Opinionista Saul Musker 15 December 2017

View From Afar: South Africa teeters on the brink

The outcome of the ANC’s elective conference will, in many ways, determine the future of the country. This is because the contest over the leadership of the party is in fact a contest over access to state resources. Although both campaigns have tried to make it seem otherwise, and even the media has felt obliged to portray it as a clash of two ideological platforms, this is really a war over impunity for corruption in government. If Nkosazana Dlamini Zuma is victorious, impunity will reign. At this point, nothing else really matters.

Waiting in a terminal at London Heathrow Airport for my flight home to Johannesburg, I picked up a few international newspapers to bide the time. On the front cover of this week’s edition of The Economist, the headline “The Corruption of South Africa” is emblazoned above the image of a snake in the colours of our flag. The lead story laments “how far South Africa has fallen from the ideals it embraced when it was reborn after apartheid”. In the New York Times, Ivor Chipkin’s front page feature strikes a similarly sombre tone: “A decade of President Zuma’s leadership has seen Africa’s oldest liberation movement become a caricature of corruption and factionalism”. Equivalent stories appear in every publication on the shelf.

It is easy enough to dismiss these headlines as the pontifications of foreign journalists – after all, who cares what the rest of the world thinks? It does matter, though, and at this particular juncture it matters very deeply. South Africa is embedded in a global economy and political order in which perceptions are crucial, determining levels of foreign investment (and therefore economic growth) and the moral and political clout that we wield abroad. But this is not the only reason to be dismayed at the coverage of the foreign press. Until recently, South Africa was viewed as a miracle of peaceful transition, a stable and sophisticated democracy, and a rising economy. We were seen as a rare instance of good governance on a continent where it is deteriorating. The rapid and severe reversal of these perceptions is an indicator of just how damaging the scandals of the Zuma government have been, and just how rotten are the foundations they have exposed.

The days leading up to the ANC’s elective conference this weekend are akin to the anxious last hours before a defendant hears their sentence. As outsiders to the party, there is little that most of us can do to influence its outcome. Just a few thousand delegates will decide the party leadership, and, in all likelihood, the next president of the country. Unlike any conference before, the stakes are possibly existential.

Much ado has been made about Nkosazana Dlamini Zuma’s academic credentials, her tenure as a Cabinet minister and her leadership of the African Union. On the other hand, Cyril Ramaphosa’s pedigree in the trade union movement, his role in the transition to democracy and his more recent record in business and government have been widely examined. Of course, all of this is important at some level. But this is not an ordinary election, where the policies and qualities of the rival candidates take centre stage. Rather, this is a factional battle for control of the fiscal and security capacities of the state. Dlamini Zuma and Ramaphosa are merely the façade behind which this real and altogether more urgent battle is taking place.

It is for this reason that no person with the interests of the country at heart should support Dlamini Zuma’s candidacy. It has nothing to do, in fact, with her past performance or credentials. It has everything to do with the people whom she would carry with her, and what her victory would mean for the fight against State Capture. Dlamini Zuma is surrounded by those who stand to gain from the status quo, and who would lose everything should there be any real effort to root out corruption in government. In this context, who really cares what kind of a doctor she is?

In fact, there are only three types of person who want Nkosazana Dlamini Zuma to win the party leadership. The first are those firmly ensconced in the Zuma patronage network, whose positions and livelihoods rest on the shoulders of his anointed successor. Electing Dlamini Zuma means electing a host of Zuma acolytes that surrounds her whom she will have to pay off after the contest in order to consolidate her power – people like Bathabile Dlamini, Jessie Duarte and Ace Magashule. Each of these nefarious figures, in turn, carries a group of clients and disciples attached to them like barnacles to a ship. This network of ANC members and politicians, who have tied their fortunes to Dlamini Zuma’s, have ample reason to support her and to do whatever they can to prevent her defeat.

The second are those who have drunk the Kool-Aid of “radical economic transformation” supposedly espoused by her campaign. This includes the many rank-and-file supporters of the ANC who have argued for the expropriation of land without compensation, the nationalisation of mines and other radical policies of redistribution.

Finally, and perhaps most interestingly, there are those who believe – publically or secretly – that a victory for Dlamini Zuma, while painful in the short term, will hasten the demise of the party and raise the prospect of an opposition victory in the 2019 general elections.

These latter two groups are sure to be disappointed if Dlamini Zuma does emerge successful. Dlamini Zuma and her allies have a long and distinguished history of following populist rhetoric with muted action (or, more commonly, inaction). Zuma himself rose to power on an insurgent populist platform, but despite maintaining his frequent attacks on white monopoly capital, the media, the judiciary and the West, has done virtually nothing in two presidential terms to implement radical economic policies. Although the Zuma administration has been characterised by large-scale corruption and looting, the erosion of state institutions and the collapse of confidence in the economy, it has equally been marked by a nearly complete absence of policy innovation or creativity. Poverty and unemployment remain high and increasing, inequality has sky-rocketed, and the rich have continued to accumulate assets unperturbed. The Zuma faction of the ANC, whose continued rule Dlamini-Zuma would ensure, is substantially more focused on self-enrichment (and the maintenance of power) than widespread or meaningful redistribution. Populist rhetoric is no more than a ruse, manipulated as a cover for corruption in the state.

In this context, it seems reckless to wish for a Dlamini Zuma victory as a means of precipitating the ANC’s decline. For one thing, it is by no means certain that the ANC led by Dlamini Zuma would lose the elections in 2019, even if its support decreases. The support of rural voters for the party has remained largely resilient, and these constituencies still hold predominant sway. In addition, there is no doubt that the ANC would use all of the resources at its disposal to ensure an electoral victory, including both inducements and intimidation. The power of the incumbent is no small thing. Meanwhile, support for opposition parties, while steadily growing, is nowhere near a national majority yet. In short, it is far from safe to assume that the DA or any other party would profit sufficiently from a Dlamini Zuma candidacy to justify the risk.

It is difficult to overestimate the importance of this conference for the future of South Africa. Cyril Ramaphosa is by no means an ideal candidate, and his faction of the ANC may not lead the social and economic revival that this country requires to make significant progress in the coming years. But the alternative is unconscionable: many more years of the hollowing out and repurposing of state institutions, which would take a very long time to repair. Dlamini Zuma means the endurance of the status quo, and nobody – from anywhere on the political spectrum – wants that. We may not survive it.

There is nothing to do, however, but wait and see. And few things are harder than that. DM

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