South Africa is in turmoil. President Jacob Zuma has effectively carried out an overnight soft coup. By purging the opposing big business faction from the cabinet and replacing it with stooges from his own faction he has brought the ANC infighting to a head. The consequences will be monumental, not just for the factions involved but for the class struggle in general.

The night of long knives

Just after midnight on Thursday, after days of high drama in which former Finance Minister, Pravin Gordhan and his deputy, Mcebisi Jonas were unexpectedly called back from an investor roadshow in London, Zuma announced sweeping changes to his cabinet which effectively purged it of any opposition. ANC Deputy President, Ramaphosa and Secretary-General, Mantashe has publicly denounced Zuma’s decision, sparking pandemonium in the ANC and turmoil in the country.

Zuma and Ghordan Government of South Africa

Zuma made twenty shifts and changes to the Executive. While the scale of the changes are significant and amount to a purge of those who were opposed to him, it is by and large a red herring. The real aim of Thursday night’s manoeuvres is to get rid of Gordhan and Jonas and gain full control of the National Treasury. This has been Zuma’s intention all along. In December 2015 he fired Nhlanhla Nene who was Finance Minister at the time and replaced him with little-known backbencher, Des van Rooyen. At that time there was a market meltdown and a freefall of the Rand as big business went on an all-out strike of capital. This forced Zuma to reverse his decision four days later by removing Van Rooyen and replacing him with Gordhan who was the preferred candidate of big business.

Ever since then there has been open war between the two wings of the capitalist class for control of the Treasury. On the one hand there is the mainly white big business wing of which Gordhan is a representative, and on the other there is the emerging black bourgeoisie around Zuma and the Guptas. In this war state institutions were used to harass and hound the other faction. Gordhan became the subject of an “investigation” by the Directorate for Priority Crime Investigation, the Hawks. He was charged by the National Prosecuting Authority with fraud last year only for the NPA to drop the charges two weeks later after the Hawks completely bungled the investigation, exposing the political motives and manoeuvres behind it.

Gordhan became an impediment to the aspirations of the upstart black bourgeoisie around the Gupta family. He fought Zuma on a nuclear power programme with Russia’s state nuclear company Rosatom, in which the Gupta family had a significant interest through their Shiva Uranium mine. He was also central in the fight between the Guptas and four major banks which closed the accounts of Oak Bay, the Gupta family’s holding company. The court case was being held this week, pouring more fuel onto the fire.

All of this does not mean that Gordhan was fighting Zuma and the Gupta wing on a principled basis. In fact there is an entire myth created by the mass media regarding the nature of this fight. This is not a “good versus evil” issue as the media portrays it but a matter of conflicting interests within the ruling class. Pravin Gordhan represents big business which, under the prevailing economic circumstances of a wide budget deficit, require a policy of austerity and cuts to living standards and therefore are against spending and a loose monetary policy. Zuma represents the aspirant parasitic upstart bourgeoisie with access to high political office, which is squeezed out of the main levers of the economy and thus needs access to National Treasury to continue their looting frenzy. This wing grew fat on looting state resources and needs access to the Treasury in the light of the declining economy. There is nothing progressive here. Both policies of both wings represent a frontal attack on the working class and the poor.

A leap into the dark

According to Cyril Ramaphosa, the Deputy President, and SACP Deputy General Secretary Solly Mapaila, Zuma approached them at an ANC and SACP bilateral meeting on Monday with a “shoddy” and “fake” intelligence report which alleged that Gordhan and Jonas were in London to plot the overthrow of the government. While rumours were swilling around, Mapaila became the first person to publicly confirm that Zuma proposed to replace Gordhan and Jonas based on the intelligence report: “The removal has nothing to do with Gordhan’s performance as minister. It has to do with some shoddy report that casts suspicions… This report is indeed part of the reason given why these comrades were brought back from the outside,” he said.

Mapaila said the SACP were clearly not impressed with the alleged intelligence report: “To believe the intelligence report and doubt Gordhan, a long-standing comrade and important Struggle activist, was pathetic.” [In passing the fact that the SACP regards Gordhan, a big business representative, as a “comrade” should be noted.]

The SACP said it “opposed” the move by Zuma and ANC officials. The “top six” were divided with Ramaphosa, Mantashe, the Secretary-General and Zweli Mkhize, the Treasurer-General all opposed to Zuma’s move.

Zuma was not prepared for the resistance he received but once he had made his move he could not draw back. He was under enormous pressure from his own faction and any attempt to change his mind would have been seen as weakness. So he leapt into the abyss. He has now thrown everything on the line.

The hypocrisy of the “Communist” Party

However, on Friday morning, when it transpired that Zuma had not extended the purge to the “Communists”, Mapaila softened his tone and suggested that the politburo would “discuss” the issue further. This clearly exposed the SACP’s hypocrisy. When there was a threat to their posts as ministers they forcefully came out in defence of their comfortable ministerial posts, but when it did not transpire they forgot what they said 24 hours before!

All of this is no surprise. Much of the blame for what is currently happening should be placed directly on the shoulders of these so-called “Communists”. After 2009 they joined Zuma’s government, giving it a left cover for the capitalist policies of Zuma. Since then they have been complicit in the rot which has subsequently set in. They stayed in government even while the government were killing mineworkers in Marikana. Later they completely failed to act even when the ANC made a vicious right-wing turn at its last congress at Mangaung. To cap it off, they actively participated in dividing the trade union movement when they drove the split of COSATU and the expulsion of NUMSA.

All of these actions have had the effect of weakening the organised resistance of the unions within the alliance and helped the Zuma wing to grow ever stronger, and in all cases the “communists” intentionally or otherwise played a decisive role.

Uncharted waters

Many of the so-called political analysts are baffled by Zuma’s perceived strength and his “ability” to outmanoeuvre his opponents. Within the narrow limits of the factional struggle this is true. But the real reason why Zuma has survived this long has nothing to do with his strengths or weaknesses. It lies in the fact that the big business faction of the ruling class is terrified of a split within the ANC.

For decades the ANC had the overwhelming support of the black masses. In the context of the rising radicalisation over the last period, a split in the ANC would mean that there would be nothing to hold the masses back. This was the role of the ANC over the last 23 years - to manage capitalism on behalf of the bourgeoisie.

But a split in the ANC now seems to be only a matter of time. If the ANC acts now and removes Zuma, his faction is likely to unleash a scorched-earth policy. The reason for this is that they will lose access to high political office, which is the source of their power. On the other hand, if they keep Zuma in office, his wrecking ball presidency could lead to the implosion of the ANC. One way or another the ANC will never be the same again.

This is a terrifying prospect for the ruling class. With the implosion of the ANC there would be nothing to prevent the masses from entering the political arena as active participants.

As we write these lines there are already protests at parliament in Cape Town and Pretoria. EFF leaders have announced that they now have “no option” but to take to the streets. They have also called for a no-confidence vote against Zuma in parliament and approached the Constitutional Court to force parliament to hold an impeachment hearing against Zuma.

In a statement the new trade union federation which is being formed in the wake of NUMSA’s expulsion released a scathing attack against Zuma and identified the real issues that are at play. It is worth quoting in full:

“The South African Federation of Trade Unions (SAFTU) is alarmed at continued reports that President Zuma is trying to dismiss Finance Minister, Pravin Gordhan, and his deputy, Mcebisi Jonas, on the basis of yet another 'intelligence report' from anonymous sources alleging that the minister is at the centre of a plot, Operation Checkmate, to overthrow the state and were using their overseas road show to turn international bankers against the South African government.

"Such bogus 'intelligence reports' have already been used to try to discredit Zwelinzima Vavi, Thuli Madonsela, Julius Malema and Constitutional Court judges.

"Reports suggest that Zuma’s desperation to find any such incredible excuse to sack the ministers is that his pay-masters, the Gupta family, face a crisis at the end of the month when the last bank in which they still have accounts is going to close them down, in line with other banks. They want Zuma to appoint a finance minister who will bend the rules and find ways to reopen bank accounts for them.

"Zuma is thus handing over the fate of the country to a faction of corrupt, crony capitalists in league with corrupt political leaders, who are solely interested in looting the economy, and enriching themselves, at the expense of the people of South Africa.

"This is the reality of the system of capitalism, a system which enriches an elite minority, who exploit their workers and leave the poor majority and humanity as a whole with a crisis of mass unemployment, hunger and ignorance, all of which will continue in perpetuity if this system remains in place.

"The ANC government embraced the worst kind of cut-throat free-market capitalist fundamentalism. This arose from the negotiated settlement which led to the democratic breakthrough of 1994 but which also guaranteed the continuation of monopoly, white-owned capitalism and brutal austerity programmes. This neoliberal agenda has been spearheaded by successive presidents, ministers and cabinets, policed by the rating agencies, with their blackmail threats to downgrade the economy and thus dry up investment.

"As a result we have become the most unequal society in the world with one of the worst levels of unemployment and 14 million facing hunger. This is at the heart of the ANC crisis of governance, made even worse by the domination of the Zuma/Gupta faction which is hell-bent on creating the worst possible type of corrupt and unaccountable capitalism.

"The resultant factional battle within the ANC now threatens to hand over the whole country and liberation project to the most backward elements in society, reflected in the rise of racism, chauvinism, patriarchy, nyaope/wonga drug abuse and crime.

"Allowing Zuma and his ANC faction to continue what they are doing will leave us with no future, when our country will have been mortgaged to the Guptas, or to the Russian/French/ Chinese or Americans capitalists through things like the nuclear deal. That is what is at stake now.

"But as we fight let's be careful that our campaign is distinct from any campaigns by the very capitalists who are exploiting workers. We must not fight in defence of those implementing austerity measures and neoliberal programmes, which includes all ANC factions who are responsible for the worsening material conditions of the working class.

"We are not acting in the interests of any individual but against an economic system which is taking us en route to a form of capitalism in which there is no accountability.

"The beneficiaries of our campaign must be the working class and the poor majority. If we miss this chance to bring about real change then we would have acted in the interests of our class enemies.

"The working class must lead and their new federation SAFTU is the only weapon workers have! If Zuma and his cronies pull the trigger tonight or tomorrow and any other day and carry through the sacking of Gordhan and Jonas our response will be to symbolically occupy the offices of the Treasury immediately, to block the Guptas from taking over those buildings and to remain until our demands are met.”

"It then also said what needs to be done: ‘’SAFTU calls on all workers to be ready to act! Time for theorizing but doing nothing belongs to the past! Defend your country! Defend your children's future! Put on your running shoes and track suits - don't forget red shirts and red caps.”

This is a correct step by SAFTU. Now more than ever the working class needs to rely on its own strength and fight both wings of the ruling class. Only the working class should be trusted to fight for the future.  But we have to add to this: The only way to really fight the capitalist class - be it its Gupta wing or its Big Business wing -  is to fight the system it represents. The only way to stop these parasites from further wrecking the lives of the masses is to mobilise the working class to expropriate all capitalists, ie. to take over the land, the mines, the banks and the main industries and to put these in the interests of the masses instead of that of a tiny degenerate minority.

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