In April, the opposition promised months of mass mobilisation. Then the hard work of organising was abandoned for the attempted short-cut of the courts. Doing so wasted the opportunity of widespread anger combined with the long-term crumbling of ANC branch structures. Jacob Zuma gambled that this would happen, and is starting to cash in his chips. The opposition can still avoid his trap, but only by walking out of the courts, getting back to the ground, and leading more than litigating.
In the two years of running an organisation focused on developing tools for grassroots mobilising, and with over 30,000 township dwellers now regularly reached through our tools, I have had the privilege to observe our political landscape shift in ways few would have imagined until recently. From this vantage point, grassroots activism is hampered by a lack of resources and challenges in leadership (which are openly acknowledged).
But it is also challenged by the near-total lack of interest among civil society and even mainstream opposition parties in building mass support in the only way it really counts: block-by-block, street-by-street, township-by-township. Politics at ground level is changing fast, and none of the top leadership of the ANC is popular. The most consequential field of politics in our country is opening, and most if not all of the opposition is absent.
“What kind of leader just fires someone because another person comes and whispers nonsense in his ear?” asked a community leader, the day after Zuma fired Gordhan. “This man must go.” He came from one of the ANC’s oldest bastions of support, was prepared even to credit the “dossier” as cause for Zuma’s action, and was still angry and wanted the President removed.
In field work, in discussion groups, in workshops, we heard similar sentiments over and over. Most others were more blunt. “They are just thieves,” said one. “They are just gangsters,” said another. “What kind of country lets itself by led by someone like this?”, asked a third.
A story could have resonated. It would have focused on wounded national pride, on the shame that the kind of lousy, corrupt local “leaders” who were being evicted by poor, desperate but determined citizens were now appearing to take control of the whole nation. That we were suffering to let ourselves be governed by people we would have chased out of a local branch.
That story was not told. Instead, the story was one for talk radio, middle-class papers and social media. It was a misguided wailing about the rand and ratings agencies, and a desperate and doomed attempt to link those to the lives of the poor.
Even then, many could have been mobilised. Each of the people I quoted above would have turned up at protests, and brought several hundred people with them, if they were given the means to do so. Earlier this year one brought a few hundred people to Luthuli House. They had found out when the NEC was meeting, and barricaded the entrance to the garage, preventing Zuma’s motorcade from entering. Another brought several hundred into town for a disciplined march on Library Gardens, just by persuading some train operators to give them free pass. That is with nothing more than a few hundred rand to buy some rolls for marchers – sometimes not even that. If they, and hundreds of others like them across the townships of Gauteng, had a few resources and a common story to link them together, the crowds of 20,000 could have mounted to a hundred or several hundred thousand.
But of course nothing of the sort happened. I asked one person the day before one of the “big” marches if they were going. “No man,” he replied. “Where would I go? How would I get there?” I asked another how many people he thought a prominent organisation, with funding of tens of millions of rands a year, could put on the streets. He thought a while. “Two hundred, maybe,” he replied. “But they’d have to buy KFC.”
It is not merely national events that have opened the field of ground-level politics. Talk of crisis as something new is strange to the ears of people who have been in the midst of severe, sometimes violent change, often dramatic change for many years. To understand what has happened, it is important to go back into the past.
The struggle against apartheid was sustained by a dense network of local organising structures. Block committees, street committees, and ward committees organised and mobilised ordinary people’s participation in the struggle. In the first years of democracy and under the RDP there were plans to use those structures as vehicles of participatory governance. They would be built up to empower citizens, to provide a voice in local government by feeding ideas into development plans and being a forum for deciding on priorities and monitoring performance.
The switch from the RDP to Gear meant the abandonment of that idea, whether intentionally or as one of the babies thrown out with the bathwater. Thabo Mbeki’s aggressive centralisation of the ANC hollowed out his own party’s grass roots’ level democracy. The block and street and ward committees were rolled up into the South African National Civics Organisation (Sanco), which was turned into appendages of the now-ruling party. Local investment and jobs, most of all housing, was and is doled out through them. The local Sanco branch (or just “the Sanco” for short) would identify who should receive what and how, and the local ANC branch would make sure the Sanco leadership was the right people.
A potent mix of historical legacy, genuine redress, individual patronage, and organisational muscle then ensured ANC dominance of township politics for years. But decay set in. Corrupt leaders had a strong incentive to take over local branches, and were skilled at managing patronage to do so. Since neither ANC branches nor Sancos had any meaningful influence on politics or governance, there was no incentive for a local leader with integrity or courage to try act through them.
Linked to this, ANC party structures themselves have become sclerotic, wracked by old age and ineptitude. In the 21st century, ANC membership records are still stored in A4 2 quire notebooks, with the only proof of membership being a blue slip torn from a receipt book, the other copy of which is stored in the respective branch. It’s hardly surprising when, for example, it is revealed that 50% of ANC’s Eastern Cape membership was “missing” or that membership records have been “stolen”. Stokvels run in Kliptown have better record-keeping capabilities than the continent’s oldest liberation movement.
The rot continued until the branches and Sancos were often seen as mere tools of corruption. As patience ran out, mounting anger expressed itself in service delivery protests that entirely bypassed the old structures. In some places that has left a void of organisation. In many others, new community structures have risen. These changes produce conflict: organisers’ shacks can be burnt down, warnings of impending violence can send them into hiding.
The legacy is now old and waning, redress has halted, organisational muscle has atrophied, and even patronage is weakened by factional fighting and limited budgets. It was then little surprise when turnout in ANC areas dropped steeply in municipal elections last year. The community structures through which the ANC dispensed patronage and mobilised voters have been weakening for many years. Their decay is now almost complete, and the field of politics is open, contested and often ruthless.
A few weeks ago, a community living in “Deep Soweto” (so-called even by residents), issued a request for help. They had lost all trust in local government, in the ward councillor, or in the ANC branch. But no part of the opposition had stepped foot in their shacks. So they sent a letter to an MP they had seen in the news a few times. To his credit, he came, gave a speech, and promised to try help them. They are organising themselves into new block committees. But that visit has been the only attempt at either helping or recruiting them. The opposition is absent.
Even the one organisation that was contesting the field, the EFF, shows signs of slipping into the court and media bubble. In some places it already has to hold meetings about “reviving the branch”. While its national leaders toured the media, its Johannesburg structure barely even tried to extract something of value for its constituents from the first DA budget. Instead of, for example, using its council votes to secure firm timetables and funding for long-stalled projects and then organising its members to monitor delivery, it decided instead to bluff about a social media spat.
In contrast, the ANC – or some parts of it – are trying to recover on the ground. In the aftermath of the Soweto housing protests of May, the Gauteng department of housing under Paul Mashatile has recently set up registration and verification desks close to the ground. Communication is being run through the Sancos. More than one leader has reported that in the last few weeks, often following an address by Mashatile, the Sancos have become more visible and active. It would have been trivial for the opposition to head this off – station a few members near to the registration desks and have them help people with information, advice, or intervention in the case of a dispute. Unfortunately, but predictably, no such action was taken.
The opposition must escape its bubble even if Zuma leaves tomorrow. Those celebrating the prospect of a secret ballot should consider what is happening in Mogale City. It might be worth thinking for a moment about the likely future of a national politics in which evenly matched, thinly based coalitions try to buy off individual turncoats in secret ballots to switch the Presidency, while the broad majority of the country remains ignored.
To truly change governance in our country, the opposition and civil society needs to step away from the media and the courts and face two questions: How do we gain a right to fight in the field of politics among the mass of our citizens? And how do we organise ourselves to wage that fight, everywhere and all the time? The first requires a substantive vision of change that has something credible to say right now to the poor about their lives.
The second question is, if anything, more difficult. The ANC has branches everywhere already, the glory of the struggle behind it, and could point to real if insufficient delivery. Still a top-down structure has weakened it until it is on the precipice. Fighting everywhere, all the time, with integrity, requires strong and active leaders in thousands of branches across the country. Such leaders will not join if they do not have an active voice. The only viable route is bottom-up, and bottom-up is much harder than top-down, in a country whose right believes in technocracy, whose centre believes in heroes, and whose left believes in vanguards.
Those are daunting tasks. April’s crisis could have provided a spur. Little creates change like the energy emanating from tens of thousands to hundreds of thousands of people. Instead, we looked at how hard that would be, blinked, and ran to the courts. The courts will have their place. They have often been invaluable. But it is high time to leave them.