The last decade has seen a dramatic deterioration in South African economic and political conditions. In this modern world very little attention is paid to memory, so the world of 2005 seems misty and vague, but in retrospect it was a national Utopia; we had a strong and popular government which was working to solve problems like inequality and HIV and foreign affairs with vigour and efficacy, we had a booming economy, and the nation was cohesive; the poor expected that someone would look after them, the rich expected to be left alone with their wealth, blacks and whites were gradually moving away from the hostilities of the apartheid era. In contrast, nowadays things seem to be falling apart; even the Parliamentary opposition has fallen into desuetude.
But in 2005 many were convinced that South African economic and political conditions were simply not good enough — which was a fair enough claim if anybody had been able to prove that they had a better alternative. There was a strong groundswell calling for radical change within the Tripartite Alliance, as if this long national nightmare of peace and prosperity needed to be brought to an end, to make room for strife and poverty. And, lo, that was exactly what came to pass. Now, in 2015, there seems to be another groundswell within the Tripartite Alliance, calling, if not for radical change because nobody would believe in that any more, at least for regime change.
Basically, the SACP and COSATU are threatening, as they did between 1998 and 2007, to withdraw support from the ANC until their demands are met. They are also, increasingly, criticising the government’s policies, and are throwing their weight behind a candidacy for the Presidency of the ANC not favoured by its current President. This all looks like a re-run of the Mbeki-Zuma struggle of 2005-8, but it is actually very different in practice although the actors and agendas are very similar.
The SACP and COSATU are aware that their influence within the ANC must decline with the departure of Zuma, who leaned on them and their capacity for manipulating elections very heavily in order to seize control of the party. Now the rest of the ANC leadership at provincial level is as good at rigging votes and faking credential challenges as anyone in the alliance, and they don’t need the SACP and COSATU. Therefore, the formerly indispensible cheaters are naturally looking for other allies. However, the process of looking for other allies makes them behave unreliably from the perspective of Zuma supporters. Therefore, increasingly, the SACP and COSATU are distancing themselves from Zuma – and thus makes others eager to step into their shoes as the gofers and hit-men for Zuma. In other words, they are making themselves dispensible, and meanwhile, since they have until recently been the utterly unthinking supporters of Zuma, nobody imagines that they are in any way principled.
Their weakness might not seem to be a problem. When they attacked Mbeki in 2005, he was completely independent of them, since they had withdrawn support for him for the previous seven years. Yet the hostility which they showed overthrew him – so can’t this be done again?
In 2005-7, however, the SACP and COSATU operated in alliance with the sleazeballs and derelicts who’d been flung from power, and with agents of Zuma who had hidden their real allegiances until it was too later for Mbeki to act against them in any principled way. There are still plenty of sleazeballs and derelicts, but the ones who opposed Zuma, or didn’t support him enough, have been turfed out of all positions and made a horrible example of, and that doesn’t encourage anybody to follow their example. So the SACP and COSATU may not have as many allies as they need, even though obviously think they have them.
The SACP and COSATU can no lonber pretend that they stand for anything positive. Both are so tainted with their unquestioning support for Zuma’s antics, especially where it contradicted everything they pretended to stand for, that they can’t get much in the way of disinterested public support any more. Therefore it’s harder for them to fool people into supporting whatever clown they decide to support, except for those whom they can bribe with cash (of which they don’t have much these days) or offers of jobs (and they have difficulty being trusted even with that.).
Much of the big business community supports the same person that the SACP and COSATU support — namely, Cyril Ramaphosa — so it is possible that the SACP and COSATU might be able to garner their support. However, the alternative to Cyril Ramaphosa is not a figure like Mbeki, whom the neoliberal elite hated and feared; it is, instead, Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma, whom the neoliberal elite know that they can do business with. So, although the elite might like Cyril, they don’t like him so much that they feel the need to do any favours for the SACP and COSATU. Moreover, the neoliberal elite ultimately does not like Communists or the organised working class, and would like to see them both eliminated; they were happy to offer them rope with which they could hang themselves, but now much of the big business community thinks that it’s gallows-time.
The general situation is also very different. Under Mbeki, the economy was doing tolerably well and the illusion of success was widespread in the global economy as well. Administration appeared to be functioning. It seemed easy to throw everything into chaos without long-term consequences; it seemed so easy to run South Africa, once one assumed that Mbeki was a corrupt and incompetent windbag; even a disaster like him could accomplish much.
But now the economy is deteriorating weekly, the world a combination of bloodbath and banking crisis, the administration of the country is inept on so many levels, leaderless and bankrupt. We know that bad times are coming. Therefore, disruption and disaster no longer seem like fun episodes without consequence, but rather seem like things liable to precipitate the catastrophe which even the ruling class is a little worried about, for fear that they might not get their cash out before it is looted or becomes valueless. Therefore, the ruling-class struggle against Zuma is not playing out in the same way that the ruling-class struggle against Mbeki played out.
There is not going to be a massive uprising. There is not going to be a mobilisation of the ANC’s leadership against Zuma. This is partly because Zuma has been there before and knows how it is done; in this sense he is more shrewd than Mbeki because he does not suffer from any illusion about how the members of his party or of the alliance might be motivated by any idealism. Like Stalin, he knows that politicians are motivated by greed, spite and fear, and therefore Zuma prevailed over Mbeki as Stalin prevailed over Trotsky, and any competitor to Zuma who does not have everything in the ANC sewn up in advance will fail as Bukharin and Zinoviev failed against Stalin after Trotsky’s fall.
But in that case, the ruling class attempt to overthrow Zuma will necessarily fail, because it is half-hearted. The ruling class doesn’t really care who rules South Africa so long as they rule whoever that person is. They know that the difference between Zuma or Dlamini-Zuma or Ramaphosa or even Maimane is not all that significant — certainly much less significant than any South African journalist would like people to believe. But meanwhile, Zuma very desperately doesn’t want Ramaphosa to take over, and meanwhile, a lot of Zuma’s supporters, and even his opponents, very well remember the slights and bullying and backstabbing which the SACP and COSATU perpetrated back in their days of glory. The fact that they want Ramaphosa to win is almost, in itself, a reason to oppose Ramaphosa. Wouldn’t it be nice, they ask themselves, if the SACP and COSATU went down to hell, dragged down by the concrete lifebelt of Ramaphosa?
As a result, current South African politics is strangely content-free. The savage and well-justified attacks on Zuma late last year, the frantic wish to have him removed for his temerity in deposing the ruling-class’s own man in the Ministry of Finance, blazed up but then died down again as soon as Zuma had appointed the ruling-class a new man in the same Ministry. Nobody cared that the new new man had a track record of incompetence identical to the old new man’s. The fury was just stage fire, created for the purpose and sustained by the incoherent and inchoate hatred which a politically ignorant media establishment is obliged to feel for anyone against whom their masters tell them to turn their hatred. When the ruling class walked away from the fire they had started, of course it guttered out; there was no fuel for it at all.
So we are stuck in a meaningless political transition between alternatives, none of whom are of any use to us. It is like the American Presidential elections, a mass of sound and fury and fanatical declarations that this empty suit or that empty suit represents the greatest hope or the vilest betrayal that ever existed in the history of what was once a Republic. Truly, our politics are now normal, driven, like everyone else’s, by Twitter and Facebook.
And without hope, of course.