Jacob Zuma’s ascent to the presidency in May last year was an ugly business, a really ugly business. And Zuma was hardly a candidate with the gravitas to rise above the mess. He was the former head of iMbokodo, a social conservative in whose name sexism and ethnic chauvinism were openly mobilised, the former Deputy President who had never stood up to Thabo Mbeki on any question of principle and a man who had surrendered his personal political autonomy to some of the shadiest elements in a predatory and corrupt crony capitalist elite.
Some people fled the ANC in horror. Others rushed into the party from the IFP. But with COSATU, the SACP and various spin-doctors presenting Zuma as a genial man of the people, expectations were raised in some quarters. We were even told, in all seriousness, and by all kinds of people who really should have known a lot better, that Zuma was a man of the left.
But popular confidence in Zuma had clearly been overstated and within months popular protest rose to new levels intensity. Instead of a jump to the left we got the co-option of the SACP via the distribution of cabinet posts to its leading intellectuals, paralysis in the Presidency, a rapid worsening of the already dodgy links between the party and business and the emergence of an increasingly belligerent debate between the authoritarian crony capitalists of the ANC Youth League and the social democrats in COSATU.
The SACP has at times been something of a brake on some of the excesses of the ANC. But that doesn’t change the fact that any assumption that an increase in the influence of a party with the Stalinist history of the SACP would actually be in the interests of the working class and the poor is, to deploy an undeservedly polite phrase, as dubious as all hell. Given the deeply authoritarian currents that continue to run through the SACP Zuma’s easy co-option of the party and the consequent shift in the centre of gravity of the alliance left to COSATU may well be a good thing.
COSATU has not taken a position against the repression of popular organisations outside of the alliance but it remains, clearly, the most democratic part of the tripartite alliance. And while it does not represent the poor and is much more comfortable in aligning itself to NGO based civil society rather than popular poor people’s organisations it is willing to vigorously confront the increasingly strident attempts in the ANC to cloak authoritarian crony capitalism in the language of nationalism.
If the elevation of Jacob Zuma to the Presidency gave the ANC its fillip for 2009 this year was all about the World Cup. But as we move, some of us limping under the weight of intolerable burdens and some of us skipping on multi-million rand pay cheques, through to the conclusion of Jacob Zuma’s first full year in office the millennial expectations that were raised around 2010 have shrivelled and rotten away. We still have Zuma ineptly trying to referee a bout with COSATU in the left corner, the ANC Youth League in the right and the SACP intellectuals writing increasingly torturous letters to their members from the VIP box while barricades continue to go up in the streets outside.
But while the ANC could exploit the spectacles of the national elections in 2009 and the World Cup this year to rally the nation with empty but well spun visions of new hope the political agenda for next year will be largely set by the local government elections. Most South Africans retain considerable investment in national politics and there is plenty of enthusiasm for Presidential elections. But since at least 2004 there has been an extraordinary degree of hostility towards local government in general and towards ward councillors in particular. Amongst the many reasons for this are that local government is often blamed for the failures and limits of service delivery and that local government is where relations of patronage are most visibly and a times brutally exercised through local party structures.
Given the degree of popular hostility towards ward councillors it’s no surprise that the ANC is keen to reform the electoral system in a way that would allow local elections to be smuggled in under the radar by aligning them with national elections. But next year the ANC will have to deal with local government elections as an event in their own right. They are sure to be fractious within and outside of the party. In the 2006 local government elections there was severe repression, including bans on protest, police violence and mysterious assassinations against independent groups that had the temerity to challenge the ANC by boycotting the election or running their own candidate. The hammer fell hardest in Durban from where Zuma has drawn most of the people that now lead his increasingly securitised state.
As the ANC confronts Zuma’s third year in office with local government elections to contend with, and without any major distraction from its failures ready at hand, the risk of increased repression is high. Of course we need to be clear that it’s not just the ANC with its ludicrous but nevertheless dangerous paranoia about imagined sinister forces animating popular protest that is in the business of dividing the people, and especially the poor, into good and bad factions with a view to justifying the exclusion, vilification and repression of the latter. There are plenty of civil society organisations that are equally invested in the business of separating the deserving poor from the undeserving poor. In some cases this is a consequence of their strategic alliances with the party or the state. In other cases this is part of a global project of disciplining the poor that is a central function of mainstream civil society around the world. In still other cases this is just a question of their own authoritarianism and assumption of a right to lead.
We usually celebrate the New Year in the hope that it will be better than the last. That hope is unlikely to be realised for the ANC in 2011. For a ruling party that has already shown a capacity to treat popular dissent as somehow illegitimate and undeserving of the shelter that must be afforded to democratic dissidence in any real democracy the dangers are obvious.
If COSATU and the civil society are serious about democratising this society rather than just negotiating concessions from an increasingly authoritarian and predatory elite from within the political structures approved and ultimately controlled by that elite they should, in 2011, take a clear and real position in support of the right of all people to, if they so wish, organise and protest outside of the ANC.
Pithouse teaches politics at Rhodes University. This article is published courtesy of the South African Civil Society Information Service (www.sacsis.org.za)