Grasping the facts can help us out of this crisis

Before we can develop alternatives and build popular power, we need a searching examination of our many complex problems, including what exactly took place during the July riots.

South Africa has reached the lowest point so far in its long slide into crisis. The unemployment rate is just under 45%, more than 12 million are living in shacks, one in seven children go hungry and we have one of the worst public education systems anywhere in the world. Moreover, our politics is becoming more violent, as the recent assassinations of Babita Deokaran and Malibongwe Mdazo have shown.

There are scant grounds for optimism that the ANC will lift the country out of this. Both factions of the party have, in different ways, escalated the crisis. 

The kleptocrats in the ANC have plundered public wealth, broken and destroyed institutions, normalised public dishonesty, and brutally repressed grassroots and working-class opposition. They are, as grassroots activists first warned us years ago, a mafia. 

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But the other ANC faction is pushing a hard line on devastating cutbacks to social spending and giving capital free reign to export profits. Neither faction of the ANC has even managed to get something as basic as rural and urban land reform right. All the Zuma faction offered as an alternative to the caution and inaction of the previous years was overheated rhetoric.

If there is a way out of the crisis, it will have to come from outside of party politics given that, at the national level, there are no credible alternatives to the ANC competing in the coming elections. This requires understanding the nature of the crisis and its causes, developing alternative ideas, organising and building popular power and, of course, developing a political instrument to drive a progressive agenda in and out of the state. 

But we seem to be stumbling in all of these respects, including the basic work of understanding the problem. This failure is evident at the macro level and in relation to more specific issues.

Making assumptions

At the macro level, much of the media gives the impression that corruption is our primary problem and that if the kleptocratic faction of the ANC is finally trounced all will be well. Very little attention is paid to how key figures in the ANC such as Trevor Manuel and Tito Mboweni put the interests of international capital ahead of the needs of the impoverished and the working class, causing so much social damage. This goes back to 1993 when the Keynesian proposals developed by Vishnu Padayachee and others in the Macro-Economic Research Group, which had won wide acclaim from leading economists around the world, were suddenly dumped after intense lobbying by domestic and international capital and institutions such as the World Bank. 

But, at the more event-driven level, we also struggle to understand our society, and make elementary analytical errors. We have seen this starkly with the riots and sabotage in July. For a start, we don’t even demand full information. We still do not know how most of the people who lost their lives in the riots died, yet there is no great pressure to find out. Of the 350 deaths, only 109 have been accounted for.

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Without key facts at our disposal, we are all, to different degrees, groping in the dark. And when undertaking the work of making sense of complex events, assumptions often trump facts. Many people speak as if the riots, which involved many thousands of people, were all “orchestrated” or “incited” by pro-Zuma forces. This implies that these forces have huge popular support, and that the “orchestrators” and “inciters” have almost superhuman powers. There are three serious analytical problems here. 

Riots versus sabotage

One issue is that the conceptual distinction between the riots – initially focused on appropriating food and then taking the form of general looting – and the deliberate sabotage of infrastructure is ignored. Of course, the riots and sabotage intersected in various ways, but intersecting phenomena are still conceptually and empirically different. 

With all events at the scale of the riots and sabotage in July there will be local differences in how things played out, and a real risk in drawing overly broad conclusions from local experiences. When a shopkeeper in Hillcrest said on television that the riots that emptied his supermarket had nothing to do with Zuma, but were driven by hunger, he may well have been correct in terms of what he observed. When the manager of a warehouse in Cato Ridge said on television that the plunder of the warehouse was well organised and clearly directed by a group of people who were evidently in charge, he may well have been correct too.

We know pro-Zuma supporters conducted a campaign of organised violence prior to his arrest, including attacks on migrants in central Durban by members of the Umkhonto weSizwe Military Veterans Association and attacks on trucks and truck drivers on the N3. We should remember, though, that a very small group of people with no popular support at all carried out this violence. Before and during the riots there were clearly organised attacks on infrastructure, some carried out with what appeared to be military precision. 

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But we also know that in the first few days of the riots, grassroots activists across Durban, people living in the communities from which many of the rioters came, repeatedly expressed the view that the people appropriating food were acting spontaneously and independently and were not Zuma supporters. These accounts must be taken seriously, much more seriously than the views of writers who were not on the ground and have not spoken to people who were.

It is clear that there was a bread riot that turned into generalised looting that involved huge numbers of people, many or most of whom were not Zuma supporters. It is also clear that people aligned with Zuma carried out a well-organised campaign of sabotage. We know very little about how many people were involved in this, who they were and how they were organised. This, like the question of how people died in the riots, is a matter on which we should push as hard as we can to get facts. 

Popular agency 

Making sense of these events is complex, but the relentless discourse about “orchestration” and “incitement” often muddies the waters. We know from experience elsewhere in the world that elites and the right-wing press very often respond to riots by claiming that they are a result of what are often termed “outside agitators”. There is a long and global history of denying popular agency and inventing fictitious “agitators” (or talk about “instigation” and “orchestration”) to deny the spontaneous agency of ordinary people who have engaged in riots – whether these have a clear political goal, such as the Black Lives Matter riots in Minneapolis last year, or are more seemingly inchoate, such as the riots in London in 2011. 

The fact that someone like Bonginkosi Khanyile gave a wholly uninspiring speech to a small group of people hardly means we can assume people actually acted as a result of his speech. Cause and effect must be proven. And we know that riots are very often phenomena that, while triggered by an event of some sort, take on a spontaneous character. We also know that around the world mass unemployment has historically resulted in riots. That we experienced riots in July should not be a surprise at all. What is surprising is that there had not been riots before then.

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Simplifying complex issues leads to all kinds of problems. Conflating the bread riots, the general looting that followed and the organised sabotage has meant impoverished people who may or may not have appropriated food have been scapegoated. This goes beyond moral condemnation and has enabled state violence, and at least one death.

Another problem is that scapegoating impoverished people and arresting some figures who made public statements in support of sabotage both deflect attention away from the people who actually engaged in organised treason, and an attack on society in general. These people need to be investigated, arrested and prosecuted as a matter of national urgency, but it is not happening.

The loyalty of the popular class

A third issue emerging from this analytical confusion is the false impression that everyone who was on the streets was a Zuma supporter. This comes from conflating the huge numbers of people who participated in the bread riots and then the general looting with the vastly smaller numbers of people who participated in the campaign of sabotage. 

We have solid information from grassroots activists to indicate that this was not the case. Every time the pro-Zuma forces have called for a march to support Zuma, and kleptocratic politics more broadly, it has been a complete failure. We should remember that Black Lives Matter in the US resulted in huge riots and huge marches. When figures such as Jean-Bertrand Aristide in Haiti, Hugo Chávez in Venezuela and Evo Morales in Bolivia were facing coups, huge numbers of people took to the streets in their support. The same happened when Jeremy Corbyn was under pressure from the reactionaries in the Labour Party. 

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Around the world a peaceful public gathering in the streets is the most important way for people to show their political commitment outside of elections. The kleptocrats have access to huge resources, a well-oiled social media machine and a commercial media that follows their every word. Yet despite all this it is undeniable that, unlike organisations such as the South African Federation of Trade Unions and shack dwellers’ movement Abahlali baseMjondolo, Zuma’s supporters cannot muster enough support to organise a vaguely credible march in central Durban. This is clear material evidence that they lack real popular support. All the bluster and buffoonery before Zuma’s arrest and the shrieking on Twitter was sound and fury aimed at hiding the fact that there was no demonstrable public support for Zuma at any significant scale.

This means that the battle between two factions in the ANC is a battle between elites, none of whom command the loyalty of the popular classes. If we find a way to build an alternative to both austerity and kleptocracy, it will not come from elites. The only way out of our crisis is by building a progressive politics among the working class and the impoverished. But we cannot solve our problems if we do not understand our society clearly.

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