With the failure of the recent motion of no confidence in President Jacob Zuma, South Africa’s foreseeable future rests heavily on the outcomes of the ANC’s elective conference in December. In fact, even if Zuma had been successfully removed by MPs, that would still be true – for reasons that will become apparent.
It is widely known that Jacob Zuma fancies himself as a canny strategist, a chess player of politics. Both his inclination and ability in this regard have been proven: capturing numerous public institutions to facilitate the nefarious activities of his family, the Guptas and other cronies. This ranges from looting state-owned enterprises like Eskom, to neutralising the public interest mandates of institutions such as the National Prosecuting Authority, Hawks, the South African Revenue Service (Sars) and Public Protector. For these people, literally everything is on the line – not just their wealth, but their ability to live freely outside of a jail cell – and it is trite to say that they will stop at nothing to retain power.
However, political analysis appears to be lagging a few steps behind the kinds of machinations one would rationally expect from the Zuma faction. I suggest here three likely core components of the Zuma camp’s strategy that are going unrecognised: Trojan horses, “kicking the can down the road”, and distraction through public relations opportunities.
Zuma is likely to use “Trojan horses”: people who are loyal to him but profess loyalty to his rivals, most notably Cyril Ramaphosa. Such individuals could be useful in various ways, including by getting information that would otherwise be out of Zuma’s reach – even with his ability to use the national intelligence agencies as personal fiefdoms. But their most likely, and most dangerous, purpose will be to compromise the final ANC elective process in December. Specifically, they will first either take positions on Ramaphosa’s slate, or offer to assist in his campaign. Then, at critical moments, they will compromise him by sabotaging his campaign or putting themselves forward as “compromise candidates”.
Perhaps erring on the side of trying too hard to seem “balanced”, journalists and analysts appear to be naively reporting claims of Zuma loyalists ‘switching camps’ at face value. The first and most obvious example was Malusi Gigaba: although he was clearly appointed for the same reasons as Des Van Rooyen, after a few parroted Treasury clichés – and despite a great deal of suggestive evidence that he facilitated corruption by the Gupta family – many journalists have been writing about him as being credible and possibly independent of the President.
More recently, Baleka Mbete’s decision to hold a secret ballot in Parliament was almost immediately represented as her breaking ranks with the Zuma faction, either out of principle or because of her own presidential ambitions. Similar antics have played out with Fikile Mbalula’s criticism of Ace Magashule, David Mabuza’s meetings with pro-Ramaphosa provincial leaders, and the apparently differing stances taken on Mduduzi Manana’s assault case taken by Susan Shabangu and Bathabile Dlamini. I would argue that hyenas do not change their spots overnight, but there are very strong incentives for them to pretend otherwise.
In principle, Ramaphosa and others could use the same tactic against Zuma. But Zuma’s control of the intelligence agencies makes this practically difficult. For that reason, anti-Zuma groupings would be best advised to adopt strategies that will succeed even if they are known. There is little chance of keeping anything secret.
A useful phrase from American politics is, “kicking the can down the road”. It refers to the action of deferring important decisions. The second dimension of the Zuma faction’s strategy is to ensure that any decisions or actions that are very dangerous to them are delayed until after the December conference. These include actions that would cause irreversible damage to key individuals within the faction (such as convicting someone of a criminal offence), as well as – in the case of Trojan horses – irreversible actions that would reveal their true allegiances (such as signing a nuclear deal). The key phrase in both instances is ‘irreversible’.
The implication is that almost anything else can be tolerated so long as it is possible to reverse it after the December conference. For example, have Brian Molefe (Eskom), Kgomotso Phahlane (Police), Hlaudi Motsoeneng (SABC) and others like them really been “thrown under the bus”? Or are they waiting in the wings, with the intention of making a comeback if the Zuma faction wins in December?
As a result, individuals in the Zuma faction who need to appear non-partisan, such as Gigaba, Mbalula, the head of the NPA and the Public Protector, can strategically yield on certain issues as a gambit before the December conference. To see this, consider that even if Zuma had been removed in a motion of no confidence and the Cabinet had now been staffed with competent, honest and diligent ministers, it would still not be possible to complete prosecution of anyone in the Zuma faction before December. So when Gigaba belatedly joins the Finance Ministry to a case against the Public Protector, or the Public Protector belatedly promises to investigate the Gupta emails, this actually has little significance: the decision, or its consequences, can always be reversed after December.
Similar points apply to Parliament. Various parliamentary committees have done a good job in placing pressure on corrupt or mismanaged departments or state-owned entities. But Zuma can afford to incur whatever losses are inflicted on his faction, knowing that ultimately the sustainability of these interventions depends on the December conference. Fixing and cleaning-out institutions takes much more time than destroying and corrupting them.
In chess terms, think of it as sacrificing some pawns in order to win the opponent’s queen later in the game.
The final pillar of the Zuma faction’s strategy, which overlaps with the other two, is public relations. The Bell Pottinger aspect of this has been extensively covered, but other aspects are less obvious.
The first sign of a more typical PR strategy, I would suggest, was from the Hawks. As accusations of ‘capture’ mounted, the Hawks went on an aggressive PR campaign, starting in early 2016 with the promise that they would solve the murder of Orlando Pirates and national team goalkeeper Senzo Meyiwa. Since then, the Hawks have sought to associate themselves with all kinds of high-profile cases not within their mandate, trumpeted their successes with minor, non-political cases and under a Hlaudi Motsoeneng-run SABC got substantial assistance in this regard.
Under Tom Moyane, Sars appears to have adopted a similar approach and since the last Cabinet reshuffle so have ministers like Gigaba and Mbalula. Mbalula is his notoriously bellicose self when it comes to all kinds of crimes that happen at the level of individuals, masking his almost complete silence about crimes happening at the level of the state.
The basic point from all of the above is: everything comes down to the ANC’s December 2017 conference. While efforts to clean-up the state before then should continue, we should not be lulled into a false sense of security as a result of winning such battles or skirmishes.
Without wanting to be melodramatic, an existential crisis is looming for South Africa’s democracy in December.
In Part ll of this analysis, I will discuss the possibility of formal splits in the ANC, how we should interpret the fact that so many people are running for ANC president, and the crisis that could follow if the anti-state capture faction win in December. DM
Seán Mfundza Muller is senior lecturer in economics at the University of Johannesburg and writes in his personal capacity
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Sean Muller is currently a senior lecturer in economics at the University of Johannesburg, where he teaches microeconomics and industrial policy. Prior to this he worked at the Parliamentary Budget Office and at the University of Cape Town. He has a Master's and PhD in economics from UCT, and an MPhil Economics from Oxford. Among his broad academic interests, within and outside of economics, are a wide range of topics within applied microeconomics, philosophy of economics and public finance. He has been writing opinion pieces on a wide range of South African issues, particularly relating to public policy, for over a decade.
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