The ‘Zuma Riots’ and the Decadence of Capitalism

In scenes reminiscent of the 1980s uprisings, South Africa has exploded into chaos following the incarceration of former president Jacob Zuma, prompting the deployment of the army in black townships. It will be the first time that the army is deployed to deal with political unrest since the end of juridical apartheid.

Zuma’s supporters had warned that there would be unrest if he were to be jailed after being sentenced to fifteen months incarceration for contempt of court.

The former president’s incarceration followed a recent precedent setting majority judgment handed down by the Constitutional Court, which serves as the country’s court of last instance, for defying that court and refusing to continue his testimony before the Commission of Enquiry to investigate Allegations of State Capture. His subsequent application to a lower court to stay his incarceration was dismissed before he handed himself to an incarceration center. It remains to be seen if a parallel application to the Constitutional Court for it to rescind its judgment will succeed.

Whether he will continue his sentence or not Zuma joins the long list of former heads of state on the African continent who received jail sentences after they had either lost power through coups or democratic elections. Prominent in the list are Haile Selassie of Ethiopia, Kenneth Kaunda of Zambia, and not long ago, Mohammed Morsi of Egypt. The list includes both left leaning leaders and right-wingers.

The sentence has divided the South African public, including Zuma’s own political party, the ruling African National Congress. Legal and political commentators are equally divided on the appropriateness and long-term implications that the sentence will have on the political and security landscape of the country, as well as legal jurisprudence. Already, the country is engulfed in flames; both literally and figuratively.

Those who argue that Zuma must serve his sentence cite what seems to be a strong case against his nine-year presidency that was surrounded by allegations of kleptocracy. His supporters on the other hand, and there are indeed many, argue that he is a victim of vengeance from his successor and former deputy president, Cyril Ramaphosa, and his allies. They also claim that he is a victim of the strong bourgeois lobby that does the bidding for capital, ranging from business owners through to the liberal commentators and the mainstream media.

Almost all mainstream journalists and liberal commentators have expressed frustrations at the police’s failure to preempt or at least stop the vandalism and looting of business premises that has accompanied the riots. However, what all of them continue to misunderstand is the phenomenon of Jacob Zuma.

The common and lazy refrain by all mainstream journalists and liberal commentators, including many university professors, who should provide better analysis, is to repeat the obvious and simplistic refrain which goes as follows. There is a prima facie case that Zuma led a kleptocracy. That when invited to continue his appearance before the Commission of Enquiry to investigate Allegations of State Capture, Zuma gave the presiding judge the middle finger. Also, to add salt to injury, Zuma refused to make representations to the Constitutional Court when the Commission took its case to the court. Instead, he uttered public criticisms against both the commission and the court. Hence, frustrated with all these, the court sentenced him to jail.

On the other hand, the same journalists and commentators have all but turned into the cheering club for the incumbent president, Cyril Ramaphosa. They are joined in this by capital, which sees in him a messianic figure who is ‘ridding South Africa off the corruption of the wasted Zuma years’.

In this polarized environment, any attempt by a non-mainstream journalist or commentator to advance a different argument from the simplistic Aristotelian dualism of a ‘bad Zuma’ and a ‘good Ramaphosa’ produces a dilemma like that faced by progressive journalists and commentators after the 2002 September 11 attacks.

It will be recalled how all attempts to argue that Saddam Hussein was not behind the attacks, and that he did not have weapons of mass destruction, were met with a sort of ‘shutting down’ of dissent not seen in many years. George Bush’s Aristotelian dualism of ‘you are either with us or against us’ was repeated sheepishly by liberal commentators.

Even when admitting that, yes, Saddam had unleashed chemical weapons on Iranian civilians during the Iran–Iraq War (1980–1988), and that he was a ruthless dictator in his own right, but that he was not responsible for the September 11 attacks and therefore attacking Iraq was not justified; all these disclaimers were shut down.

Similarly, any attempt to point out that, yes, Zuma did many things wrong, but that does not make his rivals within the ruling African National Congress clean and friends of the working class; such attempts fall on deaf ears of liberalism.

But what does all this have to do with the current riots following Zuma’s incarceration? How can the incarceration of such a discredited former president lead to seeming support by working class communities?

Besides Zuma, how do we make sense of the support that other political leaders both within the ruling ANC and outside of it still enjoy, especially within working class communities? These being individuals who are suspected of large-scale public-sector corruption, including Zuma’s ally and suspended Secretary General of the ANC, Ace Magashule, the opposition Economic Freedom Fighters leader, Julius Malema, and the those like Andile Mngxitama, the leader of the Black First Land First party, who is also allied to Zuma.

In what may be termed lazy political analysis some have referred to the above individuals as fascists. Nothing could be further from a considered analysis.

The Zuma factor can best be understood against the backdrop of the political settlement that was reached between the ANC and the apartheid government, which both Zuma and Ramaphosa were central in formulating even though the former now craftly distances himself from, leading to the first democratic elections in 1994 and the birth of the ‘new’ South Africa, with Nelson Mandela as the founding president. Two years later, the country’s constitution, hailed by many as the world’s most liberal constitution, was adopted.

These two developments, the 1994 settlement and the neoliberal political, economic and social dispensation ushered in by the constitution, are at the centre of what may seem to be affinity to individuals such as Zuma. But why?

Far from having their socio-economic situation improving, the black working class has found itself forever trapped in the circle of poverty. This even though the country’s economy is said to be one of the biggest on the African continent. The official unemployment rate was 32.6% during the first quarter of 2021. Of this, the official unemployment rate among youth (15-34 years) was 46,3% in Quarter 1 2021. The rate was 9,3% among university graduates. Needless to emphasize that the majority of those unemployed and living in poverty remains black.

Black working-class communities continue to suffer from poor or insecure water supply, poor sanitation, substandard health care, and poor public education. Housing and public infrastructure for black working-class communities remains a dark blemish for the ‘new’ South Africa. Crime, alcohol and drug abuse, all the direct results of poverty, remain high in black townships. Overall, the living conditions of many black working-class communities remain substandard.

These conditions have been breeding grounds for marauding gangs of criminals, many of whom are now at the center of the current riots. Take a young person who has been moved into crime by abject poverty and is high on drugs and place him/her next to another disillusioned young person who has seen their future destroyed by the uncaring capitalist system, you have a destructive pair which sees no value in anything they destroy, including public amenities such as libraries.

Years of oppression, exploitation and systematic dehumanization have produced an army of young people who are filled with nothing but hopelessness and anger. For them, it matters not the indignity of being seen on international television stealing a bed from a department store. It is a bed that they have only dreamt about. No pun intended.

On the other hand, those who enjoy some forms of formal employment do so under exploitative conditions based on the super-accumulationist practices of the ruling class. Equally, those in non-formalized employment, the precariat as some theorists would prefer to call them, are always reminded about the fact that ‘half a loaf is better than no bread’.

This working-class frustration at the continued exploitation and precarity has led to pent-up anger at the entire political and economic system at the center of country’s governance. In the absence of a credible working-class party, the working class is drawn to any voice and figure that purports to express the aspirations of the exploited.

Enter Jacob Zuma. Towards the end of his presidential term Zuma began to mold himself as a working-class hero. A president who cared about the poor but whose aspirations were being frustrated by monopoly capital.

Given his own working-class background and lack of education Zuma turned into a hero that ordinary people could identify with. His troubles with the law became a mirror on which ordinary people could see themselves through, as they got their electricity cut due to non-payment, suffering credit blacklisting, and many other tight handcuffs around their hands due to their class position.

In this regard, it matters little whether the self-appointed working-class hero comes out dressed in working class garments or singing a revolutionary song and therefore can invoke nostalgia for the betrayed liberation struggle, or if they come out as crude right-wingers like Donald Trump or the Philippines’s Rodrigo Duterte.

Analyzed correctly, the current state represents the inherent crisis of capitalism. The system produces discontent, and such discontent may express itself in ways that may be viewed as reactionary. Again, as argued above, in the absence of revolutionary working-class parties that can direct the frustrations of the poor section of the society, criminal gangs and the backward sections of the lumpen proletariat take over the uprisings and may direct them in destructive ways.

Instead of addressing this crisis, which they do not have the wherewithal to understand in the first place, the bourgeoisie and all the agents and instruments of containment – the mainstream media, liberal commentators, and the direct spokespersons of capital in the form of politicians and parliamentary parties – formulate and advocate diversionary interventions. The most potent and seductive of these is to point to the kleptocracy in the public sector.

Such claims are amplified through volumes of research reports by avowed ‘progressive’ commentators who are in fact bourgeois liberal in orientation and the content that they produce than they in fact realize. Of late, this group includes defenders of racism who have found a new niche by appropriating the plight of the black working class, claiming that racism is not the problem, while corruption is.

There emerges a naked reductionism, diverting and reducing every challenge to corruption. Yet, what is now clear is that neoliberalism in South Africa has reached a crisis point. While many radical analysts may have warned repeatedly about this eventuality, no one knew when the tipping point would happen.

On the other hand, the current crisis, and now the riots, are but a manifestation of the factional battles produced by and playing out in the arena of capitalism. They are manifest through the factional battles within the ANC. In reality though, the factional battles within the ANC, which has drawn us into the current riotous crisis, are reflected through the entire parliamentary party-political canvas. Each of the parliamentary parties identifies with one of the two factions within the ANC which have crystallized around two individuals – Zuma and Ramaphosa.

The unfortunate thing in all this is that the working class has now been drawn into a battle that has nothing with them. In a similar manner that Marx so out eloquently argued in The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Napoleon, none of the contesting parties within the South African parliamentary system has any interest whatsoever in the actual plight of the working class.

Neither the neoliberalism of Ramaphosa nor the Bonapartism of Zuma is, and will ever be of benefit for the working class. As argued elsewhere before by this writer, both strands represent the narrow and self-serving interests of factions of capital; an established monopoly capital and a frustrated petty bourgeois nationalism respectively.

Given these stark scenarios the immediately task of the working class is, first, to refuse to be seduced by any of the factions. Second, the working class in South Africa must realize that it is on its own and must, of necessity and in fulfillment of its historical task, fashion its own working-class party.

Equally, radical analysts must fashion alternative debates and find platforms and ways of collaboration with the working class. To use the metaphor of a horse, they may look over the fence but must never cross over and be involved in the ugly and unprincipled strife within the arena of capitalist decadence.

The question that those who are genuinely interested in the condition of the working class must answer is whether the current riots may be turned into an insurrection or, better still, a revolution. For now, it seems not. Unless, and until the consciousness of the working class has been raised and this class wrestles the initiative from self-serving provocateurs and turn this into a working-class revolution.

Lekgantshi Console Tleane works for the University of South Africa. He can be reached at