There is a rather one-sided, reductive and commonplace perception that South African President Jacob Zuma is a dangerous man. Included in this is an assertion that the fear of Zuma is what brings together the #ZumaMustFall campaign to have him fired.
But what stands on the other side? Well, a real country that is distrustful, dangerous and angry; ultimately a citizenry afraid of itself and one another.
In generalities, whites are perceived as untransformed oppressors, greedy, uncommitted to genuine reconciliation, and blacks as failing, criminal, and inferior. These are racist stereotypes keeping South Africans apart and mediating social relations.
But yet everyday reality is much more complicated. An inbetween exists of deracialising spaces, institutions and transforming social relationships. But it is getting lost. This is the governing African National Congress’ failed “rainbow nation” project. At the same time, re-racialising dynamics are engendering old and new faultlines.
Both potential and actual non-racial social relations have taken root over the past two decades. But deep racial divides in South African society are eclipsing these due to the ANC’s shallow nation-building efforts. #ZumaMustFall is challenged by these realities and can only go forward if it embraces a radical approach to non-racialism.
Reviving the dream of a better country for all
The collective unconscious of the #ZumaMustFall is, ironically, about reconnecting with the desire to be a country transformed in race, class and gender terms.
It is about a courageous attempt to find a non-racial solidarity again, to reaffirm a common vision and journey towards a secure future. But is this imputing too deep a meaning to the cyber-chatter and street politics of #ZumaMustFall?
At one level #ZumaMustFall is far from homogenous. It includes, among others:
those who believe South Africa deserves better leadership;
those who believe the ANC just needs to recall Zuma and all will be well;
those who are repulsed by Zuma’s venality;
those who believe Zuma is a risk to globalised profit-making; and
those who want a stable, working democracy.
The #ZumaMustFall campaign is not just a big tent but also an open signifier with multiple symbolic meanings. Its true potential lies in turning what is unconscious desire into conscious political solidarity and a radical non-racialism that the ANC failed to realise.
It is about achieving genuine reconciliation and transformation. Without this ambition it will not go very far and will not enable South Africans to overcome the fear of themselves. Without this ambition it will harbour a minority of white racists. Without this ambition it cannot beat Zuma’s ANC. This is also a challenge for the students’ #FeesMustFall campaign.
Also, its potential as a force for change also derives from the genesis of its rage.
For many commentators, #ZumaMustFall begins with the recent sacking of finance minister Nhlanhla Nene. If this was the case then the re-appointment of Pravin Gordhan would have pacified this multitude.
The move certainly pacified the markets, but not the mass anger. Instead, several street protests took place across different locales and there is immense potential for more.
Movements rooted in growing discontent
The #FeesMustFall and #ZumaMustFall campaigns come from the same place. The rage has its roots in opposition to the Zuma class project. The project is about surrendering national sovereignty through globalising South African capitalism, while a political class controlling the state and tied into Black Economic Empowerment captures rents at the expense of the majority.
The project has failed in two respects.
All of this has come in the context of a contracting economy and increasing unemployment with no hope or expectation of change from above. This is confirmed by the government’s austerity response. There is a disconnect between South Africa’s rulers and the needs of citizens.
Second, Zuma ascended through an authoritarian populist politics. The cult of Zuma merged with the presidentialising of power that existed under Thabo Mbeki, his predecessor. This has given license for the destruction of key institutions, such as the National Prosecuting Authority, and the undermining of the Public Protector’s authority, as well as brazen patronage-based corruption.
This has shifted perceptions among sections of South Africa’s working and middle classes, particularly through the Marikana mining massacre, the Nkandla scandal involving the use of public money on Zuma’s private homestead, attempts to undermine rural women’s citizenship and the destruction of the Congress of South African Trade Unions, the ANC’s governing ally.
Through #FeesMustFall, student and worker alliances are saying enough is enough to the outsourcing of work, the undermining of worker rights, and commodified education. At the same time, increasing sections of the working and middle classes are deeply concerned about economic insecurity and the crisis of democratic constitutionalism.
There is common ground here. The reckless sacking of Nene merely unleashed another popular expression of simmering anger against a crisis-ridden, increasingly authoritarian and deeply corrupt mode of neoliberal governance.
This situation also opens up the possibility for #FeesMustFall and #ZumaMustFall to find a radical, non-racial convergence and, in class terms, for the working class and middle class to share common interests.
People’s power meets cyber power
South Africa’s cybersphere is becoming part of its democratic politics and its democratic politics part of the cybersphere. Social media is now part of its protests. It extends South Africa’s public sphere and creates a crucial infrastructure for affirming democratic citizenship.
Mass politics is being remade in a way which not only challenges the dominant ANC but also institutional opposition parties. #ZumaMustFall, like #FeesMustFall, took the country’s institutional parties by surprise, prompting them to opportunistically jostle around the multitude to find a place.
The monopoly of the opposition Economic Freedom Fighters of being anti-Zuma was completely undercut and eclipsed. #ZumaMustFall together with #FeesMustFall opened up a new strategic way forward for mass opposition to the ANC and its Zuma class project.
In other words, both #FeesMustFall and #ZumaMustFall are at the same time about #ThePeopleMustRise and are showing a way forward to end the fear of ourselves.
This comes with its limits and challenges. But despite these, #FeesMustFall and #ZumaMustFall are inaugurating a new historical vector for mass power and democratisation from below, notwithstanding Zuma falling, or being predictably defended by a deeply corrupt ruling party.