“It is still true of the Negro in America, as it once was of the serfs of Europe, that city air makes men free, and this is true in more ways than are ordinarily conceived of. The great cities are now what the frontier and the wilderness once was, the refuge of the footloose, the disinherited, and all those possessed by that undefined malaise we call social unrest.” – ‘Politics and “The Man Farthest Down”, in Race and Culture by Robert Ezra Park, 1964
I was observing rival political party supporters and leaders ( ANC and EFF) straining to out-chant each other during one of the coalition voting stations in the South African economic capital, besides the pathetic looks on their faces, as young and old Black folk were singing at the top of their voices right next to each other in the over-crowded town hall, I wondered where their white counterparts were. It all reminded me of the stereotypes often peddled by racists, or even casual observers – that Afrikan people are merely good for singing, dancing, and serving under the superior management of other races. Another thought that plagued my mind was that of political party funding, especially the under-current insinuations that many of these political parties are financed by the elites, the 1% billionaires that dictate the real ‘selections’ behind the elections.
While the local media is busy reporting just how much the ruling party has lost out during the recent Local Government Elections, failing to obtain the majority votes required to continue governing the key municipalities; I am internally lamenting the further fragmentation of Afrikan political representation which translates to further economic disenfranchisement of the still oppressed Black masses. My primary concern is really the direction and usefulness of the present political dispensation. Whom do the political parties really serve and how can we speak of participatory democracy when so few people of voting age even bother to cast their votes? Many non-voters had clearly defined and understandable reasons to withhold their votes, but others had simply stayed away from the ballot out of sheer frustration, lethargy, or even sabotage. The latter can be categorized into various sections, suffice to say that there are South African’s who have no interest in party politics and the available choices.
The South African socio-economic landscape is a true microcosm of the rest of the world. The inequality, levels of violent crimes, and the multiple forms of corruption in high and low places are so appalling that one would be forgiven for assuming that both the captains and the crew have abandoned the ship to the tumultuous waters of free for all capitalism. The political climate is so fraught with challenges that one would expect that public servants would be required to be individuals of the most outstanding character, yet there are people who have been chosen in some provinces who have been convicted for the most insidious of crimes in the land, rape. While these few corrupt individuals may not be a reflection of the general status of the incumbent leaders, it does tell us a lot about the kind of checks and balances that exist as well as the society itself that has been abused so much that we fail to discern between the self-serving and those who serve the greater good. So how does South Africa figure out the necessary steps towards properly representative politics? Is politics as we have it at present, still necessary to achieve adequate levels of welfare and social justice?
Let us trace the development of reconstruction and democratic politics to see if Black people have ever had a chance to dismantle the masters house using the masters tools.
“Probably no one expected the Negro would be permitted, without a struggle, to enjoy all his newly acquired civil rights; but it was hoped that, having the ballot, he would at least be able to enforce in the new social and political order a consideration that he had not received in the old. As it turned out, the interests of race and caste triumphed over the interests of class and party. With the rise of the so-called Solid South, at any rate, Negroes lost their representation not only in southern legislatures but in congress. They continued to share, to be sure, in the federal patronage, but they ceased to participate, in any effective way, in local politics.” – Park,p.172, Race and Culture, Politics and “The Man Farthest Down”
What this historical analyses by one of America’s chief sociologists shows us is that Black people, no matter which part of the world they may find themselves, were never really considered as potential participants in the political platforms and systems that white people had created for themselves. The very tools for participation in liberal democratic platforms were hardwired to serve the racial minority, i.e. the white colonialist. But even the very white socialologists and theorists we often turn to still fail to deal effectively with the plight of Black people, they simply have a biological blindspot. A good example, is the kind of solutions or quality of leadership they often imagine we need as a race. Here is an example of that psychological blindspot, exhibited by the same author I have quaoted in this essay.
“The task of securing the enforcement of the Negro’s civil rights was eventually taken up by the emerging Negro intelligentsia, led by men like Burghardt Du Bois, supported by the Society for the Advancement of Coloured People, of which he was the founder. This society inherited the idealism and radicalism of the abolotionists, but radicalism, at this time, amounted to no more than an insistence that the Negro should have, here and now, the rights which the new order promised but in practice posponed. Meanwhile the masses of the Negro people, where they were permitted to vote at all, continued to support the Republican party. In this way, they were acting in accordance with , if not in response to, the admonition of their number one political leader, Frederick Douglass. “The Republican party”, he once told them, “is the ship. All else is the open sea.”