South Africa

South Africa

South Africa: The fear of living dangerously

South Africa: The fear of living dangerously

It is becoming clearer and clearer that the ANC and President Jacob Zuma just refuse understand the seriousness of Nhlanhla Nene's removal from the position of Finance Minister. Last week Zuma said that the reaction to the sacking had been an "exaggeration", and that people just hadn't understood what he was doing. Now the ANC has said that we should all just stop talking about it, and the country "should move on". What is missing is the promise that no such future shock will occur. By STEPHEN GROOTES.

Sometimes, it seems impossible to know what really happened when a political decision is made. This is such a case. But, kick up enough dust, and enough pressure can be brought to bear in a way that can at least provide some illumination. In this case it was former Business Day editor Peter Bruce who got his boots dirty, when he wrote a column last week. In the piece he strongly suggested that it was ANC treasurer, Zweli Mkhize, who finally convinced Zuma that Des van Rooyen was not going to work as Finance Minister. Bruce then suggests that after Zuma had failed to appreciate the economic arguments that were put to him, Mkhize eventually said that he would not be able to support him in Kwa-Zulu/Natal if there was no change. As a result, Bruce says, Zuma acted and Pravin Gordhan was brought back into the portfolio.

There are several important points about this claim. Firstly, Bruce was careful to write it in a column, not as a news item. It was essentially, a piece of supposition from carefully gleaned facts. Secondly, it does seem to explain much of what happened. Zuma has, it appears, failed to really understand the gravity of what he did in December, but, as Bruce explains, was relatively quick to grasp the politics of the situation, that losing support in KZN would make life difficult for him.

On Monday BDlive published a letter from Mkhize in which he denies, strongly, this version of events. He calls it “preposterous” to suggest that he, or any one person in fact, could have had such an impact on events. He makes the predictable point that decisions in the ANC are group decisions, after extensive consultation. He also says that Bruce’s claim is “misleading and creates unnecessary tension. It can only be divisive”.

It is a carefully written letter. Mkhize has to do several things. First, he has to deny the claim, in no uncertain terms. He, along with any other national ANC leader, cannot be seen to be stronger than Zuma, in anything. That is a sure way to have your political head chopped off. Secondly, he has to play the game with an eye to December 2017. He is in the top six now, his name is one of those casually thrown into the ring should Cyril Ramaphosa and Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma not make it. And even if they do, he certainly would like another big post in top six of the ANC. This would appear to explain his remark about “unnecessary tensions”. And the fact he reacted in the first place, when other previous ANC leaders might just have ignored it. It is, after all a piece of writing in a newspaper, written by a journalist. And despite the ANC’s claims it is the victim of a sustained media onslaught, it does not appear to have been defenestrated.

Into all of this was thrust the ANC’s national spokesperson Zizi Kodwa. He was asked on the Midday Report on Monday about this issue. He basically suggested that the entire country should simply stop talking about it. That it was time to “move on”. For a moment, it was easy to confuse him with the local representative of Afriforum.

It appears that the ANC is serious when suggesting that, actually, we shouldn’t bother about this anymore, because it was over, everyone was happy, and the economy was not damaged. One cannot agree with that, of course: whether the economy was or was not damaged is a serious issue. And the answer is obvious; just look at the rand value, and ask yourself if you feel richer or poorer since November. To be fair, there are other global economic factors playing out here, but the Nene debacle has played a big role in rand’s greater loss of value than other emerging markets’ currencies.

But the ruling party is simply missing the point. The point about a shock, such as the firing of Nene, is that it is a shock. No-one was expecting it. Markets crave stability and predictability. What is missing, completely, both from Zuma and from the ANC, is the absolute cast-iron swear-to-God-and-hope-to-die-promise, that there will be no more shocks like these.

That is the problem with Zuma’s whole attitude: unless he shows contrition, no one will believe it cannot happen again.

And the fact the ANC has not actually made a promise of no more shocks adds to what is becoming a firmly held belief; that the party was not, actually, consulted before Nene was fired. It is worth mentioning again, because it is so important, that if the ANC was not consulted, does this mean Zuma feels, or perhaps felt (as the decision was reversed), that he is bigger than the party? And if that is the case, what are the implications of that? They are massive. And scary.

One of the problems of defending this kind of action by Zuma is that the ANC gets pushed further and further up the spin cycle. Kodwa’s claims that we should “move on” is gold for the ANC’s opponents. One a day in which the party claimed the “Zuma Must Fall” banner in Cape Town was racism, that the DA is responsible for it, and was, therefore, racist, it is, to use the word of the day, preposterous to claim that “we should move on”. It doesn’t just smack of hypocrisy; it IS hypocrisy.

This means that there is what you could call “second round effects” to a mistake of this magnitude by Zuma. It makes the ANC look less than fully legitimate, because it has to defend something that it also doesn’t quite understand. South Africa, at the moment, is incapable of “moving on” from the Nene fiasco. The reason for that, like apartheid, is because we are still living with its effects. The rand has simply not recovered. The country lives in twin fears of Zuma’s next move and the possible credit downgrade. There was no worse time to make such a blunder. And there is no way, in the short-term to recover from it. And when it doesn’t appear that the people who run the country actually get it, that fear can easily become panic. DM

Photo: South Africa’s President Jacob Zuma (L), who is also the president of the ruling party, the African National Congress (ANC), gestures during the party’s 104th anniversary celebrations in Rustenburg January 9, 2016. REUTERS/Siphiwe Sibeko.


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