Rainbow nation remains divided

Despite the advent of democracy, citizenship entitlement is still unclear, writes Saul Dubow

November 27, 2008

On 8 September 2008, South Africa's mass circulation Sunday Times published a cartoon by the political satirist Zapiro depicting leaders of the African National Congress and its partners - the Youth League, the Communist Party and the Congress of South African Trade Unions - holding down a blindfolded and robed female figure, her scales of justice cast aside. Standing above her, undoing his belt, stands ANC leader Jacob Zuma, arch-rival of Thabo Mbeki. The men pinioning the figure of justice look up at Zuma and say "go for it, boss". A shower head growing out of Zuma's head reminds readers that Zuma, in his 2006 trial on a charge of rape for which he was acquitted, gave evidence that he took a shower after having consensual sex with a woman whom he knew to be HIV-positive, in order to avoid infection.

In the febrile context of South African politics, the cartoon caused a major political furore. Zuma's political supporters, who have just succeeded in ousting Mbeki from office as state president, issued scarcely concealed threats of public violence if Zuma's long-delayed trial for corruption were to go ahead. Zapiro's point was that the post-apartheid South African constitution and its independent judiciary were imperilled.

Events took an unexpected turn on 12 September when Judge Nicholson set aside the legal charges against Zuma on the grounds of high-level interference in the prosecution process, thereby clearing the way for Zuma to supplant Mbeki as state president. Zuma's triumphant supporters duly praised the legal decision. On the day of the judgment, Zapiro responded by publishing an almost identical cartoon. Now, however, Zuma addresses the prone figure of justice with open-handed geniality: "But before we start, I just want to say how much we respect you!"

Steven Robins, who makes use of several Zapiro cartoons in this book, addresses the problem of citizenship rights in contemporary South Africa with a comparably sharp eye. One of the centrepieces of the "miraculous" transition to majority government after 1994 is the new South African constitution, admired internationally as a model of progressive jurisprudence. Yet the emergence of a rights-based constitution was in many respects anomalous: during the apartheid era the Afrikaner nationalist Government strongly favoured "group rights" over citizenship rights, while the ANC, influenced by a heady mixture of nationalist and left populism, spoke more often in the name of "the people" than in praise of individual civil rights.

The triumph of human-rights discourse and institutions was thus, to a large extent, an unexpected and unintended outcome of the politics of compromise that ushered the liberation movement into power. However, as this book shows, a flourishing human rights culture has yet to embed itself in South African society.

Robins approaches the problem of rights-based citizenship in South Africa from the perspective of transnational and local social movements rather than formal political activity. He is sceptical of the view, propounded by the subaltern theorist Partha Chatterjee, that the classical concept of civil society in the Global South is the domain of a liberal educated elite existing at a remove from the popular classes constituting "political society". He provides ample evidence that in post-colonial societies such as South Africa, the language of human rights and citizenship is frequently deployed by groups whose activities are at variance with the spirit of liberal individualism. It can be mobilised at either end of the political spectrum. Citizenship rights are evoked in pursuit of communitarian, ethnic and identity-based claims for political entitlement. They may even be deployed by gangsters and the exploitative "shack lords" who rent accommodation to the poorest inhabitants of shantytowns. Rights, in short, are a fluid resource to be used situationally; they are not merely an abstract legal concept pertaining to individual citizens.

These broad themes are explored in a series of case studies dealing with grassroots organisations. Robins shows how ex-farm workers in the Northern Cape, aided by lawyers and NGOs, mobilised around their assumed Nama/Bushman identity to assert indigenous land rights; he traces the complex interaction between a locally based slum-dwellers' organisation and a transnational movement of the urban poor; and in a study of the Zuma rape trial, he reveals profound contradictions in respect of gender, masculinity and sexual politics.

The most extended sections of the book deal with the fraught politics of HIV/Aids in South Africa. Here, the author pays close attention to the innovative activism of the Treatment Action Campaign, which has challenged the Government on the provision of antiretroviral drugs with some success.

This illuminating post-apartheid ethnography deserves close study by anyone concerned with popular politics in the globalising South. Robins freely intersperses high-level social theory with carefully selected case studies and vignettes. Specialised theoretical terminology, a high acronym count and a degree of repetitiveness do not always make for an easy read. But the importance of the issues that are raised and the sophistication with which they are analysed make the effort amply worthwhile.

From Revolution to Rights in South Africa: Social Movements, NGOs & Popular Politics after Apartheid

By Steven L. Robins

James Currey and University of Kwazulu-Natal Press

256pp, £50.00 and £16.95

ISBN 9781847012029 and 12012

Published 1 November 2008

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