By Patrick Bond
December 21, 2007 – 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 South African Trade Unions (COSATU), SA Communist
Party (SACP) and African National Congress Youth League (ANCYL) who kept his political
life support on when everyone else declared him dead.
But after his election as ANC president on December 18, 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
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, which 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 (December 20). 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?
intellectual leader Jeremy Cronin, who was #5 in the ANC vote, offers
this spin about the party's ideological direction. The ANC conference
just completed 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
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 unit and
finance department, 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 Snr), 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,
And then looking at the vast (US$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, aluminium 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 December 20) 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 the labour movement 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 Bond directs the Centre for Civil Society at the University of
KwaZulu-Natal: http://www.ukzn.ac.za/ccs ]