There are a lot of reasons right now to read or reread the works of Canadian author, Margaret Atwood.
Her 1985 theological dystopian novel The Handmaid’s Tale, recently brought to the screen as a miniseries, obtained fresh urgency in the light of the extraordinary US Supreme Court decision last week to remove the constitutional right to abortion, and in the process abandon 50 years of settled precedent.
In the Atwood novel, a totalitarian republic of Gilead allows a dictatorial regime to subjugate its women residents — called handmaids — who are confined to household roles and violently coerced to produce babies for the republic.
Hillary Clinton, an avowed foe of the conservative supermajority which now bestrides the US Supreme Court, told the Financial Times recently that “the level of insidious rule-making to further oppress women knows no end. You look at this and how could you not think that Margaret Atwood was a prophet? She’s not just a brilliant writer, she was a prophet.”
The practical effect of last week’s landmark ruling in Dobbs v Jackson Women’s Health Organization allows individual states to determine abortion policy and practice. Clinton cited one pro-life state which will require the woman to get the permission of her rapist before aborting, and others which plan to legislate the criminalisation of women who have the procedure in states where it is legal.
Clinton, who gave the interview after the majority judgment had been leaked, but before the full decision was published, also speculated that “if you go down the rabbit hole of far-right intellectuals, you see that birth control, gay marriage — all of that is at risk”.
In this remark she proved somewhat prophetic, given the majority concurring judgment in Dobbs last week, offered by Supreme Court justice Clarence Thomas. He wrote that all cases built on a similar legal footing such as Roe v Wade, which the Dobbs judgment overturned, should be revisited. These include cases that guarantee the right to contraception, same-sex consensual relations and gay marriage.
Incidentally, for the “transformationists” back home, who regularly cite the appointment of whites to certain positions as regressive without bothering to examine any underlying philosophical characteristics other than physiognomy, there might be pause for thought: Thomas, an ultraconservative, happens to be black.
Beyond noting how regressive this judgment is, and the dangers it signals to a raft of rights assumed to belong to individuals in an advanced modern democracy, I thought back the late 1980s when I was lecturing constitutional law at the University of Witwatersrand.
Perhaps “constitutional law” was too grand a subject title in a country then witnessing the end days of apartheid, which enshrined in its ruling instruments the supremacy of parliament to enact any laws it wished absent of few restraints on its reach, cementing the denial of rights of its citizens (or, in the case of the many black South Africans, non-citizens of the republic and forced citizens of bantustans). The absence of an enforceable bill of rights was the hallmark of apartheid SA, precisely the dystopian universe certain ANC eminences, such as KZN premier Sihle Zikalala and tourism minister Lindiwe Sisulu, wish to see resurrected now.
Our constitutional law course at Wits back in the day cured the defect of SA’s impoverished rights’ jurisdiction by offering enlightened examples of overseas countries where constitutional arrangements illuminated a path which hopefully our county would one day follow.
The US, and its Supreme Court back then, offered one such template. From racial equality pioneered by the landmark case of Brown v The Board of Education, to Roe v Wade, on women’s rights, its judgments proved that flexible modern thinking could extend rights which the same country, in a different age, had once abrogated.
Indeed, in the 1980s abortion was only available for “morally blameless women” to cite the description of academic Cathi Albertyn, when the terminated pregnancy was the result of rape or incest, or if medically indicated due to serious risks to either the mother or the foetus. Ironically, certain states today in the US do not even allow these limited exemptions to the no-abortion rule. The mind boggles that women under apartheid were better off, with limited abortion rights in the 1980s, than some women in certain states in the US are today 40 years later.
Last week’s US Supreme Court decision has been described as the culmination of a 50-year struggle by pro-life forces to offset the gains of the pro-choice movement, and its quest was ultimately successful due to the fact that one president, Donald Trump, managed in a single term to ensure that three of his nominees, constituting a third of the court, could cement a conservative majority on it. And unlike presidents who are strictly term limited, Supreme Court appointees stay for life.
But it is also a reflection of the smashing of consensus politics in the US, the rise of hyper partisanship and the erosion of what analysts term the “democratic centre”.
The same Margaret Atwood who gifted us The Handmaid’s Tale recently offered a clarion call on the importance of the “missing middle” in today’s politics and the scale of the challenges to achieve it.
In a speech in April this year, she said: “The moderate centre is a preferable place to live. There’s more respect for the individual, or that’s the idea. There’s at least some desire for human rights for everyone, or that too is the idea. There’s less fear. But the moderate centre is also the hardest place to defend. It lacks a big slogan. It lacks hordes of robotic followers. It’s untidy. It resists the homogeneous. And it is under attack from both extremes — right and left.”
Just how hard a swim it is for advocates of the moderate centre to prevail was brought home to me at the place where this column originates.
I am spending a few days in rural southwestern France, in the bucolic Minervois area of the Aude department, where vineyards are framed by medieval castles of old and wind turbines of the current era.
In the local constituency of Aude, where our village is situated, the recent French parliamentary elections saw the triumph of a candidate for the far-right National Rally party of Marine Le Pen. Her candidate convincingly beat the incumbent MP, who represented President Emmanuel Macron’s LREM party. No fewer than 89 candidates of Le Pen won seats, a tenfold increase from four years ago, robbing Macron of his parliamentary majority.
In fact the Macron candidate, representing in his president’s words “neither of the left or right”, did not even survive into the second round. Here it was a contest between two extremes: Le Pen’s man and the candidate of the far-left coalition, NUPES. The far-left coalition was recently cobbled together and led by ultra-left leader Jean-Luc Melenchon, whose own outfit is called “France Unbowed”, which tells you quite a lot.
Just how France, one of the longest settled democracies in the world, has changed is reflected in the fact that the once mighty French Socialist Party, which for decades alternated with the now reduced Gaullist Republican party to provide this country with its presidents, is a tiny component of the Melenchon coalition. In the recent presidential election, its candidate obtained a derisory 1.8% of the vote. Yet in this constituency in 1981, Socialist Party presidential candidate and election winner Francois Mitterrand obtained his highest total in the country with a 63% vote share.
I asked a French friend of mine for an explanation. She provided two: “The French hate Macron and only voted reluctantly for him in the second round because the left hated his opponent, Le Pen, even more. And you are seeing the disappearance of the centre and the rise of the extremes.”
From France to the US and now in Israel, where a centrist coalition government has collapsed, suggesting the return of a hard-right government soon, the moderate centre is under siege.
For South Africans who yearn for a post-ANC future, it is worth thinking hard about what comes to replace it and whether moderation or extremity will be the binding glue of the new order.
Tony Leon, a former leader of the opposition, now chairs Resolve Communications. @TonyLeonSA