With so much uncertainty and anticipation ahead of the ANC’s National Conference in December, it’s difficult to imagine life in South Africa afterwards. Will it be business as usual or will it open a new era of governance with a basket of new policies? Or shall we all live in a basket case?
It should have come as no surprise that Sports Minister and ANC National Executive Committee (NEC) Member Fikile Mbalula made a hasty retreat from statements he was quoted on about President Jacob Zuma. The Star reported on Monday that Mbalula went on the offensive against Zuma, claiming he was a “politically bankrupt” leader who married “every week”.
The paper reported that he called “propaganda” reports that he agreed to switch camps and back Zuma, saying the president’s lobbyists were the ones pursuing him. According to the report, Mbalula rejected them because of the president’s poor leadership qualities and questionable private life.
“I have no time for Zuma. He has caused his own problems. He marries every week. He is building a mansion in Nkandla,” he reportedly said.
The statements drew a backlash from Zuma’s supporters in KwaZulu-Natal and the Eastern Cape, who demanded that Mbalula withdraw the comments or resign from Cabinet and the ANC NEC.
On Monday afternoon, Mbalula denied making the comments, calling The Star’s report “absolute nonsense”.
“At no stage of our conversation (with the journalist) did I refer to President Zuma as marrying every week in and out, and being politically bankrupt,” Mbalula said. “It is not in my nature to play the man and not the ball, because anything of this sort would amount to cheap politics and character assassination.”
As a member of Zuma’s Cabinet, who serves at the pleasure of the president, it would be odd for Mbalula to make such statements about his boss and think he could get away from it. In the poisoned pre-Mangaung atmosphere, many such damning sentiments are being expressed across camps and about all the ANC leaders involved in the succession battle.
Someone was bound to get caught, either through getting carried away in conversation with a journalist or overheard by someone who was not meant to be listening.
In the heat of the battle, much is being said and done to further factional interests and to discredit opposition camps. It is for that reason, in part, that the atmosphere is so polluted and the image the ANC attempts to hold up about leadership elections being a wholesome, democratic process is a façade. As in the case with the Polokwane conference, people become completely vested in the factional wars, with their futures and roles dependent on which camp emerges victorious.
The outcome of the Polokwane conference has raised the stakes even higher, with the 2008 breakaway of the Congress of the People (Cope) from the ANC serving as an example of the possible consequences of losing the battle for the presidency. While the outcome of elections at Mangaung might not necessarily lead to another split from the ruling party, there are likely to be some severe aftershocks in the ANC after the conference.
If Zuma remains ANC president, several of the people in the “forces for change” camp, which is waging a divisive battle hinged on whether he is worthy of remaining party and state president, might find it difficult to remain in his cabinet. Change advocates such as Mbalula, Tokyo Sexwale and Paul Mashatile would be seen as hypocritical if they stayed on as ministers, even should Zuma decide to make a grand gesture and keep them close.
The position of Deputy President Kgalema Motlanthe also would be precarious. If Motlanthe runs against Zuma and loses, he would still be the second in charge in the state but not in the party. While they are said to have a detached association now, relations between the two leaders might further deteriorate if they go head to head in a ballot.
Sharing office space in the Union Buildings might therefore become untenable.
While there is no formal correlation between the two positions, it has become convention since 1994 that the president and deputy president of the ANC serve in the same positions in government. However if Motlanthe loses his position as ANC deputy president, Zuma has the option to cut him loose and appoint someone on whose loyalty he can count. Motlanthe would then be “deployed” to the ANC headquarters at Luthuli House – the ANC’s answer to being put to pasture. (Just ask ANC National Chairwoman Baleka Mbete.)
Zuma would then prepare to head the ANC’s ticket in the 2014 national elections, which will be an uphill climb for the ruling party.
Opposition parties are likely to maximise on all of the ANC’s failings and weaknesses during Zuma’s first term and also aim to absorb ANC supporters disenchanted by the Mangaung outcome.
After Mangaung, several legal processes will be rotating around the presidency: the Farlam Commission into the Marikana massacre, the arms deal inquiry, the Democratic Alliance’s continued effort to acquire documents on the Zuma corruption case from the National Prosecuting Authority and the Public Protector investigation into state spending on the president’s rural homestead at Nkandla.
At the same time, South Africa’s economic pressures are expected to intensify with current negative investor perceptions and global ratings likely to decline further. JPMorgan Cazenove, the international financial services company, has predicted that unrest and sporadic strikes in South Africa’s mining industry could continue for another year.
The ANC and its alliance partners would also have to contend with the rise of the Socialist Democratic Movement on the back of the mining turbulence. As Cosatu and the National Union of Mineworkers continue to lose leverage among mineworkers, support for the new workers’ formation could gain momentum and see the ascent of a leftist political party to contest the 2014 elections.
With Cosatu already ringing the alarm bells at its recent National Congress about the “social distance” between union leadership and members, the Socialist Democratic Movement may take the opportunity to step into the breach.
Whether or not Zuma is elected as president, there is now growing consensus in the ANC and the alliance for the need for “radical” economic policy change, including strategic nationalisation of key sectors. If the Mangaung conference sanctions these changes, it will be up to the Zuma administration to determine how this would be implemented and over what time period. Depending on how this process is managed by government, it could result in further economic turbulence.
If Motlanthe is elected ANC president, the repercussions would be much more difficult to predict as there is no indication as to what his leadership style and policy focus would be like. His brief stint as state president after Thabo Mbeki’s recall is hardly an indicator as seven months in a holding pattern did not provide the latitude for Motlanthe to assert his leadership.
As Zuma has so far not been nominated for any other position in the ANC, if he loses the presidency, he will not serve as a member of the top six in the party. This will render him a lame duck state president (as Mbeki was after the Polokwane conference) with political power centred at the party headquarters.
Unless the ANC decides otherwise, Zuma and Motlanthe would continue to serve in their positions in the state. If there is a smooth transition, functions would progressively be handed over to Motlanthe as he prepares to take over as state president in 2014. If the relationship sours though, there could be a very unpleasant time ahead for government, with a possible repeat of Mbeki's ouster, this time with Zuma walking the plank.
Cabinet and policy changes under Motlanthe would be a guessing game for now. But he has said repeatedly that he did not want to be beholden to any factions in the party. It also remains to be seen how investors and the global economy would react to him.
The last time South Africa had its destiny riding on a single event was in its first democratic elections in 1994. While many predicted doom and catastrophe then, South Africa rode out the storm and emerged as a nation determined to succeed.
This time, South Africa’s destiny is in the hands of 4,500 ANC members with divergent interests, some of which are self-serving. As it did five years ago, South Africa will be forced to accept whomever the party chooses through a free-for-all battle culminating in an election with rules that can be chopped and changed according to the delegates' whims.
In a time when the country is facing its biggest economic and social tests, it will have one of two people thrust upon it: either a man who has demonstrated that he is truly unable to lead South Africa or another, whose abilities and vision to run government are pretty much unknown.
It is a gamble with enormous consequences but which most of the country has no control over.