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Post Zexit: Lessons for Ramaphosa on building an inclusive state

- Adam Habib

Cyril Ramaphosa has unfairly been criticised by political commentators for his attempt to negotiate Jacob Zuma's resignation.

But it is a perfectly sensible strategy. Ramaphosa is facing an arduous task and is correctly concerned with having to economically and politically rejuvenate South Africa after the disastrous rule of Jacob Zuma. This would be greatly assisted if he had a coherent and cohesive organisation with which to effect this agenda. A messy exit for Zuma undermines this approach as it would fracture the ANC in important ways. A voluntary resignation by Zuma, by contrast, would keep the ruling political party relatively more cohesive, thereby enabling Ramaphosa to refashion it in ways that can be used to rebuild South Africa's economic, political and even institutional foundations. 

Of course, opposition politicians and commentators do not have to worry about these issues. This allows them to make easy and glib statements about how the matter should be handled. To be fair, if opposition parties and civil society had not mobilised society against the corrupt practices of the Zuma administration, there would never have been the incentive within the ANC to act against Zuma. It is only the prospect of electoral loss and eroding political legitimacy that has galvanised forces within the ANC to rid itself of Zuma and some of the obnoxious individuals who support him. But now that the political will has emerged within the ANC, it is important that the transition be undertaken in a manner that enables the building of bridges through which our economic and political future can be recalibrated.

This does not mean that reflection is not required on the current Ramaphosa talks. It is necessary, but the emphasis should be far less on the strategy and more on the terms of the settlement. There is now some discussion with many opposition leaders and commentators critical of a prospective agreement that allows Zuma's legal costs to be paid for by the state, and his family to have an ongoing security detail. I am more pragmatic on these issues than some of the critics. I recognise that these matters are in part related to actions undertaken during his tenure as President and therefore there may be some legitimacy to his demand for legal costs being paid by the state. I also think that his family could be under threat and security may indeed be warranted, although I am of the view that this has to be time bound, and reassessed after a year. 

To be honest, this is not where the real substance of the matter lies. The serious deliberation needs to focus on whether Zuma should be pardoned if he is found guilty. This cannot be decided now because he has not yet been found guilty of anything. But if he were to be, should Zuma be pardoned? I know of many who would be opposed to this because he should not be treated differently to any other citizen. But what if there is a real prospect of violence in KwaZulu-Natal if Zuma is jailed? Is peace not a sufficient outcome for Zuma's pardon? 

There is of course a danger in making this trade off. It could enshrine a practice where 'strong men' are not held accountable for their crimes because of their capacity to create mayhem. Can we continue to allow ourselves to be held hostage to such violence? It is after all important for there to be consequences for illegal actions, otherwise there is no incentive for economic and political elites to be accountable. But the converse is also true. Some political leaders, mainly of a populist orientation, are capable of either violence or stoking the fires of division that can undermine an economic and political revitalisation. This is not only true of Zuma, but also of other opposition politicians who too were implicated in corruption, tax evasion and the like, and used radical rhetoric and populist demagoguery to mask their misdeeds. Are we as a collective society willing to stay the course in all of these cases or are we pragmatic enough to temper justice if peace and inclusive prosperity is to be the outcome?

Obviously, these options need not be as irreconcilable as they are presented here. Justice could be tempered but not deferred. A corrupt politician found guilty of tax evasion could have assets confiscated but not be imprisoned. Politicians, as in apartheid, were not held accountable for their many crimes, but were forever politically isolated. In Zuma's case, if he were to be found guilty, he could be pardoned, but penalised with the loss of some assets and barred from holding public office. More importantly, those around him who corruptly enriched themselves, like the Guptas, could be held accountable. Monies swindled into foreign jurisdictions could be tracked and repatriated with the help of foreign governments and international security services. They could be imprisoned, or at least, permanently barred from South Africa with all of their domestic assets confiscated. Serious consequences can flow even if justice is pragmatically applied in this case. 

I argue for neither of these options for now. A decision need not be made immediately. After all, Zuma is presumed innocent until found guilty by a court of law. But it is important that there is substantive deliberation in society about the substance of this issue so that at least first principles and parameters can be established. It is these first principles and parameters that should be collectively deliberated and that Ramaphosa would have to consider and apply if a decision is to be made in this regard.

What are the lessons to be learnt from Zuma's tenure in office and his travails? There are many for multiple stakeholders. For potential autocrats, populist demagogues and their supporters, it would be wise to note that however powerful one may seem at first, sooner or later in a democracy, political power reorganises itself and circumstances emerge to hold them accountable.

To the sycophants and supporters of Zuma in 2008, who now have him as their political nemesis, remember that spectacle without thought got us to where we are today. Sensible deliberative conversation cannot be substituted by political spectacle if we want productive outcomes that are in line with our social justice obligations. There were many innocent individuals, Kwezi perhaps being the most tragic, that were hurt by political spectacle and thoughtless activism. If they are truly repentant in this regard, then this cannot involve simply an apology, but more importantly, a change in political practice. The substance of this must be the enablement of thoughtful deliberation in which we think through how to advance social justice in a programmatic way and implement it in a manner that builds social coalitions and mobilises society across divides, rather than fracturing it even further in the pursuit of short term political ends.

There is a place for mass action and societal mobilisation in this regard. After all, there would never have been the incentive for the ANC to act against Zuma had this not happened. But mass action has to be complemented with progressive intra-institutional action if progressive public policy is to be implemented and consolidated. And this cannot be done in one grand act. Rather, it has to be progressively built in a series of small actions, each of which has a snowballing logic that ultimately cascades into an overall transformation of the political and socioeconomic system that enables the establishment of an inclusive democracy.

To the journalistic cohort and the commentariat, there is the lesson of speaking truth to power. Almost all journalists and political commentators would rhetorically subscribe to this statement. But have they truly internalised what this means, for it does not simply require speaking truth to state power, but also to societal power; to the leadership of social movements, to the general secretary of the trade unions and their federations, and to the leaders of opposition parties. It requires them to critically analyse the strategies deployed by the opposition and to call them out when this is necessary. It requires journalists not to romanticise the opposition, or to become uncritical supporters of a coalition of the wounded where the lowest common denominator is the basis for political action. It requires that we do not repeat the mistake of 2008 where, in the dislike for Mbeki, we embraced all those who stood against him. But is this not what is happening when journalists thank opposition politicians for not engaging in violent social action, or when they remain silent when public property is destroyed in the ostensible pursuit of social justice, or when school children are terrified by social activists because of the bigotry of their school principal or governing board. Speaking truth to power requires more than challenging the state. It requires the emotional and political courage to speak to those within our midst and to hold them accountable when their behaviour violates the founding principles of the inclusive democracy that we hope to build.

Perhaps most importantly, there is a lesson for the economic elite and corporate South Africa. We are today in this politically and socially polarised moment because of the structural inequality which we collectively refused to address. We have another opportunity to correct for this deficit, for without it, the long term sustainability of the corporate sector is itself imperilled. This requires a willingness to give up some economic benefits in the interests of broader social development. It requires a more appropriate balance to be struck between short-term profitably and long term sustainability. It requires a willingness to consider tax increases, or social investment obligations, or curbs on executive remuneration or dividend payments, in order to address the greater inequality within our society. Ultimately, it requires a willingness to partner the state, and not co-opt it, in a project of inclusive economic development where inequality, as much as poverty, is addressed. Only then will the long term viability of corporate South Africa itself be assured.

Finally, there is of course the lesson for Cyril Ramaphosa. In late 2007, just after the ANC's Polokwane conference, I authored two short essays, the first on the fall of Mbeki and the other on the lessons for Zuma. In the latter, I reflected on the challenge of inequality and the political aloofness that it engenders, and why it was so necessary to address these as part of a greater project of political and socioeconomic emancipation. I was of course not the only one advocating this. There were many other voices suggesting the same agenda. But Zuma did not heed these messages and he paid the ultimate political price. This same lesson needs to now be heard by Ramaphosa. Ultimately one's presidential tenure in South Africa, and one's political legacy, will truly be determined by one's success in developing an inclusive economic agenda. 

This will not happen through some grand overthrow of the political and economic status quo, or through the delinking from the world economy as is so often suggested by some on the far left. Rather it will happen in the messy politics of mobilising societal coalitions - business, labour and civil society - in an inclusive economic agenda. It will require all social partners to sacrifice their immediate short-term goals for a more equitable medium-term sharing of the spoils. It will require Ramaphosa's administration to think through the kind of economic reforms that are feasible in the contemporary moment, yet sufficiently transformative that they have a cumulative effect, which creates a conducive environment for greater emancipation. Most importantly it will require political leadership where the President is capable of persuading and even corralling social partners, into a shared economic and social agenda, even if it requires some short-term economic, political and social compromises. 

These are the considerations, and their practical policy and strategic implications, which we should be deliberating. But this is not the case. Even those surrounding Ramaphosa are not sufficiently reflecting on these matters for they are caught up in the immediate political machinations of intra-party squabbles and keeping the political opposition at bay. But our long-term collective future is ultimately going to be determined by these discussions, not by the short term political machinations. Is there not an urgency then, for all of us to collectively participate and engage on these weighty matters rather than being entranced by the political spectacle of 'great men politics’?

Professor Adam Habib is the Vice-Chancellor and Principal of the University of the Witwatersrand