17 August 2022

By Imraan Buccus

The criminalisation of politics in SA is nowhere more glaring than in KwaZulu-Natal.

Having been born in Durban and raised for a period on the South Coast of KZN, Durban was always “the city”; my city. I love the city and all its people, all its sights and sounds and smells.

As a keen cyclist and runner, I spend a lot of time at its beachfront, a glorious space and, as many have noted, the most democratic public space in the country. A few years ago I wrote a piece about this space, and its beauty and intimation of a more open and democratic future.

This year I thought I might return to that piece. But in 2022 there is such a sense of menace in Durban that it seems impossible to write about the parts of this city that are still beautiful and hopeful.

The plain fact is that politics in this city has been captured, to a significant extent, by political gangsterism. There are still people, including in the ruling party, fighting the good fight, but they are on the losing end. The formal incorporation of the Delangokubona SA Business Forum, widely described as a mafia organisation, into the city’s tendering system is just one indication that gangsterism is now institutionalised.

The city is still reeling from the riots in July which, although they started as a classic bread riot, were soon penetrated by organised crime directly linked to parts of the ANC. Nobody here feels safe and nobody trusts the government or the state.

The future of Durban seems to be like those parts of central America and India — including the state of Uttar Pradesh from where the Gupta brothers descended on our shores like a plague of locusts — where politics is more or less fully criminalised.

In SA the criminalisation of politics is most advanced in KZN, but it is a national phenomenon and one that is not limited to the ANC. The criminalisation of politics is also strongly supported by tiny organisations with the sole function of making propaganda. While they enjoy no membership of any meaningful size and no popular support, they regularly win prime media space — organisations like Carl Niehaus’s “veterans” association and Andile Mngxitama’s Black First Land First, which was happy to have its statements scripted by Bell Pottinger.

I have repeatedly made the point, as have other intellectuals, that while what we used to call the “Zuma faction” of the ANC has support in the ANC, and in parts of the state such as the security cluster, it does not have support in society. This remains true. But a disturbing development is the growing idealisation of people who have made their money through outright gangsterism or the looting of the state.

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Recently a video showing a notorious politically connected mafia family arriving at a party went viral, to much admiration. In a similar fashion, people like Kenny Kunene and Shauwn Mkhize are treated as celebrities, as are the compromised people in the EFF leadership. The media has a lot to account for in this regard, but in a sea of unemployment, there seems to be a popular attraction to people who seem to have magically acquired huge wealth.

The contrast between this culture and the plain coffin in which Desmond Tutu was carried to rest could not be more pronounced.

These are dark days, but there is still hope. We must remember that the Guptas were brought down by superb media work — led by Daily Maverick — and a strong civil society campaign. Consistently good journalism, together with a well-coordinated political campaign that aligned the decent people in the ANC, its remaining progressive forces, the trade unions and grassroots activists could turn the tide.

But for this to happen we must be clear about the existential threat that we confront. It is no longer adequate to term it “the Zuma faction”. It is a much wider phenomenon. I have been calling it the “kleptocratic faction” for some years now, but that term is also no longer adequate. The enemy that we must defeat is the brazen criminalisation of politics. DM168

Dr Imraan Buccus is senior research associate at the Auwal Socio-Economic Research Institute and a postdoctoral scholar in gender justice, health and human development at Durban University of Technology.

This article was first published in The Daily Maverick.

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