Most commentators and sections of business see December 2017 as a decisive moment for the country, insofar as someone other than Jacob Zuma is expected to become ANC president. This has led to ongoing analysis of the activities of all conceivable presidential contenders; their alleged missteps and what are seen as actions enhancing their candidacy. There is little politics in this, instead of a preoccupation with personalities.
There is a longing for change in South Africa. But we will get no closer to rebuilding our democratic life if plans are based on illusory options and solutions. Why is this narrow electoral focus a road to nowhere?
What will happen in December 2017?
As indicated previously, if Jacob Zuma fears that the ANC presidency will land in the hands of someone who will not safeguard his interests he may stand again as he is entitled to do under the ANC constitution (read: What's at stake in the ANC 'succession' race)
This sentiment is repeated in the Sunday Times lead article: “In other developments, there is growing suspicion that Zuma may want to stay as party leader, after he told the ANC top six two weeks ago that he was ‘the only one who can unify the ANC’” (https://www.timeslive.co.za/sunday-times/news/2017-09-09-dlamini-zuma-a-key-player-in-presidents-fightback-plan/). It is unclear whether the forces that oppose Zuma would be able to defeat him, should he seek re-election.
Most of those associated with Zuma operate with a short-term horizon. They want to get as much as they can out of their association with Zuma and may not want the uncertainty attached to a new president. There is little concern for the long-term interests of the country, the collapse of the currency and the economy, the capture of state departments and state-owned enterprises, from which some have benefited.
Like Zuma, those who support him cannot provide a rationale for their activities in political terms. Hence, the vacuous resort to “radical economic transformation” and combating “white monopoly capital” and similar phrases.
The “Polokwane moment”, while based on diffusion of a false representation of what Zuma stood for at least made the effort to provide a political justification for removing Thabo Mbeki and replacing him with Zuma, clothed as representing “the popular” (courtesy especially of the SACP and COSATU, who knew what they represented Zuma as being was untrue, actions whose effects will be with us long after Zuma goes).
This time round cynicism has become so triumphant that no effort is made to present a convincing picture. All efforts are bent towards salvaging the ill-gotten gains of the president and if possible to acquire more hence, the affiliation with ex-convicts Gayton McKenzie and Kenny Kunene, reported to have been referred to as the “new Guptas” by one ANC NEC member. If the Guptas are on the way out, it is characteristic of Zuma to quickly replace his benefactors without so much as a goodbye. Zuma has long demonstrated that he may be more comfortable with shady characters than with seasoned politicians. We should not assume that Zuma’s appetite is sated. It appears to have no limits and the same goes for many around him.
First choice for Zuma might be to be able to entrust the presidency to someone on whom he can rely, once he vacates the ANC and state presidency, someone who may be able to hold the prosecutors and courts at bay should there be a reinstatement of his 783 charges and initiation of new charges.
It may not be that difficult given the conduct of the police and prosecution up till now and the widespread perception that senior figures have been “captured”. The courts cannot force the prosecution to prosecute effectively. The quality of the prosecution can be inadequate for the task – either intentionally or through ineptitude.
But it is safer for Zuma if he has in place an ANC president who is able to succeed him as state president and will bend every effort to stave off all attempts to make him account for the various crimes that he is alleged or known to have committed.
Zuma may wish to leave the ANC presidency if it can be placed in “safe hands” but thus far Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma does not seem to be winning confidence as a potential president. That is why she is being admitted to Parliament and possibly made a cabinet minister. How much difference that will make is unclear.
That does not mean that she or any other preferred successor cannot become ANC president, either through manipulation of delegations and other accreditation processes or through rigging the vote. That such irregularities are now becoming standard practice is evident from repeated rescheduling of elections in eThekwini in KZN last year and in the Oliver Tambo Region of the Eastern Cape this year. Many electoral contests - at various levels - have led to court cases aimed at setting aside elections.
What we can conclude is that however weak the Dlamini-Zuma claim to the presidency of the ANC may seem, she or some other preferred candidate may still be elected by one or other means, fair or foul.
Sections of business, apparently much of the media and many ANC stalwarts appear to be throwing their weight and hopes behind Cyril Ramaphosa as the future ANC and state President. That he is regarded as a strong contender is evident by the efforts to tarnish his image through the e-mails that appeared in the Sunday Independent, now edited by Steve Motale, which sought to depict Ramaphosa as a serial womaniser. Motale is a close friend of Kenny Kunene and Gayton McKenzie and it is claimed - by the Sunday Times - that they made the e-mails on Ramaphosa’s private life happen.
If this is true, it illustrates that Zuma will not hand over to Ramaphosa without a fight. Even without a fight, we need to ask how Ramaphosa plans to win over delegates who have now been inducted into a new ANC, the ANC where branches are bought and delegates are paid for their support. Is Ramaphosa prepared to win the election by buying support? Has he already done so or is he prepared to lose the election because he will not play ball?
What happens if Cyril Ramaphosa or some anti-Zuma person becomes ANC president? What will happen to the ANC?
Indications are already there that the ANC may well split after December. Longstanding members have found themselves in conflict with the leadership over what they believe is a betrayal of what they see the ANC having been historically. Whichever candidate wins is going to leave a substantial section of the organisation unhappy with the result. Because the material possessions or aspirations to wealth of many are linked with whoever becomes president there is a lot at stake in victory or defeat. For most, it has nothing to do with political ideas or programmes.
Reconciling to Ramaphosa becoming president means initially at least a threat to their well-being and the possibility of prosecution of some or many people.
If there is a split in December it will be without historical precedent for the ANC because it will be the first rupture without any ideological basis and related to patronage, corruption and other acts of criminality.
But because these questions of material well-being are so closely tied to Zuma it will be hard for the organisation to remain cohesive or even to exist after December.
The Ramaphosa camp is depicted as coming down hard on graft. There was very little of this firmness until recently. They served meekly under Zuma, endorsing even the Nkandla diversion of resources intended for the poor in order to enrich Zuma. They were silent as the social grants scandal unfolded. We do not know, consequently, how much of a threat they are in fact to the wealth of the Zumaites, though any meaningful attempt to set the country on a course which attracts investment will require some demonstration of will power to curb corruption.
What will Zuma do if Ramaphosa becomes ANC president?
Those who vest so much in the election of Cyril Ramaphosa in December - whatever qualities he may or may not have – appear to forget that Zuma will remain state president and that the consequences of that need to be factored into any hopes that may be cherished.
It is unlikely that Ramaphosa can secure a huge majority in the ANC NEC after the December conference if he is elected president. But if he were to secure a majority sufficient to recall Zuma as state president, what will Zuma do? Zuma is not Thabo Mbeki. With Zuma, we are not dealing with someone who abides by an organisational decision that does not suit him. Zuma may well choose to ignore the decision. What is more, he could use his power as state president to instead remove Ramaphosa as deputy state president and bring in Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma or whoever else would serve his interests in the presidency.
He could use the two years remaining in his term of office to send a clear message to Luthuli House and the NEC on “who is boss”, making it clear that he remains state president and will not take instructions from the NEC.
What of the 2019 elections and a challenge to the ANC from the DA and other opposition partners?
The August 2016 local government elections pointed to the electoral vulnerability of the ANC, that it might well receive less than 50 percent of the vote in 2019. This presented the DA and other opposition parties with an opportunity to build a force that could run key metros as well as prepare itself to challenge for national power in 2019.
Unfortunately, for the DA, it has not been able to hold this alliance together, with disastrous conflict erupting in Nelson Mandela Bay (NMB), accompanied by alleged irregularities in the removal of the deputy mayor, Mongameli Bobani (who is claimed to have been involved in corrupt activities). It has also sought to strengthen its hand by bringing the Patriotic Alliance (PA) into its coalition – without consultation with other alliance partners. In other words, the political entry of Gayton McKenzie’s party was initiated in coalition arrangements with the DA before any similar arrangements on the part of the ANC. It is now reported to be imminent in the ANC, with the elevation of a PA person to deputy minister.
The DA demonstrated in NMB, irrespective of the legitimacy of the charges it may level against Bobani, that it has not developed a desire for or adequate means of consultation with coalition partners and other opposition parties like the EFF whose support is needed. It now faces the possibility that it will lose motions of no confidence in a number of metros, initially in Johannesburg through the combined force of the EFF and ANC.
That this is not an idiosyncratic feature of the DA peculiar to Athol Trollip is evident in the DA’s failed motion for dissolution of parliament. Certainly, it is within the DA’s right to call for dissolution without consulting other opposition parties. But any party that wishes to build a coalition of forces to defeat the ANC needs to foreshadow that moment through building working relationships – even with very difficult partners. That negotiation of relationships is the essence of building unity. The DA clearly has not developed the required stamina.
So where to for those of us who are not involved in advancing presidential candidates?
At the onset of democracy in 1994, there were some who spoke of freedom always being an unfinished product, needing constant deepening and broadening in its scope. “Freedom is a constant struggle”, the African-American spiritual goes. It is not finally realised on any one day or with any one action. There have been impressive manifestations of popular restiveness in marches, meetings and a range of other protest activities against state capture and other forms of irregularity and criminality. Having people in the streets does not signify a continuing organised presence that can be a vehicle for popular empowerment or active citizenry. That still has to be created. It needs to be built and rebuilt afresh, in order to recover what has been eroded and damaged by its supposed custodians.
In order to contribute to this process, one does not have to be located in any specific place. We can make our contributions in places of worship, educational institutions – as teachers and students, in professions, in business, at work places, as the unemployed, as landless or people with property and in many other locations. We can do this as the rich and the poor. We all share a common interest in restoring constitutionalism and clean government, though there are many debates we need to engage in beyond that, in order to achieve more substantive equality. That climate for debate needs to be created through our own action. It is vital so that every voice is heard in order to revive our democratic life.
This column first appeared in Creamer Media's polity.org.za.
Raymond Suttner is a scholar and political analyst. He is a Part-time Professor attached to Rhodes University and an Emeritus Professor at UNISA. He served lengthy periods in prison and house arrest for underground and public anti-apartheid activities. His prison memoir "Inside Apartheid’s prison" has recently been reissued with a new introduction covering his more recent “life outside the ANC” by Jacana Media. He blogs at raymondsuttner.com and his twitter handle is @raymondsuttner