One hundred and six years of history have nudged the African National Congress towards this moment, their very own Battle of Helm’s Deep, where all of the organisation’s internal contradictions – to say nothing of the terrible legacy of South Africa itself – will play out over the course of five long days (if we’re lucky). South Africans have been in the midst of this war for so long that perspective is nearly impossible – the ruckus has stolen our brains. At the core of this melee is the Congress’s failure to construct a cohesive, comprehensive nation out of the ruins of apartheid. And in the middle of the molten jumble, we find Jacob Zuma, post-apartheid South Africa’s emblematic figure. (You thought that was Nelson Mandela? Nah.) What happens to Zuma and his faction this weekend determines not just the future of the party, but of the country. By RICHARD POPLAK.
‘[T]o the thought control tower: please let me out. I’m trapped inside your head’
– Lesego Rampolokeng
Jesus, the drama.
So many court dates, so many speeches, so many op-eds, so many talk-show bloviations. So many scandals, so many hashtags, so many acronyms, so many dead comrades buried in the rich KwaZulu-Natal loam.
So addicted have we become to burning metaphorical effigies of Jacob Zuma that we’ve have forgotten to measure properly the scale of the tragedy that’s unfolded under his watch – a tragedy that he did not engineer but certainly deepened, and one that is about to reach another of its grim culminations. As the African National Congress roars towards its 54th national electoral conference, to be held within the carcinogenic Brutalism of Gauteng’s Nasrec Expo Centre, history is about to cash in its chips.
The tally is sure to be impressive.
Indeed, as of this writing, the gaming site Sportingbet is offering 1.75 odds on the likelihood of Deputy President Cyril Ramaphosa winning the presidency, followed by 2.95 on backbencher supreme Nkosazana Dlamini Zuma (they were 3.20 earlier in the week), 7.00 on Treasurer General Zweli Mkhize, and a chilling 9.00 on none of the established candidates – meaning there is decent (if not outrageous) money to be made betting on a sneaky Jacob Zuma incumbency. Bookies tend to know their shit; most of the reliable-ish polling data allows that the ANC’s rank and file are overwhelmingly behind the Ramaphosa campaign. But the rank and file don’t vote at national conferences, branch delegates do. Understandably in this moral cavern, we are told by both sides that they will be compelled to vote according to the whims of their e-wallets. The race is therefore so tight that calling a winner belongs to the dark realm inhabited by sangomas and kabbalists and websites that refuse to discern between political candidates and third-tier Scottish footie squads.
It is pressingly strange, and incredibly telling, that just hours before the conference gets under way, no one can responsibly call the outcome. (Anyone who isn’t a bookie or a wizard and claims to know exactly how this is going to play out? Tase them.) It speaks to the divisions that eventually split any vast patronage network – factions end up eating each other in order to keep on eating.
And so a paradox: This was bound to happen. Yet nothing about it was inevitable.
Add to the paradox what has now become a banal observation: the ANC has never been a coherent alignment, but rather a maze of sometimes collaborating, but mostly competing, fiefdoms of interest. On this side, the exiles. On that side, the Robben Islanders. In the middle, the unionist/business moguls. Communists swanned about in Mercedes Benzes preaching the wisdom of “the market”; capitalists insisted that the market was rigged, and established a welfare state for corporates and tenderpreneurs. A coalition of disparate interests was necessary for taking down the apartheid regime with much less bloodshed than forecasters predicted. But nothing so ungainly and ideologically scattershot could ever govern a country. Driven by the commie veneer of the Freedom Charter and the National Democratic Revolution, the ANC came to power at the precise moment that Francis Fukuyama announced the end of history. They ruled over a landscape in which Capital-S Socialism, or any variant thereof, had become a blight.
It was time to get down to business.
And that they did. After Mandela was convinced to ditch the coveted nationalisation project, the ANC essentially became just another politico-corporate entity that colluded with Big (Apartheid) Business to scam as much money as possible, either by pseudo-legal means or outright theft. As Parliament’s Standing Committee on Public Accounts recently noted of the unfolding Steinhoff saga, “This crass greediness of senior executives in the private sector is an indicator of the pervasiveness of immoral conduct among South Africa’s elite.”
Policy was tweaked with the enrichment of the ruling party in mind, even if it did accidentally and occasionally benefit the larger population. RDP housing, electrification, state-owned enterprise tenders, affirmative action – it all boomeranged back to profit those within the confines of the ANC’s holy synod, which of course included their corporate enablers.
As much as they whine about “monopoly capital”, whatever the hue, successive ANC-led administrations made sure to stifle the competition commission enough to maintain and increase local corporate monopolisation, so much so that a bad apartheid hangover like Naspers still retains (via alleged bribery) the sole digital encryption licence for all TV sets in the country – a situation so insane that describing Naspers in normal business terms is like farting Ave Maria in D-minor. And yet, these cosseted, ring-fenced mega-corps form the bedrock of our economy.
Indeed, the ANC itself mirrors this set-up: a giant, all-encompassing political farrago that either choked out or swallowed the competition to form a bowdlerised, self-enriching social democracy, whipped into shape by the living ghost of former president Thabo Mbeki, dressed in his Thatcherite BDSM leathers.
Following liberation, the ANC’s greatest victory was pretending that it was a thing. Men as ideologically and morally opposed as, say, Joel Netshitenzhe and Jacob Zuma debating in a national executive committee?
That was once considered a triumph of political pragmatism.
Now, it just seems fucking absurd.
The absurdities have only deepened, resulting in a frayed and friable country that simply refuses to be anything but one of the most unequal societies on Earth. Regardless of ideological affiliation – left, right, centre, crackhead – Zuma’s reign has been almost as complete a disaster as it’s possible to engineer: no one in the country, except perhaps the upper middle class and the rich, has avoided a catastrophic curtailment of their potential. Miners have been massacred; decent education is a luxury product; kids drown in pit latrines; State-owned Enterprises have been gutted (Eskom’s debt payments next year will exceed R40-billion); the economy shivers in the shadow of self-inflicted recessionary junk status. Add to the maladministration the fact that Jacob Zuma is the lynchpin in a vast criminal syndicate, a fact that everyone in a senior position in the ANC was aware of, and we start to understand why the state is on the cusp of complete failure.
The Gupta/Zuma syndicate finally became too much for even the ANC to bear, mostly because it was so considerable that it began disrupting and eliminating other forms of patronage. But it’s worth noting that a systemic, semi-officially sanctioned looting regime was one of the features of colonialism. In another terrible paradox, the ANC refused to dismantle the colonial superstructure, and has thus been able to pretend to the world (and to itself) that South Africa functions as a workable nation-state: on the surface everything looks kosher, but it’s really just a huge tub o’ lard coated thinly with chicken schmaltz.
Two very different politicians, with two very different platforms, are now attempting to succeed Jacob Zuma in order to re-sculpt the pig fat according to their own inclinations. Laughably, “radical economic transformation” (a wacky buzzterm better described as “hyper-accelerated unguided wealth redistribution”) is facing off against Ramaphosaism (basically, Angela Merkel’s Germany without an operational economy). How these two sides are supposed to reconcile with each other employing the essential element of politics – compromise – is beyond the ken even of metaphysics.
And besides, what would compromise look like? How does one negotiate with a faction that insists that State-owned Enterprises, administrated by a super-elite, should enrich a super-super-elite, and that everything should be a State-owned Enterprise? Does one ask that instead of skimming R150-billion, they skim only R75-billion? Would a 50% reduction in their thieving be acceptable? Ultimately, this fight is about how the spoils of the state are spread around.
Hence, the viciousness of the war.
As for the two aspirants, the more we see of them, the less we know about them: they are cyphers because they are vacuums. Dlamini Zuma is lauded for having qualified as a medical doctor, but history has taught us that it’s never a good idea to accord anyone who slices open humans even a modicum of political power. If events swing her way, she would join Syria’s Bashar al-Assad, Haiti’s “Papa Doc” Duvalier, Malawi’s Hastings Banda, and Turkmenistan’s bat-shit crazy Gurbanguly Berdimuhamedow (to name only a few) on a not-so-august physicians-turned-dictators list.
Ask anyone at the African Union building, where she was installed in the chairpersonship for one unhappy tenure: Dlamini Zuma is a born authoritarian. Unhappily, she has recently developed a knack for populism and race-baiting. Just last week, she claimed that she wanted to take South Africa’s entitled, whiny white population on a tour of the country’s informal settlements. Sadly, she failed to explain why, after 24 years of ANC majoritarianism, there are still informal settlements.
Logic has not been her campaign’s strong suit.
There were reports in the press that NDZ was sleepy and disinterested – but these were inaccurate. She’s just a crap speaker. Her team is a circus of clowns and crooks, including her unofficially official campaign manager, Carl Niehaus, notable for being a worse dancer than he is a fraudster. Her revolving cast of hench-folk, including Free State premier Ace Magashule, current Deputy Secretary-General Jessie Duarte, Minister of International Relations Maite Nkoana-Mashabane, and Minister of Energy David Mahlobo, to say nothing of the ANC Youth League, Women’s League, and the Veterans’ Association, is so wretched, incompetent and corrupt that as a collective they can only serve one function: to continue the legacy of the Zuma-era looting machine.
That said, her team has been effective in flipping the old lady on her head: new polling data suggests that she’s the cool, urban kid’s chosen candidate, while rural and poorer ANC voters are assembling behind Team Ramaphosa.
But what will the acolytes find inside Cyril Inc’s spectral corporate headquarters? Ramaphosa is known for being an ardent constitutionalist, perhaps because he helped write the damn thing. He believes that South Africa possesses an appropriate policy framework, one that the ANC promulgated in 2012 with its National Development Plan. The problem, schemes Ramaphosa, is implementation. With this in mind, he introduced in Soweto last month an appendix to the NDP that he calls the New Deal for South Africa. He read the plan in all its gruesome detail to an audience including the likes of Investec’s Steven Koseff, Goldman Sachs’ Colin Coleman and Imperial Holdings’ Mark Lamberti, who were shipped in by armoured personal carrier to hear their man speak maths to the masses.
Political observers were baffled by Ramaphosa’s timing. The New Deal was too late in the campaign to appeal to delegates, and too convoluted for many of them to grasp. (I’m still trying.) But the deputy president was not, in fact, addressing delegates. He was communing directly with his White Monopoly Capital backers sitting modestly in the second row. (In a little slice of too-weird-to-be-true timing, Lonmin, the mining company that will forever tie the deputy president to the Marikana Massacre, was bought on Thursday by Sibanye Stillwater.) Ramaphosa was offering political and policy stability in exchange for ramped-up investment and a massive injection of capital into the economy. In other words, Trickle-Down 101, which the economist John Kenneth Galbraith once described as “[T]he horse-and-sparrow theory: If you feed the horse enough oats, some will pass through to the road for the sparrows.”
Well, the sparrows have seen this shit before.
Fake radicalism vs. fake capitalism. Oddly, neither Dlamini Zuma nor Ramaphosa presents a break with the status quo – they merely offer the two dominant strands of the ANC’s id. Together, they are a precise representation of the party they hope to govern.
By no means should this be mistaken for a good thing.
In the short term, an outright Ramaphosa win will quell market uncertainty and settle the ratings-agency jitters that are transforming South Africa into a boring version of Venezuela. But, we must ask, has a stable policy environment ever benefited anyone in the informal settlements Dlamini Zuma has never seen? In the long term, in order to clean up the organisation he professes to love, Ramaphosa will have to kill competing centres of power, and cauterise/professionalise the effects of an entrenched patronage network that hundreds of thousands depend on for their daily bread.
The crooks will not go quietly, and their final bid for political survival begins in Nasrec early on Saturday morning. That said, the State Capture project is unravelling. The courts have recently ruled that Chief Justice Mogoeng Mogoeng, and not the president, will be picking the head of a judicial commission of inquiry into the Gupta affair, and that Ramaphosa in his capacity as deputy president – and absolutely not the president – must install a functional human as head of the National Prosecuting Authority. (That last ruling is under appeal, but still.) In other words, Zuma’s escape hatches are being tarred over.
But uBaba commands the loyalty of the security cluster and his ingrate appointments to Cabinet, and so he is not yet done. It’s fair to say that he does not want to go to jail, so the question that one should keep in mind this weekend is: what will Zuma do?
Flipped on its head, the question becomes: what will become of him?
Should Ramaphosa win, will there be an immediate rush to recall the president, igniting the fury (and the terror) of his backers and beneficiaries. All of this is complicated by the fact that the branches and their delegates are forced to consider recent polling data, which insists that an NDZ presidency would be an extinction level event for the ANC come the 2019 national elections.
Can half the ANC leadership be cleaned up in a couple of months? Can we please have a historical precedent for such a self-correction? Mexico, India, Zimbabwe – former colonial properties long dominated by single big-brand political parties always come to the fork in the road, and they always come to it too late. The party grows too big; it subsumes the state; it conflates national borders for the walls of its headquarters. And so we come to the realisation that it doesn’t matter who wins this battle, because in order for South Africa to move forward, the African National Congress must split.
The communists must leave, and the unionists along with them, in order to provide voters with something that resembles a viable left – and this is especially true if Ramaphosa wins. The monolith, despite its laudable liberation history, cannot help South Africa any longer with splintering. It is a vestige of the past that refuses to relinquish its grip on the future.
The best South Africans can hope for is that the African National Congress thought control tower is stormed by the reasoned and the straight, torn to its foundations, and rebuilt in another guise. That is, of course, impossible. Instead, we’ll watch giants battle it out for the spoils, and try not to get crushed under their heels.
Jesus, the drama. DM
Photo: Protesters from the ruling African National Congress (ANC) dance and sing in support of South African president Jacob Zuma outside Parliament in Cape Town, South Africa, 08 August 2017. EPA/NIC BOTHMA