Sometime after the next South African president is sworn in, the country will look back on the Jacob Zuma years and reflect on the two defining moments of this period of degeneration: the Marikana massacre in 2012, and the release of the Public Protector’s State of Capture report after the court humiliation of Zuma and a cabal of his supporters.
The Marikana massacre was the most dramatic symbol of popular resistance to state failure, although it was by no means an isolated event. The state capture report represents the victory of a broad front of political elites drawn from all parties, key business networks and several civil society coalitions who gathered in 1980s-style “united frontism” in the country’s capital Pretoria. This may just be a prelude to a rearrangement of power positions at the apex after Zuma falls - or gets pushed - onto his sword. Or it foreshadows deeper regime change.
Either way, South Africa has become part of a much wider pan-African dynamic commonly referred to now as Africa Uprising – the third wave of major popular uprisings since the 1950s. These uprisings are led mainly by urban youth and, although diverse, they essentially express aspirations that most regimes cannot currently address. In particular demands for democratic decision-making, an end to state capture and greater redistribution.
The first wave took place in the 1950s/1960s which led to the end of colonialism. The second was in the 1980s/1990s which got rid of dictatorships that followed the growth years of the 1960s, reinforced by Cold War dynamics. The third wave has affected over 40 countries over the past decade, and the outcome is as yet unclear.
Opponents gather strength
If Zuma had proceeded with his court action to stop publication of the report, he would have directly taken on his own party and the people of South Africa. This remarkable eventuality was a step too far, even for him.
For the leadership of the African National Congress, it must have been comforting seeing him engineer his own almost total political isolation, thus saving them from finding the courage to recall him like they did former President Thabo Mbeki in 2008.
There has been growing evidence over the past few weeks that the tide has begun to turn against Zuma in the the party’s National Executive Committee. This became very apparent when its chief whip Jackson Mthembu kept his job after leading the public charge against Zuma from his parliamentary base two weeks earlier. Mthembu didn’t suffer the same fate as Paul Mashatile, another ANC stalwart and then leader of the country’s economic powerhouse Gauteng, who paid the price for coming out publicly against Zuma before the local government elections in August.
And there have been the first indications that the usually fearful and limp-wristed business community has had enough. There could be no clearer evidence of this than the standing ovation that AngloGold Ashanti chairman Sipho Pityana got at a mining conference. This was followed by CEOs coming out against charges being brought against the Finance Minister Pravin Gordhan.
A rapid series of events over the past few weeks suggest that the tide has turned against Zuma. After the head of the country’s National Prosecuting Authority Shaun Abrahams dropped the charges against Gordhan thus further weakening Zuma, rumours circulated within the ANC, parliamentary and well-connected business circles that “No. 1 (a colloquial reference to Zuma) was planning a major strike that will change the game”. Most assumed this would be a scorched-earth cabinet reshuffle to get Gordhan out. After the publication of the Public Protector’s damning report this seems unlikely.
It would, nevertheless, be a mistake to underestimate Zuma.
Dangerous times ahead
The issue is no longer whether Zuma will leave or not. The challenge now is a power vacuum without a clear political project to fill it. This is the new contestation, a dangerous time when the moves are opaque. ANC factions are out in the open, but none seem able to lead decisively. Populist forces would be keen to fill this vacuum.
One of the country’s largest unions, the National Education, Health and Allied Workers’ Union, has made a commendable intervention calling on Zuma to resign and for the deputy President Cyril Ramaphosa to take over. But, given the myriad divisions in the ANC, it’s a safe bet that Ramaphosa is not about to step into the breach with a coherent coalition of forces behind him.
By contrast, if a downgrade triggers a recession and protests mount, mass mobilisation may well be triggered. South Africans should not underestimate what happens as politicised students head home into their communities across the country for the holidays. As in Ethiopia recently, this could turn a student moment into people’s movement.
Africa’s third wave of uprisings
So is South Africa part of the third wave of African uprisings? It’s important to recognise that these have not unfolded uniformly with a shared platform. What is common is action against ruling elites, but this has played out differently in different countries, with some victories for democracy and some setbacks.
The most recent have been protests in Ethiopia that started with student demonstrations and spread out into a people’s movement, with significant support from the Ethiopian diaspora. The governing party has admitted that changes are needed. There has been a cabinet reshuffle and 20 cabinet ministers have been fired.
There are similar stories across the continent, with different results. In some power positions have been rearranged at the apex, as in Ethiopia. But in Tanzania President John Magufuli is completely changing the ballgame.
The North African chapters of the Arab Spring have decomposed into dictatorships largely because middle class-led movements did not translate into real organisational power capable of resisting re-militarisation.
In August 2016, 272 activists from movements across Africa met in Arusha and issued the Kilimanjaro Declaration. A key sentence read:
[t]hat the wealth belongs to all our people, not to a narrow political and economic elite.
State capture is not just a South African phenomenon. Nor are the country’s movements unique. But I believe that South Africa is part of Africa Uprising, and like the previous waves, the country can assume that things will change fundamentally. What it should not do is allow the current political vacuum to be filled by those who only want to rearrange power positions in the apex or alternatively impose a populist solution.