South Africa, Politics

Power Deck: How will Zuma deal out his SONA cards?

By Stephen Grootes 8 February 2017

A State Of The Nation Address (SONA) such as the one we will see on Thursday night is all about power; the power of the state, the power of the military, of the person giving the speech, the power of the system and the political infrastructure that backs him up. It will be tempting in the days after the presentation to focus on the power relationships that physical power on the ground will demonstrate; the power of being present as illustrated by Julius Malema, the power of soldiers as demonstrated simply by their presence. But the most interesting, and important, power relationship that could be revealed is that between President Jacob Zuma and the ANC itself. By STEPHEN GROOTES.

Over the last year or so it has become apparent there are very real divisions in the ANC, and tied to those, divisions between Zuma and what is the voice of the ANC. To an extent Zuma has almost stopped speaking for the ANC, and more for a certain part of it. At the same time the ANC, or the part of it sort-of-led by Secretary-General Gwede Mantashe, has started to push back.

There are several areas in which this has been illustrated quite starkly. The ANC has used extreme language in public around the SABC and Hlaudi Motsoeneng. But Zuma has sat on his hands and allowed Communications Minister Faith Muthambi to sit on hers. Ben Ngubane is the chairman of Eskom, and he, and Brian Molefe with him, have been allowed to refuse to sign any more contracts with Independent Power Producers, who generally produce renewable power. But the ANC said, in the full text of its January 8th Statement, that it was policy to continue to sign these contracts. It also appears that Zuma and the ANC disagree on issues around digital terrestrial television, which once led to a very public spat between Muthambi and the ANC.

More recently, there has been an even starker illustration of this divide, in their treatment of the economy. The last few months have seen people around Zuma starting to use the phrase “white monopoly capital” more and more. In some ways, this has become a way for his supporters to signal their support; people like the ANC Women’s League and the ANC Youth League use the phrase more often than most. This is a sort of political subtext, just as the issue of whether you believe there should be a “woman president” has become shorthand for support of Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma.

This means then that if we look at what the ANC would like to happen this year, particularly in the economy, and then look at what Zuma says in his SONA, we can find out who holds the whip hand. Earlier this year, at the wet, windy and exuberant Orlando Stadium, Zuma appeared largely to stick to the script that had been written for him by the ANC’s National Executive Committee. It was the start of a process that may have seen the side backing him – and by extension, Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma – begin to lose the perception that they were almost certain to win in December.

On Sunday, in the build-up to the State of the Nation Address, the ANC released a statement explaining that it was “looking forward” to the address. The statement contained the usual gumpf, about progress towards “our vision of a National Democratic Society” and how important it was to make progress in this regard. But there was a flourish in which the statement said that “we commend to President Zuma and our government the people’s aspiration for Radical Economic Transformation NOW”. It went on specifically to mention a “fundamental change in the structure, systems, institutions and patterns of ownership and control of the economy”. This is the kind of language that used to give palpitations to those filthy capitalists who come here, give us money, and then expect something in return down the line.

But it was worth reading the statement to the end. Because it then went into detail about what it wanted done to achieve this. And almost none of the items were things that have not already been started, or were not already in the political environment of the ANC.

It is surely not radical, as most would understand the term, to say that the party should “return the land to the people using constitutional means”. It is a process that started a long time ago. (And despite what those who want to throw the Constitution into the bin might say (Mzwanele Manyi, he means You – Ed), it’s not the fault of that document that this is taking so long. Rather, it hasn’t been carried out properly, which has led to the tensions around it now.)

The point about investing money in township and rural communities is hardly new either. The provincial legislature in the Northern Cape was built next to the township around Kimberley for entirely that purpose, and Gauteng Premier David Makhura hardly opens his mouth without talking about growing the “township economy”. It is also not unprecedented to say that “no less than 30% of ALL government spending must go to black business and small, medium and micro enterprises”. Government has been using procurement as an economic lever, and correctly so, for years.

All the other points, around “turning South Africa into a construction site”, finalising the minimum wage, improving higher education and “mercilessly deal with corruption, fighting both the tigers and the flies”, is just simple commonsense governance. Hell, the first president to talk about rolling out broadband infrastructure was Thabo Mbeki. And even that hasn’t happened yet!

It would appear that in the tussle between Zuma and the parts of his party that don’t back him, this is a move of some sort. It must surely be to put some kind of boundaries around his behaviour. If there is one thing that the sacking of Nhlanhla Nene, and then the reversal of the appointment of Des van Rooyen, has shown us, it’s that Zuma at one point thought he was beyond the control of his party, and then found out that he wasn’t.

In this context then, this statement by the ANC suggests an attempt to rein him in, to show him and his supporters that he cannot go off on his own.

This address is quite different from its ANC equivalent, the January 8th Statement, in that that is written by a subcommittee of the NEC, and the NEC then agrees to it a few days before the actual address. This is supposed to be the result of the Cabinet lekgotla. But Zuma has more control of his Cabinet than he does of the NEC. He appointed all of it. Which means that he can basically do what he wants, and does not have to stick to the script in the way that he did a month ago.

There are probably certain key areas that we can look at to see how far he believes he can go. If he mentions the phrase “white monopoly capital”, for example, it may suggest that he disagrees with both the economic diagnosis of the ANC, and the treatment that he would like to give our economy. This is the key area, and he may want to try to break out of the box that he is currently in. This means an elbow could be thrown the way of ratings agencies, or towards international investors. This could occur in a slightly coded form, in that it may be more of a nudge towards the BRICS countries, and the way two of them control their people and dish out contracts, rather than a step away from our current institutions.

If there is one area over which Zuma feels he must have complete control, it’s the security cluster. Several years ago he promised to “urgently fill” the upper echelons of the criminal justice system, and yet left the National Prosecuting Authority without a head for a further eight months. If he says anything at all about what will happen this year to this cluster, it could be a sign that the ANC actually has forced him to act in a certain way; in other words, a sign of weakness on his part.

In some ways, the easiest prediction to make about Zuma’s speech tonight is this – it will be boring and contain very little that is new. Of course, it’s dangerous to make predictions about our politics nowadays, but that’s probably where the smart money is. And the reason that it’s likely to be boring is simple – he doesn’t have the power that he once had, and the ANC doesn’t have the power over him that it should. DM

Photo: A handout photo made available by the South African Government Communication and Information System (GCIS) on 08 February 2017 shows South African President Jacob Zuma putting the final touches to his State of the Nation Address (SONA) speech in Cape Town, South Africa, 08 February 2017. EPA/Kopano Tlape


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