South Africa

ANALYSIS

South Africa may break some of its political fever, albeit temporarily

President Cyril Ramaphosa. (Photo: EPA-EFE / KIM LUDBROOK)

There are signs in our politics and our society that South Africa is perhaps entering a period of relative calm — although the keyword is still “relative”. It is unlikely that the country will go back to the period before 2010 for many years.

A series of developments within South African politics and our society may indicate that in some, perhaps counter-intuitive, ways the political temperature is about to decrease.

This is not to suggest that there will be no more surprises and shocks, on which you can bet your house, but merely to suggest that the scope for political controversies is narrowing to a space tighter than it has been in a while.

This is because some processes that generally stoke controversy have now been completed and because of the developments within the ANC — all of which may lead to a calmer December than we were previously expecting.

It may be important to stress that this is not a prediction, but merely a scenario that happens to carry a higher degree of confidence than some of the truly apocalyptic ones. And yet, it is important to dig deeper because it allows us to properly investigate what events cause divisions in our society, and why.

Although there are many categories in which events can be placed, sometimes it is possible to put them into two very broad categories: those that can be predicted; and those that cannot.

As an example, it is possible to predict that an ANC leadership election, or an interview for a new Chief Justice, will heighten the political temperature. But it is not possible to always predict an outbreak of violence, gigantic or not, as happened in KwaZulu-Natal and Gauteng in July 2021, or just last week in Diesploot.

At the same time, it is also possible to isolate certain sources of conflict.

It can be said with confidence that the temperature in the governing party plays a major role in determining the temperature of our overall politics.

ANC’s inner strife cause of SA’s instability since 2009 – even greater violence coming our way, study finds 

 

Some people generally create more conflict whatever they say, or do. It is now impossible to deny that EFF leader Julius Malema or former President Jacob Zuma often seek to cause violent divisions in our society. (There are, of course, many other examples involving lesser political leaders.)

Examining some of the causes of earlier conflicts helps us to understand what could happen in the near future.

So, it now appears that some of the major processes that create divisions are now complete, which may reduce the scope for more political conflict in the future:

  • The national state of disaster is now over;
  • There is a new national police commissioner; and
  • The new Chief Justice has been appointed.

All these are processes or states that can be divisive, but they are now over.

Within the ANC, perhaps the temperature is also lower than some would have predicted at this point in a leadership election year.

The defining feature of the two provincial elections that have been held so far — Northern Cape and Mpumalanga — has been that their new leaders have immediately displayed their support for a second term for President Cyril Ramaphosa.

The ink on the ANC January 8th Statement wasn’t even dry when the Limpopo leadership broke with protocol to make the same support pronouncement from the stage.

It is not unlikely that some of the other provincial leaders, as they are elected throughout the year, will follow suit. Gauteng for example, may have more incentive than other provinces to do this – it received only 36% of the votes cast in the local elections last year.

In the party’s structures, Gwen Ramokgopa appears to now have some kind of formal influence over the workings of the secretary-general’s office. Ace Magashule, still the elected secretary-general, appears to have been relegated to making statements and occupying hotel rooms near ANC conferences.

Both Cosatu and the SACP publicly support Ramaphosa; the ANC Youth League is yet to have a conference, and the ANC Women’s League (also due a conference this year) appears to be almost a spent political force, with its leader collecting two convictions for dishonesty.

In short, the current public impression is that Ramaphosa’s enemies are in disarray — either fighting off bids to remove them through the “step aside” rule, or facing serious problems themselves (and not just in court, often in the court of public opinion. Can Malusi Gigaba, for example, still claim to be a serious political figure?).

Calm before the storm

There can still be developments that can change these specific power equations, but so dominant is the current perceived position of Ramaphosa that even before the eThekwini region of the ANC’s election, Zandile Gumede had to say publicly that she would “step aside” if she won.

That may well be the most important catalyst in lowering the political temperature for the rest of the year.

But there are other factors too.

Malema, for example, has shown no signs of moving the political dial. His march last week against Johann Rupert may be proof that he has few options left and is battling to mobilise supporters. Certainly, he appears to be getting less attention than in the past.

Of course, there are still some formal developments to come that could stoke division.

The Electoral Commission needs a new chair, Ramaphosa may now want to reshuffle his Cabinet after the departure of Ayanda Dlodlo to the World Bank – and there will be others.

But in terms of the formal space, there may now be more limited scope for political tension than there has been, perhaps at any time since 2017.

Societal dynamics

The next tension, which we will inevitably see in the near future, will come from unexpected events that are harder to predict.

For example, that there was xenophobic violence in Diesploot last week could spread to other parts of the country. The next development around a plethora of issues facing Zuma, legal and otherwise, could easily trigger more violence. An argument or division within our judiciary could arise over the impeachment of Judge President John Hlophe. The impeachment drama over Public Protector Busisiwe Mkhwebane could also flare in certain sections of our divided society. 

Or perhaps an ill-advised advertising campaign or a sporting event, like the furore over cricketer Quinton de Kock’s refusal to “take the knee” did.

And, of course, it’s always possible that something unexpected happens within the ANC ranks, which has been the source of so much of our discord in recent times.

It should also be remembered that if we do enter a period of “relative calm”, the keyword is still “relative”. It is unlikely that South Africa will go back to the period before 2010 for many years.

The main dynamics in our society, the increased levels of poverty, the racialised inequality and the rise of identity politics (among many others) makes this unlikely for many, many years from now.

South Africa has this in common with other democracies, such as the US or the UK. Such are the divisions in those places that they are unlikely to return to what could be called “pre-Trump” or “pre-Brexit” times for a long time.

Our divisions along the lines of class, race, inequality, language and ethnicity are surely starker than theirs, which means that our politics will continue to suffer shocks.

It is also important to note that any period of “relative calm” will probably be short-lived. Certainly, it cannot last past the beginning of campaigning for the 2024 elections, probably by July next year.

This may, in fact, be a very significant point.

Because, if it is true that Ramaphosa is going to win a second term as ANC leader and faces less opposition than at any time since 2017, he has only a limited time to implement his agenda. After that, the 2024 election will derail that, possibly permanently.

It is obvious that making predictions in our politics is foolish, particularly claims that tensions may ease, but our society would certainly welcome a temperature decrease from time to time. Feeling condemned to a state of perpetually rising political temperatures is not a good place to be. We all must find a way out of this near-permanent state of discord. DM

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