/ 4 June 2024

A new national vision is now urgent – and it’s up to the ANC left

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This is the time for the left in the ANC to make its claim on history. (Delwyn Verasamy/M&G)

In the next two weeks the ANC will either have to make a deal with the liberal establishment, represented by the Democratic Alliance (DA), or the  authoritarian nationalists, now led by the uMkhonto weSizwe (MK) party, to be able to form a government. 

Neither option offers any guarantee of ensuring a stable government. Both choices will further divide the ANC, rendering it highly unstable and further splits inevitable. Both choices will inflame political tensions and result in intense and enduring political acrimony in and beyond party politics, an acrimony that runs throughout society. On its outer edges that acrimony will understand itself in terms of a mutual and existential imperative to destroy the other side rather than a set of differences to be resolved through democratic forms of disputation. However things go down there will be blood in KwaZulu-Natal.

The serial failures of Agang, Change Starts Now, Rise Mzansi, Build One South Africa and ActionSA mean that the DA remains the only meaningful electoral instrument for the liberal establishment. That establishment, which has its material base in white and Western capital along with the power of Western governments, has its intellectual base in a set of NGOs and parts of the media. It has been drifting to the right in recent years and is now marked by a strident and blinding moral arrogance entwined with a sense of civilisational superiority.

There is a sense among some on the liberal right that some sort of deal between the ANC, the DA and the Inkatha Freedom Party (IFP) will put an end to the era of national liberation politics and begin to achieve what contemporary liberalism desires everywhere — an end to politics as politics in the name of technocratic management of an economy driven by the interests of capital. Some liberal idealogues also aspire to suppress demands for racial redress and make South Africa a state wholly aligned to the West. These are fantasies that cannot be realised and, if a serious attempt is made to push for their realisation, can only exacerbate the polarisation of our politics. They are well described as dangerous fantasies animated by racial arrogance.

But the liberal establishment is not wrong to see Jacob Zuma’s MK party as a threat to democracy and to the possibility of fair and efficient forms of governance that follow laws, regulations and policies. The MK party is a highly authoritarian project and the record of its leader and others in government is that of ruthless and reckless kleptocratic practices driving the formation of a counter-elite and legitimated in the name of racial redress and pro-poor rhetoric. The former claim is credible in some very specific respects. The latter is farcical.

Zuma’s politics also comes with extreme right-wing views on some social issues, a militarised posture and a history of violence, violence that he has never disavowed. This extends beyond the groups of armed and uniformed men who sought to spark wider violence by openly attacking migrants in Durban in the lead-up to his incarceration in 2021, the public enthusiasm of his key supporters for the violence that followed his incarceration and the more covert groups of armed men that operated with military precision within the wider riots. It also includes the capacities for violence by the mafias, some self-described as “business forums”, that, until recently, were in and adjacent to the “Radical Economic Transformation” faction of the ANC. Along with the izinkabi, professional assassins, some of the business forums effectively have their own militias. 

Public money has been appropriated and rents extracted from the top to the bottom of this political project, from the seizure of public budgets and demands for kickbacks at the top to the looting of small budgets for local services and the seizure of land in order to extract rent at the bottom. This does enrich and empower a counter-elite in formation but any claim that it is pro-poor is ludicrous. On the contrary, it is directly damaging to the material interests of the poor, the working class, and large parts of the middle class too.

This is a politics that does directly challenge the white hold on parts of the economy, sometimes at gunpoint. But it does so in a way that enriches and empowers an authoritarian and violent counter-elite in ways that are often at the expense of the majority. It has shown again and again that it is willing to kill grassroots activists seeking more democratic forms of inclusion.

The electoral success of the MK party in KwaZulu-Natal means the escalation of already endemic political violence in that province is inevitable. If the national government is formed around a genuine commitment to the constitutional order and the MK party runs KwaZulu-Natal there is an additional risk of violent conflict between the national government and powerful forces in KwaZulu-Natal.

This does not mean that the liberal establishment offers a viable way out of the crisis. The MK party is not wrong to say that millions of people are excluded and impoverished, and that this is deeply racialised. It is not wrong to say that the old elites are passionate defenders of a Constitution that they think they can use to their own advantage. It is not wrong to say that liberalism is inherently hostile to the enduring and legitimate commitment to national liberation or that, to put it politely, liberalism has a serious race problem. It is not wrong to say that liberalism is tied to both white capital and the West, which ruins its claims to moral superiority as it backs the ruination of Gaza.

But the MK party does not only represent the interests of a counter-elite in formation. It does also have significant popular support. This has many dimensions. These include an ethnic element and an opportunity to punish the ANC. There is also, as we see elsewhere in the world, an identification with a big man who doesn’t follow the rules, along with the exercise of power and social sadism he enables, by people who have been rendered powerless.

For people failed by a political and economic system the uncritical affirmation of that system can make their situation seem like personal rather than systemic failure. As we have recently seen in the United States, Brazil and elsewhere the libidinal attraction to big men who denounce and spurn the system can be intense even when they do so in a way that can only compound exclusion. 

The only viable solution in the medium term is a politics that organises popular democratic power behind a demand for real inclusion. That politics does not currently exist as a national force, and is anathema to both the liberal establishment and authoritarian nationalism.

In the short term we cannot rely on the MK party or the DA to generate the vision and commitment to take us through the immediate crisis. Zuma’s party will not push for a democratic and peaceful politics in which governance is carried out according to agreed rules in the interests of the people as a whole rather than patrons and clients. The DA will not push for a swift turn to serious political and material commitments to improving the lives of the worst off in our society.

The only short term solution is for the better actors in the ANC to demand that all partners in the new government, whoever they are, come to accept that it cannot be business as usual. This means that as well as acting against corruption, it is equally necessary to accept that the social crisis must be addressed with all the urgency with which wars are fought. Measures like a basic income grant, the rapid release of urban land and an end to routine state violence against impoverished people, along with others, need to be undertaken with maximum urgency. There needs to be a dramatic change in the way that the state engages with people. Respect needs to replace contempt.

There has been no evidence in recent years that the ANC has the vision or strength to achieve something like this, or that Cyril Ramaphosa as a personality has any capacity for vision, decision and bold action. But there are times in which a crisis can bring out the best in people. The irony of our situation is that the moment in which popular support has been withdrawn from the ANC is the same moment in which we need it to make a genuine commitment to the well-being of the people. This is the time for the left in the ANC to make its claim on history.

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