Opinionista Saleem Badat 29 July 2021

South Africa needs a new progressive popular political movement that boldly tackles our festering ills

No amount of repression can sustain our current deeply unequal and fractured society. We need radical changes that benefit all, not just self-serving elites. Perhaps it is time to return to the grassroots, local-level, street-by-street activism, mass mobilisation and organisation of the 1980s.

Saleem Badat

Saleem Badat is Research Professor in Humanities at the University of KwaZulu-Natal. He is the former vice-chancellor of the university currently called Rhodes.

Once the Constitutional Court issued its verdict, it was predictable that imprisoning Jacob Zuma would heighten political tension. Much was at stake, including the integrity of South Africa’s hard-won constitutional democracy, the rule of law, whether impunity by those who have presided over state looting would continue to be accommodated and whether the “unity’ of the governing party and the jockeying among its political factions would trump the interests of South Africa as a whole. 

It is implausible that the intelligence services did not construct scenarios arising from the jailing of Zuma. Either they are breathtakingly incompetent or were utterly unprepared. Or they sat on information for their own political reasons, or they are deeply riven with factions including Zuma acolytes. In many democracies, the ministers of “intelligence” and police would be tendering their resignations or would be fired, but not in South Africa.

During the first few days of the “unrest” in KwaZulu-Natal, our usually media-loving police minister was veritably missing in action. His minions, especially in KwaZulu-Natal, either could not control or were not effectively equipped to deal with the sabotage and looting. More frighteningly, perhaps they were not disposed to do so, being themselves part of factional politics. 

Meanwhile, either hamstrung by the balance of forces in the factional politics of the Cabinet and Luthuli House or possessing doubtful leadership qualities, there was a dithering president. Granted, it is no small decision to deploy the army during civilian “unrest”, but what was the alternative when an effective police response in KZN was sorely lacking? 

When a decision was eventually taken, it was to deploy 2,500 troops. Anyone familiar with the scale of the “unrest” in KZN and Gauteng knew that number would be grossly inadequate.

That the mayhem in KZN was in part orchestrated by a political cabal is clear. Its motives: to secure Zuma’s release and demonstrate its ability to engulf KZN in chaos unless its dubious interests were accommodated. Whether the cabal grossly miscalculated and overreached remains to be seen.

What is clear is that, moving forward, politics and society in KZN and South Africa will not be the same. If Zuma loyalists tried to hold the country to ransom and failed in the short term, the political legacies will be long-lasting.

To stress the political legacies is not to ignore the short- to medium-term economic damage to the KZN and national economy already under stress from the Covid-19 pandemic – job losses, increased unemployment and impoverishment, damage to small businesses, loss of income, reduced investor confidence, the shortage of food and other necessities, and the like.    

While significant, in time hopefully the economic damage and stress can be repaired and overcome. Incalculable, however, is the damage to the psyches of individuals and families, to grassroots social relations, and to the political imperative of transcending old and current fractures and forging an anti-racist, anti-sexist social order, of unity in diversity in which all enjoy dignity.

Moving forward in KZN, action is needed on various fronts. First, KZN police are seemingly incapable of protecting people and property, thereby making armed neighbourhood community policing forums and private security companies indispensable in protecting communities. Urgent steps are needed to restore confidence in the police. Until then, these forums will be an inevitable feature of KZN society. 

Second, there are accusations of racism, racial profiling and vigilantism by some members of policing forums. Old wounds among communities racially and geographically divided under apartheid were reopened and new wounds were created. 

Let it be clear: the protection of citizens is the job of the police. In the context of our history and racial geography, policing forums can all too easily degenerate into civilian militias, and through their conduct exacerbate racial and other tensions.

But if policing forums are necessary, their members must be professionally trained and properly equipped, and the forums must be under the direction of local civic associations that must either be created or rejuvenated. And it must be constitutional values and social justice that animate conduct. 

Third, in a climate of anxiety, fear, trauma and mistrust there is an urgent need for interventions at community level across the lines of class, colour, nationality and language. We must acknowledge pervasive racial divisions and jettison glib “rainbowism”.

Perhaps it is time to return to the grassroots, local-level, street-by-street activism, mass mobilisation and organisation of the 1980s that helped us win our democracy to now defeat the scourges of hunger, inequality, poverty, unemployment and pervasive corruption that the governing party seems unwilling to tackle or is incapable of addressing.  

We have to systemically and systematically tackle racism, prejudices and chauvinism, build social solidarity, trust and mutuality, promote respect for difference and diversity and address socioeconomic distress. 

Mere “tolerance” is not good enough. We need to cohere around foundational values and a profound commitment to everyone leading a productive, rich, rewarding, healthy and secure life.

Fourth, and foremost, we need radically new economic and social policies! Otherwise, we will remain a shamefully unequal, unjust and highly unstable society. A society in which the impoverished are little invested, and the rich and middle classes fortify themselves behind electric fences and ubiquitous security companies and occupy themselves with expatriating their wealth and themselves to ostensibly “greener pastures”.

ANC policies have failed to significantly erode inequality, poverty and unemployment, which have been exacerbated by the Covid-19 pandemic. The failure to redistribute land, provide adequate housing and create jobs incubates and stokes the racial tensions that we witness.

The opportunistic looting in part reflected the dire economic and social conditions of impoverished and marginalised social groups. Included in the polity, they are simultaneously and distressingly excluded from enjoying economic and social benefits.

The first two B’s in the policy of “broad-based black economic empowerment” have been effaced. Instead, a black minority has been incorporated into the ranks of capitalists and the middle class. They include most, if not all, politicians and state officials.

Despite some improvements, the cleavages of “race”, class, gender, age and geography persist. We remain among the most unequal and unjust societies on Earth in terms of wealth, income, living conditions and opportunities related to employment, education, housing, social services and healthcare.

Our wealthiest 10% own 85% of all household wealth; the wealthiest 0.1% own 25% of it. Indeed, the wealthiest 3,500 people own more than the most impoverished 32 million. Nowhere else do so few own so much. And there are few other places where that privilege is protected so fiercely to the detriment of the impoverished (read, for example, here and here).

While the average net wealth of the top 1% is nearly R18-million, the liabilities of the bottom 50% exceed their assets – they have a net worth of negative R16,000 and live in chronic, persistent poverty.  

Almost 75% of the elite is white, and more than 90% of white people are “non-poor”. Less than 10% of black Africans are “non-poor”, and more than 60% are “impoverished”. Despite considerable investment in education, the children of the impoverished will largely end up in the same position as their parents.  

No amount of repression can sustain our current deeply unequal and fractured society. We need radical changes that benefit all, not just self-serving elites.  

Where leadership will come from is a moot point. The current ANC government and opposition parties inspire little confidence. State institutions are weak, ineffectual and mired in corruption.  

A new progressive popular political movement that boldly tackles our festering ills is urgently needed – a movement that draws on trade unions, bodies like Abahlali baseMjondolo, organisations rooted in communities, universities and schools, interfaith and religious groups, and enlightened professional and business formations that are genuinely committed to social justice. 

Perhaps it is time to return to the grassroots, local-level, street-by-street activism, mass mobilisation and organisation of the 1980s that helped us win our democracy to now defeat the scourges of hunger, inequality, poverty, unemployment and pervasive corruption that the governing party seems unwilling to tackle or is incapable of addressing.  

We desperately need a new politics – one with a social and human soul. We are staring deep into the abyss. Failure will be catastrophic and is not an option. DM

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All Comments 11

  • Yes. Out of chaos comes the readiness and space for change, and we are begging for a new party to put our trust in. A party which will uphold the constitition by building up the institutions that provide an entire nation all its civil rights is what we need, and the party will need the strength, character, wisdom and capacity to begin with this wasteland we are left with.

  • It won’t take a new party long to resemble the old parties. We need new, desperately, but an entirely new political dispensation. My suggestion is for the writer of this piece to make himself available as an independent candidate in the upcoming local elections, and ensure he gets voted in. That way, we don’t need a Party.

  • “Failure will be catastrophic and is not an option” – why use future tense? SA is already a failed state. There is no need for yet another political party, the DA is the answer.

    • I doubt that. It is riddled with its own inadequacies and whiteness -and missed its own Rubicon moment years ago. The point the writer is making is that the ‘same old’ will not bring the changes we need. And the best people to lead are seldom interested in party politics. Unfortunately.

  • No. Radical change always leads to unforeseen casualties and consequences. As tempting as it is, radicalism is a fool’s solution to complex problems. It is what got us into this mess in the first place.

    Furthermore, I refute the article’s assumption that because an inequality exists, an injustice has automatically occurred. The legacy of apartheid is not the only cause of poverty. How can it be? If it were, then we would be able to see some inroads into alleviating it by now. No, there is an uncomfortable piece the puzzle missing here that nobody seems to want to talk about. And since the author has spouted only the bog-standard socialist rhetoric solution to any and all problems, I must conclude that he is not open to the emotionless scientific reasoning we so desperately need in politics.

  • My dream (as an 83 year old) is for a politically refreshed South Africa that rises out of all the negative impacts of
    – Colonialism,
    – Apartheid,
    – The corruption, greed and factionalism of the ANC
    – Covid 19.
    It will grow out of a movement led by the younger generation that seeks to
    – Address our past in a manner that builds our future
    – Bring South Africa into the 21st century
    – Protect the human rights and rule of law enshrined in our constitution
    – Deepen our democracy by amending the constitution to establish strong links between elected representatives and their constituencies
    – Build inclusive institutions, both public and private sector, that facilitate co-operation and conflict resolution
    – Promote economic growth through a market-based system that is accompanied by social progress
    – Spread leadership widely
    The movement will grow into a political party that unites South Africa behind a vision that
    – addresses the tough challenges facing us as a nation
    – deepens our democracy.
    It will be committed to the following values in the way it conducts itself
    – Democratic and accountable – representatives nominated and elected at local level, reporting back to constituents regularly and limited to two terms of office
    – Open and transparent
    – Fully inclusive
    The party will set goals that seek to make South Africa sustainable
    – economically
    – socially
    – environmentally
    – politically
    and will measure social progress against clear targets of meeting basic human needs.
    In formulating its policies, strategies and programmes, it will take full note of the four existential threats that face us all as human beings
    – Inequality (including Poverty and Unemployment)
    – Climate change
    – Wasteful use of scarce resources and environmental degradation
    Pandemics

    • The future belongs to the younger generations. They will stand up and claim it. South Africa has the talent and spirit to become a successful nation admired for its political innovation by the rest of the world

  • Sam, very well said. Quite a lot has been said and written about a government of national unity which I would say is what you are alluding to.

    • Thank you for responding. I believe we need to discuss and argue about what a new political dispensation must look like. The ANC is taking the country down so steeply that sooner or later major change will be possible. My contribution is intended as a chopping block.

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