It is now clear to all commentators that the election of Cyril Ramaphosa to the presidency has not resolved the deep crisis into which Jacob Zuma’s kleptocracy plunged the country.
Ramaphosa has made some significant moves, and his primary political success has been the removal of the dangerous and deeply corrupt cabal that had captured the eThekwini Municipality in Durban.
But elsewhere in the country, and at a national level, he has not been able to deal decisively with the kleptocratic faction in the ruling party. That faction, characterised by authoritarian nationalism as well as a brazenly kleptocratic orientation, continues to hold real power within the ruling party. It also has strident support outside the ruling party from the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF), along with some of the increasingly irrelevant propaganda machinery left over from the Bell Pottinger days, such as Andile Mngxitama’s Black First Land First.
Moreover, as we can see from the way that Duduzane Zuma has been received by some as if he were a celebrity, and the enthusiastic response by some to the new DSTV reality TV show staring Shawn Mkhize (formerly Mpisane), there is a faction in society that strongly identifies with wealth that has been accumulated through predation on the state. This is so even though it is working-class and poor people that have been worst affected by the ravages of families like the Zumas, the Guptas, the Watsons and the Mpisanes.
This shouldn’t surprise us. After all, many poor and working-class Americans voted for a corrupt billionaire president. But popular support for some of the beneficiaries of corruption that treats them like celebrities who are worthy of our admiration could be turned into political support and is, therefore, a cause for concern.
Our future remains on a knife-edge. A return to kleptocratic and authoritarian nationalism would end any prospects for social justice, and almost certainly put an end to democracy too. But many commentators are inadvertently worsening the situation by relentlessly writing and speaking as if there are only two broad camps contesting for the future of our country. They speak as if one camp is made up of the kleptocratic and authoritarian nationalists in the ruling party and the EFF, while the other is led by Ramaphosa and supported by big business and civil society.
They are correct to describe the kleptocratic faction as grossly misusing the language of radical nationalism as a mask to disguise their aspirations to accumulate personal wealth via the state. But they are seriously incorrect when they describe the anti-corruption faction as uniformly committed to a standard set of neoliberal policies such as privatisation, inflation targeting and austerity – including mass retrenchments from state-owned enterprises.
These commentators miss the vital fact that there are also left-wing actors that are simultaneously opposed to both corruption and the neoliberal measures that are being called for by the business press, Tito Mboweni, commentators such as Justice Malala and many others. One commentator has recently even gone so far as to assert that there is no left in South Africa. This claim is obviously not true and amounts to a sweeping and sneering erasure of various kinds of organisations and struggle, often at significant scale, on the part of working-class and poor black people.
No serious analyst considers the EFF to be a genuinely left-wing formation and so it is, of course, true that there is no left-wing party in our Parliament. It is also true that the left is scattered across a variety of organisations. But it is undoubtedly evident that there are powerful left-wing forces in our society, including some important and influential left-wing intellectuals, some trade unions, factions in unions organised in both Cosatu and Saftu, individuals and factions in the South African Communist Party (SACP), and Abahlali baseMjondolo, the movement of informal settlement dwellers that emerged in Durban and is now often described as the largest urban social movement on the planet.
We certainly do have a large and vibrant left in South Africa. It exists in and outside the tripartite alliance, in a variety of organisational forms and in a diversity of broadly left ideological orientations. Of course, its influence will be limited until it finds a way to work together and to achieve significant representation in Parliament. But that does not mean the left has no influence in society. Any serious analysis of this situation must recognise this fact.
The SACP and Cosatu continue to have significant influence within the ANC, and because they are a critical part of the coalition that brought Ramaphosa to power, and keeps him in power, he cannot alienate them entirely and be confident of retaining his hold on power.
Saftu has been able to mount street protests on an impressive scale reminiscent of the 1980s and remains powerful on the shop floor in various industries, including some of the state-owned enterprises. Its largest and most militant union, Numsa, has hundreds of thousands of members and is growing rapidly. Abahlali baseMjondolo is a powerful actor in Durban where it has more than 70,000 paid-up members and regularly holds mass meetings of thousands of its members at football grounds. It is also growing rapidly in provinces such as the Eastern Cape, Mpumalanga and Gauteng.
Opposition to Zuma’s kleptocracy came from a wide variety of social forces. Big business, led by Sipho Pityana, threw its weight behind Save South Africa, as did much of civil society. But there was also considerable opposition to Zuma outside the mostly middle-class and neoliberal politics of Save South Africa.
Abahlali baseMjondolo opposed Zuma from the start and paid a very high price for this in Durban in the form of repeated assassinations. Numsa was also relatively quick off the mark in opposing Zuma and was expelled from Cosatu for this reason in 2014. Cosatu and the SACP were the last factions of the left to come out against Zuma but, when they eventually did, their role proved to be decisive given their continued influence within the ruling party.
This means that by the end of Zuma’s reign the forces opposed to him included pro-business neoliberals, big business itself, civil society and more radical groups such as Numsa, other unions organised in Saftu, parts of the SACP and Cosatu, as well as Abahlali baseMjondolo and a number of left-wing intellectuals. When analysts forget this and speak as if the anti-corruption forces are all neoliberals, a set of serious analytical and political problems arise.
One of these is that all the forces opposed to mass retrenchments at state-owned enterprises, as well as privatisation and austerity in general, are unfairly painted as being in the camp that aims to restore a form of kleptocratic nationalism to power. This is not only inaccurate and unfair, but it also runs the risk of seriously weakening the credibility of the broad front against corruption.
We need to understand that there were left- and right-wing currents in the opposition to Zuma and that today there are left-wing forces that are simultaneously opposed to both neoliberalism and corruption. We need to be aware that when popular forces opposed to both corruption and neoliberalism are egregiously misrepresented as being for corruption because they are opposed to neoliberalism, this creates the false impression that it is only neoliberals who oppose corruption.
Creating this mistaken impression could do serious damage to the popular standing of what will be a long fight against corruption. This danger escalates when commentators either make the astonishing claim that there is no left in South Africa or casually and gratuitously misrepresent the left as nothing more than the stooges of the kleptocratic project in the ANC and the EFF.
There is often a clear class element to this problem and it is also frequently racialised. For many middle-class people, the work done by working-class and poor people to oppose Zuma, and the broader kleptocracy, is simply invisible because it is carried out in a social reality far removed from their everyday experience. For some white people, the narrative about the opposition to Zuma centres on white and middle-class actors in the media and civil society while casually ignoring working-class and poor black people, including people who risked their lives to oppose Zuma and his kleptocracy.
We will not be able to solve our problems if we cannot see our reality clearly. The idea that everyone who is opposed to kleptocratic politics is a middle-class neoliberal is fundamentally and plainly empirically wrong. It is also deeply unfair when it misrepresents people and forces simultaneously opposed to corruption and neoliberalism as stooges for the kleptocratic project. It poses real dangers for the credibility and viability of a sustained and effective anti-corruption project in a country with massive unemployment and broad popular sympathy for workers who are at imminent risk of losing their jobs at state-owned enterprises.
In 2020 we need 20-20 vision, not the endless repetition of a set of assumptions that say more about the prejudices of the commentariat than the realities of our society. We need to acknowledge that there are, broadly speaking, three and not two primary camps seeking to shape the future of our society. DM
A finger with nerve damage doesn't wrinkle underwater.