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Politics during apartheid had a certain straight-line simplicity. It was always pretty clear who the main enemy was. Things got scrambled with democratization. But a measure of simplicity was soon returned—at least for the outsider left. A neoliberal hegemonic bloc merged at the summit of power, binding old white business elites to an emergent “corporate black bourgeoisie” as Roger Southall put it. The battle lines were clear once again.

That era ended somewhere around 2014, during the reign of Jacob Zuma. Nurtured in the interstices of the corporate economy, a new rivalrous elite made its presence fully felt in that period. It assumed the helm of a wider assemblage of forces born out of the “informal economies” of the ANC’s patronage state and committed to a more muscular form of racial redistribution without the progressive pretenses.

With Zuma’s defeat at the ANC’s national congress in 2017 the forces of “radical economic transformation” (RET) were briefly repulsed. But they came roaring back to life last month when Zuma’s new uMkhonto weSizwe (MK) party captured 14.6% of the vote in national elections, denying the ANC its electoral majority for the first time since democracy. Combined with the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF), parties dedicated to RET will hold around a quarter of the seats in the new parliament. 

The political field is now dominated by two contending blocs—the liberal (DA and some smaller parties) and authoritarian-kleptocratic (EFF and MK) with the ANC split between the two and the left sadly nowhere to be seen. 

Many appear to deny these realities and want to cleave the easy binaries of before. 

On the left, two responses to May 29 have been prevalent. First a rush to false equivalences: we’re reminded of the primary truth that both the liberals and the kleptocrats are “bad,” but the comparison is taken no further than this. Second, selective denunciation: one side has its flaws and malevolencies held up to a microscope, while the other is ignored. 

This won’t cut it. Being forced to navigate between two terrible choices is not the world we want, but it’s the world we’re in. To ignore and wish away these dilemmas is to abdicate our strategic duty and make it more likely that we end up with the worse of the two. 

To decode the “meaning” of the contending blocs it’s not enough just to slot them onto the ideological spectrum and invoke their historical analogs. We need to place them in our concrete conjuncture, and trace out how each will reshape the political-economic terrain in ways that either further or foil the building of a progressive alternative.  

So what do the different coalition combinations mean for South Africa and for the working class? Many on the left think an ANC-DA agreement heralds a giant lurch deeper into neoliberalism. They foresee continuity on “fiscal prudence” coupled with a rollback of the welfarist platforms that the ANC has managed to implement. Not himself prone to false equivalences, Luke Sinwell describes this as the “greatest threat of all to those who seek historical redress.”

Implicit in many of these accounts seems to be an assumption that the DA retains all the leverage in coalition talks giving it the power to dictate the legislative agenda of any new government. That’s wrong, for as everyone knows the DA is not the ANC’s only choice. The EFF and MK both hold enough parliamentary seats to get the ANC close to or over 50%. 

DA leaders have labeled an ANC tie-up with either of those parties as a “doomsday coalition” and this shouldn’t be seen as just idle electioneering. Always disposed to swart gevaar-tinged tales of societal collapse, it’s likely that many in the party quite genuinely believe that such a coalition will put the country on a slope to Zanufication. Sadly these concerns are not entirely without merit, however odious their premises. 

The same fears are felt just as acutely within Sandton’s C-suites and this will have a major bearing on the negotiation process. Zille’s phone will have been running off the hook in the last few weeks as desperate CEOs press her to put ideology aside and shore up a stability pact with Ramaphosa. 

Hence the DA has repeatedly said that it will “do anything” to prevent the kleptocrats returning to power—not exactly the language of a party holding all the chips. Naturally, there will be dissension in the ranks with some pushing for tougher terms or trying to tank the agreement altogether. But the fact remains, as talks get underway the DA’s advantage is far from overwhelming. 

We can’t predict precisely what an ANC-DA agreement—whether as coalition or “confidence and supply”—will entail. But it seems highly implausible that it will involve the repeal of any of the ANC’s big-ticket, redistributive items—the minimum wage, BEE or the NHI (on BIG both parties are nominally aligned). A move in that direction would be political suicide for Ramaphosa and for the centrist pact in turn. 

From a policy standpoint the most likely outcome from a DA-ANC agreement is straightforward continuity. That seems to be the explicit objective of both key DA leaders and their corporate backers. 

In the short term continuity is not all bad, given that, at least on certain fronts, we are currently on a trajectory of slow recovery from the depths into which Zuma plunged us. Five years of breathing room for Ramaphosa’s plodding reforms to gain ground might allow key public institutions to exit the ICU. 

There might even be one or two net positives, most wishfully progress on public sector reform. History shows that dominant parties are most likely to sign away powers of appointment when threatened that their opponents might use the same weapons against them—the reality that now faces the ANC as sub-national administration slips out of its grasp. 

In the medium and longer term, however, continuity is unequivocally bad. Many of the treatments being applied to stave off collapse will cause major complications down the line. Privatization might get the trains back and keep the lights on in the short run. In the long term it will hand infrastructural power to big business and sap the state’s capacity to imagine and enact structural transformation and climate adaptation. 

If the historical record shows anything, ongoing austerity will fail to fix the debt crisis while pushing people deeper into the arms of demagogues. Neoliberal policies are the root cause of the polarization in the country and they won’t be its solution. 

A DA pact might bring about a reversion to the pre-Zuma trend, but that trend was already one of crisis. 

So is this scenario the “greatest threat of all to those who seek historical redress?” Categorically not. There is, sadly, a far worse scenario that is possible should the second of the contending blocs—the kleptocrats—gain ascendence.

Before we lay out that scenario, we should stress that is just one more lurid but not necessarily more likely way in which things may play out. There are certainly some worlds in which an ANC-EFF tie-up ends again in continuity, maybe even a few in which it leads to progressive departures (far fewer if MK is the lead actor). Reading the tea leaves is always fraught when the EFF is involved as so much with that party depends on the preferences and proclivities of one individual. 

But at the same time, it would be a mistake to over-personalize dynamics within the EFF. The party’s gravitation to corruption is not simply a reflection of Malema’s own long-standing predilection for blurring the boundaries between public and personal finances. It’s a reflection of the historical imbrication of his organization and its antecedents in the informal economies of the ANC party-state. Patronage isn’t a policy choice for the EFF, it’s a structural reality on which the power and legitimacy of the leadership—Malema included— ultimately rests. 

The same applies even more forcefully to their warring brothers in The Spear of the Nation. 

When Malema said that the EFF and MK are “relatives”, he spoke more truth than he normally does. Still, the outside observer could be pardoned some confusion—despite the persistence of some in the media in trying to associate MK with the left, it’s a brazenly right-wing, chauvinistic, ethnocentric political formation dedicated to reviving feudal authority. 

The EFF is a far more complex beast. On paper, it draws more from Marx than from Mangosuthu Buthelezi. In its ranks are genuine progressives, committed to democracy in the world even if they are failing to practice it at home. 

But in practical reality, the two are, as Malema avers, more aligned than apart because they are governed by the same structural realities of patronage. Ideology will tend to come second to the material forces that grease the sinews of power within their respective organizations and bind them to their base.

That means that a commitment to graft will likely be the overriding agenda for these formations. This might suggest a way to contain them. There is certainly a scenario in which the EFF concedes on most of its policy agenda in exchange for access to rents. 

However, should RET forces regain control of the ANC—an outcome made more likely by a coalition with a kleptocrat party—we could very well get a far graver outcome, a return to the “amazing years” of Jacob Zuma, as his daughter put it. State capture redux. 

What will happen should that come to pass? Most immediately an economic collapse. It’s fair for the left to treat threats about “investor confidence” with some skepticism because business leaders tend to throw them around so idly when even minor issues are at stake. This is not one of those times. We are already in a low-intensity capital strike as investors wait to see if Ramaphosa’s reforms will gain traction. A full revival of the state capture agenda could push investment over the cliff edge. 

From there, two outcomes are most likely. One is that the ANC-EFF-MK coalition will be brought to heel by the realities of capital’s “structural power.” Facing calamity, they might backpedal, appoint market-friendly ministers and try to contain or at least centralize the rent seeking. We’ll get the status quo ante—neoliberal “fundamentals” with bounded corruption. Alternatively, the forces of RET might be deposed by the victims of the economic crisis, wielding either the ballot or brick.

That’s the normal way things work under capitalism. Politics operates within the boundaries set by those who hold veto over investment. 

But occasionally the rules fail to apply. Structural power is indirect. Ultimately it relies on political forces not beholden to the investor class to be effectuated. And sometimes those forces don’t follow the script. 

If RET can’t be made to bow to the “animal spirits” of investors, then the only way is for the breach to widen. The economy will hemorrhage and the kleptocrats will eventually respond with expropriation, hoping to usurp capital’s prerogative over investment and stem the problem at its source. They won’t do so to put workers in charge but to create a new, pliant bourgeoisie. 

Once the sanctity of property is violated there will be few paths for de-escalation. Venezuela portends.

Of course at this point, either RET falls or the franchise does. As long as the people decide, no party can govern through sustained crisis. There will be no “historic redress” whatsoever if our basic liberties are lost. 

Sinwell skews the strategic calculus when he papers over the extent to which MK is openly committed to this outcome. He’s no fan of either the EFF or MK, thankfully. But he seems to locate their problems at the level of personalities and ideas. He rightly takes Zuma to task for his sexism. He neglects to mention his anti-constitutionalism and history of trying to ferment insurrections and coups. He gives no attention to the social currents out of which these practices emerge.

The anti-democratic strain is less virulent in the EFF but nonetheless prominent. It would be naïve to believe that Malema wishes to run the state any differently from how he runs his own party.

In a sense, it’s not the policies but the organization of the state that is the primary locus of conflict today. Neoliberals want to shackle the state to the market. The kleptocrats want to privatize and subjugate it. The logic of their program leads to a conflict with the democratic form of the state. 

Both will hinder progressive alternatives. But the threat they pose is not equal. 

This post is from a partnership between Africa Is a Country and The Elephant. We will be publishing a series of posts from their site every week