I guess I’m cursed to be a contrarian. By late 1996 I could see that this democratic government so many had risked life and limb for would not be strong against corruption. I saw it first-hand when it sided against the honest in the first big corruption scandal of the ANC era, at the Independent Broadcasting Authority. Everyone else was optimistic, and I, an IBA councillor, was out of step.
Now, as President Jacob Zuma’s rank disdain for the people he governs has seen in some a spiral of despair, I feel positive. Why? Because August 2016 will go down in this country’s history as a turning point. Zuma is not finished yet, but my crystal ball tells me that whatever damage he does before he goes, and there will be damage, politically speaking he is a dead man walking. The South African voter has awoken. And you can take that to the bank.
Of course this may not be the end of the ANC. If good leadership, leadership with vision and integrity, takes the helm, the ANC obviously can rebuild. Too many people care about it to abandon it if given new reasons for hope. But every day Zuma remains in charge is a blessing to Mmusi Maimane and Julius Malema. For them, the president is the gift that keeps on giving. And from the day after Zuma goes, he will be like apartheid: Support Zuma? Who, me? Never happened!
The cascade of good people coming out against Zuma and for Gordhan should bring tears of relief to the patriotic eye. Let’s be blunt for a moment, like we know South Africans are at home: a lifelong Communist of Indian descent has the hopes and admiration of a grateful nation. His courage, smarts and sensibleness have brought out the best in leaders in every field and of every ethnicity.
Not a day goes past without an icon of the struggle, or a gaggle of academics or a billionaire business leader, scathingly attacking the president. And Deputy President Cyril Ramaphosa has finally lifted his skirt. After a seemingly endless period of the unseemly grovelling necessary to stay in his job, he’s given a limited idea of what we are asked to believe is the real Cyril: he backed Pravin Gordhan unequivocally at an ANC funeral.
Don’t bet the farm that Cyril will not cover those ankles again. Zuma retains the majority in the decision-making National Executive Committee, and Ramaphosa knows how to count. But for ordinary South Africans, either the ANC throws out Zuma, or voters continue to nibble away at the ANC’s eviscerated credibility and votes.
It will be a long time before all of us – commentators, politicians, businesspeople, academics and the jobless – digest the news of August 2016. Around 10 percent of the national budget, and hundreds of thousands of jobs, are no longer controlled by the ANC. Even in the unlikely event of a 2019 ANC recovery from these local election results, further losses will accrue in provincial and national legislatures.
The ANC lacks the tools for opposition politics, except perhaps in Johannesburg, where the outgoing mayor, Parks Tau, retains his skills and moral compass.
If Herman Mashaba messes up as mayor of Johannesburg, Tau’s people will be back in 2021. That’s in the future. For the rest of this decade, the defeated will have to adjust.
The new metro governments have something going for them. That hunger and lack of entitlement, the feeling they have no God-given right to govern and everything to prove, may serve them well.
Do not underestimate the prize: even if they do not get the ANC below 50% in 2019, think about the thousands of town councillors who lost their jobs this month, and the MPs and MPLs who know they will be unemployed in 2019. Think about the tens (hundreds?) of thousands of cadres whose guarantees of deployed positions just evaporated. They must prove themselves competent, or they’re next. Those old enough will remember that apartheid slugger John Vorster’s famous phrase: adapt or die.
The adaptations to come will boggle the pre-August 2016 mind. Zuma seems determined to take out Paul Mashatile as ANC Gauteng provincial leader. He, Tau, and Gauteng premier David Makhuru represent the best in the ANC. Urban, urbane, modern and honourable. What will they do?
The answer follows logic: some will stay ANC to the bitter end. But others will switch parties. It may still seem impossible to imagine, but when they are out in the cold, their choice will be fairly simple: DA or EFF. Perhaps COPE or the UDM will attract a few, but they lack the infrastructure or heft to make it on their own. The future is with three parties. Only in KwaZulu-Natal will the fourth, the Inkatha Freedom Party, remain in the running, though the age of its leader, Prince Mangosuthu Buthelezi, and his failure to prepare for succession mean it too is on borrowed time. As in the white politics days of the United Party’s Douglas Mitchell and before that the British imperialist Dominion Party, the languid politics of our tropical province will be slow to catch up.
The country needs to move to debate that’s more concrete. Probably nothing is more critical or central and essential to debate than reprioritising the national budget. That requires a public argument tied to what the government is actually doing as opposed to what it says it’s doing.
To give but two examples: Every government leader says we are prioritising infrastructure, but the companies that would be building infrastructure – construction companies – are staving off collapse because so little is being commissioned. Infrastructure brings jobs and growth, both short-term and long-term.
Second, the government wants a zero fees increase because it is scared of students. But it hasn’t offered a way to pay for it. Universities are a top priority. They provide the job creators (as opposed to the claim especially by the American right that cutting already low taxes on the 1% creates jobs).
Where should the money come from? That is what the debate must be about. But first, a major step must be to cut the public sector payroll. If we don’t we will be Zimbabwe – where Robert Mugabe has stayed in power for 36 years by protecting public sector salaries at the expense of the economy. In 2016 that chicken (his party symbol is the rooster) has finally come to roost. This week, after he proved unable to meet the payroll yet again, he finally agreed to the cuts. That is the worst possible way to do it – to cut when you have no money to redirect productively.
What happened on August 3 may be the best possible outcome for a number of reasons besides giving the ANC a well deserved bloody nose. The fact that the transfer of power occurred largely peacefully is a good sign. That makes it more likely that the ANC will accept the next round of losses.
As important, this slow easing of power away from the ANC is better than an overnight landslide, for this reason: South Africa is extremely hard to govern. Its complexity, managing unruly and compromised trade unions and increasingly confident traditional leaders, remain substantially the ANC’s problem.
So keep your chin up. Take the long view. The wheels of democracy grind slow but sure. The majesty of democracy is a wonderful thing to behold. South Africa will be back. China won’t bring it back. America and Europe won’t bring it back. Only we, South Africans, can and must. DM
John Matisonn is the author of GOD, SPIES AND LIES, Finding South Africa’s future through its past, and host of CTV’S BETWEEN THE LINES.
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John Matisonn began political reporting at the Rand Daily Mail in 1974, and received a prison sentence for refusing to divulge his source in a report about the South African Watergate scandal known as Muldergate. A foreign correspondent in Washington for the Rand Daily Mail and back in Johannesburg for National Public Radio, he has been published in the New York Times, Financial Times, Washington Post and The Observer. After four years as a broadcast regulator in the Mandela administration and two as editorial director of the short-lived THISDAY newspaper, he became the United Nations Chairperson of the Electoral Media Commission in Afghanistan. He returned from a second tour in Afghanistan to write God, Spies and Lies, Finding South Africas future through its past, which has just been published.
"Look for lessons about haunting when there are thousands of ghosts; when entire societies become haunted by terrible deeds that are systematically occurring and are simultaneously denied by every public organ of governance and communication." ~ Avery Gordon