South Africa, Politics

Zuma and ‘radical change’: The art of the virtually impossible

By Stephen Grootes 24 January 2017

For those with money to invest, and money to lose, South African politics can be a dangerous place. Some politicians claim to want real change to our economy, some seem to want things to stay as they are, and other beret’ed rousers appear to just want to control everything. Throw an ANC leadership contest into the mix, and you have the recipe for real fear. On Sunday it was reported that President Jacob Zuma himself had called for radical economic change, for the ANC to be “less apologetic” on this issue. But the ANC lacks the ability to agree on any economic change. Which makes Zuma’s wish incredibly unlikely to become reality. By STEPHEN GROOTES.

The report in the Sunday Times over the weekend appeared detailed and thorough. It is obvious that the reporter, Qaanitah Hunter, has done her homework and checked every fact that could be checked. She is also upfront that she herself was not in the room when these comments were made. This means we should take it seriously, that is probably as fair a reflection of what actually happened as it is possible to get. She says in the report that at the end of a two-day workshop on the economy, Zuma said the commission must rework its proposals to make them more radical. And, interestingly, there appeared to be a special mention of the banks, the institutions that have been forced into our politics by their decision to stop doing business with the Guptas.

There are many reasons as to why Zuma might want to tack this way. As the Trainspotter explains, this is in a context in which Paid Twitter is trying to blame the ills of the world on “White Monopoly Capital”, in part to make it appear as if what our current leaders are doing is no different to what has happened in the past. How this absolves them of any wrongdoing is a mystery. At the same time, our Second Family has claimed in court papers that Finance Minister Pravin Gordhan was involved in a plot to remove them from the economy by using meetings with business leaders to encourage the banks to close their accounts.

And of course, Zuma’s timing couldn’t be better. Because while he was making these ‘radical’ demands, his untrusted deputy was the smiling face of South African business in Davos, and telling South African business leaders there that he was sleeping in the presidential bed. So, as part of a bid by Zuma to portray himself as the face of radical change, the timing could not be better. Especially when it appears that Ramaphosa, and the “anti-Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma faction” are beginning to make some headway.

There was a time when a comment like this by the sitting president of our country would have been enough to send the JSE into a tailspin, and the rand into a frenzy. Instead, the answer from our markets has been a sort of silence. Because we have heard all this before.

In 2009, this reporter received a phone call from an ANC official who at the time had the authority to speak to the media. It was hours before the ANC was about to release its 2009 Election Manifesto. This person, who later turned out to be an early pioneer of the telling of alternative facts, said that I could go ahead and say the “the ANC says this is a jump to the left”. History has shown that this was simply not true. A few months later, during Zuma’s first inauguration, he himself said that his government would push for “radical economic change”. That too has not happened. And just in case we were in any doubt, Zuma said it again during his inauguration in 2014.

As we are now nearly three years on from then, can we now not take a promise by Zuma for “radical economic change” about as seriously as his Nkandla “apology”?

It is also important to consider that even if we could take Zuma at his word this time around, it seems almost impossible to see how he could make it happen. In 2009 he had just become president, he had much patronage to dispense. He couldn’t do it then. It is surely the case that the peak of his power is behind him, that as time runs out, both towards December this year and in 2019, the amount of power he has is decreasing. This suggests that even if he tried really really hard, he would not be able to make it happen.

It is surely obvious to any observer that the ANC is divided along many lines over many issues. This is the reason that some of its policy documents and decisions and conference resolutions are so wishy-washy. Anyone who has been in any meeting of more than five people knows it’s almost impossible to keep them all happy. And that if you win one round you run the risk of alienating someone who will come back and win the next round. In politics, it’s even worse. And in the ANC, where the National Executive Committee is now 80-plus people, it’s even worse than that.

This means that even when decisions are taken almost by acclamation, they are still not followed through. Remember the 2012 Mangaung Conference, and the decision, taken by the ANC’s highest decision-making body, to implement the National Development Plan. It’s hard to see evidence, nearly five years down the line, of much change to our government, or the capacity of our state in general. And by change we’re looking for, we mean improvement…

For any political party, particularly in a country as complicated as this one, economic policy is going to be probably the most contested issue on the agenda. Economics is hard. You want to give people freedom to employ and build businesses, protect workers, give people certainty, tell those who are unemployed to wait, ensure that property rights are respected, create infrastructure, deal with foreign markets, absorb the shocks of events and Donald Trump. And that’s just for starters.

This reporter has made this point before, but in every ANC Conference and National General Council since 2007, the press conference held by the Economic Transformation Commission has been the shortest of the lot. Even back when it was chaired by Trevor Manuel, and Julius Malema tried to nationalise the mines by packing a commission tent. There is a reason for this. Nothing really important is ever decided.

And it’s not just that economic policy is hard to do. It’s that the ANC’s real problem has always been managing its multiclass structure. Cyril Ramphosa, Tokyo Sexwale. Jeremy Cronin and Blade Nzimande. All on the same committee. What possible decisions could they make?

All of this suggests that Zuma himself is simply not able to make “radical economic change” happen. The fact that he has to tack this way may be indicative of something else. Perhaps, just perhaps, it’s a sign of weakness. A sign that he has nothing left, expect to attack “white monopoly capital”.

The firing of Nhlanhla Nene in December 2015 has shown us that nothing can be predicted in the ANC as we currently know it. But it surely possible to say this. It is not united now, it will not be united soon. And that makes “radical economic change” virtually impossible. No matter what its current leader says. DM

Photo: South Africa’s African National Congress (ANC) President Jacob Zuma in a quiet moment during a news conference after appearing in the Durban High Court where the National Prosecuting Authority dropped all charges against him, April 7, 2009. REUTERS/Rogan Ward



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