Global Corospondent - July 2017

Quarterly Publication - July 2017

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SA Politics - July 2017

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Simon Freemantle

Simon Freemantle

Guest author, Simon is the senior political economist and head of the African political economy unit at Standard Bank. He is a regular presenter on political and economic issues relating to SA and Africa on a variety of local and international platforms.

Paralysis is defined by the Oxford English Dictionary as “the loss of the ability to move in part or most of the body”, or “the inability to act or function properly”. Recent events within the ANC have reflected how deep the state of paralysis is that has set in across the party’s senior structures. Though able to diagnose the crisis that it (and the broader body politic as a whole) faces, the party appears unable to move in any decisive manner to address the challenges it knows to be eroding public trust, and widening what ANC secretary general Gwede Mantashe has referred to as the ANC’s “trust deficit” with the nation.

There are two examples of the ANC’s current inertia which best reflect this internal dilemma.

The first is the manner in which this state of paralysis has undermined the ANC’s capacity to act nimbly with regard to the destruction wrought by President Zuma on the ANC and the alliance, the economy and the country’s wider institutional edifice. President Zuma no longer enjoys the majority of support in the ANC’s national executive committee (NEC), nor does he hold the kind of branch-level endorsement that he was not long ago able to command. At least since his unilateral dismissal of former finance minister Nhlanhla Nene on what has been infamously dubbed ‘9/12’ (9 December 2015) the president’s base of political authority has considerably and consistently weakened. Calls for his removal as head of state have grown louder since his bold cabinet reshuffle in March this year. The president was booed at this year’s May Day rally and is now unwelcome at gatherings of both of the ANC’s tripartite alliance partners – the SACP and COSATU. In a March survey by TNS, just 20% of South Africans living in major metropolitan municipalities stated that they believed President Zuma was doing a good job, a drop from 58% in 2009. Many in the ANC blame the president’s urban unpopularity for the party’s dismal election performance in last year’s municipal polls. Meanwhile, as the allegations of impropriety linked to the Gupta family continue to mount, exploding with even greater clarity into the public conscience as a result of the trove of leaked emails from within the family’s business empire, President Zuma remains stoically silent and tacitly defensive of the interests he, and more directly his son, Duduzane Zuma, have in ensuring the Gupta family continues to enjoy access to state patronage.

Yet, despite the obvious liability President Zuma has become for the ANC, the party is unable to manage his exit in a manner that presents some image of internal cohesion, and reflects the capacity to ‘self-correct’. The reason for this is simple: factionalism within the ANC has ripped apart its internal accountability mechanisms and undermined its central authority. There is no longer a final word on matters of party concern as all statements are deemed by opposing factions to be designed to undermine their interests and expand those of the groups they oppose. Further, the ANC’s constitution is poorly equipped to manage the intensity of the animosities that now characterise the party’s senior structures.

There is no real mechanism to remove a party president prior to the five-yearly national elective conference, and the decision to rescind the party’s nomination for the president as head of state is not taken by a vote at the NEC level, but rather by a search for ‘consensus’. When such consensus is absent (and President Zuma has enough support still in the NEC to prevent consensus from building against him), the only option is to preserve the status quo, as damaging as this may be for the party and the country it leads. President Zuma has also adopted a typical ‘divide and rule’ strategy as president – so much so that his removal would, in Mr Mantashe’s words, “tear the ANC apart” as groups loyal to the president would mount an aggressive counter to his premature eviction from office. Fearful of this outcome, a cluster of moderate ANC leaders hope to hold the middle line and drag the party to its December elective conference in order to more formally address the crises that President Zuma has bestowed on them.

The second feature of this state of paralysis is the manner in which the ANC and the alliance appear unable to define a coherent course of action to address the country’s crippling economic and social shortcomings. The party’s recent national policy conference was a study in this dilemma. Indeed, driven by the political jostling which has come to define the ANC’s succession battle, delegates at the conference were consumed by proxy battles around the definition of “(white) monopoly capital” and land expropriation with or without compensation (and with or without changes to the Constitution). There appeared to be little substantive engagement on the issues that should most concern the party in order to address the fundamental frustrations of the broader population: unemployment, crime, corruption and social transformation. Though on the day that the conference began, the Daily Maverick released a report detailing how the Guptas funnelled money from a failed and state-funded dairy farm in the Free State to pay for a lavish Sun City wedding, delegates did not (or were not able to) voice their resounding condemnation of ‘state capture’, the definition of which is held hostage by the same factional tensions outlined before. Indeed, such was the party’s priorities at the conference that it could not even find the time in an extended six-day gathering to brief the media on its education, health, science and technology resolutions, which it only managed to do the week after the conference had closed. And while there was a focus on the National Development Plan (NDP), which minister in the presidency Jeff Radebe doggedly continues to pursue, the party was able only to concede that ‘implementation’  remains a crippling hurdle to the realisation of the Plan’s goals – with little understanding of how such an impediment can be lifted. Broadly speaking, the ambiguous mantra of radical economic transformation, which has vastly divergent interpretations within the ANC, has replaced the NDP as a guiding force for internal policy discussions. It is worth noting that this was the ANC’s last scheduled policy conference before the 2019 elections, where it will undoubtedly face its sternest national test since 1994.

While resolutions to these issues will not be straightforward, the ANC does at least have an opportunity to address the depth of internal disunity that it faces at its national elective conference in December. Here there are three broad types of outcomes, though only one of the three offers the opportunity for any form of decisive and positive change.

The first outcome is one in which a reformist movement secures the party reins. This movement appears most likely to be led by Deputy President Cyril Ramaphosa, but there are other ANC leaders capable of driving a similar type of sentiment (including human settlements minister Lindiwe Sisulu and, to an extent, ANC treasurer Zweli Mkhize). Under this scenario a collective of leaders with stronger moral mettle and a more moderate approach towards the tackling of the country’s economic malaise would defeat those clustered around President Zuma and the ‘premier league’ of provincial power barons who have sustained his party power. It would be important for a ‘winner-takes-all’ outcome in which a reform movement secures all of the ANC’s top positions and squeezes President Zuma’s staunchest provincial supporters out of the party’s senior leadership.

A second outcome is the exact opposite of the first, and would see the ANC Youth League’s (ANCYL) slate of preferred leaders elected as a bloc. The group pulled together by the ANCYL is an ominous one, with Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma as president, Mpumalanga premier David Mabuza as deputy president and Free State premier Ace Magashule as secretary general. It is the extraordinary bias of this slate, and the apparent inability to attract moderates to balance its scales, that are undermining its chances in December. But the residual branch power that the president enjoys in KwaZulu-Natal and in the more compliant ‘premier league’ provinces of the Free State and the North West still sustains its viability. Should this slate succeed, the consequences for the ANC and the alliance would be dire, leading to the kind of split that would almost certainly undermine the party’s grip on Gauteng in 2019, and quite possibly at the national level too.

A third outcome is one of compromise between the warring factions in the party, which many in the ANC are seeking as the means through which to avoid the split that they fear would result from either of the above outcomes triumphing as a bloc. President Zuma has floated a compromise ‘solution’ as well, suggesting in his closing remarks at the recent national policy conference that the losing presidential candidate should automatically slot in as one of two party deputy presidents. It is likely that the president made this recommendation from a position of weakness, cognisant (finally) of the fact that his branch-level support is more precarious than he assumed it to be. This does suggest that Mr Ramaphosa is well positioned to lead the compromise collective, if such an outcome is pursued. A critical swing province in this regard is Mpumalanga, which will account for around 15% of voting delegates at the conference. As it stands, Mr Mabuza is hedging his bets, shifting subtly away from his previous defence of President Zuma and the ‘premier league’ and offering to position himself on Mr Ramaphosa’s ticket in exchange for his endorsement as deputy president. Though this would fundamentally improve Mr Ramaphosa’s chances of success, it would come at the cost of profoundly undermining the reformist zeal that he would seek to project as party and state leader. Though a compromise would at least prevent a more cataclysmic outcome in December in which President Zuma’s allies secure even more profound control of the party reins than they currently enjoy, it would not offer the kind of momentum for reform that is required to shatter the paralysis that has set in at a party/alliance and national policy level.

 The probabilities assigned to each of the aforementioned outcomes remain exceptionally fluid, and there are pervasive unknowns that will have a profound bearing on the process itself. For instance, the outcome of the ANC’s Eastern Cape and Free State provincial elections, which will both be held in the coming months, and the resolution in court in August of the contested KwaZulu-Natal party leadership election of 2015, will have a potentially marked bearing on events in the lead-up to December. Above all, though, the finalisation of the ANC’s contested membership audit will be all-important. There have been reports of KwaZulu-Natal branch membership having exploded, from 158 199 in 2015 to over 500 000 currently. The composition of voting delegates in December is determined by the proportionate size of each branch, and the relative share of total membership that each province contributes to the party. As such, if there are 4 000 branch delegates at the conference, and KwaZulu- Natal accounts for 25% of total ANC membership, then 1 000 of those 4 000 voters will come from the province. Mr Mantashe’s task in injecting integrity into these fraught audit systems will be a towering one, and vigorous contestation within the branches seeking to superficially inflate their importance will again expose the depth of disunity that the party suffers from.

Meanwhile, as the ANC is consumed with its own internal wrangling, a new kind of national opposition collective appears to be forming. Galvanised by resistance to President Zuma and mounting evidence of Gupta-orchestrated ‘state capture’, a coalition of opposition parties, tripartite alliance members (the SACP primarily), ANC veterans, civil society organisations, and business and religious groupings has found common cause. It is therefore not only the ANC’s waning capacity for ‘self-correction’ upon which the nation’s hopes rest, but also on a movement that has mobilised as a result of the ruling party’s paralysed reaction to the unfolding crisis of the past five years in particular.

Here the country is in marked contrast to some of its more oppressive emerging market peers, where resistance to the creeping autocracy of the state is more easily and systematically squashed. In fluid democratic systems, actors – even ones as dominant as the ANC – cannot afford to stand still for too long, and it has been in the shadows created by the state of paralysis that the ruling party has allowed to consume the broader body politic that the seeds for a new political realignment have formed. How this realignment takes shape will of course also rely on the ANC’s succession outcome, which is now just five months away and presents the opportunity for the lifting (for better or worse) of our collectively paralysed state.