TOUGH TALK: Minister of Finance Pravin Gordhan speaks to President Jacob Zuma at the Union Buildings in Pretoria. Picture: GCIS
Pravin Gordhan, left, and Jacob Zuma. Picture: GCIS

THE counterrevolution is in full swing. The ANC is, in the words of our deputy president, at war with itself. The Cabinet too.

A deputy minister denounces "forces bent on looting the state", while radio hosts openly refer to President Jacob Zuma as, "the looter and liar in chief".

Counterrevolution is the wrong term, though. For despite the rhetoric, there has not been a revolution. The change of power in 1994 was a compromise, fashioned to avoid a civil war.

White business and white citizens generally kept their economic privileges in return for the ANC getting the trappings of power. The result is another kind of civil war: within the liberation movement itself.

A better description of what is happening might be that a second anti-apartheid struggle has opened up. The first was to dismantle the bureaucratic apparatus of legislated white supremacy. The second is more subtle, a psychological tussle.

The scandal that some previously all-white schools enforce a "neat hair code", especially for girls, that prohibits natural African hair by insisting that all styles be "straight and short", and the fact that defenders of such rules are astonished this should be considered discriminatory, tells us how unconscious and unreformed many whites remain.

In contrast, there are black politicians and bureaucrats who take the attitude that because in the past the whites gobbled everything for themselves in a corrupt system, it is our turn to eat. Zuma appears to stand at the apex of this system. After the recent losses in municipal elections, everyone wondered how the ANC, Zuma in particular, would respond to this humiliation. Officially, the party talked about "introspection".

And Zuma? With power waning fast, he probably does not have long at the top. One commentator offered an analogy: "It’s like those adverts for hamburger joints — if you come between one and two o’clock on this date, you can — for the price of one burger — eat as much as you can."

About to leave SA for two months, I wonder what kind of country I will return to. We are, I think, in an interregnum: poised precariously between a racial transition (1994) and the potential, eventually, for a real revolution or popular revolt.

The French Revolution did not start in 1789 with the storming of the Bastille. That was a constitutional transition, with the king still in place. There are several similarities that have struck me lately.

The French crisis was brought on because their treasury was bankrupt, leading to a haemorrhage of confidence among creditors. That danger now stares us in the face with the threat of rating agencies reducing us to "junk status".

Louis XVI vacillated in the face of that crisis. He appointed, fired, then again appointed the cautious, liberal-minded banker Jacques Necker. Zuma has done the same with Pravin Gordhan, firing him, then being forced to bring him back, but still intent on crassly undermining him.

Des van Rooyen, the man Zuma appointed for four chaotic days until billions were wiped off the stock exchange, is now co-operative governance minister. This mediocre placeman recently made a speech to the Umkhonto veterans association denouncing Gordhan, his successor as finance minister. Van Rooyen was apparently decked out in camouflage military-style gear: revolution, in short, as comic opera.

The president of the military veterans association, Kebby Maphatsoe, was a cook in an ANC camp. He ran away but was shot by Ugandan soldiers trying to recapture the deserter. Comrade Kebby is now deputy defence minister, eager to denounce the president’s adversaries as counterrevolutionary CIA agents.

In France, the prerevolutionary epoch is referred to as the ancien régime, a term that originally meant "previous" rather than "archaic". Already the Zuma era has that queasy free-for-all feeling of an imploding but dangerously cornered ancien régime.

•  Rostron is a journalist and author