The recent parliamentary vote of no confidence in the President of South Africa, Jacob Zuma, failed – albeit narrowly – to yield enough votes to remove him from office. Even though 35 ANC members voted for his removal – in a hotly debated secret ballot – in the end it was not enough to shake the proverbial tree. There have been many attempts to remove the President from power, both within Parliament and the ruling party itself, but all have failed. The ANC, in its current form, closes ranks around President Zuma, for better or for worse.
It is perhaps understandable that such a vote would be hotly contested and debated in parliament, and would prove difficult to pass. Parliamentarians number 400 in the South African parliament, and their world is a small but powerful microcosm in the greater scheme of things. It is primarily in the interests of both the ruling party and the opposition for the President to remain in place. Parliamentarians whose jobs and networked capabilities depend on the President’s patronage, as well as those who depend on the ruling party remaining in power, have all the incentive to fend off efforts to remove him (even though this will likely have deleterious effects on the ANC as a whole). Opposition parties know full well that the President is their greatest asset in their quest to eventually win national power from the ANC.
Yet what has proved more puzzling, especially to the middle class citizenry, is why the public have still not as yet come out in staggering numbers to protest the very many transgressions and failings of President Zuma, his leadership and their extended elite network of power. When the public come out in protest they do not do so in the numbers that can be said to represent an overwhelming majority. So what is it that is preventing the broader citizenry from pushing for much needed change in South Africa? Is it apathy; some combination of discontent and disengagement? Is it race or class difference? Is it that people are too busy with the affairs of everyday life? Is it that they are confused, with no clear signals upon which to act?
Until now, the prevailing assumption has been that when South Africans are presented with clear evidence of wrongdoing, they will be spurred to action. Yet wave after wave of leaked evidence and information of wrongdoing has broken upon the shores of the national conscience only to dissipate into its steep gradient and disappear beneath the sand. What has become clear is that the notion that providing the public with the information and knowledge that they require to be spurred into action is itself flawed. No amount of information, whistleblowers, leaks, expert reports and the like is likely to propel the South African public into action.
To the middle and upper middle classes in particular, there is a deep frustration with the lack of unified protest to what they have come to view as the central challenge facing South Africa right now, that is; a crisis of governance characterised by corruption, maladministration, nepotism and cronyism that all centres on the leadership of the president and his network(s). Yet what they fail to appreciate is that this perspective – even if valid – remains a partial perspective. It does not accurately reflect the concerns of the diverse South African populace as a whole.
If one takes the time to speak to the different groups that constitute South African society it quickly becomes evident that there are deep divisions over what the central South African condition is thought to be, and what remedies the nation should adopt. This, in my view, lies at the heart of the deadlock over the fate of President Zuma. It is a matter of agreement over what the central concerns of the nation are and how to deal with them.
Even though South Africa enjoys a progressive, enlightened constitutional framework, it remains a fraught society in many ways. A cursory mapping of the plethora of issues that dominate the South African political spectrum is – in this respect – instructive. While concerns over corruption, ‘state capture’, and lack of service delivery do cut across race and class in South Africa other issues rise to prominence depending on whom one listens to. Issues such as spatial, social and economic exclusion, deep and entrenched inequality, the slow pace of land reform, high levels of unemployment (especially among the youth), high levels of crime and violence (particularly violence against women, children and immigrants), institutional racism and the need for decolonisation, lack of transparency and accountability, healthcare, education, rising food insecurity, resource crises (e.g. food, water, energy), lack of access to infrastructure and commensurate service provisions, national disunity and polarisation along race and class lines, and a stagnant economy in which youth face dim future prospects; all appear to feature somewhat differently in the hierarchy of concerns that South Africans construct in their personal spaces and groupings.
Moreover, the fact that each concern that is mentioned in this in-exhaustive list could realistically be regarded as a matter that is of crisis proportions, means that South Africans are not incorrect in their respective diagnoses. They are presumably merely selecting the issues that impact on them, and their immediate communities, the most. The fact that they exclude others in their priorities is simply because they may not feel that they are as immediately impacted by them.
In simpler terms, South Africa is in the midst of what can be characterised as a ‘polycrisis’. There is a relative smorgasbord of crises that proliferate in the different spaces, demographics and groups that constitute the nation. This polycrisis also enables another, more nefarious capacity, that is; it allows for the exploitation of one or more of a matrix of issues, which can be harnessed to spin counter-narratives. Raise one issue and there are simultaneously more than ten other issues that can be raised to counter it, or drown it out, deposing it from its supposed prominence in the hierarchy of critical issues facing the country.
For every allegation, every expose and every scandal there exists a set of potential pivots that can be harnessed to obfuscate, distract from, nullify and/or drown out the original issue. It allows for the proliferation of noise in response to any signal that attempts to propagate through the socio-political ether of the country. It explains why Bell-Pottinger was able to so easily find traction with its Gupta-funded divisive messaging.
This is not just a feature that has come to govern the South African polis and societal realm, but exists in other countries as well. In the post-2008 world, even developed nations are facing more challenges than they did in the post-war 20th Century. It explains how climate change denialism perpetuates in developed nations such as the USA and Australia, despite clear scientific evidence to the contrary. It also explains how President Trump’s various cock-ups and scandals consistently fail to result in any meaningful corrections on his part or the Republican Party’s. The world, it seems, has entered a new phase – a ‘post-literate’, ‘post-truth’ phase – in which moral equivalence can be invoked with impunity to muddy the waters – so to speak – to make them appear deep.
And so the quest for emancipatory political moments, where tipping points are breached and leaders deposed by the will of the people, or where parliamentarians rise up in revolt against their elected leader, has proved difficult to bring about in South Africa. And this should, at this stage, come as no surprise to anybody. To expect anything else would be to be profoundly hopeful or naive, or perhaps both.
The reality is that South Africa has reached a much deeper tipping point than simply desiring the removal of the sitting president. The tipping point that South Africa is now at is that it is embroiled in a national crisis of identity. After twenty-two years of existing on the rainbow nation vision, one that prioritised constitutionality over radical material societal transformation and upheld ‘nation-building’ as its primary project, South Africa is ready for renewal. And it is no coincidence that the readiness for renewal has been accompanied by a profound breakdown within South African society, one that has seen deep polarisation and contestation emerge in the polis.
Such a crisis requires, first and foremost, that it be recognised as such. We cannot act thoughtfully upon our current condition without first acknowledging it in its entirety. Once we have accepted the new reality, the next commitment we require is to move beyond the desire for short-term change – however critical those changes may be in the short term – and to accept that a longer term view needs to be taken on how the next phase of national unity should be approached.
While it remains a political and moral imperative to challenge the leadership of President Zuma, and to seek his removal from office, this action alone will not bring any sense of comfort or relief to the majority of South Africans. Indeed, it may even give the middle classes in particular, a false sense of security and allow them to lapse into apathy once again.
The reality is that if we are to bring about a new unity amongst South Africans, it needs to be behind a shared vision of who we are and what we want to be as a society. Building this new vision requires an opening up of spaces in which broader, more diverse expression and exchange around what is important (and to whom) in our society, can occur.
In my estimation, two elements are key to this process, namely; (1) building a national consensus through a series of prolonged engagements that range from the grassroots all the way to the upper echelons of power, and (2) stimulating active citizenry at the community level so that grassroots engagement with political power enters a new heightened phase i.e. stimulating town hall styled politics and civic engagement across a variety of existing and new platforms.
This requires taking a medium to long-term view towards steering South Africa onto a new national developmental and socio-political trajectory. It requires an investment in communities, civic organisations, civil society and the varieties of interest groups that need to be boosted in order to ensure that their voices are heard through a process of continual bottom-up regulation of political and economic power, rather than simply expressing themselves every four years at the ballot box. That is, it requires building the complex social machinery within South African society that can produce a healthy democracy for all who live in it.
It also requires the kind of visionary, committed leadership that South Africa was fortunate to enjoy in its transition out of Apartheid and into the new democratic dispensation. It requires a complete revision of what it means to be a public servant, and how the public service and political power is viewed in society. It requires all sectors to commit to and embrace a new national transition – to engage with new ideas such as ‘radical economic transformation’ and help put flesh on the bones of the ideas that underpin it – and for the middle classes in particular to recognise and acknowledge that their lived reality is vastly different from that which the majority of South Africans endure on a day to day basis. It is lunacy to expect people who are unemployed or under-employed, and who are preoccupied with day-to-day matters of survival, to prioritise the deposal of the sitting president as the most important factor in their lives because it simply isn’t.
President Zuma is almost into the last year of his presidency, yet the calls for him to be removed, or to step down, continue unabated. This is understandable, but in reality it is too late in his presidency to make any substantive difference to the damage that the nation has endured under it. At this stage it is only a moral matter; one of setting an example so that others do not follow in his footsteps, one of demonstrating that democratic ‘checks and balances’ do function in the South African political spectrum. Removing him will not automatically set the nation upon a trajectory towards a better future; neither will it yield any substantive change where it is most needed in South African society.
At this stage, the inescapable reality is that a broader, more prolonged phase of engagement and building democratic power from the bottom-up is necessary. If those who are out marching in the streets (I was one of them) are committed to bringing about meaningful change in South Africa they need to embrace the reality that it will take more than protest actions – undertaken every few weeks or months – to convert the current mess that the nation is in by steering it into a positive period of reflection and growth. Simply put, we need to roll up our sleeves, dig in our heels, and commit to building the kind of democracy that can go the distance. It’s time to recognise that we are entering a new phase, and the crisis we are in runs deep. It will require dedicated social activism from the broader citizenry, and building bridges across the diverse South African socio-political and cultural landscape, to adequately address. We need to be in it for the long haul. There simply is no way around it!