South Africa, settler colonialism and the failures of liberal democracy



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Zed Books Ltd


University of Cape Town

South Africa is a society driven by guilt, fear and anger. In a society that is so clearly a product of injustice for so long, the past cannot but be deeply etched upon everything. One part lives in a world of comfort, fear and guilt. The other, the vast majority, survives in a world of squalor, frustration and anger—a world of bare life (Agamben 1998). The two hardly meet except in the world of work, but this is a world of masters and servants. The democratic breakthrough in 1994 has not changed this division much. Now, another group, the emerging black middle class, has moved into the world of fear and guilt, but also comfort and, for a few, ostentatious wealth. Everywhere this division haunts all in this society; it never completely leaves even though most try to ignore its presence. Ken Owen, a keen observer of South African politics, blamed ‘the deplorable state’ of contemporary South African democracy on the low self-esteem of the black leadership. He scathingly argued that ‘we are dealing with a generation of black leaders who were severely damaged, men more than women, by the terrible humiliations of apartheid’. As a result the black political elite are prone to express ‘insecurity, desper- ate greed, excessive concern for status and appearance, a sad reliance on paper qualifications, dishonesty, abuse of the weak, especially women and children, vain displays of wealth, and pomposity. Bodyguards, expensive cars, huge mansions, expensive whisky, business class flights—the symptoms of a sense of inferiority are everywhere’. By contrast: ‘White South Africans are writing books, producing plays, defending causes, mending machines, teaching, even helping to govern badly like Alec Erwin and Jeremy Cronin’ (Owen 2009). Is this attack on a country that has only recently celebrated two full decades of constitutional democracy following the end of Apartheid, where the ‘terrible humiliations’ of this iniquitous system still remain raw, appropriate? Many would strongly disagree with Owen’s view and especially his tone, but all his criticisms cannot be easily disputed. Perhaps we can accuse him of reductionist thinking, offering too simplified a conclusion to the problems that bedevil a complex society. After all, Owen would be remembered for the unintentional irony of his warning about the dangerous in uence of ‘Black Consciousness’ as advocated by Steve Biko in the 1970s; he drew the Apartheid government’s attention to the very issues that this ideology addressed, most importantly the psychological inferiority of the oppressed subject. Regardless, Owen’s criticisms highlight an important aspect of contemporary South Africa’s troubled, psychotic democracy. That theme is the focus of this book.