Zuma is closing down our society

Rhodes>Perspective>2012 Archives

It seems more than likely that Jacob Zuma will be elected president of the ANC in December, which will undoubtedly see him remaining president of South Africa for another five years. What will South Africa look like after 10 years of Zuma's rule? Will society have become more open, or will growing authoritarianism lead to democratic spaces being closed down?

In his book The Democratic Moment - written at the onset of Zuma's rule - Xolela Mangcu captured the hope that Zuma's ascent to power would see a shift away from the elite and intolerant politics of the Thabo Mbeki period, and towards a more open and responsive "listening government" that took the grievances of the electorate seriously, especially the working class and the unemployed.

Certainly, early in Zuma's presidency, there were signs that his administration was serious about creating more points of access to the decision-making system: a key indicator of a more open society. There is little doubt that Zuma's promise of a more open society and polity has largely riot been realised. Intact, in the wake of the Marikana massacre, his portrayal as a more responsive president has come back to mock his hagiographers.

There are many signs that democratic space is closing up, and that this trend is likely to intensify. While it is difficult to track changes in the security cluster, as its operations are cloaked in a shroud of secrecy, there are signs that Zuma is increasing the coercive capacities of the state.

The level of openness of any society can also be measured by its level of tolerance of dissenting voices, including protests, and the increasingly violent policing of protests is the clearest indication of a shift towards a more repressive state. While protesters often use violence, too, many do so because of the dysfunctional nature of formal communications channels and in response to police violence.

The remilitarisation of the police has undoubtedly contributed to the problem of police violence, as has the decision to deploy paramilitary units, mandated to use maximum force, to police protests. These harsher methods of protest policing invert previous approaches, where the police were mandated to use minimum force.

In spite of his earlier, more responsive approach towards protests in "hotspots" like Balfour, recently Zuma has pledged to clamp down in illegal protests. Yet on his watch, the police and municipalities are making it increasingly impossible for legal protests to take place.

In fact, more municipalities are using entirely unlawful reasons to prohibit protests, banking on the fact that many protesters will not know the contents of the Regulation of Gatherings Act, and will therefore be unable to defend their rights.

Municipalities have made it increasingly difficult for protests to take place by tying up protesters in red tape. These bureaucratic and entirely unlawful measures have included charging protesters R150 per police officer per hour for the policing of their protests, in the case of the Emfuleni municipality.

The Rustenburg municipality has insisted that protesters in areas falling under traditional authorities seek the permission of the chief for their gatherings, and obtain a letter confirming that the institution that the protest will be held against is willing to accept the memorandum. The second requirement effectively makes the right to protest subject to the whim of the protesters' adversary, who can have the protest prohibited simply by refusing to accept the memorandum.

In the wake of the Marikana massacre, the municipality also prohibited a protest against police violence by the Wonderkop Community Womens' Association because the protest did not have a "proper purpose", which in effect meant it would not allow criticism of the police.

According to the Bafokeng Landbuyers' Association, it has become a nightmare to obtain "permission" for a march in the platinum belt, which works to the advantage of the mining companies as dissent against their practices is stifled. In any event, the act does not require protesters to seek permission, but merely to notify the local authority of their intention to protest.

Furthermore, since 2010, evidence has emerged of the SAPS and other levels of government placing unlawful blanket bans on protests when they feel that state security or the country's international image is at stake. There is no end to the litany of excuses routinely trotted out by municipalities for frustrating and even preventing the right to protest.

It has become increasingly apparent that the Regulation of Gatherings Act is no longer tenable. The assumption that protest conveners, the municipality and the police would be capable of a co-operative relationship in facilitating gatherings, is a fatal flaw in the act. It is inappropriate to make the ability to exercise a constitutional right contingent on the good conduct of actors that have a vested interest in not seeing the right being exercised.

In this regard, there is a strong case to be made for decisions about gatherings to be handled by an independent ombudsman, rather than municipalities. But the danger is that in the current, poisoned political climate, if the legislation is reviewed, then the country may land up with an even worse act.

Increasingly, the military are being deployed to assist the police in policing protests. The Ministry of Defence's 2102 Defence Review has prepared the ground for increasing the domestic deployment of the military, which makes the creeping militarisation of society more likely.

What needs to be watched is whether Zuma will increase political control over the military, given recent examples in north Africa of armies siding with the people, rather than governments, in revolutionary situations. In spite of very significant changes, the latest draft version of the Protection of State Information Bill will still make it difficult to obtain the information necessary to analyse the deeper processes at work in the military.

With regard to the intelligence services, there is no sign that the Zuma administration is going to act on the recommendations of the ministerial review commission on intelligence (the Matthews Commission), which proposed measures to prevent the political abuses that happened under Mbeki. In fact, it has been shelved for the most spurious of reasons, which makes it more likely that such abuses will recur. This is especially so given that the intelligence services are being centralised without greater transparency or public accountability being built into the system.

What went wrong? There can be little doubt that many in Zuma's government are committed to a more substantive democratic vision than existed under Mbeki, but globally the objective conditions have not favoured the realisation of this vision. Zuma came to power at the onset of the global recession. During periods of economic expansion, capitalism can afford democracy. This is because the system has the financial means to offer meaningful reforms to workers to stabilise society, making coercive measures unnecessary.

But during recessionary periods, society cannot be held in equilibrium any longer through democratic means, as economic reforms become less affordable and are reversed, and struggles escalate in response. Fascism was the political response to this crisis in the 1930s.

 The current crisis is not nearly as severe as that of the great depression. Governments are responding by securitising the state to stabilise the system, but within a nominally democratic framework, which allows a new political class of "securocrats" to gain increasing control over policy-making, while not descending into full-blown repression. SA is no exception to this general trend.

Then there are pressures that are peculiar to South Africa. There are signs of the ANC gradually losing electoral support, especially at local level. But the elite linked to the ANC's leadership do not have an independent source of wealth creation outside the state. Black economic empowerment has largely failed to transfer wealth from white to black hands.

If the ANC loses control of the state, they lose everything. So for reason of self-preservation, they become desperate to contain dissent and prevent the establishment of political alternatives, leading to pockets of local repression.

In pursuing a path towards a more closed society, the Zuma administration is sowing the wind. Once the veneer of legitimacy drops from the state machinery and it becomes exposed as the law enforcer of private capital rather than a neutral mediator of competing social forces, then mass revolt, even insurrection, becomes more likely.

Social movement scholars have long recognised that, far from discouraging protest action, state repression actually intensifies protest action. This is because the state comes to be seen as inherently unjust and, in time, illegitimate, leading to strengthened resolve to struggle against it.

  • Professor Duncan is Highway Africa Chair of Media and Information Society in the School of Journalism and Media Studies at Rhodes University. Before that she worked at the Freedom of Expression Institute and for its predecessor, the Anti-Censorship Action Group. This article was published on Cape Times.