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Beyond the caricature, Zuma is busy with a perilous political project, writes PARI’s Ivor Chipkin.

— Featured in Sunday Times

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Commentators and opposition groups underestimate President Jacob Zuma, not simply because he is more brazen, wily and brutal than they expect, but because he is not a caricature.

Too often, they see Zuma and his allies as a criminal network that has captured the state – zombies driven by their libidos and insatiable appetites. This view obscures the political project at work.

A critique of South Africa’s transition to democracy has developed over several years, focused on the continuities between the apartheid and the post-apartheid economies: glaring inequality that still largely coincides with the
country’s traditional racial profile. This critique repudiates the constitutional settlement as an obstacle to “radical economic transformation”.

In contrast, for those progressive forces that negotiated the democratic breakthrough and for the many people that moved into government after 1994, the constitution was deemed a framework through which transformation
could be achieved.

This difference in relating to the transition and the institutions it produced identifies two ways of doing politics.

The first operates within the confines of the constitution and is invested in institution-building. That is, social and political transformation is deemed contingent on giving flesh to the socio-economic rights in the constitution, by
building state administrations that are able to achieve progressive policy outcomes.

There has been much activism from social movements to force municipalities, and national and provincial departments, to implement their own policies and/or comply with constitutional mandates, using constitutional provisions to win cases on behalf of poor communities.

The second view, which came to prominence at the ANC’s 2007 conference in Polokwane, has recently found a language of its own.

Claiming to speak for “ordinary people” – those who are not well-educated, who do not speak English well, who live in shacks, small towns or rural areas, and who are excluded by the economy and the formal institutions of the state – it constitutes a politics profoundly mistrustful of the formal “rules of the game”, whether the rules of the constitution or of government.

The formal rules are rigged, it proclaims, in favour of whites and urban elites and against ordinary people. Radical economic transformation thus requires changing and frequently breaking the rules – even those of the constitution.

The argument is compelling at first glance, especially because unemployment and poverty are overwhelmingly black experiences. Yet the politics of radical economic transformation, despite the slogan, is not focused on the economy. It is focused on the state.

Over the past 20 years, the value of goods and services that the government purchases, largely from the private sector, has reached between R400-billion and R500-billion per year. This figure is testament to the near complete outsourcing of the government’s core functions. Ironically, as the government does less there is more and more of it – more personnel, ministries, departments, agencies and entities.

Essentially, the government has become a massive, tender-generating machine. This did not happen by accident or by malevolent design. We must understand the politics of Zuma and his allies in this context. He seeks economic transformation by using the government’s procurement spending to favour black and African businesses.

This is precisely what Finance Minister Malusi Gigaba said when he took office. The fight against “white monopoly capitalism” is a struggle to displace established businesses, many under largely white management, from this space.

On its own terms, this variety of African nationalism is motivated by the most noble of motives, not criminality – to the point of justifying the breaking of the law and other Faustian pacts. Zuma’s power lies in the force of these ideas, especially within the ANC.

What does this mean for democratic and constitutional politics in South Africa?
For one, it is not enough to simply shout “corruption” – a whimper in the face of a scream. Zuma’s politics is dangerous because it is unworkable.

Consider this: The politicisation of procurement in the name of radical economic transformation frequently brings it into conflict with service-delivery mandates. This is why in recent years there have been purges of professional public servants and the repurposing of administrations away from their constitutional and legislative mandates. It has opened departments up to large-scale competition and rivalry, not so much about policy, but about who
gets what tenders. New work by the Public Affairs Research Institute is showing how, in Limpopo and the Eastern Cape, municipalities have been torn apart in this dogfight.

In other words, this model of change comes at the expense of the state itself. It weakens and often breaks administrations, which are then unable to deliver services. This is especially devastating for working families and for the poor, who are more dependent on government services than the middle classes and the rich.

Failures in health and education, for example, reproduce historical, racialised patterns of inequality. It distracts attention from the economy itself and the structural reforms that are required to make it more competitive and labour-absorptive.  It is a threat to democracy in South Africa.

How do we get through the current crisis? What is needed is a counter politics rooted in the constitution and in popular participation to make democracy not an elite conceit but an instrument of egalitarianism and development. What is needed, in short, is a social democratic party in South Africa.