Political amnesia: A virus that causes those infected to forget political history — even if it the events occurred only months before. In South Africa 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 right now that politicians base their moves on the assumption that their supporters simply won’t remember. In South Africa, political wrongdoers depend on public amnesia — they 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 bombshell on the South African public that ANC MPs had actively tried to remove former president Jacob Zuma and in the process the likes of national executive committee member Derek Hanekom had met with the fighter 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 Economic Freedom Fighters (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 Bells rather than call for the ANC to punish the miscreants.
Spies, lies and Twitter
Another recent example took place when Zuma testified — if it could be called that— at the Zondo Commission. Before skillfully avoiding questions about 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, which apparently is some sort of secret spy signal, but nothing about his time as president. He did not remember that several of the Cabinet ministers he himself appointed were apartheid spies until after he left office. It was enough for many to forget what the original matter at hand was, namely, state capture and Zuma’s own guiding role in it.
To turn back to the EFF, their own amnesia is so severe they seem to be both claiming credit for Zuma’s fall from power and boosting his lazy conspiracy theorising power at the same time. It is almost as if there were no mass mobilisations led by the working class against Zuma at the time and the vast majority of South Africans did not want uBaba to leave office. His own party forced him out of office in early 2018, despite his protestations. His approval rating was 18 percent during those hazy days in 2017. The majority wanted him out and as his presidency and the country descended into crisis.
During those heady days, the uninfected will remember the vicious critiques unleashed by the fighters against Zuma. For instance rapper/commentator/Whatsapp presenter Sizwe Mpofu-Walsh rapped about downing our ex-president in his own firepool. These days he is more likely to be found granting fawning interviews in which Zuma repeats his wild claims without challenge.
The EFF is now concerned with destroying the minister of public enterprises Pravin Gordhan, who they in a crude attempt to draw attention to his Indian heritage, call by his second name Jamnandas. Gordhan, went from being “a unifier, who’s seeking good for our country” for Malema to become the sinister head of an Indian cabal in alliance with white monopoly capital bent on destroying Africans. Forgive me, but this stuff is really hard to follow. The EFF are now the biggest cheerleaders of Public Protector, Busisiwe Mkhwebane — currently on a monumental streak — when only a year ago they were demanding her removal claiming that she is “going to collapse that (Public Protector’s) office.” Perhaps the EFF are hoping that through their endless flip-flops we will forget they are funded by tobacco smuggling mafias and used VBS Mutual Bank as their party’s piggy bank.
Radical economic transformation
Another 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 to power at Polokwane by the left promising that he would end neoliberalism and “the 1996 Class Project”. When he failed to do that in his first term and workers began to ask why, Cosatu and the South African Communist Party told us he would have his “Lula Moment” in his second term and veer sharply left as part of the second radical phase of the National Democratic Revolution or some word salad along those lines.
When that too failed to come into being and many of its loudest supporters expelled from Cosatu for daring to criticise Zuma and later, when the once-loyal Communist Party was spurned by JZ, a rebranding was in order. Bell Pottinger 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 is even vaguer and emptier that its previous incarnations and largely consists of ANC members blaming the Constitution for its failures in governance.
In practice RET has proven to be less concerned with fighting WMC 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 like the Free State dairy farmers living in fear for their lives for daring to talk about Ace Magashule and Mosebenzi Zwane looting the Vrede dairy project on behalf of the Guptas.
The causes of political amnesia
Political amnesia is by no means the domain of the EFF or Zuma, it is common for supporters of Thabo Mbeki to conveniently ‘forget’ the worst parts of his presidency or even supporters of our current president to forget his own role in Marikana. Economists tend to forget the same neoliberal recipes they have been pushing for decades failed to work even when our economy was steadily growing and our prospects significantly brighter. But what are the causes of political amnesia?
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 all our contradictions: A radical ‘socialist’ party that solicits white capitalists to invest in a wine bar.; radical economic transformation which means transforming the economy through redistributing our fiscus to foreign business clan or a New Dawn that doesn’t actually offer anything new.
Or perhaps it is a response to a political arena which excludes the majority and its concerns from actively participating instead turning everything into crude political? South African politics is dominated by allegiance to personality rather than program or vision.
We are at a crisis point, our economy is being hollowed out, unemployment is at record levels, violence is on the rise, local governance is broken and other such cheerful things, but the issues that affect the vast majority have been reduced into crude power plays between individuals. The fate of the country is dictated by factional strife in the ruling party that we can do nothing about. This represents a hollowing out of politics, that only interests an increasingly small number of people, while the majority attempt 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