2021 Local Elections


‘De-Zumafication’ and the possibly terminal crisis of the ANC

Former president Jacob Zuma and current president Cyril Ramaphosa during the 54th national conference of the African National Congress party (ANC) in Johannesburg, South Africa, on Saturday, 16 December 2017. (Photo: Waldo Swiegers/Bloomberg via Getty Images)

It is very clear that the ANC and South Africa is in crisis, despite the hopes originally engendered by Cyril Ramaphosa’s displacing Jacob Zuma as leader of the ANC and the country.  There cannot be a ‘new dawn’ until there is a proper reckoning with the main features of the Zuma period, which entailed much more than state capture and corruption.    

Raymond Suttner is an emeritus professor at the University of South Africa. He served lengthy periods in prison and house arrest for underground and public anti-apartheid activities.

The current crisis of the ANC has taken a range of permutations. I have not wanted to write a series of narratives – of which we have plenty – on the latest developments, but probe what constitutes the character of an enduring crisis that will not go away.

It is well known that the removal of Jacob Zuma from the ANC and state presidency engendered a sense of hope, referred to as a “new dawn” by the new president, Cyril Ramaphosa and his supporters, supposedly turning their backs on what has been termed “nine wasted years” under the leadership of Zuma.

Unfortunately, the failure to adequately articulate what a break from Zumaism or “deZumafication” entailed has meant not only that very many who were complicit in his rise and various deeds have never really acknowledged what was wrong with this period and their own role in enabling and sustaining it. Without a declaration of what one disavows, precisely what Zumaism comprised, it was easy for many of its main features to continue (and very often with the same dramatis personae).

The Zuma era is not adequately comprehended by phrases like “nine wasted years” nor by estimations of the billions or trillions that were pillaged by State Capture and lesser corruption at a range of levels, crucial as these are as obstacles to ensuring a better life for all, now and in the future. But before one can break from that which was enabled and assisted over these years, one needs to articulate all its characteristics and not selectively choose those that are convenient to repudiate. When that happens, it can be seen whether the post-Zuma era represents a rupture, or primarily or substantially continuity.

There is little doubt that the ascension to the presidency of Ramaphosa entailed an important improvement on the Zuma era and led to some people being charged or held to account for wrongdoing. But this did not entail an adequate or comprehensive renunciation of what was colluded in during the Zuma era and what in many cases continues today (often under the aegis of the same individuals).

The Zuma era cannot be adequately encapsulated by focusing – as is the case in most commentary – on corruption and State Capture. Those who brought Zuma to power, and this includes the substantial and disgraceful work of the SACP and Cosatu, who knew exactly what they were doing, need to articulate the full range of qualities that were features of this period from which they now claim to dissociate.

Zumaism goes beyond corruption: The rape trial

The immediate reason why many of us broke from the ANC and its allies was not because there was already strong evidence of Zuma being corrupt before the Polokwane conference of 2007, crucial as that was to reject him as an alternative to the leadership of Thabo Mbeki. 

Although that was in our minds, what gave a sense of urgency was what the rape trial of 2006 signified in a political movement that many associated with respect for all human beings. Instead, this trial entailed the pummelling of the complainant, Fezekile Ntsukela Kuzwayo, who assumed the pseudonym of “Khwezi” in Zuma’s rape trial, where everything that had been learnt in the adoption of feminist positions in the ANC and its allies about “victim-blaming”, patriarchy, and violent masculinities was discarded. And cultural essentialism and ethnic chauvinism were deployed along with the resonance of the armed struggle (in the song “Umshini wam”, meaning “bring me my machine gun”), as armoury against the already vulnerable “Khwezi”.

This was done to enable a sense of victimhood not in the complainant/survivor of rape. In fact, one of the most shoddy judgments of our time dismissed “Khwezi’s” evidence. The judge also allowed testimony of her “sexual history”, much of which represented abuse, and Zuma was acquitted.

Silent protestors stand in front of President Jacob Zuma during his speech at the official announcement of the results for the 2016 local government elections. They held signs against gender-based violence. Photo: Daily Maverick archives

The ANC and allied discourse surrounding the trial depicted Zuma as the victim of a range of conspiracies. To my knowledge, no person in leadership in any of these organisations has – to this day – repudiated their role in the rape trial. Almost all the top leaders sang and danced with Zuma outside the court every day or were complicit by their silence. Shockingly this also includes many who still speak of themselves as feminists, as those who claim to inject gender equality into the ANC-led alliance. 

It was a renunciation of a very long history of gender awareness, especially in the SACP and notably in its slain leader, Chris Hani. (Cherryl Walker has noted how even in the early years of the Communist Party, the public/private divide of patriarchy was highlighted. SeeWomen and Resistance in South Africa. 2 ed. Cape Town. David Philip. 1991, p. 42).

Many of these people thrived during the Zuma period and without any “self-criticism” continue to hold high office in government and the organisations of the allies.

In the rape trial, several features of Zumaism were concentrated. There was not only victim-blaming in the type of legal defence/attack that he deployed, unquestioned by anyone in his camp. The form of defence was more than secondary rape but pummelling of the complainant inside and outside the court room with threats and abuse. No person in the ANC and its allied leadership took issue with this, no person ever called for restraint. It was open field for those attacking “Khwezi” on multiple fronts, an attempt to increase the vulnerability of the already abused complainant.

Apart from anything else this was a manifestation of cruelty that ran against any of the claims to humanism that permeate the founding values of these organisations.

In mounting his defence, Zuma also drew on essentialist, that is unchanging, singular meanings of Zulu culture to defend himself in court, speaking of what was “expected of a Zulu man”, and others outside deployed Zulu chauvinism with the depiction of Zuma as “100% Zulu”.

This resort to a singular notion of “Zulu culture” was also a re-embodiment of warrior traditions, merging with ANC militaristic traditions. The emphasis on “Zulu culture” in general was also exploited by those who alleged from time to time that the ANC is dominated by Xhosa-speaking people. In so far as much of this is from the most conservative section of the Zulu-speaking part of the population, it also reinforces a resistance to gender equality. 

The trial was consequently played out within a wider context consisting of political intrigue, or perceived intrigue, and cultural divisions. These cultural divisions, it must be stressed, were depicted as Zulu against Xhosa, or emphasis on Zulu identity. In reality, the contestation was over what version of Zulu or other culture should be hegemonic (as with other cultural questions, where there is not a single, authoritative view, despite the more conservative elements claiming that their understanding represents the only one).

The trial thus became a major site of focus on Zulu culture and masculinity. A key argument in the trial was that there are expectations in Zulu culture that demand a man to fulfil the desires of a woman if a man interprets her as being “aroused”, as Zuma claimed to have read the behaviour (or dress) of the complainant. The way things are done in a certain “culture”, however, entails many interpretations within cultural groups. These range over questions of gender, but go far beyond that and defy any attempt at presenting any specific community as culturally homogeneous.

Singing “Umshini wam” was in a sense to symbolically represent the rape that he denied in court, insofar as the gun is a phallic symbol and bullets can be seen as a metaphor for ejaculation. Never before was the heroism of armed struggle, found in people like Chris Hani, Nelson Mandela and others, so debased by the then and still current leaders of the ANC, SACP and allied trade unions, (some of whom are no longer in Cosatu).

The violence that was threatened against the complainant foreshadowed the escalation of the use of force, already widespread as a means of practising politics within the ANC, with assassinations becoming a regular feature. (Much of this has been concentrated in KZN and relate to Zuma’s drawing IFP warlords into the ANC as part of ensuring “peace”. See Greg Arde’, War Party – How The ANC’s Political Killings Are Breaking South Africa. Tafelberg, 2020).

The principle of non-violence and respect for peace has little salience in South Africa today, in this the 60th anniversary year of Chief Albert Luthuli receiving the Nobel Peace Prize, hardly noticed by the organisation that he led.

Another feature of hyperpatriarchy is naturalisation of heterosexuality as the only legitimate form of sexual orientation. Just recently there was a reminder of one of the features of Zumaism on which those who purport to be part of the “rupture” have been silent, that is homophobic statements by Zuma. 

The Constitutional Court found in July that the late Jon Qwelane had indeed committed hate speech in homophobic statements, likening same-sex marriages to “marriages” between animals. What needs to be remembered, now, is that immediately after these statements Qwelane was made High Commissioner (ambassador) to Uganda, one of the most homophobic states on this continent. No person in leadership ever questioned this.


What drew many people to the ANC in earlier periods was its debates and clearly articulated vision, strategies and tactics. When I was first recruited to work for the ANC/SACP alliance, the ANC had advanced its then remarkable Morogoro strategy and tactics document of 1969 as a programme for the way out of a moment of crisis when there appeared to be no effective way of defeating apartheid. 

By definition those who loot and steal have no need for ideology and debate, even though they may cynically advance slogans like Radical Economic Transformation (RET) as camouflage.

Cyril Ramaphosa as ANC and state president 

Regrettably one of the features of this period is the continuation of a situation where the ANC is not a site of debate, where people continue to join the organisation not because of ideas that resonate with them, but as a route to wealth or a semblance of economic security, through becoming a councillor when not able to be in more senior leadership.

It is well known that Ramaphosa came to office with a slender majority in the ANC national conference of 2017 and that may have set limits on what he could do even if one were to accept that he wanted to break fundamentally with Zumaism. As indicated, I do not accept that “deZumafication” is possible where its character is not delineated. That was the critique that many people provided over “deStalinisation” in the former USSR when it was reduced to a “personality cult”. This, interestingly, is one of the “self-criticisms” I have heard from some who purport to express regret over their role in supporting Zuma.

If Ramaphosa intended to build afresh, my sense is that he needed to take some steps that were not purely ethical. First and foremost, he needed to stamp his authority on the organisation, to take control not only of the state but also of the organisation that he leads.

Obviously, there was some delicacy entailed in dealing with those who were in top leadership but had opposed his rise. Ramaphosa needed to take charge of the ANC – as its president, albeit not provoking a revolt that he could not contain. There was no getting away from Ace Magashule being elected to the key secretary general position, but previous presidents like Thabo Mbeki were present in ANC HQ one day in almost every week and monitored what the secretary-general and others did. That does not appear to be the case with Ramaphosa.

Suspended ANC Secretary-General Ace Magashule (Photo: Felix Dlangamandla/Pool)

Ramaphosa, instead, left plenty of space for Magashule to enjoy autonomy and to practise it in a manner that often consolidated a base independent of or hostile to Ramaphosa. Magashule was allowed a free hand to employ allies, former ministers from the Zuma era with high salaries (at a time when ANC staff were and still often are not paid on time or at all and without their UIF contributions being paid as required by law). Magashule was also left in control of elections, including candidate selection and other processes, fundamental to the support base and functioning of the organisation. 

When people have criticised the limited steps taken by Ramaphosa to “clean up” government and the ANC, there has often been talk of Ramaphosa having special insights guiding his strategy, referred to as “the long game”, that he supposedly understands the right moment to move and not to take steps that are premature. It may be that Ramaphosa had some skills that were part of successful negotiations in the National Union of Mineworkers (NUM) and later political negotiations. 

But whatever long game there may have been, this appears to have allowed him to be undermined in ANC HQ, in the organisation that he leads. Ramaphosa has not been prepared to fight most of the time and he may, consequently, have lost ground. This autonomy allowed to Magashule may be part of the reason for the debacle where the ANC failed to register one-third of its candidates for local government elections. 

A lifeline – that is open to legal challenge  – has been thrown by the IEC, allowing further time to register candidates and that may limit the losses. 

But it is clear that the organisation is in a deep crisis from which it may not recover.

That is not to say that the ANC will disappear or necessarily lose elections. It may survive but its presence on the electoral scene no longer leads or enhances democratic life. For that to happen, for democratic life to flourish, cannot simply be resolved electorally in the light of the lack of resonance of the messages of other parties with the still oppressed majority. 

Something new needs to be built and that cannot happen overnight. We cannot focus singularly on electoral politics. For some time, I have been one of those who have argued for our democracy to include openings for direct popular activity. It will take time for such processes to become significant factors beyond the limited manifestations now existing, like the shack dwellers’ movement, Abahlali baseMjondolo. 

Regrettably, there are no quick fixes to the current crisis and there needs to be extensive consultation and involvement of people, from a range of sectors, who love their country and wish to renew its democratic life. DM

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

Suttner’s writings cover contemporary politics, history, and social questions, especially issues relating to identities, gender and sexualities. His books include Inside Apartheid’s Prison (2 ed 2017), The ANC Underground (2008) and Recovering Democracy in South Africa (2015), all published by Jacana Media. His Twitter handle is @raymondsuttner. He is currently preparing memoirs covering his life experiences as well as analysing the political character of the periods through which he has lived.






Comments - Please in order to comment.

  • District Six says:

    A powerful and compelling piece. You’ve narrated my own discomfort perfectly well, particularly in the first section.

    • Jane Crankshaw says:

      Couldn’t agree more. CR’s appointment was such a relief and has turned out to be a big disappointment although this is tinged with a smidgen of hope that he might still do the right thing inspite of being between a rock and a hard place with a fractured ANC. Time will tell. Excellent article – thank you.

  • Charles Parr says:

    This article doesn’t fill one with confidence in the current leadership. I guess we need to wait for a new generation of ANC leaders and goodness knows how long that will be.

    • Joe Irwin says:

      A new generation of ANC leaders is unlikely to be any different to the present incumbents. The entitlement they see as a right, will rub off on those that follow.
      It’s time for a new party to lead. The ANC is way past its sell by date, and if not replaced it will destroy what is left of SA.

      • Carel Jooste says:

        The really scary prospect is that it actually will not be replaced and that that will kill SA. Countries do go down the tubes, it can happen.

  • Joe Irwin says:

    A new generation of ANC leaders is unlikely to be any different to the present incumbents. The entitlement they see as a right, will rub off on those that follow.
    It’s time for a new party to lead. The ANC is way past its sell by date, and if not replaced it will destroy what is left of SA.

  • Peter Dexter says:

    Excellent! Let’s hope Cyril reads it.

  • Dick Binge Binge says:

    Without the assassination of Chris Hani would Zuma have been possible?

  • Gerrie Pretorius Pretorius says:

    cr is really no different from jz. Both believe the anc is the only ‘thing’ that needs to survive. Rape and feeding at the trough – both disgusting and yet it continues. The country and the people mean nothing. As long as anc deployees get rich, to hell with the rest.

  • Rudd van Deventer says:

    Never thought of Zuma’s rape trial as a cusp point but you are right in that it was an inflexion point for me too. While not opposed to many principals in the ANC it was then about legitimacy as they abandoned their founding ideology!
    The politics of hiring and bussing in supporters while threatening any dissent is now so ingrained that I do not see a way forward for the ANC. This took a scary turn with the riots where the public was encouraged to participate, providing cover, while the king pins organised trucks to haul away the loot.

  • Shirley Walters says:

    Thanks, Raymond, for the reminder of the toxic underbelly of patriarchy linked to cultural chauvinism, that is so much part of the political environment then and now – the reason why many feminists say there is nothing to celebrate on National Woman’s Day – listening to the cynical speeches by political leadership about women’s empowerment when, as you say, “To my knowledge, no person in leadership in any of these organisations has – to this day – repudiated their role in the rape trial. Almost all the top leaders sang and danced with Zuma outside the court every day or were complicit by their silence. Shockingly this also includes many who still speak of themselves as feminists, as those who claim to inject gender equality into the ANC-led alliance.” This is a major part of what we are up against as a society.

    • Charles Parr says:

      And it has only recently been said publicly by people like Ronnie Kasrils that it was always known in the ANC that JZ was a sexual predator. Perhaps more people should have spoken out earlier before so much damage had been inflicted on the country. I think the ANC always knew what it would have to contend with but they just couldn’t wait to get their hands on other peoples money.

  • Sandra Goldberg says:

    Good article. It would seem that “Zumafication” essentially involves a certain brand of toxic masculinity and patriarchy and could that be why that despite the ANC calling out gender based violence, it is getting worse because all the principal actors are still with them, and exert an influence that is really undimmed?So that all the talk and exhortations are completely useless, and may in fact , cause more dysfunction and violent behavior ?

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