South Africa is a country in suspense, waiting for the fallout from a series of interlinked decisions. First, the liberal opposition Democratic Alliance (DA) last month won Johannesburg, Pretoria, Port Elizabeth and Cape Town in the local elections, a huge blow to the ruling African National Congress (ANC). Second, the country is waiting on tenterhooks for the credit rating agencies to re-rate the country’s creditworthiness in November: most fear relegation to junk status. Third, President Jacob Zuma, a crony capitalist par excellence, is trying to hand as many favours as possible to his allies, the Gupta family. This is being resisted by his Finance Minister, Pravin Gordhan, and a showdown between Zuma and Gordhan cannot be long averted. Finally, there is the question of the presidential succession, to be decided by an ANC conference in 2017.
Rumours fly that Zuma has already accepted $200 million from Russian President Vladimir Putin to commission a string of Russian nuclear power stations; that fearing jail, he is planning to retire offshore; and that he will push his ex-wife, Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma, into the presidency to succeed him. And so on.
One could write: “Apart from that, normal politics goes on.” In one sense that is true — we have rioting students burning down university buildings, affirmative action causing a flight of white cricketers and rugby players — but mainly it’s not true simply because the ANC, which has ruled the country since 1994, is disassembling before one’s eyes. There is an almost complete absence of leadership. Zuma remains largely passive when in-country, and he’s often out. The police, doubtless on his instructions, endlessly harass and threaten Finance Minister Gordhan. Not only do individual cabinet ministers squabble in public and make unilateral decisions without any semblance of cabinet co-ordination but even subordinate state agencies sometimes make large policy announcements, apparently chancing their arm to see what they can get away with. Many of the ministers are clearly buffoons, while ANC deputy secretary-general Jessie Duarte has made announcements that suggest complete economic illiteracy. But then the president himself has said he doesn’t really believe in markets and relies on Marx’s labour theory of value, which even Marxist economists stopped using in the 1950s.
As the local elections approached, propaganda from the ANC and the South African Communist Party (the parties are allies and all but indistinguishable) became increasingly frenzied. Opinion polls showing the ANC behind were denounced as having “a regime change agenda” and the SACP demanded that their publication be stopped. There were furious demands to “defend the capital”, and posters went up widely enjoining us all to “defend the revolution”. Zuma, for his part, threatened his audiences that if the opposition won cities like Port Elizabeth “the ancestors will never forgive you”. This led to considerable doubts as to whether the ANC would actually accept an adverse result. In Port Elizabeth the (theoretically) Independent Electoral Commission displayed great reluctance to declare an opposition victory but in the end the verdict of the polls was respected.
However, this was quickly followed by the ANC threatening to make the cities they had lost “ungovernable” and by initial council meetings where the ANC caucus tried to prevent the new administration from being sworn in. In Pretoria, this was followed by a series of ANC-led illegal land invasions in which squatters grabbed public land and put up shacks, forcing the municipality to evict them and thus incur the ignominy of being portrayed as apartheid lookalikes. But this is all part of the rather muscular style of South African politics. The really important thing is that the ANC seems habituated to the rules of electoral democracy and this gives one some — not complete, but some — confidence that it may one day accept the loss of national power in good part.
The second issue — the possible downrating of South Africa to junk bond status — is still moot though most market sentiment is that it will happen, causing a stock market and currency downgrade of some severity. The result will, of course, be higher interest rates on all forms of government debt, increasingly tight constraints on government spending and, ultimately, an increased possibility that the country will be forced towards an IMF bail-out. All this is some way off and the ANC still lives in a dreamworld where the Brics banks will lend them lots of money at no interest and without conditions. Reality is likely to be a lot less comfortable and the crunch will be felt first in South Africa’s host of loss-making state-owned industries. South African Airways, for example, is run by one of Zuma’s girlfriends, Dudu Myeni, who is therefore unsackable despite her complete lack of business or aviation experience and the huge losses SAA has incurred under her care. It is doubtful if any commercial airline would employ Ms Myeni even as a receptionist.
The conflict between Zuma and Gordhan is a conflict between what is known in South Africa as “tenderpreneurs” (those who have become rich on the back of favoured access to government contracts) and the Treasury, which is attempting to conduct economic policy on rational grounds rather than favouring this or that tenderpreneur. Zuma and his extended family are deeply indebted to the immigrant Gupta family, who accordingly tend to get the lion’s share of contracts. Indeed, if managers in state corporations do not give tenders to the Guptas they will get threatened, bullied and, if necessary, sacked. Other ANC politicians report that the Guptas have promised them cabinet jobs, that the family knows cabinet decisions before ministers do and that they can get any minister fired. This has led to an increasing row over “state capture” in which even the SACP has roused itself to protest.
Zuma is universally regarded as a venal, bought man. What is remarkable is that the Guptas have behaved so provocatively and thus far got away with it. There is no doubt that African nationalists of all shades would like to treat them in the same way that Idi Amin treated his Asians. The Guptas have announced that they are selling all their South African assets and getting out, but currently they are only one step ahead of the lynch mob and they had better be quick. Zuma, for his part, seems to have decided that if he can no longer depend on Gupta favours, he had better do a sunset deal with Putin. But no one believes the South African Treasury can afford one trillion rand for new nuclear power stations. If Gordhan will not sign off on this, it will be the compelling reason for Zuma to sack him and appoint a more pliant finance minister.
Finally, who will succeed Zuma? His clients — the premiers of KwaZulu-Natal, Mpumalanga, Free State and the North West; the so-called “Premier League” — cannot imagine anything nicer than being allowed to fill their pockets for another five years, so they would like him to stay on. But the constitution forbids that and anyway, Zuma was only able to depose Thabo Mbeki because he was attempting a similar manoeuvre. So for Zuma the next best thing would be for his ex-wife Nkosazana, now head of the African Union, to take on the presidency. She would make sure Zuma did not go to jail on the nearly 800 counts against him; she is tough, authoritarian, very left-wing and otherwise suitable, though she is 70 and no one much likes her.
The greatest barrier to a Dlamini- Zuma presidency is that it is universally seen as a continuation of Zuma by other means. Until now it has had the air of inevitability because the Premier League and other beneficiaries of the Zuma patronage network could not imagine a better way to allow them to keep plundering their satrapies. But the local elections have given the party pause for thought. No one doubts that Zuma’s leadership and all the scandals associated with it cost the ANC votes. As a result thousands of councillors and placemen in the cities will now have lost their jobs. Already the DA is bringing charges of corruption against some of the old regime and more of this will doubtless follow. That is to say, until now Zuma has ruled through the plentiful patronage he provided, but now it is Zuma and what he stands for that will have cost the ANC a vast loss of patronage. This could well change the equation. If the Premier League and the other patronage bosses under Zuma sense that there is a better way to keep their power and spoils, they will bolt towards it. And if all that Dlamini-Zuma promises is another five year years of Zumaism that may be enough to sink her.
The popular alternative to Zuma is Cyril Ramaphosa, his deputy president. But Ramaphosa comes from the minority Venda tribe and has little grass-roots support. A far more substantial figure is the party treasurer, Dr Zweli Mkhize, formerly premier of the Zulu heartland KwaZulu-Natal. He and Ramaphosa appear to have made an informal alliance but if they are to challenge Dlamini-Zuma they will at some point have to come into the open and confront Zuma directly. Understandably, they are showing a great deal of discretion, not to say hesitation, about doing this. But the biggest effect of the local elections is that Zuma’s power to control the succession may have been much diminished.
Finally, the elections have left the ANC more reliant than ever on the Zulu bloc vote. Only in KwaZulu-Natal did the ANC vote hold up — in Msundizi (Pietermaritzburg) its vote even went up. And of the six big metros only eThekwini (Durban) remains a secure ANC stronghold. In effect the country has been ruled from Durban for some years now and eThekwini’s 41.6 billion rand (£2 billion) per year budget is now more than ever the ANC’s greatest honeypot. But Gauteng — which includes Pretoria and Johannesburg — is the country’s economic hub and now that the DA has won power there a new dynamic will ensue.
Hanging over all this is the virtual dissolution of the ANC leadership and its descent into squabbling factionalism. The party’s heroic period is well and truly over. The myths and slogans of the liberation struggle are less and less able to hold the party together. Everyone is familiar with the life cycle of African nationalist parties. They enjoy mushrooming growth amid the euphoria of the successful anti-colonial struggle. In office they quickly become corrupt and their incompetence becomes increasingly visible. The party begins to atrophy and depends more and more on its control of patronage and the media. Electorally, it falls back into reliance on the chiefs in the countryside as urban dwellers become increasingly oppositional. Then if (as has so often occurred) a coup takes place the soldiers are welcomed by cheering crowds in the streets and the ruling party simply evaporates like a bad dream. Its life cycle is thus often quite short.
It is clear that the ANC is well along this cycle. It is losing in the cities, is ever more reliant on the chiefs, indeed on the Bantustans, and it is irredeemably corrupt. The leftish Mail and Guardian talk hopefully of the next ANC generation taking over and instances the young ministers Fikile Mbalula and Malusi Gigaba. Yet Mbalula is merely a figure of fun, and Gigaba is the man who ordered a halt to all maintenance by the Eskom electricity utility during the World Cup (causing terrible power cuts thereafter) and then brought in the visa restrictions which crippled the tourist industry. If they are the ANC’s best young Turks, the party is in terrible trouble.
There will be no coup in South Africa: the civic culture is too strong and the army, like most other state institutions, exists only in shreds and patches. Under apartheid it was ranked the world’s 10th strongest, just ahead of Israel. Now it probably doesn’t make the top 100.
But the notion of the ANC as a party able to hold the country together is just about gone. We have reached a point where simple continuity from what has gone before is no longer possible.
This article was first published in Standpoint and has been republished here with permission.
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