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Tactical alliance between the left and neoliberals will defeat corruption

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Dr Imraan Buccus is senior research associate at the Auwal Socio-Economic Research Institute and a postdoctoral scholar in gender justice, health and human development at Durban University of Technology.

Towards the end of Jacob Zuma’s period in office, South Africans were increasingly mobilised and when Zuma finally fell, there was widespread jubilation. Poor people’s movements and trade unions disliked Zuma as much as big business, and although they had organised separately, there was general excitement when he was eventually defeated. Now, there is deep pessimism.

The stalemate between the three factions in the ANC – the left, the neoliberals and the kleptocratic nationalists – has stalled progress. The neoliberals have the presidency and the finance ministry, but they don’t have enough power in the party to really drive their agenda forward. This is understandable. As much as most South Africans loathe the kleptocrats, it is an unfortunate reality that they have significant power within the structures of the ANC.

What is not so easy to understand is why ordinary citizens are giving in to pessimism rather than choosing to continue the activism that helped to remove Jacob Zuma from office. Civil society was a powerful force not too long ago. Today it is largely silent, with each organisation focusing on its own projects rather than the national situation. These projects are often important, but if we don’t get the “big picture” right, we’ll never make real advances towards social justice.

Perhaps for the left, part of the problem is that the discourse around corruption has been dominated by the neoliberals. In a normal society, neoliberals, who want to give more power to the market, and the left, who want to reduce the power of the market, are natural enemies. But in our current situation, there is a shared opposition to corruption and a desire for a capable state.

However, when the anti-corruption discourse is dominated by neoliberals, the left often stays away from the contestation. The left does not want to be seen to be working with its natural enemies. This is understandable, but given our situation, ultimately misguided.

In the ANC, the left and the neoliberals are united against the kleptocrats. But this has not happened in wider society. It should. Business has a bleak future in South Africa if clean water doesn’t come out of the taps, electricity is unreliable, most of the population is poorly educated, there is massive unemployment and people are not safe on the streets. The left has an equally bleak future if any attempt to provide decent education, housing and healthcare through the state will be captured, and destroyed by the kleptocrats.

The proposed national health insurance (NHI), is a good example of the crisis that we face. Normally, the left would rush to support a project like the NHI as quality healthcare for all is a standard left position. Normally, neoliberals would oppose it as they would like to see healthcare being left to the market. This is what we see in the US where healthcare is a key battleground between Democrats and Republicans, and even between the left of the Democratic party and its centre.

In South Africa, we do see the neoliberals opposing the NHI as expected. But we don’t see the left supporting it. Trade unions and social movements are not taking to the streets in support of the NHI. The reason for this is that while the left supports state healthcare in principle, no one, including the left, trusts that the ANC will be able to provide quality healthcare.

There is a deep fear that the NHI would go the same way as SAA, Passenger Rail Agency of South Africa, the SABC, the Public Investment Corporation, etc. All of these organisations were simply looted by the kleptocrats.

The reality is that neither the neoliberals nor the left, whether in or out of the ANC, have any hope of advancing their projects until the kleptocrats are defeated, and a capable state with a professional civil service developed. For this reason, the way out of our logjam, while counter-intuitive, is clear.

The left and the neoliberals in wider society need to make a tactical alliance against the kleptocrats, just as they have done within the ANC. Both parties would find it difficult to stomach being in alliance with each other, but as difficult as it is to imagine Sipho Pityana and Irwin Jim on the same platform, it’s the only viable way forward for South Africa.

If civil society could remobilise behind a united front against corruption, and bring in the left and the neoliberals, unions, social movements and business, the kleptocrats would suddenly look very vulnerable. After all, the kleptocrats do have power in the ANC, but they have no power in society. With a concerted push, they could very soon be on the back foot, and with another push, including a few carefully targeted prosecutions, their power could be broken altogether.

If a united front could destroy the kleptocrats, we could then get back to the normal business of the struggle between the left and the neoliberals. But until the power of the kleptocrats is broken; neither the left nor the neoliberals can advance their projects; society as a whole will remain in this stalemate, and sink deeper and deeper into pessimism.

The support recently given by organised business to Cosatu’s plan for Eskom shows that the left and neoliberals can form strategic alliances. If this kind of tactical alliance can be expanded, we could find a way out of our logjam. DM

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