Shutdown — on the death of compromise in South Africa

We are in a new phase, one that is characterised by a rejection of compromise as a tactic for managing democratic intercourse.

Police firing teargas at protesting students on the South African parliament grounds in 2015. Image Credit: @LionelAdendorf on Twitter

War will bring the revolution; revolution will stop the war.

Jhumpa Lahiri

For some time now people who write about South Africa have been suggesting that the country is in the process of changing.  It is now time to accept that the country has changed.  We are in a new phase, one that is characterised by a rejection of compromise as a tactic for managing democratic intercourse. There has been a tendency to suggest in recent weeks that student leaders within some Fallist groupings are highly intolerant, and that they are engaged in a dangerous form of brinksmanship.  It is clear that it is incorrect to suggest that it is only some in the student movement who are like this.  The rejection of compromise politics does not come from one quarter alone.

We see brinksmanship across the political spectrum, from the smoldering campuses in KwaZulu and Fort Hare, to the burnt schools in Vuwani, to the charred remains of the African National Congress.  We see brinksmanship in the serious battle lines that are drawn between business and labour; the sort of impasses that result in protracted disputes every year.  Who can argue that Marikana was not the result of brinksmanship.  We see brinksmanship in the failure to reign in rogue elements within the National Prosecuting Authority and security services.  Similarly the slash and burn tactics that have placed the CEO of the public broadcaster, Hlaudi Motsoeng, and the head of the national airline, Dudu Myeni, in positions of leadership indicate a willingness to exact maximum damage in service of broader objectives that are sometimes opaque.

These sorts of divisions are indicative of a new phase in our politics; one in which intransigence and radicalism take centre stage.  Unlike others who worry about radicalism and intransigence, I am not convinced about whether the digging in of heels we are witnessing will take the country forward or backwards in the long run.  It is too early to hazard a guess.  While there is much that is worrisome about stubbornness, it is also important not to dismiss obstinacy as a mechanism for resolving long-standing impasses that have not been dealt with because not enough pressure has been applied.

In the conventional model of democratic politics, you put forward an idea, debate it and then work to build support for your view.  Democratic societies reward those leaders who work out solutions, bridge divides and calm tensions.  These rewards exist not simply in the electoral set up, but also through other sorts of incentives.  Prizes and awards are given to bridge-builders; buildings are named in their honor and they are rewarded with public accolades, academic honorifics and so on.

While bridge builders continue to be seen as ‘leaders,’ their credibility is diminishing.  As the very notion of democracy goes on trial, radicalism and intransigence are increasingly replacing compromise as the go-to instincts of the body politic.

This is of course because the strategy of compromise has had mixed results in the last two decades. On the one hand, the compromise brokered in 1994 has resulted in a relatively ‘stable’ society and the growth of a significantly larger black middle class than existed at the end of apartheid.  Educational opportunities have expanded for all black children, and many more South Africans have access to services like water and sanitation than did under apartheid – both in real terms and as a proportion of the population.

At the same time, compromise has suffered a bad rap because of the ways in which it has been linked to other negative phenomena within the ruling party. It is widely accepted that careerism, political thuggery and an obsession with big-man politics have ascended in the ruling party.  Unfortunately what has blossomed at the same time is the cynical notion that t mediation and negotiation were mere strategies for self enrichment.  In other words, because the ANC has both championed compromise as a tool for managing conflict, and has also become more and more corrupt in its dealings with big business, it is easy to conclude that compromise politics is in fact corrupt politics.  Compromise has also suffered from the fall of Rainbowism. In many ways then, through its association with a compromised ANC and a compromised racial politics of Rainbowism, compromise as a political tactic, has come to be associated with selling out.

This is a pity.

For the purposes of clarity it is important to separate the ideological underpinnings of a politics that embraces compromise (what I refer to here as compromise politics) as a necessary and important aspect of moving forward a social agenda, from the other tendencies that have deepened and solidified in the post-apartheid ANC.  For example, it would be easy to suggest the ANC’s cosiness with big business is a function of a politics that embraces compromise. Certainly, compromise brought the ANC and big business into closer proximity to one another, but it is careless to argue that at its heart the ANC’s neoliberalism is only or even largely the result of its reliance on negotiation and compromise with external actors as a political strategy for securing and then sustaining democratic practice.   One can accept political compromise as a tactic, without accepting that concessions must be made on each and every issue confronting a society. One can hold firmly to principles, whilst accepting that at a macro level compromise is a critical tactic in a democratic society.

So, we are now in a new era.  We are no longer wondering where we are going, it seems we have arrived in a new place in which we are witnessing radicalism and intransigence as a modus operandi across our society.

We see it in the ruling party, where administrative matters like appointments and parastatal deployments take up inordinate amounts of time and leave blood on the floor time and again.  We see this radicalism and intransigence amongst university administrators who took far too long to comprehend the tactics of the student movement and so made strategic blunders early on, that have lost them trust and vital time.  We see it in the radicalism and intransigence of some of the leaders of the Fallist movement who are prepared to inflict maximum damage now in order for long-term goals to be achieved.  We see it amongst many white South Africans who continue to bury their heads in the sand by continuing to organize, protect and enrich themselves on the basis of race.

We see this radicalism and intransigence also in the actions of protesters who burn schools because of municipal demarcation issues or to highlight lack of water and sanitation.

I say this without assigning moral equivalence: I do not of course believe the intransigence of AfriForum is the same as the intransigence of the Fallists; nor do I think the intransigence of ANC factions intent on evading accountability is the same as the intransigence of Vice Chancellors whose role is primarily to run universities not to find the money to deliver free higher education.

My observation is merely that where the country stands today is a consequence of many separate sections of society saying that they have had enough of compromise.  This is especially interesting because we are a very young nation but we were founded on the very notion of compromise.  We were celebrated the world over for our ability to bring together disparate views.  During the 1990s, South Africans elevated the middle ground to the high ground.  Yet here we are today, gripped by radicalism and intransigence and an outright rejection of the compromise tactics that carried us to this point.

This is both startling, and completely unsurprising.   It is also not as frightening as some might think.

Those of us who were already adults during the heady transition days prided ourselves in being a nation of negotiators who pulled ourselves from the brink. The brink was a bad place and we were happy to no longer be on it.  I certainly believed, as the new millennium dawned, that South Africa might face some tough times ahead, but that the country would be defined by its ability to talk its way from the ledge.  Today many in our society are not as frightened of the brink as I was.  They see the brink as an important space to occupy.

Compromise politics was part of the national bloodstream – it would save us.  So of course it is startling to observe the way in which across many fronts, we are failing to resolve impasses today. Given the widespread embrace of compromise politics across South African society until recently, it is now disconcerting to note that  the rejection of compromise as a tool for social progress.

At the same time of course I am completely unsurprised by the starkness of this development and the ways in which it is manifested.  Make no mistake: There are valid and ethical reasons to reject compromise, even if one is not a political purist. There are some issues and some moments in history in which compromise makes no sense; moments in which moral and economic victories are within reach and ought to be fought for unequivocally without compromise.

The rejection of the compromise politics  by many protesters on the left is the logical conclusion of almost two decades of insipid and terrifying compromises on the running of the economy, institutional racism, the functioning of our education systems and the layout and structure of our urban and rural spaces.  One can in fact, embrace Rainbowism, and also recognize that compromise has not taken the poorest South Africans very far.


I have less patience of course for those who reject compromise because they are reactionaries – those like Afrikaans singer Steve Hofmeyr and his slightly more urbane ilk in Afriforum.  Still, it is worth nothing that the absence of a political narrative explaining why compromise continues to be necessary has allowed these elements to strengthen their voices and mobilize broader support than they should have.   In other words, regardless of what you think of Mandela’s latter-day politics and irrespective of your thoughts on the ANC leaders who negotiated the settlement that lead to the historic 1994 elections, there is no denying the amount of effort that went into building and sustaining the narrative of the Rainbow Nation.  It was potent because it was carried forward consistently and eloquently, even in the face of its obvious weaknesses.


There has been no commensurate energy invested in revising and recalibrating that narrative to take account of growing social strife today.  The limits of the 1994 political compromise have inevitably begun to give at the seams and yet I cant think of a single leader inside or outside the ANC who has managed to coherently and productively steer the conversation about politics and inequality towards calmer waters.

The present crisis on campuses illustrates this point.  The university crisis is above all, a failure of those who championed compromise politics to adapt to a dramatically different political context.  The old words no longer fit and the old guard are now too old to restrategize.  The problem isn’t so much that they don’t understand the radicalism of the youth, or even that they don’t know how to communicate with a strident new generation.  The problem seems to be that those who sit in positions of power within the state and universities simply do not see their politics and their positions as being as radical as those of the students they so oppose.

When the militant protest for free education meets the militant defence of the rights of those currently enrolled in schools (which implies a defence of the status quo, albeit for pragmatic reasons to which I am deeply sympathetic because I am of a certain generation and so I do not reject pragmatism), we have a stalemate.

Leadership matters most in times like this and thankfully there have already been some creative attempts to broker peace.  Still, South Africa seems to be tainted by its past embrace of compromise.  The last two decades have turned compromise into a swear word.

The transition in 1994 saw both a revolution and a war averted and many of us were pleased with this.  It seems however that we had only reached a temporary and insufficient peace.  We are now howling at the past:  all of us barking with regret at the time we have lost to superficial agreement.

The whites and the blacks and the young and the old; the government and the activists; the progressives and the conservatives: We are all regretting what we gave up because twenty years ago.  The party is over and in the cold light of dawn we see that compromise became both a means and an end and perhaps this was our mistake.  We did not yet know that sitting down does not mean giving in.

Perhaps the cacophony of noise; the howling and the barking and the sound and the fury this time will signify that we are wiser now, and more prepared to accept that compromise is a tool; that facing one another in discourse, eye-to-eye is the only mechanism we have at our disposal to save us.  We have to stand close enough to breathe one another’s breath. It is the only thing that will save us from having to burn ourselves anew each time we rage.

Further Reading

An unfinished project

Christian theology was appropriated to play an integral role in the justifying apartheid’s racist ideology. Black theologians resisted through a theology of the oppressed.