What if failure was always part of the ANC's plan?

On Bastille Day Jeremy Gordin reflects on our half-baked Jacobin revolution, the NDR

___STEADY_PAYWALL___Today, mes amis, is Bastille Day, the national day of France, celebrated on 14 July each year.

It’s the anniversary of the Storming of the Bastille on that date in 1789 – a major event of the French Revolution which, if you’ll pardon the cliché, was “a period of radical political and societal change in France”.

Today I even received an email from Jacobin Magazine (to which I’m sure many Polwebbers subscribe): “After the storming of the Bastille on July 14, 1789, the British ambassador in Paris said it best: ‘The troops left the capital, and the populace remained the unmolested masters of everything’.” (The email failed to coax any further significance from this quote; so it goes.) [i]

Many of the concepts flowing from that period are, as we know, now considered fundamental principles of liberal democracy. Phrases such as liberté, égalité, fraternité (liberty, equality, fraternity) reappeared in other revolts, such as the 1917 Russian Revolution, and the debates of that period also fuelled campaigns for the abolition of slavery, universal suffrage, and others.

Ah oui, the Russian Revolution and others – which reminds us that the French Revolution and others, as well as the ensuing events of each, were extremely bloody affairs and gave rise in or during the French Revolution (and, mutatis mutandis, in or during the others) to people such as Maximilien Robespierre of the Jacobin club and to the period known as The Reign of Terror. Not for nothing is James Myburgh’s book “on the ANC and the making of modern South Africa” titled The Last Jacobins of Africa (2020) [ii].

On the whole, was the French Revolution good or bad? Hmm, answering this question is above my pay grade, not to mention my capabilities. But a fair-ish reply (I think) was offered in 2020 by an American historian, Jeremy Popkin [iii].

“Despite all its violence and contradictions, however, the French Revolution remains meaningful for us today. To ignore or reject the legacy of its calls for liberty and equality amounts to legitimising authoritarian ideologies or arguments for the inherent inequality of certain groups of people. If we want to live in a world characterised by respect for fundamental individual rights, we need to learn the lessons, both positive and negative, of the great effort to promote those ideals that tore down the Bastille in 1789”.

I guess my response, for what it’s worth, would be to argue that the question is largely pointless – that what has been, has been; we can’t remake history; we have to deal with what we get. I’m a “believer” in the opening line of VS Naipaul’s [iv] A Bend in the River (1979): “The world is what it is; men who are nothing, who allow themselves to become nothing, have no place in it”.

But I suppose my response is overly negative; one of main points about “history” is that we’re supposed to learn from it (as Popkin suggests) lest we’re forced to repeat it (George Santayana) – a problem being that, even those who apparently learnt from it, had to live through a repetition of it anyway. (Ever think about that, George?)

So how are things going with our sort-of Jacobin revolution, apparently aimed at bringing us the benefits of what is known as the National Democratic Revolution (NDR)? I write “sort-of” because the NDR doesn’t seem to be going very well if the well-being of the country’s people is one’s guiding light, and this suggests in turn that the local Jacobin spirit might be in abeyance.

One possible Jacobin “leader” could be said to be the EFF’s Julius Malema, who’s just apparently returned from Ibiza, Spain, where he attended the wedding celebration of cigarette maestro Adriano Mazzotti’s daughter. (Don’t snigger; all work and no play makes Jack or Julius a dull, er, young man.)

However, Malema – “Glowing like a man who’s had unlimited access to sangria for the best part of a week” (the white monopoly media really has scant respect!) – Malema, on his return, threatened, somewhat incomprehensibly, to lead a National Shutdown.

“The EFF calls on all the people of South Africa to join on [I think he meant “in”] the NATIONAL SHUTDOWN to demand our country back from an incompetent, directionless, and a criminal syndicate that enjoys the protection of white monopoly capital and its media.”

What was incomprehensible, in my view, is that we already seem to have a pretty successful power shutdown which has in turn doubtless impacted on the economy and suchlike – in other words, a species of national shutdown. Shouldn’t a Jacobin of Malema’s talent [v] think a little more out of the box – or off the grid?

But returning to what I was saying. If you read the FW de Klerk Foundation’s human rights report card for 2022, we Seffricans don’t seem to be doing well at all.

According to the foundation, the three main threats to human rights in 2021 were: a) the unsustainable conditions of poverty, inequality, unemployment, violent crime and declining social, educational and health services that constitute the lived daily experience of a majority of South Africans; b) any continuation of the severe and arbitrary restrictions of a wide range of basic rights imposed under the Disaster Management Act to deal with the COVID crisis; and c) any repetition of the collapse of law and order experienced in KwaZulu-Natal during July, 2021. The foundation also had some unkind words say about the standard of education in the country.

But for serious Jacobins, it could be argued that so-called human rights are an inessential, bourgeois, and white monopoly capital frippery. So we turn our attention to materialistic matters (in a Marxist not a Madonna’ish sense).

Today I came across an interesting first para in a Mark Barnes column on the Business Day site: “You’d have to be in a coma or in wilful denial not to realise that SA is on the verge of multiple organ failure as a state. Without intervention, this condition will almost inevitably kill its human hosts. The same can happen to a country if neglected for long enough”. 

Barnes is, I assume, referring to all the state’s organs but, since he’s known mainly as a businessperson, I presume he’s referring predominantly to economic and business issues. Additionally, today my learned son WhatsApped me, as follows.

“So Sri Lanka have been ‘revolutioning’. They seem about to be successful in forcing the resignation of the current president. The causes? a) Economic mismanagement by the govt resulting in the 2019-present Sri Lankan economic crisis. b) Shortages of fuel and essential items and power cuts. c) High inflation and the rapid rise in the cost of living. d) Corruption and nepotism of the Rajapaksa family. Power cuts, you say. Dad, this looks as though they just copied our homework!” [vi]

In short, then, it would seem the Jacobin approach is not going so well.

Or maybe I (by default a sort of white monopoly capitalist) simply don’t understand – and in fact it’s all going to plan.

After all, I noticed recently that one of the great Jacobins of modern history, Lazar Kaganovich, who played a central role during Stalin’s Great Purge, personally signing the lists that sent tens of thousands to their deaths, remarked: “Why wail over broken eggs when we are trying to make an omelette!”

In other words, maybe our “multiple organ failure” is all part of a plan, the plan. Maybe one of the ANC’s many clever “strategists” planned this all a long time ago. And what are we going to do about it? What can we do about history and its seemingly ironclad repetition?

Ah, answering this question is (again) way above my pay grade, not to mention my capabilities. The poet Philip Larkin (alas, also by default a white monopoly capitalist and neo-colonialist) wrote: “Ah, solving that question/ Brings the priest and the doctor/ In their long coats/ Running over the fields.” By which I think he meant that the question is a “terminal” one. Meanwhile, the ANC’s Baleka Mbete has recently suggested a national cleansing ceremony and Douglas Gibson (whom I take far more seriously than Mbete) has said it’s time for the opposition to step up.

Ja-nee, I wish I could be more positive on this day of all days. I am, after all, a son of the soil, whose principle is action and whose jewel is optimism (as James Baldwin once out it), brought up on sunshine, porridge, rugby, and good books.

But for today I’ll go with Von Humboldt Fleisher, a character in Saul Bellow’s Humboldt’s Gift (1975). “History,” one of the other character remarks about Humboldt, “was a nightmare during which he was trying to get a good night’s sleep.”

That’s my aim for now – getting a good night’s sleep – and, if I can summon the energy and if the dog didn’t eat it, maybe I’ll have a shot, as it were, at disinterring my AK-47 from the bottom of the garden.


[i] In April 2016, Noam Chomsky called this magazine “a bright light in dark times”. Good on yer, Noam!

[ii] And I would recommend for your homework today a rereading of chapter six, if not the whole book.

[iii] The son, if I’m not mistaken, of one of my favourite historians, Richard Popkin (1923-2005).

[iv] Accused by some, including our own fine writer Imraan Coovadia, of being a “neo-colonialist”. So it goes.

[v] Though I’m not entirely certain if Malema makes it as a Jacobin; we students of history recall that the mighty Thomas Carlyle referred to Robespierre, even if he didn’t much care for him, as “the sea-green incorruptible”. Just saying.

[vi] My son, being more inexperienced than I am in these matters, failed to notice, however, that when the Sri Lankan “revolutionaries” invaded their erstwhile president’s residence, they didn’t shoot one another, loot the place, or set it alight. We Seffricans seem so much more advanced, or something, don’t we?