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South Africa’s political crisis is far from over: The fallout is likely to be chaotic and violent

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Martin Jansen is the director of Workers’ World Media Productions and a longstanding labour and community activist.

The entire ANC and its social base are dependent on patronage fed by state resources. Their lives and livelihoods are under threat and they will defend it by all means necessary, within or outside the law.

“But we are not only rebuilding our country after the destruction of the past week; we are rebuilding after the devastation of decades of dispossession and exploitation. We need to fundamentally transform our economy and our society, deepening our efforts to create employment, lift millions out of poverty and ensure that the country’s wealth is shared among all its people.” (From the desk of the president — Monday, 19 July 2021.)

While South Africa is still reeling from the shock of last week’s “protests” against former president Jacob Zuma’s jailing for contempt, and the subsequent food riots and looting, we should not readily take comfort in the words of President Cyril Ramaphosa. 

The obvious irony and hypocrisy are that it is his and the ANC government’s failures of the past 27 years that have brought the country to the brink of civil war and failed-state status.

Based on the empty rhetoric and promises of the past decades — starting with the slogan of “a better life for all” in 1993 — we know we have no reason to believe that Ramaphosa and his government will be leading us to transform the economy and create the millions of decent jobs needed to lift the masses out of poverty and ensure that the country’s wealth is shared among the people (as stipulated in the ANC’s Freedom Charter of 1955). 

Of immediate concern to all of us is the likely scenario for South Africa under an ANC government embroiled in the factional political battle that unfolded violently over past weeks, underpinned by desperate poverty. 

A violent outcome to this battle was inevitable. If it is allowed to continue, it is likely to get worse. The battle is not simply about Ramaphosa versus Zuma and the latter’s recent imprisonment. It is about who dominates the ruling party and thereby the government and state. 

In this, there is much at stake — the power, influence and wealth which hundreds of ANC and SA Communist Party (SACP) members are dependent on for their livelihoods and social standing. State power and resources are the main means for sustaining and satisfying the voracious appetite for wealth of these black sections of the middle and bourgeois classes. 

Patronage is the name of the game

Virtually the entire ANC and its respective groups and factions rely on an intricate formal and informal system of patronage that runs from the “Top Six” down to the local branches, and secures and maintains support through dispensing high- to low-level jobs in government and the state — from ministers and deputy generals to local branch members. 

We are aware of the process of corruption carried out by the ANC in government in the form of tenders and “mismanaged” procurement practices at all levels, to the direct theft of state resources. The ANC is rotten to its very core and in the process has wrecked and crippled all spheres of public service. 

This process has proceeded concomitantly with the ANC’s pro-big capital neoliberal economic policies and consistent anti-poor austerity measures — even under the Covid-19 pandemic — that have given impetus to the food riots and looting of the past week. Both these phenomena — state corruption and pro-business/anti-poor policies — have their roots in the origins of the ANC and the negotiated political settlement of 1993

The late Stellenbosch University economist Prof Sampie Terreblanche summed up the settlement, as put by the apartheid ruling class to the ANC and which was accepted with sunset clauses and all, as: “We give you Pretoria, but leave Johannesburg alone.” 

This meant that the ANC would have state power for as long as it left the apartheid economy fundamentally intact. This was accepted by all the top leaders of the ANC — Nelson Mandela, Joe Slovo, Thabo Mbeki, Chris Hani, Zuma and Ramaphosa. 

Maintaining WMC

What had been the ANC’s historical mission since its formation in 1912 — that of doing away with oppressive colonial and apartheid conditions to enable the black middle class reasonable freedom to thrive and access wealth accumulation opportunities — became intertwined with its role of maintaining the apartheid economic arrangements that not only left “White Monopoly Capital” (WMC) intact, but actually better off with nasty sanctions removed, making it better able to operate and expand globally. 

In addition, the ANC’s economic policies were soon to change from its pretend welfarist Reconstruction and Development Programme to its outwardly neoliberal pro-business Growth, Employment and Redistribution economic policy. That had been enthusiastically and vigorously implemented since the Mandela era and was championed by Mbeki and every subsequent ANC regime. 

These penny-pinching, cost-cutting policies were implemented in every sphere of public service and parastatal companies — housing, education, public transport, healthcare and water and electricity provision. Coupled with mismanagement and corruption, it dealt a devastating blow to the majority of South Africans, being the black working class and the poor. 

This dire situation of extreme poverty and inequality was aggravated by several local and global economic crises that saw the country lose millions of secure and permanent jobs. In addition, to ensure that all opposition and resistance to these anti-poor measures were undermined and curbed — at the behest of big business and to secure its own political power — the ANC government passed several labour market reforms that more recently included labour law amendments which significantly weakened workers’ right to strike. 

Watershed moment

The dismissal of Zuma as deputy president of the country in 2005 was a watershed moment for the ruling party and the country. It heralded the beginning of the ANC’s factional battle that has negatively affected its already weak leadership and capacity to govern. 

Zuma managed to galvanise all the wounded members of the party and its alliance partners (the ANC Youth League, the SACP and Cosatu) that successfully led to ousting Thabo Mbeki as the ANC’s and the country’s president at the 52nd ANC national conference in Polokwane in 2007. While mismanagement and corruption, such as the billion-dollar Arms Deal, had already been features of ANC rule since 1994, the Zuma presidency took it to another level with wanton looting and destruction.

By 2015 the main organisational components of the Zuma faction — the rump of the ANC Youth League, Cosatu and the SACP — had separated and distanced itself from Zuma. 

But by then the wily Zuma, playing the long game, had secured majority support within party structures and all spheres of government with appointments of his cronies to strategic positions in government and the state. His top priority was to ensure that his yes-men controlled the National Prosecuting Authority (NPA), law enforcement and the armed forces. His main objectives were to maintain control over the state and sustain his network of patronage and support and remain out of prison then and forever. 

A concerted effort

It was his lucrative looting partnership with the Gupta family and its destabilising effects on the country that upset the applecart for White Monopoly Capital. 

All efforts were made to terminate Zuma’s role as SA president. Success was achieved with the help of the mainstream media, liberal NGOs and the trade union movement, and by providing a huge election war chest (an estimated R300-million) to the Ramaphosa faction to bribe delegates to elect him as ANC president at the 2017 national conference. This was achieved with the narrowest of margins over the Zuma faction’s candidate, Nkosazana Dlamini Zuma. 

Since then, the factional battle has raged on with Ramaphosa gaining ascendancy and action against the Zuma faction using organs of state, with the legitimising role of the Zondo Commission of Inquiry into State Capture. This has resulted in pending prosecutions against leading members of the Zuma faction, such as party Secretary-General Ace Magashule, as well as Zuma himself, who was eventually jailed for 15 months for contempt of court.  

For the Zuma-supporting “Radical Economic Transformation” (RET) faction, this was too much. It symbolically signalled defeat: an end to its political contestation for party dominance, which also threatened to collapse its patronage network and control over all access to state resources. 

A determined fightback was required, with the main demand the release of Zuma from prison. Actions started with protests and acts of sabotage, attacking trucks on the strategic N3 freeway that links the economic hubs of Durban and Johannesburg and the businesses of WMC — the warehouses, factories and malls in KwaZulu-Natal and Gauteng.

This soon morphed into full-scale food riots by desperate, poor people, especially unemployed youth, that ended in more than 330 people being killed. 

Lackadaisical response

The initial inert response by the SA Police Service and security forces can be put down to leading sections still being supportive and sympathetic to the Zuma cause. After all, many of them are Zuma appointees and henchmen. 

This political crisis is far from over and could get worse. Ramaphosa’s cautious, incremental purge has allowed the Zuma/RET faction to plot and plan. With the Zondo Commission taking so long to conclude its business and lay the basis for extensive prosecutions of Zuma allies for their role in State Capture, there is sufficient space for them to muster support within the party to win leadership elections at the ANC’s 2022 national conference. 

Increasing their support base within the ANC and its membership on the basis of the threat posed to hundreds of corrupt leaders at all levels of the party as a consequence of recommendations by the Zondo Commission and the NPA could prove decisive in swinging the majority vote to the RET/Zuma faction. 

The options open to Ramaphosa are to continue with his incremental purge through state organs and risk defeat at the next national conference, or to act decisively and immediately expel all the RET/Zuma-supporting dissidents, along with arresting and prosecuting those who plotted and carried out their ungovernability plans last week. 

Prepare for the worst

Either way, the fallout is likely to be chaotic and violent, since both factions — indeed the entire ANC and its social base — are dependent on patronage fed by state resources. Their lives and livelihoods are under threat and they will defend it by all means necessary, within or outside the law.

This has been the case during the more than two decades of ANC rule, characterised by theft, corruption, mismanagement, mafia-style operations, collusion with organised crime, underhand donations and influence by big business, political assassinations by hitmen within their own ranks and, recently, ungovernability. 

South Africa should prepare for the worst. Arise, ye wretched of the Earth! DM/MC

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All Comments 4

  • Thank you, a very interesting perspective that shows just how rotten the ANC is and has been for years. This fits in with my thinking that the last truly honourable person in the ANC was Albert Luthuli.

  • Sounds right-on to me. A thoroughly considered analysis, thank you. We will be wretched, probably sooner rather than later, and we will not be able to say we hadn’t been warned. But not much we can do about it now. The ANC-Titanic is already out of control and we’re in for quite a cruise. Inkosi sikelele iAfrika.

  • Unfortunately, Jansen is 100% correct. The #Zumariots were just a taste of events to come. Warlords are already gathering support. None of us will be unaffected. Start planning to get out or hunker down for protracted civil war. The Good vs The Bad and Ugly.

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