Struggle stalwarts or paper tigers?

John Kane-Berman says saving South Africa will require the defeat of the ANC in the 2019 elections

How refreshing to see tens of thousands of protesters take to the streets without trashing hawkers' stalls, smashing shop windows, blockading roads, or setting fire to cars. Unfortunately, however, the outrage on display on Friday last week will dissipate in disappointment unless translated into a political plan focused on the general election due in 2019.  

First immediate objective must be to force President Jacob Zuma from office in next Monday's parliamentary no-confidence vote. The likelihood is that the vote will fail. This will demonstrate yet again that the problem South Africa faces is not Mr Zuma himself but the fact that the African National Congress (ANC) has once again sustained him in power.

For any strategy to have the chance of effectiveness, it must operate on the assumption that the ANC will keep on sustaining Mr Zuma in power unless the costs of doing so are steadily and systematically raised. So all those struggle "stalwarts" calling upon the rest of us to help "save South Africa" will have to start coming clean.

They all have the vote and they need to tell us how they plan to use it in the 2019 election. They need to disclose whether they will join all those who already vote against the ANC. They want everyone to help save South Africa. So they need to explain whether or not they themselves will continue to vote for a party that is more interested in saving Mr Zuma.     

If the stalwarts do not wield the franchise against the ANC, all their protestations, like those of Gwede Mantashe, Cyril Ramaphosa, and Pravin Gordhan, will turn out to be little more than "sound and fury signifying nothing". The same goes for the Congress of South African Trade Unions and the South African Communist Party, who also supposedly want to be shot of Mr Zuma.   

Sipho Pityana, convener of "save South Africa", claims that "co-ordinated, united public protest is the only way to stop further state capture and to defend our democracy." This is a delusion. To pretend it is the "only way" is to lead people up the garden path. It is also to duck the responsibility of engaging in the long struggle to mobilise votes against the ANC.  

If instead the stalwarts help to put the ANC back in office in the 2019 election they will themselves be accomplices to all the skulduggery in which Mr Zuma engages with the support of his party. They will have betrayed those whom they have been calling to join them in the streets.

Apart from publicly declaring their intention to put their own votes where their anguish is, Mr Pityana and all his fellow-stalwarts need to start calling for other ANC supporters to vote against their party in 2019. To start making these calls now is more likely to influence the behaviour of members of the ANC's national executive committee and other structures in forthcoming meetings than more demonstrations. Unlike members of the ANC's parliamentary party, who will be punished if they vote against Mr Zuma in the coming no-confidence vote, the stalwarts have nothing to lose.   

It is a drastic step for anyone to vote against the party which has defined their very being since long before it came to power. But Mr Zuma has shown that he will stop at nothing to entrench the absolute power he seeks. He will undermine every institution that gets in his way, including the Constitutional Court and the Constitution itself. His party has shown that it will do nothing to stop him. The "rolling mass action" sought by Mr Pityana will not stop him either.

There is no guarantee that the threat of further electoral losses will deter either Mr Zuma or his party. But the franchise is the only powerful democratic weapon available. It must be wielded not wasted.       

* John Kane-Berman is a policy fellow at the IRR, a think-tank that promotes political and economic freedom. His memoirs, Between Two Fires - Holding the Liberal Centre in South African Politics, have just been published.