The atmosphere in South Africa in October 2023 is one of pervasive despair, a sense of depression and disillusionment, that things are bad and will never get better.
This is partly based on a belief that there is nothing that can be done to remedy what is happening, at the instance primarily of the liberation movement that led the country to freedom in 1994, the ANC, then headed by Nelson Mandela.
The early years of the ANC- led government, initially in a Government of National Unity, saw some important gains in education, health care, basic resources like water, electricity and housing and a number of other areas of life.
In later years, especially, after the rise of Jacob Zuma, in 2006, to the presidency, first of the ANC, and then of the country in 2008, many of these gains were reversed, not merely through failure to implement policies.
These setbacks derived primarily through wholesale looting of the fiscus, of the resources of the country that were meant to be used to better the lives of the poor and marginalised.
Many people had devoted their lives to the struggle under the leadership of the ANC, although there were other organisations involved in that liberation. Many of those who were in the ANC and the SACP and remained honest, were reluctant to withdraw from these organisations, despite the stealing, and believed that it was best to try to change them from within.
In my own case, I did withdraw from and break formal links with the ANC and SACP and did my best, mainly though analysis, to indicate what was wrong, from the early years of the Zuma presidency.
I did not condemn everyone who remained within the ANC, nor did I devote much energy to individuals -generally. I do believe that there are some who remained and remain within the ANC because they have believed-in good faith- that they could change it from within.
They have been proved wrong. That does not fill me with joy. Some are still trying to renew the ANC from within. I do not question the ethical reasons that led and continues to lead them to remain within the ANC. Many of these do try to continue the fight for freedom and transformation for which so many devoted or sacrificed their lives. They hoped to see these aspirations realised and often did not believe they would necessarily live to see the 1994 liberation, let alone the transformed society we hoped would be put in place afterwards.
Unfortunately, what has happened after the removal of Jacob Zuma has become as serious, if not more so, than the earlier looting. What are described by some as the “wasted years” of the Zuma period have continued to be “wasted years”, if that is an adequate short hand description of what has happened- that period continues.
In the post-Zuma period life continues to be cheap and it has included widespread lawlessness permeating the police services themselves on a fairly extensive basis, with guns being supplied through the police to criminal elements in places like the Western Cape. In many parts of the country members of the security forces, as well as ad hoc policing mechanisms set up, as in Gauteng, have used illegal force against innocent citizens or even people who have broken minor regulations.
Force that was unnecessary to effect an arrest or to prevent something illegal has been used, as a continuing pattern of the functioning of police services, as happened extensively in the period of lockdown during the Covid epidemic. What is concerning is that very few police are held responsible for their legal breaches and acts of violence.
The question of fraud is no longer purely one of the earlier State Capture. State capture initiated by the Gupta family, led to the controlling of ministries within the South African government and diverting resources from the fiscus. This stopped insofar as the Guptas are no longer the initiators (as far as we know). But that particular route to wealth has continued, with some variations, through other people engaging in irregular or fraudulent tenders and similar practices.
Fraud against state entities like Eskom, Transnet and other state corporations has continued in the post- Zuma/Gupta period. Much of what ought to have led Eskom to recover its capacity has been undermined through illegality from within or from former Eskom employees who know how to access elements of Eskom that can be sabotaged, or to supply material to Eskom at prices that are irregular or in ways that are unlawful, as with supply of coal that is not up to standard or the sabotage of modes of transport of supplies needed for Eskom or despatch of coal to harbours. Similar patterns can be found in other state owned enterprises.
The undermining and robbing of the state and state entities has continued in the present in all provinces. It is true that the DA- led Western Cape and Cape Town local authority is generally run more efficiently than those under coalitions or by the ANC. But in the Western Cape there are also massive problems in the interface between the police and gangsters, going beyond the siphoning of weapons to gangsters in the area already mentioned, for that is merely one part of a generally compromised relationship of the police services in relation to the underworld.
In this situation of national crisis, which encompasses almost every area of our lives, understandably, many people have wanted to remove the government of the day, the ANC- led government in particular. It rules the national government and all the provinces except the Western Cape, although it appears to also be vulnerable to electoral setbacks in Gauteng, and possibly KwaZulu Natal.
Many have wanted to see this happen and have met together as opposition parties in order to secure an alternative that could form a majority and rule the country as a clean government instead of the ANC. The DA, the strongest opposition party, has led many of these initiatives and new parties have been formed, such as Rise Mzansi.
Personally, I am not convinced that electoral change-on its own, will lead to the remedying of the problems of the country. We have seen in local government that the ANC suffered serious defeat from 2016 onwards and the onset of alternative coalition governments has led to high levels of instability, with numerous coalitions and mayors in the Johannesburg area, for example, with fraud continuing, despite the leadership change.
In order to keep one or other party out of power, one has seen the situation, where parties that represent less than 5% of the electorate have been allowed to hold the position of mayor in an extremely ineffectual way, as in the case of the City of Johannesburg at present.
This is just one example of why the electoral alternatives to the ANC cannot be seen as guarantees of the future. I am aware that one cannot guarantee anything in politics or anywhere else. But I do believe there is a problem not only in ANC politics, but also in the line up of opposition parties.
Regarding the alternatives to the ANC, the problem that we have in the country (as said previously) is not one of doctrine, that the ANC may be more inclined towards state run activities and nationalisation and similar quasi socialist ideas. The problem is not that versus private enterprise being left to drive growth and development in the country. (On why doctrine is not the primary issue, see Raymond Suttner, https://www.dailymaverick.co.za/article/2023-10-02-coalition-for-emancipation-a-way-out-of-crisis-in-sa/ and https://www.polity.org.za/article/the-continuing-crisis-can-we-find-a-way-forward-2023-10-02).
The primary question that concerns me at the moment is similar to that which preoccupies many people when they look at the turmoil in Israel/ Palestine at the moment, and the callous disregard for lives, the killings of civilians, first by Hamas, in a surprise attack on Israel, but now the genocidal attack of the Israelis in the Gaza enclave, where it's impossible for people to escape from bombings and where civilians are the primary casualties. In that case, we have a lack of compassion for those, mainly defenceless civilians, who are suffering harm and death in large numbers.
If the starting point is not one of doctrine, whether one is a socialist, social democrat (in fact, a type of socialist), communist, or liberal, what matters is whether you care about other human beings. My sense is that the hearts of the ANC, in an earlier generation, may have beaten in the same way as that of the oppressed. Many came from the oppressed and were willing to die for the freedom of all the people of South Africa. The ANC is now indifferent to what happens to what used to be its own constituency, the still oppressed majority. Let us be clear that the reference to the “oppressed majority” is not an exaggeration but refers to apartheid type oppression continuing in the conditions that most people experience.
When one considers the opposition parties, one does not have the impression that they are moved or even have a sense of significant empathy and compassion for the fate of those who are suffering. I am not saying this is the case with everyone in the DA or any other party in opposition, but they create the impression of a technocratic and clinical approach to what is happening in the country.
The DA may be able to claim efficiency in the way it goes about its work, compared with the ANC, but their record in coalitions in local government is not beyond question. Even without this it is unclear that they will be able to lead a coalition -at a national level- to remedy the country’s problems, given the potential composition of such a grouping, which may pull in different directions.
Because neither the ANC nor its alternatives are satisfactory, in terms of remedying the problems of the country, many people are gripped by a sense of despair, a sense of passivity, a sense that there's nothing they can do to alleviate their plight in present day South Africa.
In part two of this article I consider hope and prophetic action as resources to neutralise despair.
Raymond Suttner is an Emeritus Professor at the University of South Africa and a Research Associate in the English Department at University of the Witwatersrand. He served lengthy periods as a political prisoner. His writings cover contemporary politics, history, and social questions. His twitter handle is @raymondsuttner.