When arguing the Nkandla case, President Jacob Zuma’s senior advocate, Jeremy Gauntlett, said that this was “a delicate time in a dangerous year, societally” and that the Nkandla saga has “traumatised the nation in many ways”- a profound statement which sums up the current state of mind of the ruling class.
Gauntlett asked the eleven judges of the Constitutional Court not to make a “wide condemnatory order” saying that Zuma has violated the constitution by not complying with the Public Protector’s report on the Nkandla matter. The above reasons which Gauntlett gave to the court are essentially political.
One of the reasons Gauntlett had to resort to political posturing was that Zuma’s legal defence was so obviously weak. Zuma roped in Gauntlett only weeks before the case was scheduled to be heard. By that time it was already too late and the damage too great even for this legal wizard to solve.
“He told Zuma that he [Zuma] could fight the Constitutional Court case, and crash and burn—or he could be bold, accept that there had indeed been a mess-up regarding Nkandla and make an offer beforehand to calm the storm,” says theSunday Times (7/2/2016) of the advice Gauntlett gave Zuma beforehand.
Subsequently, Zuma not only lost the case and thereby “crashed and burned” spectacularly, he also lost all his credibility and authority, and with this he has plunged the African National Congress into its deepest crisis ever.
Jeremy Gauntlett is not just any senior counsel. He is the country’s highest paid advocate. He belongs to those layers of the upper middle class whom the big bourgeois calls upon for advice and with whom they work, hand-in-hand, on a daily basis. In his work as “special legal counsel,” he operates in close proximity to the leading lights of the ruling class and share their habits, thoughts, and general mentality. Therefore, this little sentence of “dangerous times” gives us a clear insight into the current mentality of upper echelons of the ruling class.
This general fear on the part of the big capitalists is clear to see, in the manner they are dealing with the junior capitalists. The decision by all the major banks of the country to summarily shut down the accounts of Oakbay, the company which runs the Gupta family’s empire, is a desperate attempt to rein in the more openly corrupt upstart capitalists who, through their recklessness, have put the real inner workings of the system under the microscope. It is an attempt by big capital to lessen the influence that the Guptas have on Zuma and other leaders in the ANC before it all explodes violently.
This little episode is an indication that the ruling class is losing control of the situation. For the last two decades the bourgeoisie has ruled society indirectly through the leadership of the ANC. Now the ANC is deep crisis. At the same time, their own forces, like the Democratic Alliance, are too weak and have no real base among the masses. No matter how hard they try, they continue to be seen as a remnant of the apartheid regime. No matter how disillusioned the masses are with the ANC, they quite rightly see the DA as an even worse alternative. This leaves the bourgeoisie weak politically. This is also one of the main reasons why big capitalists are (for the first time in two decades) intervening directly in an attempt to stabilise the situation.
These developments play themselves out ahead of the local government elections, which will be held on 3 August this year. The ANC itself kicked off the elections season with the launch of its elections manifesto on 16 April in Nelson Mandela Bay metro, which includes Port Elizabeth. These mass events are usually not a challenge for the ANC. They usually tend to generate mass support and high enthusiasm. But that was not the case this time. Despite the ANC bringing its entire national leadership to the launch, the response was at best lacklustre, and at worst extremely embarrassing.
Three days before the manifesto launch, the party’s Deputy Secretary General, Jessie Duarte, had to face the wrath of branch leaders of the Nelson Mandela Bay metro at a meeting in KwaZakhele township. The branches of this traditional ANC bastion fiercely protested the national leadership’s stance to keep Zuma in office after the Nkandla debacle, and accused the national leadership of “making a mockery of the ANC constitution”. Earlier the provincial leadership of the Eastern Cape declared that the province was “fully behind” Zuma. But the rebellion of the branches now indicates that the province is deeply divided and that the leadership is desperately trying to keep a tight lid on the situation.
Elsewhere, Social Development Minister Bathabile Dlamini was reduced to tears when confronted by angry residents of New Brighton in Port Elizabeth. She was there to open a drug treatment centre, but residents turned on her and complained about a lack of jobs for locals. The angry residents completely encircled the hapless minister, hurling insults at her and accused her of smelling of expensive whiskey—a clear class reference. But this incident is also an indication of something more than the local issues. Dlamini, as the President of the ANC Women’s League, has been Zuma’s biggest supporter in the party and has gone to extreme lengths in his defence. The video of this incident has gone viral almost instantly and has been met with hardly any sympathy for the minister.
In another incident, only a handful of people turned up to listen to ANC Youth League President Collin Maine at the Nelson Mandela Metropolitan University. After waiting for more than an hour, Maine decided to address those who had gathered from the big elections truck. But even those who had bothered to show up did not appear to be much impressed with what he was saying. Instead, they were more interested in tapping their mobile phones and having conversations among themselves. All of this is extremely embarrassing for the Youth League, considering that the university protests are currently the most visible scenes of the class struggle. In the past, apart from unions, the League was the ANC’s biggest mobilisation force. In all the previous elections it was at the forefront of leading the campaigns and turning the masses out to vote.
But this was not a “glitch” or an isolated incident for Maine. Maine is widely seen inside the ANC as a stooge of Zuma, and has openly come to the defence of the Guptas. In the latest incident, he arrived at the offices of ANN7, the Gupta-owned television channel (which now faces a shutdown after the banks closed its accounts), to speak to the staff. But the workers turned on him, hurling insults and profanities at him and chasing him away. To make matters worse for Maine, all of this was captured live on primetime television.
This shows how steeply the once powerful Youth League has fallen. This is the arm of the ANC which, under the leadership of Nelson Mandela, Oliver Tambo, Walter Sisulu, and Anton Lembede, turned the ANC towards the masses in the 1950s and made it a mass liberation movement. But today’s Youth League leaders like Maine are a far cry from the leaders of the past.
Much has been said about the weaknesses of the Youth League of today—its inability to organise the masses, the clownish behaviour of its leaders like Maine, the incompetence, etc. But these have their roots in the objective situation: the Youth League of the past had always attracted the best elements of the South African youth. But after the 2012 Mangaung conference, the entire organisation was disbanded by the ANC leaders because their campaign to nationalise the country’s mines was becoming too dangerous for the bourgeoisie. The top leadership of the league was expelled, and the organisation was purged of some of its best leaders. When it was relaunched subsequently, it was stripped of its militancy and shaped into a compliant lapdog of Zuma and co. Meanwhile, those leaders who were kicked out of the ANCYL, Julius Malema and Floyd Shivambu being the most prominent ones, have formed the Economic Freedom Fighters and are now attracting some the best layers of the youth to their side, while the ANC itself has been beset by one crisis after the other, and expressed in the promotion of mediocre leaders like Collin Maine.
The ANC manifesto launch itself, which was broadcast on television, turned out to be a big flop. The ANC promised an extraordinary event. It organised thousands of buses and taxis to bring the crowds to the Nelson Mandela Bay Stadium, and anticipated that around 110,000 people would pitch up the event. In the end, it was announced that only around 42,000 people turned out at the stadium. The party’s chairperson, Baleka Mbete, comically tried to raise the figure to 46,000, as if that would make any difference.
But scores of supporters refused to enter the stadium, for various reasons. Some were unhappy with the ANC’s decision not to take action against Zuma, while others felt tired of “empty promises” and corruption in the party. Zuma presented the manifesto with lots of empty chairs around the stadium. Those empty chairs became even more visible as some supporters walked out of the stadium even as the Zuma was delivering his speech. Some of these supporters even went to the beach at the time when Zuma was speaking.
On the stage there was a somber mood, as leading party members sat ashen-faced. Zuma himself seemed oblivious to the spectacle surrounding him. The symbolic coincidence of empty chairs and empty promises seemed lost on him as he was enthusiastically singing and dancing on the stage and putting on a great show for his loyal supporters. This spectacle gave good expression to the Ancient Greek saying that “those whom the gods which to destroy, they first make mad.”
Later, Nomvula Mokonyane, who heads the election campaign, announced a probe into the fiasco and declared that “heads will roll” over the missing 70,000 people who did not pitch up at the stadium.
In this farcical-comical manner, the 2016 elections season was kicked off. But the bourgeoisie, especially the traditional section of this class, are unlikely to see the lighter side of all of this. They will understand what all of this means. These are dangerous times for the ruling class indeed.
All the contradictions of South African society come to the front in a violent and sudden manner, giving way to a highly charged political atmosphere. All these incidents are indications of a deep malaise in society, and a seething undercurrent of discontent which is pervasive across South African society. They are what Marxists call the “molecular processes of revolution”. These are the thousands of incidents which happen every day in society. The majority of people, caught up in the daily struggles, see these only in an individualistic way—as personal suffering. Others who come in contact with the broader community begin to generalise and see it as part of the struggle of the whole community. But even here, the problem is often seen as a local problem of the community. This is the basis for the explosion of community protests over the last few years around local issues.
Communities often see the problem as the fault of this or that local leader—a councillor, a major or corrupt municipal official. What the ruling class fear most is that these community protests become a generalised national mass movement. This is essentially why the ruling class is so worried about the crisis in the ANC. They fear that as the legitimacy of the ANC leaders declines, there is no one to hold back the masses. If the present situation leads to a national mass movement against all the corruption and incompetence of ANC leaders, it could rapidly move towards the masses realising that the root cause of their suffering is the whole system, and not just the fault of individuals.
This year’s local government elections will be unlike anything we have seen since the ANC became the governing party in 1994. In the past, elections were always very predictable. On the back of support from the masses—and a lack of a mass alternative on the left—the ANC would always come out victorious. But now the dynamics have changed, and the former liberation movement goes into the elections with the ground shaking under its feet.
The runup to these elections comes on the back of vicious class struggle over the last period. Violent mass outbursts of anger express themselves daily. The ongoing student protests are the most recent expression of this. But unlike in the past, the ANC was not challenged in any way on the electoral plane. Now, with the Economic Freedom Fighters challenging them from the left, they face their toughest elections challenge in 22 years. Two years ago, the EFF entered the national elections as a 6-month-old organisation with hardly any branches or a party apparatus. But in the last two years, it has transformed South African politics through its left-wing militancy. In the process, it has become a mass party, which has provided an outlet for some of the enormous anger in society, especially among the youth.
Of course, the outcome of the elections is not set in stone. Marxists have no illusions in bourgeois elections and capitalist democracy. Lenin explained that capitalist democracy is “a democracy that is curtailed, wretched, false, a democracy only for the rich, for the minority.” Marx and Lenin have explained that at best, bourgeois elections are a useful gauge to measure the mood of the masses. In the present context, however, the upcoming local government elections could become a focal point in which the mass anger and frustrations of the workers, students, and the poor could spill over. This could be expressed in different ways, either in a mass increase in strikes, protests, and demonstrations, a mass stayaway, or a sudden swing towards the EFF. These are the dangerous scenarios the ruling class are so afraid of. It could change the entire situation in a sudden and radical way. In turn, this could embolden the masses even more and push the class struggle onto a much higher level. The ruling class have a right to be worried.