South Africans are gatvol with state looting: It's Zuma versus the People

ANC members and supporters filled the Vygekraal Stadium in Athlone, Cape Town to celebrate President Jacob Zuma's 72nd birthday in 2014. (David Harrison)

ANC members and supporters filled the Vygekraal Stadium in Athlone, Cape Town to celebrate President Jacob Zuma's 72nd birthday in 2014. (David Harrison)

In Ayi Kwei Armah’s 1968 novel, The Beautyful Ones Are Not Yet Born, corruption acquired more than a stench – it accumulated into a viscous materiality. There is no space into which it has not oozed. It’s on the bus.
It’s at work. It’s at home. Life, even intimate life, has to be made within the rot.

Jacob Zuma could be a character in this or any number of dystopian novels written out of the crisis of the post-colony. So too could SABC chief executive Hlaudi Motsoeneng, Hawks head Mthandazo Ntlemeza, deputy minister of defence and military veterans Kebby Maphatsoe and a large cast of others. But we are not condemned to a future like the one described by Armah.

The civil servant who holds to principle, the journalist who does not surrender her professional integrity and the politician who decides to draw a line don’t fit into this story. There is decency, resilience and courage – and it matters. Sometimes it finds itself, like public protector Thuli Madonsela, Finance Minister Pravin Gordhan or the eight journalists who stood up to the SABC, thrust into the glare of the national stage.

But mostly we are carried through by people whose names we don’t know who work to build and sustain credible organisations and institutions of various kinds. The democratic movement, the school where children flourish and the tax office that chases down the scammer are all rooted in continuous collective labour.

We have our share of toadies and hucksters. But we are not, in the main, a politically quiescent people. We rebel where we live, where we work and where we study. We rebel in and out of the ruling party. We rebel in Parliament. We rebel in shack settlements. We rebel with the word, with lawyers and with tyres rolled into road blockades. We boo the president before the eyes of the world. We shame him in court. We stand before him with cardboard signs to turn his metaphorical machine gun, his distinctly masculine mode of power, into his shame. A public appearance for the president is now a risk to be managed.

Zuma’s presidency has brought us a flailing economy, an infamous massacre and the normalisation of political assassination in KwaZulu-Natal. It has put spies and thugs at the heart of the state, enabled political gangsterism to fester in Durban and other provinces, sent our soldiers to die in the Central African Republic and dressed up the kinds of social conservatism that would be at home in the Republican Party and in chunks of Stalinist and nationalist rhetoric.

Under Zuma, shack dwellers, workers and students have organised themselves outside of the ANC, no credible intellectual will speak for the party, labour federation Cosatu has split, the alliance has fractured and the ANC has lost most of the big cities.

But it is corruption – brazen corruption in the form of outright looting – that is at the heart of how Zuma is now widely perceived. Public disgust has centred on Nkandla and the personal power that the Gupta brothers have come to wield over parts of government and the state. The devil is frequently in the detail – the detail of what happens when coal is provided to Eskom, SAA seeks to buy new planes or plans are hatched with Russian President Vladimir Putin to make a nuclear power deal. Some of this detail is a little arcane. But the experts who told us that the poor don’t care about corruption were illuminating their prejudices, not reality. Large numbers of us, including many residents of the president’s own home village, Nxamalala, are just not prepared to vote for Zuma.

Under Nelson Mandela and Thabo Mbeki there were grand visions for a new society. There was a sense of a collective project. Of course these visions must, as they have been, be subject to critique. But it must also be noted that Zuma offers no collective vision or conception of emancipation. He offers nothing but coalitions of interest, coalitions that – like alliances between traditional authorities, multinational mining companies and factions in the ANC – are frequently predatory on society as a whole. He is, as Karl Marx said of Louis-Napoléon Bonaparte in 1852, stripping the “state machinery of its halo, profaning it and making it at once loathsome and ridiculous”.

So far Zuma’s response to growing opposition at the polls, in the party and in wider society has not been to escalate repression. He has not sought to try to renew his credibility by, say, supporting urban land occupations and driving an agenda for access to education. What he has done is to try to rapidly expand his capacity to offer patronage so that he can buy himself alliances – often bought at the direct expense of society.

Zuma has certainly had some success in capturing some of the offices and institutions required to advance this project but he doesn’t, as Marx said of Bonaparte, have “the entire state machinery”. There have been people and institutions that have, sometimes at real personal cost, stood firm. On more than one occasion the people Zuma has placed into position, such as Mogoeng Mogoeng, have, no doubt to Number One’s surprise, acted in a principled manner. We are not all for sale and we don’t all bend with the wind.

The people and groups that are unwilling to accept Zuma’s attempt to subordinate the state to personal interest often have very little in common. They certainly do not share a vision of a political or economic future. They come from within capital and labour, the rich and the poor and all the racial categories through which we make our lives. Zuma appals the Economic Freedom Fighters, the Democratic Alliance and parts of the ANC. The fact that such different constituencies are finding themselves, sometimes to their mutual astonishment, on the same side of this matter is not a mark of anything dubious. It is an indication that there is a general apprehension of a general problem.

Those who declare, sometimes speaking from a certain political monomania, that this is all a distraction from more urgent questions are fundamentally wrong. If the state and other institutions continue to be captured and distorted by private interest, the interests of a few families rather than a class, the possibilities for democratic deliberation and action that could result in making real progress with the land question, attaining access to quality education or trying to subordinate the economy to society will be vastly reduced.

If the rot sets into the deep tissue of the state it will acquire its own logic and interests and it will be extremely difficult, if not impossible, for new rulers – or even a newly mobilised society – to wield it as a social tool. As the students who marched last year with banners that simultaneously condemned Zuma and demanded free education understood, politics is not a project well served by one-horse riders, dogmatists and fundamentalists. It is never solely about one thing.

No progressive project is served by allowing a predatory political faction to reorganise the state to facilitate looting. Defensive action against a real threat to society as a whole does not preclude, and is sometimes a condition for, more positive forms of social action.

Critics of the treasury’s macroeconomic policies can, and should, simultaneously sustain their critique and oppose the attempts by Zuma and the Guptas to capture the treasury. In the same way we can, and must, be critical of the way in which a company such as Lonmin operates, and the vast amounts of money that it moves to London, and the new forms of predation that Zuma is enabling. There is no choice to be made here. We should declare a plague on both their houses.

Those who insist that opposition to Zuma is misguided because apartheid was worse, or the Nationalists were corrupt, or because white capital is, as with the construction cartel, corrupt are also fundamentally wrong. If apartheid, the Nationalists or white capital provide the measure of our aspirations we are assuming an impoverished political vision and condemning ourselves to social and political failure.

It is vital that we are always acutely attentive to the ways in which discourse around corruption is frequently raced. But this does not mean that we are required to accept the cynical debasement of the idea of emancipation that now suggests it is merely about a new group of people having a turn to loot. On the contrary we should measure our progress against our highest aspirations for our society, not the horror from which we have emerged or the social forces to which we are opposed.

We can take full measure of the horrors of colonialism and apartheid, be committed to the subordination of capital to society and opposed to an attempt to turn the post-apartheid state into an instrument for open predation on the public purse.

As the situation escalates we are confronted with increasingly Orwellian spin and performance. Hucksters of various stripes have sought to repurpose everything from anti-imperialism to anti-Semitic conspiracy theory, black consciousness and Umkhonto weSizwe to give cover to Zuma. The Zuma project may have the SABC, the Hawks, men in camouflage outside Luthuli House and lots of cash. But society as a whole is just not buying it. We can tell the difference between Zuma’s four-day finance minister Des van Rooyen and Chris Hani, people’s hero and freedom fighter.

This isn’t over.

Richard Pithouse’s new book, Writing the Decline: On the Struggle for South Africa’s Democracy, is published by Jacana

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