The ANC has lost its hold over organised workers and the organised urban “precariat” — those without predictability or security — as well as students and intellectuals.
This is not entirely surprising. No political project sustains its credibility indefinitely, and the arc of national liberation movements always descends into some kind of disgrace.
But, given that we came to electoral democracy so late, there was at least as much farce as tragedy in our failure to heed the lessons of history. The historians of the future will not be kind to figures like Fikile Mbalula and Julius Malema or, for that matter, Blade Nzimande, and their role in enabling the descent of the ANC into the abyss of the Jacob Zuma debacle.
Cyril Ramaphosa has already won, and may sustain, significant support from business, the middle classes and people sickened by the scale of the looting and obfuscation under Zuma. But the redemptive sense that the ANC carries the destiny of the nation, that it is permanently sanctioned by history, will not be restored. The political field is open to contestation.
Nonetheless, the battles in the ANC have not been decisively resolved. Unity with a class of predatory politicians, some of whom are outright gangsters, can only be, as Mavuso Msimang has argued, unity against society. The ANC cannot claim even the most basic kind of credibility while it harbours people like Jessie Duarte, David Mabuza and Ace Magashule in its senior leadership. And there are a host of more local figures and networks that are equally predatory. In some parts of the country they have a well-developed capacity for violence, often effectively integrated with the state’s armed forces and, in the absence of organised and sustained mobilisation, immune from prosecution.
But unlike in Narendra Modi’s India, Vladimir Putin’s Russia or Recep Erdogan’s Turkey the various, and often contradictory, attempts to build a coherent popular ideology around the Zuma project — including recourse to traditional authority, social conservatism, the mobilisation of ethnicity and Pentecostal Christianity — have not succeeded. The histrionics of the likes of Carl Niehaus, Mzwanele Manyi and Andile Mngxitama have not been able to effectively present the private looting of the state as some sort of radical act. Their claims are too crude and too at odds with people’s lived experience of the party and the state, to attain popular credibility. This project increasingly appears as farcical rather than dangerous.
Power in the party based on shared interest will not easily translate into power in society. Popular disgust at corruption is profound. When, for instance, jobs or government houses are brazenly sold, a strongly charged anger is generated. An astute politician could easily and effectively channel this anger against the likes of Duarte, Mabuza and Magashule.
But the reduction of the Zuma debacle to the question of corruption has eviscerated the political. Of course, for instance, Eskom should be focused on providing affordable, clean and reliable electricity to society, rather than being misused as an instrument for private accumulation at the direct expense of society. But while opposing looting through the state is vital it is hardly an adequate response to the profound crisis of mass racialised impoverishment, and the escalating everyday brutalities that accompany it.
There is no way out of our crisis without the development of a positive social vision and the building of the social forces that can advance towards that vision. Stopping the selling of government houses by local party structures is hardly the same thing as taking effective steps, including solidarity with land occupations, towards building just and democratic cities. Acting against a union that organises the selling of jobs in schools is hardly the same thing as building an education system commensurate with the full weight of the lives of the children that will be shaped by it. Not even the sternest remonstrations against corporate corruption do anything to alter the structure of a deeply racialised economy that enables entirely legal forms of looting and condemns the majority to exploitation, exclusion and impoverishment.
The lack of any credible positive political vision in the ANC is compounded by the way in which the South African drama frequently takes on such a compelling intensity that the broader forces in which it is enmeshed disappear from view. They are subsumed by myths, personalities and, at times, the sheer exhaustion produced by the rapid oscillation between horror and hope.
When international forces are acknowledged it is not unusual for them to be understood in simultaneously paranoid and salvific terms. For some, any dissent from within the nation can only be imagined as consequent to malicious external influence. Every critic is some kind of agent. For others the final authority, the authority that commands irrevocable obedience, an obedience imagined as redemptive, is that of the market or the foreign investor. Both kinds of fantasies are in the business of distorting reality to offer an illusion of control, a claim to authority.
The seriousness of our own drama cannot be denied. It is not merely some trivial epiphenomenon of a much deeper structure. But, at the same time, we cannot adequately understand the world, or take effective strategic action towards a more democratic and just future, if we don’t grasp the full array of forces at play. The future that is rushing towards us carries serious environmental challenges, a global economy in which work as we once knew it has fundamentally changed and new routes to the accumulation of wealth and power from which we are largely excluded.
The international institutions that organise and legitimate global power relations sustain their authority. And while there are some significant sparks in the ashes of the emancipatory hopes of the last century from the United States, to Brazil, India and Russia the right is firmly in the ascendance.
There are serious limits to what we, or any society, can achieve in isolation. The recovery of an emancipatory prospect has to be, as it always has been, a project that moves between the local, the national and the international. The predatory faction in the ANC is interested in the sort of international alliances that can enable its own accumulation, and defend it with recourse to more authoritarian modes of rule. But the faction that has cohered under the banner of opposing corruption is far more concerned with the authority of the market, and the institutions that rig it, than in working to explore and to build new political possibilities on the international stage.
The battles in the ANC will shape our future. The stakes are high and to dismiss those battles would be irresponsible. But to accept that our future is circumscribed by those battles would be equally irresponsible. It would mean accepting the end of the emancipatory hopes that have carried the struggles and strivings of our people for so long.
There is no prospect of tending those hopes within the ANC, a party essentially divided between an elite invested in accumulation via the market and an elite invested in accumulation via the state. There is no faction in the ANC that has taken a clear position in support of popular struggles and against their repression, sometimes murderous, by the state and the party. A political project that could tend emancipatory hopes, and build the forms of democratic popular power capable of advancing them, would have to root itself in the strivings and struggles of the oppressed. It would have to take this space as the fundamental site of its thought and action.
This is not the kind of politics in which the nongovernmental organisation, the demagogue, a performance on social media, or a tiny political sect, as theoretically militant as it is practically irrelevant, seek to substitute themselves for the oppressed. On the contrary, the construction of popular democratic politics is, precisely, a popular project. It is a project that requires new meaning and new forms of organisation and power to be forged in the vortex of what Frantz Fanon called “the zone of occult instability where the people dwell”.
This work was undertaken, with significant success in the 1970s and 1980s, in the Black Consciousness Movement, the trade union movement and later on in the popular struggles that cohered around the United Democratic Front. Every political situation and political sequence has its own particularities and every generation has to innovate anew. There can be no prescriptive return to the politics of the 1970s and the 1980s. But there certainly can be a return to the commitment to building the democratic organisation and authority of the oppressed, to linking the local, national and international, and to taking struggle as a serious site of intellectual engagement.
Richard Pithouse is an associate professor at the Wits Institute for Social and Economic Research