By Colm Bryce
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A Simple Man

This article is over 5 years, 10 months old
Issue 435

This is a devastating account of the rise of Jacob Zuma to the presidency of South Africa, despite the obvious evidence of Zuma’s political corruption. More than this, it is a book which is an extended reflection on what has happened to the promise of the African National Congress (ANC) after the fall of apartheid; on how and why so little has changed for the majority of black South Africans and how characters like Zuma have come to dominate.

Kasrils is well placed to write about this. A veteran of Ukumto weZizweh (MK), the ANC’s armed wing, since the early 1960s and a leading member of the South African Communist Party (SACP), Ronnie ended up a minister in the ANC government, eventually becoming Minister for Intelligence.

Kasrils had doubts about Zuma, even in early years of exile when they were both MK soldiers. The book opens with Kasrils’ recollection of a mission with Zuma during which he overhears Zuma criticise him for ruining the mission. It is something he puts out of his mind, for the sake of party unity and military discipline, a theme Kasrils returns to throughout the book. But it returns to haunt him as Zuma begins his rise to prominence in the ANC.

Zuma established a base for himself as a tribal leader of the Zulu people within the ANC, playing a crucial role in heading off the danger of the Inkatha rebellion against the ANC during the transition years. But it was also a dangerous precedent. As he manoeuvred for power, and battled accusations of corruption, he presented himself as a “simple man”, hiding behind a mask of Zulu tribalism.

The final section of the book is by far the most impressive. Ronnie lays bare the series of key decisions during the transition that led to the ANC accepting the dictates of local and international capitalism. He recalls Mandela returning stony-faced from a visit to the World Economic Forum in Davos in 1992 and telling the ANC leadership that they would not be allowed to introduce socialist policies, or else South Africa would be starved of investment.

At a series of crucial turning points, informed by a close group of “advisers” from the banking sector of the old apartheid regime and unelected officials from the World Bank, the possibility of even introducing mild Keynesian reforms in education and welfare was shut down and neoliberalism promoted as the only possible policy option. The De Klerk regime, knowing that white-minority rule was over, boasted that they had managed to rid the ANC of its socialism.

Zuma is currently on trial for receiving massive bribes for brokering an arms deal with France in the 1990s. He has been replaced as president by Cyril Ramaphosa, himself a former trade union militant, who became a wealthy businessman and, as a member of the board of mining giant Lonmin, encouraged the police to use violence against striking platinum miners, resulting in the Marikana massacre.

Marikana was a watershed for Kasrils. He resigned from the SACP and the ANC, so that he could be open about his criticisms. Kasrils spares no one, himself included, for the responsibility for how things turned out. It is to Kasrils’ enormous credit that he has come through this process with his principles and ideals intact.

He ends the book with a call to arms to rebuild a new left out of the workers’ struggles of the present. His book is a must read for anyone trying to understand the development of South Africa since the fall of apartheid and the wider question of the cost to liberation movements of compromising with international capitalism.

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