The new SA is taking shape

William Saunderson-Meyer questions whether an ANC-DA deal can stem the tide


The scale of the electoral drubbing that the African National Congress (ANC) took in last week’s election is enormous. Its effects will reverberate across the political landscape of the country and the region for weeks and months to come.

While the party has tried its best to put a brave face on it, there should be no doubt that behind the scenes it is reeling.  Almost six dozen ANC MPs — one in three of its MPs in the last Parliament — are now unemployed. So, too, at a provincial level, another few dozen of its MPLs.

It’s not only in these official positions that the pain will be felt. The bulk of the ANC, like an iceberg, is nine-tenths hidden from view, submerged in the murky waters of nepotism, cronyism, influence peddling, deal making and corruption. Entire familial and social networks of those who have lost parliamentary office will now be deprived of access to the wealth and status that their privilege previously guaranteed them. ___STEADY_PAYWALL___

That the scale of the carnage took the ANC’s leadership by surprise is shown by the rank of the casualties. These were not only foot soldiers.

Half a dozen senior Cabinet ministers, including close allies of President Cyril Ramaphosa, bit the dust. Those who didn’t make the cut are Police Minister Bheki Cele; Defence Minister Thandi Modise; Public Service and Administration Minister Noxolo Kiviet; Labour and Employment Minister Thulas Nxesi (who is also leader of the SA Communist Party); and Social Development Minister Lindiwe Zulu. International Relations Minister Naledi Pandor who, despite initially agreeing to be on the ANC’s list, later dithered about whether she wanted to retire or continue in the portfolio where she’s made a name for herself spearheading moves to isolate Israel, also failed to be re-elected.

That ANC leaders of such prominence were so far down on the lists that they failed to be re-elected is not just another instance of the party’s legendary organisational incompetence. It’s an indication of the endless tussle between those Ramaphosa wanted around him, and those whom the ANC party members wanted.

Similarly, the efficacy of the ANC’s Integrity Commission and Ramaphosa’s commitment to good governance can be discerned by the fact that many who were placed high enough to be safe from voter rejection, are figures implicated in corruption. They include former Finance Minister Malusi Gigaba; former Communications Minister Faith Muthambi; former Health Minister Zweli Mkhize; Deputy Minister of Human Settlements, Water and Sanitation David Mhlobo; Higher Education, Science and Technology Minister Blade Nzimande (who is also national chair of the SACP); and the Deputy President, Paul Mashatile.

There’s also Arts, Culture and Sports Minister Zizi Kodwa, whose delight last week at easily making it across the line in the 25th spot on the electoral list was tempered by being arrested this week for allegedly receiving R1.6 million in bribes. He was released on R30,000 bail and, uniquely for an ANC office-bearer, has since resigned his Cabinet portfolio, albeit not as MP.

Although it’s still unclear exactly what effect this electoral upheaval will have on the delicate balance of factional alliances within the ANC, it will undoubtedly be substantial. This is a moment of great threat but also great opportunity for Ramaphosa, as he tries to cobble together the least-worst governing arrangement with other parties, one which will allow the ANC to govern relatively unimpeded nationally, as well as salvage something from its poor 36% performance in Gauteng (2019 = 50%) and, less easily, from its execrable 18% (2019 = 55%) showing in KwaZulu-Natal. 

The preliminary shape of the new administration became apparent after the meeting on Thursday of the ANC’s National Executive Committee (NEC). After 12 hours of heated discussion, Ramaphosa eventually announced the party’s decision to invite other political parties to form a government of national unity (GNU), after NEC decided this was preferable to a minority government which would have depended for its survival on the co-operation of the Democratic Alliance (DA) on the one side of the political spectrum or the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) on the other.

The NEC decided that a unity government should be as inclusive as possible despite ideological and political differences. However, it would be based on respect for the Constitution and the supremacy of the law. “We will isolate those who want to cause chaos and instability,” Ramaphosa said. The partners in such a government would be expected to commit to the values of non-racialism, nation-building and social cohesion.

This GNU is by no means, the final word. As ANC Secretary-General Fikile Mbalula put it, “The GNU that we talk about might be different from 1994 ... the devil is in the details,” adding that the “proposals put here are not cast in stone”.

There are now many forces and interests at play and there are likely to be evolving iterations of the new government’s proposed structure over the next week and, indeed, over the next months, in what will be an innately unstable arrangement.

Nevertheless, this is Ramaphosa’s moment of destiny. It’s perhaps his final chance to convince his diminishing fan club that he’s more than smooth talk.

Much will depend on who gets what ministerial portfolio in such a GNU. The balance of power, after all, has to lie with one bloc or another.

If Ramaphosa dares to be bold and the deal favours the likes of the DA and Inkatha Freedom Party — an arrangement that has been heavily punted by the business sector and much of the commentariat — he faces the real possibility of a palace coup and the ignominy of recall. However, if he did so and succeeded it not only would consolidate his presidency and neutralise any remaining Zuma-supporting malcontents in his party, but it would set South Africa on a very different, more pragmatic, course.

There’s considerable resistance within the ANC to this option of “selling out” to the “historical enemy” or as, some have bluntly put it, “the whites”. It would also mean moving the ideological balancing point of the new administration towards the non-racial, social-democrat approach of the centre-right at a moment when the electorate has by a margin of two-to-one unambiguously endorsed racial atavism and confiscatory socialism.

A further factor mitigating against such a “rainbow” solution is Ramaphosa himself. First, as I’ve argued previously in this column, Ramaphosa’s commitment to social compacts with business is opportunistic. He is a quiet ideologue, evidence of which is his triumphalist “like it not” promotion of expropriation without compensation, stricter racial quotas in employment, deeper levels of cadre deployment, and the anti-private sector rigidities of the National Health Insurance Act.

Second, Ramaphosa until now has been pathologically risk averse and, as he has explained many times, viewed it as his primary mission as President of the Republic to avoid dividing the ANC. Of course, that’s water under the bridge and the split occurred despite his best efforts.

Whatever the initial shape of the GNU, there are many in the ANC, including possibly Ramaphosa but definitely the SACP and trade union allies Cosatu, who in the long run will be hoping to put Humpty Dumpty together again. They would hope to do this by eventually luring back permanently into the fold one or more of the prodigals — Jacob Zuma’s uMkhonto weSizwe (MK) and/or Julius Malema’s EFF. Ramaphosa will be painfully aware that by failing somehow to accommodate MK and the EFF he will not only be excluding them from the ANC’s all-you-can-eat buffet banquet — which will make them very, very angry —but it will also end any hope of reputational redemption within the ANC, forever marking him as the man who destroyed the 112-year-old party.

Any deal with MK is made difficult, but not impossible, by their demand that Ramaphosa should not be the president in any such link-up. The dice are still rolling and there are several combinations still in play, with Deputy President Mashatile, Mineral Resources and Energy Minister Gwede Mantashe and Cosatu appearing to back an arrangement that includes the EFF and, not now but ultimately, MK.

Those determined to keep the door open to MK are proceeding from the premise that the party is a flash-in-the-pan of petty resentments that will peter out. At worst, it will remain a one-man band and a deal can be done with its leader, Zuma. They believe that once the old man’s ego has been soothed, his criminal charges have been abandoned, and some financial spigots have been reopened, the Tortoise of Nkandla will calm down.

That’s a reasonable premise on their part. Zuma has always been more driven by greed and opportunism than by doctrine.  Radical Economic Transformation was always simply a convenient post hoc camouflage for thievery, never a coherent or deeply held political philosophy.

But the key issue is not the nuts and bolts of whatever rickety governing structure the ANC plumps for. While it’s important, that’s a distraction from the true import of last week’s vote — that neither the electorate nor the ANC leadership has any desire to substantially change the course the government has set South Africa on over the past 30 years.

That means the GNU, from the outset, will be facing the direction that two-thirds of the vote went — that of the ANC (40%), MK (15%) and EFF (10%). That is very different from the direction that the ill-fated Multi-Party Coalition of the DA (22%), IFP (4%) Freedom Front (1%) and ActionSA (1%). Very soon, the position of the DA, especially, will become untenable.

We are heading, seemingly irretrievably, towards a future South Africa that has been internally shaped in the forges of racial nationalism and socialist aspirations, and externally, by viscerally anti-Western sentiments.

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