Congratulations are due Jacob Zuma – apparently far more Machiavellian than even his arch-opponent since 2005, Thabo Mbeki – and the tireless band of warriors from the Congress of SA Trade Unions, SA Communist Party and African National Congress Youth League who kept his political life support on when everyone else declared him dead.
But after his election as ANC president on Tuesday, the disintegration of his voting bloc is not far off. As Brian Ashley of Amandla magazine explains, Zuma commands “a broad coalition of disgruntled elements within the ANC. A period of political instability awaits. The ‘dreaded’ two centres of power have materialised and given rise to a lame duck President.”
This is promising indeed, after 13.5 years of unrelenting neoliberalism mixed with triumphalist nationalism (often, in turn, flavoured with ‘Breshnevite Marxism’, as the ANC’s left discourses have been termed in rare moments of autocritique). Indeed amongst the general public, there is a widespread conviction that a new balance of forces within the ANC presages a genuine left policy turn. To make this impression more palatable to bourgeois society and those near-mythical foreign investors, a seductive – yet incorrect – line of analysis also arises now to explain the logic behind Zuma’s landslide victory. The first period of ANC rule (1994-2001) required ‘macroeconomic stabilisation’, so the argument goes, and subsequently a ‘developmental state’ with a strong welfarist bias has been under construction. Hence Zuma’s victory will not change anything, really.
Actually, Zuma’s huge (nearly 20%) margin reflected not a heroic new ruler, but rather a ruling regime out of touch with the misery experienced by its mass base, no one denies. The SA Police recently revealed that the rate of social protests has risen from 5800 in 2004-05 (when it would have been the world’s highest per person, I reckon) to more than 10 000/year since, and no doubt even higher numbers will be released for 2007/08 given the long public workers’ strike.
Zuma wasn’t an instigator of more than a few of these, such as when disgracefully in May 2006 he let his rape trial devolve into an orgy of misogyny, with effigies of his victim burned outside the courthouse. No, indeed, the grassroots protests were largely against the ANC’s neoliberal economic policies, prior to and after Zuma’s firing as deputy president in mid-2005 in the wake of his friend Schabir Shaik’s conviction on corruption charges.
Zuma was subsequently harrassed no end by Mbeki’s vindictive state. This meant that at the ANC conference and in the words of commentators, the angry rumble from below was readily channeled away from structural critique of neoliberal nationalist rule, and into the song Umshini Wami (‘Bring me my machine gun’). The prodigious venality of the Zuma-Mbeki squabble threw copious amounts of toxic dust high into the air, blinding most to what’s really at stake here: class struggle, to borrow a worn but potent phrase.
Indeed the tone of the internecine battle with Mbeki was sufficiently vicious as to require cries of ‘unity’ immediately from both camps immediately afterwards, as well as from Zuma’s speech on Thursday afternoon. But like much that happens in this party, the lovely rhetoric concealed yet more brutal power plays.
The other major ANC vote – for 80 positions on the ANC National Executive Committee – confirmed that the Zuma majority took no prisoners, leaving Mbeki’s most trusted allies in the political wilderness. Although six cabinet ministers were elected in the top 20, those who lost their NEC places and are now ANC outsiders include some formidable names: Deputy President Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka (who replaced Zuma), Mbeki’s top state official Frank Chikane, his top political advisor and hatchet man (and Minister in the Presidency) Essop Pahad, Intelligence Minister Ronnie Kasrils, the man who served as ANC chairperson until Monday, Terror Lekota, the head of the Mbeki’s office at ANC headquarters Smuts Ngonyama, and Safety and Security Minister Charles Nqkula (formerly SACP chairperson).
The top vote-getter was veteran and often flamboyant populist Winnie Madikizela-Mandela (ex-wife of Nelson), who gets counted out as irrelevant by the mainstream media periodically and makes comebacks worthy of the Zuma camp.
There really has been a change of the guard. But is it a move left? SACP intellectual leader Jeremy Cronin – who was #5 in the ANC vote – offers this spin about the party’s ideological direction. The ANC conference just complete witnessed a “deepening and consolidation” of the progressive trajectory already underway, says Cronin. Hence under a President Zuma, “There would be no dramatic U-turn” on matters already under contestation: Pretoria’s tight monetary policy, chaotic credit market regulation, and the liberalised trade and industrial policies which have killed a million jobs. For those like Cronin, the recent revival of the “National Democratic Revolution” is already undermining the neoliberal bloc within the ANC.
Is it? In reality, many on the centre-left – Cronin too – have been rather lukewarm about the Zuma campaign, because as national deputy president starting in 1999, Zuma was nowhere visible with workers and the poor (or women, needless to say) pulling against Mbeki and the other weighty neoliberals: Trevor Manuel (finance), Alec Erwin (trade/privatisation), Tito Mboweni (central bank governor), Geraldine Fraser-Moleketi (public service) and Sydney Mufamadi (local government). Of these, only Manuel retained an NEC seat, voted in at #57 after having been #1 in the 2002 vote.
In his first speech to the ANC as president today, Zuma himself intoned that there was “no reason why the business or international community or any other sector should be uneasy.” Quite so; after all, a mealy-mouthed Zuma made this clear last month in closed-door meetings organised by officials of two New York banks, Citi and Merrill Lynch, which are themselves making the world markets rather uneasy with their financial shenanigans.
Still, even Manuel, in a Mail & Guardian interview last week, condemned the private outsourcing of state services, something he himself has promoted harder than anyone since 1996 as keeper of the ever-tightening SA fiscus, notwithstanding that this ‘New Public Management’ technique is the root cause of many a fierce protest. Bizarrely, Manuel even endorsed the core legal argument put forward by the Soweto left-left in their constitutional case earlier this month against Johannesburg Water (whose policies were products of Paris-based Suez’s eco-social engineering during a failed 2001-06 outsourcing), namely, that the key water problem for the poor is the inordinate access that rich people enjoy at a too-cheap price.
With such rhetoric in the air these last few days, South African society does indeed feel like a ‘post-Washington’ semi-liberated zone. Free marketeers, who still run many a Pretoria ministry’s policy units and finance departments, have had to hunker down.
But like so much other ‘talk left walk right’ activity here, that’s precisely where the problem of seduction emerges, in illusions that Zuma’s long and winding road to the country’s presidency in 2009 (when Mbeki must retire) will generate conditions for social change along the route. We all witnessed how most of the US progressive movement fell flat on its face in 1993, suckered by Bill ‘Slick Willy’ Clinton – whose defeat of an elite incumbent (George Bush Sr), rural roots, home-boy humility, traditions of Southern patriarchy (and promiscuity) and apparent empathy for ordinary people presaged Zuma’s own character flaws – and I think this is probably going to be the fate of a large portion of the SA centre-left.
South Africa’s left-left forces don’t buy it, though. No one from the new social movements believes that a small increase in anti-poverty grants and other social wage improvements – amounting to less than 3% of GDP over apartheid-era stats – represents more than tokenistic welfare. With a 14% increase in electricity prices set for next year, and privatisation of 30% of generation capacity also on the cards, any suggestion of expanding basic services runs up against a contrary, commodified logic.
And then looking at the vast ($60 billion) spending planned for a small herd of white elephants – once-off 2010 soccer stadia, big dams largely for mining houses, dicey nuclear power plants, aluminum smelter co-investments, speedy trains for the rich (who won’t use public transport) and the rearmaments craze replete with corrupting German, French and British weapons dealers – it is hard to see anything ‘developmental’ about this crony-capitalist state.
Because of this week’s momentous events, though, the centre-left’s hard reality check lies a couple of years away, after Zuma takes power (if he is not in prison for bribe-taking, a distinct possibility, according to the National Prosecuting Authority in a statement on Thursday) and reverts to his militarist roots. Those who are championing his cause now may have reason in 2009 to renew their disgust at what we thought was ‘Mbekism’ – as Ashwin Desai has termed local neoliberalism – but can soon be renamed Zumism. We could well see the deepening of macroeconomic policies that do not deliver ‘stability’ (the currency has crashed four times since 1996 after all) but instead one of the world’s highest current account deficits (trade shortfalls and financial outflows) at 8% of GDP, and hence repeated hikes in interest rates to draw in global financial assets, which are in turn making the credit-saturated middle-class scream in pain.
Unless I’m mistaken (and I really hope I am), there’s simply no basis for believing Zuma is lying to Citi, Merrill or his audience when he says none of Mbeki’s economic policies will change. So the root cause of the rebellion against Mbeki’s malgovernance of the ANC – which is described too often as haughty style but which is grounded in a commitment to a haughty new class apartheid socio-economic structure – will reassert itself within weeks or months.
Only then will South Africa enjoy the possibility of a fully liberatory, post-Mbeki set of politics, not personalities, as the far-sighted left-left makes common cause with serious comrades in labour and the Communist Party, egged on no doubt by increasingly angry feminists and other democrats. This week’s Polokwane theatrics will be looked back upon as a bit of distraction, at that stage in the making of South Africa’s real history.
(Patrick directs the Centre for Civil Society: http://www.ukzn.ac.za/ccs)