Picture: President Jacob Zuma courtesy GovernmentZA/flickr
Jacob Zuma will not be redeemed by a ‘Lula moment’ or ‘second transition’. His name will go down in history with Marikana and Nkandla. Different people will call the precise moment at which the conflation of the idea of the ANC with the altogether more tawdry realities of the actually existing ANC became both irrational and immoral differently. For some people the tipping point was the South African Communist Party’s embrace of the Soviet invasion of Hungary in 1956. For others it was the repression of the mutiny in uMkhonto we Sizwe in Angola in 1984. The demobilisation of popular forces in the 1990s was a turning point for some people. The decision to voluntarily implement a structural adjustment programme in 1996 was the final straw for some.
There was a large group of people for whom the election of Jacob Zuma to the Presidency of the party in 2007 on the back of a thuggish campaign, despite clear evidence of corruption and Zuma’s atrocious behaviour during his rape trial, made it impossible to continue to see the party as an emancipatory project. There are people for whom Zuma’s inaction during the xenophobic pogroms in 2008, and the failure to hold anyone to account for the pogrom, marked the end of the dream. The brazen attacks on Abahlali baseMjondolo in Durban in 2009, openly backed by the state and the ruling party, was the point of no return for others. The televised murder of Andries Tatane marked the end of a dream for some people. The relentless accumulation of corruption scandals around Zuma, his family and other figures in the party, have also corroded the ANC’s standing. But it has been Marikana and Nkandla that have done the most damage to Zuma and the ANC.
The fact that Zuma has presided over a massacre of striking workers, a massacre for which no one has been held accountable, while building a palace for himself with public funds makes any attempt to defend him or his party simply and entirely scurrilous. With a licence to kill and a licence to loot the ANC has become a predatory excrescence on society.
Elite nationalism tends to conflate the interests of the people as a whole with the interests of elites. It remains a powerful force in our society for many reasons one of which is that for as long as wealth and power remain concentrated in white hands there is a progressive aspect to the accumulation of black wealth and power. But elite nationalism also functions to reproduce and to legitimate exploitation, exclusion and repression. Marikana and Nkandla both, in very different ways, mark a major break down in the ability of elite nationalism to claim that it is in the interests of the people as a whole.
Marikana marks the moment at which it became untenable to continue to pretend that workers’ interests should be subordinate to those of elites claiming to represent the nation as a whole. Marikana was never about the worker in isolation. It was always about the worker in community, both on the mines and in the countryside. But because the worker, as a political figure, is so often imagined in masculine terms this was often elided. One reason for this is that much of the theory woven into the standard visions of redemptive alternatives to capitalism places the worker, often implicitly assumed to be male, at the heart of both the struggle for a new order and the new order itself. This kind of theory, common in some conceptions of socialism, is useful for drawing a political distinction between those who produce wealth and those who appropriate it. But just as some forms of nationalism function to exclude people who are not part of the elite some forms of socialism reduce the people to the workers and function to exclude both people who are not workers in the formal sense, as well as sites of struggle outside of the workplace, from the political imagination.
In South Africa there is a long history of the community and the home becoming sites of crucial political import. The struggle to build and sustain a home was central to many of the mobilisations over the last century including moments like the popular power built by the Industrial & Commercial Workers’ Union in Durban in the late 1920s and early 1930s, the squatters movements around Johannesburg in the 1940s, the struggles against eviction in Durban in the late 1950s and the struggles in the shack lands around the major cities in the 1980s, perhaps most famously in Crossroads in Cape Town. And given the way in which the regulation of space was central to apartheid the act of building and sustaining a home often had, even when it has not connected to overly political forms of mobilisation, deeply political consequences. Cooking, cleaning, washing, ironing and raising children all become practices with real political weight. This is not unique to our experience. bell hooks writes that in the United States:
Historically, African-American people believed that the construction of a home-place, however fragile and tenuous (the slave hut, the wooden shack), had a radical dimension, one’s homeplace was the one site where one could freely construct the issue of humanization, where one could resist. Black women resisted by making homes where all black people could strive to be subjects, not objects, where we could be affirmed in our minds and hearts despite poverty, hardship, and deprivation, where we could restore to ourselves the dignity denied us on the outside in the public world.
In post-apartheid South Africa the community and the home are often still sites of real political intensity. The courage and tenacity with which people rebuild their shacks again and again after violent evictions and, in Durban, state backed murder, is astonishing. This sphere of politics is not taken seriously by any political party. The standard theories for imagining better societies, and strategies for getting there, are often not well equipped to make sense of it. When this sphere of politics does show up in the elite public sphere it is often silenced by being automatically presented as a ‘service delivery protest’ or presented, sometimes in plainly racist terms, as an irrational and threatening eruption of violence and criminality.
But the contrast between the palace that Zuma has built for himself and his family with public money, some of it taken directly from budgets allocated for public housing, and the tenacity and courage of people, many of them women, who strive to build and sustain homes for themselves and their families in the face of a brutal and contemptuous state is instructive. If we examine Nkandla together with the land occupations named after Marikana in Durban and Cape Town, both of which have been subject to unlawful state violence, it becomes clear that the state and capital are both sites of appropriation and repression, that the workplace and the community are both sites of struggle, and that the wage and the home both remain subject to intense contestation.
As the ANC limps into its decline, sustained by the idea of what it has meant to people rather than its tawdry reality, and buttressed with patronage and repression, there are no credible electoral alternatives. The DA, together with COPE and AGANG, offer nothing other than the promise of a less corrupt version of the economic arrangements that continue to condemn millions of people to permanent destitution. None of these parties are willing to allocate land, in rural and urban areas, on the basis of social need rather than private profit or to put an end to evictions and forced removals.
The EFF claims to subordinate capital to the state. It also tells some of the truth about how, twenty years after apartheid, our society continues to be predicated on highly racialised forms of exploitation and exclusion. But with its deeply compromised leaders – at the national and provincial levels - its active attempts to generate a personality cult, its militarism, its masculinism, its crudity, its evident complicity with xenophobia and its profoundly authoritarian conception of the political is what Antonio Gramsci called a ‘morbid symptom’ of our crisis rather than a credible response to it. Although WASP gets a fair bit of media coverage, often as a result of having a young white woman as a prominent member, the fact is that it, along with parties like Azapo and the PAC, is simply irrelevant to our national drama.
Zuma’s name will go down in history as the name of the moment when it became clear to anyone willing to confront reality directly that the ANC was rotten. But it is a lot less clear whether or not we will be able to build a democratic politics, rooted in the workplace and the community, as well as universities, prisons and sporting and religious organisations, that can affirm the equal humanity of everyone and is organised and sustained at sufficient scale to bring the state and capital to heel.