The recent political intrigues in South Africa resemble the plot of the TV series, Game of Thrones. President Jacob Zuma took the axe to his cabinet and threw out some of the most competent ministers in his administration – including the universally respected Pravin Gordhan, splitting not just the country but his own ANC party and alliance in the process. What is behind his moves? What is likely to happen in the near future? Tom Nevin reports.
On 30 March South Africans were treated to a late-night head-chopping show – one of them belonging to the finance minister Pravin Gordhan and the other to his deputy, Mcebisi Jonas. More heads were to roll as President Jacob Zuma pruned much of his cabinet, rearranged what was left of it, and ushered in a country split down the middle.
It wasn’t as if something drastic was not expected. The previous days had been awash with speculation and rumour that something politically dire was in the air. Gordhan was in Europe on an investment-drumming up road show which he was expected to wrap up in a day or two, before taking the financial pageant on an American cross-continental safari, extolling the wisdom and virtue of buying into the South African economy. He didn’t get far before he was peremptorily “called home”, in a drop-everything kind of way.
To say it was messy is an understatement; the aftermath resounded through the capital markets domestically and internationally, knocking billions of dollars off South Africa’s bonds and equities, to say nothing of the battering suffered by the rand currency.
Gordhan was replaced with President Jacob Zuma’s long-time buddy, Malusi Gigaba, plucked from the Home Affairs portfolio to take the country’s financial reins. In all, eight Zuma opponents were ousted from their ministerial posts, eliminating all cabinet opposition to presidential ambitions. Cabinet ministers of any value lay amongst the casualties.
The latest chapter in South Africa’s always entertaining ministerial hi-jinks was being written. As the drama unfolded, Zuma took the roles of judge, jury and executioner, playing each part like the true stage virtuoso that he is.
For once Zuma had the constitution on his side when he wielded the axe. The highest court in the land says he is the boss, and that’s that, except that it wasn’t. While the president has the first and final say on the fortunes of his cabinet ministers and he alone will choose them, and only he will boot them out, there’s an agreement – unwritten but cast in stone nonetheless – that says no change will be made to the executive, including the cabinet, without the consent of the “top six” officials – the ANC’s supreme coterie, in whose hands the fate of the nation lies. Zuma did not consult them and the conventional wisdom strongly suggests he did not act alone. He had help and advice from the shadows.
As events unfolded, some key personalities in Zuma’s coterie argued that while Zuma’s right to hire and fire ministers was the letter of the law, the spirit of such legislation lay in discussing such matters with the government’s super-six before the deed was done.
None had any inkling of Gordhan’s ousting and Gigaba being his replacement until well after the fact. The skullduggery persisted in Zuma’s waiting until a few minutes after midnight before breaking the news to a sleeping nation, when the national presses were beyond recall for a new morning edition. However, most of South Africa’s radio and TV stations are 24- hour services and bedroom lights were soon snapping on countrywide as telephones jangled.
For Gordhan, this was déjà vu. Since he retrieved his cabinet seat after being booted out by Zuma to make way for novice Des van Rooyen a couple of years ago, the master-servant tension between the president and his financial watchdog was ever near breaking point. Their disagreements and standoffs were legendary.
Danger lies beneath the surface
The consequences played out as many people had predicted. The country was hit by an immediate drop in the value of the rand and a sovereign credit rating downgrade to junk from rating agencies Standard & Poor’s and Fitch. Widespread protest against the president followed, while the ruling African National Congress party is showing stress lines that can no longer be papered over.
Much of the hero status that has attended the ANC since it achieved full democracy in 1994 has evaporated. The Tripartite Alliance that was stitched together to fight the debut democratic elections is in pieces.
The ANC partners, the Confederation of South African Trade Unions (Cosatu) and the South African Communist Party (SACP) have disavowed their senior partner and it is probable that the alliance will be dissolved at the ANC party conference later this year, if not before.
Factions allied to the ANC and those associated with the opposition are baying for Zuma’s blood. “Zuma Must Fall” is the war cry resounding ever more loudly each day. There is little doubt that across the board, he is South Africa’s most disliked politician. It’s also difficult to escape the widening conviction that South Africa would be a better place were Zuma to step down. But, advise more measured voices, be careful what you wish for.
“The bottom line is that if South African politics is its own ‘swamp’ it would be foolish to think that skimming the top (whether that’s in the form of Zuma or cabinet ministers) will be sufficient on its own to improve the situation and keep the country safe from future harm,” says Timothy London, senior lecturer at the University of Cape Town. “Anyone who has been in a swamp knows that the most dangerous things lie below the surface, ready to emerge at the right moment for an attack.”
On the fateful night of the reshuffle, politically charged events exploded like crackers on a string, one after the other, each one louder than the one before. Not since 27 April 1994, when South Africa won its democracy, has this country seen such upheaval.
Only one thing was absolutely clear in the chaos, South Africa would never be the same again. It would also make nonsense of struggle hero, Nelson Mandela’s prophecy that “The ANC will rule forever”. Never has the century-old liberation movement been in such peril, witnessed by a widening crack from the foundations up – with the moderates and adherents to the ANC’s founding philosophy on the one side and the populist, want-it-all, greed-driven Zuma-ites on the other.
If there was any hope that the ANC could be stitched together, it disappeared when President Zuma flexed his muscles and with one blow, rid his government of clear thinking, honourable and responsible ministers.
In defiance, frustration, a display of power and anger, Zuma reestablished his authority with a stamp of the jackboot and a casting out of detractors for replacements, fit for their ministerial postings or not.
Most new ministers are virtual unknowns. South Africans will be watching with apprehension and anxiety as the new ministers pick up the reins.
The aftermath of Zuma’s actions were there for all to see and left little doubt that South Africa’s oldest liberation party was split down the middle, quite possibly irreparably. It is likely that President Zuma had done his homework and decided that his faction of the ANC could defeat those who opposed him. If an ANC splinter does appear, it is anyone’s guess how strong such an entity would be and what South African politics would look like as a result.
Making powerful enemies
But by his actions, Zuma has reckoned it is worth a roll of the dice. And those actions include, if not dominate, his willingness to make powerful enemies out of former friends. He has alienated some highly-placed people and gathered toadies and sycophants in their stead.
Such new foes include Deputy President Cyril Ramaphosa, ANC chief whip Jackson Mthembu, venerated struggle and ANC heroine Barbara Hogan, widow of recently deceased icon Ahmed Kathrada, the South African Communist Party hierarchy and much of its rank and file, a sizeable proportion of the labour movement and many in the party rank and file.
Probably most indicative of the ANC’s collapse is the looming dissolution of the Tripartite Alliance, the ANC, SACP and Cosatu grouping.
The immediate result of Zuma’s purge was to expose those most opposed to him as leader of the ANC and South Africa. Three of Zuma’s “top six” administrative comrades spoke out strongly and publicly at the axing.
There then followed the most astonishing of events. Following a meeting of the ANC’s office-bearers, the media carried a story of three of the “top six” officials being forced to make a humiliating apology for having spoken out against the president’s axing of the finance minister and his deputy.
Deputy President Cyril Ramaphosa, secretary general Gwede Mantashe, and treasurer general Zweli Mkhize, were said to have confessed that they “made a mistake” by publicly criticising Zuma’s cabinet reshuffle.
To many the apology hung a little false. Could party standard-bearers of such lofty standing possibly have apologised cap-in-hand? The background was an unparalleled revolt against a party leader in office, with calls for Zuma to step down coming from the governing party inner circle, including from prominent stalwarts, communists and trade unionists, all of whom had campaigned for Zuma’s presidency. At the same time civil society and religious leaders, ANC stalwarts and young party rebels, organised labour and the Communist Party planned anti-Zuma demonstrations.
And then the tale was twisted yet again. Just a few days later, far from being contrite and saying sorry, secretary general Mantashe told a radio talk station that no one had apologised, and insisted that they had even not asked to. So, one can only assume that what the three said about Zuma after the sackings was unchallenged by the president and the presidency. It remained a mystery at the time of going to press. No doubt further developments can be expected once the dust settles. Interesting times lie ahead.
For the past year or so the party has been exhibiting the signs of coming apart. An increasingly impatient president, frustrated by incorruptible keepers of the Treasury in his attempt to gain greater power over the government’s financial resources and badgered by growing accusations of being in league with the wealthy Indian Gupta family in a “state capture” intrigue, finally rid his administration of all opposition to him.
Probably most indicative of the ANC’s collapse is the looming dissolution of the Tripartite Alliance. The grouping of the ANC, the SACP and Cosatu was created as a bloc to fight South Africa’s first democratic elections in 1994. It has ruled ever since with the ANC the senior element. In the past 23 years it has endured some fractious moments, but never like this. The situation reached crisis proportions for the ANC when the SACP pledged to withdraw its five members from the cabinet if Gordhan was fired. As it transpired Zuma stood his ground and the SACP backed down.
The communists have left the issue hanging, however, and have called for an enquiry into the so-called “intelligence report”, which accused Gordhan and Jonas of a treasonous association with foreign banks to destabilise the South African economy.
No one, least of all much of the ANC top brass, believes a word of the report. The ANC’s chief whip, Jackson Mthembu, called the document “rubbish”, adding that “Their crime is their incorruptibility”. Bheki Cele, deputy minister of agriculture, also branded the allegations as “rubbish”.
In the face of the barrage of incredulity over the treason allegation, Zuma retreated from further mention of it. Instead he gave irreconcilable differences as his reason for firing Gordhan and left it at that.
Events moved rapidly and the fallout for South Africa mounted virtually daily. The economy took a series of body blows, including the downgrading to junk status of South Africa’s local currency credit
rating by Fitch and Standard & Poor’s. The move could cause outflows of up to $10bn and double the country’s current account deficit.
With some prescience Mmusi Maimane, the leader of the Democratic Alliance (DA) opposition party, called in parliament for a motion of no confidence in the president a few days before Zuma launched his bombshell. To everyone’s surprise, Zuma acceded and a date was set for 18 April, meaning that parliament would have to be recalled from recess for that one obligation. There was another catch. Zuma insisted that the ballot be open, rejecting the opposition’s demand for a secret vote. A smaller opposition party, Cope, took the matter to the Constitutional Court, meaning the matter would only be decided in due course and only then can the no confidence vote go ahead.
So how will South Africa’s own version of Game of Thrones play out? Until the issue is decided and all the pieces fall into place, the giant of Africa will continue to wobble. The pious hope is that it will not topple over.