A new unity on the streets

Organisations that represent the working class and impoverished people are stepping into the political vacuum left by the warring factions of the ANC.

A kleptocratic state corrodes the integrity and viability of society as a whole, but it always hits the most vulnerable people hardest. Wholesale theft from the public purse means collapsing municipalities, an unreliable electricity supply and uncollected rubbish. It means the stench of shit in the streets.

Kleptocracy means hospitals, schools, homes and neighbourhoods that are a material expression of contempt for the dignity and value of the people who must use or inhabit them. It means rats eating congealed blood from a hospital drain.

Kleptocracy turns the state into a predatory formation, a vampiric formation that must, in time, turn to violence to contain dissent. In the end, this path to collective ruination leads to figures as grotesque as François Duvalier and Mobutu Sese Seko.

During Jacob Zuma’s period in office, the kleptocratic faction of the ANC became violently and, not infrequently, murderously repressive. Popular dissent was met with overt state violence by the police, and more covert forms of violence organised by local party structures and through the izinkabi (a slang term for assassins). A staggering number of people were killed by the police during street protests, grassroots activists were regularly assassinated and, of course, there was the massacre at Marikana.

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But every kleptocracy also has its ideology. For Duvalier it was noirisme, for Mobutu it was authenticité. The predatory project centred around Zuma presented itself as the advance guard of the struggle for black interests and eventually settled on “radical economic transformation” as its official marketing blurb.

A cynical abuse

There have been few more noble and urgent projects in the modern world than opposition to racism. The accumulation of courage and sacrifice that has driven this project forward has, rightly, acquired an extraordinary moral authority. The cynical misuse of this moral authority to legitimise an elite that is, in Frantz Fanon’s scathing terms, “anti-national” and “stupidly, contemptibly, cynically bourgeois”, is almost unspeakably disgraceful.

It’s hardly surprising that the chief propagandists for Zuma’s kleptocracy have been people of such obviously low moral character: Timothy Bell, Carl Niehaus, Busisiwe Mkhwebane, Andile Mngxitama, Iqbal Survé and so forth.

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But the descent from the soaring heights of the moments of collective courage and opening to emancipatory possibilities led by figures like Toussaint Louverture or Patrice Lumumba into the moral and political abyss of the rot presided over by the likes of Duvalier and Mobutu is not preordained. The collapse of an emancipatory project is a political matter and politics is always a matter of thought, organisation and material force.

In the elite public sphere, the opposition to Zuma’s kleptocracy has overwhelmingly taken a form that is fundamentally anti-political. The kleptocracy is seen in terms of individual criminality rather than for what it is, which is an organised attempt to construct a new ruling class. The solution is not seen in terms of the recovery of an emancipatory project, involving ordinary people as protagonists in the shaping of their own future. On the contrary, the solution is seen in terms of an anti-politics, namely the implementation of a neoliberal austerity programme that would further impoverish millions. Clean government is conflated with neoliberal government.

Elite vs elite

What we are left with is the pseudo radicalism of a corrupt and violent elite that seeks to enrich itself via the state ranged against an elite that has already been enriched by capital, by a brutal system of racial capitalism that has left unspeakable devastation in its wake. Neither faction in this intra-elite battle has any kind of commitment to an emancipatory politics crafted in the interests of the many rather than the few.

In Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, Mercutio, a friend of Romeo’s who has been wounded in a street brawl, cries, “A plague o’ both your houses.” He is assigning blame to both of the feuding families, the Montagues and the Capulets, for his death.

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In South Africa in 2020, neither the kleptocratic nor the neoliberal factions of the ANC offer any grounds for real hope for the majority. The only rational response to the current impasse in the ANC is to declare “a plague on both your houses”.

But words are cheap. Ideas are nothing if they are not collectively held and then translated into material force. One of the main reasons we descended into the morass of the Zuma years, and the utter lack of political imagination that has marked the Ramaphosa years, is that the ANC has become a battleground between contending elites.

Rekindling hope 

For many years after apartheid, with community organisations demobilised and trade unions frequently incorporated into the ruling party and wider elite networks, rival elites were free to misrepresent their own interests in the name of the people as a whole. But the hegemony of the ANC which had begun to be broken down by the first generation of social movements at the turn of the century and then, from 2004, the “rebellion of the poor” – protests organised from shack settlements around the country – suffered a significant blow in the wake of the Marikana massacre in 2012.

The fracturing of hegemony does not, however, automatically produce new social forces that have the ideas and the power to conceive and achieve progressive alternatives. Sometimes dangerous forces rush in from the margins to take advantage of the political vacuum. Antonio Gramsci’s observation that the “old world is dying, and the new world struggles to be born: now is the time of monsters” is overused, but it is overused precisely because it makes an important point. What is required at this moment is, to repurpose a phrase used by the ANC to delegitimise independent dissent, a third force.

In recent days, two events have engendered some optimism that, perhaps, there are prospects for the constitution of a third force in our politics, the progressive self-organisation of the working class and the impoverished. In Durban on Sunday, shack dwellers’ movement Abahlali baseMjondolo, which now has an audited membership that exceeds 80 000 people, celebrated 15 years of struggle in the mud at the eKhenana land occupation in Cato Manor. Speakers railed against both corruption and capitalism. In February this year, the movement marched in support of the “total decommodification of land”, a radically anti-capitalist demand. In 10 days time, it will march against corruption.

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On Wednesday, four trade union federations joined forces in a general strike – one of the most powerful weapons available to the organised working class – in protest against corruption and the austerity measures being planned by Cyril Ramaphosa’s government. The fact that different federations, and especially the two largest, the Congress of South African Trade Unions and the South African Federation of Trade Unions, are now willing and able to work together in areas of mutual interest is an encouraging development. So, too, is the fact that organised formations of the working class are explicitly pushing back against both factions of the ANC.

There are huge challenges facing any attempt to build sustained unity in action between different trade unions and federations, to deal with the divisions and other problems in the union movement, and to build real and respectful solidarity with grassroots formations.

There is no easy road to constituting a third force opposed to both corruption and a neoliberal politics, one that is also democratic and able to build popular power where people live and work. But that is the way out of our current impasse, and this week its prospects looked a little better than last week.

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