By Thomas Lesaffre
The present condition of the South African state has attracted a great deal of attention in recent years, with many questions raised about the failure of the post-apartheid state to both transform and deliver. While much of this attention has centred around perceptions of corruption, self-enrichment and state capture, there has been little attempt to integrate the lived experiences of municipal bureaucrats into this discourse, and even less to apply theory to analyse the internal workings of municipalities. This paper seeks to address that gap, by providing key insights from interviews with municipal officials in Mogalakwena Local Municipality during a period of great conflict and upheaval, and attempts to analyse the political manoeuvrings of the key players by applying Michel Foucault’s ‘micro-physical’ approach to power relations, and to analyse the consequences of such actions through a Foucauldian lens.
The Mogalakwena Local Municipality is the second largest municipality, called Mokopane, which is located in the rural northern Limpopo province, South Africa. The town bears the visible markers of a steadily accelerating mining boom, and during the course of our research, Ivanhoe Platinum Mines had just begun work on the sinking of two shafts. Mogalakwena has been the site of extensive institutional conflict. This centered on the mayor and the municipal manager, and was directly shaped by competing factions of the ANC at regional and provincial levels. This article focuses on a particularly violent period of the drama that unfolded at Mogalakwena, from late 2014 onwards, when the ousted mayor, Tlhalefi Mashamaite, staged a dramatic return to the municipality accompanied by police and bodyguards. The period ended mid-2015, when the mayor was finally recalled by the ANC. During this time, municipal officials experienced an office environment of extreme mistrust, felt they were being watched, and were confused about not only lines of reporting, but also their roles and responsibilities in their own positions. A team of researchers conducted interviews from 2015 to 2017 with a wide range of officials. Research visits continued since 2017. The team explored all tools of those who seek to establish a new regime of power, as described by Foucault.
Foucault’s analysis of institutions provides three tools that those seeking to enforce a shift in power employ, namely imposing (i) a regime of visibility, (ii) a regime of exclusion, and (iii) a regime of truth in the institution. All three of these tools were used by the ousted mayor, Mashamaite, when he sought to assert his authority over those loyal to the municipal manager, Willy Kekana, a dispute which formed part of a larger conflict between regional and provincial ANC structures (see Phadi, Pearson and Lesaffre 2018). By applying Foucauldian concepts to this case study, this paper could pave the way for further such research into their application to power disputes as experienced from the inside.
The Foucauldian ‘toolbox’: ‘micro-physics’ of power and institutions
First, however, we need to introduce some of the key concepts that will be used to understand how the incoming faction of the mayor sought to discipline municipal workers who were ranged against him. The techniques they used to attempt to co-opt the ‘disobedient’ officials into the new regime and therefore secure their positions in municipal leadership could be understood within the Foucauldian framework of institutional disciplinarity.
In order to understand Foucault’s ‘micro-physics of power’ as it pertains to the conflict in Mogalakwena Local Municipality, and draw conclusions on the meaning of the experience of bureaucrats, it is necessary to discuss his idea of the regimes of visibility, exclusion and truth by exploring three interdependent concepts: institutions, power, and the subject.
There are two distinct moments in Foucault’s analysis of institutions. In Historie de la Folie (1961) (Madness and Civilization: a history of insanity in the age of reason) and Naissance de la Clinique (1963) (The Birth of the Clinic: an archaeology of medical perception), he demonstrated how new understandings of the functioning of the body and mind within the scientific communities of clinical medicine and psychiatry
started to be brought into medical institutions by practitioners. In hospitals and mental institutions, these new discourses and narratives quickly became the mainstream understanding of the functioning of the human body, which in turn legitimised new medical practices that had not been done before. Thus, when the new understandings legitimised new practices, they deployed new regimes of visibility – that is, what could be seen being done in the hospital – and, through this, they produced new forms of ‘truth’. Likewise, we will show how new narratives were built, constructed and enforced inside the Mogalakwena municipality as each newly installed mayor attempted to control the ‘truth’ by encouraging discourses and narratives that legitimised new institutional practice in new relations of power.
The second moment came during the 1970s, when Foucault made a study of disciplinary institutions (1975) and developed a more nuanced understanding of the issues at work in them. For him, institutions have to be studied through the lens of the ‘micro-physics’ of power which he explains as follows:
I prefer to study … [a] student position[ed] … in front of his teacher, the way he dresses, points to the board, or stands in front of teacher authority, rather than studying the learning goals of schools and their role in the rise of moral citizenship. (Foucault 1975:178-9)
More than the school’s self-understanding, Foucault pushes the researcher to look at the ‘recipient’ of this power – that is, the subject body. This approach enabled Foucault to conceptualise the gap between institutional discourse and the reality of power as understood by the target of the teacher’s power, the subject. He further developed the idea that power has three characteristics and should be viewed with these issues in mind. Firstly, power is not stable but is constantly going through phases of composition and recomposition; secondly, power is omnipresent – it always intrudes in social relations; and, thirdly, it spreads, as it disseminates into the mental and the physical arenas.
In a methodology that looks to the ‘micro-physics’ of power, rather than the institution’s own self-discourse, Foucault requires the researcher to explore power techniques that are common to all institutions. Thus, the subject is included in the relations of power as an actor with agency, as opposed to a victim that power is exerted upon:
The historical moment of the disciplines was the moment when an art of the human body was born, which was directed not only at the growth of its skills, nor at the intensification of its subjection, but at the formation of a relation that in the mechanism itself makes it more obedient as it becomes more useful. Conversely, what was then being formed was a policy of coercion that acts upon the body, a calculated manipulation of its elements, its gestures, its behaviour. The human body was entering the machinery of power that explores it, breaks it down and rearranges it. (Foucault 1975:137-8, emphasis in the original)
Foucault states that the goal of power is not to discipline or oppress the victim, but rather to manipulate the subject into accepting domination. According to Alpozzo, ‘While reading Foucault, the reader realises that the role of power is to discipline its subject, using fine political techniques such as body policing and the exertion of discipline without the subject’s understanding its necessity. We realise that the level of analysis required by Foucault is a micro-physics of power’ (Alpozzo 2005).
It is by creating a marginal, ‘outsider subject’ – the mad, the delinquent
– that we can observe more clearly the specific norms which govern the behaviour and expectations imposed upon the whole social body by an institution. Therefore, in Foucault’s approach, the excluded subject – that is, the deviant, or the rejected – becomes the site of micro-power scale analysis, at the very entry gates of institutions. This is not to deny the role that institutions play in power relations, but rather to suggest that we should analyse the institution from the perspective of the subject, and not according to the institution’s own narrative or that of the one seeking power. It will thus be more useful to examine the behaviour and the experiences of the subject within the institution than it is to examine the institutional narratives.
More than a constant imposition from above, power is to be understood in the way it shapes its subject. As will become clear, the question of what the subject can do while being ruled by a new power, is central to understand the damaging effect of the politics of the body.
Foucault further argues that power should be understood with a triple approach of technique, heterogeneity of technique, and the effects of continuous subjugation.2 In this process, Foucault points us to the relationship between heterogeneous power techniques and their effect on the subject. The choices and behaviour of the subject are restricted through a heterogeneity of power techniques, which each have specific effects on the subject.
The first category of techniques we explore has a single aim: to shape a new ‘regime of visibility’ inside bureaucratic institutions – that is, what new things can be seen or be seen to be done in the institution beyond the simple explanation that it is ‘corrupt’. Newly installed power aims to open new channels of visibility in what it considers as central departments to control. As we will discover in the analysis section of this paper, these channels take on different forms, mainly through deployment in key departments or the installation of a surveillance network, among others.
The second set of techniques presents itself as an assemblage or collection of disciplinary techniques which tend to both organise and order participation through formal and informal practices of exclusion. Amongst other tools, state legislation and institutional policy become tools in enforcing this ‘regime of exclusion’.
The third set of techniques seeks to coerce officials to remain loyal to the institution’s old form of management notwithstanding the implementation of the new power structure. In so doing, power shifts from a dynamic of discipline to one of subjugation. In the analysis section of this article, we will investigate new rituals of confession, which were used to create a new ‘regime of truth’ within the institution.
As a researcher studying institutions such as clinics, schools and prisons, Foucault observed how emerging discourses and narratives legitimise new practice within those institutions. In Mogalakwena, during our fieldwork, the idea of new practice was present in most interviews and informal conversation with municipal officials. New ways of doing and being had to be adopted in order to stay within the changing institution. Some could not visit their friends anymore, while other were not invited to key meetings and had to stay in their offices with no work to do. Foucault observed that the evolution of practice within an institution is usually correlated with a new regime of visibility which offers the new institutional power the capacity to discipline, while a new regime of truth will cement the new power relations.
A municipality in turmoil
When reporting on South African municipalities, the media is naturally attracted to sensationalism. Headlines about corrupt leadership, political in-fighting, grandstanding and illicit dealings dominate the coverage, leaving an impression of an incompetent and unqualified bureaucracy. Unfortunately, this leaves little room for the stories of the everyday experience of the professional bureaucrat, the municipal official in rank-and-file positions who see to the daily functioning of the institution.
From 2015 to 2017, a researcher team conducted extensive interviews with former mayors, senior managers, division heads and various other middle rank and acting officials. Additional follow-up interviews were conducted with social movement activists and over the years we have continued to track ongoing events and undertaken several site visits (see, for instance, Phadi et al 2018). Opportunity has been offered to the team to conduct fieldwork observation, over a few weeks, and access the municipal archives. In the interests of anonymity, not all respondents have been identified, although their responses have informed our findings. Those who are named are those identified in the public domain through newspaper reports and court documents.
Indeed, a strong critique of the stereotypical portrayals of state officials emerges from PARI’s fieldwork in Mogalakwena Local Municipality. While the roles of prominent and powerful local political actors in Council and the administration of the municipality were explored, researchers were also interested in the experiences of lower- and middle- ranking bureaucrats in a period of extreme instability at the institution.
But what happened in Mogalakwena Local Municipality that made it worthy of Foucauldian scrutiny? How did the institution of the municipality arrive at such an intense power struggle so as to create a toxic working environment for its professional bureaucrats?
The violence which accompanied the return of Mashamaite, Mogalakwena’s ousted mayor, must be seen as the culmination of a long- brewing political crisis that had begun five years earlier – with the disputed appointment of Willy Kekana as municipal manager (see Phadi et al 2018, and Pearson in this issue). As explained earlier, this dispute formed part of a larger contest between regional and provincial ANC structures (see Phadi et al 2018). By the time Mashamaite returned, the municipal council and the ANC had been split in two – a pro-Kekana and a pro-Mashamaite faction. The latter faction was prevented from entering the municipality by security guards hired by the municipal manager; they instead held the ‘council meetings’ in a local hotel. The pro-Kekana faction continued reporting at the municipality as armed guards stalked its corridors and the council chambers. The Kekana faction had summarily expelled the mayor and his supporters, appointing, instead, their own mayor, but without any backing from the provincial and regional ANC. Furious, the provincial ANC had in turn announced the expulsion of the councillors that supported Kekana, who refused to vacate their seats.
This was the context in which the ousted mayor, Mashamaite, returned to the municipal buildings accompanied by police and private security guards. Included in this protection unit was the then deputy provincial police commissioner, Berning Ntlemeza. The first task after seizing the building was to swear nine new ANC councillors into office. This was intended as the final act in expelling the rogue Kekana councillors from office. As was reported, the episode was both violent and brutal: ‘On 24 November, 2014, members of the SAPS acting on the instructions of the anti-Kekana faction cordoned off all the entrances and exits to the municipal buildings at approximately 16h00 … [municipal officials who witnessed the ordeal reported] … that the police proceeded to use tear gas and rubber bullets to forcibly expel employees and the security guards appointed by the Kekana-faction were ordered to leave’ (Mokapane and 160 others v. Mogalakwena Local Municipality, 244/15, 2015).
Unsurprisingly, this was followed by a period of acute instability which ran from November, 2014, to June, 2015 – the immediate focus of this article. Following Mashamaite’s return, 160 officials undertook strike action3 and gathered in the neighbouring municipal library where, together with their managers, they reported for duty every day. Willy Kekana, the municipal manager, sought to reassure his staff that they would return to their offices soon, insisting that the mayor’s actions were illegal, expressing confidence that the actions of Mashamaite and his supporters would be overturned through a court order. However, Kekana was suspended by a vote of the newly-constituted Council on December 4, 2014, and on December 8, 2014, the member of the provincial executive council for Cooperative Governance, Human Settlement and Traditional Affairs named a young official from the department with little experience, Phuledi Selepe, to act in Kekana’s stead. Selepe issued calls for the workers, who were gathered in the library, to return to their offices, but as a spokesperson for municipal workers told a local newspaper: ‘It is not safe to return … We will go back once the buildings and site have been thoroughly searched and can be declared safe’ (Capricorn Voice December 12, 2014).4
After more than 90 days of operating from the library, listening day after day to arguments against Mashamaite and his followers, a court judgement instructed all the officials to return to municipal duties – but Mashaimate remained as the mayor.
When the PARI research team arrived to conduct their study at the municipality in March, 2015, they encountered a profoundly unstable environment where workers seemed troubled, even paranoiac. Just days before their arrival, a local taxi operator and known supporter of the Mogalakwena Residents Association (MRA) – which supported Willy Kekana, the municipal manager – had been shot dead. A man widely perceived to be an ally of the mayor was arrested and later found guilty of murder. It is important to note that the killer owned a security company that had been awarded contracts by the municipality during the mayor’s term of office.
The atmosphere did not fail to have an effect on the PARI researchers. In town, when the perpetrators were due to appear in court, they witnessed protests organised by the MRA which shut down the town and was met with heavy police presence around the magistrate’s court and municipal premises. One morning, the PARI researchers were awoken by the sound of helicopters flying overhead and police sirens echoing through the streets of the small town.
Inside the corridors of the municipal buildings, the researchers encountered an environment of profound fear and uncertainty that could easily be described as toxic. One of the researchers who was scrutinising the municipal records strong room reported that officials frequently gathered in there to exchange gossip on the latest developments in the council in hushed tones. He was told by one clerk, ‘If you see us running, you must run too’ (see Pearson 2019).
Attending a meeting held in the mayoral chambers, the PARI researchers were introduced as students from Wits University by a member of the executive committee who was known to be an ally of the mayor. In his introduction he declared: ‘Don’t believe the rumours you have heard about them’. Only later would the meaning of this become clear, upon discovery that it was widely speculated that the team were agents of the old municipal manager, with a mission to spy on the new institutional regime. In a queue to get food one day, a councillor who supported the mayor jokingly asked where the researchers lived, ‘… so that we know where to send your bodies back’.
Even for the researchers, with little connection to the institution beyond an academic interest, the environment was profoundly unsettling. For many officials interviewed, reporting for duty every morning had become an extremely difficult and often traumatising ordeal, facing complicated predicaments and unnavigable lines of authority.
Mogalakwena as an ‘assemblage of disciplinary techniques’: from a new ‘regime of visibility’ to a new ‘regime of exclusion’
In an attempt to return the municipality to functionality, a range of techniques were used in an effort to ‘normalise’ the situation by disciplining (a Foucauldian term) the returning municipal workers. As we will see in the following section, the end of the strike was an opportunity for the incoming political leadership to re-engineer the ‘micro-physical’ reality of power relations in the municipality along Foucauldian lines. Its goal was to return officials to their desks, to coerce them into accepting the changed political reality, and to follow instructions from the new leadership. As one senior official explained: ‘Nothing has been done properly during the strike. The political wing needed the administration to come back and to be functional’ (interview, electrical manager, Mokopane, July 2015).
Whereas one might expect the newly established ruling power to exact revenge or unleash violent suppression upon those who had been disloyal and who as such had potential to retaliate, counterintuitively, the relatively peaceful environment observed after officials reintegrated into the municipality should be understood as a way in which power and control over municipal bureaucrats was reasserted. According to Foucault’s ‘micro-physical’ approach to power, the subtle ways in which the ruling power controls the behaviours of its subjects by changing the environment in which they work are in some ways far more effective for the fact that they co-opt the subjects’ participation into legitimising the new power relations without triggering outright rebellion. The end of the strike offers the first lens through which we could approach the ‘micro-physical’ reality of power and the re-enforcement of power on ‘targeted’ bureaucrats, namely those involved in the strike. The goal was no longer to use force to prevent officials from entering the building, but rather to return them to their desks so they (and their skills) became accountable to the new political agenda.
For the purposes of this paper, the techniques used by those in power to create a ‘regime of exclusion’ will be discussed first, after which we will examine those used to impose a ‘regime of visibility’, and then, in the final section, the emergence of a ‘regime of truth’ will be examined.
The new municipal management needed to end the strike in order to return the municipality to functionality. The tactic was not to punish them, but rather to subjugate these officials to the authority of the new regime. On several occasions, these municipal officials attempted to enter the building, they were however, denied access to their offices by the authority of the new mayor under the pretext that they had to be reregistered ‘inside the system’. 5 In other words, they could not let them in without reinforcing the power of the new authority. The following quote is how an official who was present that day explained the situation:
I remember on the 21st, when we came back inside the office and they ordered us to stay outside. The municipal manager didn’t even come to us, so we sat the whole day and nobody came to address us. (Interview, Legal Services Division, Mokopane, July 2015)
By making these ‘deviant’ officials literally sit at the gates of the institution in the blazing heat of the sun, with no purpose other than to wait for someone from the ruling authority who may or may not come, the dominant power sought not only to assert their authority, but more importantly, to make the striking officials aware of their place in the new regime. They were brought into subjugation – that is, made into subjects
– so that, even though they knew and the new ruling power knew that they were necessary for the municipality to function, they were not so necessary as to be respected. The message was clear: if they wanted to keep their jobs, they had better fall in line.
By debarring the officials from entering the building, and making them wait outside on a hot day in the sun, the mayor and his allies reinforced their control on the way individuals could act within their space through enforcing a ‘regime of exclusion’. Eventually, most of the officials entered their offices – one after another – in the days that followed, without any clear idea of their fate. It later became clear that the ‘reregistration’ issue was irrelevant, used only to create a situation where officials felt they were targeted as outsiders. The demarcation between ‘good’ bureaucrats and the ‘deviant’ bureaucrats in terms of the subject power exerted became clearer than ever. Inside were the good subjects who had accepted the new municipal power, and outside, standing in the sun, were the subjects in need of subjugation. The silent treatment used by the ruling power added to the fear the officials had already experienced. For them, it was interpreted as a way for the new authority to exert itself, and a warning not to resort to collective or negotiated solutions to the impasse. They were explicitly not included in decisions on the way forward. This was a necessary first step on the way to ‘creating’ and ‘shaping’ the subject.
Exclusion extended beyond entry into the building. This could be observed in the suspension and manipulation of recruitment practices as well. In the aftermath of the strike, there was a high rate of suspensions. During our interviews, one of the respondents claimed that one of the councillors was walking around with a list of candidates to be appointed. In addition, in the interview with a senior official, who at that time was also the acting manager of corporate services, admitted that recruitment processes could be deviated from, and that the appointment of any person could be justified through official channels such that it would appear legitimate.
Furthermore, managers, including human resources managers, were not included in or even informed of posts being advertised, or indeed new recruitments, while other key positions remained vacant and unbudgeted for. As one HR manager confessed:
Anything which has to do with HR, as a responsible person, as a custodian, I need know and endorse but sometimes it’s hard in the sense that when something happened … The shortlisting will be done without my involvement … I am not involved in recruitment and selection, I only partake when the appointment for section 57 managers where I will be scribing is where I am involved but basically the advertisement of positions, I am not involved. Even those section 56, the position will be advertised and for enquiries you will be surprised to hear people phoning … It’s a practice … for somebody she see it as normal … it’s the overall operation …. (Interview, human resources manager, April 2015)
The same HR manager reported that her core functions in the institution were being systematically and strategically taken away from her, such that she was unsure as to what her role was now supposed to be. Despite being highly experienced and qualified for her position, she describes being purposefully alienated and excluded from the work of the institution after her participation in the strike. She describes the insubordination of her juniors, and how it impacted on her work:
I say oversee but the way things are being done in Mogalakwena is not in that fashion because hierarchy of authority is not observed, that is my observation. My subordinate will go directly to my [manager]. It’s a practice because you find that positions will be advertised without you knowing, you will be surprised to see them on the mailing list and for somebody who is there, o bona okare [they think] it’s normal practice and it seems like it is a practice that has been there and for me it frustrates me more because I am not used to this kind of operation or behaviour. (Interview, human resources manager, April 2015)
Through irregular intervention into human resources operations, the ruling powers made her presence irrelevant. All decision-making power was thus claimed by the ruling powers:
I’m meant to write invoices for attorneys. But some of the invoices are being processed without my knowledge, the only things I see is the legal vote being exhausted. And when I inquire they just tell me that they’ve paid this person so much. I don’t know, they took so many people I don’t know and I could not take responsibility, I haven’t been involved. The MM is the person who has the final say, so he doesn’t actually need my consent. It’s up to him whether to involve me or not … I can’t force him to. (Interview, human resources manager, April 2015)
After the strike, many officials reported having nothing to do in their offices, or not being properly oriented into their new roles which could be seen as being set up for failure and thus dismissal. One departmental head was new to his position, having been appointed in December 2014, after the previous departmental head left during Mashamaite’s takeover. This meant that the new official was forced to start his position without any induction:
He is alone, there was not even a handover, orientation, he was supposed to be orientated about what the division [does] because the one who was there before, she started the unit from scratch and she was still alone so there was supposed to be a smooth handover and it was not done. (Interview, Division Integrated Development Plan, April 2015).
High turnover in senior management positions seemed to be another strategy to induce instability and exclude officials from the proper performance of their functions. It meant that although some were unsure as to their role and had little to do, others were performing the roles of three or more people. After the dismissal of two senior managers and the suspension of another, a departmental head observed:
[The dismissals and suspension have had] a very serious impact in terms of the smooth running of the organisation and remember, in the three positions that we are having, the other three were still vacant which meant that six positions were vacant… We managed to appoint [a new CFO and manager of Planning and Development] somewhere in July… but because of this instability they are now suspended. It means that will affect the day-to-day operations because suspension does not only have an effect on the person per se. It will have an effect on those who are within the organisation, remember they will have to appoint people to act in that position and that person must do his or her job and the job of whoever is on suspension and that basically will have a serious impact in morale… (Interview, Human Resources Division, April 2015)
One interviewee reported being explicitly excluded from key meetings:
I am a part of council but if there is a council meeting I am not invited – I don’t get an agenda … I [have] lodged a complaint to the municipal manager [but he] does not respond … I can’t impose myself. When I came back in March, I asked for a handover on everything that has transpired when I was not here … I didn’t receive anything, I can’t do anything. We just hear the rumours [that] there was a council meeting [and] I was supposed to be invited, but I haven’t been invited. I didn’t get the agenda. I asked the municipal manager but he didn’t respond to me. I asked my manager, and he didn’t respond. They’re ignoring me. … I wanted them to tell me what are my responsibilities. (Interview, Legal Services Division, July 2015)
Processes of recruitment and dismissal were used to create an environment in which no one could be sure of the security of their position, or indeed what the function of their position ought to be. Those who had participated in the strike reported feeling specifically targeted for this kind of intervention and exclusion, such that one reported: ‘They just try to make my life difficult’ (interview, Human Resources Division, July 2015).
Through who is included and who is excluded, the ruling power created an environment of confusion and instability, in which the officials’ only option was to strive to distance themselves from the ‘bad’ group who had been loyal to the former regime, and to instead make efforts to affiliate themselves to the ‘good’ group of the new ruling power.
We return now to Foucault’s concept of the ‘regime of visibility’. By attempting to engineer what could be seen in the physical space of the municipal buildings, the incoming power sought to impose its authority through constant, visible reminders of who was in control. He (the incoming mayor) understood that to control the bureaucrats was to control the municipality, and so he embarked upon a campaign of subtle intimidation through visible security and surveillance. For instance, he asserted his legitimacy over his early rival for the title of mayor, William Mabuela, by occupying the space of the municipal buildings with a semi- private army of 27 bodyguards, who were paid by the municipality, who accompanied him everywhere to ensure that his authority would not be challenged. Having troops of bodyguards in the municipal corridors was a departure from what is normally expected to be seen there, causing an unsettling atmosphere without directly interfering with the work of the municipal officials.
But how and why does building this ‘regime of visibility’ work in shaping power relations? In his masterly study of penitentiary architecture, Foucault (1975) developed an analysis of power through the use of the gaze. He proposes a ‘Panopticon’ – a building that represents a shift in the mechanism of social control. The Panopticon is composed of an annular building circling a tower; the peripheral building is divided into cells for the inmates which each have a window facing out of the building and another facing the tower, such that the backlighting would allow anyone within the tower to see all the inmates.
In this way, Foucault argues, the architecture represents the ultimate attempt to watch and to see, in order to re-educate and reshape the ‘marginal’ – namely, those incarcerated. The Panopticon succeeds because the prisoner, under 24-hour scrutiny, is aware of being watched such that his behaviour changes. His ‘body’ – and controlling it – becomes the ultimate subject of power through the act of the gaze. This understanding helped Foucault to develop the notion of the ‘regime of visibility’, in which he positioned ‘the visible’ in its relation to the power to govern. He developed an idea of power as both a physical and a mental intrusion. He found that power, in its attempt to subjugate, needs a volunteer to assure visibility. The result was the internalisation of the watchtower’s gaze, such that the prisoner became his own overseer.
The idea of discipline includes a function of normalisation that tends, on the one hand, to homogenise, an institution, a space, and time. On the other hand, it individualises, creates and organises distance between people, and regulates their inter-connection. Therefore discipline has to be seen not as a negative function or sanction but on the contrary as a positive force of incitation. (Ottaviani 2001: 61)
The deployment of a new regime of visibility in Mogalakwena became central to power surveillance in the aftermath of the crisis. What could the power see? More importantly what technique was deployed to scrutinise it? What was made visible that was invisible before?
The Mogalakwena municipality operates out of two principal buildings. The older one is staffed by the bureaucrats; situated in front of it, the newer one houses the Council’s and politicians’ offices as well as those of senior management. The building housing the bureaucrats remains, therefore, far from politicians’ surveillance. However, some techniques had to be deployed to make visible the invisible, and to re-inscribe the presence of the new power into a contested space.
Mashamaite and the ruling power were aware of the power that the feeling of being watched can have on an individual, particularly one already uncomfortable in their surroundings. In a corridor in the municipal buildings, passers-by would be able to see a man sitting on a chair, the positioning of which gave a strategic view of the corridor where the officials of the Finance Department have their office. As he had no apparent function, one interviewee thought that the man in the chair was there to report to the mayor and his team about who was talking to whom, and who was spending time in which offices. As Foucault explained, this was ‘to induce in the inmate a state of conscious and permanent visibility that assures the automatic functioning of power’ (Foucault 1975:201). The presence of the man caused those bureaucrats who were involved in the strike to avoid speaking to each other publicly while at work. Once again, the situation created the conditions to divide the ‘good’ subjects from the ‘bad’ ones, and reinforce clear ideas of how to behave within the workplace. There was no need for the ‘inmates’ to actually be watched: what was important was that they did not know when they were being watched. So it is that the ‘gaze’ was a mechanism to enforce power upon a certain ‘deviant’ group of subjects, isolated from the rest of the municipality by long corridors and a reinforced door.
However the municipal archives, situated in a space without any windows where people did not often pass, offered a place to gather, and gossip outside of ‘the gaze’ (Pearson 2019)..
This new regime of visibility had a decided impact on officials who had participated in the strike because they felt isolated within the institution. For people who were working during that period, talking in public with a striker could become a problem. As one confessed, ‘People that I have had very, very good relations, working relationships with, are now basically ignoring me completely’ (interview, electrical manager, July 2015).
By developing a surveillance assemblage inside bureaucrats’ offices, the new ruling power ensured that the ideas brought by the previous municipal manager and his councillor followers, as well as the name of the men who brought these ideas, disappeared from the institution and from its workplace discourse.
This research has not found any clear directive from the ruling power to isolate or avoid talking to people who were previously striking, but the interactions observed during our fieldwork within the institution suggest the rise of a culture of silence among officials. This includes whom you could or could not speak to, and who you should or should not work with. In this case, talking, exchanging and being seen in public with officials involved in the strike were not viable options. In Foucauldian terms, the new political regime deployed the regime of visibility to subjugate their officials. This was based on the imbalance between what was seen (that is, the visible), and what was not seen (that is, the invisible intention), and between what was heard or spoken and what was concealed and considered to be secret. By imposing a new regime of visibility, symbolised by the man in his corridor chair, the new municipal power ensured an intersection between space and time control.
The deployment of this ‘regime of visibility’ inside the municipality allowed for a view into the officials’ physical movement, exposing a process of subjugation. By deploying a new line of visibility within the institution, the power coalition (made up of the new mayor and his allies) reshaped what could be seen. He had chosen a new space of visibility for his action.
The emergence of a new ‘regime of truth’
Through literally excluding striking officials at the gates of the municipality, the manipulation of recruitment and dismissal, the interference in the performance of officials’ roles, and the use of surveillance to control behaviour and association, the ruling powers created an environment in which a wrong word or a careless utterance may mean exclusion, suspension, dismissal, or worse. It became important that the correct narratives were adhered to, at least in public. In a sense, a ‘new truth’ had emerged, and Orwell’s Big Brother was certainly watching, or more accurately, listening. Imposing Foucault’s ‘regime of truth’ was the ultimate method to secure control of the municipal workers, and thus the municipality.
Whether the previously striking officials genuinely believed it or not, in order to keep their place in the institution, they had to speak the ‘truth’ as written by those in power: that Mashamaite and his allies were, and always had been, the only legitimate leaders in the municipality. Moreover, they had to be seen to actively reject their former opinions on their legitimacy by expressing regret at having participated in the strike. So, during a public meeting related to municipal developmental policy, a manager who was involved in the strike acted as an agent of the new truth. Asserting his commitment to work with the new team, as well as his new understanding of the striking period, he affirmed that the strike had been a ‘little speed bump’ that had prevented the municipality from functioning according to expectations.
However, privately, that same official told a different story to the interviewers:
…the speed hump, administratively, it had a very serious damage. I even cited an example in terms of the administration, the set up now, that to show that it has had a huge damage, you can see everybody is acting, acting. And this process can’t work well…And also the steering committee, the whole committee is new, only one month old. That is what I was trying to emphasise when I said in terms of administration it had a huge impact, that speed hump. To recover from that situation, you need six years. (Interview, Supply Chain Management Department, July 2015)
For many formerly striking officials, the interviews conducted by the PARI research team became ‘confessionals’, an opportunity for them to express their allegiance to the ‘new truth’.
During one interview, a bureaucrat recognised his mistake in participating in the strike and showed his commitment to get back to work. He approached the interview as if the researchers were power-affiliated investigators. Off the record, however, he recognised the difficulty of working in the toxic environment. It was clear that he saw the presence of a recorder as a direct link between the new mayor and himself, and was using it to express the ‘truth’ that the ruling powers needed to hear and required him to speak (interview, Budget Department, July 2015).
It became clear through the interviews with former strikers that it was irrelevant whether their declaration of the ‘new truth’ was genuine or not. What mattered was that it was being expressed, and what mattered more was that one was being seen to express it by those affiliated to the ruling powers, or better still, by the ruling powers themselves. Such public expression was essential for their continued survival within the institution of the municipality.
Every interviewee we spoke to reported a feeling of unease, mistrust, and constant surveillance that not only interfered with their ability to perform their duties, but also created the need to distance themselves from the ‘bad’ striking group, and affiliate themselves with the ‘good’ ruling power if they wanted to be secure in their position. Some reported a lack of motivation to perform their duties: ‘At this moment since November, I will tell you that I am doing the job but I am not as motivated as I used to be’ (interview, Budget Department, July 2015).
Still others felt that the situation was unbearable: ‘Honestly, if I had a choice I would not be here, if an opportunity came for me to leave I will take it, even if it’s with a lower salary’ (Interview, Division of Legal Services, July 2015).
This atmosphere and the reactions to it were specifically engineered and did not occur by accident. If, instead of taking a Foucauldian micro- physical approach, we took what the institution said about itself to be truth, we would have a story of difficult employees, stubbornly loyal to an illegitimate leader, and a peaceful solution to their illegitimate strike action by the true legitimate leadership. It is, however, by analysing the lived experience of the subjects, taking seriously their descriptions of feeling watched, of being excluded and of the creation and enforced acceptance of new narratives or ‘truths’, that we can see deeper into the deliberate machinations of those in power to subjugate who they see as a group of wayward, disobedient officials by employing new regimes of visibility, exclusion and truth.
Foucault chose to look at power relations within institutions such as clinics, schools and prisons. This paper has taken his ideas, and applied them to a municipal institution, fraught with complicated (and problematic) relationships of power, casting new light onto an already extensively researched conflict. It is through placing the occurrences in Mogalakwena in a Foucauldian framework that we can see how this particular conflict may share commonalities with other institutional conflicts. As has been stated, the conflict at Mogalakwena was inextricably linked to a power struggle between ANC factions at regional and provincial levels, which in turn may be reflective of even broader political struggles within the country. This paper can thus hopefully open other pathways to the further application of Foucault’s ideas on power relations to similar sites of institutional struggle, that otherwise might have been dismissed as merely further evidence of corrupt leadership and self-enrichment in South African politics.
- The contribution of Melissa Nefdt in the preparation of this paper is gratefully acknowledged.
- The French word is sometimes translated into English as ‘subjectivization’ (Kelly 2010). This less-used translation is technically correct, because subjectivization is the noun from the French verb subjectiver, which in English is ‘subjectivize’. There is no corresponding verb in the English language.
- Some senior managers, mid-level and junior staff participated on the strike.
- It can be inferred that the official felt physical harm will occur to them if they returned to their offices.
- We are going to use the term ‘ruling power’ to describe the mayor and his Different actors joined and left what should be seen as a flawed alliance. However, this secret and polymorph aspect of the alliances participated in the regime of truth dynamics that we attempt to describe. If during all the fieldwork we never knew who was part of ‘the ruling power’, officials targeted by or excluded from ‘the alliances’ knew they were seen or portrayed as ‘outsiders’. More than knowing who was part of the ‘ruling power’, who was working hand in hand with the Mogalakwena major, we can observe the ‘negative’ of it – who was excluded.
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