Opinionista Saul Musker 7 April 2017

The test we have failed and what it teaches us

If there is one good thing that has come from the national crisis triggered by President Jacob Zuma’s removal of Pravin Gordhan as Finance Minister, it is the light that has been shone into previously dark corners of the South African political landscape. The reactions of ANC politicians and supporters, union leaders, the SACP, the opposition parties, civil society organisations, the media and the student movement – and, conversely, the conspicuous silence of many others – have revealed the true fault lines in our society, and confirmed what was previously conjecture. The question is, what does this mean for the future?

Predictably, Zuma’s announcement after midnight last Thursday was greeted with immediate outrage on social media, in the morning newspapers and on radio talk shows. All and sundry insisted that this was the last straw. A final line had been crossed, and this time action would follow. The consequences of a downgrade to junk status, the prospect of unrestrained looting from the Treasury, the brazenness and transparency of it all…surely Zuma had overplayed his hand, and this would be enough for his opponents to finally wrest back control.

The tone of Ahmed Kathrada’s funeral and memorial service – which took place shortly before and after the cabinet reshuffle – appeared to support this prediction. Watching respected ANC stalwarts directly attack Zuma’s leadership in speech after speech, listening to the rapturous applause after former President Kgalema Motlanthe read from Kathrada’s letter to Zuma calling for his resignation, anyone would be forgiven for hoping that something had changed. 

And yet, as the much-awaited axe finally dropped and the days afterwards passed, the anticipated moment of redemption failed to arrive. Senior party leaders like Cyril Ramaphosa and Gwede Mantashe expressed their dissatisfaction, Treasury officials gave a haunting rendition of “Senzeni Na” in farewell to their boss, and a thousand columns were written on the need for drastic action to avert the pending disaster. But none of these remonstrations were enough. The ANC leaders were made to apologise for their insubordinate remarks, the Treasury officials went back to work for their new head, and the columns began to turn from triumphalist clarion calls to angry laments.

Yes, several thousand South Africans wore black to work on Monday, and yes, marches and protests were planned in major cities on Friday morning. But these events were coordinated by a loose coalition of weak opposition parties and small civil society organisations, attended for the most part by minorities and the middle class. The marches in Johannesburg and Cape Town had eager marshals wearing neon security vests and handing out mineral water, and ended promptly at 12 noon. The protestors returned home for the weekend to watch Premier League matches on television. By Monday, nothing will have changed.

Meanwhile, these lukewarm attempts at mass action have been met with derision and disdain by many in the student movement and activist networks who accuse the participants of selective outrage, of failing to act in solidarity with the causes of the poor black majority and then expecting solidarity in return. Rather than encouraged or supported, the protests have been taunted and ridiculed. A proposed national strike has been rejected by labour unions, who have also stayed away from planned demonstrations.

Of course, this is not the first time that Zuma has survived calls for his resignation or impeachment. Why, then, did so many South Africans expect this time to be different? Perhaps this most recent crisis was seen as the culmination of countless previous – Nkandla, the removal of Nhlanhla Nene, the social grants debacle – and while each of these alone was insufficient to tip the scales, their combined weight would. Perhaps the replacement of  Gordhan was anticipated for such a long time in the media and the public debate that it became invested with a special sense of importance, purposefully or subconsciously set up to be our “moment of truth” – and the longer Zuma waited, the more tightly-wound our springs became, until finally and ineffectually they were released.

Perhaps, though, we have simply not fully understood the nature of South African politics until now. Zuma’s latest action was a significant risk, and served as a test of the real strength of opposition to his faction in the ANC, which had hitherto been a subject of speculation and guesswork. The results of this experiment are clear, and they are not good.

The failure to mobilise en masse in response to Zuma’s rapidly tightening grip on power exposes three things about the state of our politics. First, the ANC and its associated labour unions retain a relative monopoly on political action in most parts of the country – no other structure exists with the power to conjure up crowds of tens of thousands of people anywhere, at any time. Second, race remains the most important single factor determinative of people’s political affiliation, making it difficult to unite disparate parts of society who are in other ways opposed behind a temporary common goal (even if such an overlap of interests does exist). Third, within the ANC itself, members are more afraid of the consequences of dissent than they are confident of support for speaking out. Their calculus leads them to stay quiet.

Together, this state of affairs should concern us more than the immediate crisis brought about by Zuma’s actions. Because it suggests that there is currently no accountability mechanism outside of the ANC that could be set in motion to prevent the abuse of power or remove a sitting President.

Nonetheless, feelings of frustration and hopelessness will not change this. We cannot expect to mobilise mass action against Zuma and his allies without having built a foundation for it in advance. We need to work on strengthening effective opposition with a view to the long term, if we are to prevent the further decline of our constitutional democracy.

This means that the Democratic Alliance will have to become proactive where it has been reactive, to earn the trust of communities beyond its mostly-white middle class base. Merely speaking out against Zuma without showing similar and ongoing solidarity with students, grant recipients and the poor will not work. The connections that bind the various groups in South Africa are too flimsy and tenuous to support a coherent and concerted opposition. Only strong bonds can do that, and those must be built layer by layer over time.

White South Africans in particular must recognise that it is not enough for them simply to emerge from the shadows when their own wealth and wellbeing are directly threatened. They cannot express surprise and disdain at the absence of support for their calls now, when they have not worked to build trust or earn credibility in the past. Importantly, they cannot expect black South Africans to fight to preserve a society that excludes them.

Put simply, all South Africans should heed this moment as an abrupt wake-up call. We need to realise that poverty and inequality will hurt all South Africans in the long term, not just the poor, and accept that the status quo – as it was before the reshuffle – will need to change if the country is to survive. This recognition must lead to sustained and ongoing action in the long term, not only to protests in the short term. The difficult question is this: what does a mass democratic movement look like in 2017? And how do we start it? Who will lead it, and who will join it?

What we need is a dramatic shift in attitude, a wholesale political recalibration, if we hope to converge on a better society in the future. DM

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