Skeletons in the closet, loyalty to the party and South Africa’s political landscape
Before South Africans can cast their ballots in 2019, the leading party, the African National Congress (ANC), is to vote this December on who will take its reigns. It is a crucial time given the continued troubles of President Jacob Zuma and his allies in the party. From midnight cabinet reshuffles to opposition parties pushing for a secret ballot for a vote of no confidence in parliament, the political landscape is in flux. The Africa Report talks to Sisonke Msimang – a South African writer, activist and political commentator – about the country’s political trajectory.
TAR: What would you say has led us to the point at which we are today, where President Jacob Zuma seems to be largely acting unhindered and in his own interests rather than in the interests of the people of South Africa?
Sisonke Msimang: I think while it is tempting because of the persona of Jacob Zuma – certainly what we have seen of him, the kind of egregiousness of his recklessness, irresponsibility, the lack of accountability that we’ve seen in the last few years – it’s been tempting to lay the blame [on him]. But I think that would be unwise, mainly because we have to trace our kind of situation back, I would say, even to Nelson Mandela.
There were many ways in which Nelson Mandela was wonderful and was a unifier, and so forth. But he had the same weakness…
[From] quite early on, we saw a display amongst the senior leadership of the ANC of a willingness to indulge, entertain, forgive. So there would be incidents with Baleka Mbete, who is now speaker [of the national assembly], in which it was obvious that she had bribed officials to get her driver’s licence. That happened under Nelson Mandela’s watch, who came out swinging, defending her. And that was not a good sign coming from early on.
There were many ways in which Nelson Mandela was wonderful and was a unifier, and so forth. But he had the same weakness that many of the ANC leaders that we’ve seen [have had], and you know, that weakness has deepened. It is party first. There is a certain loyalty to the party. Ten to 15 years ago, you could understand where that came from. So if someone bribed people to get their driver’s licence – and yet, you know that they also smuggled guns and stood up to the apartheid regime – the memory of their larger feats makes the misdemeanor on the driver’s licence look like a minor issue. I can see how in the early days the ANC leadership might have looked at things like that and thought ‘Agh, come on. It’s not a big deal.’ But it’s created a culture which in part comes from the kind of liberation-struggle mentality which is that ‘We must defend people and be loyal to people of the party’.
A functioning democratic system requires a measure of trust, even when people are vehemently opposed to one another’s ideas. The notion of democracy is dependant on trust, isn’t it?
How is the constitution holding up?
The constitution is a robust one. I think it has stood us in good stead in very trying times. Unfortunately, we’ve turned to [it] to resolve questions of a political nature because of the failure of politics. A lot of the carrying on and the legal bickering has been a function of the lack of political leadership which shouldn’t have the country’s time and energy, the resources of taxpayers being constantly placed into court clarifying matters that could be resolved if there was better political leadership both in general but also within the ruling party. It does feel like a real shame when we have matters like the secret ballot issue being taken to court.
A functioning democratic system requires a measure of trust, even when people are vehemently opposed to one another’s ideas. The notion of democracy is dependant on trust, isn’t it? If there was more trust, the motion for a vote of no confidence done by secret ballot wouldn’t be necessary because either the speaker of the house would say: ‘Absolutely, we’ll do a secret ballot. That’s common sense, and that’s what we need to do,’ or she would say: ‘No we’re not going to do a secret ballot and these are my reasons,’ which would have been preceded by a whole range of other actions that would make that decision feel reasonable. She would have conducted herself in a manner that, over time, would have built trust. So we come to this moment because there has been a series of bad decisions and a complete breakdown of trust in that parliament.
There has been a lot of talk about the separation of powers and judicial overreach since the replacement of Pravin Gordhan as finance minister as well as the recent bid for a motion of no confidence by secret ballot through the Constitutional Court. In your opinion, who is overstepping their boundaries and how are they doing so?
It is absolutely [President Zuma’s] prerogative to change senior leadership positions within his cabinet. There is no question about that. But given the way in which he has exercised his authority, there are real questions about holding him accountable for those positions. I do think that there is a worry about judicial overreach in some of these cases because if common sense prevailed, then we wouldn’t have to have the judiciary interfering in things that are sensitive and delicate. A functioning democracy is dependant on the idea that people elect leaders and give them some measure of discretionary power about how they make certain decisions. So I think it is clear that the President has overreached, and it is also clear that the opposition parties and the South African public in general now find themselves in the situation where they want the judiciary to involve itself in places that are tricky.
…citizens should be worried when the politics of the country has reached this stage where the Constitutional Court has to intervene to question executive decisions…
As for the question of overreach, yes it is certainly the case that the President has – I think overreach is the wrong word – it is certainly the case that the President has abused his executive discretion. He has abused the fact that he has the prerogative to make decisions because he has done so without demonstrating any rational reasons for his actions. At the same time, citizens should be worried when the politics of the country has reached this stage where the Constitutional Court has to intervene to question executive decisions that in normal circumstances should be in the purview of the President. That’s the crux of the complexity of the situation we are sitting in.
Do you think the Constitutional Court is capable withstanding these trying times?
Yes, I think the Constitutional Court is capable of making some very smart, sensitive and delicate decisions. This court successively – not just this particular court, this group of judges – but I think over time we have seen that our court is pretty remarkable. I think that chief justice Mogoeng Mogoeng has proven himself to be very independent and fair minded when it comes to these issues. And they are fully aware of the political context in which they are operating. I don’t think they are going to rush to make a judgement that will have short-term implications that may override the long term. Their job is to safeguard the constitution and its principles and its place in society.
Jacob Zuma won’t necessarily be at play directly in politics post-2019, but he will still be a player – that’s for sure.
After the knock the ANC took in last year’s municipal elections, people are speaking about a widening divide within the ANC. Can you explain what this means for the ruling party and its future?
So I think there are two things that the ANC needs to decide, and unfortunately I think it’s going to go a short-term route which is not going to deal with the root of the problem. They either deal with the current crisis as a Zuma problem, in which there is the culture that has set in of a lack of accountability, intolerance of dissent, factionalism, corruption, [where] that culture continues but we remove the President and some of his key allies. And if your analysis is that the problem in the ANC has been Zuma and his cronies but the ANC itself is still fine, then that’s a good solution. But if your analysis is, as is mine, that the problem with the ANC goes down to the branch level and all the way to the top […] and that that needs to be addressed, then the short- term solution of getting rid of Zuma and his cronies and having Cyril Ramaphosa or Nkosazana-Dlamini Zuma or anyone else who seems to be vying for the position that doesn’t have the same reputation for corruption that Zuma has, I think we, as a country, are still going to be stuck with the problem.
…the support for Jacob Zuma is not contingent on the belief that he is a great guy but contingent upon patronage, some sort of financial interest.
A total revamp is needed […] So if you look at the National Executive Committee, it is stacked with Zuma supporters. And it’s important to remember that people who are supportive of Zuma seem, in the words of Bathabile Dlamini, to “have little skeletons in their closet”. [In other words] the support for Jacob Zuma is not contingent on the belief that he is a great guy but contingent upon patronage, some sort of financial interest. Therefore, the stakes are very high for people, and the ANC is stuck with a lot of those people. So once again if Zuma goes, it doesn’t mean that the interest that he serves and the people aligned with him have been serving will go away themselves.
So I don’t have any faith that the current leadership, anyone in the ANC whose name we are currently familiar with, has the moral authority or the political vision to revamp the ANC in the way that is required if the party is going to survive for the next ten years in power. I think the prognosis is very, very bad for the ANC, and I think it is happening much faster than anyone has predicted. [The elections in] 2019 will be a very big test, but I think the election after that – I don’t think those guys are going to survive it.
What significance does the reappointment of would-be minister of finance Brian Molefe to his old position of chief executive of Eskom have?
It’s obvious that Molefe’s reappointment has gone against what other senior leaders in the ANC think. It’s obvious that it’s embarrassing to the ANC and, for those who are going to remain in politics after 2019, it’s going to be the kind of thing for which the ANC will be punished. Jacob Zuma won’t necessarily be at play directly in politics post-2019, but he will still be a player – that’s for sure. So he [is trying] to consolidate his resource base and his patronage system so that he has the protection that doesn’t lead to him going to jail, and better yet, he doesn’t have to care about popular sentiment. This is a great example of a desperate man that is beginning to understand that [he has to get things] under control because he will continue to live beyond 2019, even if his immediate political career might be over.
…a complete takeover by him and his forces…
What is very clear is that Jacob Zuma needs his people on every single state-owned enterprise, and we’ve got to give it to the guy, he’s been incredibly consistent. So at South African Broadcasting Corporation (SABC), [there was] a complete takeover by him and his forces there, similarly with South African Airways (SAA) – a complete takeover by him and his forces […] Telkom has somehow managed to escape that in large parts because it’s partly privatised, so it’s a harder one to do. So if you look at those three, the biggest money spenders that the government has access to, and the extent to which those contracts have gone to friends – the extent to which those bodies have become virtually dysfunctional because of all this up and down. Eskom is the same thing… and its scale, the size of Eskom… it boggles the mind that… you know, they will never let Eskom be led by anyone who isn’t 100% under their control. Everything hinges on it.
Can you name some of the people who are aligned with Zuma’s faction within these structures?
In SAA, obviously it’s Dudu Myeni. Hlaudi Motsoeneng has been President Zuma’s man at the SABC. In terms of the board at Eskom, Ben Ngubane is clearly very closely aligned with both Brian Molefe and the President. I mean, the board of the SABC has recently been scrapped and there’s been a new board that has just been appointed. All of its members are now ostensibly reasonable human beings.
There are a couple of dark horses who may emerge.
The ANC is due to elect new leadership this December. How do you think this is going to pan out?
I think it is anyone’s guess. There are a couple of dark horses who may emerge. I think one of them is Lindiwe Sisulu. She’s very interesting and seems to be making some noises that sounds like she may emerge as someone who wants to be president. Similarly, I would be watching the space of Zwele Mkhize very closely. He’s the treasurer general of the ANC, and he’s generally well respected. He’s managed to stay out of the fray of a lot of things. He’s from KwaZulu-Natal, so that may work against him in terms of the kind of ways in which Jacob Zuma has become such an ethnic nationalist. The people in the ANC, more broadly, might want to [have someone who is not Zulu at the head] to make the point that the ANC isn’t a Zulu party. But Zwele Mkhize, I think, is a potential dark horse as well. In terms of what’s official and formal, it’s clear that it will be Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma and Cyril Ramaphosa as the front runners.
How is the Democratic Alliance (DA) holding up after the last municipal elections?
…running Cape Town isn’t something that gives them much credibility.
If you live in a large city that’s got a fairly well-functioning council, like Joburg, you don’t feel the immediate difference. So certainly from just a citizen’s perspective, it’s too early to tell. I also think that it will give the DA the kind of hands-on, real experience that it needs because the complaint about the DA is that it’s been running the Western Cape [and Cape Town], which is a largely white city in people’s minds. And therefore, running Cape Town isn’t something that gives them much credibility. Whereas with Joburg, it is a different scenario, and similarly with Tshwane. With both, we’ve got largely black cities, with mayors who are black who represent the new face of the DA. So if there is a line that you can draw, with the DA in the Western Cape representing the kind of old face of the DA and then with the new metros representing new face of the DA – I think it’s going to be an interesting space to watch.
What role is the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) playing at the moment?
We’re living in a time where […] people don’t trust political parties.
I think they have played their role very smart in terms of not getting into alliances, retaining their independence and voting whichever way they think is the best way to vote on an issue-by-issue basis, which I think nobody expected. But I also think that it was also very smart because we are living in a time where globally – and we see this evidenced in South Africa – where people don’t trust political parties. So the EFF knows that people don’t trust political parties and therefore has been very smart in playing the political game in a way that makes people believe in them, believe that they are different.