29 November 2023

By Imraan Buccus

After the winter riots a number of commentators observed that ‘South Africa has a KwaZulu-Natal problem’. They didn’t just mean that this province was the epicentre of the bread riots, looting, sabotage and vigilante violence in July. They also meant that it was from this province that the kleptocrats seized hold of the ANC with Jacob Zuma as their leader. There was also an intimation that the ethnic politics of Inkatha has captured the ANC in KZN.

For all these reasons, including the scale of the membership claimed for the ANC in KZN what happens here is profoundly important for the country as a whole. As we approach the local government elections it is clear that the ANC is in serious trouble.

In 2011 61% of people said that they trusted the ANC. A recent survey has shown that only 27% of people say that they trust the ANC, with 38% saying that they trust Ramaphosa. We have known for a long time that Ramaphosa is more popular than the ANC, but the new figures show rapidly collapsing support for the ANC.

With trust in the police only at 26% it is clear that the state itself, and not just the ruling party, is confronting a legitimation crisis. And with trust in opposition parties at 24% it is clear that most people do not see any of the currently existing political parties as a viable alternative to the ANC. Alarmingly more than two thirds of the people polled said that they would be willing to abandon elections for an unelected leader who “could impose law and order, and deliver houses and jobs”.

This means that, at the national level, a clear majority of people feel that democracy has failed them and that they would give it up for an authoritarian who could get things done. It is not uncommon to hear elites speaking in this way, and referring to the ruthless dictators Paul Kagame of Rwanda as a model. We will know soon enough if this openness to authoritarian politics benefits Herman Mashaba or the Economic Freedom Fighters at the national level.

But what happens in KZN will shape national politics in important ways and it is not clear what will happen in this province at election time. We do know two things for sure. One is that the ANC in the province is deeply and bitterly split between the Zuma and Ramaphosa factions. The other is that the vast majority of the huge numbers of people that participated in the winter riots are not, as the media often assumes, Zuma supporters. Support for Zuma is overwhelmingly located in the ANC, and not society in general and the riots were largely an expression of a deep social crisis rather than support for Zuma.

How all this will translate into voting patterns is not clear. Some assume that the trend of former ANC voters staying at home will continue, which will be a huge boon to the opposition parties. Others assume that with the ANC ripped into faction the party will struggle to build the unity required to get their remaining voters out. Nobody seems to think that the ANC in KZN is going to have a good election.

For others, though, the real issue is what happens after the election. If the ANC takes a hit at the polls, and more leading figures in the kleptocratic faction are brought to justice that faction will have nothing to lose by moving even further away from democratic modes of politics. There is deep fear that the authoritarian politics that developed within the Zuma faction will escape the narrow politics of the Zuma project and spin out into a form of politics that could present itself as able to provide security and meet people’s basic needs outside of the now battered democratic consensus.

A project like this could potentially make South Africa’s KZN problem even more acute.

Dr Buccus is Al Qalam editor .

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