South Africa

The future of the ANC: Pendulum will swing back

By Stephen Grootes 20 November 2013

There is often a tendency to assume that our politics is somehow globally unique. That the ANC is locked into power through a system of identity politics and history, and that nothing will ever change. There's also plenty of gnashing of teeth at the moment, about how the ANC's Number One member is currently behaving, and what this means for all of us. However, when predicting our future, it's important to remember that our society, like many others, often acts a bit like a pendulum, and swings from one side to another. This makes our future possibly brighter than many people assume. By STEPHEN GROOTES.

As November thunders through, it’s that time of year when people start to look at what the big processes and events of 2013 were. There have really been three major events in our political scene. The implosion of Cosatu is the most important in long term. The second is a series of events that could be roughly classed as scandals around President Jacob Zuma. Essentially, these are Waterkloof and the Guptas, Zuma’s family (including Khulubuse Zuma, and the recent antics of his brother Michael) and, of course, Nkandla. Somewhere there is, also, the emergence of that new populist-ish platform, the Malema Freedom Fighters [Stephen, Stephen, that’s not its name, and you know it. It is Malema-freedom Fighters – Ed.]

At the same time, our economy, and policy more generally, has simply been allowed to drift. Our problems continue to mount, decisions around governance are only made at the last minute, when there is no other option but to act.

Sometimes it seems as if we are condemned to this existence. In fact, there are plenty of longer-term historical trends that suggest that in a few years’ time, we are more likely to have a leader who makes decisions, and is not a symbol of corruption.

Societies often swing in different directions: after going to one extreme, they go back through the centre, and start swinging in other directions. Think of the US. George W. Bush, the US president for eight too-long years. While he was in office, thoughts of gay marriage or a more permissive society were simply put on hold. It appeared as if the US was on course to become even more culturally conservative and Bush’s so-called brain, Karl Rove, was daydreaming about a lasting Republican majority. Instead, the opposite happened. We saw society moving more to the left. The hope and fervor that went into Barack Obama’s first campaign was a direct result of how it felt by many Americans to be ‘led’ by Bush 43.

Now gay marriage is becoming more and more acceptable, and increasingly mainstream in the US at the same time. Again, partly because of Bush, whose already-mentioned Rove tried to turn gay marriage in a defining idea of 2004 election cycle.

We have had a similar thing happen here. It’s always important to remember that in our politics, Zuma probably won the ANC’s election at Polokwane because of Mbeki’s drift into autocracy.

If we had not had the overly-controlling details-man of Thabo Mbeki, we would not have the more laissez-faire Zuma. Without Mbeki, who was seen as trying to push the ANC and government policy in a certain direction, Zuma’s campaign would not have focused so much on the idea that he would allow people in the ANC to speak their minds openly. He would not have ended the Polokwane Conference by saying that he didn’t have policy priorities, but was merely the instrument for ANC members to speak through. (‘I am an empty vessel, fill me with ideas!’)

As we’ve said before many times, the ANC as an organisation is not simply going to let someone rule it in a certain extreme way forever. It’s an organisation of literally a million people, and that means no faction or cabal can sit on top for more than a decade. Sure, previous leaders like OR Tambo were in charge for many, many years, but the ANC is not a banned organisation that is struggling to survive anymore. It’s much bigger today, and there is simply more competition for the leadership.

So then, if we accept, for the sake of this argument, that this trend does also affect us here in South Africa, can we really expect the swing back? And when?

In a way, the pendulum is already swinging back.

Last week’s Mail & Guardian carried a story about what appears to be the comeback of Bheki Cele in Kwa-Zulu/Natal. If this interpretation is accurate, it seems astounding that Zuma is not able to stop someone who appears to be against him in his own province. And if Zuma cannot control KZN, should we ask if he is finished politically?

Not really. But there are some scenarios that could still happen, despite Zuma’s assumed dominance at the Mangaung conference.

For a start, the ANC’s electoral showing could well be used against him, should it pan out to be not as strong as it currently looks. If the party were to say get less than sixty percent, it would be relatively easy to imagine an National Executive Committee (NEC) meeting in the months afterwards in which the ANC’s top eighty get a whiff of comrade-cide. Perhaps it’s after Zuma has appointed his cabinet and the premiers are already in office. Which means the number of patronage positions left over is quite low by then. Perhaps it’s about a scandal that suddenly arises, another love child, or even a new detail about, say, Nkandla. (With Zuma there is scandal aplenty to pick from.)

Perhaps the Gauteng ANC suddenly realises this is their moment, and provokes a fight. Then suddenly someone points to a group of NEC members from KZN and shouts “you made this happen, you made us take Zuma”. If that were to happen, with that delegation on the back foot, would they still support him? It would be difficult to find arguments to use to say that Zuma is still the best person to lead the party. And if the province is going slightly soft on Zuma anyway, well, who knows how it could end up.

If anything like that even remotely happens, Zuma would certainly regret allowing that same NEC to recall Mbeki back in 2008.

But even if that kind of dramatic recall drama doesn’t happen (and on the balance of probability, the odds are still against that exciting and deja vu scenario) that doesn’t mean the swing isn’t already with us.

There is still likely to be a desire for a stronger  and more active, and more decisive leadership within the ANC.

Cyril Ramaphosa and Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma are the only people at this stage worth putting money on for 2017. Both of them are take-charge kind of people. They don’t like to just let things drift.

They also have relatively clean backgrounds. Marikana and bovine investments aside, Ramaphosa has made his money legally (Morality, BEE and employment equity we’ll leave for the DA to fight itself over). Dlamini-Zuma may sometimes be accused of having an imperial manner, but certainly no one has ever been able to claim she’s taken money from anyone. As symbols on an election poster, both would be easier sells.

Both would also bring urgency to the Presidency. Economic policy decisions would be made, and with a bit of luck, the Security Cluster would spend less time having its arse kicked in court.

But don’t expect that to last forever. Because within a few years, some people will long for another inactive and frustrating leader. DM

Grootes is the author of SA Politics Unspun (in which he predicts the ANC will get 61% in next year’s elections) and the Senior Political  Reporter for Eyewitness News. He also hosts the Midday Report on Talk Radio 702 and 567 Cape Talk.

Photo: The ANC giveth and the ANC taketh away. President Jacob Zuma

(REUTERS/Siphiwe Sibeko)


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