President Zuma’s administration does not have a capacity problem – it is perfectly effective when it chooses to be. The problem is rather that when it chooses to be corrosive, it does so with deadly effectiveness.
In the early days of his Presidency, Jacob Zuma’s administration moved decisively and effectively to provide treatment for people living with HIV and Aids. It was an intervention that has, undeniably, made our society a much better place. This achievement makes it clear that, contrary to a set of assumptions common in the elite public sphere, the problem with Zuma’s government is not a problem of, in the jargon of the day, capacity. The problem with Zuma is with what he chooses to do, and does effectively. And Zuma’s presidency has often taken the form of a corrosive force, steadily compromising our institutions, curtailing our aspirations and freedoms, and drawing us, inexorably, into the bitter disappointment catalogued so well in the often harrowing novels of the post-colony.
The broad outlines of the damage that Zuma has done to the ANC, and is doing to our society, are well known. The party, now overwhelmingly dominated by its mass membership in KwaZulu-Natal, where it is has effectively incorporated much of Inkatha, has become a patronage machine. This is a party in which, from the top to the bottom, the primary question is the allocation of patronage and the secondary question is concerned with developing the mechanisms to sustain and extend the power of the party over the state and the society. There is no serious attempt to generate an emancipatory social vision, let alone to develop even a modest programme of action to try and realise a more just and democratic order. In some respects our country is increasingly run more like a Bantustan than anything imagined in the Freedom Charter or the Constitution.
Political thuggery, including assassination – an established feature of political life in KwaZulu-Natal – is an entrenched feature of political life in and around the party. Local party leaders often function like Mafiosi of a kind and the nature of the authority wielded over the party by Number One is obvious to all. Political questions within the party, and within society more broadly, including questions of justice, are rapidly being recast as questions of security and delegated to the state’s repressive apparatus. Violence, either directly organised by the state via its various kinds of armed force, or mobilised through party structures with state sanction, is now a routine and often fatal mechanism for containing political dissent. The Marikana massacre has been the most egregious instance of this. But it is worth recalling that just six months after Zuma ascended to the Presidency armed force was mobilised, in Durban, against independently organised people via local party structures with the clear sanction of the local and regional state.
When ideological legitimation is required, the party can draw on a real history of struggle that enables it to continue conflating itself with the nation and the evident fact that the official opposition has no credible claim to represent the aspirations of the people as a whole. It is also able to make tactical use of the residual Stalinism of the SACP tradition, an entirely reactionary mobilisation of the idea of traditional authority, the religious right, the sort of right wing populism that enables senior party leaders in Durban to declare that people from the Eastern Cape must ‘go back to Lusikisiki’ and an escalating investment in cultivating the kind of political paranoia that casts independent thought and action in terms of treason and threats from external powers. Political support beyond the party’s branches is patched together via a coalition of public sector unions, right wing religious and traditional authority, and, of course, the patronage machine.
Institutions and state programmes and projects are rapidly being subordinated to the narrow interests of Zuma and his allies with the result that the term ‘predatory elite’ is now entirely apposite. Even a programme as fundamental to social progress as the provision of state housing is corrupt to the core and often functions to re-inscribe spatial exclusion in an urban order in which exclusion is increasingly sustained by the rule of the gun. For most of our citizens the education system functions, in practice, to actively reproduce inequality and exclusion and the interests of a corrupt teachers’ union are often placed before those of learners. But predation is not simply an economic phenomenon. The state is as Janus faced as a typical abusive partner and the sadistic underside to its gifts in the form of grants and patronage is increasingly brutal. Torture has returned as a common feature of policing. Our prisons are hellish places and many of our schools, and in some cases universities too, are places where violence and abuse are ordinary features of day-to-day life.
Our economy collects fabulous wealth at the top of society while leaving the middle classes with a precarious and debt-ridden hold on their place in the world and impoverishing the majority. Land, rural and urban, largely remains in the hands of the powerful, and power over its allocation remains intimately tied to the modes of oppression entrenched under Apartheid. The grant system has blunted the sharpest edges of the pain endured by many young women, but it leaves most young men with nothing at all and no viable path into adulthood. For millions of people everyday life is a relentlessly painful and stressful experience. Depression and anxiety are rife. The contours of this suffering remain profoundly raced. The ground has been well prepared for opportunists, in or out of the ruling party, to sow the dragon’s teeth of a masculinist politics rooted in an authoritarian and paranoid conception of the world.
There is no possibility that we will be able to fix our problems, urgent as they are, while we are governed by Zuma. The time has come when it is no exaggeration to declare that there are only two credible ethical positions for people that remain in the ANC: organise an internal revolt against Zuma or resign.
But we need to take full measure of the reality that the mode of politics that we now associate with Zuma has become a systemic feature of large swathes of the ruling party. It is also increasingly embedded in the state. And it is well ensconced in many trade unions, aspects of it are easily discernible in the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) and, increasingly, independent grassroots organisations too. There is no electoral alternative to the ANC with a presence in Parliament that can credibly be held to be committed to a democratic resolution of our escalating social crisis. The Democratic Alliance (DA) remains the party of privilege and serious questions must be asked of the EFF, given its militaristic posture, internal thuggery, the casual sexism of some of its leaders, their histories of authoritarianism and corruption and the party’s alliances with a set of dubious characters. But the EFF has mastered the art of politics as spectacle and offers a serious challenge to the ANC’s primary ideological cover – conflating itself with the nation.
Outside of Parliament, escalating urban protest has made the riot cop filmed in front of the oily smoke rising from burning tyres a humdrum feature of the television news. But, with important local exceptions, this sequence of protest, while sharing a developing repertoire of ideas and tactics, does not have the organisational capacity to exert sustained force and reason in the elite public sphere. And, also with important exceptions here and there, the official left largely draws its power from donor rather than popular support and has been unable to forge sustained and productive connections with popular strivings and struggles. We also need to be clear that authoritarianism, the substitution of dogma and sectarian slander for praxis, as well as, in some cases, outright thuggery, are deeply rooted in some of the minor political currents, both nationalist and socialist, to the left of the ANC. At the moment a democratic left, constituted as a national and popular force of real consequence is merely an aspiration.
The most powerful and effective opposition to Zuma outside of Parliament is the liberal establishment. But in most cases this establishment, strung between the media, civil society and parts of the business establishment and the academy, is only concerned with protecting the rights of elites. In the main it is unmoved by the torture or assassination of a grassroots activist. We have yet to develop a political consensus, let alone a movement, a set of movements or some other political instrument that is genuinely committed to a democratic resolution of our escalating crisis.
Zuma must go. That much is obvious. But as a collective aspiration, this demand is woefully limited. We shouldn’t forget what happened in Egypt after Mubarak went. We need to take, very seriously, the reality that Zuma is a symptom as well as a cause of our problems, that our problems are systemic, that their resolution will require systemic change and that there is, at the moment, no social consensus or political force capable of attaining systemic change. Moreover, we need to be equally cognisant of the reality that there is support, at all levels of our society, and from the home to the trade union and to Parliament, for various kinds of authoritarian responses to our social and political crisis.
There are two primary and urgent political tasks that confront us: building democratic forms of organisation and power in society, and working to extend its reach into the state, civil society and economy. DM
Richard Pithouse is from Durban and is currently teaching Political Theory and Urban Studies at Rhodes University in Grahamstown where, each year, he also runs a post-graduate workshop on Frantz Fanon. This year he will be helping to organise a conference on the work of V.Y. Mudimbe and will be a visiting professor at The University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.
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