Here is an uncomfortable home truth to muse on. The one that says the president is the master of the politics of survival. That his visible incompetence in all matters of governance and the state should not blind us to his capacity to hold on to the core levers of power in both the governing party and the state. And moreover that he has the capacity to patiently prepare the groundwork for the induction of his chosen political heir incumbent in the person of his estranged wife.
Jacob Zuma is indeed a master tactician and survivor, everyone says. But no one cares to ask how this state of affairs comes about. No president lives in a vacuum. Surviving involves outsmarting and outmanoeuvring your opponents, be they in your party or government or more broadly in the opposition parties or the battalions of civil society.
So it begs the question: are his opponents too dumb, too asleep, too fearful, too politically compromised themselves, too without any backbone to put up any real fight. Yes, they are all of those things. And more. They are also his tame sheep. His whipping boys. His useful idiots. But that too begs a deeper question: How did all this political slavery come about in our body politic?
Part of the answer lies in the political culture of the ANC itself. Going way back to its formation from among a tiny black intelligentsia and the founding chiefs of 1912. A culture that embedded itself over 100 years inside, then outside and then back inside the country. It’s the political culture that says we are in the NDR and we are a multiclass broad church, that we are praise singers for our leaders and we are beholden to them, we serve in positions of authority at their favour, we bow before the power of the owners of capital and global institutions, we use double-speak to survive before the masses, we carry multiple party caps that allow us to be different proponents of conflicting politics in different organisations and sites of struggle.
We lie and we cheat and we think that’s smart and clever politics. We are leaders and insiders who believe in our hearts that we are clever and superior to the mass of the electorate. We defy or scarcely respect the Constitution and the rule of law. Let alone the separation of powers. That’s just an irritant. We are gods. We are the chosen ones. This is the politics of the inner culture of the ANC. It’s not an aberration. It’s the dominant culture.
In the ANC this is how we do things day by day. We have a plan. A plan to spend a trillion rand on nuclear energy for ourselves and SA. In that order. Or a plan to remove a principled long-serving cadre who is a troublemaker and redeploy another. Or a plan to beat down the opposition in a meeting or a congress or wherever. These are the day-to-day plans we make to hold and extend our control and power. We were trained in making these plans. So we go to another comrade. One on one. We explain the problem. We articulate our plan to solve the problem. We solicit support. And then we go to another comrade. We solicit more support. And another. More support.
Each supporter has been chosen and selected by their track record. They are loyalists. That is their core competence. Soliciting support one on one from loyalists is like feeding sweets to kids. Especially if you are the president. And each of them takes that plan to others. Sells it as an insider story from “the chief”.
Then we take our process to step two. To a meeting of a collective. It could be the Cabinet. Or the ANC NWC or NEC. Or an alliance meeting. We have caucused. The loyalists are there. They will raise the issue and even propose our plan to ensure that our plan is adopted. So if things go wrong we have covered our bases. We have been through the organisational process. We have the record. We have the minute. This plan was agreed in this meeting or that. If a critical comrade wants to now oppose the plan’s dirty side he is fingered and told: but you supported this plan, you may have even spoken in favour of it, the organisation has decided and we are bound by the decision.
The plan maker says it’s not his plan. It’s yours. It belongs to the collective. Why do you accuse me? Why do you blame me? The collective decided. And so it goes. That too is the methodological, unwritten custom and practice of the ANC. It’s been in the culture for generations. Our president only knows that culture. He is not smart. He is simply doing what he has always been told works for the ANC. And it does for him too. Almost by a default.
But now there are parts of the ANC that are making a noise. The constitutionalists. The so-called democrats. They are getting uncomfortable. It’s all too much. Too many plans have gone wrong. The betrayals of the constitutional oath, the control of foreign families over all our plans, the ratings downgrade, the endless corruption. This opposition starts to get uneasy and restless. They start to make a noise. Very cautiously. But you can see it in what they don’t say, so the commentariat says. That’s what they hang onto as signs of hope: Gwede Mantashe didn’t say they dropped the issue of the president resigning at the infamous extended NWC. So we the citizenry can hold that hope. We want to believe in a future that may still emerge from the ANC, from the good guys, from the democrats and constitutionalists. From the very same people who were trained and imbued with the very same ANC politics of supremacy and control and making plans. Somehow we live in hope, we like to believe the democrats are the lesser evil. That they can undo the past century of this rotten politics. That they are disease-free. And they can somehow undo the grip of this insidious politics on the very institutional fabric of our country. Use a thief to catch the thief. Beware it doesn’t end up catching you.
But there is a big, big problem. The politics of the kleptocracy has traction. Their plan has meaning. It’s called radical economic transformation (RET). It sings in the ears of the restless black middle-class outsiders. It sings in the ears of the mid to senior state functionary and the SOE company officer in a tender committee and the office of every councillor in every municipality. When you splice it up in anti-colonial and race hate talk it rings loud in the experience of many millions of poor people too.
No one but the intelligentsia cares to want to know what RET means. Why? Because the masses already know. It means more of the same. More of the politics of the leader and the chief and the councillor and the shop steward securing a future for themselves and caring for their subjects. Even if this means going against the needs of the community or the worker in the factory. Still, we believe in it. Because in the end it means that some of us can escape the misery and poverty and squallor of our parents and grandparents. We can become “a somebody”. An insider. We need to just show loyalty to our leader. And loyalty will deliver fame and fortune.
And so maybe we will be there tomorrow. We have seen others make it out of squalor. And there are many thousands more of us poor and marginalised people lining up to give credibility to the leaders plan in the search for fame and fortune. There is no other future for us. RET makes perfect sense. It makes visible what we know: that land and factories and mines and banks were not given to us in 94. Racism permeates our everyday experience. Now is our time. Our leader will secure this. We will be free. We back our leader. He knows our lives. Simple.
The good guys howl. They scream. They boycott investors trips. They issue veterans declarations and calls. They may even squeak from a back bench of Parliament. They appeal to the leadership to listen. But their words are empty. Meaningless. They land on deaf ears. They have no answer for RET. They can only mouth something more palatable like we must do this for the people, as the deputy president said recently. But it’s helpless. And hopeless. Useless, in fact. Moving the deck chairs on the Titanic. We are going down anyway. The politics of the ANC will make sure of that. It is bigger and stronger and more pervasive than any internal opposition. Irrespective of whether the good guys win or lose. These are just steps on the road. They will not alter the trajectory. Because the politics of subservience and disingenuity is deep in the bloodstream of the ANC.
The trajectory is set and the road down is long and deep. It didn’t start with Gupta or Polokwane or Zuma even. It started in the political methodology and culture of the ANC. It’s set in the everyday politics of the choices the leaders make. It’s not written down. It’s a value set of embedded politics. It’s deep in the contour lines of ANC practice. It’s the politics of subservience and favors. Of loyalism and compliance and subservience for reward. It’s the politics that say that independent critical thought is a problem, not a blessing. Sometimes they may even dress this politics up. Call it names and let it follow a set organisational process. It’s called democratic centralist decision-making. It’s the politics that the ANC has learnt from the SACP. And the SACP learnt this same politics from the laps of their Stalinist friends in what was the Soviet Union through the dark days of the Sixties and Seventies and Eighties. It’s a politics that takes no prisoners. It’s doesn’t countenance dissent. It praises leaders. It crushes uprisings. Even among its own. And it awards and rewards the chosen few with bags of money or farms or anything really. And it does this in the name of the people and the democracy.
This is the politics that governs the ANC and our country. And it will be with us for a very long time. DM
Gavin Hartford has decades of organisational experience in the labour movement and was active in the ANC at branch level and as an Eastern Cape Regional Executive Committee member.
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