SA politics – Hard lessons to be learnt

By Imraan Buccus

As we all know South African politics is in a systematic ethical crisis. Naturally most of the focus is on the ANC as the ruling party. But the UDM has its own serious scandal with Mongameli Bobani, the DA has had to confront serious issues pertaining to Patricia de Lille’s integrity and, of course, the Economic Freedom Fighters have been linked to the VBS scandal.

The South African public has lurched from the brazen corruption of the Zuma years straight into the quite incredible VBS scandal. And while the axing of Tom Moyane does seem to suggest that, albeit at a snail’s pace, Cyril Ramaphosa is starting to act against the more extreme forms of corruption Malusi Gigaba remains in the Cabinet, and, incredibly, people like Brian Hlongwa and Qedani Mahlangu were elected onto the PEC of the Gauteng ANC.

The old chestnut that corruption is not a real concern for ‘the people’ has been decisively disproved. Electoral support for the ANC plummeted under Zuma, and every significant popular organisation outside of electoral politics takes corruption extremely seriously.

Interestingly both the DA and the EFF profited handsomely from growing disillusionment at the ANC during the dreadful Zuma years, but are now rapidly squandering that boon as they increasingly appear compromised too. In the case of the EFF it increasingly seems that while they were hostile to Zuma they are very friendly to the corrupt institutions and individuals that enabled the rot to spread so widely under Zuma.

They have supported VBS, and figures as dubious as Tom Moyane. Increasingly this is making the EFF appear to be more like a faction within the Zuma made of corrupt politics rather than a genuine alternative to it.

If our political class think that the patience of our people will be endless they are fundamentally mistaken. They should look to the global South for important lessons.

In India the Congress movement, the party most associated with India’s liberation from colonialism, lost its hold on power largely as a result of disgust at corruption. In Brazil the Workers’ Party, the PT, lost the recent election for two primary reasons. One is that escalating crime has made Brazilians feel unsafe. The second is that while the PT was not more corrupt than other parties in Brazil it was still corrupt.

In both India and Brazil corruption cost progressive party’s their credibility, and then their power, resulting in far right, even fascist, parties coming to power. We should not think that South Africa will inevitably be different.

Most South Africans are deeply concerned by very high rates of crime, and utterly disgusted by the systematic corruption of the political elites. When we add the vast levels of unemployment to the mix it is clear that there is a real danger that a strongman could rise up and find fertile ground for a promise to, to quote Donald Trump, ‘drain the swamp’.

If a promise to make people safe and end corruption was linked to the prosperity cults in the Pentecostal churches there would be a real possibility of a homegrown form of fascism or neofascism emerging.

At the moment the established parties are all suffering from a crisis of credibility and there is no outsider with the media support to, like Donald Trump or Jair Bolsonaro rush in from the political periphery to claim the throne. But we should recall that both Trump and Bolsonaro rapidly went from being a joke, to being a serious threat, and then winning power.

Part of what is changing in world politics is the incredible speed with which figures like Trump and Bolsonaro advance on the back of claims to ‘drain the swamp’. We should not make the mistake of thinking that our own Trump or Bolsonaro could not emerge, be given attention by a media desperately looking for ‘clicks’ and suddenly become a major disruptor in our politics.

Right now Herman Mashaba is probably the closest that we have to a homegrown Trump or Bolsonaro but Mashaba lacks the charisma, and media savy, to become a real threat to our democracy.

But popular disgust at corruption is so deep that it is not beyond the bounds of possibility that someone could emerge who could change our politics in a matter of months. We need to learn the hard lessons of India and Brazil and act decisively to stop the rot and to restore the integrity of the state.

Critical support must be given to every serious attempt to oppose corruption, and to take decisive action to stop it. Ramaphosa has often not seemed very decisive in this regard but when he does act we must support him.

Imraan Buccus is Al Qalam editor and academic director of a university study abroad program on political transformation. Buccus promotes #Reading Revolution via Books@Antique at Antique Café in Morningside

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