Criminal organisations in Durban, among them so-called Business Forums, are operating with impunity and, according to many accounts, with the backing of the mayor.
The situation is so out of hand that last year the Auditor-General Kimi Makwetu had to withdraw his audit team from Durban after they were subject to death threats.
The city has, as grassroots activists have been saying for years, been “gangsterised”. The inevitable result of this is a collapse of service delivery, the flight of the middle classes and businesses and the decline of the city into systemic and possible irreversible failure.
The arrest of the Mayor, Zandile Gumede, is, however, a major breakthrough. If the rumoured arrest of 62 councillors does in fact happen we’ll know that the honest parts of the state will have a fighting chance of cutting out the rot.
We only have to look to Central America, to countries like Belize, Mexico, Honduras and so on to see what our future will look like if we don’t act to cut out the rot and restore some integrity to the governance of the city. And that future is bleak. It is a future of rubbish rotting in the streets, sewage washing into the rivers and the harbour, potholes, undrinkable and unreliable municipal water, regular assassinations and the lack of any clear dividing line between organised crime and the local state.
We do, though, have a chance to restore the promise of a viable future. But that chance will not remain open forever. Every elected president is strongest on their first day in office. After that their power slowly declines. Ramaphosa’s uncritically pro-business stance is a serious weakness but he is, too his credit, serious about taking on corruption and, it seems, political violence.
The time to move, decisively, against the gangsterisation of governance in cities like Durban and Pietermaritzburg, and provinces like the Free State and Mpumalanga, is now. In Durban, the first step is to ensure that the prosecution of Zandile Gumede proceeds on a free and fair basis. The second is to ensure that the prosecution net is cast more widely and that all those implicated in corruption and political violence are prosecuted. The third step, which is absolutely vital, is that the mayor is removed from office pending the resolution of the legal process against her. The fourth and final step required for a restoration of governance in the city is that elected officials and bureaucrats implicated in corruption must be replaced with honest people as a matter of urgency.
Ramaphosa and the forces aligned to him in wider society will be at their strongest in the days and weeks immediately after the inauguration. They must act swiftly, and if they do act swiftly they must be supported by all the progressive forces in the society.
The pro-Zuma forces, like the African Transformation Movement, the African Content Movement and Black First Land First, were trounced in this election. The protest in support of Gumede was pitifully small. Zuma himself may well be heading to a prison cell. The pro-Zuma forces are weak at the moment.
But with Ace Magashule in such a powerful position in Luthuli House, they will quickly start to regroup from within the party. This could pose a real risk to Ramaphosa and to his reform project. As soon as Ramaphosa feels that he is at any risk he will start to back down and to make compromises with the corrupt. This is why time is of the essence, and the moment is act is now.
In Durban it is vital that business, faith-based organisations, civil society and grassroots politics – in the form of the new and powerful coalition of shack dwellers, flat dwellers and street traders – along with the municipal workers who have come out against the mayor, unite and push as hard as possible against the forces of corruption. This is the sort of moment in which a broad-based coalition and a clear-sighted apprehension of what is at stake are both vital. This moment of possibility will not come again and it must be seized.
It is also vital that the forces within the ANC that are opposed to corruption and political violence, including the SACP, come to the table. In fact, in the best-case scenario, the anti-corruption forces within the ruling party would form a united front with forces outside of the party to ensure that the Augean stables can be swept clean.
South Africa is a strange, but ultimately extraordinary country. Again and again, we go to the brink, and then good sense prevails and we pull back from disaster. Nationally we went very close to the brink as Zuma battled to stay in power. In Durban, we have not yet pulled back from the brink. But, as noted above, the arrest of the mayor is a clear sign that there is now a real possibility that we could still save our city from its capture by a political Mafiosi willing to loot public funds to enrich themselves at the direct expense of everyone else.
This is a time for big vision, and for different role players to set aside their differences. Imagine if the SACP, the honest faction of the SACP, faith-based organisations, civil society and grassroots organisations united to march against corruption and political violence, and for the immediate withdrawal of the mayor from her position.
There would be tens of thousands of people on the streets. And the message couldn’t be clearer. This would strengthen the hands of the reformers immeasurably and put paid to the lie that looting and assassinations are viewed with anything other than horror by the decent majority of our people. DM