South Africa


Breaking with Zumaism

Breaking with Zumaism
Photo: Raymond Suttner

It is true that whoever leads the ANC and the country operates with constraints, related to debt and also divisions within the ANC. But has the Ramaphosa-led leadership done what it could, within the constraints, to address the problems of the country? Has it taken the practical steps needed to address pressing issues such as land or has it succumbed to populist rhetoric?

This article first appeared on Creamer Media’s website:

The hope has been repeatedly expressed that the onset of Cyril Ramaphosa’s presidency of the ANC and the country would represent a break with the Zuma period. To have a new dawn, it has been said, would see the end of the long night of Zumaism, in effect, a new beginning. For that to happen there would need to be a complete break with Zumaism, more than simply the removal of individuals.

In order to effect a rupture of that kind, the qualities of Zumaism would need to be clearly articulated. That has never been done. We know that it signifies State Capture and corruption, on which there is a significant focus, and important clean ups of state-owned entities have been set in motion or implemented.

But little else, apart from robbing the state, is articulated as comprising the character of the Zuma period. Insofar as qualities are not identified they can easily simply remain, as features of contemporary South Africa.

The Zuma project has been a broad-ranging systematic and anti-democratic process, entailing not only siphoning wealth from the state to enrich Zuma and his associates. Its anti-democratic and anti-constitutional qualities have extended into gender, culture and the generally militaristic tone and practices. All of these and other features have undermined constitutional rights and governance.

In many cases these characteristics are interconnected, though each also requires independent examination in order to understand what it is that they represent in their impact on different sectors of society.

Depleting of resources, through pillage, has greatly increased the debt and set limits on what can be done to address continuing inequality. Some of the effects are seen in cutbacks from social spending, in the provinces and nationally. With consignment to junk status it is hard to attract investment. Former president Zuma’s unilateral announcement of free education exacerbated the debt crisis.

The numbers of people admitted to educational institutions have increased substantially, at all levels, since 1994. But the qualities of the educational system, from top to bottom, have demonstrated serious weaknesses.

At the level of schools there is the scandal of failure to provide safe and durable infrastructure conducive to learning, the continued uncertainty about the arrival of textbooks and many other factors that are antagonistic to a learning environment. Not all of this is due to inadequate funding, for in many cases, the available funds have been diverted or — through bureaucratic inaction — have not been spent.

At a tertiary level, many universities draw most or some of their students from the poorest section of the population and NSFAS and other resources that fund their studies are insufficient to meet all their needs.

Many report being hungry. Where they are not accommodated at the university, which is the case in many institutions, they often have to choose between using transport money, on often lengthy taxi journeys, to attend lectures or eating on any particular day. The demagogic announcement of an unplanned free university education system — not repudiated by the incoming ANC leadership and government — has worsened this stretching of limited resources.

The post-apartheid democratic order has not been able to address inequality more generally and even what was done in the early years has been set back — in significant respects.

In the Zuma period, we now know that the contractors to whom procurement has been diverted often cut corners, used inferior material or did not provide the service for which they were contracted. There are numerous effects of irregularity, notably failure to provide water or housing or electricity or health care and often not at the standard contractually required.

The scale of fraud and other irregularity has not yet been fully identified. As one example, tender irregularities and non-payment of contractors is now threatening a R3-billion bulk water project, from the period of Nomvula Mokonyane, intended to supply water to Giyani and 55 surrounding villages. Cutting costs irregularly also leads to widespread pollution of water, creating health dangers and limits the already inadequate supply of clean water.

The continuing and worsening inequalities feed into inter-generational poverty and joblessness. In areas with few recreational facilities these become breeding grounds for crime and gangsterism. Even if the targets of the recent job summit were met, these would hardly affect these broader, deep-seated problems.

The problem of crime, which obviously preceded democratic government, is now omnipresent, and it also has dangerous political implications. All sections of society fear crime, but the wealthier sections are able to employ private security and to gate off areas, to provide a higher level of protection (or the illusion of that, for the efficacy of gating is questionable) than the SAPS are able to do.

Recent unrest, related to crime in primarily Coloured areas is being interpreted by many in these communities as a neglect of their needs by a primarily African people, who form the majority of the population and the majority of the government. This is captured in well-known clichés to the effect that “before we were not white enough, now we are not black enough”.

The African chauvinism and neglect of other communities under Zuma is coming back to bite the ANC and the state, for there have never been democratic political answers to these questions-from Coloured and sometimes Indian people — about the character of the nation and their place within it. The ANC has had very little to say about these matters. This is part of the depoliticisation of a movement that used to place great weight on debate, notably on the “national question”.

The restive atmosphere in Westbury, Ennerdale, Eldorado Park, Hanover Park, Manenberg and many other predominantly Coloured areas relates to a range of factors, that are not directly related to the “national question”, that were exacerbated during the Zuma period, notably by the corruption and lack of professionalism within the police force. These seem to be a continuation of long-standing problems.

In recent weeks the people of Westbury complained about police collusion with drug lords. Their protests have led to a high level intervention, with the Minister of Police visiting the area twice and promising swift results. To illustrate how long these very same problems have been identified and unresolved, one can refer to a 2014 Mail and Guardian report on Westbury.

The same allegations against police in the Sophiatown station under which Westbury falls — being in the pockets of drug lords — was raised then. One drug lord, on being arrested, had the cellphone numbers of a number of police officers in his possession.

The police internal investigation, quoted in the 2014 Mail and Guardian report, however cleared them of being on the payroll of drug lords:

Brigadier Neville Malila, the provincial head of corporate communication for the Gauteng South African Police Service, denies the allegations. ‘No members at Sophiatown police station were arrested or suspended as a result of an internal investigation. Allegations of alleged corruption that are levelled against members are continuously being investigated. The allegations of the arrests and suspension of members are therefore baseless and untrue.’ ”

One ought not to underestimate the challenges that Cyril Ramaphosa and his allies face. Anyone who follows ANC politics and the junk status and debt crisis of South Africa today understands that whoever leads the country operates within serious constraints.

Ramaphosa was elected ANC president by a very narrow margin and there are constant and credible reports of “plots” to remove him by people close to Zuma. But even if the present government and ANC were united and would like to plough funds into some projects, there just are not sufficient resources available.

The question we need to ask, however, is given the constraints within which the Ramaphosa presidency has had to operate, have the openings been used sufficiently, has the leadership done all that is possible, within the available space, to break free of the constraints?

In some respects, actions of the leadership and the support base of Ramaphosa have made matters worse, insofar as they have bought into or allowed the dominance of the rhetoric surrounding “radical economic transformation” populism. This led to the unprepared and uncontested announcement on free university education, which has necessitated diversion of funds from other budget items, creating fresh areas of dissatisfaction or exacerbating the dissatisfaction already existing.

Likewise, the land debate has seen the ANC succumb to populism and away from addressing problems that need to be dealt with in a systematic, planned and focused way. The post 1994 record on land redistribution is not one where the Constitution has been a barrier in the way of resolving needs. The truth is that lack of political will has been the reason why very little land has been redistributed.

The scope and limits of the Constitution has not been tested. Insofar as it would, in some cases, be desirable to expropriate without compensation, it has been repeatedly pointed out that the Constitution permits that where specific conditions are met. The scope of that right needs to be probed and that has not yet happened.

By allowing rhetoric to drive an unnecessary changing of the Constitution (which may not satisfy the EFF), the burden of the Zuma era has come to retain a significant place in the present. In particular, it has signified the weight of populism as a substitute for tackling problems in good faith.

By populism I understand the slogans that resonate with popular aspirations and demands without programmes to meet these. The popular or a popular programme, in contrast, relates to attempts to address actual needs of popular classes — the poor and the marginalised, through steps that are carefully planned to realise these.

The late-night announcement by Ramaphosa pre-empted whatever the land hearings process may have offered, by indicating that there would be a constitutional amendment on expropriation. This again was not a practical step towards quickening the pace of reform, but an attempt to avoid being outflanked by EFF and some within the ANC.

Cyril Ramaphosa and other ANC leaders know very well that changing the Constitution is unnecessary, yet they have gone along with that, albeit hoping that they can limit the damage.

What does that tell us? Was there no way of resisting this and simply getting on with the job, finalising outstanding land claims and addressing other matters that have not been addressed? Will they be able to withstand further pressure? The pressure, from the EFF and within sections of the ANC, relating to land, we must be clear does not relate to actual land hunger.

Instead, the need to address these questions, in practice, are being held to ransom by threats to the authority and standing of Ramaphosa as ANC and state leader.

There is also a problem with the way the Cyril Ramaphosa leadership addresses other issues that relate to the Zuma legacy, including the question of traditional leadership.

Especially in relation to King Goodwill Zwelithini, Ramaphosa and other ANC leaders have gone beyond recognition of the office and given assurances to traditional leaders that reinforce the fear that land hunger will continue in areas run by traditional leaders and that traditional leaders will continue to negotiate mining rights without consulting communities.

In relation to questions like these one faces starkly the question of taking sides. Does one side with the poor and landless and those who are being squeezed off their lands or having their tenure made insecure?

Or does one side with kings and chiefs who are, in many cases, profiting from land that ought to be worked by communities for their own benefit?

Historically, the ANC that struggled and fought for freedom would have been on the side of the poor. If the current ANC and government continues to neglect their needs, other organisations will need to be formed to take up their cause. 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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