The sudden sacking of Finance Minister Nhlanhla Nene on 9 December 2015, the chaos which followed it, and the rapid replacement of his successor, David van Rooyen, by Pravin Gordhan, has raised some fundamental class questions.
Some of the reactions to Nene’s dismissal display a misunderstanding of the economic and political issues which lie behind these events. That is why we are putting forward a preliminary Marxist analysis, central to which is to place the blame for South Africa’s economic crisis, the outrageous levels of unemployment, poverty and unemployment not on individuals but where it truly belongs – on the capitalist system and those in government and the ruling party who have colluded to impose free-market neoliberal capitalism, as enshrined in the National Development Plan.
The Treasury and successive Finance Ministers, including the latest incumbent, have played a central role in enforcing neo-liberal, macro, fiscal and monetary policies. They have used their control of government purse strings to strangle reforms such as a National Health Insurance and Comprehensive Social Security, even though these are supposed to be ANC Conference policies. The most passionate opposition to Nene’s dismissal came from big business and pro-capitalist commentators. They are the main drivers of the #ZumaMustFall campaign, because they fear that the Treasury’s role as their agents within government will be threatened, and that President Jacob Zuma will weaken the Treasury’s stranglehold on economic policy.
That does not mean that the President, or any of the rest of the Cabinet, have fundamentally different views from those of successive Finance Ministers, whose policies and actions they have all consistently backed. In trying to explain his funny reshuffling logic, Zuma went on say, categorically, that the Treasury shall not depart from the path of prudence (must read as neo-liberalism and austerity). The only difference that while protecting the capitalist class as a whole, at the same time they and their cronies have their own corrupt personal interests, which they depend on government to protect and cover up. This appears to have been the motive for Zuma’s erratic zigzags; the belief that Nene was not prepared to depart from his broad pro-capitalist strategy in order to accommodate the personal interests of Zuma and his cronies in government and business.
That is why #ZumaMustFall people struck a chord among middle and working-class people, who are rightly sickened by the scourge of corruption, cronyism, incompetence and the looting of the state, which they see as being personified by the President himself. But would Zuma’s removal necessarily bring about the resolution of deepening levels of poverty, unemployment, inequality and corruption? In other words, what does the working class stand to gain from the #ZumaMustFall campaign?
The problem is that the call implies that changing personalities changes policies. In fact, it would at best make no difference to policies, and at worst could replace one individual with an even worse individual. That is definitely what the business interests have in mind – a President who is a more reliable servant of monopoly capitalism, who is wealthy enough not to have to resort to manipulating policy to safeguard his or her personal interests.
That is why the re-appointment of Gordhan is a victory for big business, which they hope will perpetuate their control of government neoliberal economic policies, as happened under his previous terms in this office. Demanding Zuma must fall without adding that neoliberal monopoly capitalism must fall, and that the Freedom Charter and Socialism Must Rise is just class suicide, with nothing that the working class can gain at the moment. This is not to suggest that both Zuma and the ANC-led Alliance must not fall because of their complicity in keeping the market capitalist economy serving a tiny minority since 1994, and subjecting workers, the unemployed, young people, students, rural poor and the broader working class to misery.
Workers are rightly disgusted at Zuma’s alleged involvement in corruption, his appointment of cronies as ministers and officials, who help him to cover his tracks, and those of all the others involved in a network of corruption. They must be exposed, prosecuted and punished. The fundamental problem however is that their conduct is an integral part of a wider crisis in which capitalism and corruption are structurally intertwined. Ministers who accept bribes must have a businessperson who pays the bribe. Officials who fix tenders have to be in collusion with the companies winning the contract. Capitalism is riddled with tender collusion, price fixing, tax evasion, illegal international capital transfers and it then spreads its tentacles into government, the public service, political parties and trade unions. That in no-way excuses the politicians, public officials, or for that matter trade union office bearers, who are sucked into the system, but replacing one corrupt capitalist leader with another will change nothing and may even create a false impression that things are getting better.
Zuma’s replacement by a more orthodox capitalist leader, who is not personally implicated in any corrupt dealings, will do nothing to change the underlying structural corruption of the capitalist system, but may even create a false impression that things have changed for the better when in fact they remain exactly the same. Replacing leaders, or tinkering with the system, is not the answer. Tactics is not strategy and strategy is not tactics. We cannot subscribe to the tactical call for Zuma to fall without any strategic consideration of where this takes the rural poor, unemployed, workers and the broader working class.
The working class cannot perpetually subordinate its interests to hyenas who promise heaven and earth, but conceal their corrupt capitalist agenda. The only real alternative now is to build new platforms of working class organisation to build working class power so that the working class acts as a class for itself, based on a programme for the fundamental, socialist transformation of the economy and society. DM
Karl Cloete is the Deputy General Secretary of the National Union of Metalworkers of South Africa.