The 'gatvol' factor

2011-01-12 00:00

IN a recent opinion piece titled “A threefold crisis, but Zuma is listening”, political analyst Adam Habib argued that the balance of power has shifted towards the poor under Jacob Zuma’s presidency, leading to the trade union movement and the South African Communist Party (SACP) having more of a say in the affairs of the country. Furthermore, Zuma has proved to be much more responsive to public opinion than his predecessor, Thabo Mbeki, in the process paying attention to citizen and stakeholder concerns. How- ever, several factors frustrated his ability to deliver according to expectation, such as state capacity.

The problem with a great deal of political commentary in the media, including Habib’s article, is that it is insufficiently informed by the realities on the ground. Much commentary lacks a research base. Rarely are working-class viewpoints canvassed to establish what they are actually thinking and feeling about the performance of Zuma’s administration.

The hegemony of middle-class interpretations of politics in public discourse is dangerous as it fosters a society that is unable to see itself properly. Such a society may lack the early warning systems to recognise problems on the ground and to respond to them as they emerge.

In key respects, Habib’s argument that Zuma is more responsive than Mbeki is at least 12 months out of date. Last year, evidence mounted of a lack of responsiveness and in some cases, outright intolerance on the part of the Zuma administration of the sort that made Mbeki notorious. Furthermore, there are signs of grass-roots sentiment shifting against the Zuma administration much more rapidly than it did against Mbeki, as more working-class formations form the view that the “listening president” is big on listening, but not very big on acting.

This shift in sentiment could be read in the outpouring of anger during the public sector strike, expressed at times in language and imagery so vulgar that the trade union leadership felt the need to apologise to government officials. More people took part in strikes and protests than in recent memory.

The repressive face of the Zuma administration also revealed itself last year. Evidence emerged of blanket and wholly illegal bans on gatherings in the troubled Vaal, in the vicinity of the Union Buildings in the wake of the soldiers’ 2009 march and in the run-up to the World Cup.

Furthermore, in a series of moves, Zuma has enhanced the coercive capacity of the state by tightening control of the security cluster, which lies at the heart of his power base. The Zuma administration also launched a full-scale assault on press freedom, in the form of the Protection of Information Bill and the Media­ Appeals Tribunal.

These developments unsettle Habib’s claims about greater responsiveness and imply that the Zuma administration recognises that its persuasive powers may be on the decline.

In order to test Habib’s argument about Zuma’s responsiveness more carefully, it is instructive to examine Zuma’s handling of the anti-incorporation struggles in Moutse, Matatiele, BaGa Mothibi and Balfour. In his initial responses to these struggles, Zuma turned in an exemplary performance as a responsive president.

During Mbeki’s term of office, the unilateral incorporation of these communities from one province to another — following a decision to abolish cross-border municipalities — became emblematic of his top down approach to governance. The fierce, often violent, struggle in Khutsong became an emblem of working- class resistance to this style of politics, eventually leading to Mbeki conceding the community’s demand to move back to Gauteng.

On the whole, the affected communities make compelling cases for a reversal of the initial decisions, citing unhappiness with levels of service delivery in the provinces which the areas were located to, as well as concerns about the distances involved in accessing provincial services from their new provinces.

Determined to stand Mbeki on his head, the new ANC leadership fell over themselves to address the issue, seeking meetings with the affected communities. In the wake of violent protests in Balfour, convoys of ministers and even Zuma himself have visited the area to discuss the community’s grievances. Views testing the exercises were conducted in Matatiele and Moutse.

However, after this promising start, the Zuma administration still has not decided on their fate; so there is no indication yet that this shift in the political opportunity structure has yielded fruit.

As a result, the mood in the affected areas is changing rapidly from hope to frustration, even anger, leading to a radicalisation of protest action. Activists who campaigned for Mbeki’s replacement by Zuma felt deflated by Zuma’s lack of delivery on the matter. One activist has suggested that the ANC’s lack of seriousness in resolving the conflicts around these areas is because “Khutsong was burning more than Moutse and Matatiele”. Furthermore, the areas are rural while Khutsong is more urbanised. Thus, the ANC’s decision betrayed an urban bias.

Largely, the affected communities have chosen the non-violent direct action route, combined with making submissions to formal structures like the Demarcation Board. This approach was described by BaGa Mothibi activist Masego Khumalo as the “civilised route”, which he felt was the most appropriate technique of protest for a “listening government”. But there is evidence that this approach is being reconsidered.

In a significant turnaround of sentiment on the part of the Moutse community in the by-election held in May 2010, the chairperson of the Moutse Demarcation Forum and regional SACP chairperson Mothiba Ramphisa — who contested the local government elections in 2006 and lost against an ANC candidate — won the ward in the most recent by-elections. The Moutse community are also returning to the Constitutional Court in March to force a decision on the issue.

SACP activists in BaGa Mothibi decided to vote for the ANC in the 2009 national elections to help the party stave off the electoral threat posed by the then newly formed Congress of the People (Cope). But according to Khumalo: “Now we couldn’t care less. We will only vote if our people are in the Northern Cape.”

Since the ANC conceded Khutsong, some activists have adopted a tactical rather than a principled stance towards the use of direct action, even violence, although there is no unanimity on the issue.

“Our route has been to follow procedure. We have never had any violence. People who get into a march and start to do these things [violent acts], we then call the police if they do these things, but in future we won’t stop people from going this route. The government will listen only when tyres and councillor’s houses are burnt,” said Khumalo.

Commenting on the Matatiele community’s bitterness about the fact that the ANC had conceded Khutsong (a violent struggle), while not conceding Matatiele (a non-violent struggle), Mjobe stated: “The nature­ of our struggle being non-violent is being taken advantage of. [The] people of Matatiele will have to choose whatever strategy we need to get our way. We are capable of being violent, but have decided to use the correct legal means.”

This shift in sentiment should be taken seriously, as the anti-incorporation struggles are clearly nowhere near at the top of their protest cycles. If the Zuma administration were responsive to working- class demands, then it would listen and act accordingly. Instead, tellingly, the Department of Co-operative Governance has argued that votes are not the only consideration in taking the final decision.

There can be little doubt that there have been shifts in the political conjecture towards greater openness, leading to Zuma listening to working-class concerns more than Mbeki did. But listening does not mean hearing.

While Zuma can afford to listen, he cannot afford to hear, because he knows that he cannot possibly meet the expectations he has raised. Habib’s assertion of a structural shift in the balance of power is somewhat naive and reproduces the Zuma administration’s spin, rather than considering the empirical evidence.

Noam Chomsky has argued that the responsibility of a writer is to bring the truth about matters of human significance to an audience that can do something about them. Intellectuals, who have the resources, training, facilities and opportunities to speak and act effectively, have a particular responsibility to do so.

South African public intellectuals will not rise to this challenge until they themselves take the time and trouble to uncover the truth.


• Professor Duncan is Highway Africa Chair of Media and Information Society, School of Journalism and Media Studies at Rhodes University. This article first appeared on the website of the South African Civil Society Information Service (

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