The term “Orwellian” is sometimes used a little loosely. However, Jessie Duarte’s recent statement that the Zondo commission “is ultimately an onslaught against the people themselves” is the real thing. Employing the standard ideological ruse of authoritarian politicians, she conflated the nation with the party, and the party with its most corrupt and authoritarian faction. By this logic, democratic dissent is always illegitimate, a threat to be crushed.
Duarte even went so far as to assert political kinship with Albertina Sisulu, implying that a person of Sisulu’s unimpeachable moral character would ally herself with an anti-democratic project driven by the most shamelessly corrupt faction of the ANC. The idea that people like Duarte, Carl Niehaus, Ace Magashule, Zandile Gumede and all the rest could be counted, as Duarte cynically implied, as the children of Sisulu is as farcical as it is outrageous.
On the contrary, these people, along with others, are among the most notorious figures in what Frantz Fanon called “the rapacious bourgeoisie”, marked by “their insolence, their mediocrity and their fundamental immorality”.
The claim that the kleptocratic faction of the ANC that coalesced around Jacob Zuma is somehow “progressive” is an entirely puerile spin on a plainly evident reality. There was no meaningful land reform – rural or urban – during Zuma’s period in office and the organised occupation of land was met with brutal state violence. The provision of housing declined steeply and evictions became even more violent.
Impoverishment and unemployment worsened. State-owned enterprises, public institutions and services – whole towns, even – collapsed into deep crisis. Wealth was not adequately taxed, taxes were not adequately collected and the money that was collected was frequently stolen rather than invested in society. The system of social support in the form of grants remained profoundly inadequate.
The supermarket monopolies were not confronted and there was no support for struggles to build food sovereignty from below. There was no meaningful attempt to address the pervasive violence in society, including violence against women. The public sphere was deliberately debased, activists, academics and journalists subject to campaigns of organised slander, striking miners murdered and grassroots activists assassinated.
Kleptocratic faction fights back
The staggering scale of the organised theft of public funds made a small, politically connected elite fabulously wealthy, but this wealth was accumulated at the direct expense of the public. The massive enrichment of people such as Gavin Watson, Vivian Reddy, Shauwn Mkhize and many, many more came at the direct expense of the public good. It produced crumbling schools, electricity load shedding, hospitals strained beyond breaking point, growing shack settlements, uncollected refuse, an epidemic of heroin dependency and a deepening cynicism about the state and, in some cases, democracy. There was also a significant decline in support for the ANC.
But now, as the legal net slowly closes on the likes of Zuma, Magashule, Gumede and “businesspeople” like Toshan Panday, we are steadily approaching a denouement. The more naive liberal commentators take the view that this is simply a matter of the law taking its course. But others, with a better sense of the realities of politics, are aware of the dangerous days ahead.
The Art of War, written in China in the fifth century BC and ascribed to Sun Tzu, says that when soldiers find themselves in a position from which there is no escape, “they will prefer death to flight”. The prospect of a collective collapse in social status, financial ruination and imprisonment for a number of people in the kleptocratic faction is not death in the physical sense. But it is a fate that will generate enough shared dread to unite people and drive them into a real fight.
The ANC, rather than society in general, will determine for the time being who our next president will be. This will not be guided by democratic process in the branches. Votes are habitually bought and, as the party’s secretary general, Magashule can exercise considerable power over the regulation of branches. Moreover, the extent to which kleptocracy has become a standard mode of rule, across the provinces and from the Cabinet down to ward councillors, means that a large number of people in the party have a direct interest in sustaining the rot.
These factors have led some to conclude that there is a real prospect that Magashule, perhaps with Julius Malema as his deputy, could take the presidency. A quick look across the Zambezi River illuminates, in grim detail, what this future would look like: vast riches for a small political elite won at the cost of violent authoritarianism, mass impoverishment, institutional collapse and massive emigration.
But this is speculation. There is another and much more immediate cause for serious concern. The kleptocrats have no prospect of winning over society – on the contrary, they are widely loathed – but they do have the capacity to mobilise dishonesty and thuggery in society with the aim of raising the political costs of allowing the legal processes against them to continue. We are already seeing online campaigns, sometimes mixed up with xenophobia and conspiracy theories around vaccines and 5G, aimed at poisoning the well of public discourse and disputation.
Familiar Zuma mobilisation scenes
We are also seeing the organisation and mobilisation of uniformed men with the explicit purpose of enforcing street violence. Durban is the city that offers the most prospects for Zuma as he prepares for battle. His supporters claim that 80% of the party branches in the city are for Zuma. And over the past three months, men claiming to be Umkhonto weSizwe veterans and taking an explicit position in support of Zuma have been attacking migrants and seizing control of their stores. They have been able to do this with impunity, and many people report a clear sense that the police approve of this thuggery. These attacks have been legitimated via a mixture of nationalist and ethnic rhetoric. There are also reports of local councillors, many of them plainly corrupt, making ethnic arguments in support of Zuma and actively trying to incite xenophobic sentiment.
Grassroots activists in the city are deeply concerned. People are thinking back to 2006 and the scenes outside court during Zuma’s rape trial, and the scurrilous treatment of Zuma’s accuser, Fezekile Kuzwayo. Some have recalled their experiences in 2009, the year that Zuma took the presidency. There were cases in which Mpondo people were attacked without repercussions and their homes destroyed. People organised on an autonomous and multi-ethnic basis were subject to brazen violence over a period of months by mobs armed with guns and alcohol. There is a growing fear that as Zuma and others come closer to a final defenestration, the street violence already under way will rapidly escalate.
Given that the stakes are now, in some respects, higher than they were in 2009, these fears do not seem to be unfounded. And although the regular assassination of grassroots activists that began in 2013 came to an end when Zuma was forced out of office, intra-ANC assassinations have continued in Durban and KwaZulu-Natal more broadly. There are already people on the ground with a capacity for serious violence, not to mention the men who were trained and armed through the State Security Agency with the explicit purpose of defending Zuma.
Grassroots activists have begun the process of holding community meetings to build solidarity across ethnic and national lines, and to strategise about responses to what they fear is coming. These processes include some of the same activists who described the project that cohered around Zuma as political gangsterism long before the middle-class media and non-governmental organisations understood this. On that occasion, their analysis was correct.
The decisive defeat of the kleptocrats is a necessary but not remotely sufficient condition for any viable prospects for meaningful democratic and social hope. But there should be no naivety about the risks that lie ahead. Sun Tzu’s maximum of “On desperate ground, fight” has held for 2 500 years. The kleptocrats have been cornered on legal terrain and they will fight.