A motley bunch of “radical economic transformation” activists, a rogue’s gallery of discredited and fired members of Zuma’s Cabinet and former senior executives, and small business actors who force access into business opportunities … this was the South African “face of radicalism” that appeared alongside Jacob Zuma at his Durban court appearance.
It was an ambiguous reminder of the “political capital” that a small and self-selected collection of actors hope to make out of radical orientations and a radical label that is omnipresent in South African society. The benefit, to them, of capturing the label lies in the still largely veiled continuous advantages they draw from their association with former president Jacob Zuma.
It was reported that there were 11 of these activist groupings and organisations, gathered under the umbrella banner of Defenders of RET (Radical Economic Transformation). They included both established organisations and new pop-ups. In their ranks were, besides core Zumaist-Gupta acolytes in Black Land First (BLF), the Ngokubona Business Forum.
This forum is known for Mafia-style business operations where they force their way into allocated business contracts, for example, in construction. By now they have an established relationship with the Zumaist eThekwini Municipality.
Also prominent was the National Funeral Practitioners Association (which opened business opportunities for new practitioners after advocating black operator exclusivity for township funerals). They were joined by the National Taxi Alliance which conducts ongoing campaigns for the benefit of the taxi industry (read Aarto, e-tolls).
This brand of radicalism was explicated further through the presence of the Commission on Religious Affairs (CRA) and National Interfaith Council of South Africa (Nicsa), both with an interest in controlling attempts at the regulation of the church industry.
The National Unemployed People’s Trust, a BLF associate, was another of the clone organisations that names itself after a better known similar organisation and then piggy-backs on the established reputation. The trust’s biggest claim to recent fame was its assertion that firing Zuma “could spark civil war”.
Zuma, late-awakener to RET and accused No. 1 in the case of arms deal corruption and associated multibillion-rand bills to the taxpayer (on procurement that was the antithesis of anything radical), basked in the forged ideological endorsement. He and his RET apostles claimed martyrdom in the face of persecution for radical virtues. Zuma’s list of RET achievements comprise, they argue, besides generally “launching the RET agenda”, announcing free education and announcing land expropriation without compensation in defeat of white minority capital, amending the Competition Act to hold corporates personally liable for corruption, and launching the (now aborted) Revised Mining Charter. The strengthening of BRICS, and South Africa’s withdrawal from the International Criminal Court (ICC), are further evidence, for them, of “radical action”.
This list lubricated the notion that Zuma is the innocent, persecuted Jesus-like figure. He is crucified for threatening RET and white minority capital. Zuma’s RET veil is held out as evidence of his innocence. It might have worked better if the corruption petticoat had not protruded.
Up to a point, it had been a clever form of ownership of radical. The motley and largely business-oriented bunch converged largely with the losing camp in the Battle of Nasrec. Several among them, in different capacities, were associated with the Nkosazana Dlamini Zuma campaign. The battle was lost and they were freed to pitch their star to the originator of that campaign, Zuma himself. The Defenders now had their central figure, and pretended to have unveiled the “plot” to persecute the great anti-white minority capital warrior – pity that the argument also lacked internal consistency.
The flaw was that Zuma was the belated “convert” to RET; the conversion unfolded when his back was against the wall. He procrastinated when he rose into ANC and state power in 2007-09, on the ticket of being more radical in restitution and connection to the people. He did excel, as I argue in my book Dominance and Decline, at creating networks of beneficiaries, linked legitimately to Black Economic Empowerment (BEE), but also more clandestinely to vast networks of capture, big and small. His secret was that he was the kingpin. To reap their fruits the beneficiaries had to remain close to JZ.
Zuma secured his second ANC term in 2012 at Mangaung on the argument that his pending “Lula Moment” would open the doors of radical economic transformation. The most notable “radical” that emerged was Zuma’s extreme amassment of riches via the Gupta machinery of accumulation. When he started running out of time, Zuma tried to position NDZ as the new lead apostle. It was a less than credible project, recognised for what it was – a front to remain out of jail.
When Zuma was out of time entirely he certainly did announce free post-secondary education and his ANC faction helped bring in a somewhat radical formulation on land expropriation. It was the baton of how to execute this “radical” – and simultaneously how to moderate it to be investor-business-rating agency friendly – that became at one level Cyril Ramaphosa’s blight. This account also exposes a hovering question: to what extent does the Ramaphosa-Zuma contest (and to the extent that it has not been won yet) embody the real radical in South African society?
Perhaps the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF), with its semi-anarchist appeal to poor and deprived communities, has a natural resonance with “radical” as it exists on the ground in South Africa. Much of the anger of continuous and still growing economic desperation finds expression, however, beyond the Durban street stages, new ANC missives and weekend land invasions.
The real radical is probably in the petrol-bomb attack on the Burgersfort mineworker bus that targeted the few who still have jobs in that community.
The real radical (ethnic tones notwithstanding) is in Vuwani’s school arson where communities saw livelihoods dissipate along with municipal boundaries.
The real radical is in the destruction of community-level infrastructure and moral fibre by fire, vandalism, crime and violence.
There is nothing left to hope for, nothing to gain. The desperate ones probably care neither about a new dawn ANC, nor about who shares the stage with Jacob Zuma. DM