Thinking about our New Politics (I): Malema's game

RW Johnson on what the EFF leader is up to, and the ANC and Zanu-fication

The results of the local elections have created a new political situation and perhaps not surprisingly many people have still to get their heads around it. Some of the results are quite funny. Thus Imraan Buccus, writing in the Daily Maverick, is pleased that the ANC lost its majority but is distressed that “the parties of the right were the prime beneficiaries”.

This is, of course, Maverick-speak, a language of self-conscious “progressives” in which the DA (for example) is a right-wing party, although almost anywhere else in the world it would be regarded as a liberal centrist party.

Buccus wants to somehow magic into existence a new “progressive” alternative based on “the poor and the working class”, the “black trade unions” and so on. Nothing new here – it sounds like an old SACP leaflet.

This is, of course, pure fantasy. Indeed, parties which talk of themselves that way and which use the term “progressive” like that are precisely what is going down the drain. After all we’ve had nearly 28 years of a governing party that spoke such language and it has turned 3.5 million unemployed into 12.5 million – and counting. The black working class has never been worse off than it is now and confidence that “progressives” can or will do anything about that has never been lower.

The DA leaders seemed equally surprised to find that their mayors had been voted into power by the EFF, which suggested that they too didn’t understand the game they were in. As usual, the one person with a sharp, clear focus was Julius Malema.

Malema’s strategy

Malema wants to split the ANC, driving away its “reformist” (Ramaphosa) wing so that he can then ally himself (at a price) to the then dominant RET faction, allowing them to retain a majority. His price is likely to be a senior position for himself (probably Deputy President) and cabinet status for Floyd Shivambu and one or two others. Malema is well aware that the RET faction is extremely corrupt – indeed that is one of its major attractions, for he and his lieutenants certainly intend to take full advantage of the financial opportunities which go with cabinet status.

Malema realises that the 2016 local elections were a body blow for Zuma because he got the blame for the ANC’s huge loss of patronage positions in those elections. Accordingly, he wishes to maximise the ANC’s loss of such positions now in order to do the greatest possible damage to Ramaphosa. The best way of doing that is to vote the DA into power. For Malema the DA is just a handy battering ram.

The best way to think about the new politics is to add together the ANC vote (45.6%) and the DA vote (21.6%). This gives you 67.2%, so what’s left is 32.8%. Much of that is made up of rats and mice – little splinter or local or special interest parties.

The biggest single group is the EFF (10.3%). But the key point is that 32.8% is a very long way from a majority so if anyone wants to build an alternative to continuing ANC rule (and all the significant parties want to do that) then the only possible way is via an alliance (agreed or just de facto) with the DA. Malema had clearly worked that out well in advance but the DA leaders hadn’t, which is why they were surprised.

This is not to say that Malema has necessarily worked out a winning formula. In 1860 the election of Abraham Lincoln as President triggered Southern secession because of Lincoln’s known anti-slavery views.

Secessions usually need such a trigger event and the entry of Malema and Shivambu into powerful government positions could well be such a trigger event in South Africa as one province or another decides it really doesn’t want to be part of a country of which Malema might soon be the President. If party leaders haven’t already worked out what they would do in such a circumstance they are falling down on their job.

In other words Malema is a sharp strategist and tactician when it comes to the electoral battle but that is a very far cry from governing. As with most ANC politicians, Malema’s notions about governing are naive and ignorant and he doesn’t know what he doesn’t know. Moreover, even Malema’s elevation to the cabinet would doubtless trigger enormous capital flight and a large fall in the currency so any government he was part of might be short-lived.

The ANC and Zanu-fication

Meanwhile, what to make of the ANC? Unemployment is its greatest failure and each time the jobless figures get worse is another nail in the ANC’s coffin. Yet almost all the policies it is pushing – BEE, more Employment Equity, EWC, localization etc – will have the effect of killing more jobs. It’s as if the party is bent on suicide. But the same is true of Malema and the RET faction, indeed even more so.

The ANC now is virtually unrecognizable from the party of the 1990s, buoyed as it then was by moral certainty and by huge popular support. All that is gone. Instead the ANC looks increasingly like Zanu-PF – an exhausted liberation movement which still has the old songs and slogans but which mainly consists of the placemen and patronage players which it has scattered through the economy and society.

These are now almost the only people left who have a strong and clear interest in the party’s continuance. Elections are mainly a matter of these placemen bullying other people into believing that if they do not support the ANC/Zanu-PF they might lose their pensions, food parcels, social grants or whatever it is that stands between them and starvation.

Moreover, precisely because they are liberation movements the only authentic leaders are those who fought the liberation struggle. Indeed, when Grace Mugabe tried to take over the reins from her husband she was explicitly disallowed on the grounds that she had no record in the liberation struggle.

The result of this bias is that both movements depend on a small, shrinking and aged leadership. Mugabe was President until he was deposed at age 93 and Mnangagwa was already 75 when he succeeded him. He is 79 now. Ramaphosa is the last ANC President who can claim any role in the struggle and he will be over 70 when he runs for re-election next year.

It is unclear how either party will manage when it has no leaders left with struggle records. Even now Ramaphosa’s enemies try to discredit him by suggesting that he was a sell-out to the Security Police fifty years ago: that struggle record (or the lack of it) is still the critical thing. This is particularly a problem for moderates: radicals without struggle records (like Malema) can at least boast of being “revolutionaries”.

The obvious similarity between Zanu-PF and the ANC should not distract us from acknowledging two key differences. First, Zanu-PF had twenty years of one-party rule – it was only with the rise of the MDC in 1999-2000 that it faced a serious Opposition. This had a major influence: Zanu-PF has never really accepted the legitimacy of Opposition and has repeatedly rigged elections, used murder, torture, mass beatings and, indeed, just about every trick in the book to prevent the MDC from competing fairly. Zanu-PF leaders frequently make it clear that considerations of democracy simply don’t apply in Zimbabwe.

The ANC originally had many of the same instincts. It used violence to get rid of competition from other black parties but has had to accept that the IFP wouldn’t entirely go away. Meanwhile, it has now had nearly 28 years of living in a multi-party system. Single-party tendencies still exist but in practice the ANC has had to learn to live with Opposition.

This is important. Both in 2016 and again in 2021 the ANC has had to accept major election losses. Doubtless there are still many elements in the ANC who would not willingly give up power but overall there are large and important differences in behaviour compared to Zimbabwe. This is a very fundamental fact and one of the most hopeful elements in the South African situation.

Secondly, as Zanu-PF support thinned its dependence on the tactic of violently suppressing the MDC meant that it had to turn increasingly to the military. Indeed, Mugabe had turned to the military soon after independence in order to conduct the Gukurahundi in Matabeleland, thus smashing its rival, ZAPU.

Gradually the Zanu-PF regime leaned more and more heavily on the army and the army became the key arbiter in the state. In the end it was crucial in deposing Mugabe and installing Mnangagwa. Indeed, many describe the Zanu-PF government as a thinly disguised military regime. Thus far there is no sign of a similar development in South Africa. This too is a significant difference.

However, the key point of comparison is as noted above: the placemen and patronage players who, in both countries, dominate the party jobs, the provincial and national governments, the central committee, those who run the SOEs and the many Quangos, plus the powerful vested interests of the BEE sector who depend on their proximity to government.

As a bloc this is a very conservative force since what these cadres want above all is for present arrangements to continue together with the licit or illicit revenue streams that they produce. They are not interested in any policy which might disturb those arrangements.

This was strikingly true in Zimbabwe. After the 2008 elections a major attempt was made to “save” Zimbabwe. Britain, the EU, the US, the World Bank and the IMF were united in wanting to turn the situation around and were pretty much agnostic as to whether this meant dealing with Mugabe, Tsvangirai or someone else.

The basic idea was to go to the Zimbabwean regime, offering to renew its credit lines and to advance a substantial loan with which to re-float the economy. In return a certain number of reforms would be required including a return to free and fair elections. The tempting thought was offered that with a return to economic growth and the euphoria that would generate, whichever regime made such a deal would be quite likely to win in a free election.

Such a deal was obviously in the country’s overwhelming interest. It would re-start the economy, end Zimbabwe’s international isolation, restore the rule of law and get rid of targeted sanctions. Moreover, it was recognised that foreign donors needed expert local guidance and a powerful committee of local Zimbabweans was recruited to advise on how foreign help could best be directed.

I actually knew some of the committee members and was excited by the prospects. With such a powerful coalition behind this initiative it seemed obvious that it would take place and the long Zimbabwean nightmare would be ended.

But it didn’t happen – essentially because the Zanu-PF placemen didn’t like the sound of the word “reforms”, let alone “free and fair elections”. They were all making money as it was – a racket here, rent seeking there and a scam somewhere else - and were mainly determined that nothing should change or threaten these arrangements. The fact that the new plan would be a boon to the whole population was neither here nor there. Change would de-stabilise the status quo in which they were the top dogs and that made it unwelcome.

South Africa is in much the same situation. This is, indeed, the reason for President Ramaphosa’s personal dithering and indecision. He presides over exactly the same sort of placemen who don’t want change and since he wants to “keep the ANC united” this means he must respect all these vested interests. So while he talks reform, in practice he does nothing.

This also explains Ramaphosa’s endless devotion to working committees, task teams and the like – they work slowly and take all the vested interests into account. The only thing that all the placemen can normally agree on is doing nothing, so the country drifts.

The placemen cannot, however, stop the clocks. And not only is the country falling apart. So is the ANC.

The second article in this two part series can be read here.