SocialismToday           Socialist Party magazine

Issue 216 March 2018

South Africa flicks the presidential switch

Within two months of his election as African National Congress president in December 2017, Cyril Ramaphosa became South Africa’s president. His ascendancy was built on the narrowest of margins, a 50/50 split that ran right through the ANC’s top structures, the result of the betrayal by Mpumalanga province premier David Mabuza, the most powerful member of the pro-Zuma ‘premier league’.

This alliance of corrupt premiers (including those of the Free State and North West) has manipulated provincial ANC conference elections, stripping the national conference of all credibility, reducing it to a gigantic auction of corrupted delegates. Mabuza instructed his delegates, in the name of ‘unity’, to switch their votes from Zuma’s anointed successor, his ex-wife Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma.

That suggested a period of paralysis as Ramaphosa and Zuma’s factions were set on a collision course for the remaining 18 months of Zuma’s term as president, before the general election due in 2019. By the evening of 14 February 2018, however, the decisive shift in the balance of forces in the ANC finally dawned on Zuma. He surrendered the presidency as meekly as he had ascended to it with such triumphalism nine years ago.

The drama of Zuma’s ousting is rich with irony. He became the victim of the same process – a recall – he had led to prevent Thabo Mbeki, the previous president, from completing his term. Mbeki continued as South Africa’s president for eight months after Zuma’s triumph at the ANC conference in 2007, Zuma for less than two.

Zuma had ascended the presidential throne in the slipstream of a revolt against more than a decade of the neo-liberal Growth Employment and Redistribution (Gear) policy Mbeki had imposed on the ANC in 1996. Although economic growth averaged 4.5% under Mbeki, budget surpluses were only made possible by a massive redistribution of wealth from the poor to the rich. This catapulted South Africa to the top of the global league table of inequality.

Gear led to a rapid class polarisation, reflected in the revolt beginning in 2004 of working-class communities against poor services and corruption, and the biggest public-sector strike in South Africa up to then. The aloof indifference of the Shakespeare-quoting, whisky-sipping, pipe-smoking ‘call me a Thatcherite’ Mbeki ensured that the succession battle in the party became an indirect expression of the collision of the classes in society.

The consequences of these policies called into existence what subsequently came to be known as the coalition of the wounded: victims of Mbeki’s marginalisation and witch-hunting of those who opposed his policies in the ANC and its Tripartite Alliance partners – the Congress of South African Trade Unions (Cosatu) and the South African Communist Party (SACP) – as well as the ANC Youth League, then led by Julius Malema. Zuma was to win the presidency with a 60% majority. This increased to 75% at the ANC’s next conference in 2012.

At the time, then Cosatu general secretary Zwelinzima Vavi said famously that the forces ensuring Zuma’s victory would be as "unstoppable as a tsunami". He was not to know that the tsunami would cut a swath of destruction through the economy, the lives of the working class, the Tripartite Alliance, and state institutions.

Zuma’s regime was born in scandal and morphed into a kleptocracy. It made full use of the Bonapartist provisions of the country’s much vaunted constitution: the prerogative to appoint and ‘dis-appoint’ heads of state-owned enterprises, the police, the Directorate for Priority Crime Investigation (the Hawks) and the National Prosecuting Authority (NPA). Dismissed by Mbeki as deputy president in 2005, following a high-profile arms deal scandal, Zuma was reinstated after he got charges against him dropped. He drove Khwezi, the daughter of a fellow ANC comrade, into exile and to her death after he was acquitted of raping her. He dismantled the Scorpions, the equivalent of the US FBI.

Zuma converted government into a criminal enterprise for the self-enrichment of his family and cronies. Under the direction of the Gupta family he developed a network so powerful that it even decided on appointments to cabinet and state-owned enterprises. It is estimated that their looting spree took over R100 billion (£6.1bn) from the public purse.

Under his watch, the economy nosedived, gasping for breath at 1% per annum. Eliminating extreme poverty – those living on R441/month, forced to choose between buying food or other essentials – would require ten years of 5.4% average economic growth. The Revenue Service has under-collected tax of more than R50 billion. Far from halting the impoverishment of the masses that Mbeki’s regime began, it has accelerated: 55% of the population live in poverty; nine million are unemployed (around 40%, 67% among youth); and 15 million go to bed hungry every night.

Under Zuma, the ANC underwent two splits: the birth of the Congress of the People in 2008 and Malema’s Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) in 2012. The Tripartite Alliance has lost all credibility. Cosatu expelled the 340,000-strong National Union of Metalworkers of South Africa (Numsa) following its decision not to support the ANC in the 2014 elections. Nothing expresses the political bankruptcy of Cosatu and the SACP more than the fact that they cling for dear life to the Tripartite Alliance, having campaigned for the billionaire Ramaphosa, one of the richest men in the country and butcher of the Marikana mineworkers in 2012.

Understandably, Ramaphosa’s victory has been welcomed by most, including working-class people. They hope he will make good on his promise to root out corruption, lift the economy out of the doldrums, create jobs, eradicate poverty and raise living standards. So discredited had Zuma and his cronies become that the demand that Zuma step down was supported by virtually every layer of society. It is this tsunami of public of opinion that overwhelmed the ANC. Zuma’s erstwhile allies dumped him like rats a sinking ship. Had he remained at the helm, the ANC faced almost certain defeat in the general election.

Following Ramaphosa’s election as ANC president, the Hawks and police have raided the Gupta compound and offices of the Free State premier. Gupta patriarch, Ajay, is now a fugitive from justice. His nephew has already appeared in court. The entire board of the state electricity utility Eskom has been replaced. The NPA is under pressure to reinstate corruption charges against Zuma.

These developments have given the impression that Ramaphosa means business. He thus carries the hopes of all sections of society. But herein lays the contradiction. The expectations of the capitalist class and the working class are irreconcilable. Ramaphosa is the candidate of big business. His entire career has constituted preparation for the role the capitalist ruling class has thrust on him and he has enthusiastically placed himself at their disposal.

He earned his spurs during the defeat of the historic 1987 miners’ strike – when he was general secretary of the National Union of Mineworkers he helped to set up. He forged close ties with big business in the 1980s in the Urban Foundation, established to create the basis for the development of a black capitalist class as the strategists of capital became increasingly alarmed by developing socialist consciousness, especially in Cosatu. He played a leading role in crafting South Africa’s pro-capitalist, post-apartheid constitution. Embittered at being overlooked for the position of deputy to Nelson Mandela in the first ANC government, he left politics and got on with the business of becoming a billionaire.

He comes to power when ratings agencies are demanding savage austerity measures to avoid a further downgrade. Given the state of the world economy, and the lack of demand in the domestic economy because of the levels of poverty, there is little incentive to invest at home and no way out on the world market. Ramaphosa’s spring will therefore be short-lived and it is not excluded that he may call an early election.

The birth of the South African Federation of Trade Unions (Saftu) in 2017 represents the first steps towards the working class reclaiming its political and class independence. The debate on the establishment of a workers’ party must be concluded urgently. In 2012, Cosatu’s survey of shop stewards’ political attitudes found that 67% favoured such a move. In 2013, the EFF was launched, exploiting this mood with populist radical nationalism. After the 2016 local government elections, however, the EFF revealed its class character by entering a coalition with the Democratic Alliance, which the EFF denounces as a racist party of ‘white monopoly capital’. Behind this hypocrisy lies its real ambition: to be part of a pro-capitalist coalition.

Under Zuma, the ANC’s electoral support declined to 54% in 2016, and it relinquished control of three major metros – Johannesburg, Tshwane and Nelson Mandela Bay. Its vote was reduced to 34% of the voting population. In 2013, Numsa resolved at its special national congress to establish a workers’ party. The Saftu NEC has the opportunity to put an end to the undue delay. It must set a date to launch a mass workers’ party on a socialist programme that will unite community, student and workplace struggles.

Weizmann Hamilton

Workers and Socialist Party – CWI South Africa

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