Book extract: Fate of the Nation – 3 Scenarios for South Africa’s Future

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Book extract: Fate of the Nation – 3 Scenarios for South Africa’s Future

Jakkie Cilliers

05 Dec 2017

8min min read
  • Governance and civil society

Ahead of the African National Congress's elective conference next week, this extract from Jakkie Cilliers' new book is a timely reminder of what's at stake for Jacob Zuma and the country.

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outh Africa is fast approaching a decisive political turning point. This will be determined by the outcome of the struggle for power between two main factions within the ANC, which I describe as the Traditionalists and the Reformers. This struggle will come to a head in December 2017, when the party elects its leadership during the ANC’s elective conference.

The rift within the ANC has led to policy confusion and even the development of a parallel security state while the actions of the Zuma administration – or lack of them – have compounded the impact of other developments, thus lowering growth, increasing poverty and threatening the fabric of society. South Africa is a laggard in a region that is expected to be among the most rapidly growing in the world, and it also lags behind its upper-middle-income peers globally.

When government is absent, distracted or incompetent, other agencies and actors move in to fill the void, and new political dynamics emerge. The 2019 elections will most likely see further reductions in electoral support for the ANC and gains for opposition parties, unless the party can pull a very large rabbit out of the hat.

Government is being ‘tested by mounting demands, but falls short in its response,’ said the Human Sciences Research Council in its 2016 State of the Nation report. A growing protest movement is calling for change across the areas of service provision, labour issues and unemployment, and university fees and staffing, and, most recently, for Zuma’s resignation.

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There is no doubt that Zuma has become a liability to the ANC as a result of his unashamed efforts at state capture, unethical behaviour, poor decision making and his proclivity to depend on the largesse of others – first in the form of businessman Schabir Shaik, and now the Gupta brothers, Ajay, Atul and Rajesh. Furthermore, his personal choices, inability to manage his personal finances and use of state resources for private gain, have sullied the reputation of the country, the Presidency and the ANC.

Beyond his role in helping to bring peace to KwaZulu-Natal, Zuma’s major political success ahead of his campaign to oust Thabo Mbeki was to convert that province into an ANC stronghold. He did this by doing a deal with traditional leaders over land, which swung most of them away from the Inkatha Freedom Party to the ANC ahead of the 2004 general election. ‘This,’ argues Nick Branson of the Africa Research Institute, ‘came at the cost of genuine land reform and entrenched rather than dismantled apartheid-era divisions over land rights and ownership.’ 

Beyond that double-edged achievement, the president maintains an indifference to economic policy, and a disdain for investor predictability and the need for policy stability. Indeed, his vernacular pronouncements to an exclusively ANC audience point to a lack of conviction in the constitutional democratic project, such as the statement that he could solve all of South Africa’s problems if made a dictator for six months. 

The rule of law, good governance and the effectiveness of systems have all suffered at the hands of Zuma. He clearly desires a very different type of society from the one reflected in the South African Constitution and Bill of Rights, preferring traditional ‘big man’ rule. Zuma acts like a traditional chief who is not bound by considerations of due process, the Bill of Rights or the constraints of an international economy that punishes countries that live beyond their means.

Accelerating a trend first evident under Mbeki, Zuma has undermined, or attempted to damage, the integrity and effectiveness of institutions such as the National Prosecuting Authority (NPA), the Constitutional Court, the Office of the Public Protector, the South African Revenue Service (SARS), the Treasury as well as the media. Under Zuma, all have been subjected to unprecedented levels of political interference as part of the ANC policy of cadre deployment. Recent revelations have revealed a much grander effort at state capture.

"The 2019 elections will most likely see further reductions in electoral support for the ANC and gains for opposition parties, unless the party can pull a very large rabbit out of the hat."

Today, the party faces serious challenges to its unity. Divisive tendencies, gatekeeping and manipulation of internal processes, exist at all levels of the ANC and its associated leagues, and within the Tripartite Alliance. Government is preoccupied with infighting and does not pay sufficient attention to citizens’ needs. But, in the words of well-known ANC analyst Susan Booysen, ‘despite the strong disappointment with the government and its leaders, South Africans retain their faith in the democratic system and do not transfer their discontent to the … ANC’.

Still, all of these issues sap energy from a party that finds itself continually embroiled in a public, private and legal rearguard action to clean up after the president. Despite the millions of rands of taxpayers’ money spent on the president’s lawyers, corruption charges continue to hang over Zuma like the sword of Damocles. ‘JZ is no longer Number One – he is the number one problem,’ said former ANC supporter and now head of the Save South Africa campaign, Sipho Pityana, days ahead of the 2017 state of the nation address.

For the ANC to go into the 2019 elections with Zuma at the helm would therefore be disastrous. While ANC members will choose a new president at the party’s national conference in December 2017, Zuma could technically stay on as president of the country until 2019. However, the longer he remains in power, the better the chances of other parties, such as the DA and EFF, faring well in the polls. [This outcome is analysed in the scenarios in Fate of the Nation.]

But the transition from Zuma to a new political regime will not be without its challenges. South Africa has a long history of turbulent and disruptive leadership transitions. Except for the Mandela–Mbeki handover, each change of leader has set the country on a particular trajectory and has had long-term implications.

Looking ahead, the events and decisions leading to the choice of a successor to the current president of the ANC in December will determine the country’s stability and growth prospects, as they will define the policy orientation and the coherence of the governing party.

Although not stated in the ANC’s constitution, there is general agreement that the ANC president should serve no more than two terms of office. Mbeki’s efforts to seek a third term as leader of the ANC was an important factor in the support that Zuma was able to muster against his predecessor – hence it would be difficult for Zuma to attempt the same.

"...the events and decisions leading to the choice of a successor to the current president of the ANC in December will determine the country’s stability and growth prospects, as they will define the policy orientation and the coherence of the governing party."

Speaking during a radio interview in January 2017, Zuma said, in any case, he would not accept nomination for a third term. By his own admission, it would also be difficult for him to remain as South Africa’s president beyond December 2017, when a new leader of the ANC has been elected, with the two existing in parallel, because, as Zuma said, ‘if that’s the case you are creating two centres of power that could in a sense compete’.

Still, legally, Zuma may stay on as president of the country until the next general elections in 2019.

The South African Constitution states that the president of the country may serve a maximum of two terms, but ‘when a person is elected to fill a vacancy in the office of the President, the period between that election and the next election of a President is not regarded as a term’.

The South African president is elected by majority vote in the National Assembly. That election can occur at any point when there is a vacancy and is therefore not bound by the schedule of national elections, which occur every five years. Since the ANC has more than 50 per cent of the 400 seats in Parliament, it determines who is president of the country.

Once a new president of the ANC has been elected I think it is unlikely that Zuma will survive for very long as president of South Africa. It is most likely that he will step down in December 2017 or be recalled in 2018.

It is possible that the ANC will lose its majority at some point in the future. But even if the ANC’s support were to drop below 50 per cent around the time of the next elections, the next president of the ANC is still likely to become the president of South Africa, as it is unlikely that opposition parties will be able to form a governing coalition.

The damage experienced by the party during the 2016 local government elections and the litany of embarrassments associated with him make it unlikely that Zuma would lead the ANC into the 2019 national elections, resulting in a concerted campaign around a Traditionalist successor.

Given the near-certainty that Jacob Zuma will face criminal charges at some point in the future, he has a clear personal interest in securing a suitable successor. In terms of Article 84(2)(j) of the Constitution, the president of South Africa has the right to pardon or reprieve offenders, but a presidential pardon does not give one the chance to avoid criminal prosecution. No president can offer anyone impunity from the law.

A future president could therefore only pardon Zuma after he has gone through a due legal process and has been found guilty.

So Zuma faces the real threat of several months of court hearings and a sentence before his chosen successor can even decide whether to pardon him or not. At first glance, the only way out of this mess is to ensure that the legal process itself is tainted or collapses. While he is in power, Zuma has considerable potential to influence events by, for example, appointing a suitably pliant head of the NPA, most recently Shaun Abrahams. Perhaps more likely is some type of legal finesse in which the former president pleads guilty to some of the minor charges and apologises for any misunderstandings, cites work pressure, and matters splutter to an undignified conclusion that keeps Zuma out of jail.

The balance of forces between the Reformers and the Traditionalists will be influenced by the swing voters, a successively larger group of voters who stay away from the polls either because they are disillusioned with the ANC and politics in general or with Zuma. The swing voters will have a significant influence on future results should they decide to cast their votes for the ANC, the EFF, the DA – or a new party that could emerge if there is another split in the ANC.

Two other considerations are important. The first is developments within COSATU, which is steadily losing coherence and influence. In April 2017, disaffected COSATU unions and others launched the South African Federation of Trade Unions, the country’s second-largest labour federation. COSATU’s loss of power – it was originally the largest organised member of the Tripartite Alliance – provides a future ANC leadership with significant policy space that Mandela, Mbeki and Zuma did not have.

In line with a global trend, the labour movement in South Africa is fracturing. It is no longer coherent or united, but COSATU has cleverly hedged its bets by coming out in support of Ramaphosa, who, in theory, is the only presidential candidate who could be in favour of greater labour-market flexibility and therefore might well clip the wings of organised labour. As president, Ramaphosa would therefore be in debt to labour and his ability to move ahead with labour market flexibility may already have been neutralised.

The second consideration is the extent to which – and the manner in which – young voters (the so-called born-frees) will participate in the next elections. Based on recent trends and on this segment’s current disaffection with the ANC leadership, the likelihood is a further decline in voter turnout. At the same time, however, none of the main opposition parties have yet been able to fully capitalise on this disgruntlement, and none are able to galvanise South Africans into voting for them in sufficiently large numbers – although things could well change.

Fate of the Nation – 3 Scenarios for South Africa’s Future, Jonathan Ball, 2017 is available on Amazon, Loot, Exclusive Books, Takealot and Raru