The nightmare of the Jacob Zuma presidency has its roots in the South African Communist Party-led (SACP) bandwagon to displace the neoliberal Thabo Mbeki and affirm a “working-class hero” at the helm of the state.
The SACP command centre spiked all strategic debate about contesting state power, tied trade union federation Cosatu to its disastrous plans, narrated the “Zuma Trojan Horse” as the victim of a conspiracy – and anyone providing principled opposition was victimised, humiliated and herded out of the SACP.
Although senior leaders of the liberation struggle such as Ahmed Kathrada, Denis Goldberg and others did not speak out at the start of the “Zumafication” of South Africa, it is comforting that they refuse to defend the indefensible today. The country needs more stalwarts to stand up and say: Zuma must go.
The SACP in Gauteng (I was the party’s provincial secretary at the time) challenged the morally and ideologically bankrupt politics of the SACP leadership. The party in Gauteng leaned towards the SACP contesting state power through mass politics to reclaim the strategic initiative for the left and working class at its 2005 special conference on state power.
If the SACP had resolved to contest power electorally then, South Africa would have been in a different place today; very likely with a more robust and mature democracy, including a serious left discourse in the mainstream of society. In the end the debate was killed and this path was not taken by the SACP.
I was formally expelled in 2009 for writing about the misguidedness of the “Zuma path to socialism” and the political suicide of the SACP. The SACP-constructed populism brought together various elements: authoritarianism, ethnic chauvinism, patriarchy, an anti-constitutionalism, corruption and the cult of Zuma.
This was not the making of a left shift by any stretch of the imagination, yet it was given a class belonging, draped in a radical rhetoric and positioned in the theatre of militant street politics.
Unleashed on the country since Zuma’s rape trial in 2005, this bandwagon swept through Polokwane and has marched through our democratic institutions with the imprimatur of the Zuma presidency.
What has this authoritarian populism produced? In simple terms a catalogue of impunity against the grain of national liberation history.
This has worked in three ways. First, through the brazen acquisition of wealth at the expense of the people. The ANC cadre has evolved the idea of the “liberation tax” (alternatively known as black economic empowerment), which means we have struggled and therefore deserve to be rich. The people owe us – and we, as liberators, have to be paid back. Sacrifice, servant leadership and ethical commitment to the people is all but extinguished.
The nefarious Gupta business empire, conspicuous accumulation by the Zuma family and many other scandalous schemes of wealth acquisition have created a moral gulf between the ANC and the people.
This schism is most starkly expressed in the 2012 Marikana massacre of mineworkers, who were demanding a monthly wage of R12 500, and pervasive localised protest actions against corrupt and inept ANC councillors.
Second, the mythic and actual heroism of national liberation has been reduced to the political whip of “skeletons in the closet”, according to Bathabile Dlamini, president of the ANC Women’s League. Corruption is rampant, therefore all ANC cadres are compromised and must display obeisance to Zuma. Put differently, we are closing ranks in the ANC because we are no different from Zuma and are as culpable as he is for looting.
Third, farcical apologia for failed leadership. Zuma has made numerous apologies – including to Malawi for his xenophobic barb about the state of its roads – and this has become the default mode to excuse the conduct of a deeply flawed president. After the Constitutional Court affirmed Zuma’s unconstitutional conduct on the Nkandla issue, he apologised, again, merely to scapegoat legal advisers.
It is in this context that we hear important moral voices from stalwarts of the struggle such as Kathrada, Goldberg, Ronnie Kasrils, and others. They know and are affirming that Zuma and those standing with him are making and writing a history that undermines national liberation history.
Zuma’s ANC is producing a history against the people and places South Africa in a dangerous place. In itself, this recognition should move all generations of activists, inside and outside the ANC, to stand up and be counted against Zuma.
The second consequence of authoritarian populism is about imperilling the country. The SACP’s Zuma bandwagon produced the likes of Economic Freedom Fighters leader Julius Malema, now referred to as a fascist in SACP propaganda, yet he is the progeny of their Zuma project.
Authoritarian populism has become contemporary South African politics. In this cauldron we have seen the rise of a vulgarised black consciousness (even at universities), Africanism and more white racism.
The diffusion of authoritarian populism as the measure of what it means to be political has put society on a collision course with our constitutional democracy. The valorisation of affect, the body, identity and violence (from Umshini Wami songs to burning art and buildings at universities) misses the larger picture of a democracy being hollowed out by globalised finance and an avaricious black and white elite.
For Zuma, a cult figure reinforced by the cloak of presidential authority, a divided country and a polity that operates more like him in the political sense, means he can do as he pleases and hence the manipulation of Parliament, defiance of the public protector, the compromising of the National Prosecuting Authority and now indifference to the real meaning of the Constitutional Court judgment against him.
At the people’s assembly of the Zuma Must Go campaign in Soweto last week, citizens from different walks of life and from more than 70 organisations affirmed the limits of a Zumafied democracy. “We will not be Zumafied!” was a constant refrain – and we will not defeat Zuma by being like him. A people’s line was drawn; a push-back plan through nonviolent and disciplined political action was affirmed and a defence of constitutional democracy was unequivocally committed to.
In the open and democratic conversation that ensued in Soweto, citizens placed Zuma on notice. Unlike the recall of former president Mbeki, which was an internal ANC-led tripartite alliance coup, the Zuma Must Go discourse is broader than the ANC and is about affirming citizens’ power as the bedrock of our demo-cracy. It is a real political test for the ANC: Can it genuinely listen to and respect citizens voices?
The Zuma Must Go campaign seeks to send a message to all political elites that operating outside the Constitution has costs and will not be tolerated. Hence the boldness of the call: dissolve this Parliament and have a snap election to address the undermining of Parliament by ANC cronyism.
The criminal racket set up to defend Zuma has defiled Parliament and calls into question whether it embodies the will of the people. This is an open dare to the ANC, which has brazenly taken the people for granted throughout the Zuma saga.
Moreover, the meme Zuma Must Go is an open act of defiance towards the ANC’s attempt to silence this call inside the ANC and in society. It will haunt Zuma wherever he goes in public; it will find its way into important spaces and at key moments. From bumper stickers to pickets, from occupations to a social media barrage, the Zuma regime should expect his illegitimacy to be amplified. This is a message that will only go away when Zuma goes. This is also when Zapiro can remove the shower head.
Citizens gathered at the Soweto meeting also recognised that rolling mass action will be a powerful weapon of people’s power in coming months. It was recognised that merely having a mass meeting, a rally or even a march was not sufficient to pull Zuma down.
In coming months, expect actions on key national days such as April 27, at the launch of the new labour federation, at a people’s Drought Speak Out, #FoodPricesMustFall actions and at bread marches. This is about harnessing the symbolic power of the people to affirm that their suffering, hunger, voicelessness and marginalisation are all connected to Zuma being in power.
Of course, Zuma’s ANC will call all of this an imperialist plot, or some other such mindless slander will be spewed out. Although we expect the shrinking number of the brave and principled in the ANC to defend our right to exist in a democracy, it is also important to recognise that the ANC lost its anti-imperialism a long time ago. A deeply globalised economy under ANC leadership for the past 21 years has merely shored up imperial power at the expense of the people.
So, hopefully, the Zuma Must Go campaign will assist the ANC in realising how anti-people it has become. But, more importantly, we want this campaign to affirm that the future of South Africa’s democracy belongs to each of its citizens.
It is time we all took responsibility to ensure Zuma goes now – and that we do not let South Africa fall further.
Vishwas Satgar is an associate professor in international relations at the University of the Witwatersrand. He works on the Zuma Must Go campaign and the South African Food Sovereignty Campaign.