South Africa


Building mutual solidarity in a time of callousness

Building mutual solidarity in a time of callousness

If we are to remove the legacies of the Jacob Zuma era we need to have a common understanding of what is entailed. It is not simply ending corruption and State Capture, important as these are. There are also ethical questions, relating to how we relate to one another with mutual respect, rebuilding ethics of solidarity and notions of concern for all human beings.

This article first appeared on Creamer Media’s website:

There is no doubt that the ANC leadership faces great challenges. Having relieved the country of the burden of the Jacob Zuma presidency, Zuma has nevertheless remained part of political life.

He has “gone”, but remains here. Unlike previous presidents, Zuma is using his right to attend ANC National Executive Committee meetings to monitor and thereby intimidate others and to influence discussions and decisions. No previous leader has regularly attended such meetings, election workshops and similar gatherings.

There is nothing inherently wrong about Zuma’s attendance, he has the right to do so as a former president. However, in his political speeches and actions, it is clear that Zuma is using this position not to build unity in the ANC or to rally people behind the programme of the current leadership of the country, but to further his own agenda, which entails mounting factional battles, as seen in his latest statements on State Capture and the Constitution.

He continues to figure in many people’s calculations, as one of those destabilising the Cyril Ramaphosa presidency, most recently in reports of an alleged secret meeting in Durban, plotting to remove Ramaphosa.

Ramaphosa, who was elected to the ANC presidency by a narrow margin, has to work closely with many people who were opposed to his leadership. This has constrained what he is able to do. But there needs to be a clear sense of purpose and adequate analysis of what must be eradicated, if the legacies of the Zuma era are to be reversed. Let us briefly revisit the values and practices, comprising Zumaism, that need to be removed.

Structural inequality derives from the colonial and apartheid eras. However, following the Polokwane Conference and the onset of Zuma’s presidency, South Africa’s programme to redress this legacy was interrupted by systematic diversion of funds meant for redress of a range of social ills. Corruption and State Capture under Zuma have contributed to the tardiness in addressing inequalities. The consequent depletion of resources available for social development has led to some of the gains of the early period of post-1994 democracy being set back.

When state machinery has been institutionally captured in order to primarily accommodate purposes other than those for which they are intended, cleaning them up and returning their orientation to that of their constitutionally defined purpose is a big challenge.

This is obviously the case in the National Prosecuting Authority and South African Police Services. For too long, they have been incapable or disinclined to conduct their work independently. This is seen in the case of the Guptas, who were allowed to escape beyond the reach of the criminal justice authorities and in the many other cases which they did not vigorously pursue.

The police services after 1994 inherited a tradition which was very different from that of professional policing in conventional democratic states, such as the UK. Police in South Africa are not inclined to carefully follow clues and gather evidence in order to bring offenders to book.

Under apartheid they had learnt to gather evidence or pseudo-evidence through violence and torture. Consequently, it was not only political prisoners who experienced torture, but people arrested for housebreaking or other offences. Some police stations were notorious for use of torture in common-law cases. Many of these practices survive.

There were efforts to demilitarise the police in the early years of democracy, which were discarded then brought back, albeit unevenly. The overall culture and practices of the police services remain only partially reconstructed, compared with that of the apartheid era. Undoubtedly there are many exemplary individuals dedicated to their work, but it will take much time within a clearly enforced mandate before the police are seen by the inhabitants of this country as dedicated to public service.

The dysfunctionality of the criminal justice system is part of wider cultural and systemic features of South African society that thrived or were embodied in the practices of the Zuma period. Unless politicians identify and address these we may see purging of boards and some individuals charged with corruption or State Capture, but the country will still not emerge as a place where people care about one another.

We will never see individuals understand that their own self-realisation is linked with the wellbeing of others. Let us consider some of the features that constitute obstacles in the way of achieving mutual respect and concern:

Culture of violence

South Africa is one of the most violent countries in the world. Despite the achievement of a democratic state through a negotiated settlement there is little patience with reasoning as a way of settling disputes.

Where people disagree in social life, whether in the home, in sport or politics, they are quick to resort to fists or weapons. What is more alarming is that in recent times it is very common to see this violence manifested extensively in schools, with teachers being beaten up or killed by pupils, or students attacking or killing one another.

The Zuma period was inaugurated in the shadow of and with emblematic features celebrating violence. It is insufficient to say that people have turned their backs on Zuma, if their practices remain violent or incite others to violence, whether over political demands or in social life.

The purge of Zumaism from our country’s life requires conviction on the importance of peace and non-violence and understanding that without peace there cannot be democracy. Peace is a word that does not sit well with those who equate valour with acts of physical force.

Mature politicians and the public need to work on changing that mindset and placing value on non-violence as a principle that needs to be embodied in all of our lives. This includes reorientation and commitment of the South African Police Services and other elements of the criminal justice system.

Violent masculinity

At the centre of Zuma’s rise to power was hyper patriarchy and the celebration of a specific manifestation of masculinity, that is, valorisation of aggressive, violent masculinity.

Does the repudiation of Zuma adequately relate Zumaism to gender? It is hardly mentioned. Unless that is done, unless the ingrained patriarchy in our society is addressed, we cannot expunge a crucial feature of Zumaism, that is patriarchal power and influence exercised by men and patriarchal women who occupy positions of power.

Callousness and absence of compassion

Zuma did not care and does not concern himself with sacrifices or suffering of people, so long as he benefits. That is why he and his ministers diverted a range of resources meant for the poor into their pockets or those of their close associates.

Defeating the Zuma project does not depend only on thwarting conspiracies that may be afoot to remove Cyril Ramaphosa. It requires more than safeguarding the democratic choices of leaders.

At the centre of recovery of the democratic project and the liberation ethic that inspired many to risk much or everything to fight apartheid, is an ethic of concern for one another, captured in the spirit of ubuntu and also in the Bill of Rights found in the Constitution.

We live in a time of callousness, when government is reckless in actions or inaction which led to deaths in Life Esidimeni and the Bank of Lisbon building fire, among others.

But it is also a time when we see around us acts of kindness and acts of individual and organised collective solidarity, where some — and they are sometimes many — choose to stand with the vulnerable and the poor.

This is part of the ethics of many religions and social and political doctrines. It is part of the ethics of many professions. It is how some people are raised to treat others.

It is our job to transmit that notion of interrelationship, mutuality and solidarity throughout our society, as a framework by which we evaluate all our actions. This is what we should expect and demand from the government and ourselves. DM

Raymond Suttner is a scholar and political analyst. He is a visiting professor and strategic adviser to the Dean of the Faculty of Humanities, University of Johannesburg, and emeritus professor at Unisa. He served lengthy periods in prison and house arrest for underground and public anti-apartheid activities. His prison memoir Inside Apartheid’s prison was reissued with a new introduction in 2017. He blogs at and his Twitter handle is @raymondsuttner


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