Socialist Worker

Life in South Africa after a decade of Zuma—interview with Ronnie Kasrils

South African socialist and former African National Congress minister Ronnie Kasrils spoke to Charlie Kimber about the significance of president Jacob Zuma’s resignation

Issue No. 2592

An anti-Zuma protest last year

An anti-Zuma protest last year (Pic: @EFFSouthAfrica)


What has been the reaction to President Zuma’s resignation?

There’s a sense of great relief, a feeling of a heavy fog lifting. That’s shared by nearly everyone across the country.

It’s so welcome that people have seen through this disreputable man. He has led a regime of opportunism and corruption and mangled democracy.

This is the removal of a mafia ganglord at the head of crony capitalism.

He has been on borrowed time since his chosen candidate lost out narrowly to Cyril Ramaphosa in the African National Congress (ANC) leadership election three months ago.

A whole section of old guard Zuma supporters started to melt away.

The announcement that the ANC had voted no confidence in Zuma was made by Ace Magashule, a long term Zuma crony.

The ANC feared that the longer he went on, the worse it would do in the general election next year. And business thought he was too unstable, too out of control.

That’s why the stock market and the Rand currency have gone up a bit since Zuma was forced out.

Why was Zuma so hated?

Zuma hollowed out state institutions and subverted accountability. He took the basic criminality of capitalism to a new level.

In South Africa today the traditional economic power centres—mining, big agriculture, major industries—remain in essentially the same hands as they did under apartheid.

So Zuma and his acolytes, who weren’t going to challenge that economic structure fundamentally, feasted on the state-owned enterprises.

Together with the Guptas, rich businessmen who were given influence over state appointments and contracts, they looted the state. They found a way to become part of the people at the top without displacing the forces that were there already.

Zuma sold his soul to the Guptas for money—and then more money.

Could this have been foreseen?

Ronnie Kasrils

Ronnie Kasrils (Pic: Russell Tribunal)


In 2005, as a member of the South African Communist Party (SACP) central committee, I alone implored the party not to support Zuma becoming president. I had known Zuma since the 1960s in the liberation movement. I knew his opportunism, greed and lack of principle.

Later, before he became president, there was an infamous rape trial where he was cleared.

I told the SACP leadership in 2005, “Zuma has become the role model of those who say it’s our turn to eat. They eat out of the pockets of big business while the masses starve.

“We used to say we struggled and sacrificed for the people, and is that not what we are still about?”

But the left and the trade unions backed Zuma because of the experience of Thabo Mbeki, the president who followed Nelson Mandela.

The neoliberal economy started under Mandela, but Mbeki took it further.

There was hope on the left that Zuma would be better than Mbeki. As the reality of his rule became better known, the opposition to Zuma grew.

In May 2017 he had to be removed from workers’ rallies because he was going to be shouted down. And opposition grew to him in parliament.

The Democratic Alliance, a capitalist party, made inroads because of his corruption. And a radical party, the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF), attacked Zuma as well but from a much better perspective.

The EFF took up the issues put on the backburner from Mandela onwards. They talked about the return of the land that had been stolen from black people, and a real assault on poverty, unemployment and inequality.

They got the better of the ANC. They will now continue to challenge Ramaphosa, who has stood by Zuma for four years as deputy president.

Is Zuma the only problem for South Africa’s poor?

The horror of Zuma’s rule can’t be understood simply as the actions of one man, however terrible. He represents one feature of what has happened since the end of apartheid in 1994.

We have seen the creation of a black bourgeoisie, a miniscule number of people who’ve become capitalists and risen to great wealth.

The “Black Economic Empowerment” project saw them prosper while the great majority were left behind.

There was supposed to be a “trickle down” of wealth to the black majority, but it was no more than a few enriching themselves. The structures of capital were left in place and deals done with big business locally and internationally.

The ANC retains mass support in the country, but it has been ebbing away, with disastrous local elections in 2016 that saw the ANC lose control of major cities.

There are big changes taking place in how people see the ANC and Zuma has accelerated that process.

Will Cyril Ramaphosa be any better as president?

Let’s be clear who Cyril Ramaphosa is. He’s a former miners’ union leader who played a prominent role in the defeat of apartheid.

His path to power in the ANC was blocked at one point so he turned to harvesting huge amounts of money as a businessman. Now he’s a multi-millionaire.

He was on the board of the mining firm Lonmin at the time of the Marikana massacre in 2012.

What does capital want from Zuma’s fall?

The expectation is that, unlike his predecessor, Ramaphosa will not trample on the law. That’s what many ordinary people hope. It’s also what sections of capital want. They want “normal” exploitation to go ahead without the crony capitalists who clustered around Zuma.

Marikana massacre inquiry: The truth behind the cover-up
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Ramaphosa hopes to regain the confidence of international capital. Mandela was adored by international institutions and businessmen.

The idea was that there would be huge inflows of capital, lifting everyone’s living standards. It didn’t happen, and it won’t happen now.

But of course these are capitalist laws, laws that allowed those responsible for the slaughter at Marikana to go free.

There is likely to be a clear out at the top. Already some of the Guptas are being hunted. Some of Zuma’s closest allies may be prosecuted or sacked.

But Ramaphosa is not going to challenge free market fundamentalism and neoliberalism.

Can Zuma’s fall lead to any fundamental change?

The ANC’s rule has seen the abandonment of the promises that were made in the Freedom Charter about a complete reordering of society. The ANC blinked when faced with pressure from the powerful. It bent to the Washington consensus.

If the ANC had stuck to its principles then Zuma would never have emerged, there would not have been the space for him.

Now the question is whether there is going to be a serious attempt to deal with poverty, mass unemployment and inequality.

I still think fundamental change is possible.

If the ANC can’t or won’t do it then there has to be a new left that takes on these issues. That’s not easy. The workers’ movement and the left are weak. But it has to grow from the struggles that take place.

At the end of my most recent book I say, “What is not difficult to suggest is that without that organised agency of change there can be no fundamental transformation. The working class is the driving force in this regard.”

Ronnie Kasrils was as a founding member of Umkhonto we Sizwe, the armed wing of the ANC, and minister of intelligence services from 2004 to 2008. He was a member of the national executive of the ANC from 1987 to 2007 as well as a member of the central committee of the South African Communist Party from 1986 to 2007.

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