relationship between capital and labour will revert to the intense conflicts which were displayed in the bad old days. The other is not to marginalize the parliamentary opposition.