SA suffers from political amnesia

Another recent example of political amnesia took place when Zuma testified — if it could be called that— at the Zondo Commission. (Wikus de Wet/Pool/Reuters)

Another recent example of political amnesia took place when Zuma testified — if it could be called that— at the Zondo Commission. (Wikus de Wet/Pool/Reuters)


Political amnesia: a virus that causes those infected to forget political history, even if the events occurred only months before. The signs of this virus are everywhere in the political debate — flagrant criminality, flip-flops, venality, rank opportunism and assorted skulduggery disappear from the memories of the infected. The plague is so widespread in South Africa that many politicians base their moves on the assumption that their supporters simply won’t remember their transgressions.

Political wrongdoers depend on public amnesia — politicians need only hide themselves from the public eye for a sufficient amount of time before returning to public life as if they had done nothing wrong.

For instance, Julius Malema dropped the supposed bombshell on the public that some ANC MPs had tried to get Jacob Zuma removed from the presidency, including national executive committee member Derek Hanekom, who had met the Economic Freedom Fighters’ leadership to plan a vote of no confidence.

Those not infected by political amnesia will remember that this was widely reported at the time and it was no secret that a large part of the ANC wanted Zuma out in 2017.
The EFF is now threatening to leak the names of 60 other MPs who dared to stand up to Zuma. I suspect the majority of South Africans would rather buy these MPs a whisky than call for the ANC to punish them.

Spies, lies and Twitter

Another recent example took place when Zuma testified — if it could be called that — at the Zondo commission of inquiry into state capture. He used the platform to repeat the same vague conspiracy theories he has been advancing for years about unnamed intelligence agencies and apartheid spies working for decades to undermine him.

Zuma has perhaps the strongest case of political amnesia ever diagnosed: he can remember the colour of the shirt of the guy hugging the other guy in the 1980s — apparently some sort of secret spy signal — but nothing about his time as president. For example, he suddenly remembered that several of the Cabinet ministers he appointed were apartheid spies when he appeared before the Zondo commission in mid-July, a claim that he is yet to provide evidence of. But it was enough for many to forget what the matter at hand was — state capture and Zuma’s role in it.

The EFF’s amnesia is so severe it seems to be claiming credit for Zuma’s fall from power yet also boosting his conspiracy theorising power. It is almost as if the vast majority of South Africans did not want uBaba to leave office and there was no mass mobilisation led by the working class against Zuma.

But, his approval rating was 18% during those hazy days in 2017 when the majority wanted him out as the country descended into crisis under his presidency. Labour federation Cosatu and the South African Communist Party (SACP) held a nationwide shutdown in September of that year against Zuma’s rule, state capture, corruption and job losses. It is true, that the EFF did act to get Zuma out: it, together other opposition parties, held a mass protest against Zuma’s alleged corruption. His party did not elect his proxy as leader in December 2017 and forced him out of office in May last year, despite his protestations.

The uninfected will remember the vicious critiques unleashed by the fighters against Zuma. For instance, author and WhatsApper Sizwe Mpofu-Walsh rapped about drowning our former president in his own fire pool. But, these days he is more likely to be found having a fawning interview with Zuma in which the ex-president repeats his wild claims without being challenged.

The EFF is now concerned with destroying Minister of Public Enterprises Pravin Gordhan, who went, as Malema claims, from being “a unifier, who’s seeking good for our country” to become the sinister head of an Indian cabal. The EFF, in its crude attempt to draw attention to Gordhan’s Indian heritage, call it an alliance with so-called white monopoly capital, which is bent on destroying black South Africans.

This stuff is really hard to follow. The EFF is now the biggest cheerleaders of the public protector, Busisiwe Mkhwebane, when only a year ago it was demanding her removal, claiming that she is “going to collapse that [the public protector’s] office”. Perhaps the EFF is hoping that, through its endless flip-flops, we will forget it was allegedly funded by tobacco smugglers and used VBS Mutual Bank as the party’s piggy bank.

Radical amnesia

Anther example of political amnesia can be found in that hard-to-define thing known as “radical economic transformation”. Those unaffected by political amnesia will remember that Zuma was swept into power in December 2007 at the ANC’s national elective conference in Polokwane by the left within the party, when he promised that he would end neoliberalism and “the 1996 class project”. When he failed to do that during the first term of his presidency and workers began to ask questions, Cosatu and the SACP said Zuma would have his “Lula moment” in his second term and veer sharply left as part of the second phase of the national democratic revolution or some word salad along those lines.

That, too, failed to come into being, and many of its loudest supporters were expelled from Cosatu for daring to criticise Zuma. Then the SACP did not invite the president to its 96th birthday celebrations in 2017 and decided to not include him in any other events “until we’ve met with the alliance to speak about our own pronouncement for the president to step down”. A rebranding was in order. Bell Pottinger, a British public relations, reputation management and marketing company, and the Guptasphere came up with radical economic transformation, which has something to do with white monopoly capital and land reform. RET, as it is known, largely involved some ANC members blaming the Constitution for the party’s failures in governance.

In practice, RET has proven to be less concerned with fighting “white monopoly capital” and more occupied with looting projects meant to uplift the black majority. The victims of state capture are conveniently forgotten by the loudest and most “radical” voices. There are Free State dairy farmers living in fear for their lives for daring to talk about Ace Magashule, then the Free State premier and now the ANC’s secretary general and former Free State agriculture and rural development MEC Mosebenzi Zwane, who was appointed minister of mineral resources by Zuma, in connection with the failed Gupta-linked Estina dairy project.

Causes of forgetfulness

Political amnesia is by no means the domain of the EFF or Zuma. It is common for supporters of Zuma’s predecessor, Thabo Mbeki, to forget the worst parts of his presidency or even supporters of our current president, Cyril Ramaphosa, to forget his role in the Marikana killings by the police in 2012. Economists tend to forget that the neoliberal recipes they have been pushing for decades have failed to work, even when our economy was growing and our prospects were significantly brighter.

Perhaps political amnesia is a natural response to the startling contradictions of South Africa and its politics. It is easier to forget than attempt to make sense of them. They include: a “socialist” party that solicits capitalists to invest in a wine bar (payments were made by looted VBS Mutual Bank to Grand Azania, owned by EFF deputy president Floyd Shivambu’s brother, Brian); RET, which, in reality, means transforming the economy through redistributing our fiscus to a foreign business clan, the Guptas; or a “new dawn” that doesn’t really offer anything new.

Or perhaps it is a response to an arena where politics is dominated by allegiance to personality and party rather than programme or vision.

Our economy is at a crisis point, unemployment is at record levels, violence is on the rise, local government is broken. These issues, which affect the vast majority, have been reduced to crude power plays between individuals. The fate of the country is dictated by factional strife in the ruling party. This represents a hollowing out of politics that only interests a small number of people, while the majority just try to survive. It all too easy to forget the gravity of the situation and, sadly, that nobody knows how to guide us out of it.

Currently based in São Paulo, Benjamin Fogel is a PhD candidate in Latin American history at New York University and is a contributing editor for Jacobin magazine and website Africa is a Country

This article has been edited to correctly reflect the events of the 2017 ANC national elective conference
​Benjamin Fogel

​Benjamin Fogel

Currently based in São Paulo, Benjamin Fogel is a PhD candidate in Latin American history at New York University and is a contributing editor for Jacobin magazine and website Africa is a Country Read more from ​Benjamin Fogel

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