Evading all attempts at removal so far - and there have been several - South Africa's President Jacob Zuma seems to have stuck himself to the seat of power with some kind of Stalinist super-glue. "Stalinist", in the sense that he has surrounded himself with those who are dependent on him for his favours and are far too fearful of the consequences to dissent. There he remains, along with his partner in crime, South African Communist Party (SACP) general secretary, the Higher Education and Training Minister, Blade Nzimande. In the meanwhile, Zuma is charged with "state capture" - or having allowed it - by the billionaire Gupta family and is now officially facing prosecution for corruption.
This ongoing saga, also involving the helping hand of several global management and services consultancies like McKinsey and KPMG, has been preoccupying the media for many months and not just in South Africa. The scandal has also implicated the British firm, Bell Pottinger - a PR firm which in its own words, aimed to "help shape our clients reputations, engage with diverse stakeholders across multiple channels, tell effective stories and run creative campaigns to enhance their brand...". Its dealings with the Guptas through its subsidiary Oakbay only served to ruin Bell Pottingers' reputation and it is now in administration.
They had proposed that Zuma's best tactic to defend himself was to launch an offensive against "white monopoly capital", blaming its ever-presence for South Africa's ills. And since there is more than a grain of truth in such an allegation, it was assumed it might work to divert attention away from Zuma himself.
The great distraction.. and a bit of history
Indeed, this whole Gupta-gate scandal is a useful distraction from the real issues facing the working class and poor of South Africa.
The very idea of "state capture" by wealthy individuals, who "influence a nation's policies, legal environment and economy to benefit their own private interests", to use the definition provided by Transparency International (the "global anti-corruption coalition") can only be born in naive minds. After all, how can the state in a capitalist society do anything else? Don't capitalist societies, by definition, have capitalist states? That is, states held captive by the capitalist classes, to protect their interests against the majority of the population?
So, no, "Gupta-gate" is not an exception to the rule, and whether it is one family or many, this is merely the nature of the state under capitalism. In fact, if it had not been South Africa's Gupta family manipulating Zuma, it would have been another. Wealthy capitalist families have shaped the South African state's policies for their own ends, throughout its past history. The apartheid system itself originated in this way as a racial segregation policy with its roots in the demand from the Chamber of Mines, representing the main mine-owning families, for a supply of cheap and reliable labour.
And the most prominent of these families was the Oppenheimers, who remained major shareholders in Anglo-American (the mining giant) and De Beers diamonds (founded in 1888 by Cecil Rhodes and Alfred Beit, funded by the Rothschild's Bank) right up until 2011.
It was the Oppenheimers who, during the 1980s period of uprising in the townships, organised talks between Mandela's African National Congress in exile and the Afrikaner Nationalist government in order to find a solution in their own interests. It was precisely these talks which began to set out the framework for South Africa's so-called "peaceful democratic transition" from apartheid to majority rule in 1994. One could say the Oppenheimers captured the state of white Afrikaner Nationalist, President De Klerk and then that of the first black "democratic" president, Nelson Mandela.
Apparently this history is forgotten, as hands are thrown up in despair that the "democratic rainbow nation" has been "taken captive" by the Guptas (or Zuptas, given the intertwining interests between various members of Zuma's family and their benefactors).
Presiding over the world's most unequal society
In the meantime, social apartheid has prevailed in all its ugliness and capital has ruled - bloodily, in the case of the 2012 massacre of 34 striking miners in Marikana, sanctioned by Zuma. Nelson Mandela's remit when he took the presidency in 1994 was not to rock the capitalists' boat and he and those who have followed him did not and have not. The problem for the Zuma government, which has been in power since 2009, is that 23 years after the first black majority government waved the "Freedom Charter" which promised to return the land to the people and to create abundance on behalf of all, it has become much harder to justify the poverty, gross inequalities and the government's failure to address even the most basic needs of the population.
The ANC state has built an economy where 60% of all income earned in South Africa is in the hands of 10% of the population, including a small but sizeable black bourgeoisie which involves politicians and entrepreneurs.
The rise of a black bourgeoisie has partly been the consequence of so-called Black Economic Empowerment (BEE). This was a legislative attempt to right the wrongs of apartheid within the bounds of the capitalist system, in which "white monopoly capital" did indeed own everything - that is white imperialist (mainly British and American) and white national capitalists.
After apartheid was abolished, companies had by law, to include black people on their boards and offer them substantial shares in all businesses. But the main benefits of BEE came through the preferential award of government contracts and posts. Inevitably these went to "friends and family" of the new black political class, with lots of "kickbacks" on the way, thus corrupting layer upon layer of politicians and top officials. This is what has created this small but very rich black elite and some of Africa's richest men and women. And ironically, it has created them from the ranks of a generation whose high ideals sustained them in struggle against apartheid oppression. However the ideals of these BEE beneficiaries who "took the money" as it were, never included being opposed to the theft of profit via labour exploitation nor class oppression. Many, like Zuma, have been delighted to indulge in both. They were neither socialist nor communist, even if they carried, or still carry the Party's card.
Today, out of a population of 55.9m, 27.7% are unemployed according to official figures, the highest number since 2003. And the situation is getting worse. Since the beginning of this year alone, 75,000 jobs in the formal sector have been lost. Already, 58.6% of the population lives in poverty. According to the World Bank, South Africa is the world's most unequal country, followed by Haiti. So no wonder the situation in the poor townships and informal settlements is deteriorating to the point where road blocks and tyre-burning protests against conditions are "normal" events. People want proper brick homes and toilets, not to mention jobs, food and clothing, and they are well aware that Zuma and his government bear responsibility for their on-going hardships.
Zuma theoretically has 2 more years in office - the next general election is due in 2019. So he has 2 more years to feather his nest, including the homestead Nkandla "estate" he built out of taxpayers' money, which he so far has not paid back despite a judicial ruling which commanded him to do so.
Having withstood a vote of no-confidence this August, by 198 votes to 177 (35 of his own ANC MPs voted against him) he will probably face further no-confidence votes. He is constantly barracked in parliament by the opposition parties and in particular his nemesis, leader of the self-styled "Marxist-Leninst" Economic Freedom Fighters, Julius Malema (a former leader of the ANC's youth league, who helped Zuma into power and soon regretted it).
Anyway, while Zuma awaits in office, in the run-up to the ANC's December party conference, his successors are being lined up by the main party factions: the Zuma loyalists represented by one of his former wives, the seasoned politician Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma and Cyril Ramaphosa, currently Zuma's deputy.
But now many other former Zuma loyalists are ganging up against him. For instance the leadership of the now split-off Confederation of South African Trade Unions Cosatu (which still has an official participatory role in the so-called "tripartite government"). It even organised a day of action against government corruption on the 27 September, with slogans like "Zuma must go", "Away with the Guptas"... and more significantly, "Cyril Ramaphosa for president"!
The fact that Ramaphosa is a former Lonmin mining boss and has the blood of the 34 massacred striking Marikana mineworkers on his hands makes no difference to this particular cohort of union leaders. The mineworkers' union, NUM, which is still Cosatu's largest affiliate, opposed the 2012 Marikana miners' strike and de facto took the side of the bosses and their state murderers against them. Ramaphosa is not only an accessory to this murder, but was one of Africa's richest men before passing his assets into his wife's name when he took political office. He is a capitalist through and through and certainly the bosses' candidate! Any association with his militant youthful past, as the first leader of the mineworkers' union back in 1987, has long been wiped out.
But the ultimate irony of this not very well-attended "one day general strike against corruption" was that it was endorsed by many of the companies and businesses, including the Chamber of Mines, whose workers were given the day off to attend! Apparently the contradictory class interests arising out of capitalism have, in the face of Zuma's corrupt friendship with "other" capitalists, been all but resolved in South Africa?
We will elaborate later on the politics of the trade union opposition to Cosatu and NUM, in the form of Numsa and the new trade union federation set up earlier this year, called Saftu - the South African Federation of Trade Unions. But suffice it to say that they consciously refrained from participating in this day of action called by Cosatu, despite being criticised for doing so.
Saftu leader, Zwelinzima Vavi, had this to say: "We have learnt the hard way to always ask the question: in whose class interests is this 27 September 2017 strike action? Blade Nzimande has a famous saying that before you climb into the bus don't just look at what is written as its destination, but check who is the driver and who are the passengers inside the bus. Is it truly about the job losses or against state capture? Our conclusion based on this class analysis is that this strike is about sorting out the eating queue in 2017 and 2019. It's about puppies trying to find another master, a new master to serve at the expense of the working class as it has happened for 23 years now. We won't be duped twice!"
Vavi was referring to the fact that he, as the former leader of Cosatu (suspended in 2013 and expelled in 2015) and others, were the ones who actually swung the vote in favour of Zuma for ANC leader in 2007 and thus the presidency in 2009. They were "duped" into thinking that Zuma was innocent of the corruption and rape charges he already faced back then.
Significantly, the miners' union Amcu (Association of Mineworkers and Construction Union), which, it should be recalled, came out of the betrayal of the miners by the NUM, also boycotted Cosatu's day of action, issuing the following statement: "The issue of protesting against state capture is playing to the gallery.(...) The corrupt protest is advancing a particular political agenda within the factional debates leading to the December [ANC] conference. As indicated by the President of Cosatu (...) this is a season of madness. As Amcu we will not join the madness and seek to sponsor factional agendas masquerading as genuine worker protests!
Funnily enough none of these boycotters seems to have felt it was worth mentioning that the bosses were supporting the day of action and that, in itself, made it a sham.
Without doubt, Zuma has certainly upset both "white monopoly capital" (and for that matter, black empowerment capital) increasingly, during his tenure! His purge, or "cabinet reshuffle" back in April this year, axing the ANC veteran Finance Minister, Pravin Gordhan, and his deputy, Mcebisi Jonas, caused Standard and Poor (S&P) Global Ratings and Fitch Ratings to downgrade South Africa's sovereign credit rating to junk status, much to their dismay. This sacking was said to have been requested by the Guptas whose influence on Zuma was openly disapproved of by Gordhan.
In fact, if anything is going to push Zuma out, ahead of time, it will be rash political actions such as this one, which severely damage the general interests of the South African capitalist class and its foreign cousins who invest from abroad.
That said, while the capitalist class as a whole may not like nor control everything that Zuma says and does, as long as he remains within certain boundaries, they are prepared to live with it - provided social peace and thus profit-making are not too much disturbed.
It is worth mentioning that in the past, those overstepping these boundaries paid for it. Like for instance President Thabo Mbeki, who was pushed out of office by political manoeuvres involving the Cosatu and SACP leaders in 2007. Mbeki's AIDS denial, when South Africa had the highest incidence of HIV in the world, and rising, went beyond the flexibility allowed to him by the capitalists because it threatened to decimate the South African workforce. This was one reason why the bourgeoisie eventually accepted Mbeki's removal (but not before one fifth of the population was infected), thus paving the way for Zuma's ascendency. And this was despite the fact that Mbeki's stewardship of their economy - the GEAR privatisations, laced with suitable "African Renaissance" rhetoric - suited them very well. It is worth mentioning here that the circumstances couldn't have been more cynical: the resignation of Mbeki was backed up by a legal case against him for not having ensured that Zuma was prosecuted for corruption several years previously!
Whether the capitalists can wait until 2019, or whether there may be an attempt to get rid of Zuma or downsize his influence at the ANC party conference in December 2017, remains to be seen. It would be "just deserts" if Zuma was to succumb to the same fate as Mbeki.
Far worse - and this is where the description "Stalinist" for the Zuma regime becomes chillingly real, is the number of political assassinations which have been carried out. This includes the murder of three shop steward activists from the metalworkers' union, Numsa, in 2014, who were targeted because of activity against the Zuma-loyalist union confederation Cosatu. It includes several candidates standing against the ANC in the 2016 local elections. And now the toll of municipal councillors murdered for anti-Zuma and anti-corruption positions, has reached 45. A former ANC Youth League leader Sindiso Magaqa, was killed in September this year, allegedly because he had documents that would have exposed corruption in the Umzimkhulu municipality.
South Africans have often boasted about their constitution and their "independent" judiciary. But the very fact of Zuma's ability to avoid prosecution time and again shows the dependence of these institutions on their masters - who, as long as they serve adequately the interests of capital, are left to their despicable and sometimes murderous devices.
So on 13 October the Supreme Court of Appeal reinstated 18 charges against Zuma, amounting to 783 counts regarding money laundering, racketeering and fraud, eight years after the charges were first laid. But as the judge commented himself, it remains to be seen whether this would be the end of a saga which has lasted 15 years. Even though the formerly loyal ANC Veterans' League (veterans of the ANC's armed wing, umKhonto we Sizwe, from the Apartheid days) has asked Zuma to leave office, they would not want to see him prosecuted. So many others would have to go down with him!
So what happened to the class struggle?
All of this means that, despite the obvious and worsening political and economic crisis, the lack of an alternative which would ensure stability for the capitalist class means that it is taking a while longer than expected for "things to fall apart".
Besides, South Africa still remains one of the more wealthy African countries with a higher GDP per head ($5,261) than Nigeria ($2,211) and Egypt ($3,685), even if these two countries have larger economies (by comparison, GDP per head in Britain is $40,096.) But all African countries are sliding downward, due to the delayed impact of the world financial recession.
With the slide in the South African economy itself, the class struggle has also declined, shifting to some extent from the union-led, often quite bureaucratically organised strikes, to walkouts and protests by the unorganised workers. Of course, the townships and informal settlements remain foci for very frequent protests over lack of service delivery, lack of housing, corruption in the awarding of tenders, etc., which are very often met by violence from the police. When local fishermen were recently protesting in the street, in Hout Bay, in the Cape, after their lobster-catching quota was cut, cops shot a teenager in the mouth with plastic bullets at point blank range.
However, despite the unfavourable situation, South Africa's ever-militant working class remains mobilised when necessary. Today, perhaps because of the split in the union movement and the preoccupation by the leaderships with their own interests and rivalries, the number of strikes which are "unofficial" or in South African jargon, "unprotected" (by the law) have increased compared to "protected" strikes.
So the annual Industrial Action Report for 2016 published this September, shows that although there were 10% more strikes (122) than in 2015, the lowest number of workers since 2013 participated in them. There were also fewer strikes in manufacturing. Most took place in mining and community services (like refuse collection/teaching). As many as 59% of these strikes were unofficial, a trend that the researchers say has been increasing since "the Marikana strikes in 2012 which led to the 'workers death massacre', the Doorns strikes in the Western Cape in 2012/2013 where workers embarked in long unprotected strikes over wage demands. The community industry saw more unprotected strikes during the first quarter of the year."
In fact the language of this report, unusually nowadays, harks back to South Africa's working class struggle roots, its introduction showing sympathy towards the workers: "The South African labour market still presents a gloomy picture as characterised by a high unequal labour force. [sic] It is also measured by the Gini coefficient that is close to 0.771 [1=the maximum inequality]. With this, the labour unions have a reason to deepen their muscles in higher wage demands higher than inflation so that their workers feel some improvement in their living standards." And it adds at one point: "In fact, some union leaders are of the belief that violence is the only method of winning justice for the working man".
The average wage settlement obtained by strikers - and wages was the predominant issue - was an 8% rise. That is, above CPI inflation which has come down from 7.07% last December to 4.56% this August. This maybe indicates some success, thanks to these "unofficial" and "violent" ways!
But the main problem faced by the working class has been the jobs bloodbath - particularly in the mining industry. Between 2012 and 2017, over 77,000 mining jobs have been cut.
... and the working class party?
After the historical decision in December 2013 by the metal workers union, Numsa, to remove its support from the ANC and to build a new workers' party as a working class alternative to the corrupt ANC-SACP alliance, there has been a bit of a lull. This is largely because of the process which then played out: Numsa's expulsion from Cosatu (in 2014) and an attempt to find alternative sources of funding for its large official bureaucracy. And, in parallel, Zwelinzima Vavi, considered a supporter of Numsa, was finally expelled from Cosatu in 2015 - having been its leader since 1999. Many trade unions and trade union activists were sympathetic to Numsa's and Vavi's stance and thus this suggested the possibility of a new trade union federation being set up to rival Cosatu.
So in March this year, the new South African Federation Trade Unions - Saftu - was eventually founded. Saftu presents itself as a clean-hands alternative to the corrupted government partner Cosatu, which is still the largest federation, claiming 1.8m members, but whose leaders are mostly in thrall to the ANC's top bureaucrats. The Saftu initiators, Zwelinzima Vavi and Numsa have spent two years trying to persuade the leaders of those unions which, in solidarity with them, stood against these expulsions, to join.
So now SAFTU has grouped inside itself 24 union affiliates with a total of around 700,000 members, Numsa being the largest with around 340,000. Another 16 unions sent observers to the launch. It seemed a foregone conclusion that Zwelinzima Vavi would be elected its leader.
However, there is another union federation, still, called Nactu, which, like Cosatu, was formed in the mid-1980s, at the time as a Black Consciousness, pan-Africanist union. Today it still exists, claiming 21 union affiliates with around 390,000 members.
One Nactu affiliate is supposed to be Amcu, the mining union formed in 2001, which now boasts 200,000 members and came to prominence at the time of Marikana, in opposition to Cosatu's NUM due to the NUM's pro-boss deals. But at the last Nactu conference, there was a row over affiliation fees so Amcu's status is in limbo. All of these internal financial and sectarian squabbles, to which Numsa and Saftu is also prone, play a role in distracting from the real problems facing the working class and do not augur well for the future of these organisations, nor for the plans of sections like Numsa, for a "working class party".
So what about Cosatu itself? Its total membership is probably closer to 1.2m than the 1.8m it officially claims and it is still "bleeding" members due to its corruption, past support for Zuma's overtly homicidal anti-working class government and the huge job losses caused by the worsening economic crisis. It had already lost thousands of members on the mines to the rival Amcu even before the watershed Marikana massacre.
The official position it still maintains over this massacre - supporting the police and government version of events - will continue to taint it. Ironically this was a position put forward by none other than Zwelinzima Vavi himself! At the time, he and his press secretary Patrick Craven (who has followed him into Saftu) propagated the lie that miners had shot at police and that it had not been a cold-blooded and planned massacre: they said that "police tried to disperse striking workers gathered on top of a hill, wielding pangas and chanting war songs. It ended in a three-minute shootout between the two groups, after police fired teargas and then used a water cannon to disperse the strikers, who retaliated by firing live ammunition at the police."
Both these individuals were then involved in the lethal war which proceeded against Amcu. Vavi, plus a cohort of NUM officials were sent to Rustenburg (the provincial capital closest to Marikana) to "reclaim Lonmin"! This, while NUM spokesman Lesiba Seshoka referred to the strikers as "criminals" and called for more policing of the area.
Of course people can change their minds. They can even change their character. Look at Cyril Ramaphosa who morphed from being the first mine workers' trade union leader, into a millionaire mine owner and who is now aspiring South African president, hoping to step into Jacob Zuma's shoes. But whether Vavi has morphed in the other direction, from backstabbing workers to fighting for their interests, is rather unlikely!
For good measure, Saftu's founding congress on 21-23 April featured another former Cosatu General Secretary, Jay Naidoo, who spent two terms in government from 1994-1999 as minister for Reconstruction and Development and then as minister for Post, Telecoms and Broadcasting - under Mandela and Thabo Mbeki, respectively. Naidoo now holds a host of positions in UN and other worthy panacea-promoting bodies. He told the conference that "we have to return to... the basics of organising power because there's only one way in which those elite in power would listen to us is when we have power. When we sit around tables they don't see it as clever leaders they see the power of the working class behind it." Perhaps he too has changed and is in favour of workers emancipating themselves through their own revolutionary party? But that too, is not very likely!
The absence of class politics
Significantly, however, the founding statements and draft constitution of Saftu do not mention a necessary fight against capitalism - but just a fight against the "global elite" and their favourite bugaboo, "neoliberalism".
In other words what has been created is a re-founded Cosatu, or a Cosatu Mark 2. It was added that "the challenges facing an attempt to "cross the divide" between organised workers and the growing precariat, those in casual, outsourced and informal jobs - will require strategic leadership willing to move out of the comfort zone of traditional unionism, recruit unfamiliar constituencies and experiment with new ways of organising..."
Whether that is exactly what is needed right now in the working class movement is another question. Obviously it is seen as the recipe to provide a framework for the "unity" needed by a working class which is increasingly fragmented and thrown into worsening poverty by the constant after-shocks of the world financial crisis.
However the Saftu draft constitution goes much further than this. In fact what is argued by the new federation is that it is itself already the embodiment of the required unity of the working class - and that it somehow will be able to forge even more unity - between the organised (and employed) working class and the so-called "precariat" - that is the millions who live in precariousness in the formal townships or informal settlements.
Saftu goes on saying in the preamble of its constitution, that: "the working class and the poor are once again being forced to pay the cost of greed and the mismanagement of the world economy by global and national elites" and the "adoption of a neoliberal orthodoxy across the world is now almost complete." The main problem, as they see it, is that governments are too afraid to challenge the elites. And, happily for them there is a solution - elect a new government which will drop this neoliberalism, bring back "good" social policies and all will be well. Apparently national capitalism itself is not the enemy of the working class any more and doesn't bear mentioning. At least not in South Africa? Can it be that they still see South Africa as exceptional and quasi socialist? They write that: "What was once promised as a thriving participatory democracy has been replaced with a form of representative democracy that allows space for the elites to determine the agenda, and decide on the longer term development of society in South Africa and across the world. Despite the rhetoric, people's power has been stolen from the people as part of the politics of domination by the elite"
They thus look to the implementation by a new government (which would apparently be a "thriving participatory democracy"?) of the Freedom Charter - the vaguely reformist but mostly nationalist platform of the ANC conceived in 1955!
What can one possibly conclude, except that there is still a long road ahead for the working class before it builds up the organisation it needs for its emancipation? Of course, that road could be traversed quickly if there is a leadership which decides to fight, by building on the spirit which workers showed following the Marikana massacre - when collectively-organised strikes spread throughout the mining areas in the control, not of any of the union leaderships, but the workers themselves. It showed the potential which such workers would have if they were actually organised in their own party - not just a "workers' party", but a workers' revolutionary party.