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24 August 2017 05:00 (South Africa)
South Africa

Analysis: Gauteng ANC’s chance to fill the vacuum

  • Stephen Grootes
    Grootes for DM.jpg
    Stephen Grootes

    Grootes is the host of the Midday Report on 702 and Cape Talk, and the Senior Political Correspondent for Eyewitness News. He's been part of the political hack pack since before the Polokwane Tsunami, and covers politics in a slightly obsessive manner. Those who love him have recommended help for his politics addiction. He quotes Amy Winehouse.

  • South Africa
Photo: President Jacob Zuma and Gauteng ANC Provincial Chairperson Paul Mashatile. (Jordi Matas)

It seems almost common cause across the nation at the moment that the ANC is in the middle of a leadership crisis. After its electoral losses in the local government polls, the party appears to be lurching backwards, rather than between the more traditional Right and Left. The swirling chaos created by the loss of crucial metros has been replaced by near panic around Finance Minister Pravin Gordhan and the Hawks. The ANC’s silence as a movement on the issue demonstrates the internal power struggle and the leadership vacuum. How will that vacuum be filled? By STEPHEN GROOTES.

Moments like these don’t come along often. The force that has controlled the dominant political force for so long is dissipating. President Jacob Zuma’s influence over the ANC appears to be on the wane. When people are prepared to ignore the usual protocol of a funeral to make it plain that they are unhappy with you, you know you are unpopular and not as powerful as you were before. When you decide to duck the funeral because the family of the deceased insist upon it, then you know a line has been crossed. And when your actions around the finance minister, around financial management, and around your continued abuse of the criminal justice system just create more enemies, well, then things are changing, and fast.

Of course, the best example of this is the decision by the Gupta family to actually sell up and leave – an indication of their analysis of Number One’s political future.

But at the same time, it appears that the previously anointed incoming force, the group of people who were going to take over from Zuma, are also losing steam.

The “Premier League”, that group of people clustered around the premiers of the Free State, North West and Mpumalanga, do not appear to be as powerful a force as they thought they were. All three appear to have links to the Gupta family. It also appeared that they were a faction under the control of the ANC Youth League and the ANC Women’s League.

When the Youth League said it wanted an early elective conference, this was seen as a bid by the Premier League to start its leadership campaign now. But over the weekend, the Women’s League appeared to reject the idea. So did the ANC in North West. Which could be an indication that either the Premier League just wanted to float the idea and are now pulling it back, or that they are actually divided among themselves. And their possible backing of Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma may now also be in doubt, as her surname just becomes too big a political burden to bear.

What is clear is that there is no one at the moment who is taking the initiative within the ANC. While no one is openly working on stopping Zuma from attacking Gordhan, no one has openly attacked Sipho Pityana and/or all the dignitaries at Makhenkesi Stofile’s funeral, who made no effort to stop Pityana or repudiate his speech, or simply to take Zuma’s side. These facts, taken together, reveal an organisation suspended in its own space-time continuum, unable to plot a meaningful way forward, or point to a direction over which the ANC as a whole can coalesce.

And yet, this vacuum provides opportunities, particularly for the ANC in Gauteng. Their leadership are the one part of the organisation that can say they have actually attempted to fight back against Zuma. They backed Kgalema Motlanthe at the party’s 2012 Mangaung conference, they called on Zuma to resign after the Constitutional Court’s Nkandla ruling. They, and until the SACP joined the fight, they alone, could hold their heads up high within the alliance. Now, with the party directionless, with Zuma consumed with his persona battles, with the Premier League appearing to lose momentum, this could be their moment.

Imagine a speech given by Gauteng Premier David Makhura, in which he appears to lend his support to Gordhan, or a press conference with a well-placed question asking for his view on Gordhan. Any response that puts the words “economy” and “concern” into one sentence will do. If he wants to go further, something along the lines of an expression of concern about the lack of moral qualifications of those leading law enforcement agencies would help (just in case you’ve forgotten, Hawks head Mthandazo Ntlemeza was found to be a liar by a judge, and joined the Bantustan police during the 1980s).

The response would be immediate. The rand would gain some ground as investors realised there was very real opposition to Zuma and a rejection of this current intimidation of Gordhan from within the ANC itself. People who feel the same way in other provinces of the party may also feel emboldened, and decide to speak up. Talk of reform could fill the air.

The Gauteng ANC could also make a point of discussing last week’s speech by Sipho Pityana. Not so much the criticism of Zuma – in political terms that would be going to far. But Pityana appears to be the first person to offer some form of way forward, by suggesting that a conference should be called, and chaired by a group of stalwarts, so as to provide a chance for real reform. The Gauteng ANC could suggest ways of taking that discussion forward.

Watch: Sipho Pityana’s speech at Makhenkesi Stofile’s funeral

Another advantage of the Gauteng ANC taking this action could be that it may force those who back Zuma to react. Already the Youth League has taken aim at Pityana; it could force the Premier League people out into the open as well. Then we would all know who is who in the inter-ANC’s political war.

Unfortunately, the problem with such action by the ANC Gauteng is that it could be incredibly risky. Even as Zuma’s supporters appear slightly disorganised at the moment, such a move towards reform could provide the energy to unite these groups once again; a move that could make reforming the ANC much harder than it is now.

That said, it must also be remembered that those in the Premier League are weaker than they were. It wasn’t just in Gauteng that the ANC lost support. In Mangaung, a place where the party has never felt threatened, it won just 56.52% of the vote. In Rustenberg, in North West, the ANC was only able to hold on to the mayoralty through what is now the disputed support of another party. Even people who could afford to act as if governing rural areas was their God-given right now have to come to grips with the fact that politics is a secular pastime.

But the Gauteng ANC does have a few things going for it as well. It alone has started the process of governing as if your political life depends on it, as if it knows how to respond to woo voters back. It is also competent: it actually knows how to govern. It knows all about the impact of corruption, and perceived corruption, and how to counter it. It knows the value of open, transparent government.

Contrast this with the Premier League: North West Premier Supra Mahumapelo once praised the Guptas in an official speech, a comment unlikely to have won his administration electoral support.

In nature, it is a cast-iron law that a vacuum is abhorred. On this planet, the political vacuum is always filled. This is not always the case in the internal politics of a political party. Sometimes no one of real stature emerges. Look at Jeremy Corbyn in Britain’s Labour Party, or how a hairstyle has managed not to fill the empty space that is the US Republican Party. There is no natural law of politics that says the same cannot happen in the ANC, that the vacuum is not actually properly filled. And instead of reform, there could be an incredibly depressing picture of the ANC slowly collapsing into itself, in a black hole of corruption, arrogance and nondelivery. Sometimes, political gravity goes wrong so badly that the structure itself may not sustain the impact of the wave. Only time will tell which path the ANC will choose in the coming days. DM

Photo: President Jacob Zuma and ANC's Provincial Chairperson Paul Mashatile. (Jordi Matas)

  • Stephen Grootes
    Grootes for DM.jpg
    Stephen Grootes

    Grootes is the host of the Midday Report on 702 and Cape Talk, and the Senior Political Correspondent for Eyewitness News. He's been part of the political hack pack since before the Polokwane Tsunami, and covers politics in a slightly obsessive manner. Those who love him have recommended help for his politics addiction. He quotes Amy Winehouse.

  • South Africa

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