For outsiders, South Africa’s political transition was once a shining example of success, an inspiring tale of a country moving forwards from its brutal history.
South Africans thought their country to be too developed, their civil society too strong and their institutions too stable to fall prey to the same postcolonial malaise as their neighbours in Zimbabwe.
However, in the midst of the most serious governance crisis since the end of apartheid, following years of economic downturn, its people face stark choices. While South Africa is still a long away from collapse, its citizens are no longer so confident in their exceptionalism.
At the heart of the unease is the rule of President Jacob Zuma, who fired nine cabinet ministers last week, sending the rand tumbling. However, removing Zuma from office is not only easier said than done, but also his resignation also won’t prove to be the panacea for South Africa’s maladies without a credible alternative vision.
Opposition parties in South Africa’s parliament who want to table a motion of no confidence in Zuma, have no effective sanction against him without substantial numbers of ANC MPs voting with them. It would mean breaking with more than two decades of institutionalised block voting by politicians whose positions depend on their standing with party leaders; in any case, the speaker of parliament has said she would not allow a secret ballot.
For all its spectacle, the left-inclined, populist Economic Freedom Fighters or centre-right Democratic Alliance are no match for Zuma (who has proven a wily adversary, able to bounce back from setbacks) or for the ANC.
Cosatu is a pale shadow of its former self, after expelling its largest affiliate – the National Union of the Metalworkers of South Africa (Numsa) and its own general secretary, Zwelinzima Vavi, for their opposition to Zuma.
The South African Communist Party (SACP), who backed Zuma’s moves against Thabo Mbeki, has now broken with him. It threatened that SACP members serving in cabinet would give up their posts if Zuma went ahead with his reshuffle. Nothing of the sort happened.
South Africa’s black majority remains mostly poor and pushed to the margins of society, facing bleak economic prospects, high crime rates, a failing education system and a lack of basic services, while the majority of South African white people have prospered since 1994.
It is clear that Zuma’s enemies, both inside and outside the ANC, don’t have a different vision for South Africa that addresses its social and economic crises or empowers poor and working-class citizens. Communities and workers across the country have struggled and won victories against the odds – but this has yet to translate into any sort of national movement or vision for a new South Africa.
The national debate seems to consist of opposition parties, business leaders, liberals, NGOs, rightwingers (such as last apartheid president, FW de Klerk) and former ANC leaders, under the name “civil society”, calling for Zuma’s removal in order to defend the integrity of the state, economy and the constitution on one side, while the other side of the debate is largely made up of paid trolls.
Zuma’s defenders within the ANC and online have worked hard to promote him as a radical leader who is being attacked for standing up to “white monopoly capital” (WMC), referring to the white people who dominate big business in South Africa. He is also said to oppose imperial power in defence of black South Africans.
Much of this propaganda is disseminated through what has come to be known as “paid Twitter” and Ann7, a gaffe-prone, poorly produced and obnoxious 24-hour satellite news channel that blurs the line between fact and fiction. (The station is owned by the Guptas, a family that has an extraordinarily close relationship with Zuma.)
It is not so much that the “analysis” and “facts” tweeted or broadcast on Ann7 are implausible, but more about degrading the level of debate to the point where conspiracies to remove Zuma from office illegally float around the internet, along with stories that the UK government and British multinationals are organising a coup in South Africa.
These stories have a real effect: Zuma accused his finance minister of plotting a coup as a reason to fire them. These propaganda merchants and their defenders portray the Guptas as a national bourgeoisie of sorts, under constant attack by their enemies for not being local or white and their pursuing a business strategy considered hostile to the interests of South African capitalists, personified in the image of white billionaires like Johann Rupert.
What is clear is that simply building a loose anti-Zuma front, with no positive vision of the country, that only appeals to the moral authority of the liberation struggle and its heroes, is not enough. Neither is falling back on the Freedom Charter or South Africa’s famously progressive constitution.
“Reforming” the ANC might still be possible, but past experience suggests that internal renewal is extremely unlikely. We suspect Zuma knows the political weakness of his opposition and is counting on their inability to mobilise significant forces within the party, precisely because he has claimed to have some sort of transformative vision, along with the control of the patronage structures that ensure he has substantial support.
What is clear is that South Africa needs a new and plausible vision. Scandal fatigue is real; people tend to look inward to their own interests and those of their family when there is a low level of belief in the possibility of change.
Sometimes this leads to support for authoritarian projects promising to sweep the dirt from public life, which are based on xenophobia and/or falling back on other forms of belief such as evangelical Christianity for moral renewal.
There is no reason to assume with enough prodding there is an angry public just waiting to take to the streets to bring down Zuma. South Africa is hardly alone, either now or historically, in seeing someone like Zuma take control of the state. The lesson, from Berlusconi’s Italy to Mugabe’s Zimbabwe (and Trump’s United States) is clear: reducing politics to being about getting rid of the bad guy in charge doesn’t cover it.
– Benjamin Fogel and Sean Jacobs