We all want a revolution

Talking about a revolution:President Jacob Zuma and his one- time supporter Julius Malema loom large in the political landscape examined in these books.(Paul Botes,M&G)

Talking about a revolution:President Jacob Zuma and his one- time supporter Julius Malema loom large in the political landscape examined in these books.(Paul Botes,M&G)


Longtime readers of this newspaper will recall a notorious piece, published in the late 1990s, that asked of Thabo Mbeki: "Is this man fit to govern?" It detailed various failings evident in Mbeki's history, warning about his secretive and perhaps autocratic tendencies. 

A few years later, well into Mbeki's first term as president, the Mail & Guardian (then under Howard Barrell's editorship) asked the question again. By then, Mbeki's acts and statements on Zimbabwe, Aids and the arms deal, as well as his viciousness towards any dissent, meant that the question was answered more firmly in the negative than it had been earlier.

By contrast, nobody asked that question about Jacob Zuma. After Mbeki's fall, and as Zuma fought his way out of corruption charges (as though, for him, the only way out was up), nobody published anything like that Mbeki piece. No publication bothered to ask "Is this man fit to govern?" –probably because the consensus was pretty much already a "no". 

Still, Zuma got to the top, and there he sits. Since the ANC's Mangaung conference late last year, he has been more firmly entrenched than ever, and the word is that, just as the Mbekiists were purged after Zuma took the presidency, now those who showed any sign of not wanting JZ for prez at Mangaung have been steadily sidelined. 

Everyone agrees Zuma is a master politician, able as he has been to rise virtually from the dead (read in The Zuma Years how "alone" he was in the immediate aftermath of his firing), a result no doubt of his expertise in manipulating the ANC's internal levers of power, as well as a skilful packaging of himself as a "man of the people" in contradistinction to Mbeki's brainy hauteur. Ironically, Zuma is a very strong party chief and a very weak president of the country.

Hence his "big-tent approach", as Richard Calland calls it in The Zuma Years: Zuma's expansion of the executive not only to reward support for him personally but also to bring all the ANC's rival tendencies into government. Better, the old saw has it, to have them in the tent pissing out than outside the tent pissing in, but in fact it seems the various elements of the ruling party and its presence in government have largely been pissing on each other. 

Zuma: "man of the people"

The result of Zuma's inclusiveness, as Calland cannily diagnoses it, is an administration that "operates like–and should be viewed as–a sort of coalition government". This has all sorts of implications for policy and implementation; for one thing, ministers have "longer leashes" than previously, but at the same time "they rarely get his full backing". That's the kind of thing that makes South Africa feel leaderless and rudderless. That and, of course, the vision thing –Zuma doesn't have any. He may not even be fully behind the ANC's official vision of a nonracist, nonsexist South Africa, and he certainly doesn't behave like a democrat. 

Calland admits to a moment of wondering whether Zuma could have been a Ronald Reagan, devoid of his own ideas but a communicator, at least, with a finger on the popular pulse. Then he notes the confused, pallid performance of this "man of the people" after Marikana. One recalls so many other awful public moments; try to find one off-script utterance of the president's that isn't embarrassing: pets are unAfrican, women should be wives and mothers, "South Africa is not a violent country …" 

Going beyond Zuma, though, is what is needed if we are to understand where South Africa is today, and that is what Calland (a regular M&G columnist) expertly does in his new book, despite its title. It's a sequel to his 2006 Anatomy of South Africa, but broader and deeper. It's almost alarmingly comprehensive as a portrait of how power works in South Africa and the personalities who wield it, and it's not a short book, but the material is relayed in a very accessible way. There are anecdotes and quotes aplenty; Calland seems to have had a chat with anyone and everyone who had any insight to offer. 

The book is also entertaining, more often that not –see the description of the immaculately coiffed Mac Maharaj sitting in a hotel lobby, "looking every bit like a Bond villain, an Indian Blofeld minus the cat". 

Speaking of villains, the South African left has been on the hunt for the baddie who persuaded Nelson Mandela (for he is the placeholder here) that the ANC had to turn away from the socialist ideals inculcated in it by the communists and move towards a neoliberal economy – the moment of betrayal of the ANC's historic mission to liberate South Africa economically as well as politically. 

Some quote Mandela at Davos, saying even the Chinese were saying nationalisation was a bad idea; some allude to the regular lunches Mandela had in the early 1990s with mining magnate Harry Oppenheimer, meetings that later went sort of underground, or at least moved from Brenthurst (the Oppenheimer, er, compound) to the bowels of the Reserve Bank. 

This search for a villain or a moment of apostasy is, I think, a way of (re)narrating the changes that have and, more importantly, haven't happened in South Africa over the past two decades. We seek such neat narratives because it's otherwise so confusing–the populists on the ANC's right call for nationalisation, and the communist party backs Zuma's ANC government to the hilt while simultaneously excoriating neoliberalism for all it's worth. 

Liberated but still poor

Most South Africans remain painfully poor, 20 years after liberation, but is it really all neoliberalism's fault Or is it because corruption and bad governance have blocked our progress towards the prosperous, liberal, free-market economy we really want? 

The great virtue of Adam Habib's book, South Africa's Suspended Revolution: Hopes and Prospects, is that it does not reproduce doctrinaire positions but rather juggles and adjudges the competing claims to be able to answer such questions. He is, usefully, more inclined to find internal contradictions and contestations than to divide everything into schizoid black and white. 

As his title implies, he's still working within the paradigm of an incomplete social transformation (whether or not we really had a "revolution"), but he's very good at parsing our mixed and mixed-up political economy and explaining things in a lucid, swift way. He maps the neoliberal lurch of Mbeki's Growth, Employment and Reconstruction (Gear) policy, but he also sees a more recent "neo-Keynesian drift" in state economic action–hence the "developmental state", the ANC's compromise between a free market and a command economy. 

Habib argues that a new "social pact" needs to balance elite and popular expectations, just as civil society needs to grow (and grow stronger) to make elites accountable; in this he sees the outline of a new or refreshed progressive political agenda.

Gillian Hart, by contrast, focuses on what could be seen as the coalface of neoliberalism in South Africa–the "unruly terrains" of local government, in her book Rethinking the South African Crisis: Nationalism, Populism and Hegemony. She looks at essential services that were rolled out as part of the "better life for all" promise but that, as part of the new neoliberal state, had to be monetised. 

Conflict over water provision, for instance, throws up all sorts of problems with state duties and private providers; the administrative regimes defining indigence versus non-indigence, who pays or not, are so self-defeatingly complex that one emerges from this account ready to endorse the call made by Hein Marais and others for a basic, blanket income grant. 

Hart locates her granular account of service provision and its disjuntions in a bigger narrative of South African crisis, one for which Marikana is now the key shorthand figure: the bloodiest proof yet of how the South African state is now, whatever its rhetoric, on the side of the economic oppressor and not that of the poor and exploited. 

Hart complicates and undermines the simplistic dyad of good Reconstruction and Development Programme versus evil Gear, employing instead a dialectic of "de-nationalisation" and "re-nationalisation" to understand the contradictory forces acting on or in the interlocked processes of political power and economic empowerment, and which go back further into the latter days of apartheid than seems obvious from the image of 1994 as a great, definitive break with the past. 

This is a fresh perspectiv–more successful, analytically, I think, than Hart's use of Antonio Gramsci's notion of "passive revolution" (besides his much-abused "hegemony"), which he saw in the rise of fascism in Italy and in the frame of which Hart places Julius Malema and his new party of Economic Freedom Fighters. 

Interestingly, Habib barely mentions Malema at all in South Africa's Suspended Revolution, except as a loser in the ANC's game of thrones. Calland, on the other hand, has a lot of space for Malema in The Zuma Years, and uses a quote from a struggle veteran to make an example of Malema the tenderpreneur, an example of how political liberation and economic imperatives always were tangled together: "Freedom … saw a mad scramble for capital," Patric Tariq Mellet (now a home affairs adviser) says. "The ANC is a broad church. It contains businesspeople and aspirant people without capital. The consequences are not mysterious to me ..."


Adam Habib will give the keynote address of the M&G Literary Festival at the Market Theatre on Friday 30 August 30, 7 to 7.45pm, Main Theatre. Habib will also be on the panel of the festival's second session, Hopes and Impediments, on Saturday August, 31 from 9.30am to 11am, Main Theatre. Shaun de Waal will chair, with Habib joined on the panel by Adriaan Basson and Hlumelo Biko

Shaun de Waal

Shaun de Waal

Shaun de Waal has worked at the Mail & Guardian since 1989. He was literary editor from 1991 to 2006 and chief film critic for 15 years. He is now editor-at-large. Recent publications include Exposure: Queer Fiction, 25 Years of the Mail & Guardian and Not the Movie of the Week. Read more from Shaun de Waal


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