South Africa


Wrecking ball of State Capture was halted from within ANC movement itself

Deputy General Secretary of the SACP Jeremy Cronin at the 2nd Special National Congress, held at the University of Limpopo in Polokwane, South Africa in December 2009. (Photo by Gallo Images/City Press/Leon Sadiki)

The SACP played a key role against kleptocracy and its campaign against State Capture was neither opportunistic, as claimed by Ronnie Kasrils, nor a blind Ramaphoria cult.

With the 8 May elections done, if not quite dusted, and the various party-political post-mortems under way, it might be useful to remember some pivotal but often brushed-aside moments that formed the immediate context of these elections.

Wednesday, 14 February 2018 was one such moment. That was the day that Jacob Zuma appeared on TV around noon to prevaricate about his future as state president. It was obvious that he was still seriously considering defying a deadline from the weekend’s ANC national executive committee. It was an ultimatum to resign as state president that Wednesday or face an ANC vote of no-confidence in Parliament the next day.

Through Wednesday, Zuma was in a huddle with his closest henchmen in the security apparatus. In the months before, he had often spoken, half in jest, in that faux-amiable Zuma way, about the need for a South African strongman.

If I could be a dictator for just a week,” he would say, with a hmmm and a chuckle in the throat, “you would see what a wonderful place our country would be.”

We also know that on that Wednesday his assembled closest associates warned him that the declaration of a state of emergency to avoid a no-confidence vote would be a high-risk venture. They advised him he couldn’t count on their support for such a move.

Zuma did finally resign later in the day. Ramaphosa was elected president and hastily sworn in on the Thursday. The first major public meeting Ramaphosa held was on 18 February, with a large assembly of the military in a packed Kimberley convention centre. The new president and commander-in-chief praised the SANDF in tones that suggested relief for allowing “the flourishing of the constitutional order in our country”.

It was not exactly the high drama of Venezuelan president Nicolás Maduro parading earlier this May with his generals and massed army corps through the streets of Caracas in response to the failed US-backed coup attempt. But Ramaphosa’s Kimberley event was certainly a sub-genre of the same.

As we mull over the implications of last week’s elections, we should not forget those pivotal days little more than a year ago when a lot more than just electoral outcomes in 2019 were at stake. But were we really on the brink of a state of emergency in February 2018? Possibly not, but only because there was a series of other pivotal events before that had deepened Zuma’s personal isolation and left even his own disreputable inner-circle henchmen disinclined to pull the trigger on the Constitution.

The exposure of State Capture and of the Guptarisation of our political economy, with the consequent deepening (if still incomplete) vulnerability of Zuma was, of course, the work of a wide range of forces. Brave investigative journalists and whistle-blowers, opposition political parties, faith-based formations (not all of them), the judiciary, social movement mobilisation, the business community (not all of it) and many more played major roles.

But as long as these stirrings were predominantly from outside of the ANC tripartite alliance, the fortress Zuma imagined he commanded felt safe. The anti-State Capture agenda was discursively turned, with a little help from Bell Pottinger, into an “anti-ANC” agenda, a “regime change” strategy, piloted by “white monopoly capital” and “imperialism”.

It was clumsy stuff but not without some local traction because, let’s not forget, in other parts of the world anti-corruption struggles have indeed been used successfully and abused by anti-democratic right-wing forces with the backing of Washington to effect regime change. Brazil is the most obvious recent case.

And this is why it might be important now to remember some other South African moments. Two May Day celebrations come to mind.

The first was in 2013. In the hours before Cosatu-convened May Day rallies countrywide, the news broke of the scandalous Gupta 100-plus guest arrivals at Waterkloof military air-base. Many ANC, Cosatu and SACP speakers (including then ANC secretary-general Gwede Mantashe) hurriedly added to their prepared rally speakers’ notes words of outrage at this gross insult to our country’s national sovereignty. We are being turned into a banana republic, it was said. As I recall, no one actually mentioned Zuma by name, but everyone knew whose friends were whose. This was one early moment in the gathering anti-Zuma revolt from within the ANC movement, a revolt no longer confined to disaffected Mbeki-ites.

May Day 2017 was on an entirely different scale. The main rally for 2017 was in Bloemfontein in the heart of the Zuma-supporting Magashule-stan. The event turned into a personal humiliation for Zuma as tens of thousands of Cosatu-affiliated workers prevented him from addressing the rally. The presumptive Zuma fortress was no more.

Other assumed Zuma power bases were also eroding, including significantly the ANC parliamentary caucus. On 8 August 2017, Zuma narrowly survived a vote of no-confidence in the national assembly with 198 voting against and 177 for. News reports estimated that around 30 ANC MPs had voted for the motion – in fact, this was an underestimation, as several opposition party members voted for Zuma against the motion. Closer to 40 ANC MPs defied the whippery and many more would have done so if not for heavy threats in the morning caucus and an appeal to leave the issue in the hands of the forthcoming December ANC national conference.

Reporting on the outcome, News24 wrote:

The failure of the motion will strengthen Zuma’s position in the party and strengthen the belief the ANC does not have the capacity to recall Zuma.”

That proved to be dead wrong. The August no-confidence debate and the narrow but important electoral outcome of the ANC’s December 2017 national conference were critical moments why in February 2018 Zuma’s innermost circle declined the state of emergency option. The ANC and its alliance were no longer a safe haven for kleptocracy.

So what does all of this have to do with last week’s national elections?

In an opinionista piece posted this week in Daily Maverick (A curate’s egg of an election, 14 May 2019), Ronnie Kasrils makes many valuable points. However, I have one major point of disagreement. Kasrils writes of the elections:

The SACP fully supported the ANC and despite the painful lessons of the Zuma years it yet again opportunistically believed that the new ANC leader would be the best bet for the left.”

The SACP’s support for those forces within the ANC and government leading the struggle against State Capture was neither opportunistic nor was it part of a blind Ramaphoria cult. It was certainly not motivated by a narrow set of electoral calculations.

Kasrils believes that the SACP should have followed those who pushed at the party’s July 2017 congress for the SACP to stand independently in the 2019 elections. Instead, the SACP wisely decided to leave that option open until, at least, the ANC December 2017 conference. This enabled the SACP with its 300,000 strong membership to play an active and often the key role within the ANC movement in the struggle against parasitic kleptocracy through the second half of 2017.

In that critical period, in the run-up to the ANC’s December conference, we were not asking our members (most of whom are also ANC members) to choose between the SACP and the ANC. The stark choice was not between left and right labelling, but between the patriotic defence of our country’s constitutional democracy and despotic kleptocracy.

Much to the irritation of the Zuma factions, it was often SACP and Young Communist League formations that were able to host Ramaphosa in rallies and town-hall meetings in areas that were meant to be no-go zones for the anti-State Capture campaign in the heated run-up to the ANC’s December conference. An SACP gearing up, in that context, to contest the ANC in the 2019 elections would have excluded itself (and would have been very actively excluded by the likes of Ace Magashule) from that critical internal movement battle.

The struggle against State Capture inside of the ANC movement and inside of government continues. It has now gathered considerable momentum in the face of a weakening although not negligible fightback. But there is, to paraphrase Regis Debray, also the struggle within that struggle. The orientation of the Ramaphosa presidency is and must, quite naturally, be contested.

Will Ramaphosa’s presidency mark a futile return to the policies of 1996 in a time now when the supposed commodities super-cycle has long since petered out? The commodity boom temporarily disguised, at least for shareholders and beneficiaries, the structural destruction of our political economy that neoliberal illusions wreaked. Nonetheless, this is a return that is being fervently advocated by the London-based The Economist, and others in their cover-story support for Ramaphosa.

Will the new presidential term see wholesale privatisation of strategic publicly-owned resources and the further erosion of workers’ rights?

Or will we have a revamped publicly-owned energy and publicly-owned logistics capacity, supported by macro-economic policy that eschews self-defeating austerity?

Will we have the courage to use publicly-owned finance and public debt to leverage domestic investment in economic and social infrastructure development, placing us on to a job-creating and environmentally sustainable trajectory?

One thing at least is for sure. We would not even be in a position to ask these questions if the wrecking ball of State Capture plunging us into despotic chaos had not been halted from without and, critically, from within the ANC movement itself. DM

Jeremy Cronin is an SACP Central Committee member.