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Crushing the ANC’s house of cards – it only takes a Nene


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

Cyril Ramaphosa’s African National Congress was displayed as a fragile house of cards this week. One faltering card, Nhlanhla Nene, was all it took to lay bare structural faults of this post-Zuma party construction.

The building blocks in the post-Zuma ANC are in collapsible configurations of politicians that have, almost without exception, big and small-anyana skeletons (circa Zuma era) in their closets. The cement that binds ‘the structure’ is a tenuous mix of confess-and-come-clean, while retaining peace with the opposing ANC faction. The varnish is the knowledge that there is relative protection in the ranks of the organisation. After all, the ANC needs unity – virtually to the extent of “unity above all”.

As the Nene contagion spread this week, the card structure was wobbling.

This was the Ramaphosa dilemma. Ramaphosa’s construct of the post-Zuma government would sacrifice credibility (and the economy would suffer) in the face of defence or condonation of Nene. Yet, Nene’s departure will be a signal for the not-so-clean multitudes (in numbers, and also Zumaists at heart, who now try to integrate into the CR zone) in the ANC that there is nowhere to hide. If the Ramaphosaists ditch Nene, a man from the CR side, then surely there will be nowhere for Zumaists bearing nyana to hide? And the ANC’s unity depends on exactly the fragile balance of compromise with the compromised, silences to “deny” the extent of being compromised, and inter-factional co-operation while the balance is manoeuvred gently in the direction of Ramaphosa.

Even more, the Ramaphosa government could be destabilised – is there a candidate clean enough, astute enough and ideologically acceptable enough, not just to the post-Zuma ANC but also to withstand opposition packs that demand public accountability?

This was the story of the ANC in power, with one eye on the economy and the other on the next election, in the last week … Predicaments ruled.

Just at the time that the evidence suggested, persuasively it seemed, that Ramaphosa was winning the day in the ANC, Nene happened. For example, Ace Magashule had been hauled over the coals, the Top Six deliberated the Maharani plot, and the weight of argument favoured Ramaphosa. Plotting to purge Ramaphosa was increasingly outlaw behaviour. In North West, Supra Mahumapelo, the little by little marginalised provincial chairperson, quit the provincial task team that will steer the ANC into 2019. The ANC’s alliance partners Cosatu and the SACP, even if no longer organisations of glory, added their blazing guns in favour of Ramaphosa.

The ANC factional industries were shrinking, so it seemed, on important fronts. Zuma might even be isolated. It appeared safe to roll out controlled revelations at the Zondo Commission, slowly but surely exposing big fish of corruption and capture, without endangering Ramaphosa’s hold on the ANC. The events point to a delicate balancing act. There are sufficient assurances to tainted ANC figures to keep them inside the post-Zuma ANC. They might even feel protected, hiding under the wing of the president who acts, in turn, for a party that wants them inside the ANC and is prepared to gamble with voter sentiment to keep them from running rogue.

It was this type of confluence that strengthened Ramaphosa’s hand, enabling him to move in, consolidate his hold on the ANC and cast the imagery of a post-Zuma ANC. This was a fraught game, but over the last few months it appeared to be working.

Then a high-speed curve ball fractured the front. Nhlanhla Nene lied about the scope of his Gupta contacts. The question marks on how much exactly he helped his son access Public Investment Corporation funding (for a questionable project, amid dubious partnership details) heaped doubt of judgement and integrity. Nene morphed into a liability.

The Nene moment might have been innocuous had South Africa’s political climate and culture not changed in the last few years, and months. The ANC is said to have new post-Zuma values, and the public and opposition of all hues are fired up, demanding all-around, instant accountability to weigh up the “new ANC”.

Even if the ANC and its Alliance partners are tainted severely by the practices of the Zuma years – including in complicity and silence – the ANC formations have started running with the break from Zuma, creating the notion of a new, reborn, honest and clean ANC. Ramaphoria was an early part of the phenomenon. Ramaphosa was the rational alternative to the Zuma age. While the national high of seeing the back of Zuma started fusing with the realities of economic hardship and limited prospects for recovery, the Zondo revelations were welcomed as reminders of the break with the past. The Commission in its early days helped unleash a new variation of anti-Zuptaism.

Nene fractured this carefully constructed new ANC. Nene’s departure will be the signal that there is no place any longer for far, far worse transgressors than Nene to hide. Nene may have saved South Africa from a nuclear deal from hell (courtesy of Zuma’s predilection to please Vladimir Putin), but the new politics of fragile ANC internal balances and building images of a post-corruption government leaves little space for pardons.

The opposition-party hounds are helping to sniff out relatively both the gross violators and good guys in cracked armour. The Economic Freedom Fighters, investigative agencies and the social media tribunals outed Nene in unparalleled definitive style. The Democratic Alliance is acting on Bathabile Dlamini and Malusi Gigaba spreading untruths. The not-quite-dormant Guptaist-ANN7 axis is divided – some try to delegitimise the Zondo Commission, and called on Nene to resign (little owning-up that their man Zuma is at the heart of the quandary), and others elevate the ideological axis, asking non-Zupta politicians to apologise for any meetings with the “Ruperts and Rothchilds”. It is an attack frenzy, but all is fair in pre-election times when ANC weaknesses are flaunted.

Ramaphosa cannot hide his volatile ANC from the public opinion tribunals. It will be a tough act to find a qualifying, reassuring replacement. ANC politicians may now fear going before the Zondo Commission and confess to their Zupta sins. Like Nene they could be exposed for duplicity and contradiction – silence could be safer. On the opposing end, it could, however, be attractive for the skeleton-bearers if they are forced to testify, to go rogue and tell all, including implicating multiple Ramaphosaists, new and old.

Hence, the Ramaphosa dilemma: firing Nene was exposed as a tough, volatile option that can collapse the house of cards, but in this week of heightened precariousness there were no other options. DM


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