Wanted: A popular force for change
There are moments in history in which redemption for some means disaster for others. It is not unusual for situations structured by fundamentally incompatible interests to be masked by the normalisation of ideas that conflate the interests of elites, or oppressors, with those of the people as a whole.
In these circumstances attempts to encourage a general sense of unity are ideological acts that function to sustain and to mask oppression. An affirmation of division, of separation, is a necessary precondition for the emergence of the political, for the ability to name oppression and to confront it.
But there are also situations in which the vast majority of people, and any meaningful conception of the interests of society as a whole, face a common threat. Consider, for instance, the rise of fascism in Europe in the 1930s. In these circumstances an unwillingness to construct a tactical unity against a common threat can result in general ruination. When unity is constructed in response to crisis the basis on which that unity is constructed will often be a significant factor in how society is reorganised after the crisis.
There are many cases where subordinated groups have found their position unchanged, or even weakened, after their participation in a broader alliance has helped to overcome a crisis. For instance, women have often been expected to return to the home after involvement in struggle or war.
But there are also cases where subordinated groups have attained significant or even decisive gains in power because of their participation in a wider confrontation with crisis. The ascension of the organised working class to political power in the United Kingdom after World War II and the construction of the welfare state is an example of this.
The systemic corruption in the ruling party and the state that has marked Jacob Zuma’s presidency is not an incidental feature of his rule. It is a central feature of how it is organised and sustained. There is a significant degree to which patronage has replaced principle or collective aspiration as a central basis on which alliances are made and sustained within the ruling party, and between actors in the party and elsewhere.
The argument that suggests that corruption is solely a white or middle-class concern is simply bogus. This argument is often predicated on an investment in the disposability of people who are black and impoverished that sustains a fundamentally colonial logic. It is clear that the centrality that corruption has acquired in our country is acknowledged, often with real pain and anxiety about the future, in all quarters of society.
It is also clear that the people for whom state corruption is most devastating are those with the least ability to meet their most urgent needs through the market. Corruption is hardly trivial for someone who finds herself homeless after being unable to show a party card or to pay a bribe to access a government house when a shack settlement is demolished.
Zuma’s presidency has also been marked by a significant escalation in political authoritarianism and violence. Violence has been mediated through popular actors, such as the xenophobic mob, along with the party and the state. This violence has been concentrated in certain spaces, such as the urban land occupation, and in certain parts of the country — most notably in KwaZulu-Natal. It has overwhelmingly targeted people who are black and working class or impoverished.
It also has an evidently political dimension, often only brought to the attention of the wider public when it has been televised — such as the police murder of Andries Tatane in 2011 and the Marikana massacre in 2012. The assassinations of activists in organisations such as Abahlali baseMjondolo, the National Union of Metalworkers of South Africa and the South African Communist Party in KwaZulu-Natal haven’t garnered the same attention in elite publics.
Zuma’s project has not been able to sustain electoral support. It has, from the shack settlement to the factory floor, the university and now the boardroom, confronted increasingly open hostility.
It has also resulted in serious divisions within the ruling party and the ruling alliance. For some time it has become clear that if things carry on as they have the ANC will face a real risk of losing power in the 2019 elections.
Zuma and his allies have responded to their decline in electoral support and general legitimacy by seeking to expand and extend their capacity to buy support through patronage. At the same time there has been an ideological project, much of it based on brazen dishonesty, to legitimate the Zuma project by presenting it in populist and anti-colonial terms.
Although much of the ideological work in support of the Zuma project is predicated on shameless dishonesty, it is designed to address people’s real experiences and real aspects of our society that have often been suppressed. One dimension of this is the subordination of society to the market — a global phenomenon. Around the world the power that finance capital has been able to accumulate over society has pushed millions of people into precarious modes of existence. As social hope has receded consent for technocratic forms of rule has given way to demands to restore the standing and authority of the people.
This demand has taken progressive forms, organised around solidarity and democratic aspirations. Reaching back to Argentina in 2001 and Bolivia in 2002 the progressive response to the crisis has included the occupation of public space, the emergence of the neighbourhood assembly, the road blockade and alliances between the middle class and poorer people.
This kind of politics, in which people manifest their latent power in acts of collective disruption and presence, along with the enactment of public forms of solidarity and democratic deliberation, reached its global high point during the events of 2011.
But the demand to restore the standing and authority of the people has also taken reactionary forms, organised around exclusion and authoritarianism. Figures such as Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, Russian President Vladimir Putin and United States President Donald Trump — all big men with toxic forms of nationalist rhetoric — are the most prominent symbols of the reactionary response to crisis.
There are significant respects in which the Zuma project is presented in terms that echo this authoritarian and reactionary populism. But our position in this global conjuncture is complicated by the fact that we have not undone many of the colonial features of our society.
Here the impulse towards authoritarian nationalism includes a will to confront some aspects of historical injustice. The propaganda project organised in support of the Zuma project relentlessly conflates the interests, often predatory, of a minority with those of the oppressed as a whole.
But it is not wrong to insist that there is an evident racial dimension to the fact that the established order is incapable of meeting the most urgent needs of millions of people. It is also not wrong to insist that the established order has not effectively confronted the colonial dimensions of our society.
Here the attempt to incite chauvinist forms of politics does not only scapegoat vulnerable minorities along the lines of nationality and ethnicity, it also offers a rhetorical confrontation with racial domination, with oppression.
What is required is a credible vision of a more just and democratic society, and a credible path towards the realisation of that vision.
There are two significant risks for popular and progressive forces that decide to stay out of the movement against Zuma. The first is that the movement will be successful and that, as a result of the character of the movement, the post-Zuma order will seek to reinscribe an economic order that is unjust and unstable.
The second risk, one that is much more likely to materialise, is that without the support of popular and progressive forces the movement against Zuma will fail. If it fails, and if the Zuma project is able to continue its advance, we will inhabit a future in which general impoverishment, escalating repression and the subordination of all our key institutions to a predatory elite is legitimated in the name of the people.
We will, as CLR James wrote in his classic account of the Haitian revolution, have to confront “the waste, the waste of all this bravery, devotion and noble feeling on the corrupt and rapacious bourgeoisie”. As repression escalates the prospects for the development of a progressive alternative will be greatly reduced.
If there is some possibility of organising effective opposition to the Zuma project it can only come from genuinely popular forms of politics and, in particular, the struggles and organisations of the working class and the poor.
If there is any possibility of affirming a more just and democratic future after Zuma it can only be achieved with serious intellectual labour undertaken within and in conversation with the struggles and organisations of the working class and the poor.
There are all kinds of lines of division between different organisations but the stakes are high, very high, and it is not impossible to forge working relationships across these divisions in order to persue common goals, to construct what Zuma would no doubt call “a third force”.
Richard Pithouse is the senior researcher at the unit for the humanities at Rhodes University, and a visiting researcher at the Wits Institute for Social and Economic Research.