No holiday cheer for the ANC

William Saunderson-Meyer says it is an unhappy end of the year for our ruling party


Usually, by mid-December, the whole of South Africa has about it the air of the end-of-year school breakup. Traditionally, everything — everything — shuts down on the last working day before the 16 December public holiday.

It’s a gritted-teeth countdown to the bell that I remember vividly from my own years of juvenile educational incarceration. Syllabi had been completed. Exams were over. Schoolyard rivalries had been paused. 

Looming ahead are weeks of sunshine and freedom. Christmas prezzies! New Year celebrations! ___STEADY_PAYWALL___

In the last weeks of the last school term, everyone — the whole caboodle of teachers, kids, admin staff, cleaners and the tuck-shop lady — would have their ears cocked for the klaxon that signalled the holidays. (Parents admittedly had more mixed emotions.)

So, too, with our politics. Sure, there are always some languid finishing touches to be put to uncontroversial parliamentary business. Maybe, for Old Lang Syne’s sake, a parting dagger to be embedded in a rival’s departing back. But after a year of full-on trench warfare, the animus has waned. It’s a lackadaisical make-work-until-we-make-party atmosphere that prevails.

Not this year. There’s plenty afoot to keep President Cyril Ramaphosa and his henchmen preoccupied through the festive season break.

As more wheel nuts and steering bolts break loose on the ANC’s dilapidated skorokoro, downtime has become a luxury for the party hacks. They’ve got to keep their rickety gravy wagon rolling for another six months or so, at least past the 2024 general election, without incurring a serious accident. They can’t afford too much of a break, certainly not the four weeks that’s the norm.

And it’s not easy. Never mind the deepening economic and social mire into which the country has been cast by its wretched government. That decline, although inexorable, has been relatively gradual. South Africans are perforce resourceful and generally confident that they can “make a plan”.

A greater problem is the gathering cascade of new crises. These threaten to become a torrent that will overwhelm the government for, unlike ordinary South Africans, the ANC is not particularly resourceful.

At least one such crisis is existential for the party itself. As I wrote last week, the ANC is not only morally bankrupt but financially, too.

It owes a single creditor R102.4 million, which with interest compounding daily is now about R150 million, for work done prior to the 2019 general election. The Gauteng Sheriff’s tally of physical assets at the party’s national headquarters, in the execution of a payment-forthwith writ, totalled a meagre R200,000. 

To stave off foreclosure, the ANC secretary-general made a Hail Mary application to the Constitutional Court for intercession, on grounds that had already previously been unanimously dismissed by nine different judges in three different courts, including the Supreme Court of Appeal. Judicial relief is unlikely; only divine intervention can save the ANC on this one.

While the application buys the ANC some time, as the ConCourt leisurely makes its mind up on whether even to hear the appeal, the party leadership has been working feverishly behind the scenes. The ANC owes a lot of money in a lot of places. It’s desperate to forestall the deluge of other creditors that will emerge to try to scavenge some of the flesh that a liquidated ANC carcass would provide. 

At the same time, a delegation of ANC veterans — people who have largely withdrawn from party affairs and sometimes from party membership but remain inexplicably attached to its survival — along with Ramaphosa, approached the creditor and asked it to stay liquidation proceedings for a week. Or as one of Ezulwini Investment’s directors put it, “beseeched” the company for a pause, citing the “reputational damage” and “dire implications” that the matter had for the ANC.

The agreed deadline was Tuesday this week. In a statement on Tuesday afternoon, Ezulwini’s lawyer said that the parties had started “urgent, without prejudice” settlement negotiations. Shafique Sarlie said, in words calculated to apply pressure on the ANC, that Ezulwini trusted that these negotiations would be finalised soon, “regard being to the constraints imposed by the imminent annual shut-down and the festive holidays that are upon us”. 

Interestingly, it seems that the ANC might just be tight-fisted rather than empty-pocketed. Sarlie says that the R150 million owed by the ANC is “chump change” for the party. 

“We must remember that in their own forensic report, there’s the allegation that they spent in excess of R1.2 billion on the 2019 elections. Now, [with] inflation etcetera, one expects that they have in their war chest for the coming elections … more than that.”

While it seems then that ANC will escape financial bankruptcy, these are not great optics for a party that is gearing up for a crunch general election. Not only will any sensible potential service provider want to see any work paid for upfront but it may trigger some scrutiny of the Byzantine ways in which the party is funded and by whom.

One hopes that statutory oversight bodies and the NGOs supposedly monitoring party funding, like My Vote Counts*— currently most focused on exposing the international Zionist conspiracy to perpetrate genocide in Palestine — will be asking hard questions about the origin of the ANC’s apparently abundant war chest. 

Russia? China? The sale of Phala Phala wildlife to shady Sudanese billionaires living in the United Arab Emirates?

There are other pressures that detract from the festive spirit of the ANC faithful. Although it’s an altogether less pressing matter for our party-focused president, Parliament has shown itself to be unusually feisty in the closing days of the year. This week, in a break from the ANC-dominated oversight committees’ normal practice of rubber stamping ANC executive actions, the Public Enterprises portfolio committee put its minister, Pravin Gordhan, firmly in its sights.

Gordhan, for more than a year, has refused point-blank to allow Parliament sight of key documents relating to the sale of SA Airways to a private consortium chosen by Gordhan, for the princely sum of R51 and a promise that the government would settle the billions that the national carrier owed in debt. Amid allegations of corruption by the fired former director-general of the Department of Public Enterprises, the oversight body demanded, yet again, that he produce the share sale and purchase agreement, as well as the shortlist of companies that had been considered as potential partners in the deal to save SAA.

Gordhan laughably insists that the entire process has been “transparent” while simultaneously refusing them access to the documentation, even in camera, on grounds of contractual confidentiality. But Parliament, weary of what the ANC chair of the committee Khaya Magaxa describes as a protracted “bloodsucking” process of getting the arrogant Gordhan to comply, is flexing its muscles.

The parliamentarians have, for now, chosen the mildest of three potential courses of action. They have reported Gordhan’s intransigence of the Speaker for a ruling. If that fails, the committee can either issue summons for the documents or simply refuse to support the deal.

Given that the SAA deal was slated by the Auditor-General over irregularities and is under investigation by the Special Investigating Unit, that’s been a long time coming.

Unfortunately, little of this unseasonal belligerence has to do with good governance. The ruling party’s members are rather more worried about the personal ramifications of culpability, if they do not carry out their constitutionally mandated duties of oversight.  

Business Day quotes ANC MP Thokozile Malinga saying defensively, "People are looking at us as if we are lenient. They must know [from our report to the Speaker] that we have done our best. Another ANC MP, Sibusiso Gumede, said that by taking the matter to the Speaker, the committee had protected the integrity of its members: “We are exempted if ever there is anything interpreted to be corrupt.”

Maybe. Maybe not. We’ll have to wait for 2024 to see the MPs’ assertions tested. In the meantime, have a Merry Christmas and Happy New Year.

Follow WSM on X @TheJaundicedEye. The Jaundiced Eye column resumes on 13 January 2024.

* The column on My Vote Counts and NGO hijacking can be found here.