By Raymond Suttner
South Africa is in the grip of multiple crises. It is not just the one brought on by the firing of Nhlanhla Nene in December, nor only the admission by Deputy Minister of Finance Mcebisi Jonas that the Gupta family offered him the post of Minister of Finance just before the financially disastrous removal of Nene. This and other cases of alleged Gupta intervention in matters of state are gradually becoming public knowledge. But that does not comprise the full gamut of the crises South Africa is experiencing
The Jacob Zuma era, the period since Zuma’s rise to the leadership of the ANC and government, has been marked by irregularities, breaches of the law and undermining of the Constitution. It may well be that Zuma’s rule is reaching a point of crisis, that the cost of keeping him in power has now come to be seen as greater than the benefits that some have derived from his incumbency. It may be that he will be removed within a relatively short period because of the level of resentment that the Gupta’s “state capture” has evoked. There is also the threat that these and other revelations around Zuma pose for the ANC in a year when it faces challenges to its rule in elections for various municipalities where its hegemony was previously unchallenged.
Removing Zuma does not necessarily remove the problems associated with him or the mode of rule over which he has presided. It should be remembered that those who may remove him have been deeply complicit in many or all of the known acts of dubious legality. Many may well be part, too, of patronage or corrupt networks connected with Zuma’s presidency.
What is clear, however, is that the various plans that the Premier League (allegedly comprising the premiers of North West, Mpumalanga and Free State provinces who all enjoy close ties to the Gupta family) sought to put in place to secure the succession to Zuma by a “woman president” (code for Nkosasana Dlamini-Zuma) may now be totally thwarted. This plan originally was of course tied to the hope that the successor to Zuma would ensure that he would not be prosecuted for his various alleged misdemeanours. It was thought his liberty was most likely to be safeguarded if Dlamini-Zuma were to become president. The plan has been thwarted because it was tied to the unassailable presidency of Zuma and the shared power that he and the Premier League derived from their relationship with the Guptas.
That does not mean that the succession of Cyril Ramaphosa to the presidency is a done deal. His level of support within the ANC is unclear and may be restricted to the Gauteng region. If the ANC decides that they must remove Zuma, it is almost certain that Ramaphosa would step in by virtue of being Deputy President. He would possibly serve in an acting or caretaker capacity, probably for both the ANC and the country.
There are many who have not supported Ramaphosa and who would not necessarily wish to see him firmly ensconced in the position. When Kgalema Motlanthe succeeded Thabo Mbeki, he was clearly understood to be there in order to keep the seat warm for Zuma until his corruption charges were removed. For Ramaphosa, however, being a caretaker or acting president could enable him to strengthen his position sufficiently to secure his election by the ANC elective conference in 2017. Even if there were constitutional reasons to swear Ramaphosa in as president now, some may view that as a temporary measure to be “remedied” after the ANC elections. Equally, Ramaphosa himself would want to ensure that what some may see as an interim tenure leads to two full terms as State President and two or more as leader of the ANC.
Ramaphosa as president does not in itself solve the country’s problems. Many attribute messianic qualities to him, seeing Ramaphosa as a person who will re-direct the state on a basis that immediately begins to remedy the ills of the Zuma period. Certainly, he has had some successes in business and he places greater weight on efficiency and good governance than Zuma. He will be unencumbered by Gupta-type relationships, which presumably run against “business sense”. But it is unclear how easy it would be to undo the various patronage-based or corrupt networks that are in place at every level of the ANC and government.
We know, now, that election battles within the ANC are no longer connected with ideology, notions of “National Democratic Revolution”, an interpretation of the Freedom Charter or the direction the country should take. That was made abundantly clear in the KwaZulu-Natal provincial elections and the eThekwini municipal elections, which were repeatedly re-run and whose legality is still questioned. Elections are now transactions where people offer their support for a candidate in exchange for the promise of one or other benefit – a contract or a position that will derive from when a candidate, as a result of the election comes to hold a position in government.
Ramaphosa may well be completely free of the taint of corruption, but he has been part of Zuma’s government and he has lost few opportunities to praise Zuma’s supposed leadership qualities. Not only has he condoned what has been done, whether in the illegal response to the Public Protector over Nkandla or countless other cases of irregularity, but he has endorsed the Zuma presidency in fulsome terms. Ramaphosa would not be an untainted president, should he become that, also because of his connection with Lonmin and his alleged part in the Marikana massacre.
Whoever succeeds Zuma on a temporary or permanent basis has to confront an ANC that is no longer a political organisation in the sense of being an organisation that generates ideas that it diffuses to the population. It is no longer an organisation that spreads the word of democratic constitutional rule - it is instead one of the key sources of irregularity and undermining of that democratic and constitutional rule.
That is why it is not able to engage in an inter-generational dialogue with the students who currently hold many institutions in a state of semi- ungovernability. In a time when such a dialogue is sorely needed, the organisation that was the prime force in securing liberation is no longer a trusted party that can advise on the basis of experience as well as an undoubted commitment to the good of the country as a whole.
Likewise, this government and the ANC cannot credibly lead any campaigning against racism. It has little standing in anti-racism debates because of its abuse of the discourse of racism and because it has been at such great pains to equate calls for Zuma’s fall with racism. In its quest to defend Zuma it has devalued that urgent and ongoing struggle.
The object of this article has not been to create a mood of depression or hopelessness. We must understand that we need more than a change of leader, that we need a change of politics. We need to move towards a process where every one of us plays a role in restoring clean government, but also in seeing our own hopes and concerns embraced in the way we are represented. We also need to find a way of ensuring that ordinary South Africans are not condemned to the role of spectators while the country is run down - or even in a time when it thrives. We fought not only to vote, but also to play an active role in our own lives.
That means that while we do not devalue elections, we see politics as going beyond that to build organisations that can embrace our hopes and interest in a range of spheres of South African lives. That happened in the 1980s.Now we need to look wider in fostering the growth of democratic organised life that covers students, workers, business people, sport and faith-based organisations, community organisations, those interested in saving our deeply threatened environment, gender and sexualities and many others.
Only when we build our own strength based on fidelity to a democratic vision can we secure our future against the recurrence of the abuse and undermining of the emancipatory promise that many still hold dear.
Raymond Suttner is a scholar and political analyst. Currently he is a professor attached to Rhodes University and UNISA and he has authored or co-authored Inside Apartheid’s Prison (2001), 30 Years of the Freedom Charter (1986) 50 Years of the Freedom Charter (2006), The ANC Underground (2008) and most recently Recovering Democracy in South Africa (Jacana and Lynne Rienner, 2015). He operated in the ANC underground and served lengthy periods as a political prisoner and under house arrest. He blogs at raymondsuttner.com and his twitter handle is @raymondsuttner