Party members, like victims of Stalin who believed in the system, cannot accept movement has lost the plot

In his final tour de force before his death in 2010, the great modern historian Tony Judt described how key victims of Stalin remained — to the bitter end, often unto death — true believers in the system that sent them to Siberia and worse. The memoirs of Evegniia Ginzburg, gifted Judt in his book, Thinking the Twentieth Century, with one profound believer in this self-immolating belief.

He wrote: “She is swept into the Gulag, passing through all the worst prisons of Moscow, dispatched by train to Siberia. Not only does she encounter fellow victims, women who are still great believers and who are convinced that there must be logic and justice behind their suffering; she herself remains committed to a certain communist ideal. The system, she insists, may have gone badly astray: but it could still be fixed.”

As Judt notes, wryly: “This capacity — this profound need — to believe well of the Soviet project was so firmly embedded by 1936 that even its victims did not lose faith.”

I will return, below, to the Russians and the current heirs of Stalin and their tentacles in the current crises gripping SA. But first, even without any assistance from Moscow, there are many heirs of Ginzburg populating the governing party. Some are appalled at the destructive upending of both the South African economy and – should we travel further down the miserable road chartered by Jacob Zuma — its democratic project. But they remain firmly embedded within the party.

Less obviously, there is a small cottage industry currently sprouting in the mainstream and social media. It emerges from what remains of SA’s liberal intelligentsia. They are righteously indignant with the swirl of current events and the unlikeliest, perhaps, reluctant allies emerging in defence of SA’s beleaguered institutions and imperilled constitutional democracy.

Some of them write to the effect that the ANC is utterly incapable of self-correction, its once beating heart has been replaced by a diseased liver and the racist bile spewing forth from the president downward is symptomatic of a racial nationalistic project that has run out of road. The narrative goes further: the leaders of such civil society organisations as Save SA are members of the ANC who cannot abide, like the victims of Stalinism, that their once principled, peoples’ movement has been captured by a corrupt coterie of rent-seeking crooks. In their apparent view, instead of purging the movement, or abandoning it, let’s rescue it from the sultans of sleaze who have captured it and restore it to its rightful owners.

Having spent most of my adult life in opposition to the two great, and in my view nefarious, nationalist projects of this country, the Afrikaans and the Africanist versions of contemporary history, I should be readily sympathetic to these siren calls emanating from my own ideological corner. Yet, at this moment of national peril I find myself utterly agnostic. Thabo Mbeki famously never had much time for me when I led the opposition. Jacob Zuma was far more emollient after I left that post and even did me the high honour of naming me a country ambassador.
And yet I find myself cheering Mbeki’s current call to his own party MPs – long-winded as it was – to place the people above the party when voting on the opposition no-confidence vote on Zuma.
His immediate successor, Kgalema Motlanthe, was even more explicit on the point: remove Zuma as president.
I can offer endless examples of how hypocritical such calls may be, given that they are voiced by those who, either as president or party secretary-general, respectively, demanded iron-clad fealty to the party, often above the people’s interests. So what?

Equally, that the South African Communist Party and Cosatu, whose twin propulsions powered Zuma into office, now want him gone is of lesser interest than the exigencies of the moment.

Politics is not about purity and Parliament is not a church. In fact, to borrow from the most famous parable in the New Testament, both travellers and fellow travellers “cannot walk by on the other side of the road”. Even if in the no-confidence motion this would require crossing the floor to do so.

Once more the country’s prospects are imperilled by the conduct and ongoing violations of one man and his multiple abuses of office. That he sits, in the words of the Constitutional Court “at the apex of our constitutional project” underlines both the urgency for his removal and reminder of the damage that could yet to be done to this “project” in his remaining two years in office.

Last Friday, I participated in my first march since 1992 when I helped organise a far smaller event in Johannesburg to demand a resumption of the constitutional negotiations then abandoned at Kempton Park. I never saw a single racist placard or heard an even inferential racial remark from the vast throng of all hues gathered outside Parliament in Cape Town. I did see, however, several posters denouncing both the nuclear deal and Zuma’s purging of Pravin Gordhan and plunging the country over the economic cliff.

But even more remarkable than the size and diversity of Friday’s crowds, who will doubtless reassemble again and again, despite the admonitions of the mayor of Ekurhuleni, was the subsequent, unprecedented outburst of an ANC MP, Makhosi Khoza. She declared that the “politics of patronage has claimed the sanity” of her party’s leaders.

I think she is only half-right on the issue of the tentacles of corrupt patronage ensnaring her leader. But for all its damage — current and future, if it continues — of Zuma and what might be called the Zumafication of our institutions — the president has acted entirely rationally.

Of course, it appears irrational on the surface, but that is like trying to understand the communications from a father to the police, when he is simultaneously in conversation with the kidnappers of his daughter. He has to say and do certain things to ensure her survival.
One day, perhaps sooner than is realised, the kompromat — an aptly Russian word — that both domestic and international forces hold over our country’s president will be revealed.
It appears utterly irrational, at least on the surface, to recall your finance minister from an international investor road show, blow up your own economy, provoke a series of crises in your own party and then replace a respected steward of the public purse with a complete financial novice.

But then Gordhan invited us to join the dots. And he didn’t leave much to our imaginations either. He explicitly described how he would not sign off on a deal with Rosatom, the Russian state energy company. Absent for a moment other questions, such as why a country with low growth and sitting on mountains of coal requires the sort of nuclear capacity that Germany declined to operationalise.

Institute of Race Relations CEO Frans Cronje took this narrative much further in a study published this week under the title, A coup has taken place in the ANC. Its contents are both soberly written and utterly alarming in their implications. I also have every reason to believe that when the period of current turmoil is accurately chronicled, some of the “usual suspects” in the stocks of public opprobrium right now might earn a reprieve. It is easy to bash the rent-seeking Guptas and their PR agency, Bell Pottinger. But what if so much of the sophisticated written poison on social media and campaigns on “white monopoly capital” etc actually originate from the same Moscow basements of the Russian foreign intelligence service (SVR) that helped subvert the outcome of the US presidential election?

Let’s just hope that we learn the answers before it is too late and while accountable democracy still has a fighting chance in our country. That is why, for now at least, we need to be, in Gordhan’s fighting words, “democrats regardless of the colour of the T-shirt thatyou wear”.

• Leon, a former leader of the opposition, now chairs Resolve Communications and is a senior adviser to K2 Intelligence of London. @TonyLeonSA.