Political life as we know it has changed. But despite that, some of the structure still tries hard to make itself felt. For political reporters, Monday has been an “ANC Day” for as long as any of us can remember. It’s the day when Luthuli House gets surrounded by police cars, when morning radio bulletins feature the phrase “Crucial meeting of the ANC’s .....”, and traffic in the Joburg CBD is somehow even worse. But this “ANC Day” was always going to be strange. And in the end, it was going to be strangely downgraded. And the tremors will shake us all. By STEPHEN GROOTES.
“A moment of great renewal is upon us, and we should not let it go by…” – Recording of Deputy President Cyril Ramaphosa
“The executive changes initiated by President Zuma have put at risk fiscal and growth outcomes”. – S & P Global Ratings
Monday was still some way from dawning. The back seat of the Uber was comfortable. Too comfortable. I couldn’t yet grasp the iPad, and contented myself with phone Twitter. It had been a pleasant Sunday, some time with the kids, a chilly-ish swim, even a quick lunch with the parents around a TV bearing the visage of Baleka Mbete during her somehow unedifying press conference at OR Tambo. The first analysis I’d received from a colleague after her promise to consult about calling Parliament back early was that she was playing both factions, waiting for the highest bidder. As the sky slowly started to lighten, I couldn’t find fault with that.
Into the newsroom. Bag swung under desk. PC switched on. Headphones located. Coffee. Right, “Morning Aurelie, I’ll be live in your bulletin at seven, that okay with you?” A nod of assent and into the stories I dived. It was going to be another big news day. For the first time, the ANC’s top six, who’ve been publicly shading each other all weekend, were going to be in the same room. And a National Working Committee meeting to follow. A few blocks away, Cosatu’s Central Executive Committee was meeting, and was going to discuss the reshuffle.
On some days, just the Cosatu meeting would have been strong enough for a Monday morning lead.
Even now, I couldn’t quite believe some of the words that were coming out of my mouth:
“On Friday night the SACP said Zuma must resign”,
“Mkhize said this showed the ANC was no longer the centre of power”,
“New Finance Minister Malusi Gigaba”….
Covering these closed-door meetings at Luthuli House is never easy. It must be harder for TV, actually. You know the context of the meeting, you sort of know the agendas of the people in the room. But you don’t know, and will never know, exactly what happened inside, the nuance, the telling glance, the stare that was avoided. You make do with what you get, trying to interrogate statements and work it all out later.
As things turned out, we didn’t have to worry about the NWC meeting. Because the top six meeting, we understand, was so heated, it took most of the day. Didn’t have to be Steven Friedman to tell you that would happen.
A lot of the morning was taken up with this endless debate on Twitter about whether it was the right course for the DA to march on Luthuli House. The debate seemed to completely miss the point that this is really about the aims of the DA. Yes, it may be to remove Zuma, but isn’t the main goal of the DA to achieve political power? And if that’s the case, then of course, when an opponent is weak, you apply pressure. And if that pressure results in Zuma staying, even better.
I shook my head a little. Surely the best possible outcome for the DA here is for Kebby Maphatsoe to unleash his people who then behave like thugs on TV cameras, before all of the ANC MPs vote to keep Zuma in power? That would do more for them in 2019 than any other scenario would.
Through the previous evening I’d caught whispers of some kind of audio recording featuring the Deputy President, Cyril Ramaphosa. Finally, at around 10:30, it was firmed up. The sound had to be him. And it had to have been a speech given since Pravin Gordhan was fired. It was electric. So electric that unless you heard it, it was hard to believe it was actually the Ramaphosa we all know for missing every opportunity to lead. He said this:
“Be in support of those who will be leading that charge because a moment of great renewal is upon us, and we should not let it go by. We should grasp that nettle, because that moment has arrived and let us act together in unity. Unite our movement, unite our country around one goal, the goal of making South Africa great, the goal of making South Africa corruption free, the goal of making South Africa a South Africa we can all be proud of. And of getting rid of greedy people, corrupt people within our ranks.”
Yes. Ramaphosa really said that. It is amazing. When he talks about “greedy people, corrupt people”, who could he possibly be talking about?
South Africa being South Africa at the moment, it somehow made complete sense, and no sense at all, that he was speaking at a fundraising dinner for the Aryan Benevolent home in Kwa-Zulu-Natal. Indeed, we live in a Trainspotter universe.
Noon was now upon us, and it was time for the Midday Report. First up, of course, the sounds of Ramaphosa, then our reporter at Luthuli House, then the political analyst David Monyae, who reminded us again of just how strange and new all of this was for the ANC, about how it was clear it was all very different from the divisions in 2007 and basically how the game had changed.
On one of the screens to my right, Malusi Gigaba was hogging the SARS announcement that it had met its revised tax collection target. SARS Commissioner Tom Moyane was next to him. It must have been quite a moment for Moyane, almost some kind of victory, it not really vindication. Finally, he’d got rid of Gordhan, who he had complained about endlessly. Later, on Twitter, I saw pictures of Gigaba leaving the SARS headquarters, with SARS workers crowded around to see him.
Really. We are that desperate that we have to organise that kind of image. I had to wonder if Gigaba, and perhaps some of the people around him, realise how the image of a Finance Minister is essentially not that. For the people who decide to downgrade or not downgrade, that kind of politics is not just hollow, it’s downright scary. As unfair as that may be, the suits in New York don’t like it. It looks populist. And yes, I know, they have a populist of their own to deal with.
Meanwhile opposition leaders were having their own briefing about what they were going to do about Zuma. It might have been fun to find out, but that would have been a bit like asking the spectator next to you what he thought of that last play. Because they have the same view as the rest of us, no matter how much they posture and pout and send statements all about.
The Midday Report ended with a little segment about an earth tremor in Gauteng on Monday morning. It was a struggle to avoid making political references to the seismologist I was talking to, and I had to satisfy myself with commenting about when the Earth could move again instead.
The one o’clock news jingle played, and it was time for lunch. Amazingly, after the events of the last few days, I actually had a moment for a quick, forced stroll to a salad bar. It may seem odd, but at moments of crisis there is a sort of pattern. At the start, Thursday night, Friday morning, there’s a sort of explosion, everything goes boom, and that’s accompanied by many little explosions in other places. So Friday was basically spent dealing with political bombs. Now, the war has calmed down into two or three or four separate fronts. The top six, the NWC, Cosatu, the opposition leaders (sort of), Parliament. It makes it much easier to keep a grasp on things.
But, stories still have a habit of blasting off in strange places. This time, it was from the ANC’s Integrity Committee, and their letter to Gwede Mantashe. Saying they believed Zuma should go, and that the current situation was intolerable. As a story, it’s a goodie. If you look at the ANC’s resolutions from its 2012 Mangaung Conference, which were then firmed up during its National General Council in 2015, a resolution like this from the Integrity Committee should be enough. The ANC’s top leaders are supposed to enforce the decision, that’s all. On paper.
But in reality, we all know how this is going to be fought. Where our big battles are always fought. In the NEC of the ANC. But before that, part of the power play here is to stop it from happening in the first place. So it was no surprise to hear, from Luthuli House, that the NWC had now been “extended” to include the ANC leaders and provincial secretaries. And it was now going to happen on Tuesday. In other words, Zuma is packing the meeting with the provincial leaders. And if you do the maths there, it’s because they will back him. I couldn’t help wondering why, if he is so strong in both the NWC and the NEC, he would bother. Is it perhaps a sign of weakness? Or just another example of the strategy of “Stalingrad”, that you fight all the time with everything you have. A strategy that has been incredibly effective so far.
Up until now, for this reporter, it had been “ANC Day”. But there is one force stronger than the ANC. International markets. Who can cause tremors. And earthquakes. I came back into the newsroom after a break to find shouting and a cluster around the Reuters terminal. It had happened. S&P Global ratings had downgraded us. The start to junk had begun. One of the crucial lines from the Reuters snaps on the decision was this:
S&P ON SOUTH AFRICA SAYS “IN OUR OPINION, THE EXECUTIVE CHANGES INITIATED BY PRESIDENT ZUMA HAVE PUT AT RISK FISCAL AND GROWTH OUTCOMES”.
Indeed. An international ratings agency has confirmed it. Zuma has played wrecking ball with our economy.
It was just a little later the first real tremors started to shake Sandton. The rand dropped. Bonds did something I don’t really understand but I’m sure it reflected poorly on us. The scary awful thing about it was that it was so obviously predictable. I am poorer than I was on Sunday. And I will be poorer again tomorrow. So, I’m afraid, will you. And my wife and my children and your spouse and your children.
We seem to entering a long dark hole of a time, when you literally cannot trust the earth under your feet. This is not comfortable, for me as a reporter, for many of our politicians, I’m sure it’s not comfortable for you either.
But, as I sip a pre-bedtime whisky, and ponder, I do know this. We are in for a wild ride over the next few weeks. There will be ups and downs. Monday, somehow predictably, was a downer. There will be more of those. But there’ll be highs as well. Our politics is changing, the ground is literally shifting beneath our feet. But something new will emerge from the earth upon which we’ve trod for so long. DM
Photo: South African President Jacob Zuma replies to the debate about his State Of The Nation Address (SONA) in the parliament in Cape Town, South Africa, 16 February 2017. The president responded to the debate in parliament following the 09 February 2017 SONA. EPA/NIC BOTHMA
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