Mass democratic politics for a sustainable society

Progressive programmes that benefit the majority could radically change our society, but only if the kleptocrats and their attacks on democratic infrastructure are stopped.

Within days of the release of the first volume of the report from the Zondo Commission both the Congress of South African Trade Unions and the South African Federation of Trade Unions came out in support of the commission and demanded swift action against those named in the report for malfeasance. Abahlali baseMjondolo have not yet issued a statement but given its long-standing opposition to corruption and deep antipathy to Jacob Zuma and his allies, such as Zandile Gumede, the former eThekwini mayor, we can be sure that their position would be similar to that of the two trade union federations.

Lindiwe Sisulu soon entered the fray. Making the point that the ANC has failed to achieve meaningful land reform, she launched a crude attack on the judiciary, which she described as “these mentally colonised Africans who have settled with the worldview and mindset of those who have dispossessed their ancestors … only too happy to lick the spittle of those who falsely claim superiority”.

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As Dikgang Moseneke pointed out some years ago, the Constitution does offer the legal space for the state to pursue land reform. The failure in that regard is solely that of the ANC, and not the law or the judges who interpret it. Sisulu, now openly in support of the kleptocratic faction of the ANC, is, following the established line of that faction, blaming a key failure of the ANC on the judiciary with the cynical aim of undermining the rule of law in order to sustain impunity for the kleptocrats.

The next major figure to join the fray was Thabo Mbeki. He opined that “one of the unfortunate things, when you look at the Zondo Commission, is that it does not understand that this thing we call state capture is in many incidents a manifestation of counter-revolution”.

We find ourselves in an unusual political position in global terms. We have a corrupt elite, so corrupt as to correctly be described as a criminal syndicate, using pseudo-radical language to legitimate itself while the progressive mass organisations of the working class and the impoverished are implacably opposed to that elite and its programme.

Real radical reform

This raises the question of what would count as a radical or even moderately progressive programme in South Africa. Some of the answers are obvious. Even a moderately progressive government would pursue a vigorous programme of land reform. On the former white farms farm workers would be the primary beneficiaries. In the former Bantustans the despotic power of traditional authority would be broken, with the dissolution of the Ingonyama Trust as a priority.

The tax authority would be strengthened, and taxes raised on the rich and big corporates. There would be a particularly vigorous focus on stopping the illicit export of untaxed profits. This strengthening of the tax authority and reform of tax laws would be undertaken with the aim of generating more public wealth to be redistributed through social programmes in areas such as education, health, housing, job creation and peace building, with a particular focus on opposing violence against women.

The platinum industry would be nationalised and, following the example of the nationalisation of the hydro-carbon industries in Bolivia under the Movement for Socialism led by Evo Morales, the resulting profits channelled back to the people in terms of massive investment in social programmes.

Corruption would be understood as a crime against the people and prosecuted with the same vigour we see in China, and there would be measures to ensure that that prosecution isn’t used to settle political scores with trumped up charges. Those found guilty of stealing from the people would be sentenced to undertake the mundane labour necessary to sustain social programmes, such as cleaning hospitals and schools. 

17 September 2019: Former president Thabo Mbeki says that the state capture described by the Zondo Commission is the manifestation of a counter-revolution. (Photograph by Gallo Images/ Darren Stewart)

Following the model of Cuba, a first-class health system would be built on a non-commodified basis and similar commitment would be made to education and other social programmes including, importantly, safe and reliable public transport. All of this would be undertaken with real vision rather than bureaucratic plodding. Just as Fidel Castro brought in Gabriel García Márquez to design the school literature curriculum in Cuba, someone like Ngugi wa Thiong’o would be asked to select a hundred great books that should be in every school library in the country.

The system of participatory budgeting invented by the Workers’ Party municipality in Porto Alegre in Brazil would be implemented across the board and participatory decision-making and oversight extended into more and more aspects of society as a permanent programme. Each police station would be overseen by an elected community council, and there would be similar systems set in place to oversee schools, community clinics, housing developments and so on.

There would be a rapid movement to shut down the coal industry and, as first demanded by the National Union of Metalworkers of South Africa, replace polluting coal-fired power with a system of renewable energy projects owned and controlled by workers.

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There would also be state support for a decentralised and democratically organised system of community-controlled media. There would be a system enabling the recall of ward councillors via democratic processes if their constituents felt this to be necessary.

The police would be reorganised as peace officers, and the most stringent possible action taken against officers engaged in corruption or violence against the general public. Prisons would be reorganised as places where broken people could be made whole again. Private firearm ownership would be steadily phased out as this became viable.

There is much more that could be said. These are just some of the elements of a progressive programme in South Africa.

Systematically undermining progress

But when we look at the Zuma years we see a state that deliberately destroyed the tax office, failed completely to advance land reform, presided over the looting of the already inadequate public transport system to the point that the rail system collapsed, failed to address the housing question and presided over the ongoing decline of the education and health systems, an increase in police violence, and escalating poverty and inequality. Instead of encouraging popular organisation from below, striking miners were massacred and grassroots activists assassinated, particularly in Durban, the seat of Zuma’s power.

The Zuma government massively enriched a small politically connected elite while rapidly worsening the situation of the majority. In light of this reality, it is hardly surprising that the support for the kleptocrats, whom Sisulu now aims to lead, comes from elites and not the working class and the impoverished. Indeed, it is clear, as many analysts have noted, that while the kleptocrats have significant support in the ANC and the state, along with politically connected “business” networks, some of which, like the Delangokubona Business Forum, are straightforwardly mafia organisations, they do not have any significant support in society.

Electoral support for the ANC declined during Zuma’s term of office. There has never been a march of tens of thousands of people in support of Zuma. The acts of disruption that have taken place, and that are continuing to take place, are carried out by very small groups of people. Contrary to the lazy assumptions in most of the media, it is crystal clear that the vast majority of the people that participated in the riots in July were not doing so in support of Zuma. On the contrary, when the rule of law broke down, hungry people took the opportunity to seize food, after which a general orgy of looting developed. Certainly, small, well-organised pro-Zuma forces nestled in the ruling party and the state did exploit the general chaos to attack infrastructure, but this was not a mass phenomenon.

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In light of all this, Mbeki’s observation that the kleptocratic project in the ANC is a counter-revolution is an astute observation. However, what Mbeki does not say is that it is the second counter-revolution mobilised against the mass democratic movements of the 1980s. The first was the capture of the transition process after 1990 by liberal forces at home and abroad, a process that included the massive corporate enrichment of key ANC-aligned figures such as Cyril Ramaphosa. The kleptocrats, and their attacks on democratic infrastructure, are the second counter-revolution.

Democracy would not survive another term in office by the kleptocrats, this time under Sisulu, and her noxious advisors, people like Sipho Seepe and Paul Ngobeni. With widespread popular opposition to corruption, the only way to sustain the hegemony of the rulers over the ruled would be to continue the attack on democratic institutions. This is widely understood by the chattering classes.

What is less well understood is that democracy will also be unable to survive the continuation of liberal hegemony. With millions suffering from hunger and youth unemployment at almost 75%, business-as-usual will lead to a social implosion. Youth unemployment is a massive social crisis, a bloodbath of the young, that deserves our most urgent attention.

If we are to build a sustainable society, both counter-revolutions must be opposed, and the political forces built from the ground up to restore the mass democratic politics of the 1980s.

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