Statues Made of Matchsticks.

October 8, 2008

Yes — they do crumble into one another, don’t they?

The destruction of the Mbeki government came suddenly, but it did not come as a surprise. It was an event which had been prepared for twelve years — for fourteen or eighteen years in the cases of some politicians and journalists. Zuma, or the people behind Zuma, was only waiting for the right moment, and as usual he got it wrong, but as usual he had so much power behind him, he was allowed to cover up the catastrophe which he caused. (Note that the obediently-published media leaks claimed that Zuma and Motlanthe had opposed firing Mbeki, thus ensuring that they could blame it all on Malema should events turn nasty. In the end they decided not to do this, even though things did turn nasty.)

What we are left with is a kind of hybrid. There are enough competent people in the government to enable the administration to muddle through to 2009 without serious disaster — unless the current global recession heads south rapidly, which is perfectly possible. On the other hand, the Cabinet reshuffle has brought several people whose competence is (to put it politely) uncertain into government, and has widened the split between the ANC’s supporters and the SACP’s supporters by giving more power to the latter. Hence government is likely to be less effective — which will probably have harmful impact on the ANC’s electoral position next year.

This lack of efficacy is due to the Zuma government’s arrogant intransigence (we can forget about Motlanthe as an individual; like Malema, he is a glove-puppet). This has to be spelled out because the media, as usual, is covering for Zuma and his friends. The pretense is that Mbeki’s supporters are resigning in order to embarrass the government. In fact, South Africa has no culture of resignation, such as exists in Britain, because it has no culture of rehabilitating people who resign; once you’re out, you’re out. Hence the resignations are ending the political careers of the people who resign. They are only doing this because the alternative is to be fired (and even then, pretty heavy pressure must have been employed).

Unfortunately, firing a lot of people leads to instability, at least unless they are people of proven incompetence replaced by people of proven competence. With the possible exception of Barbara Hogan, none of the people entering the Cabinet are conspicuously competent; meanwhile, the people fired from the Cabinet were mostly able people in difficult jobs. They were fired because Zuma feared that they were Mbeki supporters — or because they had openly supported Mbeki in the past.

Does this mean that Zuma thought that they would undermine him? They were all purged from the ANC’s National Executive Committee to prevent this from happening. In government it would be difficult for them to undermine Zuma’s policies, given that President Motlanthe has the power to dominate the Cabinet and the NEC holds the ultimate sanction of recall for any Cabinet Minister. What is more, there is no actual evidence of an anti-Zuma cabal within the ANC. Contrary to the claims of the media, which has attempted to justify Zuma’s conspiracy by pretending that Mbeki was at the head of a conspiracy, there is no sign that anyone was conspiring against Zuma, nor is there any indication that the Mbeki supporters in the ANC hold Mbeki in higher regard than the party.

So the reason for the purge seems to be far simpler; to intimidate those who were not purged. That is, a large number of senior ANC members in government are not uncritical Zuma supporters. The goal of the purge is presumably to frighten them into silence, and into obedience to the party’s line.

Yet the problem is that there is no party line. Motlanthe has already quite cheerfully declared that he supports everything that Mbeki ever did. In short, the whole campaign, as we knew all along, was not about principles or ideology, but about garnering money, power and sinecures for Zuma and his friends. Motlanthe might as well have worn a “Proud To Be A Careerist” T-shirt — instead of his armour-plated suit and tie — to his bumbling and tedious inaugural public statement. There is much talk about the “Polokwane” principles, but in practice these change according to whatever the SACP happens to want at a given moment — or rather, what its leadership (the top two or three people in its politburo) wants, sometimes rubber-stamped by hastily-called “conferences”. There is no plan, there is no campaign, there is no banner behind which people can march. The only doctrine is that people must obey orders. Being in the ANC now is like being in the army, except that you have to pay your own way and you don’t get the fun of blowing things up; the destruction is all being done by other people.

In short, this goes way beyond the serious flaws of Mbeki’s ANC; it is so splendidly undemocratic that it is positively surreal. Populism here has taken the logical step of combining with neoliberalism to produce populism without the people. There is party loyalty, but no party; there is obedience to a line, but no line. This reminds the Creator of a recent newspaper letter from the Treatment Action Campaign in which the author of the letter, who has never sought or received any public mandate and whose letter was campaigning for absurd goals, referred to himself as “civil society”. Perhaps he really believed that. Our new Jacobin (or perhaps Jacobite) Sun Kings proclaim “Le peuple, c’est moi!”.

Now none of this proves that everything is going to hell in a turbo-supercharged handbasket. Possibly they will sort themselves out. It is possible, yes — the trouble is that it is not very likely. Having operated in a protective cocoon for a decade, with the media never asking difficult questions, their enemies in government never free to launch the kind of attacks on them which they depended on — the Zuma faction have never had to deal with serious problems of the kind which they face now. They have coped with such problems by either pretending that they do not exist (Zuma’s “Crisis? What crisis?” speeches) or by blaming them on other people (the whole Mbeki blame-game and the conspiracy-mongering).

That has worked well, but it has worked only because objectively powerful people elsewhere, namely the ruling class, supported it. It is very similar to the policies of American or European conservatives, distracting the public from their real problems through manufacturing hobgoblins elsewhere — the immigrants and the liberals — while pretending that the destructive policies of neoliberalism were creative. It is great to have the complete support of the ruling class and the press, but, as the current economic crisis illustrates, this is not enough to provide workable, sustainable policies. Where are these going to come from in the context of Zuma’s South Africa?

In addition, what is the Zuma faction going to do if, once it has performed its function of weakening the ANC, it loses the support of the ruling class after the 2009 elections? Surely it is sufficiently aware of the problem to be unwilling to actually do anything to alienate the ruling class. Yet, on the other hand, if it follows the lead of the ruling class, it makes itself incapable of winning over the majority and puts itself on a spiral staircase to the political dustbin. How can these be reconciled?

The short-term solution is to keep very quiet, not change anything, and hope that the problems will go away. This has been the solution which the Mbeki government has pursued after its attempts to reconcile left and right failed, and this was a disastrous solution. Political problems do not go away; they get worse as the people driving them realise that they can gain more self-importance by causing more trouble. Therefore, this short-term solution, the easiest solution and therefore the one most likely to be pursued, is not a solution; it is part of the problem.

The alternative, however, is even less like the Zuma government’s current behaviour. The alternative to the problem is to develop a political programme sufficiently popular to make it possible for the Zuma government to rule on its own, and to ignore both the press and the corporate elite. Although this is not wholly true, in a significant sense this was what the Mbeki government did. This is definitely not what the Zuma government is doing at the moment, nor what they are preparing to do — for even if they had a workable political programme, they have shown no sign of being able to turn it into something which the public will accept. They seem afraid to say things which big business will condemn. They also seem afraid to go beyond the things which the Mbeki government did — forgetting that big business did not loathe the Mbeki government out of capriciousness, but because the Mbeki government was more left-wing than big business was prepared to accept. In other words, pursuing the status quo makes it very likely that big business will eventually start putting pressure on the Zuma government.

And, of course, the Zuma government is in a very poor position to protect themselves against that pressure. Conceivably they do not desire to be in a better position. It is a splendid thing to be in control of a house of cards, because nobody expects you to be able to do anything about it. “We could not do anything because Mbeki would not allow us” will be easily turned into “We cannot do anything because the business elite will not allow us”, and the great thing is that if this is said by a Communist, many people will think that it must be true, because why should a Communist say or do anything which benefits the business elite?

Hah. Indeed. Good question there, that man.

Of course there is another possible stumbling-block. Can it be that Zuma has deliberately surrounded himself with fools, and now discovers that unfortunately nobody is competent to develop a political programme of their own? This might seem bizarre because the people involved are the political elite of South Africa, or at least say that they are. But they are a political elite which has never had to have a programme other than waving a red flag — and those who remember the late 1980s will also remember how comically unprepared for government the ANC was in 1990 because they had depended on the SACP for guidance and the SACP failed utterly. Maybe they are doing the same to the unfortunate Zuma, who has always needed to take orders from someone.

The trouble is that if this fortress built on quicksand turns out to be subverted and easy to capture, then the ANC has no reserves of strength left. Meanwhile, big business and the right wing which the DA represents has enormous amounts of strength, never having had to exert any. In other words, whether the new ANC become neoliberal, or whether they collapse and leave space for the neoliberals, without an energetic left-wing campaign of which there is no sign, the future is going to be reactionary at best.

No, the Creator does not enjoy making these predictions. Why did you ask?