Historians reviewing the recent short span of history, the past 50 years, or even the longue durée, over 200 years, would agree that national liberation movements fit into a larger pattern of historical change that has not yielded a fundamental break with colonialism and, in the case of South Africa, with apartheid as well.
The movements have brought more of the same, or even degeneration, to their societies. Southern Africa has a litany of examples but President Robert Mugabe’s Zimbabwe is considered a classic case of revolution derailed by its own leadership.
President Jacob Zuma’s recent Cabinet reshuffle has inaugurated our Zimbabwe moment. It has haunted our subconscious, but now it looms large on the national stage. The morbid signs have been there for a while as the looting and state capture has intensified. But the reshuffle has sunk the Zuma ship, hurtling it to the bottom of the ocean, with the ruin of all in sight.
One would have expected the oldest national liberation movement in Africa, with its intergenerational experience and strong traditions, to have prevented a single individual from substituting for the nation, the state and the party.
But, on the other hand, the Zuma bandwagon, with its origins in his rape trial more than 10 years ago, portended a constitutional and political crisis, particularly with his brand of patriarchal, ethnic and authoritarian populism and by engendering a vicious intolerance in the ranks of the ANC-led tripartite alliance.
Zuma’s rise fitted in perfectly with the power concentrated in the presidency, both because of constitutional fiat and because of former president Thabo Mbeki’s centralising approach.
Zuma’s control of the presidency and his factional hold on the ANC has given him the confidence to sink South Africa for his own selfish interests.
But is this the endgame for us all? Are we going to live through the destruction of our young democratic institutions and the rolling back of our rights? Are we condemned to live through more than three decades of kleptocratic takeover of the state and economy, as in Zimbabwe, and its eventual collapse?
South Africa is not exceptional but it is also not Zimbabwe. Many commentators have begun to suggest that Zuma has it all worked out strategically. This is an all-knowing and calculating strongman who will not be pushed back by any social force.
Pallo Jordan, one of the most brilliant intellectual minds in the ANC, said a few years ago that South Africa has a well-developed private sector and civil society, which distinguished it from Zimbabwe, and that these will serve as a bulwark against regression.
There are also other features such as our geopolitical relations, the complexity of the interlocking political relationships in the ANC-led alliance and our robust intelligentsia.
Geopolitically, under Zuma, South Africa has been isolating itself from the broader African context through a state practice that is increasingly xenophobic in managing refugees, migrants and immigrants.
But a backlash is growing in the continent, which will limit how far Zuma can retreat into the old boys club in Africa.
In the Brics (Brazil, Russia, India, China, South Africa) bloc, we are a small player among mega-states that have been skewing our economic priorities.
China is content with not over-reaching or compromising its neomercantilist interests with South Africa. On the other hand, Russia has been gaining a global reputation as a mafia state, which is disposed to meddling even in Western democracies.
This will have widespread implications for a Zuma regime in bed with Russia on nuclear energy, for example. It is very likely the entanglement will be about reducing the Zuma regime to a client state, further constraining the president’s choices.
But, most crucial at this stage in terms of geopolitical relations is the unplugging of foreign investment. An exodus out of government bonds, equities, real estate and from the productive economy will be calamitous for an economy struggling to reboot. An economy in recession will mean lower revenue collection, continued high unemployment and limited economic room to manoeuvre.
Fiscal populism in this context will not work but will merely bankrupt the state, deepening its legitimacy crisis.
The private sector, though enjoying immense structural power because of a globalised economy, has had a contradictory relationship with the post-apartheid state. It has not been able to lead the state and neither has the state been able to direct the sector’s capital, despite huge concessions made to capital.
Although black economic empowerment has deracialised parts of the economy, this has been a shallow process, involving politically connected elites. In the main, there is no direct control over the trillions of rands sitting on balance sheets, which could be invested — and this investment strike is likely to continue.
A Zuma regime will drive more capital offshore either legally or illicitly, and a hollowing out of the economy will aggravate the regime’s legitimacy.
South Africa’s intelligentsia, professional and organic, are generally critical about the state of affairs. A whole genre of literature has proliferated in just over 20 years of ANC rule with titles such as: Unmasked: Why the ANC Failed to Govern (Khulu Mbatha), Recovering Democracy in South Africa (Raymond Suttner), We Have Now Begun Our Descent: How to Stop South Africa Losing its Way (Justice Malala), How Long Will South Africa Survive? (RW Johnson)and Turning Point: South Africa at a Crossroads (Theuns Eloff), among others.
Black and white intellectuals capture the zeitgeist of our times. But inter-subjective conversations about what we have become and where we are going have also captured the national imagination.
The ANC-led tripartite alliance has been both a strength and a constraint on the party. As a crystallisation of social forces across all classes, strata and popular forces, it has provided deep roots for the ANC.
But its interlocking and overlapping relationships have also worked against the ANC. For instance, the undermining of trade union federation Cosatu as an independent worker voice has led to enormous realignments, particularly in the wake of the Marikana massacres and the development of new trade unions, including the Association of Mineworkers and Construction Union and the new labour federation, the South African Federation of Trade Unions.
Workers in Cosatu clearly did not put their weight behind the ANC in the recent local government elections.
As for the South African Communist Party (SACP), it has moved from being a principled and strategic force of the left to being one of Zuma’s staunchest allies, opening up a big space to the left of the ANC.
For the ANC more directly, the overlapping of membership with Cosatu and the SACP also means a turn against Zuma could also mean a massive rupture inside the ANC. Although these forces are beginning to shrug off their loyalty to Zuma and are calling for him to step down, they are not going far enough to push back the web of kleptocratic rule, anchored in the conflation of the ANC and the state. Zuma might be pressured to go but the rot inside the ANC–state nexus is deep.
Finally, civil society, although not homogenous or progressive in all quarters, has been the hotbed of progressive forces.
Post-apartheid, South Africa has been through two cycles of resistance and has thrown up important movements such as the Treatment Action Campaign, the Landless People’s Movement, the Anti-privatisation Forum and now, more recently, the Right2Know Campaign, the South African Food Sovereignty Campaign, the Inyanda National Land Movement, various nongovernmental organisations and campaigns involved in defending constitutional rights , the #FeesMustFall movement and many more.
Former finance minister Pravin Gordhan was correct in stating publicly that “South Africa has a long history of mass mobilisation”, and residues of these live on in civil society.
The world has also taught South Africa about nonviolent civil resistance. From Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King to Solidarity in Poland, the People’s Power Movement in the Philippines, the unemployed and homeless in Europe, the Occupy movement in the United States and many others, they have given South Africans an appreciation of nonviolent mass power as a strategy to transform society.
Since Ahmed Kathrada’s funeral and the sharing of the letter he wrote calling for Zuma to resign, this message has been gaining widespread support across society.
Memorial services for Kathrada, occupations outside the treasury, shutdowns and marches, including to the Union Buildings, are now all coming to the fore in the best spirit of who we are — in the spirit of Madiba and Kathrada.
Zuma has placed the ANC and the state on a collision course with society. His forces will play various moves but there will be mass counter moves in coming months, and very likely even into the general election in 2019, if he does not resign.
The ANC is also likely to be destroyed by Zuma if it does not act against him now.
In many ways, although our Zimbabwe moment has arrived, we are also back in the 1980s, fighting a regime with the same moral and political outrage that won us our democracy.
South Africa will not be Zimbabwe as long as we refuse to submit.
Dr Vishwas Satgar is an activist and University of the Witwatersrand academic. He co-organised the tent occupation outside the treasury in Pretoria and the civil society march to the Union Buildings