Build unity to defend democracy and advance an emancipatory future

By Raymond Suttner 26 September 2019

Professor Raymond Suttner. (Photo: Madelene Cronjé / New Frame)

There is widespread impatience with leadership apparently stalling in addressing critical questions in the economy and in relation to law enforcement against the corrupt. This has inspired a call to revive the UDF and look to a popular organisation to address problems of the day. That is unrealistic. The hands of those cleaning up the state and restoring legality need strengthening by our support.

This article first appeared on Creamer Media’s website: polity.org.za

Despite making significant gains, in recovering state assets that were misappropriated during the Jacob Zuma era and restoration of legality, there is a sense of crisis in the Cyril Ramaphosa-led ANC and state. There is a threat of further investment downgrades, continually increasing levels of debt, and failure, thus far, to set Eskom on a sustainable course.

There is continual resistance from within the ANC and others who stand to lose from the departure of Zuma. This includes litigation from dismissed state officials or appointments made by Zuma for the NPA, but not confirmed by Ramaphosa. The position inherited by Ramaphosa has involved many blockages in the way of implementing remedies.

The fallout from recent xenophobic attacks has developed into a major and divisive issue. There is a language of leaders that feeds into xenophobic attacks and, also, indecisiveness. The state, as was the case under Zuma and Thabo Mbeki, blurs its character by insisting that it is not xenophobic but “criminality”.

The recent offensives against foreign nationals have become internationalised through angry reactions in some African states, with attacks against South African embassies and assaults on South African businesses. This has forced government to acknowledge the obvious, that those targeted for criminal attacks were specifically foreign nationals (with some South Africans caught in the crossfire – sometimes due to ethnic chauvinist attitudes to Tsonga and Shangaan people).

The xenophobic attacks and other features of contemporary South Africa bear regrettable similarities to what is happening under Donald Trump in the United States and other right-wing governments in Brazil, India, Hungary and other places. This has led some to question whether the ANC is able as a movement and government to lead a democratic project.

In the context of the state’s inadequate response, the idea of rebuilding democracy from below has been advanced. Reviving the United Democratic Front (UDF) of the 1980s was raised in a recent column by Imraan Buccus in the Sunday Times. (Regrettably behind a paywall).

Buccus does us a service by putting this idea on the table. But it is necessary to flesh it out and to pose the problems that need to be addressed. That will help determine how we conceive different types of unity and what is entailed in building them.

Buccus argues that the UDF is not only a way of addressing the multiple crises of the present but can be the basis for an emancipatory programme to emerge, to recover the idea of ever-enhanced freedom for all our peoples in all their diversity.

It is crucial to identify the crises we face because this will point to commonalities in interest as well as differences between various political actors. This is how to determine the composition of any unifying project. Knowing what interests move different organisations and people will help identify possible relationships that may be built in order to address and potentially remedy some problems.

It will also enable us to see the convergence that has developed between the EFF and sections of the ANC, loyal to Zuma and Ace Magashule, who stand in the way of a clean-up, restoring legality and other issues.

What are the crises that need to be addressed? Due to space limitations this is a necessarily limited outline:

  • The crisis of corruption, State Capture and irregularity that suffuses the public service including the security sector, with many in the police and intelligence services having been complicit in illegal and corrupt acts, the losing of case dockets, failure to attend to complaints or prepare charges, and misuse of powers in mounting trumped-up charges.

    This pervasive undermining of the professionalism and integrity of the state primarily affects the poor, resulting in funds required for welfare grants, healthcare, education, policing, and other services being diverted.

  • The crisis of the economy, which is related to the extensive fraud and theft of the Jacob Zuma years, leading to massive losses to the fiscus as well as by state-owned entities (which had been conceived as drivers of developmentalism). There are now substantially increased levels of debt, and it is harder to borrow due to downgrading of the country’s credit rating. This has accelerated the de-industrialisation of the economy and massive unemployment, especially among the youth.

    Some of these factors feed into inequalities that have widened since 1994 and the problem of all-pervasive crime, violence and inter-generational gangsterism.

    The poor are finding it harder and harder to eke out a living and find jobs. But it is not only the poor who are negatively impacted by corruption and State Capture. It also undermines the conditions required to do business and attract investors. When corruption prevails, contracts cost more because of official barriers.

  • The crisis of violence manifested in political killings and xenophobic attacks. No person is entirely safe from violent attacks, even if they live behind high walls and electric fences with multiple private security companies. They have to leave that complex and may be attacked or killed at robots and similar places.

But the poor are the primary victims of violence, rape and killings. They are not as well served by policing – purely at the level of police stations, vehicles that are operational or their ability to make a complaint effectively or without incurring unaffordable costs to travel to a police station.

Building unity against the crisis

Building unity can act on the shared interest in ending the looting of state resources. Crime and violence may hit the poor harder, but it creates problems for any person who wants to do business.

The xenophobic violence has been treated on an ad hoc basis with top leaders often fuelling xenophobia with remarks about hospital resources being abused by foreign nationals, insecure borders, and police repeatedly stand by, watching looting and sometimes themselves do so or take bribes to allow foreigners to remain as traders in particular locations.

When police were recently attacked in the Johannesburg central business district (CBD), this followed a pattern where they had repeatedly harassed traders for bribes.

That chaos erupted in the Johannesburg CBD and other parts of Johannesburg is life-threatening for foreign nationals, but it is also not good for business, big and small. The big companies may not have stalls on the streets, but the atmosphere they require for their investments to thrive is one where the streets and business premises are safe and where one can assume that these will not come under attack and that politicians and police will act to prevent this.

Do we write off Cyril Ramaphosa or the ANC?

Buccus is scathingly critical of the Cyril Ramaphosa leadership and believes we should not rely on current public elected leadership but rebuild a movement like the UDF, from the bottom up, in order to advance the democratic and emancipatory goals that are paralysed under the current official political framework.

But is it correct, as Buccus implies, that we abandon the public terrain and focus purely or primarily on the popular, with the long haul that is involved in rebuilding such organisations? I believe that one should look at what exists at the moment and decide how best to engage with that. This would strengthen the hands of those who are most committed to government with integrity, restoring legality and constitutionalism.

It would be a mistake to think that these qualities are only found in extra-parliamentary sites, often still to be established or re-established, or in the consciousness of some former UDF actors and other members of popular organisations.

A range of people and organisations played a role in the lead-up to the fall of Jacob Zuma – some of these were professionals, some were from political parties, notably the DA and EFF of that time, some were from business, some were unionists and others from more grassroots backgrounds.

In progressive politics, one does not spurn any organisation whose interests converge with that of the popular, even if that means sections of business or big capital. Some of the goals of a popular movement, if it were to be established today, would converge with that of parts of business and others involved in SaveSA and other organisations, that had a presence in the campaigns against Zuma. Many of those involved then are also impatient with the actions and inaction of the current ANC. Many are unhappy with the xenophobia on ethical grounds but also because of the adverse effect on the operation of South African businesses in some African states. Faith-based organisations also need to be drawn in on a more extensive basis.

Broad unity cannot be sectarian

To build unity that includes sections of the wealthy is not a betrayal. The terms of unity, and what level of co-operation is required, need to be spelt out and acted on. Within that unity which can be joined by popular organisations, there can be some who would have very distinct ideas about the future, going beyond this broad unity, beyond addressing the current paralysis. They are free to advance their ideas within the discussions of the organisations that make up the broad unity. But they are also allowed to promote these in their own separate combinations, as with existing mass-based organisations like Abahlali baseMjondolo (AbM), the shack dwellers’ movement, and Equal Education.

Such unity should not presuppose as its foundations, being anti-Ramaphosa or anti-ANC

My starting point is that nostalgia for a reborn UDF should not lead us to spurn the ANC or Cyril Ramaphosa. What is on the political terrain now is an important factor in any political calculation. Despite the “fightback” of the post-Zuma forces, and the Ramaphosa leadership’s own indecisiveness, the Zondo Commission is operational, together with other positive developments. These gains need to be defended. If we do not want them to be reversed, it should not be left only to those in the ANC who are themselves involved in the clean-up. That clean-up is in the interests of the wealthy and the poor, from whose programmes that money has been stolen.

Some important gains have been made in this period. In KZN, The Executive Mayor Zandile Gumede has been charged with various acts of corruption and has been removed. The shack dwellers movement, AbM, which encountered considerable repression and assassinations in the past, has not experienced any assassination since the removal of Zuma. This is a significant achievement.

The problems between local government and AbM have not been resolved. Illegal evictions, attacks and other harassment of AbM continue. Intra-ANC violence and assassinations also persist.

But the gains are broader. Despite opposition, the clean-up of SOEs has recovered substantial sums of money, including R1.6-billion repaid by McKinsey and some R2-3-billion in the pipeline. There will be further recoveries once law enforcement agencies are more fully operational and have overcome the resistance to performing professional duties with staff fully committed to this.

There is a fightback against these systemic reforms that affects policing, prosecuting and other conditions necessary for the safety of our lives.

Do we ignore this and have a general sense of dismissiveness towards the Ramaphosa leadership and the changes it has brought about? Or do those who see themselves on the left, or standing with the popular, do what can be done to build a force that strengthens the arm of those who favour a clean-up and an end to violence in general and gender-based violence (GBV) in particular.

Building popular movements

None of this excludes the building of a popular movement, based on organisations that are representative and accountable to people on the ground. There are NGOs and foundations that do assist people to overcome problems on the ground. This is important work, and it has seen important gains being made and some have worked closely with grassroots organisations.

But a popular movement is different in that it is not accountable to funders, but to its membership, and when Buccus invokes the UDF example, it is with a view to building movements on the basis of an ongoing relationship between the grassroots and leadership. That is a complex, time-consuming and challenging task. If it is to be a meaningful movement, people need to have a clear understanding of the choices they face and what it entails to act on them. That requires intense political education and debate.

I support that, but it does not mean we displace the possibilities that exist in the present, that we negate the gains that have been made and may still be made within the current leadership of the ANC and the state. Indeed, popular organisations ought to throw their weight behind steps being taken that will benefit themselves. There is no value in ignoring this contribution, and it does not necessitate stalling in building popular forces with a mass, popular focus. DM

Raymond Suttner is a visiting professor in the Faculty of Humanities, University of Johannesburg (until end of April 2020), a senior research associate at the Centre for Change and emeritus professor at Unisa. He served lengthy periods in prison and house arrest for underground and public anti-apartheid activities. His writings cover contemporary politics, history, and social questions, especially issues relating to identities, gender and sexualities. He blogs at raymondsuttner.com and his Twitter handle is @raymondsuttner



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