The Ramaphosaists have dangerous transitional grounds to negotiate: they have to move the ANC – and South Africa – out of its corruption-capture quagmire but are obligated to retain an ANC that is strong enough to win elections.
Moments in history are branded by turmoil and clashes, resistance of declining forces, and campaigns to subvert new directions that threaten the old order.
Think back to the early 1990s when South Africa’s transitional negotiations had broken down. There was violence, destabilisation and mistrust. Fast-forward to 2018 and the non-Cyrilists in the African National Congress in the past week affirmed that the ANC and South Africa’s Transition 2018 remain fragile, even reversible. They dug in and enacted defiance – using “ANC unity” as their multipurpose weapon of war.
There were continuous power shifts as Cyril Ramaphosa moved gradually towards being the de facto president of South Africa. In Davos he spoke authoritatively about plans for the country’s economy and the rule of law being applied, with speed, to cases of corruption and State Capture. On home ground de iure President Jacob Zuma was increasingly emasculated but backed, dangerously, by significant ANC players. The Ace Magashule-Jessie Duarte axis fought a rear-guard action. In effect, they threatened the ANC with withdrawal of support from KwaZulu-Natal and the Free State, punted for Zuma to be in Mahlamba Ndlopfu for the post-election 2019 handover to the new national president, and said: “Just wait for December 2022.”
The fiercest of the ANC factionalists inverted the mantra of “unity”. Magashule lamented that anti-corruption action must not be used as a weapon to divide the ANC. He and others worked to portray anti-corruption steps, which have been flourishing under the protective umbrella of Ramaphosa’s rise, as the sabotage of unity.
The actions showed the dangerous transitional grounds that the Ramaphosaists have to negotiate: they have to move the ANC – and South Africa – out of its corruption-capture quagmire but are obligated to retain an ANC that is strong enough to win elections. This, the Magashule-Duarte front is positing, equals not antagonising the Zumaists who have no political future beyond their corruption-capture base.
The Ramaphosaists have much ground to cover to secure their beach head, as the new ANC president described his reformist ANC’s narrow Nasrec victory. The first task is to acknowledge that the “unity” of the Nasrec result – said to have been implied by the close to equal support for the two main ANC factions – was skin-deep, at best. Behind the result were two (in the main) antagonistic verging on hostile ANC factions. The Nasrec result necessitated an alliance of the two factions. In some respects the two are mutually dependent, for example in holding on to an outright ANC national electoral majority; in other ways the Cyril faction has a potent ethical base and popular appeal that the Zumaists lack.
The rear-guard action hopes, again in effect, to blackmail an ANC that is hoping to win back electoral support through evidence of zero tolerance for corruption.
The unity arguments were being linked to the 2018 Zuma Must Go pressures. In a stretch of logic, Magashule described those wanting Zuma to leave office early as factional and populist. In Magashule’s words, “We have not taken such a decision [that Zuma must step down]. It’s only factional leaders who want to be populist, the ones who are loved by the papers, the ones who don’t know the ANC, who are making noise outside….”. He warned that the “enemy” will try to divide the ANC, that it must be stopped from “infiltrating” (KwaZulu-Natal) and that comrades would need to “be strong” until the next ANC conference in five years’ time.
He denied that the National Executive Committee (NEC) had put forward modalities of Ramaphosa-Zuma exit negotiations, of Zuma being out by the time of the 2019 election campaign. More subtly, Jessie Duarte tried to level the ground between Ramaphosa and Zuma, defending Zuma in relation to Nkandla’s undesired (so she argued) so-called security upgrades, and building an argument that Ramaphosa would soon similarly become vilified by the media. She also ignored the NEC statement that has set the platform for Zuma’s removal.
The implications for the ANC are severe – and help keep hope alive for opposition parties: the pseudo-unitarists’ (Magashule Inc.) action for all practical purposes demands that the ANC’s recent past of corruption and capture be brushed over. Unity is used as the shield to avert corruption charges. The action could produce compromises that could sink the ANC in the eyes of the voters. It would be evidence in the 2018-19 campaign that the ANC had not changed, that the narratives of a renewal and cleansing from corruption were just junk.
The Gramscian morbid symptoms, or the not-yet-dead declining forces, are resisting. Transitions are not irreversible; they remain contested, often for considerable periods of time. Much damage can be done in the process, as this moment shows. Will the Ramaphosa flank have the skill and fortitude to drive this latest transition beyond its tentative and contested beginnings? 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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