8 December 2023

By Imraan Buccus

Ramaphosa tried to assert his authority in KZN recently. It was clear that there are still enormous challenges to be confronted despite the mantra of unity.

While he may have done a good job in KZN, there were moments when Ramaphosa looked decidedly weak on Jacob Zuma’s turf in KwaZulu-Natal. His constant attempts to placate Zuma, and his supporters in the ruling party, make it seem that he lacks the power to lead from the front and effect a genuine clean up.

If Ramaphosa spoke and acted decisively against the looters he would win millions of decent people to his side. But, for some reason, he is unwilling or unable to take the high road. If the explanation does not lie in a weak character (and I don’t think it does) it seems logical that Ramaphosa’s political paralysis is a result of the balance of forces within the ANC.

It is clear that the faction of the ANC that supports the plunder of the state to enrich a new elite has not accepted defeat. It is pursuing a multi-pronged strategy to undermine Ramaphosa with, no doubt, the eventual aim of recapturing the state.

The polling indicates that after the widespread disgust for the ruling party during the Zuma years; Ramaphosa is a more popular figure than Zuma was in the last years of his disastrous rule. If Ramaphosa does well in the polls the faction of the ANC that openly celebrate corruption will be severely weakened. Many have argued that this is our best hope for a stable future.

It would, indeed, be catastrophic if Ramaphosa fared badly in the election with the result that the ANC had to turn to the EFF to govern. The EFF is now an openly pro-corruption, and authoritarian force, and an alliance with them would pull the ANC so deep into the political sewers that the party would never be able to ‘self-correct’.

In a time in global history in which centrist leaders are losing power to right wing populists, at a terrifying rate we should not assume that Ramaphosa is not vulnerable.

In countries like America and Brazil figures like Trump and Bolsonaro who started out as a joke and then suddenly become a serious threat. In both cases the rise of such disastrous leaders was enabled by a toxic symbiosis between fake news on social media and a mainstream media eschewing basic journalistic standards in its hunt for clicks.

In South Africa the media is no different. As numerous commentators have observed the EFF has won a massive share of media coverage with a tiny percentage of the vote. This has fundamentally distorted our public sphere creating the mistaken impression that demagoguery and gross chauvinism are massively popular. This in term normalises toxic politics with the result that it can, in the end, become genuinely popular.

The situation is set to worsen with the rise of a clutch of little parties, all lead by charlatans of the highest order, that are aligned to the pro-corruption politics around Zuma. None of these parties have any prospect of significant success at the polls. But they all have a real capacity to make a huge contribution to the ongoing degeneration of our public sphere.

Uncritical reporting on the utterances of people like Hlaudi Motsoeneng, Jimmy Manyi, Andile Mngxitama and others, all discredited supporters of Zuma, may win the media short term gain in terms of clicks. After all controversy does attract attention.

The strategy of creating multiple parties is diabolically brilliant. If all these charlatans were in one party it would get one bite at the media space cherry. With multiple parties they get multiple bites at the cherry and crowd out the decent voices.

But if these forces ever aligned with the pro-Zuma faction inside the ANC, and the EFF, it would mean the end of our economy, the end of any hope of a developmental state and, of course, the end of media freedom too. There is a real possibility that the media, in its hunt for easy clicks, may turn out to be in the process of digging its own grave.

Zuma, and his acolytes like Motsoeneng, Manyi, Mngxitama, and others, claim that the plunder of the state by a politically connected elite is a radical politics in the interests of the people as a whole. That, of course, is balderdash of the highest order. Every million looted from the state to make a few families rich is a million robbed from ordinary people, including the black working class and the poor. Zuma and his acolytes are, without a doubt, the enemy of the black majority.

The DA has reached its electoral limit. It gathered up most of the minority votes but has failed, spectacular, to became a party of the majority. The EFF is now clearly a project that may have issues with Zuma as a personality but is Zumaist in orientation. And while the majority of South Africans clearly welcome Ramaphosa’s commitment to clean up the mess made by Zuma; Ramaphosa offers nothing other than a promise of clean government.

In a society in which millions remain unemployed and poor Ramaphosa’s lack of a progressive vision cannot win him sustained support. The SACP offers no alternative. It is now just a minor faction in the pro-Ramaphosa faction in the ANC.

What we urgently require is a genuinely progressive alternative so that politics is not just a contestation between centrists and corrupt charlatans claiming to speak for the poor.

NUMSA’s decision to step into the void in our politics and launch its Workers’ Party is a bold step. With hundreds of thousands of members the union has a very strong foundation from which to launch a party. The question, of course, is whether or not the union can translate its dues paying mass membership into political support in the few months remaining before the election. Time is short and electioneering requires a very different set of skills to running a union.

If the new Workers Party can make a good first showing in the polls it will no longer be possible for the charlatans in the EFF, and the various pro-Zuma groups formerly operating outside of the ANC to present themselves as the only opposition to Ramaphosa’s centrism. This will go a long distance towards restoring some kind of rationality to our public sphere.

The best possible result in the election would be that Ramaphosa improves on Zuma’s last showing, and the new Workers Party eats into the support of the EFF. This would enable Ramaphosa to move ahead with his clean-up in a much more decisive way, and for us to start thinking about viable alternatives to neo-liberal centrism.

Imraan Buccus is editor of Al Qalam, research fellow in the School of Social Sciences at UKZN 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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