Mpumelelo Mkhabela

Jacob Zuma and the 7th phase of state-building

2017-04-21 09:04
South Africans from all backgrounds protesting against President Jacob Zuma Picture: Brenton Geach / Gallo Images

South Africans from all backgrounds protesting against President Jacob Zuma Picture: Brenton Geach / Gallo Images

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There is a time in the life of a nation when citizens set aside their differences to confront an enemy and defend their common interests.

South Africa had never experienced this moment – until the Guptas arrived and began wielding problematic influence on the democratic state and on President Jacob Zuma, the country’s great electoral error.

The national response to these developments should not be overlooked as it marks the beginning of a phase in the history of state-building. In the last four centuries, the area we call South Africa today has gone through roughly six defining phases of state-building. We are on the seventh phase.

The first phase took place prior the colonial period when state-building was focused mainly on the creation and expansion of massive kingdoms governing large territories and resources. The obsession with war and expanding territorial influence was not uniquely African. Europe had its share of bloody history.

The second phase was the arrival of colonialists in the 17th Century, bringing another dimension of state-building into South Africa. State-building was no longer aimed at the expansion of kingdoms. In fact, kingdoms were decimated.

Disparate ethnic groups had to defend their territories against the foreign invaders. The story of the Frontier Wars was an example. Land dispossessions and the turning of indigenous peoples into servants were key colonial projects.

But at some point, the settlers fought each other. The descendants of the hybrid group of Dutch, French and Prussians settlers, who became Afrikaners, adopted their own language and swore allegiance to no other country other than South Africa, fought with the English. Both sides suffered huge casualties. This was the third phase.

The Afrikaners lost the war and suffered crushing poverty. Embittered and lonely, the exiled Afrikaner leader Paul Kruger remarked: “I have fought against many barbarous Kaffir tribes in the course of my life; but they are not so barbarous as the English, who have burnt our farms and driven our women and children into destitute, without food or shelter.”

The Afrikaners saw the English as imperialists who caused trouble with their agenda to expand the British Empire. In that war, Africans were used as accessories. They suffered in an Anglo-Boer conflict that was about their land and resources.

The fourth phase began after the South African War when the English and the Afrikaners formed a pact that established the Union of South African in 1910. Africans had no stake in it. In fact, the exploitation of Africans which dated back to the initial settlement of the Europeans heightened, reaching a crescendo with the adoption of apartheid by the Afrikaner nationalist government.

The struggle of Africans against oppression led to an elite-driven, non-tribal counter-strategy when in 1912 they established the South African Native Congress, precursor to the African National Congress. To no avail, leaders of the SANC sent deputations to London to claim their rights.

The fifth phase was characterised by apartheid intensification after the official policy was adopted in 1948, sparking new forms of resistance when in the early 1960s Nelson Mandela and his comrades launched an armed struggle for which they were arrested before their plans reached maturity. In the Rivonia trial, Mandela would read a riveting speech about the many struggles of the indigenous African people for self-determination since the advent of colonialism.

By the time Mandela’s military scheme was curtailed by the apartheid authorities, there were a few whites who, despite the privileges they enjoyed under apartheid, had become an integral part of the struggle for justice. Bram Fischer was among a very few who felt apartheid, which was meant to privilege them, was actually a backward system that offended their human sensibilities.

There were also Indians who took part in the struggle against apartheid. They were descendants of indentured labourers brought to work in the sugar fields under horrible conditions. South Africa was their indigenous home. Significantly, the struggle against apartheid took a limited non-racial posture. Many whites remained trapped in the comfort of state-guaranteed privilege.

The adoption of the South African Constitution, facilitated through negotiations, brought together for the first time South Africans of all racial backgrounds. Thus began the sixth phase. There was a realisation that the fate of all South Africans was tied together.

Under the new constitutional democracy, citizens would enjoy equal rights regardless of their race or gender. The Constitution made provision for addressing the legacy of racial segregation. It also provided for equality before the law.

The resources of the state, managed through the National Treasury, would be central to this constitutional project of socio-economic redress. This project is yet to be fully realised. But it’s an ideal worth striving for.

But, notwithstanding the sixth phase that began after 1994, black, white coloured and Indian South Africans were never confronted with a joint enemy that brought them together in the manner that the South African War brought Afrikaners together; or in the manner in which colonialism and apartheid united the oppressed to fight for liberation. As a new multiracial nation, South Africa had never faced a jointly acknowledged existential threat.

The wave of protests sparked by Zuma’s ill-considered Cabinet reshuffle that saw hardworking public officials like Pravin Gordhan and Mcebisi Jonas being kicked out, in what is believed to be an act inspired by Gupta state capture, is a significant development in our nation’s history.

This wave marks the seventh phase in the evolving state-building. It can be argued that the phase began with the democratic mistake that promoted Zuma to higher office.

For the first time, South Africans of all backgrounds are united in their multitudes in a joint national project: defending the post-1994 constitutional order against domestic and external threat. The threat of having the constitutional edifice pulled from under the nation’s feet was the trigger. 

The ANC was pivotal in bringing about the constitutional order. Now it faces an interesting choice: to either join in defending the constitutional order or fast-track its unravelling by egging Zuma on. The current phase will no doubt shape the next.

- Mpumelelo Mkhabela is a fellow at the Centre for the Study of Governance Innovation (GovInn) at the University of Pretoria.

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