South Africa has had an extraordinarily high rate of popular protests since 2004. These protests, famously dubbed the rebellion of the poor, have often mostly organised at the local level and often targeted local councillors. They have tended to happen in townships and informal settlements rather than in city centres. But although there have been thousands of protests, and huge numbers of people have been involved, their decentralised and local nature has meant that they haven’t developed into a real challenge to the authority of the state.
They have certainly affected the standing of the ANC, and when participants in these protests have decided to withhold their votes from the ruling party their effect has been felt at the polls.
But despite the huge numbers of protests since 2004, and the huge numbers of participants in these protests, there has never been a risk that they could, as in the Arab spring of 2011, bring down a government. For that to happen protest would have to move from the urban peripheries and into the city centres, they would have to take over the city centres and they would have to generate a simple and shared demand – as happened in Egypt in 2011.
The wave of protest in South Africa since 2004 has often placed local forms of corruption at the centre of its concerns. However, when civil society began to mobilise against the grotesque corruption of the Zuma Presidency, support was often sought from elites rather than from among the popular struggles against corruption. This was a huge tactical mistake. Zuma’s allies misused this to create the impression that it was only elites that were opposed to Zuma when in fact nothing could be further from the truth.
There was no possibility of social progress under Zuma. The state was being looted in the interests of a tiny group of people at the direct expense of the majority, and especially the poor. The machinery of the state was being distorted to serve the interests of a comprador elite in a way that made it impossible to build socially responsive state institutions.
Zuma’s state was also becoming rapidly more authoritarian to the extent that there was a real risk that democratic rights and freedoms would be lost.
Under these circumstances the urgent priority was to remove Zuma from office. This was a priority for both liberals and socialists. The Ramaphosa Presidency is essentially a liberal Presidency. For liberals the key task is to support it and to ensure that it can see out two terms. For socialists the key task is to ensure that it can hold the line against the politics of patronage that developed around Zuma so that the integrity of state institutions can be restored and the democratic space can be kept open to organise left alternatives.
However, it is not clear that Ramaphosa has sufficient power within the ANC to deal decisively with the remnants of the Zuma project. His margin of victory was very slim and key power barons loyal to the politics of plunder remain at every level of the party.
Ramaphosa’s power will not be stable without popular support. If he thinks that making an alliance with the EFF will give him that popular support that he needs he is making a grave mistake. For a start by allowing the EFF to dominate the national narrative Ramaphosa makes himself look weak. Moreover, the EFF’s authoritarian populism is fundamentally incompatible with democratic values. The EFF’s racial chauvinism will also make a collective national vision impossible.
The recent events in Mahikeng are primarily motivated by popular rage at corruption. They have targeted Supra Mahumapelo, a key figure in the “Premier League” and a key backer of the Zuma project. The form taken by the protests has often been highly problematic. Attacks on shops owned by foreigners must be condemned in the strongest possible terms. However, the way in which popular rage at corruption has turned into a coherent protest, taking central urban space and making a direct demand for the removal of Mahumapelo, is highly significant.
It shows that there is a real possibility that popular anger and mobilisation could defeat the remnants of the Zuma project. Ramaphosa and his backers should look here for the popular legitimacy that they need to finally defeat the Zuma project and to secure the integrity of state institutions and democratic freedoms. Liberals and socialists should both support the achievement of these two goals.
It goes without saying, of course, that once the integrity of our state institutions is secured, and we know that we won’t be collapsing into a police state with spooks around every corner, liberal and socialist must part ways. For liberalism, Ramaphosa is all that is required. For socialists there is an urgent next step that must be undertaken which is to confront capital and roll back the hegemony of neoliberalism.
But if Ramaphosa does not make an alliance with the popular rage against corruption there is a real possibility that he may win in society but lose in the party. And, for the moment anyway, whoever wins in the ANC rules the country.
The idea that Zuma and his allies enjoyed popular support was always bogus. Under Zuma’s rule electoral support for the ANC plummeted and there was mass protest in the streets. These are simple empirical facts. However, the propaganda for the Zuma project has always misrepresented it as a popular project. When thousands of people take to the streets against a Zuma ally the propaganda that present wholesale looting as a popular project looks entirely threadbare.
If Ramaphosa really wants to defeat Zumaism he cannot do so by turning to business and figures like Trever Manuel and elites in Davos and London. In the word of realpolitik Ramaphosa must make common cause with the popular anger on the streets. DM
Buccus is senior research associate at ASRI, research fellow in the School of Social Sciences at UKZN and academic director of a university study abroad program on political transformation.