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Towards December 2017: Part ll


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.

In a previous article I outlined some political strategies from the state capture faction in the African National Congress (ANC) that may be important in the lead-up to the party’s elective conference in December, but have been neglected by some commentators and journalists. Here I want to provide a slightly different perspective on other issues: the possibility of a split in the ANC-led alliance; why there are so many candidates for ANC president; and, a potentially dangerous scenario if the anti-state capture faction win.

The likelihood of an ANC split is not symmetric

One much-talked about possibility is that whichever ANC faction wins in December, this could precipitate a split in the party and its alliance with the Congress of South African Trade Unions (Cosatu) and the South African Communist Party (SACP). Those sympathetic to the opposition, especially the Democratic Alliance (DA), have hoped for such a split for some time. Indeed, at one point some right-wing commentators even suggested that Jacob Zuma’s many serious “indiscretions” could be forgiven if he purged his cabinet of SACP members.

Inevitably, such hopes hardened resolve within the alliance to avoid a split at all costs. However, the time has now come where individuals within the ANC who have any semblance of principle now face the extinguishing of any integrity remaining within the party; staying in an ANC wholly-controlled by Zuma’s proxies cannot be an option.

The (minimally) principled view that outsourcing the president’s public interest mandate to a private family and their cronies is unacceptable, and arguably treasonous, is clearly the prevalent one within both the SACP and Cosatu. There is, therefore, a very high probability of a breakaway from the ANC by these two organisations, along with a sizeable grouping from the ANC itself – provided the split is effectively organised. The consequence is that a fully captured “ANC” will undoubtedly lose any free and fair elections held in 2019, possibly by a large margin.

The mistake many commentators have made is to state, or imply, that a similar scenario is likely if the anti-state capture grouping wins. I think this is unlikely. The main reason is very simple: looters do not care about issues of principle and cannot loot if they do not have access to power. For example, what does a corrupt provincial politician have to gain if he splits to form his own party? Immediate loss of a provincial premiership and a very high chance of political extinction in the absence of funds for their patronage machine. It seems more likely that he will stay and try to ingratiate himself to the newly-installed power brokers. These inclinations can be used to good effect by the anti-state capture faction. Although I am personally in favour of simply purging corrupt and treasonous politicians, and civil servants, there is an argument that throwing them some crumbs may be more strategic. This should not go too far though; it would be risky to allow any Zuma crony to be in a position where they could later ascend to the presidency in the event that something happened to the incumbent.

Another important consideration is that if the state capture faction split from, for example, a Cyril Ramaphosa-led ANC, they would still be completely unable to protect their principals from prosecution.

Given all of this, it makes sense for the ANC’s alliance partners to threaten a split if Ramaphosa is not elected, which is precisely what they are doing. The president’s proxies, by contrast, cannot credibly make such a threat.

Why are so many people running for ANC president?

Another important issue is why there are currently so many candidates for ANC president. As things stand, besides Ramaphosa and Dlamini-Zuma, public branch nominations have been accepted in principle by: Baleka Mbete, Lindiwe Sisulu, Matthews Phosa and Zweli Mkhize. Many other names have been mentioned, but without confirmed reports of accepted nominations.

ANC Secretary General, Gwede Mantashe, has recently condemned the proliferation of presidential candidates. If individuals are simply motivated by their own ambitions, then such condemnation is warranted. Yet although many media reports have framed these decisions as such, it seems unlikely that this is the primary explanation. More likely is that these decisions reflect deeper strategies by supporters of the two main candidates, Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma (NDZ) and Ramaphosa. What might the thinking be?

One possibility arises from statements made by Jacob Zuma, suggesting that the runner-up in the contest for the ANC presidency could be appointed deputy president. If consolation prizes are to be issued, it makes sense to ensure that you have allies in place to receive those. This also links to the point about not allowing a Zuma crony within striking distance of the presidency – although as Melanie Verwoerd has pointed out, Zuma’s suggestion is more likely a reflection of a desire to co-opt his opponents in the event Dlamini-Zuma wins and thereby prevent a split.

What remains somewhat puzzling is quite how the number of candidates helps Ramaphosa, or the anti-state capture grouping more broadly. If we assume Lindiwe Sisulu is in this group, then one can see how that takes the sting out of the Zuma faction’s attempt to use a “woman president” narrative to get either Dlamini-Zuma or Mbete into the position. A recent poll seem to reflect the success of this strategy, giving Sisulu the most support of the female candidates for ANC president.

At the same time, there is a risk of Sisulu’s campaign diluting Ramaphosa’s support. This seems to apply to an even greater degree to Phosa and Mkhize, as well as others that have been mentioned such as Paul Mashatile and Jeff Radebe. The most likely explanation may be that these candidates serve to test the waters, bring-in supporters who might not immediately opt for Ramaphosa and draw some of the flak from Ramaphosa’s campaign. Then, shortly before the elective conference, some will throw their weight behind Ramaphosa – as often happens, in more structured fashion, in the two main American political parties’ internal elections.

If this is the case, it would seem to be quite a savvy strategy. It will require keeping individuals’ egos in check to a sufficient degree, and ensuring any Trojan Horses have been weeded out, to succeed.

The end game: cautionary tales from Frank Chikane’s 8 Days in September

The final issue I want to consider is what the Zuma faction might do in a scenario where a candidate from the anti-state capture grouping, such as Ramaphosa, wins the ANC presidency. For simplicity, assume the majority of the “top six”, national executive committee and national working committee are of similar mind. (The composition of these further two layers beyond the leadership are important and should not be forgotten, but would require a separate analysis.) It seems obvious that this would be the end for Zuma and his cronies. But one analysis of what happened when Thabo Mbeki was ousted as ANC president suggests some caution in reaching that conclusion too quickly; Zuma could have one final card up his sleeve.

In his book, 8 Days in September, Frank Chikane – who was director general in the South African presidency during both the Mandela and Mbeki eras – describes how Zuma’s supporters behaved after Mbeki was removed as ANC president but remained president of the country. The critical starting point being that there is no necessary connection in law between who is ANC president and who is president of the country. Mbeki could have stayed on for a further six months as national president. But as Chikane describes it, Zuma’s supporters wanted Mbeki out within a week of Zuma’s ascension to ANC president. Chikane hints that intelligence sources suggested there was even a risk of a coup of some kind if Mbeki did not comply. The potential “constitutional crisis”, in Chikane’s words, was averted by Mbeki voluntarily stepping down as president of the country.

Given Zuma’s subsequent destruction or capture of key oversight institutions, it seems likely that this urgency was fuelled by fear of what independent state agencies might do to him in the six months they remained under an Mbeki presidency. But as his term reaches an end, Zuma finds himself again in a rather similar position – needing to stave off his own prosecution and that of those around him.

It would, of course, be hypocritical of Zuma to do exactly what he and his supporters prevented Mbeki from doing. But in such matters Zuma has shown himself to be a hypocrite of the highest order. He has, for example, bemoaned judicial overreach, even after leveraging inappropriate remarks by Judge Chris Nicholson for political and personal gain. And demanded his “day in court”, while paying lawyers vast amounts of public and private money precisely to prevent that happening. And used the argument when he was deputy that the deputy president of the ANC should become president, only to now dismiss it when wielded by supporters of Ramaphosa.

It would therefore be no surprise if Zuma attempted to dig his heels in as national president if the anti-state capture grouping obtained a victory in December. In principle, the new ANC leadership could remove Zuma by a vote of no confidence, or even impeachment, in Parliament. The question that lingers from Chikane’s account is: would Zuma go to the lengths of abusing instruments of power, such as the military, police and intelligence services to stay in power?

This seems too big a risk even for someone who has already abused the state and violated his oath of office – a late night exodus to Dubai may be much more likely. Nevertheless, we would be foolish to underestimate the state capturers: for them there is everything to lose and they have shown no moral qualms in pursuing their agenda. The road to December 2017 remains rocky and perilous. For better or worse, the coming months will determine the medium-term future of South Africa’s democratic order. DM

Seán Mfundza Muller is senior lecturer in economics at the University of Johannesburg and writes in his personal capacity.


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