/ 14 April 2024

Behind the political spin of Zuma’s MK party

Whatsapp Image 2024 03 18 At 12.55.07
Former president, Jacob Zuma. (MKP/X)

With some polling showing that Jacob Zuma’s uMkhonto weSizwe party could rival the ANC and the Inkatha Freedom Party (IFP) in KwaZulu-Natal, and potentially lead a coalition government in KwaZulu-Natal, it is important to make clear sense of the MK party. 

The dominant view in the liberal media presents Zuma’s politics as nothing but corruption, as criminality, and often desires its eradication from the political terrain in favour of a liberal consensus. Liberalism, in turn, desires the sort of authority that can put an end to politics as a set of questions about power and justice in favour of the elite-driven technocratic anti-politics that ended in populist revolts in the US and parts of Europe.

Zuma’s party has attracted a good number of opportunists, the kind of people that, in the words of Frantz Fanon, aspire to “keep in the running and to be part of the racket”. But this is not all that it is, and even the crassest forms of political opportunism must develop some sort of ideological appeal to win popular support. 

Zuma has personally taken extreme right-wing positions on gender, sexuality and migration. This should not be dismissed. In the absence of emancipatory alternatives, scapegoating and sadism can win appeal in times when people cannot find paths into viable forms of life.

Zuma’s party also has a strong ethnic dimension. Although seldom present in formal speech, it is often present in the language used as the party mobilises support on the ground. It is common for ethnic forms of politics to fester when national liberation projects fail. They allow elites to claim to speak for their people without having a material programme in support of their interests and can become seriously socially and politically toxic.

There is also an anti-colonial element to Zuma’s project in the form of claims to affirm African culture and reject white and Western domination. The affirmation of culture and the rejection of Western domination are both expressed via affiliation with authoritarianism. 

But the most significant of the hinges that connects the MK party to political players outside the party, including the Economic Freedom Fighters and parts of the ANC, is the set of ideas and practices initially referred to as “radical economic transformation” (RET).

There is a class dimension to this. One participant in the rebellion in the ANC that brought Zuma to power gleefully described it as “the rebellion of the uneducated”. He meant that people locked out of circuits of accumulation in and around the ANC because of their class position had stormed their way in. 

There was also a racial dimension as elites in the RET project challenged the hold of white capital on parts of the economy, such as the provision of goods and services to the state-owned enterprises. Later, as armed groups started extorting money from construction companies, the challenge to white capital widened.

The moves to break the hold of the laws, policies and practices developed to sustain a liberal democracy have enabled rapid accumulation for many politically connected people, from winning tenders to build houses that are never actually built to local party thugs selling land and extorting rent from shack dwellers at gunpoint. 

This has generated an excitement with elements of both the pyramid scheme and the prosperity cult. As with claims to restore the standing of African culture, the attack on these laws is also sometimes presented in the language of decoloniality.

Although politically connected people were enriched during Zuma’s presidency, most people’s circumstances worsened, and there was a sharp decline in many of our institutions and infrastructure. In the same way that pyramid schemes and prosperity cults can make some people very rich very quickly but can never make everyone rich, accumulation through predation off the state cannot enable collective advancement. 

The idea that Zuma’s presidency enjoyed deliriously excited support in general, or among impoverished people in particular, was sheer spin on the part of Zuma’s allies and another of the many myths endlessly repeated in liberal circles. The ANC lost electoral support during his presidency and the residents of his own electoral ward preferred the IFP. Organised impoverished people in Durban were the first to describe Zuma’s ANC in terms of political gangsterism long before the elite public sphere began to grasp this aspect of Zuma’s rule.

The claim that Zuma is man of the left is farcical. He held the presidency of the country for a little less than nine years without developing a programme for land reform, making any progress towards addressing the housing crisis, doing away with neoliberal macro-economic policy, nationalising the platinum mines, fixing the schooling and health systems, or addressing systemic violence, mass unemployment and impoverishment.

He was president during the Marikana massacre and did not speak up against the assassination of grassroots activists, in some cases definitively encouraged or carried out by his allies. In KZN the RET project was accompanied by severe intimidation and violence by local party thugs and politics often took on a gangsterised and violent character akin to that of Central America.

It is true, though, that when the pressure to remove Zuma from office reached a crescendo he sought to legitimise himself by declaring support for free education. Some people have understood this as emanating from a previously masked or constrained left nationalist commitment. 

There is no evidence for this but there is some similarity with the way in which, after he had lost the support of the majority of Zimbabweans, Robert Mugabe sought to restore his standing and secure his hold on power by supporting independently organised land occupations.

If Zuma won access to provincial power via a collation arrangement he may try to repeat this kind of gesture to secure his position. It is possible that there could be some immediate collective gains but this kind of move would be made with the aim of cementing his power, a predatory and repressive form of power with no interest in building the sorts of social institutions and policy mechanisms that can enable sustained collective progress.

Many of the protagonists in the project that coalesced around Zuma in the ANC, and many of their actions, were resonant of the predatory and repressive national bourgeoise against which Fanon railed. But the imbrication of class, race and a sense that current laws and rules function to sustain exclusion over the ruthless pursuit of accumulation by a political mafia should not be dismissed as mere spin.

Zuma and the wider RET project do speak to some real issues and aspirations, which liberalism prefers to ignore and oppose. This must be acknowledged without collapsing into the delusion that Zuma’s politics are on the side of the people.

Fanon warned against Manichean political thinking, the idea of a binary split between good and evil, between us and them, friend and enemy. History provides tragic confirmation of the urgency of his warning. François Duvalier came to power in Haiti in 1957 through, in part, the ideology of Noirisme that adopting an anti-racist and anti-colonial posture affirmed cultural inclusion and racial redress for the majority. He ran a staggeringly brutal and corrupt US-backed dictatorship that was disastrous for most Haitians.

Mobutu Sese Seko’s reign in Zaïre had a similar character. His dictatorship was legitimised in the name of Authenticité, which included strong anti-colonial elements in terms of access to jobs, promotion of culture, names, dress and more. It was as disastrous for ordinary people as Duvalier’s rule in Haiti. 

For Fanon the transcendence of Manichean thinking requires progress on “the weary road to rational knowledge”, a road travelled through experience, thinking and learning within struggle. National consciousness cannot, on its own, ensure that national elites do not establish predatory and violent dictatorships in the name of anti-colonialism, dictatorships that may have some anti-colonial elements. 

Fanon insisted that it is imperative to develop a politics that, grounded in a social consciousness, is both anti-colonial and opposed to predatory national elites.

Neither liberalism nor Zuma’s project can do this for us. Opposing the latter in the name of the former is not a viable means to resolve our social and political crisis. The status quo is not viable for most of us. But the corruption, authoritarianism, extreme social conservatism and predilection for violence that traverse Zuma’s project are a clear and present danger to society and to democracy. 

Democracy can only be defended by its expansion, and by reanimating politics as a matter of power, popular democratic power, and justice, justice for the people as a whole. 

Richard Pithouse is a research associate in the philosophy department at the University of Connecticut.