Democracy, Fried Chicken and the Atomic Bomb


Is it sacrilegious to recall here Malcolm Bradbury's Doctor Criminale, a novel about a mythical postmodern philosopher, a fictional fusion of Foucault and Derrida? At a crucial moment in Bradbury's story, the ex-Hungarian ex-wife of the hero, one Gertla Riviero, reflects, upon the fin de siecle transition to democracy and free market economics in Central Europe and Latin America (Bradbury 1992:276):

"Democracy, the free market," she asks, "do you really think they can save us?.... Marxism [was] a great idea, democracy just a small idea. It promises hope, and it gives you Kentucky Fried Chicken."

Ms. Riviero's commentary is sad and cynical, especially so when read in afterglow of post-election South Africa, especially so as we call to mind the queues that waited for hours outside polling stations in those last days of April, some in almost sacral silence, some in carnivalesque revelry. Those eternal queues recalled, more than anything, the excruciating lines that graced McDonald's in Moscow a few years back, as people voted with their feet not merely for hamburgers or cheeseburgers, but for a market economy and millenial consumerism. The association may seem irreverent, even blasphemous at South Africa's long-awaited moment of celebratory nationmaking. Yet Gertla Riviero's question, and the parallel between standing in lines at once to exercise choice and to herald, in ritual reverence, the coming of a new age, carries an ominous significance.

The recent world historical rush to democracy raises innumberable issues. So, too, does the scholarly attention presently being lavished upon it. A few of these issues are considered below, first in general terms and then, more specifically, in respect of South Africa.


It has become commonplace, in Europe and North America, to regard the new world movement for democracy as a correlate of the end of the cold war and the "triumph" of the free market over communism. In fact, this movement began well before 1989. But no matter: the association is itself a symptom of something much deeper and longer in the making, namely, a fundamental reconstruction of the modernist world order tout court. Elsewhere I have suggested (Comaroff n.d.) that the vents of 1989 were evidence of an unfolding Age of Revolution, an epochal process akin to the one that began in 1789; the European Age of Revolution, that is, which gave us modernity, the nation-state, industrial capitalism, the second colonialism, and much besides. The present revolution has been marked, in particular, by the rapid transnationalization of almost everything; by the rise of a planetary electronic economy, in which production and consumption are widely dispersed, and social class is rendered barely visible by being scattered across the earth; by the transition from monopoly to global capitalism, a flexible, deterritorialized phantom hard to know except through its effects; by the acute crisis of the nation-state which, today, rarely can control its common wealth, the means of violence, or the circulation of signs; by the reduction of politics to the simultaneous calculi of self-interest and collective entitlement.

For many, the social and cultural corollaries of these processes are cause for despondency. Dr. Criminale, Bradbury's fictional philosopher, describes this new age of democracy and the free market as:

the media age, the age of simulation.... The age of no ideology, only hypwerreality... The streets are filled with gangs and terrorists, the women rage with anger, everyone lives for themselves.... [D]own in the street people kill for drugs and kicks. Too little reality, also too much. Everywhere, wild fantasies, everyone wants a violent illusion. Life is a movie, death a plot ending, no stories are real. And even the philosophers think in unrealities, they describe a world of no ethics, no humanism, no self. (Bradbury 1992:330)

In this Age of Revolution, the post cold war era in Europe, Latin America and Central Asia, fear of the atomic bomb subsides. But anomic bombs explode all over the place. People across the globe - alienated, disempowered and dispossessed - commit extraordinary atrocities in the name of ethnic and national aspiration. And the end of politics, at least politics beyond the brute pursuit of collective interest, seems visible on the horizon.

The narrative, like Doctor Criminale himself, might be fantastic, yet it is increasingly familiar to many people across the globe.


How is this pessimistic view of the contemporary world to be reconciled with recent movements for democracy in so many far-flung places? Are those movements not a positive, liberatory sign of our times? And how, in particular, ought we to understand South Africa's euphoric, no longer dry, white season?

It is difficult to gainsay those who draw connections, especially in Europe and Africa, between the recent rise of democracy and the triumph of consumer capitalism, even if, as we have heard, the line of causality that joins them is the subject of ongoing debate. All would agree on one thing, though: that, while capitalism does not require democracy - it does perfectly well under authoritarian regimes - newly emergent democracies, in this day and age, seem to require at least the fiction of a free market. The contemporary historical conjuncture between the ballot box and business is not merely one of elective affinity, even if they do share an ideological provenance. Nor is it passive. U.S. overseas aid in the name of economic "development" has become largely conditional on the establishment of democratic "institutions" - for which, read "regular elections."

The fixation of world politics on democratization stems from the ontological association in the West of freedom and self expression with choice. Democracy has become to homo politicus what shopping has long been to homo economicus: a scared, cosmic fusion of free will and righteous human satisfaction. This was underscored during the counting of the vote after the election in South Africa. On 1 May (11.48 p.m.), Channel 2 broke into its local news coverage to broadcast a meta-advertisement, an advertisement, that is, for advertising. "Advertising," said the message blazoned across the screen, "the Right to Choose."

As several theorists have noted, democracy throughout much of the world has increasingly been reduced from the substantive to the procedural, from social movement to electoral process (Farer 1989; Barsh 1992); it has come to connote little more than the rightful exercise of choice, the physics of pure interest. To wit, it does not take a political theorist, or the fictional Gertla Riviero, to make the point that, understood thus, democracy is a small idea, one that is more likely to bring with it Kentucky Fried Chicken and McDonald's than amelioration of the human condition.

While observing the Botswana election of 1974, I was read an unforgettable lesson in comparative political anthropology by a local school teacher from the edge of the Kalahari. He insisted that multiparty democracy was a contradiction in terms; that it abased politics, shrinking it to nothing more than a quinquennial act of choice; that it was alienating precisely because it erased all government accountability outside of the electoral process itself; that it licensed the indifference of the state to popular participatory politics.

A few theorists have gone yet further, to argue that democratization tends to coincide with the growing insignificance of formal governmental institutions and arenas, and of the state itself, to contemporary politics. If this is true, "the people" are being empowered in the realm of state politics at the very moment when the state is becoming irrelevant and the politics that count are moving elsewhere: to global processes and institutions, into the corporate world, to the media, onto the terrain of civil society, and so on.

An echo exists here of the USA in the 1970s and 1980s, when African-Americans inherited political office in several major cities just as those cities were abandoned by middle-class whites, and "power", along with wealth, shifted away to suburbs and state capitols.

To put it in the interrogative, is it possible that democratization is a correlate of the death of politics, or, at least, of its dispersal to everywhere, anywhere and nowhere in particular? Is democracy rising because it has become politically beside the point?

Another echo from the USA: this time a comment made by Wayne Booth, emeritus professor at the University of Chicago. Speaking of democracy, Booth once said, in a faculty seminar, that freedom of speech is guaranteed in America only to the extent that no one is listening; that, while everybody has a right to talk, nobody has any obligation to pay attention; that democracy may disempower by encouraging a cacophony of voices which merely cancel each other out.

The point? That, for all its rhetoric of millenial optimism, the "transition to democracy" has an underside which has already revealed itself in this new Age of Revolution. An African intellectual, Mahmood Mamdani (1986; 1990; 1992), has an interesting commentary on some of these issues. Like many others he is worried about the transfer of modernist European ideas of democracy to Africa. For a start, the cultural mobility of the concept is a real problem. Given that its meaning is hardly unambiguous in its European contexts, how much more murky does it become in Africa, whose vast array of dynamic, evanescent cultures have their own theories and practices of politics, of personhood, of power, of representation? The decontextualized import of the concept leaves Africans with a dangerous dilemma: to accept either (a) a highly unAfrican model of a nation-state composed of autonomous, individualized, rights-bearing citizens, or (b)an antimodern, ethnically based, pluralist political community in which people enjoy entitlements by virtue of essential-ized collective characteristics. What kind of choice is this for Africa?

In framing the question, Mamdani reminds us that the equation of capitalism with democracy contains within it an implicit corollary: modernist nationalism, or, more accurately, some version of the European nation-state. For him, the only way to break out of the dilemma is to insist: (a)that democratization throughout Africa be a social movement, (b)that its reduction to the procedural and electoral be resisted at all costs - this, at root, being where it has always gone awry before in the "Third World"; (c)that it be a Big Idea, a gesture of praxis, not merely a celebration of choice in pursuit of desire and material well-being - which is likely to do no more than focus politics on the struggle between those who would see the reproduction of elites and those who seek to replace them. As social movement, democratization ought to be about the determination of who are to be the bearers of rights, and in what capacities; of how such things as social labor, the redistribution of wealth, and the dispensation of equal justice are to be organized; how the exigencies of gender, generation, and difference are to be constructively addressed; how the moral community, civil society, and a public sphere are to be fashioned; how the state is to meet its legitimation, and, in many places, material crises; how alternative modernities may be contrived in this new global epoch, this Age of Revolution.


As for Africa, so with South Africa and its own triumphal moment of transition, its own extraordinary revolution. Clearly, democracy denotes very different things to different people here. For the poor and most people of color, it speaks of "a better life for all"; of access to education, housing, employment, dignity; of the right to hope for yet more. For many whites, it connotes security, an end to violence, economic recovery, the recuperation of modernity. For everyone, it means choice. These are worthy objectives, and, in the case of people long dispossessed and disenfranchised, are unarguably deserved and much too delayed in coming. At the same time, if the "transition" turns out to hinge purely on the satisfaction of wants and needs, democracy in South Africa may distill itself into a very small idea; something, as when ballot queues become indistinguishable from fast food lines elsewhere in the world, a great deal less than a social movement. I hope and assure myself that it will not be so, but the possibility is there.

In South Africa, the equation of democracy with capitalism did not have to be written afresh in the same way as it did in Central Europe. Still, democratization is hardly unrelated to the future of the local economy. Under apartheid, South African capitalism was compromised by the state. Now, for the rich, the dream of a new dawn is tied to promises of prosperity founded on ever freer market principles, foreign investment, and enduring stability. Nor is this dream mere fantasy. It is striking that, in presenting itself to the world, the new regime has promised repeatedly to respect the demands of unfettered capitalism. Increasingly silenced is any alternative discourse of political economy. Is the ground being prepared for solicitations of foreign aid from those who insist that electoral democracy and a free market must go hand in hand? And will that free market provide enough of a material base for the wholesale social reconstruction necessary to ensure not merely political stability, but also the re-empowerment of black South Africans?

If there has been a close connection forged between the discourses and practices of capitalism and those democracy in South Africa, even more visible has been the emphasis on the (re)construction of a modernist nation-state. Witness how much the recent electoral process was and continues to be about nationbuilding, how the "new" political community was born in a flurry of rites of passage.

Monday 2 May, midevening. The election results have just become clear enough for F.W. de Klerk to make his concession speech. All attention now turns to the African National Congress (ANC) victory party in Johannesburg. Nelson Mandela, still president-to-be, makes his victory speech. The celebration suddenly focuses on a bottle of champagne that is produced from nowhere, as if by magic. Thabo Mbeki, master of the ceremonies, insists that it be opened by the widow of Chris Hani, assassinated leader of the armed struggle. (It is specifically in this capacity that she is asked, several times, to perform the ceremony.) All modernist nations, it has been said, are born amidst death; death is their symbolic lifeblood. This is no exception. As the cork is popped, explosively, by a very special widow, herself a living icon of the mortality of the South African struggle, the champagne bursts forth. A seminal moment: the new regime declares itself alive, a new South Africa is born.

At the same time, recall here Ernest Renan (1990 [1882]); nationbuilding, he observed, demands that history be forgotten in order for the past to be remade in the image of the present. In South Africa there has been a strenuous effort, in some quarters, to call for the obliteration of memory. Not surprisingly, the electoral campaign of the Nationalist Party, which took pains to admit the error of ways and days gone by, was particularly insistent in this respect, as if penitence might itself be enough to eclipse the pain of the past. The strategy succeeded to a degree, despite attempts by other political parties to negate it: a number of those who once had to endure apartheid voted for its perpetrators.

The other major site of contestation over memory and forgetting - aside, that is, from polite discussion about monuments and the naming of public places and spaces - concerns the question of indemnity against prosecution for crimes committed in the cause of either the apartheid state or the fight against it. Given that the violent excesses of apartheid have hardly had time to fade from consciousness, it is no wonder that the issue has become an especially vexed one, or that there should be a great deal of argument surrounding the mandate of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission proposed by the ANC government. Indeed, it is questionable whether those who suffered the past most acutely will simply allow the new regime to license amnesia, which, apart from all else, would tacitly diminish the heroic legacy of resistance. As this suggests, the struggle over historical consciousness is likely to go on for a long time to come in South Africa. It is a struggle characteristic, perhaps, of all self-consciously "new" nations, and of the effort to shape their destinies.

But this is just one part of the story of national (re)birth. The electoral process was another. It is striking how frequently the ballot was described as a millenial, sacred gesture; how hardened atheists, alumni of the struggle, spoke of spilling tears in polling booths. What is more, the lines of people waiting to vote took on mythical, even cosmogonic proportions. "In the lines we became one nation," declared an emotional television anchor-person on Election'94 (Channel 2, 1 May 1994, 7:55 p.m.). Another, on the verge of tears: "We are really getting to know ourselves as a country through this election." Added the Cape Argus, "Blacks learned from whites how to vote, whites learned from blacks how to wait in line." The dominant discourse of the moment evoked images of a coffee grinder: people went into the polling process a motley mass and came out a single nation. The magic of democracy here is its apparent capacity to eliminate difference as it fashions a new - or at least newly imagined - national community, although its reality, as hinted earlier, has often been the production of indifference.

To the ethnographer's eye, however, it is clear that all the talk, in the public sphere, about the role of the election in forming a national community has been much more instrumental in conjuring up that "community" than was the election itself. If ever there was an audible case of "narrating a nation" into being (Bhabha 1990) this was it. In the late nineteenth century, after Italy had been unified. Massimo d'Azeglio is said to have commented: "We have made Italy, now we have to make Italians" (Hobsbawm 1992:1,4). In South Africa, it seems, the process is just the opposite. Now that South Africans have been made anew, they appear to be trying to talk a new South Africa into existence.

Classically, as Hobsbawn (ibid) has said, nationalism is about history, about reclaiming a past in order to fabricate a future. It envisages itself in and through time. In South Africa something very different is happening: nationbuilding, as ritual process, has been instantaneous. The "new" South Africa is being made, very powerfully, in electronic space. At the (re)birth of the nation, television and radio, more than anything else, gave and are giving coherence to a process of creation which, for most of those caught up in it, is fragmentary, incoherent. To be sure, nationbuilding seems to be occurring along a virtual frontier where the media contrive an imagined community not by reference to time past, but by the spatializing practices of the present. An encompassing public sphere is charted by means of an electronic commons through which flash a stream of signifiers: humans visibly metamorphosing into citizens as they stand in lines; men women becoming "a people" as they sing an anthem in an unshared language and honor a newly-designed flag; and so on. The effect of it all is to produce an imagistic world, totalizing, coherent, here and now.

Many things are missed in this conjuring of a new nation. Among them is the fact that old differences, however resolutely denied or ignored, do not just melt away. Forgetting is rather a more subtle, troubled, and extended process.

Election Day at Taunq, once a Tswana capital, later a town along a frontier violently infiltrated by white settlers and freebooters, most recently a remote rural periphery of Bophuthatswana. A white man - later revealed to be a an assertively conservative Afrikaner - drives up to a polling station in a small truck. He draws to a halt, gets out and fires a few shots into a long line of elderly black voters. One falls injured. Albeit shaken, they regroup and resume their patient, daylong wait to cast their ballots. The assailant is arrested and taken away by the the police, muttering darkly in Afrikaans about what "our South Africa has become."

In many parts of South Africa, there has been anything but a willingness to join in the reconstructed moral community, anything but an agreement to erase differences. Sometimes the voting queue was just that, a voting queue, and not a metaphorical nationmaker. How those differences will play out, whether, having recreated South Africans, it will be possible to recreate South Africa, is for the future to decide. It also remains to be determined whether democracy here is to be a large or a small idea, a matter of McDonald's or social reconstruction. There are, alas, many anomic bombs waiting to explode if the economy cannot be made to do the impossible and yield up the needs of the dispossessed, if promises of education and welfare are not fulfilled, if the political community fails to embrace those who fought most bitterly either to perpetuate or to destroy the ancien regime.

The democratization of South Africa, then, involves a number of challenges and questions all tied together in a complex historical process, a process being played out during an Age of Revolution in which nothing is quite what it once seemed and conventional responses often are insufficient. The immediate issues, however, are clear enough. Will the "transition" to democracy, here and/or anywhere else, truly be a social movement, in which human rights, entitlements and capacities are determined by something more than self-interest or assertions of collective identity? Or will it reduce itself to the primarily procedural business of consumerist electoral politics, whose major product is the circulation of elites and the redistribution of wealth? How will the new citizen be constructed: as disengaged universal citizen, as ethnicized subject, or as something more creative, something more fitting contemporary South African realities? Will we see a genuinely new mass politics, or will those previously disenfranchised merely suffer new forms of depoliticization and disempowerment, alienation and anomie, in the name of capitalist development, state security, and the other familiar terms invoked by authoritarian regimes?

In short, how is a nation really to be built? What lies beyond the electronic space, across the virtual frontier, that stands between the here and now and the dawning "new" age? These are the large questions of the day, the questions that will be asked and answered in the streets, among those who will inherit the state, and by critical scholars.

1:15 p.m. Monday 2 May, a warm winter day in Cape Town. The Grand Parade, an old square redolent with the icons and echoes, the buildings and barricades, of South African colonial history. Nelson Mandela, formally elected President in Parliament just an hour earlier, is due to speak to an assembled mass - and the nation at large - from the balcony of City Hall. It is the same place where he gave his famous speech, in February 1990, after being released from prison. Perhaps two hundred thousand people clog the square, many of them holding aloft banners; an airplane, advertising a local radio station and trailing the sign "God Bless President Mandela," flies overhead. Hundreds of brightly colored new South African flags are draped all over City Hall. Alongside is an old Victorian commercial building. It too has flags flying from poles on its long front balcony; eight in all, each one about three times the size of the national flag. These, however, are white and plain. They bear the visage of another old man; he is white. In large letters beneath his image are inscribed three words: KENTUCKY FRIED CHICKEN.


What brought apartheid to its end? Why did a transition to democracy occur in South Africa? Is there anything specific to the Great Transformation here that distinguishes it from similar processes of political change in other parts of the world?

The end of the old regime is usually put down to a combination of three factors, although their precise weight remains an object of debate. Clearly, first, the end of the cold war provided the broad geo-historical context. Not only did it remove the terror, among white South Africans, of the "red peril", and made the threat of communism - often invoked by the Nationalist government to justify its repression of all internal opposition - ever less plausible. The demise of the Soviet block, moreover, undermined the support that South Africa, a SEATO ally and a bulwark against the USSR in Africa, could demand from the West. This support had long buttressed the apartheid state both materially and politically.

Secondly, and at the same time, the impact of economic sanctions, on a population used to extraordinary levels of material privilege, turned out to be far greater than conservatives in the United Kingdom and the United States would ever have conceded possible. Remember all those confident statements from self-interested businessmen, right-wing politicians and fearful university presidents? The rather smug ones that told us how economic measures would never work? They were wrong.

Thirdly, and perhaps most significantly, a revolutionary struggle had been smouldering in the streets and shantytowns of black South Africa for more years than many outsiders are aware. From the time of the Sharpville massacre in 1960, through the Sowetu uprising of 1976, into the turbulent 1980's, that struggle slowly gained momentum - until, in the 1990's, the "townships" became ungovernable, trade unions became an ever more potent political presence and the threat of violence seemed to draw inexorably closer to edges of enclaved white communities. An entire generation, a huge mass of black youth who hardly ever sat in a classroom, was educated and made politically aware in perhaps the toughtest, most vitalization way imaginable: by a state that brutalized them constantly, in a political economy that would neither employ them nor hear them cry freedom. Their time had come. For years the Nationalist government had incarcerated and abused its opponents, many of them older leaders of the ANC. Now it found itself imploring these same people to help found a "new" South Africa and, yet more urgently, to harness the rampant, dangerous forces on the loose on the country. It is still not clear whether ex-President de Klerk had any real notion, when he set the formal process of transition in motion, of where it all would end. The evidence suggests that he did not, that he did not, that he long held out hopes for a compromise that would leave economic and political power in white hands. (Those hopes were not altogether baseless, of course, albeit not for reasons of Mr. de Klerk's making: the levers of the state remain under the control of tenured Afrikaner civil servants, and the ownership of the corporate wealth of the country has not substantially changed.) But such was the power of "street sociology and pavement politics" (Bundy 1987) that, once initiated, the process took on an autonomy of its own - with consequences now familiar to all.

There were other, more immediate factors at play. Of greater interest here, though, is why the Great Transformation born of these negative conditions should have ended in a transition to democracy, rather than a mere transfer of power and privilege. This is not to assume, as I have said throughout, that the present mood will prevail; nor that we know what the positive ideological content of the ANC government will actually turn out to be. Nonetheless, the fact that the new regime has begun its life by making such a strong commitment to democratization and social empowerment is remarkable enough to demand an explanation. Why should this emerging cadre of leaders - a cadre horrendously victimized and brutalized by the state it is now taking over - commit itself so enthusiactically to a "non-racist, non-sexist, free society"?

Again, there are many possible reasons, some of which may take the hindsight of history to establish. But a few stand out already. One is that South Africa has long had an established (if not large) black middle class with a tradition of liberal politics that dates back to the nineteenth century. Groomed largely in Protestant mission schools, its leadership founded the South African Native National Congress (later ANC) soon after the Union of South Africa was established. Indeed, by some criteria, it is the country's oldest party - and, for decades, despite ups and downs, it enjoyed a virtual monopoly as the national voice of African aspiration and protest. Its ideology, as its origins would lead us to expect, always eschewed racial or ethnic identity politics, sustaining instead a strong commitment to liberal individualism, universal civil rights, democratic constitutionalism and the modernist nation-state. Its suppression, in 1960, only underscored its continuing significance for blacks - as did its resistance campaigns, its armed struggle and the unremitting persecution of its leaders. And this is spite of the fact that both its ideology and its strategies have been connected at times by, among others, members of the black consciousness movement and of the South African Communist Party. As all this suggests, black South Africa was unusual in having a counter-culture of modernist liberal politics with roots so deep and wide - and in having an immanent organizational structure well adapted to take over the reigns of power. All that was necessary was the right kind of convergence of global and local conditions.

South Africa has also been favored by two other things. One is a relatively well-founded economy; an economy, that is, with a fairly elaborate industrial infrastructure and a capacity for generating wealth. That economy is itself the product of a particular colonial history, one dominated by the discovery of valuable mineral resources, extensive (permanent) white settlement and an explosion of local Fordist production; South Africa was, from the 1870's onwards, much more than a imperial periphery from which labor and raw materials were simply extracted.

In fact, the fortunes of the South African economy have fluctuated greatly, and are at a low ebb at present. Nonetheless, the sheer elaboration of its infrastructure makes it appear able to finance a social revolution, especially if blessed with foreign investment. It also makes the attraction of such investment a plausible possibility - provided that the government can ensure political stability and an absence of labor unrest. These factors all conduce to the ANC encouraging economic continuity and cooperating with the business and industrial sector; in other words, of being complicity in placing tight limits on radical change. But even if there were insufficient positive reasons - like the funding of a social revolution - for the ANC to commit itself to continuity, there are also negative ones. Unlike in many other postcolonial contexts, control over the operation of this economy is far too diffuse and complex to be expropriated easily by a successor regime - even if it had the most rapacious intentions, which the ANC does not.

As in economics, so in politics. The other factor favorable to democratization in South Africa is, perhaps ironically, one which many blacks regret: a large indigenized white population - rather than an ex-patriot class liable to flight - still in control of many of the functions of the state and its means of violence. It has been remarked that, while the ANC has taken over the government, the Nationalist party, as I noted above, remains in tenured possession of the state. This is likely to change, of course. But there seems little question that the South african situation is fairly unique in the racial demographics of its political sociology. It certainly is a situation in which there are good reasons, again both negative and positive, for the new regime to build on foundations of statecraft already in place. Failure to do so would risk provoking (i)potentially insidious white counter-violence and/or (ii)a bureaucratic counter-insurgence that could easily cause a spread of institutional paralysis.

What is altogether important, however, is the fact that the ANC prefers to build a foundation of non-racial cooperation. It has, for reasons largely of its own making, inherited a future of great promise. And it shows every sign of making the very best of it.

Article copyright Cultural Survival, Inc.

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