Even if Zuma goes, South Africa will remain divided

For a better future, South Africans need to unite across class, race and party political lines.

Demonstrators protest against South African President Jacob Zuma''s firing of Finance Minister Pravin Gordhan, outside Parliament in Cape Town
Demonstrators protest against South African President Jacob Zuma's decision to fire Finance Minister Pravin Gordhan, in Cape Town, South Africa [Mike Hutchings/Reuters]

The past week in South Africa has been fraught with political tensions and social melodrama that has, at times, resembled farce. President Jacob Zuma recalled Finance Minister Pravin Gordhan and others from a key global economic roadshow (and recalled the deputy finance minister who was actually still in the country), amid rumours of a major cabinet reshuffle.

That reshuffle was delayed by the nation’s outpouring of grief at the passing of veteran anti-apartheid leader Ahmed Kathrada, one of the very few ANC members who have had the temerity and courage to publicly criticise the kleptocrat president and his allies for their depredations on the public purse.

The reshuffle (including the axing of Gordhan and his deputy) was announced after midnight on Thursday, and South Africans consumed widespread outrage along with their breakfast on the morning of April 1.

But this was no April Fool’s joke, attested to by calls to #OccupyTreasury to coincide with Gordhan’s final address to the Treasury staff.

Unprecedented announcements by the country’s deputy president, the ANC’s secretary general and the party’s treasurer that there had been no consultation on the new cabinet appointments, led to much speculation that the new cabinet would serve the interests of the Gupta family, Indian expats who were the main subject of the 2016 Public Protector’s report into allegations of state capture. 

Civic indignation

Civic indignation was exacerbated when the state memorial service for the former Robben Islander, Kathrada, was postponed indefinitely. The Nelson Mandela Foundation and the Kathrada Foundation subsequently decided to go ahead with a civil society commemoration, in conjunction with the provincial arm of the ANC, trade union groupings and other organisations.

On Saturday, Johannesburg City Hall was packed to the rafters with people of all ages, races, political affiliations and backgrounds. Kathrada would have been delighted by this coming together that felt like a throwback to the late 1980s and early 1990s, when the United Democratic Front (UDF) managed to achieve broad-based mobilisation against the then apartheid regime.

Kathrada’s widow Barbara Hogan, herself a lifelong activist and former minister, reiterated her husband’s public plea to the president to step down last year, telling Zuma: “You have sacrificed everything we have stood for on the altar of corruption, greed and more greed … If you had ears to hear, you wouldn’t have appointed four finance ministers in less than two years.”

She went on to lambast Zuma’s inaction on the recent furore over the non-payment of social services grants to indigent South Africans, and was scathing about the nuclear deal proposed for South Africa, which will allegedly benefit Zuma and the Guptas. To loud applause, Hogan concluded: “Mr President, this country is not for sale and a people united will never be defeated.”

READ MORE: Ahmed Kathrada – the Robben Island diaries

Both the axed finance minister and the ANC’s partner in government, the South African Communist Party (SACP) echoed these sentiments. The SACP’s Solly Maimela said that the hard-won gains of democracy were being reversed and challenged the ANC to choose – either the people of South Africa or Zuma and the Guptas. Gordhan unapologetically called for mass mobilisation, exhorting citizens to leave their comfortable lounges and organise to hold government accountable.

If the most privileged in our society persistently refuse to acknowledge that their continuing privilege was achieved at the expense of the dignity and wellbeing of their compatriots, and remain impervious to calls for redress, we will not overcome the inequalities that are a suppurating wound on our nation's conscience.


Possibility of a unified South Africa

While these calls were inspirational and energised, the real question is whether South Africans can overcome their differences and unite across class, race and party political lines.

Many poorer and black citizens see calls to dress in black clothes today and to march to Luthuli House on April 7 as emanating from either the opposition Democratic Alliance, or from “neoliberal” elements who are concerned about the economic implications of recent events, but remain uncaring about the daily lived struggles of their less privileged compatriots.

Where are the proponents of #ZumaMustFall, they ask, when students protest against unaffordable fees, and when residents of poor communities protest about non-delivery of essential services?

They point to the overt and covert racism and the conscious and unconscious privilege displayed on social media platforms by many people who support these anti-Zuma and “SaveSA” forums, and allege that the non-racial ideology espoused by Mandela and Kathrada has served to entrench such racism and privilege instead of integrating and uniting South Africans.

In stark contrast to the UDF era, when it was relatively easy to mobilise across class, party, age and race lines against the common enemy of the apartheid state, the rifts in South Africa today are more difficult to bridge, both within and outside the ruling tripartite alliance.

There is little agreement over who the enemy really is, and what should happen if and when Zuma goes. Most of those who’ve been touted as possible successors, including the deputy president and the speaker of parliament, are tainted in one sense or another.

OPINION: #FeesMustFall – decolonising education

Further, a huge generational and class divide exists between the #FeesMustFall activists and their mostly middle-class detractors (who also dominate many of the anti-Zuma initiatives). The students and their supporters are often dismissed as thugs by the mainstream media and its consumers, due to the “violence” that has accompanied the student protests over the past few years.

Meanwhile, the structural “violence” suffered by starving students living in crowded circumstances and saddled with mounting debt is largely ignored by their more affluent critics because it rarely directly affects them, except when buildings or other property are damaged during protest action. The older generation of activists hark back to the respect for elders which was a hallmark of the UDF tradition but become defensive when it is pointed out that nearly half a century of post-apartheid political leadership has largely failed to change land and capital ownership patterns, or bridge the huge socioeconomic divide that is still predicated on race.

‘Time to listen’

Increasingly, young, black and poor South Africans are questioning whether the status quo will ever really benefit them, and are suspicious of initiatives that seek to gain their support for mass action towards ends that, they feel, are unlikely to bring any real change in their lived realities.

Many of these citizens are concerned about the recent political shenanigans and keen to express this, but are also justifiably wary of allying themselves with initiatives that are not inherently pro-poor nor free of party political bias.

Any attempts towards a truly broad coalition against the current kleptocracy must take this on board, and must include inclusive and strategic negotiation towards an outcome that is not purely about removing the president but also addresses the perceived complicity of those who enabled the corruption, including some of the most vociferous current critics, who need to be honestly and humbly self-critical.

While there have been calls for SACP ministers and MPs and other critics within the ruling alliance to resign, there is some merit in the notion that such a mass resignation would play into the hands of those whose sole aim is to loot the public purse. A multi-pronged approach on multiple fronts is needed, including the options of civic mass action, constitutional court applications, and impeachment or no-confidence motions, leaving party political jockeying out of the latter equation.

IN PICTURES: South Africa – University fee protests turn violent

While local and international media are gloomy about the economic and political outlook for South Africa, and most South Africans are honestly concerned about the future, it is starkly evident that unless we listen to and take on board the concerns of the poor and the youth among us, the rallying cries for unity will not be heeded by a generation that is legitimately angry and frustrated about the lack of real economic transformation in the country.

Equally, if the most privileged in our society persistently refuse to acknowledge that their continuing privilege was achieved at the expense of the dignity and wellbeing of their compatriots, and remain impervious to calls for redress, we will not overcome the inequalities that are a suppurating wound on our nation’s conscience.

Perhaps the most urgent lesson we must learn is to try to truly hear each other instead of speaking over one another; and to honestly commit to sacrifice some privileges on the one hand and to release some bitterness over the enduring legacy of structural apartheid on the other, in the interests of a shared future for us all.  

Ayesha Kajee is a human rights activist and political analyst with a special focus on African governance and development. She tracks elections and democratic consolidation in the region. 

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.