It is difficult to overstate the crisis that South African politics currently finds itself in. It is a multidimensional crisis; one that has been exacerbated by bad leadership who have either lost touch with – or turned a deaf ear to – public sentiment at grassroots level in society. The discontent with the current status quo cuts across all race, class and identity divides in South Africa.
To some extent, it mirrors a global trend that has seen the bureaucracies and conventional leadership styles of 20th Century politicians lose touch with the societies they are meant to serve in the 21st Century. This in turn has opened up opportunities for right and left wing exploitation of the yawning gap between power and people in democratic societies in many parts of the world.
In South Africa it has led to public unrest and widespread dissatisfaction and dissent that threatens to undermine the very fabric of society itself, as well as the state and sitting government. Violent and disruptive public protests have risen in number and intensity significantly over the past decade under the Zuma administration.
Most recently, large communities in metropolitan areas erupted into a series of local rebellions over the ANC leadership’s choice of party representative in those locales, with local elections looming around the corner in August. These protests were characterised by the barricaded roads, often with burning buses, trucks and cars used as makeshift barriers. Shots were also fired by protesters, and the usual looting of small informal foreign-owned shops ensued. However, much to the surprise of authorities, this time formal retailers such as Shoprite and whole malls came under threat.
There is also a gaping leadership vacuum; one that has become pervasive at all levels of power. Activists of old who risked life, limb, friends and family to fight against injustice and oppression are now entirely complicit with the status quo merely because without their political currency with those in power they would retire penniless. Existing in a neo-liberal system has had undesirable effects on public servants; going into the political wilderness is – understandably – an extremely difficult choice to make.
New political representation has emerged, however; with leaders adopting the form and rhetoric of populist ideologues. Youth dissent has risen dramatically (along with youth unemployment), and there is a profound generation gap between the youth and leaders in power; one which threatens to destabilise the body politic of South Africa substantially. Threats of revolution are not whispered. They are openly made in the public and political arena. Dissent is openly declared and made visible through dire action, yet the political leadership of the majority ruling party appear blind and deaf to it.
Indeed, even the national television broadcaster, the South African Broadcasting Corporation (SABC), has now been instructed by its embattled head Hlaudi Motsoeneng not to air criticism or negative reports about the (far more embattled) President Jacob Zuma or to air visuals of protest actions that have popped up across the country. In a dramatic re-hash of 1980s apartheid media censorship, the SABC has been reduced to a mere mouthpiece and puppet of the government (“his master’s voice” some call it). Jimmy Matthews, the CEO of the SABC, resigned his position a few days ago, citing the “prevailing, corrosive atmosphere” and apologised for his silence to those he had let down by not speaking out sooner.
There have been repeated attempts by the Zuma-led ANC government and its allies within the state to undermine the independence of the Judiciary and Chapter 9 institutions, and to make political pawns of the police and other investigative agencies in political battles.
The ruling party – the ANC – has fragmented into factions, both at the level of the tripartite alliance (ANC, COSATU, SACP), as well as at local levels, where communities are divided between themselves or from the body of the ANC. The political leadership of the ANC is in crisis, with COSATU losing eight major unions, and the SACP raising objections to and doubts about the current leadership.
The president of the republic, Jacob Zuma, has faced multiple self-inflicted leadership challenges and debacles that fall into three categories; political blunders, state capture and corruption scandals.
Political blunders include Nenegate, where the president’s decision to fire the Finance Minister Nhlanhla Nene and replace him with a political unknown backfired and wiped hundreds of billions of rands (between R150 to R500Bn) off the stock market. South African pensioners lost nearly R100Bn; as this loss sets in it is sure to create yet more tensions in the job market as older workers extend their retirement and massive youth unemployment is exacerbated. Other political blunders have occurred where the president spoke off the cuff about geography and economics resulting in great embarrassment, yet revealing some insights into the personal world-view of the president himself.
State capture accusations have been levelled against the president since some ANC members (including the deputy finance minister) revealed that the Gupta family heads had offered them positions within government. The deputy finance minister in question – Mcebisi Jonas – was taken to the Gupta family’s compound by the president’s son Duduzile Zuma to meet the Gupta family heads. It is widely speculated that Minister Nene was removed at the behest of the Gupta family because he stood in the way of their business plans.
The president has also been implicated in the corruption of the now infamous arms deal, and faced over 700 counts against him, and which may likely proceed against him soon, as the courts have been in support of upholding the counts. He has also been implicated in the misuse of public funds in the construction of his family homestead in Nkandla, and has been ordered – by the Constitutional Court – after many years of political dodging and quick footwork – to pay around R7m in lieu of undue benefits gained. Sexual scandals have also dogged the president, who some struggle stalwarts such as Ronnie Kasrils have claimed, has a longer history than appreciated by the public; the president was well known for sexual misdeeds in the days of ANC exile.
It would seem, that facing the myriad dimensions of political change that South Africa is currently up against is daunting. Yet South African politics is not stalled at a cross-roads, it has ventured forth into a no-man’s land at breakneck speed, and with little caution. It is entirely conceivable that the ANC, having adopted a stance of deep denial of its internal divisions and widespread discontent amongst its constituency, is set to implode dramatically. Whether this occurs in the short, medium or long terms the consequences for the country will be increased uncertainty, volatility and insecurity when the collapse finally unfolds.
South Africa is a society that is once again teetering on the brink of change. As was the case with the transition to democracy, the apartheid government stalled the process for an immeasurably long period of time, resulting in a late transition that made it all the more difficult to revive and reorient an economy that had all but collapsed by the time transition became imminent. The apartheid government was also in deep denial over its ultimate fate, and it wrote the script that the ANC government is now thoughtlessly reproducing.
The enactment of power has been reduced to spectacle. The state, the press and independent institutions are under threat from government influence and interference. Individuals who have taken a stand against bad leadership or systemic corruption and maladministration have also been publicly victimised, threatened and undermined. Government agencies are being used to fight political battles. These are dark days for South Africa’s enlightened constitutional democratic dispensation, which in its inception was a source of great hope for African democracies across the continent.
Yet South African society is still not a society trampled underfoot. It is a society that understands and values its own freedoms. It is a society with formidable institutions, even though some of them are under attack or have fallen into apathy and complacency. Critically, it still has trustworthy, established institutions, a large tax-base and a well-run tax collection service.
It is a society that can still exert power from various loci in society. It is not a brutally repressed society. It is however, an apathetic society that is heavily polarised along racial and class lines. It has not evolved sufficiently beyond its apartheid delineations in order to constitute a powerful polis from which political action can be exerted by the masses, that is; action that is coherent across race and class divides. It is a society where ‘truth’ is easily manipulated and obfuscated, rendering even ordinarily intelligent people into complicit, convenient idiots who become pawns in the greater agendas of power.
Unlocking this condition in the body politic of South Africa, will inevitably require (and perhaps be sparked from) dramatic changes at a societal level. In this respect, it is the youth who hold the most promise of bringing the ‘revolutionary’ changes that are required for the country to break with the travesties of recent history and establish new values and norms, as well as to jealously police them as a society. Moreover, cross-class and cross-race issue-based (and other) cooperation and unity is required in order to establish a cohesive, yet competitive and diverse South African polis. The institutional landscape, and its ability to exert influence upon the state and government, whether directly or by influencing public opinion, will also prove critical to tackling the political transition that is required to deliver a sustainable and just country and economy.
In the absence of these key pre-requisites for positive change, the likelihood is that the precedent for securing corrupt and autocratic leadership of the ANC – and by extension government – will have been set by the president and his leadership. What should be of major concern right now, is whether the Zuma administration has set the trend for future ANC leaderships. In this respect, if the current administration is not held accountable for its many transgressions in a real and meaningful manner, it is more than likely that the stage would have been set for the progressive descent of South African politics into absolute farce. Ultimately, in this scenario, the ANC will eventually collapse under the weight of its own dysfunctionality. The question, in this scenario, is how much damage would the country have endured by then?
As Karl Marx observed, “history repeats itself, first as tragedy, second as farce”. The Zuma presidency has proved tragic for the ANC as a political movement, as well as for the quality of democracy in South Africa. it's reproduction would be a political nightmare for South Africa. Yet there is still scope and capacity to reel it in before the democratic vision of 1994 is compromised beyond repair. It will, however, require courageous and unifying leadership that can appeal to the whole of South African society and awaken it to the pressing realities that the 21st Century has ushered in.