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South Africa in crisis: is there a way out?

Professor Raymond Suttner
Photo by Ivor Markman
Professor Raymond Suttner

20th July 2016

By: Raymond Suttner


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With instability in Zimbabwe, where we are seeing demonstrations that would have been impossible to imagine in recent years, the possibility of change may be on the horizon. It may not be an orderly transition. If the ruling ZANU PF tries to manage a transition we could end up seeing more of the same, just without Robert Mugabe. It is unclear what will happen partly because there is no mass-based, organised force with a concrete programme for a post-Mugabe Zimbabwe. The opposition MDC and unions are in disarray so it may well be that ZANU PF (despite internal divisions) could oversee whatever the post-Mugabe era may become.

Some believe that the potential for change in Zimbabwe also holds warnings for South Africa. There are certainly also high levels of dissatisfaction in South Africa. The country is in crisis. There is practically zero economic growth, unemployment is high primarily amongst the youth, who sense that they have no future, corruption is widespread and there are many other ills that are no longer secrets, but widely known.


Uprisings are already occurring in a number of places in the form of “service delivery protests”. Some of these involve shootings, though, unlike in the United States, there have only been very limited situations where violence or guns have been used by those who are dissatisfied. It is possible that this could increase if community protest were to merge with the activities of armed gangs, though it does not appear that such an alliance is on the agenda and certainly not on a wide scale, despite the high levels of gang warfare in Port Elizabeth and the Western Cape.

On the other hand, the level of intra-ANC violence and murder indicates that the role of lethal weaponry in South African politics has intensified to a level that has not previously been seen in post-apartheid South Africa. Only 10 years ago this would have been unimaginable inside the ANC. It needs to be emphasised that the role of the gun, here, has nothing to do with political ideology, but positions, patronage and corruption. Furthermore, it represents an attack going beyond the ANC and constitutes an assault on democracy itself.


There are problems facing those seeking substantial transformatory change or even limited change in South Africa, for a force has not emerged that can win sufficient trust and offer a concrete, realisable programme that could displace the ANC and meet people’s needs on a sustainable basis.

Anyone wishing to see a transition from the Jacob Zuma-led ANC needs to go beyond “talking truth to power” and calling on the President to resign. We saw, in the wake of the Constitutional Court judgment on Nkandla, numerous public displays involving figures calling on the President to resign and promising a series of actions that were to follow. 

These public figure-driven initiatives quickly fizzled out.  Even now, with the threat of reinstatement of his corruption charges and high levels of dissatisfaction around Zuma’s protection of irregularity and illegality in the SABC, SAA and other state entities, the “talking truth to power” version of resolution of our problems is not working and has no impact on Zuma himself. As indicated by Ranjeni Munusamy, he continues focusing on the latest dance steps, even while the ANC faces losing electoral ground in key metros and while these controversies swirl around him. (See article here)

What is to be learnt from the expressions of opposition to the Zuma-led ANC earlier this year? How do we construct a force capable of rebuilding the promise and revitalising the quality of South African democracy?

What needs to be understood and many people already know this is that one cannot effect change purely through public utterances of high profile individuals no matter how eminent they may be. The initiatives by veterans, leading figures of civil society and so on were on public platforms and they collapsed because there was no attempt to link their goals to people on the ground and to build sustainable organisation around a programme and vision.

Partly, this may have been because many of the initiatives were premised on the idea of returning the ANC to its “true self”, as suggested by some statements of veterans. Invoking the names of struggle heroes or MK veterans was seen as part of a process of simply returning the ANC to a supposed golden era, which has been besmirched by the activities of Zuma.

Insofar as there were episodes, moments and struggles those in the ANC-led struggle are justly proud of, they were generally not based on individual statements of concern or even statements of conscience.  Nor were they dependent on individuals having the courage to speak out publicly. There were undoubtedly important public statements, for example Chief Albert Luthuli’s 1952 declaration “The road to Freedom is via the Cross!” at the time of his being deposed as an (elected) chief and Mandela’s speech from the dock, in the Rivonia Trial in 1964, (though it could not be publicly distributed then). But the ANC itself advanced or failed because of the level of its organisation and its relationship with its constituency.

Whatever the ANC did that endured, was based on a connection between leaders and the masses in a range of sites: landless or struggling on the land, in the factories, in the townships, as women, unemployed, hungry and homeless. It was because the ANC listened to the plight of these people, joined their organisational struggles and shared their aspirations, pain and anguish that it won respect and support and the allied action of other organisations.

Those who wish to restore the democratic promise that very many people value need to have both a sense of urgency and the patience to build for the long haul. The remedying of the present crisis is not going to occur overnight. Nor will it happen through a range of mass meeting or meetings of smaller numbers in symbolic places. It will not happen through petitions, important as these may be. It requires the long and arduous work of building organisations. In consequence we need to ask what that means for leaders and aspirant leaders today and what type of organisation is entailed.

It is important to remember that the leadership required now needs to be linked to organised membership. When it is said that eminent figures from civil society demand or did this or that, we need to disaggregate civil society. There are NGOs and research institutes, which often play a very important public role in litigation and specialised representations in support of democracy, sometimes in consultation with communities.  But these organisations do not have their own organised membership base. This is the case with a limited number of social movements, generally operating with scarce resources and often encountering sustained repression.

There needs to be a return to linkages with people on the ground in whose names any call for democratic change is made. It is their aspirations, their longings that need to inform any campaign and indeed, they need to be physically present in ensuring that what eventuates bears their imprint.

Leading individuals have participated in some of the campaigns we have seen. Those who were involved in the struggle know very well that leading means listening and learning from those on whose behalf one purports to act. The lack of contact between those who campaign for democracy and the people in various communities and sites of dissatisfaction needs to be remedied.

While opinion polls suggest high levels of dissatisfaction with the ANC in at least three key metros, this may not translate into an ANC defeat on the day of municipal elections Even if it does, this does not signify the translation of dissatisfaction with the ANC into an emancipatory and transformatory programme. 

Nevertheless, there is an urgent need to prepare for a new era, where we bend every effort towards recovering that which Nelson Mandela and many others devoted their lives to achieve – a society where all could live and walk with dignity and enjoy peace and freedom.

What has become clear in the present period is the importance of leadership qualities. Leaders who serve the people do not automatically pursue what Luthuli and Mahatma Gandhi before him called the “gospel of service”. We need to elaborate the qualities that we require from leaders, but also from those who are political actors at every level. The values we need to embrace and propagate need to embody the sense of common responsibility for our country and one another. The ethics need to embody a sense of solidarity with our neighbours in the spirit of the unionist slogan “an injury to one is an injury to all”. 

Obviously, no values have any meaning when people are without homes, water or electricity and live in conditions of squalor and indignity. A precondition for advancing ethical values is that basic needs are being addressed and there is an end to the diversion of resources towards private and often illegal benefits.

Within that context we need to build a spirit of mutuality and connectivity in which political actors are joined with the communities who are suffering and embrace their pain as their own. There needs to be a commitment to end violence. There is nothing romantic about any resort to violence, though there are limited situations where force needs to be employed in self-defence. Once that moment has passed, no society can be built without a commitment to peace and non-violence. On that foundation, with the assumption of peaceful relationships between members of communities, we can nurture a sense of community and what some call an “ethic of care”, a concern for the wellbeing of all.

Raymond Suttner is a scholar and political analyst. He is a former political prisoner for activities in the ANC-led liberation struggle. Currently he is a professor attached to Rhodes University and UNISA and his most recent book is Recovering Democracy in South Africa (Jacana and Lynne Rienner, 2015). He blogs at and his twitter handle is @raymondsuttner


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