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South Africa’s complex 2018 transition – and the Zumaist Occupation


Susan Booysen is Director of Research, Mapungubwe Institute for Strategic Reflection (MISTRA), and visiting and emeritus professor, Wits School of Governance.

South Africa’s Transition 2018 has been a case of outwit, outplay and outlast. The epicentre is between two titans – Jacob Zuma with his strategic cunning of self-preservation pitted against the tactical calculations of Cyril Ramaphosa, renowned for reaching negotiated targets. But the boundaries of the transitional encounter extend far beyond the two individuals.

Broadly speaking, the complex 2018 transition is unfolding across five fronts:

  • the presidency of the ANC,
  • the presidency of South Africa
    (and the changing relations between the two),
  • actions required to get national economic resurrection,
  • salvaging multiple state institutions from Zumaist occupation,
  • and ultimately recouping ANC electoral prospects.

By late January each of the fronts remains contested.

Zuma’s continuous and against-odds occupation of the Union Buildings, while South Africa and much of the world are mesmerised by the question of “when Zuma will go”, makes sense (to the extent that it is possible at all) only when one considers the totality of strategy, rules, compromises and ANC fears across the five fronts. Each brings its own rules and demands – and, as we have seen in the days of suspense on Zuma’s exit, resistance from the remaining enclaves of Zumaist power, including those centred in ANC Secretary-General Ace Magashule.

The net has been tightening around Zuma relentlessly. Zuma and his proxy lost the Nasrec 2017 battle for the ANC presidency. Parliament is preparing impeachment modalities for the president of South Africa, and legal processes to implement the Nasrec resolution to fight corruption are shaping up. In addition, the Ramaphosaists’ margin of dominance in the ANC’s National Executive Committee (NEC) is growing and has been confirmed in the National Working Committee (NWC). Interpretations are contested but the NEC agrees that the Zuma exit moment is when the 2019 election campaign takes off. For all practical purposes the campaign has started.

It is all but obvious that Zuma’s days (whatever the exact number) as South African president are numbered.

Meanwhile “President” Zuma is sitting tight, despite suffering ever-evaporating powers. The ANC (read ANC president Ramaphosa) is confirmed as the centre of power. Zuma’s state presidency is by now largely ceremonial – except that his continuous occupation of the position negates the project of a new, self-renewing ANC. Power has shifted: Zuma has to report to ANC headquarters of Luthuli House; Ramaphosa is at the World Economic Forum; he appointed the new Eskom board; he oversees (granted, they are tentative) prosecutorial and legal action on state corruption.

Zuma’s continuation, however, even in a ceremonial role, is the antithesis of the 2018 model of the ANC that is to be reconnecting with the people to regain their trust. Given his arms deal, Nkandla and Gupta brothers’ histories (think, for example, 783 corruption counts still pending, the State of Capture and the #GuptaLeaks), Zuma is dead weight.

The Ramaphosa victory in becoming president of the ANC has been consolidating beyond the scant 179 vote margin of December 2017. Power speaks, and the fact that Ramaphosa will determine top government appointments and wield massive influence in the South African economy if the ANC wins Election 2019 serves as a magnet. His consolidation of power has been leveraged by the ANC’s recognition of the party as the centre of power, and the ANC’s own conference resolutions, especially its pledge to act decisively on corruption. Many Nasrec cadres had probably not grasped that action against the Zupta network of corruption would follow as tangibly as it did in the early days of the de facto Ramaphosa regime.

Zumaists have been using the cards of “unity” (necessary as it is at this stage of the ANC’s existence) and “non-humiliation of the president” as ruses to protect Zuma as patron of the subverted or corrupted-by-power-abuse state institutions. Of course, Ramaphosa in a Mandela-esque mode might still decide to do one presidential term only and save himself from being the next candidate to be declared president non grata upon the election of a potentially hostile ANC successor president a decade down the line. For now, he is playing it safe.

Unity” links to the front of preservation of ANC electoral prospects. By all reports the ANC fears alienation, losses and electoral revenge from especially the KwaZulu-Natal electorate should Zuma, and his purported strong provincial loyalty base, not be appeased. In times of ANC electoral decline since 2004, KZN has bolstered the ANC’s national election performance. The ANC’s internal research still needs to reveal the extent to which post-Ramaphosa gains in other provinces will compensate for possible KZN losses, but it is likely that they will.

The 2018 transition is complicated greatly by the need for the new regime to balance its political transition with the actions required to make the South African economy more respectable and humane. For example, it needs to salvage state-owned enterprises (besides extracting state security agencies from Zuma-Mahlobo-Bongo capture), stabilise the economy above the junk that the Zuma regime bequeathed, and get growth at levels that generate jobs effectively.

The “Cyril factor” is a useful addition to the mix – but effective action is all that will count at term’s end. Talk-talk has run out of steam for the ANC, both internationally and with the South African electorate. More talk-plus-walk will be the benchmark after 25 years of potholed ANC rule. The Ramaphosa regime will be held to account substantively on its promise to “deepen transformation”.

Notwithstanding the contradictory rules and tensions between the five fronts, the Ramaphosa-ANC needs to balance the possible gains and losses, and there is little space for vacillation. If it requires that the obstinate Zuma occupation be ended, politically, gains on the other fronts are sure to recompense. DM

Susan Booysen is a political analyst, professor at Wits University and author of books on the ANC, so far The ANC and the Regeneration of Political Power, and Dominance and Decline: the ANC in the Time of Zuma. She also consults on policy and governance, and mentors emerging scholars.


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