The Zuma years: A testing time for optimism

William Saunderson-Meyer says it was a mistake to judge President's prospects by cack-handed way he governed post-2009


South Africans are intrinsically optimistic. It’s an appealing trait — how else to survive in a nation that historically has so often teetered at the edge of the abyss? — but one that means we’re also destined, intermittently, to be slapped in the face with a dash of cold reality.

It was deceptively easy to shrug off the lacklustre, treading-water nature of President Jacob Zuma’s first term, starting in 2009. Nothing much appeared to happen, with Zuma seemingly spending his time jockeying to avoid a judicial accounting on the 783 charges of fraud and corruption that hung over his head.

With the benefit of hindsight, it was a mistake to judge Zuma’s prospects by the cack-handed nature of his governance. It was what was taking place behind the scenes that really mattered.

The revelations of the past weeks regarding the scale of self-enrichment of an African National Congress elite, make it clear, in retrospect, that a chillingly efficient process of state capture has occurred over the past eight years. It’s now no longer the occasional jiggling, corrupt skeleton in the cupboard that is exposed by the media to scrutiny, but an entire netherworld of skulls-and-bones, dragged out dancing in a conga line.

It was widely assumed not to be possible for this kind of thing to happen. SA would not be allowed slide into the kind of corrupt autocracy that flourishes in so many other developing states, especially on the African continent.

Militating against the dangers of populist expediency was the ANC itself, with its long tradition of relying on consensus rather than simple majorities to determine its actions and policies. Its partners, the SA Communist Party, the self-proclaimed brains of the alliance, and the Congress of SA Trade Unions, its urban brawn, were supposed to be further bulwarks.

On a wider, structural level, there were the carefully calibrated countervailing forces crafted into the Constitution. A constitution, we were repeatedly reminded, that is viewed by scholars as perhaps the finest in the world.

Sadly, the first line of fail-safe mechanisms, those of the ANC, flopped dismally.

To capture the country, Zuma first had to capture the party, to make himself immune to a palace coup. If he could do that, any attempts at resistance from the so-called “stalwarts and veterans” would be reduced to futile squeaks and trills.

And so, it came to pass. Zuma might have lacked the fluency to get his tongue around the figure of a “two-eleventy-million-seventy-nine” party membership. But he did have enough arithmetic to know that the majority of those members were in his pocket, making him, unlike his predecessor, safe from a grassroots revolt.

Through careful appointments and calculated culling, the leadership echelon was systematically weeded of his foes.

When, earlier this year, the ANC national executive committee (NEC) failed to demand Zuma’s resignation despite the heavy-hitters that lined up against him, it signalled that the president had on his side all the numbers that mattered.

Last weekend’s second NEC attempt at a coup was therefore doomed from the outset. As I’ve noted before in this column, one gets but a single chance at regicide.

The final line of defence that remains, then, is that of constitutional democracy itself. Both in its enshrined protections and in the right of the people to elect their representatives.

Over the past few years, opposition political parties and activist organisations have brought dozens of court applications against government. It’s paradoxically another indication of national optimism, in that it is a sign of public confidence that the judiciary, as yet, has not been captured.

Unfortunately, while such actions may bring relief at specific pressure points – setting aside a dodgy appointment, remedying a specific abuse – they will not rearrange the political landscape. The separation of powers between the legislative, executive, and judicial arms of government crimps the space for Constitutional Court intervention, especially in the face of an increasingly vociferously articulated impatience on the part of Zuma supporters with what they describe as “court interference” to thwart the will of the people.

Ultimately it is this “will of the people”, rather than legalistic manoeuvres, that will determine the shape of SA society.

It’s first manifestation, however, will be as “the will of the ANC”, when the party chooses its next president in December. For this is the person who will almost certainly become the next president of SA, if the ANC wins the 2019 general election.

In a party that is now so comprehensively controlled by Zuma, the hope that SA’s next president will be Cyril Ramaphosa, rather than Zuma-by-proxy, seems forlorn. After all, the aim of capture is to hold the high ground, so that no one can interrupt the flow of illegal largesse.

That leaves only one last hope of reversing state capture. It is that the electorate will punish the ANC in 2019 by denying it an absolute majority.

And, if that happens, it seems a wan hope that the ANC will move into coalition with the Democratic Alliance – which has shown it can and does govern with minimal corruption – rather tha withn the Economic Freedom Fighters, whose secret but biggest beef with the ANC is that it stands excluded from the gravy trough.

In all, enough to test the resolve of the most sanguine among us.

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