Can Zuma's 'Second Transition' Take Us off the Boil?

By Richard Pithouse · 29 Jun 2012

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Picture: World Economic Forum/Flickr
Picture: World Economic Forum/Flickr

The crisis consists precisely in the fact that the old is dying and the new cannot be born; in this interregnum a great variety of morbid symptoms appear.

- Antonio Gramsci, Regina Coeli Prison, Rome, 1930

Neil Daniels was murdered in Cape Town on the 2nd of June. His genitals were burnt. Thapelo Makutle was murdered in Kuruman in the Northern Cape on the 9th of June. His genitals were hacked off his body and shoved into his mouth. Phumeza Nkolonz was murdered in Cape Town on the 23rd of June after a man kicked in the door to her home and shot her. Daniels, Makutle and Nkolonz were all gay. At the end of last year a report by Human Rights Watch found that “Virtually all of those interviewed who tried to report physical or sexual violence to the police faced ridicule, harassment, and secondary victimization by police personnel.”

Last month Luxolo Mpontshane, Mabhuti Matinise and Sivuyile Rola were necklaced in Khayelitsha in Cape Town. At least six others have been murdered in recent months and some press reports put the total number of people that have been murdered by vigilante justice in Khayelitsha at eleven. Human Rights organisations report that many people in Khayelitsha have lost confidence in the police and that they have lost confidence in the police for good reasons. They have also reported that, across the country, the police themselves are engaging in torture and murder on a scale not seen since the 1980s.

When regular homophobic and vigilante murders more suited to a vision of hell than any conception of a democratic society are considered in the context of the scale of gendered violence and xenophobia, an evil that is most consistently perpetrated by the state itself, as well as the criminal neglect that leaves children without school books and shack dwellers to confront relentless fires year after year, it’s clear that our society is in serious trouble.

When state responses to all this are not structured in simple contempt they tend to point to the apartheid and colonial past as the source of all evil. But some things, like the police, or the ways that we are turning on each other, are getting worse and so easy assumption about time being on the side of progress amount to a form of denialism.

Civil society responses to some of these social pathologies often take the form of essentially technocratic proposals. It is, for instance, argued that if hate crimes are given a particular legal status the police will be better equipped to deal with homophobic violence. There may be some potential value in this sort of measure but we need to recall that we have all kinds of laws, policies and institutions that are systemically ignored. Another law or policy offers no guarantees of any sort.

The heart of our problem is the lack of a credible emancipatory vision for society as a whole. The inability of the ANC to sustain a credible emancipatory vision after apartheid, and its de facto collapse into a conception of social progress rooted, to a considerable degree, in private advancement has meant that from the top of the state to the transit camps and shack settlements where the poor have to make their lives there is an increasingly exclusionary, ruthless and masculinist contestation for what are seen as finite resources and possibilities. But we need to be clear that scarcity does not inevitably produce a society that turns on itself and scapegoats vulnerable people. We should recall that during the disaster of May 2008 there were no xenophobic attacks in areas under the control of political projects as diverse as Abahlali baseMjondolo in Durban and the Merafong Demarcation Forum in Khutsong. What these very different organisations had in common was a sense of a collective struggle for a shared and qualitatively better future and an understanding that that struggle was structured on a vertical rather than horizontal plane. There is a critical difference between fighting for your share of the proverbial cake, or some crumbs from it, and struggling, with others, for a better society.

Jacob Zuma opened the ANC’s policy conference by declaring that South Africa is “at boiling point”, that popular anger is legitimate and that apartheid and white capital, and not the ANC, is to blame for the conditions in which millions of people live. He argued that the ANC needs to embark on an ill-defined series of radical changes to meet the legitimate needs of the people. The implication is that he has recognised the pain of poverty and is the right person to lead this process that will finally redeem the social promise of democracy.

Zuma peppered his speech with the standard rhetoric about the ANC being a progressive force and even asserted that the party “has been the voice of the poor and the marginalised and a parliament of the people since its inception in 1912.” This is sheer fabrication. The ANC began its life as an alliance of aristocrats and mission educated gentlemen and only opened itself to broader constituencies, like women, peasants and workers after these groups had succeeded in taking their own place on the political stage and, in some cases, taking it against the patrician condescension of the ANC. It was, for instance, only in the 1980s that the ANC really started to take workers seriously and this followed a process of successful self-organisation by workers beginning with the Durban strikes in 1973.

It is not Zuma’s sensitive heart that has enabled the ANC to, at the level of its rhetoric, take better measure of the suffering of the poor. In fact the Zuma Presidency has been marked by a decisive shift to a state more driven by security concerns than any developmental agenda, to a marked increase in anti-democratic sentiment and practice and a style of leadership that, now cutting across some of the factions in the party, is frequently demagogic, masculinist and at times even militaristic.

It is the persistence and gathering intensity of popular protest that has forced the ANC to end its public denialism about the depths of suffering and the scale of popular anger in South Africa. Conspiracy theories are still used to try and explain away forms of popular organisation that oppose the ANC directly or operate outside of it but the party has had to concede that it is confronting widespread and popular protest. The ANC continues to try and manage the escalating series of local urban rebellions with micro-local attempts at co-option, a process that is made much easier when protest takes the form of contestation within the party, and outright repression. And repression is increasingly brutal. A Google search throws up twenty-four incidents of reports of protestors being killed by the police since 2000 with the bulk of the killings having taken place in recent years. Torture at the hands of the police is becoming increasingly common as is the public issuing of death threats and threats to destroy people’s homes by party structures and cases where the police work with local party structures to effect repression. In Durban, where there is a degree to which the ANC has absorbed aspects of the politics of Zulu nationalism, grassroots activists operating outside of the ANC, or opposing the ANC directly, have, since 2008, been denounced by local party structures for including migrants, Indians and Xhosa speaking people in their struggles as if this amounts to some sort of treason.

Struggles within and against the ANC are becoming increasingly bitter too and this is not just about palace politics. In the last two years nine homes belonging to ANC ward councillors have been burnt down in Gauteng. Zuma is not wrong to say that the country is on the boil. But his silences about repression, the ethnic chauvinism through which it has been mediated in Durban, homophobic violence, the routine recourse to brutality that is becoming normalised in the police and his mealy mouthed responses to xenophobic violence, including his absolute silence about the enduring horror of Lindela, are all searingly articulate.

There is no guarantee that any faction in the ANC will succeed in capturing popular anger, most of which is not well organised, and organising it through its own party structures or symbolic economy. But it’s striking that while the attempt to mobilise large-scale popular support against The Spear on the streets of Durban and Johannesburg failed, and failed badly, the mere spectre of the party trying to summon popular anger behind its projects succeeded in rattling the liberal establishment. It was the idea of popular mobilisation rather than its reality that worked for the ANC. Popular protest is not going away, the divisions within the ANC are not going away and the decline in support for the ANC is not going away. In this context the prospect of capturing or of being seen to have captured popular energies will remain not just attractive but necessary for any faction of the ANC seeking to attain political hegemony over the party and the country.

But the question we have to ask is whether or not the ANC is willing to allow itself to be transformed from below by the progressive currents within a tenacious popular demand for social inclusion or whether it will, in the manner of more fascist modes of politics, seek to capture popular anger and mobilise it on authoritarian lines and in the interests of a narrow and predatory elite. In Durban it is clear that, from the repression of Abahlali baseMjondolo in 2009 to the current repression of the Unemployed People’s Movement, the ANC is well on the way to mobilising poor people against each other on a basis that owes far more to the sorry history of authoritarian nationalism than to any sort of emancipatory project.

Dr. Pithouse teaches politics at Rhodes University.

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29 Jun

ANC Supression

Pithouse, brilliant article hitting the nail 100% on the head.

Zuma is single handedly the worst ANC President ever !
A system in collaps, corruption with no moral fibre, from the top down,denialism, like an absolute coward, Zuma putting blame everywhere but with him and his "predatory elite", stopped fluing long ago
The attempt by Zuma to devide society even further is absolutely disgracefull .

Mandela must be hanging his head in shame, the ANC a once progressive movement has been hijacked by criminals, flatlining eminant. Hitlers 'black shirts' and his rise was no different ! Shame on the ANC !!! Shame on those who ignorantly still vote for this mafia !

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Morton Christie
30 Jun


Pokko, you too hit the nail on the head ! but dont exclude Mandela or any of the past leaders from this, as Pithouse correctly says in his article, the ANC only became a populist movement in the 1980's, prior to that they served the interests of the black elite only and still do today by hoodwinking the poor into voting for them in order to stay in power. but they are now running out of ideas as you cannot fool the people forever. the ANC are not a political party they are a bunch of businessmen who use politics as a vehicle for self enrichment. but in order to enrich themselves they need to hang onto power by any means. and this is when they start picking on white business and farmers. ask Mugabe he knows this all to well.

Paul Whelan
29 Jun

Second Transition

Excellent though this article is, it does not choose to address the core political problem in SA today: that it is a party-state; that what we complacently call the 'ruling party' inevitably becomes complacent under those circumstances; that there is no motor, no spur for change in a polity where there is no prospect of an alternative govt. taking the reins. The results should, by now, be obvious to everyone.

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fanuel nsingo
30 Jun


Brilliant article as always Richard Pithouse. Soldier on man! I'm 100% behind you! Your writings will always remain in our historical archives. Plus your articles are prophetic! Thumbs up man! .... Why not get into politics full time?

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6 Jul

Seven Murders in Three Weeks!

According to Sokari Ekine there have been seven murders of LGTBI people in the last three weeks. Our society, and its democratic dream, is in serious crisis. Her full article is at:

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