Going back to the future of KwaZulu-Natal politics

The politics of KwaZulu-Natal, we often hear, is different. The province is at the epicentre of political gangsterism and assassinations. It is the home of especially severe methods of state repression, and the heartland of Jacob Zuma and an increasingly chauvinistic and regressive vision of “radical economic transformation”. 

KwaZulu-Natal produced the attack on Abahlali baseMjondolo in the Kennedy Road shack settlement in Durban in 2009, which continues today in the siege of the eKhenana land occupation. It brought us the unrest in July. Other provinces, certainly, have assassinations and repression. They too display Zumaism and factionally promoted riots. But KwaZulu-Natal is different because these practices are carried through to a higher degree of organisation and intensity; the province is more violent, tempestuous, authoritarian. 

It bears the imprint of the civil war of the 1980s and 1990s. 

In the preceding century, the governance of Black areas privileged high policing over low policing and concession. The state focused its energies on enforcing apartheid order and laws, downplaying its role in regulating personal relationships and providing public services. It created forms of central administrative and devolved government, constructing so-called native and own affairs departments, and establishing and co-opting Black local and traditional authorities. But it extended these apparatuses on the cheap and illegitimately, while people across vast expanses of South Africa were left to develop strategies of survival, self-help and crime.

In these interstices, across this great exception to constitutional rule, varieties of informal, kin and civic governance emerged. These arrangements, approximating to little state formations, covered gaps in the provision of valued amenities. They helped resolve interpersonal disputes and address objectionable conduct. They facilitated access to necessities like land, water and shelter, and in return they collected taxes, service fees and rent. In a context in which colonialism and apartheid systematically closed down formal, legally approved channels for economic advancement, they resembled, often emerged from and crossed over into forms of entrepreneurial, predatory and criminal accumulation, extorting protection money and trading in illicit alcohol and drugs. 

The KwaZulu-Natal conflict turned these interstitial statelets into war machines.   

Theatre of conflict

The pressures of war-making forced them to deepen revenue collection and centralise operations. They sharpened their territorial boundaries, mobilising for raids and invasions and defending against attacks from the other side. Youths got pressed into militias. Governance was more tightly integrated with the resources and logistical infrastructures of organised crime. They ran guns. They replaced traditional weapons with firearms and explosives. Communities were purged of dissent, accountability was constrained, and more despotic and rapacious modes of government and accumulation prevailed. 

Certainly, bucking the trend, there were civic and residents’ structures that remained legitimate, participatory and democratic. But in many more cases, through external annexation or factional strife, these gave way to more hierarchical forms. In the vicinity of Umbumbulu, along the outer west of today’s eThekwini municipality, an earlier eMbo-Makhanya War involved a dispute between two families over succession in the region’s ethnic group authority, which escalated into pitched battles involving thousands of souls. These families aligned with either the ANC or Inkatha in the subsequent civil war, seizing opportunities to tap into and mobilise broader resources and people. They supplied the great warlords of one of the bloodiest theatres of the conflict, and their scions became the councillors and ward bosses of the post-apartheid city. 

Contemporary KwaZulu-Natal comes from that world.

The transition from apartheid and the rise of the ANC involved a series of lines of further development. The assumption of state power integrated those little state formations into a grander and more imposing edifice. There they were partly contained by the checks and balances of the new Constitution and the state, but these were widely bridged by cadre deployment and the post-conflict integration of combatants into law enforcement. The state’s far greater means of resource generation and violence allowed the construction of much larger, mass, often highly centralised and coercive patronage systems. These bought off Inkatha leaders. They disciplined communities through selective distributions and force of arms. The party state, thus constructed, maintained ties with gangs and organised crime, combining cover from policing with new illicit profits and extralegal oppressive capacities. 

Turning cities into battlegrounds

These tendencies were constrained by a range of countervailing social interests, including professional public servants, organised labour, independent community-based movements and established business. When centralised, the patronage systems of places like Pietermaritzburg and Durban were able to strike accommodations with at least some of these interests and hold the line. The weight of these cities in national politics, however, has made them battlegrounds in the ANC’s national leadership contests. Since the mid-2000s in Pietermaritzburg and the mid-2010s in Durban, this has contributed to bloody processes of factionalisation, creating networks that resist central direction, raid more widely for resources and spurn the ordinary compromises of constitutional government. 

A result has been a breakdown in the regulatory and service delivery functions of the state. The related stagnation of the economy has given weight to a politics, long instantiated in these patronage systems, that mobilises notions of territory and belonging to expand control over economic activities and assets. A notable expression of this is the turn of Zuma’s faction of the ANC to an increasingly bigoted and xenophobic form of African nationalism. Another is the so-called business forums, which under the sign of local preference and radical economic transformation extort “business opportunities” from established contractors by mobilising armed gangs to shut down construction and other development projects. 

The July riots, whatever else we see in them, illuminated the extent and potency of this politics. In the prelude to Zuma’s arrest, a Zulu regiment and the Umkhonto weSizwe Military Veterans Association took up guard around his home at Nkandla. When Zuma turned himself in, prominent national leaders and aligned local councillors, ANC branch members, Zulu hostel dwellers, along with business forums and such entities as the xenophobic All Truck Drivers Foundation, organising in person and through WhatsApp groups, targeted major roads, logistics hubs and malls. 

They mobilised people toward these targets. Sometimes they provided transport. There are reports of professionally orchestrated attacks in which expert and equipped tactical teams opened the way into malls and then applied sophisticated methods and technologies to the extraction of ATMs. In the aftermath, the business forums went about extorting protection from affected businesses and, by September, Zuma was released from prison. 

Billions of rands were lost. Thousands of jobs were shed. Hundreds of people died. The politics of KwaZulu-Natal was launched into South Africa’s consciousness. In November, in the uMngeni and eThekwini municipalities, the ANC engaged in coup-like disruptions of post-election council meetings, using unconstitutional tactics to wrest control of municipalities from opposition parties. But South Africa has not learnt what this politics is. It has not begun to discuss what to do about it.  

This article was first published by New Frame.

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Ryan Brunette
Ryan is currently studying for a PhD in Political Science at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York. He completed his Masters at PARI and Wits University. He has Honours in Philosophy and Political Science at the University of KwaZulu-Natal and Wits University. He did his Bachelors with majors in Philosophy, Politics, and Law at the University of KwaZulu-Natal.

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