The Covid-19-enforced lockdown began in South Africa on 26 March last year. President Cyril Ramaphosa enjoyed a dramatic boost in his popularity, which had dipped after a wave of initial enthusiasm when he first took office on 22 May the previous year.
When the lockdown began, Ramaphosa was thrust into the role of the good father – firm but kind, and with the interests of the nation at heart. In a society that had recently sloughed off a leader as vile as Jacob Zuma, support for Ramaphosa’s seemingly decisive intervention in the interests of society was infectious. And in the wake of former president Thabo Mbeki’s tragic failure to separate a necessary critique of the racism entangled with much of the discourse around HIV and Aids from the science around the aetiology and treatment of the disease, Ramaphosa’s commitment to science was a huge relief to many.
But that fleeting sense of national solidarity – something usually only achieved after significant success in international support – soon crashed on the rocks of our deep structural problems. There was massive looting of the funds allocated to deal with the Covid-19 pandemic, and bringing the police and army to the streets to enforce the lockdown meant harassment, public sadism and murder. And then there were the violent evictions carried out against some of the most vulnerable people in society, in direct violation of lockdown regulations.
The fantasy that replacing Zuma with Ramaphosa would magically undo the deep structural problems in the ANC and the state shattered like a thin pane of glass under assault from all the fury of a Johannesburg hailstorm. In the midst of a crisis, politically connected people had simply stolen at a vast scale from the people, while the police and the army had murdered people in the streets and the state had paid armed men to go out and destroy people’s homes.
The middle classes are permanently enraged by corruption, a rage that often continues to be mediated by racial double standards. But they are seldom concerned about the routine forms of sadism and violence that the state metes out to the majority, another double standard. As a result, the elite public sphere is saturated with concern about corruption – an issue that is sometimes pursued with monomaniac zeal – but only takes a sporadic interest in state violence.
During the initial lockdown, the sense of there being some sort of shared experience generated a wider-than-usual set of concerns in the elite public sphere. Suddenly, state murder was taken seriously. We were all presented with the image of a state that responded to a serious crisis by both enabling massive theft of public money and engaging in serious, and at times fatal, violence against the people.
Trust in the state, and the ruling party, collapsed as quickly as it had cohered around the personality of Ramaphosa. A year on, the tightening pincers of the economic consequences of the lockdown and an aggressive project of state austerity have pushed millions of people into desperate circumstances.
Nodes of solidarity, forged among the detritus of a revolution that fizzled into a deal between contesting elites, are under threat from horizontal as well as vertical pressures as the scramble for resources and opportunities to extract rents, even from other impoverished people, becomes increasingly brutal.
What is required is a serious and unflinching analysis of our situation that, while recognising that individual personalities can take on historical significance, develops a credible understanding of the structural forces driving corruption, austerity and state violence. And understanding society is just one step. It is also necessary to change society, and that requires building the social forces able to achieve real change.
But we do not see much serious analysis of how the ANC’s project to build a counter-elite and sustain its revenue streams has become fundamentally entwined with the systemic private appropriation of public funds, and how this reality is not reducible to a single personality.
There is little careful consideration of how, in the midst of a crisis of mass unemployment and hunger, a former liberation movement carried into power by popular organisation and insurrection is now ruthlessly hacking away at social spending. There is even less public thought and debate invested in the question of how social forces could be constituted and organised to simultaneously advance a social project against endemic corruption, state violence and austerity.
Instead we go in tightening circles, watching a political soap opera in which politics is reduced to a conflict between two deeply compromised factions of the ANC that are both enmeshed in corruption, with one trying to drive austerity and the other spinning the ridiculous idea that stealing from the state by politically connected networks is in the interest of the oppressed.
Trust in the state and the politicians that manage it has crashed in the year since Ramaphosa shepherded us into the initial lockdown, which was loosened and again tightened to different levels as Covid-19 infection numbers fell and rose. Everyday interactions with strangers often begin with people spitting shared rage at the ANC and state. The days when a discussion of politics between strangers would begin with a careful verbal dance designed to establish what could and could not be said are over. Now, mutual contempt for the ruling party and the state is simply assumed.
As the legal net closes around Zuma, he has allied with other looters as well as authoritarians, xenophobes and conspiracy theorists. There has been street violence, some of it mediated through crude ethnic chauvinism. Late at night on Thursday 25 March, Zuma issued an implicit threat of civil war when he released a statement attacking the judiciary. There is no evidence to show that he and his followers have the capacity to realise this threat. On the contrary, the increasingly bizarre alliances they are making with two-bit aspirant populists with no actual support, and the increasing hysteria of their public statements, are signs of weakness.
But people continue to go hungry as they labour to find ways to survive without work. The looting, austerity and state violence continue. This is not a viable situation. At some point something will give. The question is what gives, and when, and what political project emerges from the collapse in the moral legitimacy of the ANC and the state.
It is urgently necessary that we begin to look beyond the shallowness of imaging politics as a personality-driven soap opera and get to grips with the deep structural forces that are driving us into an escalating crisis. And it is equally necessary that we give up the illusion that a good father will save us.
The attempt by participants from an older generation of political activists – some seriously compromised – to rescue the situation by restoring their own moral authority will go nowhere. This is not the time for patrician fantasies. There can be no return in a situation like this, and certainly no return to the form of technocratic, elite-driven politics that opened the way for Zuma’s faux populism.
On the contrary, if there is some break from this rapid corrosion of social hope and the social order, if there is some turn towards a clear alternative rather than an ongoing collapse, it will have to be rooted in a genuinely popular conception of the political, and in the immediacy of the lived experience of the majority. It is the best organised counter-project that will acquire the most significant capacity to shape the future. Building a progressive counter-project is what needs to be done. It is time to be radical, to get to the roots of the crisis.