One of the great arts of politics is the art of not making enemies. As you get more powerful, that becomes harder and harder. The more power you have, the more your colleagues are affected by decisions you make, and thus the more they become rivals. Every re-shuffle of your Cabinet creates a loser, who in turn could become an enemy. It is one of the great dynamics of democracy, it ensures no one stays on top for too long. But President Jacob Zuma appears to have forgotten this. (Or he does not care.) His sudden decision to remove Nhlanhla Nene from the position of Finance Minister has created him a whole new list of very powerful enemies. People in the middle class primarily, but also in the ANC, too. By STEPHEN GROOTES.
Zuma has never been as popular with our middle classes as Thabo Mbeki was. There are many reasons for this. Mbeki appeared to lead a primarily middle-class lifestyle, he cloaked himself in respectability, spoke in fairly modulated tones, and appeared most comfortable in urban settings. Zuma has always been the opposite: he is far more comfortable speaking in Zulu, Nkandla is almost a by-word for a particular vision of rural and conservative, and he behaves in a way that may resonate more with people from rural areas. But one of the main aspects that mark the differences between the two men was their approach to economic orthodoxy. Mbeki was the very model of a person who believed in balancing the books. To the point where we even had a small surplus after paying back most of our debt. This is unheard of for a developing country, where are always people who need more spent on hospitals and schools. It earned him the ire of the Left, but he believed in it.
In a strange way, that economically orthodox model became one of the accepted bedrocks of society. You did not mess with it. Even Zuma, who claimed that he was a man of the Left did not mess with it, until now. It was, oddly, a bit like non-racialism. No political person, from any political party, could stand up in Parliament and make a racist comment without the rest of society coming down on them like a tonne of bricks. It was part of the accepted rules of the game, you cannot be racist in public, you cannot question the Treasury.
The sacking of Nene is a break with all of that. Which is one of the reasons so many people are so angry. They feel that this is the end of an era. Going forward, they will be poorer. For many people, who are the first generation of their families to be middle-class, this isn’t just a set-back, it’s a betrayal. They will have worked and scraped and worked some more to get there. Now it is going to be hard to remain middle-class.
To make it worse, it’s not as if they lost some ideological argument, or that this is the result of a series of political dynamics within the ANC, which has a democratic mandate. Rather, it all appears to be the work of just one person. In the absence of any other explanation, it seems only one person, and the people around him, benefits from this, while the rest of us are damaged. Already at least one ratings agency has said this is bad news, while international investors have labelled this as “profoundly negative”. Which has had an impact on the rand, and will impact further on investments into this country. In the end, the party that will reap this particular whirlwind can only be the ANC.
In many democracies, elections are won or lost on the economy. The ANC itself has tacitly accepted this, when in 2009 it started to talk about creating jobs as its “apex priority”. But instead, as Econometrix Chief Economist Azar Jammine suggested on Thursday morning, this move is going to “make South Africans poorer”. That means people who have voted for the ANC up until now may find less reason to go to the polls to make that cross again. And people who feel they are going to lose out because of this particular decision, who may have felt Helen Zille’s Democratic Alliance was anathema in 2014, may actually think again. The party’s leaders will know this. And it seems that some of the younger, and perhaps less-entrenched in the patronage machine are prepared to speak out.
Shaka Sisulu, the person with perhaps the most powerful name in politics tweeted on Thursday that he was breaking ranks with the party:
Perhaps more importantly, he followed it up with these two tweets:
That line about “bury a once proud history” is incredibly strong. Coming from someone with his surname makes it profoundly stronger. And there is even a chance that he did not do this without speaking to other people first. It wasn’t a knee-jerk reaction, he tweeted those messages at least eighteen hours after the first announcement about Nene. Sisulu is a lot more than his family and his name, he was a part of the National Task Team that helped to reconstitute the Youth League, and is one of those people who is expected to go far, whether it be in politics or anything else he may chose to do in life. But Sisulu surely cannot be the only person who is lamenting what has happened to their party, how it has rejected the financial bedrock which has served it so well over the last 20 years.
And of course, it goes without saying that once middle-class people, who listen to radio bulletins that end with the currencies rates, start to feel the pinch, they are unlikely to take it lying down. Being urbanites they will know exactly what has happened, and why it is happening. There will be discussions about why this is happening, and who is responsible. It will be very difficult indeed to continue blaming the global economy when it is so obvious that we can, and should be doing better. As the ANC knows that it is this group of people whose votes it needs to win back, there may well be some kind of struggle over this. Certainly, there will be something for many people in the ANC to fight over and fight for.
Zuma has always shown himself to be the political master of everyone else. He has always emerged victorious in ANC battles. That said, he may well be entering the most vulnerable period of his career right now. He may have run out of patronage to hand out. AND he has made more enemies than ever. Life could be about to get interesting. DM
Photo: President Jacob Zuma speaks at the ANCYL gathering, Johannesburg, 26 November 2013. (Greg Nicolson)