Over two decades after taking power, the ruling African National Congress (ANC) is less associated with national liberation than with corruption, cronyism, and neoliberal economic policies.
But they’re finally facing a wave of protest from the left. Over the last few days, protest marches, “sleep-outs,” and mass rallies by a combination of trade unions, liberals, leftists, communists, and white middle-class suburbanites together have identified President Jacob Zuma as the reason for the country’s current crisis. The demand is that Zuma resign and leave office. Though Zuma is not new to opposition, even from within his own party since his election in 2009, his decision last week to fire his dependable finance minister and eight other cabinet ministers sparked renewed calls for his resignation.
Removing Zuma from office, however, is easier said than done. He has proven a wily adversary, able to bounce back from incredible setbacks. And without a credible vision of an alternative politics, the movement against Zuma will lead to just another dead end for the country.
The End of Exceptionalism
Since the advent of democracy in 1994, the African National Congress (ANC), allied with the Communist Party (SACP) and the country’s largest trade union federation, the Congress of South African Trade Unions (COSATU), has ruled South Africa. Today, the ANC doesn’t belong to liberation heroes like Ahmed Kathrada, Nelson Mandela’s Robben Island cellmate, who died last week. His memorial service became a stage for Zuma’s critics to decry how his corruption has led the party into what can only be described as a deep existential crisis.
The ANC could once boast of its intellectual and moral leadership, but now a predatory kleptocrat and his coterie of sinister and surreal minions have taken control. Before becoming president, Zuma faced rape charges from his former cellmate’s daughter and had a hundred-odd corruption charges hanging over his head. A judge in one of these trials described his relationship with a convicted fraudster as “of a corrupt nature.” Nevertheless, Zuma and his allies in the SACP and COSATU successfully portrayed his legal troubles as a dirty-tricks campaign initiated by his predecessor, Thabo Mbeki.
This narrative propelled Zuma to power, and he rode a wave of support from the SACP and COSATU. He promised to break with Mbeki’s pro-business policies and AIDS denialism, to reintegrate left forces into the government, and to implement a radical redistributive program that would relaunch the National Democratic Revolution, ANC’s plan to transform the country. Instead, Zuma broke with the SACP and COSATU.
Except for the intensified levels of corruption and cronyism, Zuma’s government largely continued Mbeki’s neoliberal economic policies. The state also increased its repressive character, employing draconian measures against popular movements. This violence does date back to the early 2000s — after a post-independence honeymoon period — as the government cracked down on activists protesting privatization, AIDS denialism, evictions, and so on. Some even died at the hands of the police. But Zuma’s regime increased the level of state violence.
The April 2011 murder of Andries Tatane, a schoolteacher and media activist, marked a turning point in the citizens’ relationship to the state. Tatane was protesting inadequate local services with his neighbors in a small town in the Free State Province, when officers beat him with their batons and then shot him twice with rubber bullets at point-blank range. The entire incident was filmed and later broadcast during the evening news, becoming watershed moment in public perception of post-apartheid state violence.
Zuma’s regime oversaw the accelerating fragmentation of the country’s largest trade union, lowered living standards, rising unemployment, and obvious embezzlement schemes, including one in which Zuma used state funds to construct a palatial retirement home in Nkandla.
Even public services have turned into sources for private gain. South Africa’s unemployment rate hovers unofficially around 35 percent, and seventeen million South Africans eke out a living thanks to state grants — perhaps the ANC’s crowning achievement. But Zuma’s government outsourced the grant system to predatory capitalists. As the Financial Times reports, the American firm that administers these payments “derived a fifth of its $590 million revenues in the 2016 fiscal year from social benefits payments in South Africa.”
The most notable scandal, however, was the Marikana massacre, in which thirty-four striking miners were murdered while on a wildcat strike. The event hastened the collapse of the alliance between the ANC, the SACP, and COSATU, signaling the ANC’s full descent into degeneracy and authoritarianism.
The murders epitomized the union of multinational capital and South African political power; a British company owns the mine, and the deputy president, Cyril Ramaphosa, sits on its board. Further, almost all of the moral leaders inside and outside the ANC remained silent after the massacre; some of Zuma’s harshest critics actually defended it — preferring to portray it as an unavoidable tragedy rather than the massacre that it was.
No significant mass uprisings took place outside of the platinum mining areas; the public outcry amounted to little more than a whimper. The subsequent public commission disappointingly did not hold anyone accountable, and that symbolism wasn’t lost on South Africans or international observers. More than any other tragedy or scandal, the Marikana massacre marked the end of South African exceptionalism.
Meanwhile, South Africans began to recognize the incredible influence the Guptas, a family of Indian businessmen who migrated to South Africa in the early 1990s, had on the president. For instance, they were allowed to land a private plane full of wedding guests at an air-force base and bypass immigration and customs officials.
By 2015, it was obvious that the Guptas enjoyed much more power than one can usually get from bribing politicians. For all intents and purposes, they owned Zuma and many of the leading ANC politicians.
Facing resistance from the centrist minister of finance Nhlanhla Nene, the Guptas ordered him fired and replaced by one of their pet politicians, Des Van Rooyen. Until then, Van Rooyen had spent his time in parliament dozing on the backbenches and serving as mayor of a small town. Tellingly, the Guptas — not Zuma — informed this political nobody that he would be the next finance minister, summoning him to their luxurious complex in a wealthy neighborhood of northern Johannesburg to deliver the news.
This move provoked mass outrage and a mini financial crash. Various ANC leaders and their allies in business demanded that Zuma fire Van Rooyen and reappoint former finance minister Pravin Gordhan, a hero of the anti-apartheid struggle known for his integrity who has also been, crucially, reliably pro-business.
By this stage, it had become apparent that Zuma and the Guptas planned to hollow out South Africa’s various regulatory and financial institutions, such as the very efficient South African Revenue Service (SARS) and the treasury, and fill them with pliant stooges. These weakened state apparatuses would ensure that Zuma wouldn’t face any legal consequences after he left office and that the Guptas could loot the state, using some of the proceeds to fund Zuma’s patronage network in the ANC.
Zuma and the Guptas soon recognized Gordhan as the chief obstacle to their hold on the state, but he was too politically powerful to be dealt with immediately. Instead, they launched a campaign against him almost as soon he took office. They smeared him as the corrupt stooge of white business leaders and imperialist powers (collectively derided as “white monopoly capital,” or WMC on twitter) and had the Hawks — the South African equivalent of the FBI — try to arrest him on trumped-up charges.
After a year of these efforts, Zuma finally made his move. An “intelligence report” — South Africa’s favorite dirty trick — accused Gordhan and his deputy Jonas of plotting to overthrow the government. After a night of frenzied speculation, as stories about a cabinet shakeup circulated on social media and on ANN 7 (a pro-Zuma news network owned by the Guptas), the president announced his decision at the stroke of midnight on April 1: Gordhan and seven other cabinet members were out.
Since then, political debate has centered on the urgent need to stop Zuma and his allies. Unfortunately, little strategic reflection has focused on his opponents in the ANC, the opposition parties, and South Africa’s civil society, who all failed to stop him from taking control of the state and the ruling party.
A Collapsing Coalition
The opposition parties in parliament, who want to take a vote of no-confidence against Zuma, cannot succeed unless they win over substantial numbers of ANC MPs, as they control 242 of the 400 seats. Such a move would violate over two decades of institutionalized block voting by politicians whose position depends on their standing with party leaders; already the speaker of parliament has said she would not allow a secret ballot.
The two main opposition parties — the center-right Democratic Alliance (DA) and the left-inclined, populist Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) — have made gains in recent elections. The DA now controls most of South Africa’s largest cities. However, neither the EFF, with its penchant for spectacle, nor the DA, long associated with white reaction, can take on Zuma’s ANC.
Things look equally bleak outside parliament. South Africa’s trade unions are no longer the militant force they once were. Poor leadership, economic crisis, and the capture of many of their leaders by Zuma’s allies have significantly weakened labor’s position. After expelling its largest affiliate — the National Union of the Metalworkers of South Africa (NUMSA) — and its own general secretary, Zwelinzima Vavi, for opposing Zuma, COSATU became a shadow of its former self.
NUMSA is launching a new trade union federation under Vavi’s leadership and has signaled its intention to found a workers’ party later this year. However, labor no longer enjoys a significant presence in the public debate and has been relatively marginal in this latest crisis.
SACP leaders, once Zuma’s most diehard supporters, led the attacks on his critics, including Vavi and NUMSA. Now they have fallen out with the president and must decide if they will go it alone and give up the privileges that come with state power. They released a statement on March 31 calling on Zuma to step down, threatening that SACP cabinet members would resign if the president went ahead with his reshuffle. Of course, nothing of the sort happened. The SACP’s future and their entire political purpose remains unclear. Most likely, it will fade away into history.
The Guptas and Zuma supporters portray the president as a radical leader facing backlash for standing up to WMC and imperial power. The Guptas’ defenders present them as a national bourgeoisie, under constant attack for not being local or white or agreeing with the business strategies that promote the interests of South African capitalists like Afrikaner billionaire Johann Rupert.
Much of this propaganda appears on what has come to be known as “paid twitter” and on ANN7. This coverage blurs the line between fact and fiction, spreading conspiracy theories about plots to remove Zuma from office or claims that the United Kingdom is working with British multinationals to organize a coup. More than broadcasting poor analysis and implausible facts, the network and the online trolls have significantly cheapened the level of national debate.
Meanwhile, the economic position of South Africa’s black majority paradoxically gives Zuma’s supporters ammunition. Since 1994, white citizens have, for the most part, prospered. The black population, however, remains poor and marginalized, facing bleak economic prospects, high crime rates, a failing education system, and a lack of basic services. Zuma and his predecessor have exacerbated this situation, yet most whites present themselves as the ANC’s victims.
Zuma’s defenders use the ongoing racism to justify an economy and society that continues to exclude the vast majority of the population. Following the cabinet reshuffle much of the public debate has revolved around the very white composition of the protesters and actions such as organized meditation outside parliament. Zuma’s harshest critics — mostly tone-deaf and moralistic — only add fuel to these fires.
As a result, South Africa’s public sphere has been degraded. Now, one half of the national debate — if it can be even called that — consists of opposition parties, business leaders, liberals, NGOs, right-wingers (like Frederik Willem de Klerk, the last apartheid president), and former ANC leaders. They label themselves “civil society” and claim Zuma must be removed to defend the integrity of the state, the economy, and the constitution. Paid trolls make up the other half.
The Moral Opposition
This Friday, April 7 saw a series of nationwide protests against Zuma. While a relatively significant number of people showed up, the politics and message of the protest (beyond hostility to Zuma) remained vague. The protests were dominated by white, middle-class people, who have proven resistant to left politics. Still, movements like Reclaim the City, Equal Education, and the Social Justice Coalition had a presence; notably absent, on the other hand, was NUMSA, which decried the actions as linked to WMC and middle-class politics. This will have serious consequences; as long as these protests lack a labor presence, the politics of the opposition to Zuma cannot be contested. Instead, they’ll either move right, or remain vague, without any clear agenda.
None of Zuma’s opponents have a vision for South Africa that addresses its social and economic crises and empowers the poor and working class. Some promising movements, such as the Reclaim the City campaign in Cape Town show that communities can win victories against the odds, but these local efforts have yet to translate into any sort of national mobilization or vision for a new South Africa. The point of this critique is not the myopic fatalism of some detractors of the anti-Zuma campaign. Rather, it is to identify the limits of the campaign for the purpose of strategic reflection, not surrender.
Building a loose anti-Zuma front that only appeals to the moral authority of the liberation struggle and its heroes (like Kathrada) will not suffice, nor will falling back on the Freedom Charter or South Africa’s famously progressive constitution. Relying on this type of moral appeal has not effectively built support. For years now, liberals and the Left have tried to organize movements along these lines, like Save South Africa or the Council for the Advancement of the South African Constitution. None of these efforts have slowed Zuma’s excesses or loosened his hold over the state. Moral authority and symbolism don’t have the same hold on the so-called Born Frees, the mostly black youth who grew up after the fall of apartheid.
Secondly, evoking the liberation movement simply reinforces the oft-repeated idea that the ANC can be renewed if good people stand up to Zuma. Take for example the statements from senior members of the ANC’s National Executive Committee (NEC) and the anti-Zuma SACP leadership. Deputy president Ramaphosa told journalists that Gordhan’s sacking was “unacceptable”; dissidents used Kathrada’s “very political” funeral to air their grievances with Zuma and the party.
Reforming the ANC may still be possible, but past experience suggests that internal renewal is unlikely. It remains unclear how much support anti-Zuma figures in the ANC and the SACP have at this point, as most of them have retired from politics or been sidelined thanks to internal party disputes. The party has yet to offer any alternative vision that would mark a significant break with Zuma’s policies.
The president likely recognizes his opponents’ political weakness, counting on their failure to mobilize a significant force from within the party. This was evidenced by the about-face of the ANC’s top leaders such as Ramaphosa, who initially voiced public criticism of Zuma but retreated back into the abyss of party unity after a meeting of the ANC’s National Working Committee. The few that have not, like former minister of tourism Derek Hanekom, have promised to openly oppose Zuma in parliament or resigned from parliament like Mcebisi Jonas. Unlike the opposition, he claims to have a transformative vision for the country. Combined with his control of patronage structures, this ensures that Zuma will continue to have broad support.
South Africa needs a political vision that goes beyond personalizing the issues of state capture and corruption. Even if the president goes, what will happen to the patronage structures and other Gupta creations, which exist at all levels of the party? Zuma has hollowed out the ANC’s branch structures at the bottom and gerrymandered party congresses while filling the party’s highest ranks with his supporters.
Years of disappointment, betrayal, and the ANC, SACP, and COSATU’s leaders’ predatory behavior have taken their toll on public morale. This level of disillusionment with the state, unions, and political parties often leads to demobilization and apathy rather than righteous anger, as Berlusconi’s tenure in Italy demonstrates.
Scandal fatigue is real — people tend to look inward, protecting their and their family’s interests, when they do not believe in the possibility of collective change. Sometimes this leads to support for authoritarian projects that promise to clean up public life, to xenophobia, and to other forms of belief that promise moral renewal, like evangelical Christianity. We cannot assume that an angry public is just waiting to take to the streets to bring down Zuma.
This is why offering an alternative vision is so vital. Appeals to the Freedom Charter and the constitution refer to a glorious past rather than promise a better future. The overarching economic debate, conducted between calls for macroeconomic stability — which emanate from Gordhan and his defenders — and vague appeals for a pro-black, redistributive “radical economic transformation” needs to be contested by the Left. Surrendering the language of change to trolls will allow them to discredit left politics.
The solution to corruption is creating powerful movements capable of holding the state accountable and engaging directly in the policy-making process, restructuring institutions to allow for increased participation, and fostering a new sense of public purpose constructed on a vision of collective liberation.
South Africa is hardly alone. The lesson here, in Italy, in Zimbabwe, and now in the United States couldn’t be clearer: reducing politics just to getting rid of the bad guys doesn’t work very well.