Zuma: An African Chavez?

Africa is an infected continent. Its affliction is spread not by bacteria or parasites, but through loans. Delivered by the IMF and World Bank as part of the neo-liberal wave that enveloped the world after the fall of the Soviet Union, it plunged the continent, especially Southern Africa, into the pits of privatized hell. Neo-liberalism struck here at a magnitude only barely surpassed by Latin America1 , and at long last there are at least some signs that the masses may be standing up against capitalist exploitation to affirm their dignity as human beings. Now that he has won last week’s election, could Jacob Zuma, the leftist leader of the African National Congress, turn South Africa into an example of Socialism for the 21st Century?

The Tripartite Alliance

Currently ruling South Africa is what’s called the “Tripartite Alliance”, which consists of the African National Congress, the South African Communist Party, and the Congress of South African Trade Unions. The friendship between these organizations goes back to the struggle against apartheid. During this period of “National Democratic Revolution”, the movement was relatively homogeneous in its orientation towards the abolition of tyrannical white-rule. However, after majority rule was institutionalized following the 1994 all-races election, a rift in the Alliance began to form between those that represented the interests of the impoverished majority and those that represented the interests of the national bourgeoisie: the black elites.

The African National Congress is both a member of the Tripartite and the parliamentary vehicle for all three constituents. The ANC itself is a social democratic organization, which supports some social programs while ignoring the systemic root of the widespread poverty that grips South Africa (although this may soon change). Its true loyalties are made evident in the ANC’s highly touted Black Economic Empowerment program, which gives substantial state support to black capitalists. In doing so, the ANC continues the marginalization and exploitation of workers, especially black workers, that the very apartheid system it fought to overthrow was conceived for.

On the other hand, there exists a wing of the Tripartite that upholds the interests of the working class (both urban and rural). It’s composed of the South African Communist Party and the Congress of South African Trade Unions, two organizations closely allied in the common struggle for a socialist South Africa (the former somewhat more vocally than the latter). COSATU is the largest trade union in the country, while the SACP has a rich history of struggle that has earned it the loyalty of many South Africans.

In the aftermath of the 1994 election, the right wing of the Alliance slowly rose to dominance. During the presidency of Nelson Mandela, it became clear that the socialist society many envisioned after the end of apartheid was not going to materialize without further struggle. However, it was not until 1999 and the ascension of Thabo Mbeki that neo-liberalism fully descended on South Africa. Corruption, privatization, and all the other hallmarks of neo-colonialism deepened as a result, leading to a great amount of tension within the Tripartite Alliance and finally a major split.

The roots of the schism go back to 2005, when the Deputy President of South Africa, Jacob Zuma, was dismissed by Mbeki. Zuma, a fiery populist, was then faced with several politicized charges of corruption. However, during the course of these high-profile legal battles, Zuma became a symbol of the mass base of the ANC that opposed the neo-liberal betrayal of its founding principles. The Mbeki and Zuma camps fought a definitive battle at the 52nd National Conference of the ANC, held in Polokwane in 2007.

What transpired was an overwhelming victory for the left. Strengthened by the hardships the people have endured under neo-liberalism, the SACP and COSATU flexed their muscles in favor of the leftist Zuma, who won the ANC presidency with over 60% of the vote, defeating Thabo Mbeki. Furthering the defeat of the neo-liberal right was the victory, with nearly 62% of the vote, of Kgalema Motlanthe, a close ally of Zuma, who became deputy president of the ANC and later President of South Africa while Chairman of the South African Communist Party Gwede Mantashe became the General Secretary of the ANC with 62.4% of delegates supporting him.

In response, the most right-wing of the ANC national bourgeoisie left the party in 2008. Led by Mosiuoa “Terror” Lakota, these die-hard opponents of Zuma founded the Congress of the People (COPE), which espouses a mix of neo-liberal and center-left views, much like New Labour in the UK.

But for Zuma to even have a chance to change the nation, he would have to secure a crushing mandate from the people, and that’s exactly what he did. Last week’s election results revealed a landslide victory for the Tripartite Alliance, although it did lose its two-thirds supermajority. Specifically, 65.9% of the vote went to the ANC, 16.66% to the centrist, white-led Democratic Alliance, and an embarrassing 7.42% to COPE. Furthermore, a superb 77.3% of voters participated, which should prompt the social movements that called for a boycott to reevaluate their tactics.

Zuma — Glass Half Empty

So now that Zuma has won, let’s take a closer look at his political orientation. The new president of South Africa is a complex man with complex views, indicative of the ideological schizophrenia of the Tripartite. It’s important to analyze both his progressive and reactionary sides. First: a pessimistic look.

Zuma’s personal conduct leaves a lot to be desired. Although he was quick to apologize, the president made a high-profile homophobic remark, calling homosexuality “a disgrace”. This chauvinistic attitude can also be seen in his repeated participation (Zuma has had four wives) in the lobolo custom. Lobolo involves the payment of a woman’s family for the right to marry her, reducing the bride to a piece of property. Also, the President was a close friend of Schabir Shaik, a capitalist that was convicted of corruption in a high-profile trial.

In word, Jacob Zuma is by no means a model revolutionary. For example, here’s an excerpt from a speech he made to the American Chamber of Commerce at its Thanksgiving dinner in 2008:

Ladies and gentlemen, I said earlier during some of my business meetings in the United States I encountered a common question, based on media reports back home.

There appeared to be a concern about the role played by the SA Communist Party in particular, and our Alliance partners in general in policy making.

ANC policies are formulated by the ANC. Our alliance partners participate in the process, and bring to the fore the interests of the constituencies they represent. This brings much-needed balance to the broad church.

However, they cannot and do not dictate to the ANC what its policy should be. We also cannot dictate their policies as well. We have a relationship based on mutual respect.

Here Zuma spinelessly goes out of his way to ease the minds of the western bourgeoisie and reveals quite clearly that he is at least partially loyal to the capitalist system that is the bane of the South African people.

Zuma — Glass Half Full

It should also be recognized that the President-elect of South Africa has many qualities that set him apart from the run of the mill career politician. His oratory is inspiring and down to earth; free of the condescending double talk that characterizes the rhetoric of bourgeois statesmen. Zuma is also found of singing the militant anti-apartheid song “Umshini Wami” (“Bring Me My Machine Gun”).

There are plenty of statements Zuma has made that could be cited as support for an optimistic outlook. For example, he stated on December 16th, 2008 at the 47th Anniversary of the formation of Umkhonto We Sizwe (the armed wing of the ANC during the fight against apartheid):

Comrades, the ANC is a learning organisation. We have learnt from the mistakes of the past 15 years, especially the manner in which we may have, to some degree, neglected the people’s movement in our focus on governance.

From 1994, we had to focus primarily on transforming the State and the country, and to deliver on the basic needs of our people. We have to a large extent done well. Thousands of people have water, electricity, roads, public health care, access to education, houses and other basic services.

However, we may not have balanced our governance and party work well. In this context, all who led the ANC in the past 15 years should take collective responsibility for any possible weaknesses, as well take credit for the successes.

The various problems that developed could have been averted and some of our key structures and sectors would not have been neglected as they have been.

This statement reflects exactly the kind of honest, self-critical reflection necessary to prepare the path for radical anti-capitalist inroads.


Faced with a leader of unpredictable loyalties, what is the left-wing of the Tripartite to do? Abandoning the ANC and starting fresh would consume a tremendous amount of resources and those involved would have to face a long and treacherous path to get their foot in the door of state power. However, should the leftists choose to keep the alliance intact, which they very clearly are doing, the socialist forces will have a good deal of leverage to push Zuma in a revolutionary direction. It’s important to keep in mind that the future of South Africa rests not with one man, but with the constructive struggle of millions. The organizations potentially capable of leading this struggle are COSATU and the SACP, but for them to reach this potential they must first take a serious look at their actions over the last fifteen years and commit themselves to standing up when rightist elements of the ANC try to exert influence counter to the interests of the people.

Should the progressive forces of South Africa succeed in establishing 21st Century Socialism outside of Latin America , the ramifications will be earth-shattering. No longer will the ideology be confined to a single region, a single national liberation movement, but will spread to all oppressed nations and peoples, becoming the banner around which revolutionary elements the world over will rally. This internationalization is of paramount importance to the struggle against the rule of capital and to establish a just, democratic, and egalitarian world.

That said, we should not become too emotionally and politically invested in the radical trajectory of Zuma, which is dubious. However, working-class victory is, now more than at any other time since the defeat of apartheid, within reach. As legendary freedom fighter and SACP leader Joe Slovo said: “It’s not difficult in South Africa for the ordinary person to see the link between capitalism and racist exploitation, and when one sees the link one immediately thinks in terms of a socialist alternative.”

  1. Development and Globalization: Facts and Figures. United Nations Conference on Trade and Development 2004: 25. []
Walter Smolarek is a student and supportive of the progressive presidential campaign of Gloria LaRiva and Eugene Puryear. He encourages you to learn more about it at www.votepsl.org. Read other articles by Walter, or visit Walter's website.

3 comments on this article so far ...

Comments RSS feed

  1. lichen said on April 29th, 2009 at 3:59pm #

    Well, I hope Zuma can be made to undo the terrible obstacles to south african socialism setup during the transition from apartheid; mainly the indepedance of the (apartheid gang-run) central bank, and the crippling apartheid-era debts that the government is still paying (as well as hefty pensions to apartheid-politicians.)

  2. Dave Silver said on April 29th, 2009 at 6:52pm #

    The roots of dicord in the tripartite akkiance has to goback to Slovo’s
    booklet Has Sociaslism Failed and rthat partially embraced the emerging counter revolutionary Perestroika and Glasnost. Sadly the Mandels o]picked up on this and begn to edgentoward neo-liberalismwhic edges closer to the neo=cons. A result has been several General Strikes by COSATU and more than the SACP or the
    ANC have the best wou=rking class and anti-imperialiost outlook.
    Bravo COSATU
    Dave Silver

  3. Bhaskaran said on April 30th, 2009 at 6:39am #

    As an activist keenly following developments in search of ANOTHER WORLD across continents,I take South Africa as an important country which can play a dominant role in evolving a socialist world order.Brazil,Venezuela and other left leanig Latin American nations also figure in the list.I hope Zuma will rise to the occasion along with Chavez in creating an alternative to imperialist globalisation.