As the ANC goes to the polls to elect Zuma’s successor, another year of intra-party competition could postpone efforts to revive South Africa’s slumping economy, says John Dludlu in Johannesburg.
As a statement of aspiration, the ANC, South Africa’s ruling party, called on its members to “deepen unity in 2017” and show “unity in action” on 8 January – when Nelson Mandela’s party turned 105 years old. It devoted a fair chunk of its birthday statement to the importance of unity.
In reality, this is the year when the ANC will experience its worst factionalism, and when it will, once again, fracture, sowing the seeds of another split: all of which is good for the opposition as the next general election draws nearer, but bad for the economy, which is stuck in a recession.
Let’s start from the beginning. This year marks the end of Jacob Zuma’s second term as ANC president; he can stand again, but this would be awkward as he cannot seek a third term as South Africa’s president. Instead, Zuma, who is fighting to fend off humiliating rejection by his own party, will seek to rule through a proxy who will protect him beyond office. So far, the only two people likely to provide this protection are Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma, his ex-wife and outgoing chairman of the African Union (AU) Commission, and Zweli Mkhize, the party’s treasurer-general and long-standing Zuma ally.
Apart from these two candidates, there are three others – Zuma’s deputy Cyril Ramaphosa, Minister in the Presidency Jeff Radebe, and the Speaker of the National Assembly, Baleka Mbete.
Of this lot, only Ramaphosa is a serious contender. Whilst he is well regarded by business and the international community, he does not have a clear and loyal constituency within the ANC, which matters if he is to take on Zuma’s proxies.
After losing to Thabo Mbeki, who became Mandela’s deputy and then president, Ramaphosa left politics for business, but stayed inside the party’s executive, where he has remained since.
This makes him an insider, and part of the establishment; and by joining Zuma’s executive in 2012 and staying on in his administration amid growing scandals, he has also weakened his message for change.
However, to be fair to Ramaphosa, this taint applies to all the current candidates – all have been in the party’s executive for as long as he has been, and, therefore, share the blame for its failures.
Dlamini-Zuma’s posting to the AU did nothing to distance her from her ex-husband; in fact, she remained deeply involved in ANC politics.
Worse, all the candidates are playing the succession game by the same old 19th-century playbook – do not openly campaign, and do not show ambition. This means the ANC members, and the public at large, will never know what each stands for, and how, if at all, they plan to repair the damage caused by the Zuma years both to the ANC and the country.
Faced with the confidence crisis, the ANC executive has resisted calls for an honest reflection. For months now, they have been discussing a request by its veterans to have this serious introspection.
So, in essence, come December 2017, the ANC’s 4,000-odd delegates will be asked to choose Zuma’s successor from his own circle – people of his generation, or the generation immediately after him and by all accounts, part of the establishment. This is quite serious. Take the leaders of the two largest opposition parties: both the Democratic Alliance and the Economic Freedom Fighters are led by leaders in their thirties (Mmusi Maimane and Julius Malema, respectively) and have benefitted handsomely from the ANC’s electoral misfortunes, while the ANC candidates are all in their sixties. In a way, this means the ANC is ignoring the message from its constituency last August; most chose to stay at home in protest or opted to vote for the opposition parties.
As a consequence, the ANC lost control of Johannesburg, Port Elizabeth and Pretoria over and above Cape Town, which was already in the hands of the Democratic Alliance (DA). A more serious mistake is that history shows that once the ANC loses control of a municipality or province, it never regains it; which should be depressing to the party faithful.
Without honest reflection, and open campaigning, forget about the renewal of the ANC. Campaigning will continue, albeit in secret, and delegates will not know the source of the money that’s funding the candidates. Out of the glare of the media and public scrutiny, the campaigns will default into a negative gear – smears will become the order of the day.
This has started. In January, Mbete was forced to disclose her ailment, and Dlamini-Zuma has faced a barrage of negative reviews of her stint as AU chair.
Smears fuel factionalism. And factionalism, which thrives through the opaque campaign system, is fertile ground for splits in the ANC, which happen around elective conferences.
The problem is the ANC has no mechanisms of ensuring that factions, built around candidates, do not last beyond elections.
Two of the most damaging splits have happened after elective conferences. After Mbeki’s defeat in Polokwane in 2007, his supporters broke away to form the Congress of the People (Cope). After failing to appeal his dismissal from the ANC at its conference in 2012, Julius Malema went on to form the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF), which has enabled the DA to form minority coalition governments in Pretoria, Johannesburg and Port Elizabeth. This trend of protracted factionalism is unlikely to stop, given the depth of the divisions in the current succession race.
In fact, it’s likely to be worse this year. Kwazulu-Natal ANC, which has coalesced around Zuma, is divided into four camps supporting various factions, and Limpopo ANC, which seeded the EFF,
is politically unstable. Western Cape and Northern Cape are both led by interim leaders after legal problems surrounding their elected leaders.
As party executives tear into each other, the ANC turns inward and de-emphasises governance.
Another negative trend is to use state institutions, especially intelligence and law enforcement agencies, to fight factional battles. The ongoing criminal probe into the finance minister is a case in point. This is likely to intensify this year.
As the ANC looks inward, the economy and foreign policy will suffer. Under Zuma’s ANC, South Africa has taken foreign policy positions that are at variance with the country’s constitution. Economic management, especially regulation, is one of the Zuma administration’s serious failures. The ANC only pays lip service to the importance of the economy.
Last November, the ANC executive made a passing reference to the economy by glibly claiming it will turn “South Africa into a construction site” in 2017. The National Development Plan, a 30-year blueprint, features in all documents, but has yet to be implemented. Key pieces of regulation, such as the mining charter, are languishing in courts, fueling uncertainty in an important industry. Crucially, state decision-making will be tardy as various factions are eyeballing each other for mistakes to exploit.
Zuma spent a better part of 2016 in a fight with his finance minister, Pravin Gordhan, the man he was forced to reappoint after firing Nhlanhla Nene on 9 December 2015. At every given opportunity, he makes the point of punting his preferred choice for the finance ministry, Des van Rooyen, the junior MP he was forced to remove after four days in office.
Gordhan, who is still under police investigation, has not endeared himself to his boss by taking on Zuma’s friends, the Gupta family, in the courts.
Under Zuma’s administration, the National Treasury, which derives its power directly from the constitution, has just become another government department – its word is mere guidance.
And Gordhan, who is seen as a Ramaphosa ally, is a stumbling block to the trillion-rand nuclear build programme, Zuma’s other pet project alongside the control of hundreds of state-owned companies.
With the Gordhan-Zuma shadow boxing set to reach a climax this year, Gordhan’s efforts to restructure the economy and get it out of the 0.4% growth rut are likely to be frustrated, especially by lack of support from his boss.
In late January, Zuma suddenly cancelled his attendance of the annual World Economic Forum summit where he was to jointly appear with Gordhan to present a case for investing in South Africa.
So, instead of uniting the ANC, 2017 will – like 2007 and 2012 – be the year when the ANC shrinks further through another faction-fuelled split.
This is good news for opposition and competitive politics in South Africa, as it will decisively break the ANC’s dominance in 2019. A new leader selected from the establishment is unlikely to reform the ANC, which is stuck on past glories, to focus on the new challenges of this new country.
For economic operators, this will be a wasted year; there will be no serious effort to tackle the economic crisis facing South Africa, as the ANC leaders will
be distracted by their tribal wrangles.