The Zondo Commission: Drama as a Factional Project

Leonard Gentle

The Zondo Commission is acting as a vehicle for ANC factional disputes under which powerful social forces are settling scores, according to the writer.

Over the last year there has been a media obsession with the various sittings of the Zondo Commission and the dirty linen of corruption. Corruption has become so much the subject of news that even during the worst public sector health crisis since World War 1 it has become the alpha and omega of political commentary.

Fighting corruption is of course important because the poor are the real victims of the shenanigans of the Steinhoffs, the Glencores, the Lancasters and the Guptas, and it is important that we have a proper public debate as to what are the causes of the systemic corruption that we experience.

But such a proper debate is being eclipsed by the political drama unfolding…

More recently the drama of Zondo Commission, like many a good play, has reached a moment of climax – the refusal of ex-president Jacob Zuma, to appear and testify has seen the highest court in the land – the Constitutional Court –  being asked by the Commission to make a punitive order jailing Zuma for being in contempt.

Recall that ex-President Zuma himself set up the Zondo Commission into Allegations of State Capture, appointed Zondo and drew up his term of reference. The Commission of Enquiry is not a criminal court convened to pronounce or apportion guilt and deliver sentence.

The Commission will table a report to the current President, Cyril Ramaphosa, in which it will make recommendations which are Ramaphosa’s prerogative to decide upon and in his own time. Zondo has the option of deciding that allegations made, which implicate Zuma and any allies in corruption have gone unchallenged, and deliver those in his report for the current President to decide upon.

South Africa has had many Commissions of Enquiry over the last period – from the last decades of apartheid to the early decades of democracy: The Erasmus Commission into the Info’ Scandal of 1978, the Margo Commission into the Helderberg plane crash of 1987, the Hefer Commission into NPA head, Bulelani Ngcuka and the Farlam Commission on Marikana. The list also includes the most celebrated of them all – the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC).

They all share the same political tradition – when the government must appear to be “doing something” but where the political price is too high for prosecution by the appropriate authorities. In most cases the drama has already occurred and the public is being invited to its denouement.

So why now the hullabaloo and drama around Zuma’s refusal?  Why are we being treated to this apparently high-stakes drama?

This is because the drama is the whole point of the Commission!

That is why we see a whole range of social forces position themselves by stepping front stage from the wings and calling on the public to take sides.

Who are these social forces and what do they tell us about the big questions facing South Africa today?

Well, firstly we have to say that the names of the dramatis personae confuse because many of the actors play roles in which they speak words in a script presented to them.

First up is the official title of the Zondo Commission itself. It goes by the name of the Zondo Commission into Allegations of State Capture. But it is investigating and hearing testimony about people WHO HAVEN’T CAPTURED THE STATE, which is why they had to resort to corruption in order to accumulate wealth. The people who have really captured the state, of course, expect the state to articulate their interests legally.

Then the factions of the ruling ANC who are at each other’s throats go by names and act through personalities – Jacob Zuma and Cyril Ramaphosa – whose role is to provide facial recognition rather than leadership. And where Zuma and Ramaphosa were President and Deputy-President in the same government just recently. The most vociferous ANC faction – calling itself the “Radical Economic Transformation (RET)” faction – is not pursuing economic transformation, radical or not.

With these caveats we can proceed to answer the questions about the drama of the Zondo Commission.         

The so-called RET faction are nursing the grievance of being left behind from the first rounds of BEE company shareholder deals with white corporate South Africa and state tenders from the Mbeki-era.

Originally the aggrieved – led by COSATU, the SACP and the ANCYL, because they had the organisational resources within the ANC to do so – grouped around Jacob Zuma in what was called the Pholokwane Bloc in 2015 and ousted then President Mbeki.

The Pholokwane Bloc fractured during Zuma’s presidency as they found that Zuma was interested in neither radical economics or in opening new BEE rounds. COSATU and the SACP paid the price for their complicity and have jumped ship back to the ANC mainstream while declining to near irrelevance. They also suffered breakaways – SAFTU, in the case of COSATU, and the EFF, in the case of the ANCYL.

While both SAFTU and the EFF are vocally anti-ANC and now position themselves outside the Zondo drama, what is called the RET faction today is the rump coalition of the aggrieved of the old Pholokwane Bloc still finding that they stir passions by speaking the language of “radical transformation” while hanging onto Zuma’s apron strings.

The drama being played out in the Zondo Commission is to ensure that not only does one faction of the ANC settle scores with its adversary, once and for all, but that even the language, the rhetoric, the whiff of sentiments like “radical” and “transformation” are disgraced in the court of public opinion by association with the corruption of the Zuma project. While the mainstream faction of the ruling party under Ramaphosa’s presidency carries out an IMF-supported austerity programme there can be no room for such impertinence.

In this they are backed by a network of ANC veterans, Business SA, NGOs, others are calling themselves “civil society”, and the commentariat in the mainstream media for a campaign to “Defend the Constitution” and “the Rule of Law”

Why doesn’t the ANC veterans fight their battles within the ANC structures and carry the day against the RET faction?

On the one hand there is the real fear that they may be too numerically weak to carry the day. On the other hand, this is in a context of a ruling party having no democratic resilience to deal with factional battles and internal democratic processes which can deal with issues of succession.

In this regard, if one is looking for a precedent amongst all of South Africa’s past Commissions of Enquiry the one that comes to mind is the Erasmus Commission into the Info Scandal of 1978. The Erasmus Commission was set up by the then victorious P.W.Botha as the pubic face of the “Verligte faction” within the Nationalist Party settling scores with its adversary, the “Verkramptes” of the Connie Mulder faction.

Why was this so?

South Africa’s defining feature – since the Act of Union of 1910 – has been the tension between successful capital accumulation and the political shell within which that has to take place. South African capitalism evolved throughout the late 19th and all of the 20th century to be profitable, modern, advanced and highly monopolised. Yet it did so within the shell of colonialism, then segregation and apartheid – notable for exclusion, racism, authoritarianism and reactionary tradition.

By the end of the 20th century South African capitalism was the most advanced in Africa and yet was comfortably ruled by the Nationalist Party’s apartheid jackboot and not the white parties of the various shades of liberalism – from the United Party to the breakaway Progressive Party or its incarnations such as the PFP. There was no space for liberalism and South African liberals were still obsessed with appealing to racist white voters, debating a qualified franchise and providing loyal opposition within the white Parliament.

What we know of as democracy in South Africa is not so much a tradition associated with the evolution of South Africa’s racial capitalism but emerged out of the struggles by the excluded black majority against that racial capitalism. It is very much a product of the anti-apartheid mass movement centred on the youth, civics and trade unions of the 1980s and early 90s. Some of these ideas distilled there – on direct and representative democracy – were taken into the national negotiations. But South Africa has never known a robust and participatory democracy and a culture of debate, within the upper reaches of the elite.

So, for instance, when in the early 1970s the Stellenbosch Afrikaner elite began to break ranks with their plebeian brothers of the Transvaal and OFS, and championed reforms within apartheid – known then as the Verligtes versus the Verkramptes –  the political shell of the Nationalist Party and its traditions proved inadequate. Rather than allow the procession of succession from B.J. Vorster to his heir-apparent, Connie Mulder, through some version of an inner-party democratic processes the Verligtes acted through the prism of a corruption scandal – the infamous Info’ Scandal – leaking stories about corrupt slush funds to the Sunday Times.

In an unprecedented public scandal Mulder and his ally, Eschel Rhoodie, were exposed for using the slush funds to set up the Citizen to become a mouthpiece of apartheid. Their exposure paved the way for P.W. Botha to succeed and implement his limited reforms. And what did Botha do? He set up a Commission of Enquiry – the Erasmus Commission – into the Info Scandal and wiped the floor with the Verkramptes.

The Erasmus Commission was first and foremost a device to ensure the successful succession of a political faction of the Nationalist Party (the P.W. Botha wing) as South Africa’s elite sought reforms – such as the relaxing of petty-apartheid and pass laws as racial capitalism shifted from mining to manufacture and finance.

All of these shifts however were later to be dwarfed by the elite’s pursuit of neo-liberalism and global finance in the late 1980s and, in the course of the political negotiations in the 1990s, found an ANC majority vehicle as the only viable option for those ambitions.

In this scenario the old historical tension between the regime of capital accumulation and the political configurations necessary to ensure the stability for accumulation took on a new version. South Africa’s white elite – the Oppenheimers and Ruperts etc. – sought the world of finance markets, shareholder value and globalised production chains and found this in the 1990s via an ANC government associated with black aspiration and an electoral base in poor black communities. This meant that political and social stability necessary for capital accumulation would have to go hand in hand with BEE legislation, affirmative action and other reforms.

But much of the ANC’s history is one of building under state repression and forced exile – meaning unity and discipline were sacrosanct. So the kind of openness to inner-party debates, platforms and factions were practically non-existent.

So what the apartheid Nats exemplified by their jackboot oppression of the black majority the ANC embodied by their history of being underground and in exile – unity and discipline always trumps political diversity.

So, other vehicles are required to act as proxy to ensure political factions can be contained and political shifts legitimised. This is why Commissions of Enquiry like Erasmus, then, and Zondo, today, take on a more vital function than mere appearance of dealing with some matters whilst fudging issues.

Their drama is their purpose.

But, of course, like fighting corruption, defending and extending democracy is a vital struggle … It is just that the Zondo Commission is not part of this process.

Today there are other struggles being waged by the poor and the working class in South Africa, which do not find resonance n the ANC factional battles, the mainstream media, the Zondo Commission or other such elite spaces.

In this regard it is notable that there are no social movement battles to either embrace the Zuma faction or those who would “defend democracy”.

And as regards the Ramaphosa faction, during Covid pandemic and the associated crisis there have been other voices outside the mainstream and grounded in real struggles calling for a Constitutional challenge to the 2021 Budget and its vicious cuts perpetrated by this government alongside its assurances to the IMF.

That is where the battles for democracy are being fought today..

More stories in Issue 124

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