South Africa in crisis: A toxic brew of grassroots desperation and factional warfare

BY:Mark Waller| July 30, 2021
South Africa in crisis: A toxic brew of grassroots desperation and factional warfare


The recent unrest in South Africa, seen by much of the outside world as a knee-jerk reaction to the jailing of former president Jacob Zuma, is rooted in the vicious factional upheaval within the governing African National Congress (ANC). South Africa’s systemic inequality, poverty, and the tidal wave of distress due to the Covid-19 crisis are also to blame. The toxic mix of the two produced a near insurrection, and the threat of one remains.

Now, in the aftermath of the rioting and looting, it’s clear that the ANC faces its biggest problems since it was nearly destroyed by the white racist regime of the old South Africa in the early 1960s when almost its entire leadership was imprisoned.

The unrest, which ran July 9–17, included blockades of roads, ports, and rail links, followed by the mass looting and destruction of shopping malls and other infrastructure, such as schools and health clinics. The disruption was organized to protest Zuma’s confinement, imposed because he refused to appear before a commission set up, ironically, by himself when he was president.


State capture, state corruption

The commission, called the Zondo Commission, after the judge in charge, is investigating the events and people involved in what is called state capture. This refers to the burgeoning corruption and mafia-style take-over of state resources during the Zuma years by networks of political patronage geared to the self-enrichment and power wielding of ANC figures at national and local levels.

This matrix also extended far into the private sector. It was centered in part on the business empire of the billionaire Gupta family, which had relocated from India to South Africa. Their citizenship of the country was fast-tracked by the then home affairs minister, whom they “owned.”

They also had other ministers in their pockets and had a strong say in ministerial appointments. Zuma let them do more or less as they pleased, as they and he were able to buy enough clout to cushion the president from legal threats hanging over his head, including one related to a murky state arms procurement.

The populist ideological insulation that Zuma and those around him relied on was the notion that they’re waging a crusade against white monopoly capital. This had some traction because so much of the inequality that pervades South Africa is bound up with the unreconstructed racialized character of ownership.


White monopoly capital still in control

The negotiated settlement with the old regime in the early 1990s that led to the first democratic elections in 1994 did not challenge white ownership of the economy. The government’s Black Economic Empowerment program had widened the black middle class, but only in some areas of the economy. White monopoly capital was left very much left unaltered. The situation of the poor majority, now well over 60% of the population, remained largely unchanged, despite important infrastructure and service reforms.

The lie of the war against white capital became clear when it emerged in 2017 that Bell Pottinger, the now-defunct British “reputation management” firm — whose august résumé included a $540 million contract from the U.S. Department of Defense to create fake terrorist videos and propaganda — had been hired by the Guptas to defend their position by producing disinformation in South Africa that would play on the country’s fragile race relations.

Bell Pottinger’s campaign for the Guptas and the wider Zuma cause used a network of Twitter bots, fake influencers, bloggers, and news to allege plots by white monopoly capital to derail the redistribution of wealth in favor of the poor and oppressed.

The campaign also sought to deflect growing calls from the left — the ANC’s alliance partners the South African Communist Party (SACP) and the Congress of South African Trade Unions (Cosatu) — for combating all monopoly capital regardless of its racial makeup.


The Zuma presidency

Initially, the two alliance partners of the ANC supported Zuma’s candidacy for party leader in 2007 and state president in 2009. Zuma ran on an ostensibly left-leaning ticket that seemed opposed to the more neoliberal capitalist economic path the ANC had governed with since 1996.

There were some undeniable gains during the early Zuma years. They included the trouncing of AIDS denialism and the rollout of the world’s biggest anti-retroviral drugs program, resulting in increased life-expectancy. There was also better spending on infrastructure, expanded access to higher education, a large increase in public employment programs, and improved industrial policy.

These positive aspects of the early Zuma period counter the prevailing historical amnesia that it amounted to no more than nine wasted years.

But Zuma and those around him — who, apart from the Gupta consortium, included right-wingers in the ANC who felt excluded from the earlier more social-democratic mold the ANC developed during the presidencies of Nelson Mandela and Thabo Mbeki — ran a tight divide-and-rule outfit that cramped the SACP and Cosatu’s hopes for tangible and rapid improvements in tackling unemployment and poverty.


Who’s behind the mayhem?

The faction of the ANC behind the mayhem of mid-July says it champions “radical economic transformation” (RET). The phrase was cooked up during the Zuma years to characterize the campaign against white monopoly capital. But the RET folk have no policy program to offer, only primitive accumulation using hegemony over, and not the development or progressive utilization of, existing resources.

Some of Zuma’s more abrasively unruly populist followers, among them Julius Malema and other leaders of the youth wing of the ANC, split off from the governing party to form the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF). The EFF copies the regalia, style, and rhetoric of the SACP and Cosatu but bases its swaggering calls for equality on race baiting, trashing shops, and staging sporadic achieve-nothing land invasions.

Much of the RET faction’s clout rests with its long-chain strands of patronage that extend from the national to local levels. ANC branches are still the bedrock of the party and come into their own at election time. Buying up branches to sustain centers of control and influence has been key to promoting the political careers of faction leaders, who then push their way to higher levels of the organization. They include the currently suspended ANC secretary-general, former Gupta “consultant” and alleged racketeer Ace Magashule.

Part of the fight-back against state capture and the dodgy efforts of the RET faction have, within the ANC, come from the “new dawn” approach of what one might term more integrity-driven forces. They opposed the looting of state resources that took place under Zuma and include the country’s current President, Cyril Ramaphosa, who took office following the forced resignation of Zuma in February 2018.

The month before, Zuma had been forced to start implementing the recommendations of the state probity watchdog the Public Protector by setting up a commission to investigate the whole sorry state capture story. After much ducking and weaving, Zuma was himself made to appear before the commission, in 2019. He ranted that there was a foreign-backed conspiracy against him and that some of those testifying against him were apartheid-era spies, and that the commission was merely a tool to undo his career. And then he went AWOL and refused to testify again.

The Constitutional Court then ruled that Zuma had to appear before the commission, and when he again refused to do so, the court sentenced him to 15 months behind bars. That’s when the RET factionalists in the ANC opposed to President Ramaphosa decided to make parts of the country ungovernable, apparently in the hope of a knock-on effect that would topple the government.

While a lot of the mass looting that erupted was little more than spontaneous food riots in destitute communities, the core of the unrest was concerted and carried out with precision. Investigative work by the online mag the Daily Maverick exposed some of the figures behind the planned insurrection, plus the kind of social media messaging used to prompt and coordinate the blockading of roads and other strategic communications and spark attacks on shops and malls.


Poverty and desperation

Earlier, an article by SACP Politburo member Jeremy Cronin published in April expressed a sense of foreboding that weeks later turned to reality: “Precisely because the net is beginning to close around some of the leading personalities [of state capture], the levels of desperation and the preparedness to undertake reckless moves must not be discounted.”

Over 330 people were killed in the protests, rioting, and looting; 200 shopping malls were targeted; and 200 banks and 3,000 shops plundered. Warehouses were ransacked and Covid-19 vaccine stocks and vaccination sites destroyed. The government puts the damage at 50 billion rands ($3.4 bn) and about 150,000 jobs potentially lost.

South Africa’s impoverished communities, which hold the majority of the population, are on a hair trigger. Official unemployment is over 32% but is in reality about twice that. The Covid-19 pandemic and various lockdowns of the last 16 months have entrenched joblessness and deepened poverty. More people are homeless, shack settlements are expanding faster than ever before, and there’s widespread hunger and dispossession. The meager social grants and emergency Covid relief, the latter just Rand 370 a month ($25), constitute an extremely wide-mesh “safety net.”

Now, the army and police are scouting the townships and shack settlements and raiding homes to “recover” goods looted in the protests. TV news has shown soldiers carting away food and drink, even single items like bottles of ketchup, from houses they have broken into to seize goods. If home owners can’t produce receipts for items in their possession, the goods are hauled off, under the resentful watch of community members. The unwise plan is to destroy everything.

The government has decided to extend the R350 emergency relief grant to help people affected by the looting. But it’s hardly sufficient. The poverty and destitution that accelerated the unrest and looting are systemic and constitute a security threat. This goes beyond the protests by Zuma supporters. As the coordinator of Pietermaritzburg Economic Justice & Dignity Group told news24, “The threat to state security and private property by hungry, desperate, and angry people is still very much alive.”


Neoliberal economics and the IMF

Part of the problem from the SACP’s and Cosatu’s perspective is that the ANC leadership outside the RET faction is both closely tied to and utterly hamstrung by neoliberal economics. That the government nevertheless puts masses of cash into social welfare payments suggests that neoliberal dogma is hardly all-pervasive. But there is plenty of reliance on the usual neoliberal models for “growth,” based on private-sector investment to stimulate job creation, and there’s scant vision of alternative strategies to take the country forward.

The International Monetary Fund’s stipulations for South Africa, contained in a country report issued last year during the early part of the Covid-19 crisis, include labor “hiring and firing” deregulation and the need to “address the constraints imposed by collective bargaining,” which is IMF-speak for destroying the trade union movement. The IMF also talks about the need for South Africa to have “well-targeted social assistance” and “a lean and efficient public sector,” meaning less social welfare and the privatization of state-owned enterprises.

These are the sorts of policies advocated by the right-wing opposition party the Democratic Alliance (DA). Its thinking reflects the big business concerns of the traditional white elite. DA leaders have shown little concern for the poor majority or for protecting lives during the Covid-19 crisis, instead opposing lockdowns and advocating the much-discredited idea of herd immunity. Its recipe, like that of the IMF, is precisely what South Africa doesn’t need.

But the pressure on the government to go further down the path advocated by the IMF and the DA is increasing. And that in turn widens the scope for populist right-posing-as-left politics (RET-style groupings and the EFF) to gain more support in poor communities that are fed up with having no future or any stake in a country that since 1994 they have been incessantly told by besuited politicians is theirs.


Communists urged to step up

A big part of the crisis facing the ANC is that the left — the party’s alliance partners — have far less influence in the governing party than they once did.

RET factionalists in the ANC, despite claiming to champion “the poor,” have no truck with the SACP’s and Cosatu’s calls for social development as the way forward, such as state-led green re-industrialization, building up the welfare system, prioritizing the right to work, and boosting the quality and scope of public service. At the same time, the “new dawn” thinking of Ramaphosa and those close to him currently lacks the vision or daring to get on-board with these calls.

But there are some ANC leaders, who are not communists, who clearly wish the SACP had the sort of role it once did in the party.

Lindiwe Sisulu, the minister for human settlements, water, and sanitation, used the annual Nelson Mandela Day lecture, July 18, to call on the SACP to “get back to their militant stand . . . to ensure we, as the ANC, navigate through the difficult times. I believe as a vanguard party you have that particular responsibility to take us where we should be right now.”

For now, the government is on high alert, as the threat of organized unrest has only withdrawn and not dissipated. Some argue the South African situation is on the road to irrevocable ruin. And yet the door is open to the ANC to reposition itself as the left party of integrity it once was. It just has to shake off some baggage and walk through it.

Image: Masego Mafata, GroundUp (photo re-sized, CC BY-ND 4.0).



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