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Kleptocrats are paving the route to wealth with fear and deep loathing

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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.

The streets of Durban have a brittle edge right now. As is the case elsewhere in South Africa, much of the political class in the city was significantly enriched by plunder from the public purse during the Zuma years.

First published in the Daily Maverick 168 weekly newspaper.

That enrichment continued after Jacob Zuma left office, but the removal of Zandile Gumede from her position as mayor of Durban has indicated that the days of impunity for looting may be coming to an end.

The political class now faces two risks: the possibility of arrest and prosecution for theft, and an end to political office as a route to wealth. It goes without saying that they will resist the clampdown on corruption, as slow and uneven as it is, with all their might.

Zuma has become the lightning rod around which the kleptocrats are organising their fight to keep the looting going – and to stay out of jail.

Some years back it was quite common for some middle-class analysts to argue that corruption was “a middle-class issue”. This was a wildly incorrect assumption. The poor depend on the state far more than the middle classes and are the hardest hit by corruption. Opposition to corruption emerged from this sector of society long before the middle classes were spurred into action.

The discourse around radical economic transformation is an effective ideological mechanism for organising the support of the political class from their allies “in business” and people who think that they have a chance of being part of the racket. But it does not work for the poor, who see local councillors and their cronies getting richer and richer off resources meant for the poor.

In fact, the anger at corruption in poor communities is explosive. It is a common reason for the street protests that the middle classes often tend to dismiss as criminality rather than an expression of desperation.

For this reason, the kleptocrats cannot use the discourse of radical economic transformation to mobilise the poor in support of Zuma. It has become clear that the ideologies that they are using are a mixture of xenophobia and ethnicity.

It is widely known that uniformed men claiming to be MK activists have been attacking migrants on the streets of Durban, and marching up and down outside Nkandla. What is less well known is that local councillors and party structures have been aggressively pushing the standard xenophobic line used by right-wing demagogues everywhere to divide the poor so that the rich can continue to fatten their already bloated stomachs.

Local councillors and party structures are also pushing a crude line, suggesting that there is an ethnic conspiracy against Zuma. Older grassroots activists are drawing connections with the 1980s, and the war between Inkatha and the United Democratic Front. There is a real sense of fear that, as the political temperature rises, there may be a return to violence.

It is possible that these fears may be overblown. People who have been traumatised can be oversensitive to the possibility of the return of events that have traumatised them. But we cannot dismiss these fears. If the forces that are rallying behind Zuma do turn to violence there is no doubt that it will be the poor who will be most at risk.

President Cyril Ramaphosa and his allies often seem flatfooted, unable to lead and reliant on the legal process to deal with their enemies, who are also the enemies of society in general. But the fears being expressed by grassroots activists in Durban indicate that there will need to be a political as well as a legal response to the kleptocrats. Unfortunately, it doesn’t seem likely that Ramaphosa has the tactical sophistication or the gumption required for this task. DM168

This story first appeared in our weekly Daily Maverick 168 newspaper which is available for free to Pick n Pay Smart Shoppers at these Pick n Pay stores.

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