The rising threat of political gangsterism

Jacob Zuma’s tea parties and the new political alliances and ideological projects being created suggest a dangerous intensification of authoritarian, ultra-nationalist and ethnic politics.

The economy has collapsed into its worst decline in 75 years. Millions are without work and millions are going hungry. In the midst of this crisis, Tito Mboweni’s austerity budget has swung an axe at social spending. The cuts include R67.2 billion from public health, R36 billion from social grants and R9 billion from public schools.

In Durban, migrants continue to be attacked on the streets with impunity in the name of Umkhonto weSizwe. In Johannesburg, the police shot and killed Mthokozisi Ntumba when he stepped on to the street after a doctor’s appointment and into a police attack on a student protest. In Cape Town, the DA is demanding the “urgent lifting of alert level one lockdown regulations that make it close to impossible for property owners to obtain eviction orders”.

As the legal net closes around Jacob Zuma, he is making public alliances with the worst of the xenophobes, authoritarians, conspiracy theorists and kleptocrats that plague our society. The Umkhonto weSizwe Military Veterans Association (MKMVA) has vowed to defend Zuma from any attempts to arrest him following his refusal to appear before the Zondo commission, in addition to its members attacking migrant traders. Two migrants were badly injured on Monday 8 March when they were beaten by a mob while shops were petrol-bombed.

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In this context, Zuma’s tea parties with those behind the increasingly organised attempts to escalate xenophobic sentiment are deeply disturbing. Mario Khumalo, the president of the South African First party and a regular presence at anti-migrant #PutSouthAfricansFirst events, has been one of Zuma’s guests at Nkandla. 

Like right-wing populists around the planet, Khumalo has styled himself as a no-nonsense, straight-talking patriot and made the usual farcical claim that social problems such as unemployment are caused by migrants rather than predatory political and economic elites. He was introduced as a valiant leader of the cause to the 50-odd people who showed up at a #PutSouthAfricansFirst march in Pretoria last year.

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The Sisonke People’s Forum was at the same tea party with Zuma. The group circulated a grossly xenophobic flyer in 2019 calling for a shutdown on 2 September that year. 

Two weeks of violence followed in Gauteng, with at least 12 people murdered. Sisonke People’s Forum chairperson Zweli Ndaba appeared at the South African Human Rights Commission six months later to speak on behalf of the All Truck Drivers Foundation (ATDF) at an inquiry into the violence plaguing the freight industry.

The trucking industry has been besieged by violence since March 2018, with dozens of attacks on trucks and truck drivers. A Human Rights Watch Report in 2019 found that more than 200 people had been killed in the violence, some of them born in South Africa, and that attackers had at times explicitly claimed to be part of the ATDF.

Disinformation campaigns

The rapidly developing alliance between the kleptocratic wing of the ANC with online and street-based xenophobic groups marks a profoundly disturbing new development in South African politics. Along with the threats already made by the MKMVA, this carries a further, albeit more implicit, threat of a capacity for street violence. It also carries the real risk of a further escalation of ongoing xenophobia, including violent attacks on migrants and their livelihoods.

Zuma has also met with disgraced former SABC chief executive Hlaudi Motsoneng and Andile Mngxitama, the conspiracy theorist who leads Black First Land First, with its documented connections to the Bell Pottinger-organised campaign in support of Zuma and the Guptas. An alliance with people like this, along with similarly dubious figures such as Kebby Maphatsoe and Carl Niehaus, is a clear attempt, like the politics of right-wing populists elsewhere, to compromise the integrity of the public sphere and enable “fake news” to displace rational disputation.

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Supporters of the kleptocratic faction espouse violent masculinity, conspiracy theories around Covid-19, religious fanaticism, extreme paranoia about African and Asian migrants and a form of paranoid nationalism that claims Zuma’s critics are “enemies” of the true South Africa.

All this echoes the neo-fascist politics that has emerged in the United States, Brazil, India, Hungary and elsewhere. From the Republican Party cult around Donald Trump to the Hindu extremism of Narendra Modi in India, these new authoritarian movements announce themselves as anti-elitists restoring national pride to “true” citizens. They espouse economic nativism and hardline social morality, and transmit their ideology through social media disinformation campaigns.

These movements often present themselves as alternatives to neoliberal globalisation and rising social inequality. In practice, however, they only serve to benefit the rich at the expense of the working and middle classes. The material consequences of these contradictions are then cynically displaced on to migrants and other social ‘’outsiders”.

Alliances and projects

Zuma’s allies have cynically worked to build support by exploiting a desperate social crisis to incite xenophobic hostilities. At the same time, Zuma is building an alliance of authoritarian personalities. Rather than seeing his rank venality and opportunism as the markings of a despot, they regard his abusive relation to power as a sign of strength, to be emulated.

These political and ideological linkages between authoritarianism, xenophobic violence and factional struggles within the ANC could set a dangerous new precedent. As in India, street violence could become a new form of extra-parliamentary politics in which mob attacks are used to build power and intimidate dissent.

Grassroots activists in South Africa have long been afflicted by this kind of political gangsterism and repression, something that escalated dramatically during the Zuma years. However, Zuma’s tea parties and the new political alliances and ideological projects being created suggest the real risk of dangerous intensification of authoritarian, ultra-nationalist and ethnic politics in the near future.

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As austerity rapidly corrodes the very limited forms of social solidarity that currently exist, the ground will become more fertile for the dragon’s teeth of xenophobia to be sown.

Neither faction of the ANC has any capacity to find a way through the rapidly escalating crisis. The DA openly allies itself to all the brutalities that flow from the intersection of white supremacy and capital. The EFF, always marked by an authoritarian posture and deeply compromised by the looting of its leaders, is now openly allied to the kleptocratic faction of the ANC. Party politics as a whole is an expression of the failures of the past quarter of a century and carries no possibility of a viable way forward, let alone any emancipatory prospects.

The imperative to build a credible Left alternative has never been more urgent. A Left that could find a way out of the gathering crisis would need to be rooted in genuinely popular organisations, grounded in democratic practices, able to speak to the lived experience of the escalating social and political crisis and directly articulated to actual, existing struggles – from workplaces to communities and campuses.

The support the South African Federation of Trade Unions has given the protesting Wits University students is a welcome development. These kinds of alliances need to be built and sustained wherever possible.

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