Power versus authority – which do you think current ANC leadership possesses more of? Social worker, author and film-maker, John GI Clarke, unpacks the ground-breaking theory behind these concepts, one that changed the global academic discourse – and relates them to our current political impasse. You don’t have to be a high-flying academic to work out which ANC leaders, past and present, epitomise authority and which exhibit pure power. Or what capacities and qualities lend legitimacy and therefore authority to any particular party. We all know what’s eroded the ANC’s authority and we all give more than our five cents worth as to what’s needed for the party of liberation to regain that authority, and thus more electoral trust. However, there seem to be two opposing discourses running. The one is that the white minority still holds the real reigns of economic power and will do all it can to undermine the legitimate and morally-sound efforts of black people to claw out their fair share. The other is that those efforts are almost universally corrupt and benefit just a small clique of well-placed and well-connected black politicians and business people. Neither can be universally true. Question is. How do we meet in that tiny middle space to regenerate trust and reclaim some leadership authority? – Chris Bateman
By John GI Clarke*
For the past twenty or so years whenever the subject of power comes up I re-read the writings of my friend and mentor Professor Manfred Max-Neef, in which he makes two extremely insightful distinctions: firstly a priority distinction between options of primary and secondary relevance and secondly a conceptual distinction between power and authority.
The collective pathology of power in the African National Congress has caused me to take Manfred’s book off my library shelf again.
Firstly, a bit about the man.
He hails from Chile and is popularly known as the founder of ‘barefoot economics’ because of the profound personal and professional crisis he experienced when he realised that the language of economics, in which he had been trained, had become meaningless to people who lived in grinding poverty, barefoot and vulnerable. In the 70’s he became internationally respected for exposing the absurd logic of conventional neo-liberal and neo-classical economics which subordinated Life to the service of economics.
He lived through the paroxysms of power and violence that befell his homeland, when President Allende was toppled in 1973 after the CIA aided coup which installed a Military Junta under General Pinochet. Manfred went into self-imposed exile. For the duration of the Pinochet military dictatorship Manfred travelled widely, validating his insights across the globe. He took time out at the Dag Hammarskjold Foundation in Uppsala Sweden, writing his first book “From the Outside Looking In: Experiences in Barefoot Economics” published in 1976.
Having pruned the language of economics “to let in more light” his next major book Human Scale Development: An option for the future? published in 1986 inspired a generation of development practitioners, social movements and grassroots organisations in Latin America, with a vision of development which emphasised the role of human creativity in development and located ordinary people as active protagonists of the process rather than passive dependents. He won the Right Livelihood Award – known as the alternative Nobel prize awarded by the Swedish parliament, in 1982 – in recognition of his work to bring economics down to earth, and place the discipline at the service of Life.
His paradigm-shifting reconceptualization poses questions to both classical Marxist-Socialist as well as Neo-Liberal economic ideologues, because he frames economics in holistic, non-linear systemic terms to pioneer what he has now calls a “Transdisciplinary Economics of Sustainability”. He is regarded by environmental activists as the founding father of ecological economics. This six-minute clip from one of his lectures explains why.
After the Pinochet military dictatorship ended in 1990, he was persuaded to run as an independent candidate in the 1993 presidential elections to spice up what he saw as a dreadfully simplistic political and macro- economic policy discourse. He knew he had no chance of winning, and was himself quite surprised that he even managed to make it onto the ballot (he had to produce a list of at least 100,000 voters who supported his candidacy). He managed that easily and garnered an impressive 5.5 % of votes which was enough to worry the prevailing political establishment. His support base came mainly from disillusioned young voters who recognised in him a truly original ‘out of the box’ thinker.
It was in November 1993, during his presidential campaign that I met him for the first time when he came to South Africa to be a keynote speaker at the Church and Development Conference organised by the SACC.
At least one current NEC member will remember him, Thoko Didiza. She was at the time Secretary General of the YWCA and served on the organising committee with me. She went on to make it on the ANC list of MP’s that served in the first parliament and rose up the ranks be appointed Minister of Land and Agricultural. (Hopefully one day I will have a chance to reflect with her, and remind her of some of what I thought we had learned together back then).
Back then some 3000 grassroots activists gathered to grapple with the anticipated challenges facing civil society once the first democratic elections were over. Manfred and I went on a roadshow to Cape Town and Durban to run seminars to explain the Human Scale Development methodology as a means of implementing the RDP and inspiring Truth and Reconciliation.
23 years on, and the conceptual lenses he imparted to me have intellectually sustained me in my social work career ever since.
The problem of power
In an essay titled “On the pruning of language” Manfred makes a conceptual distinction between “issues of primary and secondary relevance” and helpfully illuminates why the history of power is a tragic tale of muddling up the order of priority. He has some sobering words that may now cause more than a wince among ANC NEC members and MP’s, especially Thoko Didiza.
“We fight for options. However, when after opting, things do not work out the way we expected, it may be due to the fact that the chosen option was, without our being aware of it, of secondary relevance. This means that there must be (and we must look for it) an underlying option of primary relevance that has to be tackled first…”
“Obsessed as we seem to be with power we always believe that things will change (for the better, of course) once ‘we’ are in power (whoever that ‘we’ may be – ourselves or those who represent our feelings and beliefs). To believe something like this is, of course, quite naïve. If we look back in time, we will realise that at this stage all sorts of powers or combinations of powers have already been in power. Yet, as far as the growing human satisfaction and welfare are concerned, things do not seem to be improving very much, all these past exercises of power notwithstanding. The preoccupation as to who should be in power is an option of secondary relevance. The underlying question of primary relevance to be examined is what is the nature of power itself?”
He illustrates by making a distinction between power as the “capacity of control and manipulation by the person or group who has the force”, and authority as “the capacity of influence exercised by the person (or group) to whom legitimacy is granted because of recognised capacities and qualities”. They are quite different things. Power is imposed. Authority is earned. But politicians routinely fail to recognise the difference once their brains have become intoxicated by sustained dopamine secretions triggered by proximity to power. They get themselves into untold trouble as Nemesis inevitably follow Hubris, causing much harm to themselves, their families and all the rest of us who are oppressed by their manic misrule.
Also read: The Zuma Projection: Mad, Bad or Sad.
Are things going wrong because Jacob Zuma’s faction holds dominant power? Or are things going wrong because too many NEC members have erroneously equated power with authority?
After the bruising weekend confrontation, NEC members might find it therapeutic to ponder the following three questions:
- Reflecting on the ANC’s governance since 1994, what capacities and qualities gave the party legitimacy and therefore authority?
- What has happened to erode that authority?
- How can the ANC regain authority so that the electorate will entrust more power to the party in the next general election?
They might find it helpful to also take half an hour to watch this playlist from my YouTube channel, which includes a thirty-minute interview with Mark Heywood in which he explains what South Africa needs to be save from, and for.
After so doing, surely they must reach this inescapable conclusion: Jacob Zuma has become a massive liability to the ANC, and each day that he remains in office only provides further reason for opposition party leaders to pick up their pace as they laugh their way to the political bank.
- John GI Clarke is a social worker and author of “The Promise of Justice: King Justice Mpondombini Sigcau’s struggle to save the Kingdom of AmaMpondo against unjust developments”.