Those who protested nationwide yesterday (Friday) are justified in their antipathy — stridently emblazoned on placards — towards President Jacob Zuma for his unabashed ignorance, his unvarnished greed, and his undisguised indifference to the fate of the nation he heads.
But they ignore, at their peril, the defining aspect to his make-up — his consummate political skills. Until they acknowledge and match his canniness, they will be outflanked time after time.
Over the past week, a president widely assessed to be on the ropes not only came out fighting with the provocative firing, among others, of a highly regarded Finance minister and his deputy. He has also, it seems, triumphed against all odds.
Three of the top African National Congress office bearers — Deputy President Cyril Ramaphosa, Secretary General Gwede Mantashe, and Treasurer General Zweli Mkhize — broke ranks and criticised the reshuffle harshly. There was fevered speculation that emboldened ANC MPs would join the opposition parties in a parliamentary vote of no confidence in the president.
It briefly seemed that internal antipathies towards Zuma could coalesce, forcing Zuma’s resignation. But within days the dissenters had been forced to back down and meekly apologise.
Initial support from the Congress of SA Trade Unions and SA Communist Party for the #BlackFriday protests faltered and faded. A humbled Cosatu was soon issuing “clear and unambiguous” statements, warning its members not to participate in the marches.
The reality is that Zuma has effectively sidelined his internal foes and gutted the influence of the trade unions and communists upon government policy. He took his gamble at a fortuitous — or clever, his admirers will say — economic moment and, for now, has averted the predicted currency meltdown, despite this week’s ratings agency downgrade to junk status.
The evisceration of the Congress of SA Trade Unions and SA Communist Party alliance, that nominally equal tripartite arrangement, should please all South Africans. Their power, exercised most often to negative economic effect, has been disproportionate to their numbers, and while there are several prominent SACP members left in the cabinet, their ideological teeth have been drawn.
Blade Nzimande, at Higher Education and Training, is the designated bearer of the poisoned chalice of dealing with student militancy over fees. Rob Davies, at Trade and Industry, and Patel, at Economic Development, will run with Zuma’s “radical economic transformation” policy, even if the transformation has less to do with uplifting the masses than with enriching the crony capitalists that they claim to despise.
It’s against this backdrop, of Zuma crushing internal revolt, that Friday’s protest acquired an exaggerated significance. This was SA’s moment to echo the kind of mass mobilisations, involving hundreds of thousands gathering, that have been used successfully in South America and the former Soviet puppet states, to bring rogue governments to heel.
Zuma’s administration, of course, is not a rogue government but a democratically elected one with the support of over 60% of voters. The #SAUnites protests were never intended, contrary to the assertions of Cosatu, to force the ANC from power, but rather to articulate symbolically the dismay and anger of a sizeable chunk of the populace.
This is not the tipping point that many of the protestors naively might have thought it would be. But in that it is more than simply a gathering of the parliamentary political clans against Zuma, it is a significant moment.
One can be sceptical of the motivations behind the sudden enthusiasm of the middle classes, many of them whites, for radical protest. One might snigger at a stayaway in which most of the participants dutifully sought employer condonation for their absence, or took a day’s leave.
The Zuma-aligned ANC will be dismissive of the protests, but to point to the relative paucity of the turnout is to miss the point.
The power of the middle classes lies not in the numbers that they can put on the street. That is the power of the impoverished masses.
The power of the middle classes is more nuanced and less obvious. It lies in its power to take its labour, its assets and its investments elsewhere.
When an innately law abiding, tax paying section of society begins to feel that the only way that its interests can be safeguarded is by direct protest action, rather than by lobbying, voting or whingeing around the braai fires, it means that something is stirring.
Follow WSM on Twitter @TheJaundicedEye