A terrifying vision of South Africa’s future

If South Africa’s Left can’t find a way to channel popular discontentment into the building of mass progressive movements, it will instead morph into anarchy, nativism and, inevitably, authoritarianism.

Downtown Johannesburg. Image credit Vladimir Varfolomeev via Flickr CC BY-NC 2.0.

Predicting a major political shockwave has been standard fare among South African pundits for some time. The sheer depth of the socio-economic crisis in the country, best encapsulated in a broad unemployment rate of 42%, made it something of a safe bet.

Recently that shockwave arrived, but in a form that was perhaps less expected. It’s trigger was not the increasing prices of necessities or the failing provision of basic services. Instead it was the jailing of former president Jacob Zuma, the man arguably most responsible for the parlous state of those services. It’s embodiment was not mass occupations or demonstrations against an indifferent government. Instead it was the widespread looting of shops and malls, tinctured by outbursts of ethnic violence and outright criminality. It was not civil society organizations or radical opposition parties that led the unrest, but a faction of the ruling party itself.

This has made it far harder to grasp the political meaning of these events and to anticipate their consequences. Amidst a flood of analysis and reporting, interpretations of the unrest, not least within the Left, continue to diverge sharply.

There is a general consensus that the unrest had these two main facets. On the one hand a seditious campaign waged by Zuma-aligned elements (henceforth Zupta) intended to sow instability. On the other, a more spontaneous attempt by desperate people with little or no connection to Zupta ,to secure food and basic necessities—a “bread riot.” But that consensus breaks down on the question of how to understand the interrelation of these facets and the relative importance of each in the overall arc of events, and thus how to characterize the episode as a whole. Most commentators have tended to strongly foreground one side or the other.

A widely circulated editorial published on July 12 on the South African website, New Frame (NF), put the emphasis firmly on the latter element. It argued that the influence of Zupta forces, beyond tossing the initial match, was marginal. Reports from NF’s journalists suggested that a substantial majority of those taking to the malls and streets had been driven there by desperation rather than any concern for Zuma. Consequently NF saw the unrest as infused with progressive potential and drew analogies to the bread riots that preceded revolutions in the Middle East and Europe. It saw some chance that they may evolve into a more overtly political mobilization, cohered around a clear set of demands, and even that middle class and other elements may join in on this.

Subsequent posts over the following days by NF editors, sounded a somewhat different note. By this stage, widespread reports of deliberate acts of sabotage targeting strategic infrastructure, as well as a flood of anecdotal evidence pointing to the intervention of well-organized groupings, appeared to show that Zupta forces were more than simply the pilot light for the unrest. Yet NF still drew a very strong distinction between its two facets, contending the acts of sabotage were an entirely “different phenomena” from the food riots and that the latter were “spontaneous … emerging from widespread desperation.”

Writing in Jacobin on July 15, the historian Ben Fogel bent the stick in the other direction. Although not denying that simple desperation was a motivation for many on the streets, he firmly denied that these events could be characterized as “bread riots.” Instead he saw them as a part of a deliberate political campaign with clear objectives. In contrast to NF, he emphasized the ethnic and xenophobic dimensions of the unrest. While the title of NF’s editorial announced somewhat loftily that the riots had “turned the wheel of history,” Fogel’s exuded pessimism, declaring there to be “no silver lining” to what had transpired.

These diverging interpretations seem to arise partly from a dispute over facts, specifically about what caused the unrest. New Frame sees it as having been a spontaneous outburst with distinct organized currents, Fogel sees it as having been orchestrated. Clearly, it was neither one nor the other. It could not possibly have been purely spontaneous because we know at the very least that there were active instigators. At the same time we know it had spontaneous elements; it drew in a great mass of people who were acting at their own behest and for their own objectives. The real question then is about the degrees of orchestration and spontaneity.

We are not yet in a position to know precisely what those were. But as more information is becoming available, it does seem to be pointing to a higher degree of orchestration than appeared to be the case at the start. Leaked WhatsApp messages testify to a very active role played by ANC counselors and other local leaders. They suggest that shopping malls were deliberately targeted because they constituted symbols of “white monopoly capital.” Anecdotal evidence points to the widespread busing in of looters and the involvement of well-resourced gangs in bussing out stolen goods. This also encompassed various harder to reach (and typically well-secured) targets, including warehouses, factories and shipping containers, some of which appear to have come under coordinated attack.

The geography of the uprising also suggests the importance of organized elements. If the unrest had been driven by people acting autonomously, based on a “demonstration effect,” we would have expected it to be quite diffused. Instead it seems to have remained concentrated in areas where Zupta elements have influence.

It now appears that many of the reports of attacks on water and communication facilities were false. But a number of other incidents, such as the burning of a chemical plant, attacks on transport and food infrastructure and the theft of ammunition depots, still indicate orchestrated subversion unfolding under the cover of the chaos.

Given all this, NF’s insistence that the two facets of the unrest should be seen as “distinct phenomena” is an odd one. Its point, it seems, is political rather than sociological. The intent, I think, is to ringfence the actions of the mass of rioters from those of the instigators in the name of preserving the former’s agency and progressive potentiality from the sordidness that started to overtake events as they progressed. Normatively that may be a valid move. But emphasizing distinction too strongly as we try to come to grips with the political meaning of these events is, in my view, a mistake for several reasons.

First, doing so once again imputes a degree of autonomy and spontaneity to the riots for which there simply isn’t justification. This isn’t solely a concern for historians or academics. Understanding the precise role of active legitimation and orchestration in driving people onto the streets may be important for many of the bigger conclusions we will draw from these events. It will have a large bearing, for example, on what we think the riots tell us about the political mood of working class people in the country more broadly, and of the likelihood of similar occurrences.

Second, the fact that the riots took place under the aegis of the “Free Zuma” campaign is not irrelevant to understanding the political impacts they will have, or the interpretive frames that will be applied to them by other social actors. I argue in some detail below that the overweening influence of the ANC on both sides of the contest inhibited the capacity of the riots to organically develop their own political direction as NF hoped.

A third issue pertains not so much to the drawing of rigid distinctions, but as to the way that this has facilitated an excessive focus on one side of the issue at the expense of the other. With notable exceptions, Left commentary has leaned heavily towards framing the unrest as a symptom of socioeconomic crisis while downplaying or ignoring its political causes. This might have been justified had the social dimension been otherwise overlooked or deliberately obscured, but, in fact, there is a striking degree of consensus in the public sphere about the importance of unemployment and inequality in explaining what happened.

In light of this, the unwillingness to give proper attention to the political forces behind mid-July’s events appears symptomatic of a widespread failure on the Left to take seriously the growing imperilment of our democracy. All too frequently Radical Economic Transformation (RET)/Zupta are seen as just another faction of the elite, embroiled in a fight with other elites which does not concern us. But as last week made all too clear, those forces are, in fact, a serious threat to the constitutional order and the Left should spare nothing in opposing them. Acknowledging that what happened was not just a bread riot but also a serious assault on democracy seems important in that regard.

Why no Tunisia Moment?

New Frame’s hope that the riots might gestate into a pro-poor political movement was, to be frank, wishful thinking from the start. But it’s worth inquiring as to why that was. Why did unrest on this scale, leavened by such profound desperation, show so little prospect of developing a radical edge? Why was a “Tunisia moment” simply never on the cards?

An important part of the answer, I believe, is that there has not yet been any serious breakdown in the legitimacy of the political order in South Africa. Those who see a “Tunisia moment” around every corner base their predictions on the depth of the social crisis in the country. But they tend to overlook the fact that the political crisis, while incipient, simply has not matured to the same extent. The ANC’s hegemony remains broadly intact both at the polls and on the ground, in communities and workplaces. Hence social disaffection as it emerges has tended to channel into intra-ANC conflicts rather than arraying against the political class as a whole. A mass event of the kind we just witnessed has the potential to precipitate a bigger legitimation crisis, but it’s unlikely to bring it about on its own.

However, this is ultimately not a satisfying answer. It immediately invites a corollary question: how exactly has the ANC retained its hegemony while presiding over a social crisis of this scale? That of course is the billion dollar question in South African political economy. I will not attempt to answer it here.

But one thing that should form part of the answer may be material for understanding recent events. A key ingredient of the ANC’s success has been its ability to continue to pose as a liberation movement even while exercising more or less uninhibited control over the state. It has achieved this in part by clinging fastidiously to the language and symbolism of its more heroic past, conceiving of itself as the protagonist of a “national democratic revolution” being waged against external forces, usually unnamed. But much more than ideology is at work here. The ANC poses as a social movement so successfully because it in fact operates as one at a ground level.

Indeed, it continues to monopolize the space in South African civil society. Its branches penetrate into virtually every working class community in the country. Total membership in them grew threefold between 2002 and 2012, to 1.2 million and has since crept even higher. That membership overlaps significantly with other mass based civil society organizations like the South African National Civics Organization and the Congress Of South African Trade Unions. Hence, local structures of the ANC become inevitable polls of attraction for nascent political leaders at a community level. This means that when popular disgruntlement bubbles over into protest and mobilization, it is almost always the ANC on both sides of the fight—a dynamic we’ve seen time and again in service delivery protests.

This furnishes the ANC with powerful tools of cooptation and mollification, while limiting the ability of these moments of protest to contribute to class formation. Protests tend to be framed as struggles against venal or corrupt elements of “the movement” rather than against distinct class interests. Where they succeed, their leaders are frequently integrated into the state or absorbed up the party hierarchy. The organizations built in the course of the mobilization wither away. A “rebellion of the poor” thus rages on with hardly any accretion of class ideology or organizing capacity.

I don’t mention all this here to suggest that the unrest should be likened to simply another service delivery protest. But I do believe it exhibited a familiar dynamic, in which the ANC’s dominating presence on both sides of the barricades muddied the ideological waters and limited the space for an autonomous politics to develop.

All of this means that we should be more circumspect than NF’s editors in assuming that the riots presage the re-entry of the masses onto the stage of history. The impulse to defend the agency of the poor in the face of a public discourse in which it so frequently erased it is a valid one. But it shouldn’t lead us to a fetishization of that agency, or to the belief that every instance of collective action by poor people heralds a new awakening.

The ANC’s supple hegemony has narrowed the space for instances of protest to cohere into larger movements. That hegemony is eroding and will do so more rapidly as the crisis persists and patronage flows constrict. But if anything better is to emerge in its stead, the Left will have to fill that space by building up its own organizations and political vehicles—not from above or without,x but rooted in the organic militants that have sustained a culture of resistance over the post-Apartheid period.

Silver linings

Does this mean that there are in fact “no silver linings” to what has transpired? That is too strong a conclusion to draw at this stage. For starters, while the riots won’t supplant intra-elite class conflicts as NF hopes, they may help advance the former in a favorable direction. The situation remains highly fluid, but at the time of writing there seems to be a decent chance that the unrest will backfire on the Zupta coalition.

It’s hard to tell if there was ever any long game being played here or whether Zupta was simply lashing out at Zuma’s jailing. Some have speculated that the intention was to undermine President Cyril Ramaphosa as part of factional maneuver within the ANC, oriented around the upcoming National General Council. Others think the main objective was to directly extract concessions from the state, in particular a stay of prosecutions, under the threat of further violence. One possibility is that the Zupta pursued both of these aims, but that they ended up working against each other.

The unrest was certainly an effective show of physical force for Zupta. It exposed the weaknesses of the state and made Ramaphosa look indecisive. It did so through wanton destructiveness. Yet, we should remember that destructiveness has a certain legitimacy within the ANC, as part of a “repertoire of protest” with long traditions. However, it seems that the destructiveness in this case went several steps too far. We will  need survey data to know for sure, but the unrest will probably prove extremely unpopular amongst the general public and by extension the ANC rank and file, at least outside KwaZulu-Natal. That will make it hard for Zupta to exploit Ramaphosa’s failure to contain the chaos, since they were plainly the ones responsible for that chaos. The fact that they are fighting a faction within their own party, rather than an external opponent, makes a difference here.

In any case, no one appears to be taking political ownership of the campaign or providing it further direction, and in fact, key Zupta figures are drawing as much distance as they can. If the riots were to be used to signify mass support for Zuma they should have been followed up with demonstrations. A few meager calls to rally have fallen entirely flat. Meanwhile, Ramaphosa seems to have been fairly successful at branding the unrest as an insurrection.

If direct concessions are to be won, Zupta will have to show itself capable of generating further disruption whilst resisting a repressive response. Most of the disruption it has so far managed has relied on mobilizing and instigating mass action, but for the time being that quiver is empty. A more military approach would have to take over. Such an approach may be within Zupta’s means, if ex-MK (Umkhonto we Sizwe, whose veteran’s association the ANC recently disbanded precisely for being mobilized by Zuma) and ex-State Security Agency networks still retain capacity, but so far we’ve not seen no direct evidence of that.

So far the state appears to be coming down hard on those it has branded as instigators. It remains to be seen how far this pursuit will be taken. The fact that Zupta remains dominant within the KZN ANC will occasion some wariness on behalf of Ramaphosa and his allies, particularly given the somewhat tenuous electoral position of the party in key municipalities, including eThekwini (of which Durban is part).

There are still any number of ways this could play out, but if the unrest does end up further weakening RET and firming up Ramaphosa’s control over the ANC. That, in my view, would constitute a clear silver lining.

Another one is that the unrest has made an extension of the COVID relief grant, and even a permanent Basic Income Grant (BIG), a strong possibility. Riots have proven effective instruments for change so often throughout history because they inflict real costs on elites through the disruption that they incur. These riots went further; they raised a serious question of social order and thus will force a response from the state. Repression is usually the first resort in cases like these, but here there is neither the legitimacy nor the appetite for it, given the glaring social determinants of the unrest. Both elite and public opinion have instead shifted strongly in favor of a welfare response.

The Left should push the opening by campaigning hard for a BIG. It is somewhat likely, however, that we will be preempted in this given the strong positive noises Ramaphosa has already made. A BIG may be delivered “from above” before any campaign can get off the ground. This will unfortunately diminish its political yield. It may end up undergirding support for Ramaphosa while helping to re-legitimize the ANC as a “site of struggle.” We should therefore be prepared to pivot immediately to a wider anti-austerity campaign, one that helps to make clear Ramaphosa and the ANC’s complicity in the social crisis illuminated by the unrest. We will also need to  closely watch how the Ramaphosa administration intends to pay for the grant. If it does so by cutting other social expenditure, then that would become a natural issue around which to mobilize.

Either way, a BIG i would itself be a huge gain and not just on straightforward humanitarian grounds. Anything that ameliorates people’s need to focus on immediate survival, even if inadequately, will help to create a more fertile terrain for organizing.

A final way that we may emerge better off through all of this is if the crisis jolts the Left in the same way it has elites. The riots have given us a terrifying vision of South Africa’s future if the current trajectory is not arrested. If we don’t find a way to channel popular discontent into the building of mass progressive movements then it will instead fuel anarchy, nativism and, inevitably, authoritarianism.

Of course we have been through several similar moments of crisis in recent times, which should have served as our wakeup call but didn’t. We can’t afford to be jaded. A unified campaign against austerity and for a BIG could provide us with a strong platform for overcoming past divisions and collectively re-imagining a radical politics suited to our current reality.

Further Reading