The chattering classes, the majority and the inconvenient truth

LEADERSHIP: ANC president Cyril Ramaphosa speaking at the ANC 106th celebrations in East London's Absa Stadium. Picture: Ayanda Ndamane / African News Agency (ANA)

The Italian Marxist Antonio Gramsci is well-known for his concept of cultural hegemony. In summary, what Gramsci, writing while in prison, tried to articulate was that the culture of the ruling class was going to be the one that is most dominant within a society. In other words, if the bourgeois, in Marxist terms, was the ruling class then the dominant cultural milieu would be that of a bourgeois nature. Even if this ruling class was a minority, their’s would be the dominant cultural setting.

Yet ‘ruling class’ becomes quite questionable especially in a country such as South Africa. On the one hand, one could argue there exists a political class or political elite with no real economic power. These would have access to leverages of political power but whether they are actually ruling is questionable especially if their cultural orientation is overtaken by another. Instead, many would argue that it is actually the economic elite in South Africa, those who have access to real economic power and not just credit, who are the ruling class. They determine even the cultural outlook of the political elite.

Cultural hegemony, no doubt, has many facets. One such facet would be what we could term the “chattering classes”. These are the groups of people who chatter but who do not necessarily form the ‘majority’ view of the society. In this instance, it would be important to separate ‘majority’ from ‘hegemonic’. Majority pertains to number while ‘hegemonic’ refers to power and influence. Again, in South Africa it is the chattering classes, a minority, that is hegemonic and not the silent majority.

An example of the hegemony of the chattering class would be social media, and media in general, in South Africa. It would not be incorrect to suggest that less than ten percent of South Africans have access to social media. The subscribers to Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Snapchat, among others, are really in the tiny minority in South Africa. A greater portion, but not much, have access and prefer WhatsApp but that is only if one has access to a smart phone. 

The chattering classes, to whom linking to Wifi is like drinking milk, dominate this social media domain. They are the ones who often influence social media and it is more likely that their stories will land up in the print and broadcast media; after all, editors would say, it is they, the chattering classes, who buy the newspapers and watch news on tv in the first place.

Often though, the cultural outlook of the ruling class, who are more privileged, is quite skewed, if not downright incorrect. Take for example, the opinion piece written by the one Chuck Stephens, titled: The ANC is to blame for contempt for Parliament ( Stephens would form part of the chattering class and therefore ruling class because not only does his opinions get published, as incorrect as they may be, but he also heads the UNEMBEZA Desk at the Desmond Tutu Centre for Leadership. Unembeza is Ndebele for ‘heart’ or ‘having a heart’.

Given that it is a ‘Centre for Leadership’ and according to their website they train people as well as the fact that they have the name of a Nobel Peace Prize Laureate attached it to, it would be important that people like Stephens not misconstrue or simply sprout inaccuracies. Yet this is exactly what he does in his opinion piece. 

‘Lawfare’ in South Africa, as in the United States, has become a political tool simply because our constitutional democratic dispensation facilitates for such, where the judiciary is as powerful as the executive, if not more powerful. 

Secondly, Apartheid South Africa had a parliamentary system and it was wholly abused. Imagine if parliament was supreme in our democratic dispensation, Stephens would be surprised, that the ANC would have even more power than they have now. At least now, the executive is held accountable via the Constitution and the courts. 

Yet even in apartheid South Africa not even the National Party was the centre of power; the Broederbond was. State capture was conceived and perfectly implemented by the Broederbond and so the Nats meant nothing without the Bond.

In a parliamentary system, with an easy majority in hand, the ANC would run roughshod through the system. Yet Stephens would be surprised too that it was the liberation movement, itself, which insisted on a constitutional democratic system rather than a parliamentary one. A cursory study of constitutional history in South Africa would prove this. 

Thirdly, scholars such as Lijpart would also indicate that constitutional systems, which is more accommodating by their very nature, usually tend to go with a proportional representational systems than a constituent one. The parliamentary system in the UK, for example, is a constituent based one; though the system in the US is an exception – but this is why they have two dominant parties.

Stephens’ ignorance on these basic political systems is a dead giveaway when on the one hand he insists on a constituent based system, or a “sent-up” one as he articulates, but criticises the ANC for being exclusive with its majority rather than being inclusive.

A constituent based system, again by its very nature, is extremely exclusive and the ANC would have a far greater majority in parliament with such as system, commonly known as first-past-the-post, than with a proportional representational system. The scholarly literature abounds with insisting, Lijpart included, that if countries want to protect minorities they must implement a proportional system rather than a constituent one. Unfortunately, like most systems, and even democracy, there are disadvantages and proportional representation makes boss out of parties. But then again, it is the people who voted for the parties.

The reason why the Slabbert Commission Report was never even considered, even by opposition parties, is simple: we have the Slabbert-Van Zyl “model” existing in South Africa at present in the local government sphere. Never mind that opposition parties will have far lesser representation than they currently enjoy, municipal councils have both proportional and constituent based representation, a hybrid between the two, but is it working? Many would argue not. To therefore simply push the Slabbert Commission, once again, displays a sheer ignorance of what the report suggests and what is happening in South Africa.

It is astounding that Stephens could even suggest that the majority of feminists oppose the decriminalisation of sex-work. One would challenge him to name just one such feminist. Yet again, this is a display of the tirade that this opinion piece illustrates. What is sad is that it comes from the ruling class. A person who has access to (international) resources and who trains people. 

Yet even more so, the opinion piece illustrates the level of the cultural hegemony of our ruling class in South Africa.

Pule Mabe is an ANC NEC Member and ANC Spokesperson