Social catastrophe and kleptocracy feed the fires in South Africa

  • July 20, 2021

Capitalism & Crisis

Triggered by the imprisonment of ex-president Zuma, last week’s riots compounded the legitimation crisis of the ANC and exposed the weakness of the left.

Destruction at a Game store warehouse in Durban, South Africa – July 16, 2021. IAMJEANGERBER /

Last week, cities and town across KwaZulu-Natal, a large and populous province on the east coast of South Africa, were ripped apart. As the food riots that smashed through supermarkets gave way to more generalized looting, it became clear that in the chaos a well-organized and highly effective campaign of sabotage was underway.

The state was almost entirely absent as the country’s main port was shutdown, along with oil refineries and the road from Durban to Johannesburg. Cellphone towers and factories were destroyed, crops burnt and the infrastructure for the provision of water, electricity and food methodically targeted. The systems for transporting, storing and distributing food were largely laid to waste, often burnt. A huge consignment of ammunition, newly imported from Brazil and in temporary storage en route to the military, was stolen.

In Durban, tensions along lines of race and class rapidly escalated when in the absence of the police, armed militias formed in neighborhoods across the city, some turning to racial profiling and violence. These tensions were deliberately inflamed by the circulation of fake news expertly calibrated to heighten fear and anger.

As the ashes began to cool after a week of tumult, which spread — in a much more limited fashion — to cities elsewhere in the country, including neighborhoods in Johannesburg and Pretoria, it became apparent that well more than 200 lives had been lost.

This eruption, staggering in its scale, had two primary causes. One is the willful failure of the ruling African National Congress (ANC) to address the social catastrophe of mass impoverishment, compounded by a steady drift to ruling the oppressed and curtailing popular protest with state violence. The other is the emergence of an authoritarian and kleptocratic faction within the ruling party, a faction with brazen criminal links in parts of the country and, in KwaZulu-Natal, a significant and sometimes crude ethnic dimension.

A wholesale collapse into kleptocracy

In 2005, the previously unorganized kleptocratic faction of the ANC cohered around the figure of Jacob Zuma, a sometimes avuncular, but often ruthless social conservative and ethnic nationalist. This was triggered when Zuma was fired as Deputy President after a court judgment implicated him in serious corruption. With the backing of the South African Communist Party and the Congress of South African Trade Unions, both formally aligned to the ANC, he took the presidency in 2009 on the back of a crudely populist campaign to win support within the party.

To their credit many feminists and Abahlali baseMjondolo, a multi-ethnic grassroots movement centered in the shacklands of Durban, opposed Zuma. There were consequences for this. A number of feminists found themselves slandered and professionally and sometimes politically and even personally isolated. For Abahlali the price was paid in the form of slander, the destruction of their leaders’ homes by armed party mobs, imprisonment, torture and assassination.

The left that supported Zuma’s populist posture was not only complicit with his social conservatism, predilection to corruption and reckless willingness to light the fires of ethnic politics. It was well known that between 1985 and 1993 Zuma was a key figure in the ANC’s notoriously authoritarian and sadistic internal intelligence organization, based in Zambia during the period in which the ANC operated underground and in exile. In the early 1990s, now back in South Africa, Zuma had begun drawing many of the members and much of the political culture of Inkatha, a deeply reactionary Zulu nationalist organization, into the ANC in his home province of KwaZulu-Natal. This fundamentally changed the character of the party in that province. In 2006 Zuma and his supporters had exhibited a grotesque misogyny when he was tried for rape, a charge on which he was controversially acquitted.

As president Zuma led a wholesale collapse into kleptocracy, the destruction of key institutions and state-owned firms, the politicization of the armed services and intelligence, a rapid decline in the country’s infrastructure, the collapse of state services in many towns and cities and a Trump-like debasement of the public sphere. In KwaZulu-Natal there was also an often-shameless intersection between the ruling party and gangsterism. State repression escalated dramatically and in 2012 striking miners were massacred. Political assassinations became routine. Most of these assassinations arose from competition for power and resources within the ANC, but between 2013 and the end of Zuma’s period in office, Abahlali baseMjondolo leaders were assassinated with grim regularity.

Naturally, the social costs of the kleptocracy and the collapse of key institutions and the provision of state services were most acute for the most vulnerable. But with astonishing audacity and Orwellian cynicism the Zuma faction of the ANC presented all this as a program of “radical economic transformation.”

Zuma was finally deposed in 2018 when Cyril Ramaphosa took the presidency. Ramaphosa, a former trade unionist, had his political roots in one of the most significant democratic currents of the national liberation struggle. But after apartheid he swiftly made an accommodation with white capital and, in exchange for enabling a degree of legitimation, became a billionaire. Although singularly lacking in charisma, his politics now presents itself as something like a vapid Obamaesque liberalism.

Zuma, and the leading figures in the wider kleptocratic project hitched to his fate, had always adopted the posture of authoritarian populism, sometimes ethnically inflected, and relentlessly presented themselves as enjoying tremendous popularity. But before and after Zuma’s defenestration this proved to be empty bluster. The kleptocrats certainly enjoyed significant support within the ANC, particularly in KwaZulu-Natal, as well as the networks of patronage around the party. But by every empirical measure, ranging from election results to the pitiful turnout at the demonstrations they tried to arrange, this was not matched by significant popular support.

A legitimation crisis

An influential part of Ramaphosa’s faction of the ANC has accumulated its wealth via incorporation into white capital. The wealth of Zuma’s faction comes from looting public funds via the state. Neither faction has any kind of serious social program and millions of people make their lives in desperate and worsening circumstances, a situation that has been exacerbated by the serious mishandling of the COVID-19 pandemic, which continues to rage in South Africa.

Unemployment is at 42.3 percent, youth unemployment at 74.7 percent and hunger is endemic. Relentless corruption scandals, which have continued under Ramaphosa and included the rapid looting of funds allocated to manage the COVID-19 crisis, have created a serious legitimation crisis for the state.

This has been compounded by a steadily escalating drift towards ruling impoverished people with routine state violence, something that the middle class finally began to understand when the police murdered 11 people in the early days of the first lockdown last year, and, in what seemed like an act of pure sadism, used a water cannon on people queuing for state grants.

The weakening of the state’s legitimacy continued as Zuma and some of his key allies faced the slow closing of a legal net cast in relation to corruption. They responded with bellicose rhetoric, a militarized posture, street violence against migrants and xenophobic attacks on migrant truck drivers that included the regular burning of trucks. This was all carried out with impunity.

The already fragile legitimacy of the state was also damaged when the modest state grant of just under US$25 a month made available to the most impoverished people during the COVID-19 crisis was terminated at the end of April. This was part of a wider program of ruthless austerity targeting housing, education, health and more.

Matters came to a head when Zuma refused to testify to a judicial commission of inquiry into the capture of significant parts of the state by organized corruption. On June 29 he was sentenced to 15 months imprisonment for contempt. In the lead up to July 8, when he was scheduled to start his sentence, Zuma supporters, never many in number, and some adopting a military posture, gathered outside his dictator style rural mansion in the rural town of Nkandla.

The Nkandla Forest has a storied history in the mythology of Zulu nationalism, in part because of its use as a base during the 1906 Impi Yamakhanda (the War of the Heads) anti-colonial insurgency. Zuma and his supporters exploited this history to present the courts as a proxy for a racial and ethnic attack on a man at the heart of his people and its history of anti-colonial resistance. What is conveniently ignored in this narrative is that Zuma’s ancestors were rewarded the land in Nkandla by the British for their collaboration in defeating the Zulu forces in 1879.

Shortly before midnight on July 8, as millions watched the drama on television, Zuma finally backed down and left his home to hand himself over to the prison authorities. Liberal opinion exploded into transports of delight and rhapsodized about the salvific authority of the constitutional order. But two days later, armed masked men attacked and burnt trucks on the road from Durban to Johannesburg. Local party branches organized a few mostly desultory burning road blockades, usually a tactic in the political repertoire of the urban poor.

A moment of rupture

In the atmosphere generated by impunity for unlawful actions and an open intra-elite conflict, the initiative was swiftly seized from below. Early in the evening of July 11, food riots of massive proportions began to sweep through Durban as the president was addressing the nation on the COVID-19 crisis. By the following day the riots had gathered the scale and velocity of Mao’s prairie fire. At the start, grassroots activists reported that shops stocking food were specifically targeted, and food appropriated in a carnival atmosphere. There had been episodic xenophobic riots targeting African and Asian migrants since 2008 but now activists reported that, for instance, a Nigerian owned cellphone shop was left alone as the adjacent supermarket was stormed with the participation of migrants.

In South Africa, the food system is captured by capital to an extent not seen anywhere else across the Global South. For millions of people the income that they do receive, whether from the state, precarious work or the informal economy, is immediately handed over to the supermarkets. Every food riot has an implicit political logic, and in this instance the targeting of supermarkets carried an aspect of that logic.

On July 13, Abahlali baseMjondolo, which has 53 branches in good standing in Durban, conferred to draft a statement. With COVID-19 restrictions still in force the process was undertaken by sharing Whatsapp messages and voice notes. Without exception, the participants in the process reported that in their part of the city the riots were aimed at appropriating food and were clearly autonomous from the pro-Zuma forces. This was almost entirely missed by initial media reports that relentlessly misrepresented the riots as “Zuma protests” and the rioters as “Zuma protestors” while hallucinating malevolent “instigators.”

As the week wore on, the riots turned into a general frenzy of appropriation on a spectacular scale, now including the participation of a good number of well-off people. The atmosphere was often marked by a spirit of nihilism. When it became clear that a massive, organized attack on essential infrastructure was also being carried out, fear became pervasive. This fear was compounded, and anger escalated by rising tensions between African and Indian people, marked at points by the emergence of explicit racism and cunningly stoked via social media.

After the riots began to burn themselves out on July 15, encouraging local initiatives, usually centered around mutual aid and attempts to build social solidarity, began to emerge. With the state still absent, and many people without food, Islamic charities won wide appreciation for moving quickly to bring in and distribute food.

At the national level, public opinion, which had often been marked by a growing skepticism of all politicians, began to acquire an intense hostility to the now clearly insurrectionist kleptocrats and their ethnic opportunism. It has not been unusual for this to be accompanied by an understanding of the riots that reduces them to mass criminality and feverish desires to impose law and order on what is relentlessly termed “anarchy.”

It is not yet clear how and by whom the attack on the infrastructure of life in common was organized, and with what ultimate goal. Some assume it was just an attempt to raise the costs for prosecuting politician and others for corruption and taking measures to reduce looting from public funds. Others discern wider political goals, ranging from a bid to smash Ramaphosa’s control of the ANC to a coup.

But while tremendous material damage has been done, and at a huge and often agonizing social cost, the overwhelming hostility within society to the attempt at insurrection by the kleptocrats has significantly strengthened Ramaphosa’s hand. It is not yet clear if he will feel strong enough within the ANC to take decisive action against the Zuma-aligned faction of the party, which sustains a presence in his cabinet and other sites of power.

However, it is clear that South Africa is now a different country, that the wheel of history has turned. There can be no more business as usual. Ramaphosa must now act with uncharacteristic speed and authority if he is to sustain any credibility and avoid being overtaken by a suddenly and dramatically new conjuncture.

Ramaphosa has three broad choices in terms of his response to the massive social rupture. He can act with the right arm of the state, turn to law-and-order rhetoric and escalate the containment of the majority with state violence. Much of the middle class and the elite public sphere will support this course of action. He can also use the left arm of the state to restore the COVID-19 grant and take other measures to ameliorate the social crisis. And, of course, he can also do both.

An absent left

The events of last week illuminate the fundamental weakness of the left, which was simply not present in the tumult. It has been evident for years that the intersection between a political and economic crisis would result in a massive social rupture of some sort. It has now happened. But when the moment came, the left were largely spectators, bewildered observers.

An increasingly powerful force through the 1970s and the 1980s as trade union and community organization gained real strength, the left made an error of major historical weight when it accepted the authority of the ANC after its unbanning in 1990 and largely demobilized itself. A second serious error was made when much of the left backed Zuma for the presidency in 2009.

Today, the left is much weaker than it was when these two major failures of political judgment were made. The NGO left, which has some voice in the elite public sphere and often dominates the South African presence in international networks, is always irrelevant on the terrain of the popular. Some of the trade unions remain compromised by an alliance with the ANC. But both these unions and the independent formations are fighting constant and exhausting rear-guard battles in the face of rapidly worsening austerity and deindustrialization.

Durban is the only city in the country with significant grassroots organization. But despite its considerable strength in the city, Abahlali baseMjondolo was not strong enough to be a material force as the week of fire engulfed the city. It has, however, been able to win considerable access to the general public in this moment, offering a degree of moral authority on the national stage and playing an important role in the emerging attempts to build solidarity in Durban.

Over more than 15 years, Abahlali baseMjondolo, which has survived severe and often murderous repression, has built a democratic movement with over 100,000 members in good standing, the majority in Durban. It is an impressive achievement, but not one that is capable of making a decisive intervention into the course of history on its own. But if similarly dogged and effective organizing had been undertaken in cities and towns across the country, and allied to the progressive currents in the union movement as well as democratically inclined university-trained intellectuals and professionals, the rupture may have taken a different form.

Unfortunately, in this moment the initiative is not with the people, or any organized popular force. It sits with Ramaphosa. If he entrenches the rule of the oppressed by state violence he will do so with considerable middle-class and elite backing. If he makes social concessions they are likely to be limited in scope and technocratic in form. He will certainly not, as he did as a young man, seek to affirm and build popular democratic power.

Richard Pithouse

Richard Pithouse is an Associate Professor at the Wits Institute for Social & Economic Research at the University of the Witwatersrand, the coordinator of the Johannesburg office of the Tricontinental Institute for Social Research, the editor of New Frame and a participant in both the Inkani Books editorial collective and The Commune, a radical bookshop in Johannesburg.


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