“The President thus failed to uphold, defend and respect the Constitution as the supreme law of the land. This failure is manifest from the substantial disregard for the remedial action taken against him by the Public Protector in terms of her constitutional powers.”
“President Zuma was duty-bound to, but did not, assist and protect the public protector so as to ensure her independence, impartiality, dignity and effectiveness by complying with her remedial action.”
Chief Justice Mogoeng Mogoeng, Constitutional Court Judgement on Nkandla
The ANC is currently in a threefold crisis. It is wracked by corruption, internal conflict, fragmentation, a loss of political leadership and direction, and is stuck with an immovable, paranoid executive. It is also increasingly the target of large scale societal discontent and is in danger of losing significant territory to an urban ‘protest vote’. Lastly, it is characterised by duplicitous loyalty, self-preservation, and a dire lack of accountability and transparency, which manifests mainly through a tendency to put the processes of the ANC before that of government and the state, and to treat ethical and constitutional matters as though they are subordinate to the logic of the ANC.
Hell No We Won’t Go!
The recent constitutional court judgement, which declared that the president of South Africa – Jacob Zuma – and the entire national assembly of parliament, had violated the constitution, acted illegally, and failed to protect the “dignity” of the public protector, was an historical landmark judgement in democratic South African history. The drama of the constitutional court judgement reading, delivered by chief justice Mogoeng Mogoeng, eclipsed even the events of Polokwane, even though both were equally significant events in South African political history in their times.
There was no mistaking what the constitutional court found. It delivered a damning indictment upon the abilities of the president to make decisions that are constitutionally sound, and of his majority ANC-led government to operate within the ambit of the constitution, and uphold its key tenets. This was not a wrap on the knuckles; this was expulsion from school altogether. It was a vote of no confidence in both the president and his majority ANC led parliament. It was an event that should, under normal circumstances, in a healthy democracy, lead to substantive changes in the body politic and government of a country. In the normal course of democratic action, the right an honourable thing to do would be for the president to resign, and for the national assembly to dissolve parliament and hold elections.
And so, the “top six” leaders of the ANC – including the president – met soon after the constitutional court judgement to “discuss” the matter. Predictably, they expressed their full support for the president. Soon afterward, the National Working Committee of the ANC met at a plush hotel in Cape Town to hold further discussions, and emerged professing reinforced support for the president.
The facetious and misleading response of the ANC leadership has been that the constitutional court did not ask for the president to be removed nor did it specifically state that he violated his oath of office. However, this is a thinly veiled ruse; the constitutional court cannot ask for the recall of the president (due to separation of powers), only parliament can decide on that.
The constitutional court judgement states that, “This imposition of an obligation specifically on the President still raises the question: which obligation specifically imposed by the Constitution on the President has he violated? Put differently, how did he fail to uphold, defend and respect the supreme law of the Republic?” It can hence reasonably be concluded that the judgement that he did indeed fail to “uphold, defend and respect” the constitution directly implies that he did violate the constitution, and his oath of office.
At the same time, the South African Communist Party (SACP) strongly criticised the president, in contrast to the Council for South African Trade Unions (COSATU) which professed its support for the president “at all costs”. Both are key members of the ruling alliance, yet while the SACP has grown in strength in recent years, COSATU has split dramatically, with its eight largest unions having departed from it last year. The tripartite alliance has never been more fragmented and discordant in its history
Moreover, mixed messages are emerging from both the ranks of the ANC, as well as its veteran leaders. Kgalema Motlanthe, Ahmed Kathrada, Dennis Goldberg, Ronnie Kasrils, Sheryl Carolus, Trevor Manuel and Zwelinzima Vavi have all called for the president to step down. The South African Council of Churches and other religious leaders have joined forces with some of the abovementioned leaders to establish a united civil society front that intends to take mass action to call for the president’s resignation.
After senior Umkhonto we Sizwe top level generals called for the president to step down, the South African National Defence Union also chimed in. The Gauteng chapter of the ANC has rebelled, calling for the president to step down, while the Sefako Makgatho branch in the Greater Johannesburg region has called for the president to step down, or face internal ANC disciplinary procedures that apply to all members equally.
It is not just the constitutional court findings that have placed pressure on the president and his leadership. The president’s bizarre comments regarding geography, economics and the rights of women, coupled with the Nkandla, Nenegate, the nuclear deal and the numerous Gupta scandals – as well as the blind, illegal defence of the president by his administration – have rattled the faith of many ANC loyalists.
Zuma’s handling of these recent affairs are a strong indication that his decision-making – when it comes to the affairs of the state – is not well formulated, while his handling of ANC and government top structures indicates that his decisions are well calculated; a wily attempt to secure loyalty amongst his government and state organisation(s) networks, and thereby to exercise control over the state. However, this loyalty has come at a grave cost to the ANC and the country, and the pressure on parliament and the ruling party has mounted to crisis proportions. The ANC, is at its most defiant, however, and ironically, this defiance has clearly precipitated its decline.
In the theory of the big bang, there are speculations as to how the universe will come to an end. Will it end with a bang, as it came into existence (i.e. a “bang-bang” universe)? Or will it be a “bang-whimper” universe, where it slowly and incrementally fizzles out of existence, its decline barely noticeable except to an observant few? The same question could be posed of the current ANC leadership, as the manner of the ANC’s decline will have significant and dire consequences for the country as a whole.
Our democracy’s dependence on the ANC, in all spheres of government and the state, as well as in the homes and communities of the voting majority, cannot be underestimated. The ANC has also come to be a central marker in the identity of the post-Apartheid South African voter, whether one loves or loathes them. In this sense, they have become indispensable to how to understand ourselves as a nation, as a body politic and our historical narrative is intimately tied up with it. So it is not insignificant or irrelevant what the manner of the ANC’s decline is.
Should the ANC go out with a bang, splitting from within and losing its majority as a result of rapid fragmentation and collapse (i.e. the departure of the SACP, COSATU and senior leaders within the ANC), it will leave a massive vacuum where the majority voter could thoughtlessly place their vote. A natural, automatic home for many would suddenly be bereft of the power to effectively act as a voice for the majority. There are many potential consequences of this, not least of which is the potential for increased frustration, anger, marginalisation and resentment in the public sphere, leading to political instability. The balance of power, if suddenly lost, can easily turn into a scary scenario for the country as a whole, as the question of who fills that vacuum and captures the public imagination most effectively in that vacuum, becomes relevant. Should it prove to be an angry, populist voice, it may precipitate a quick decline into paralysis and recrimination.
Should the ANC limp on, weakening incrementally but steadily over time, slowly dissipating in terms of power and electoral majority, there is a strong likelihood that the “eat first” philosophy will intensify as the ANC’s patronage networks make hay while the sun still ‘shines’. Indeed, should Jacob Zuma see out the rest of his term, his now discredited leadership will likely make every effort to profit off his lame duck presidency before it expires. If he is then replaced by a similar leader, along with a similar leadership who effectively copy-cat the precedent that he and his leadership have set (as it has proven itself to be a model that works effectively to capture power within the ANC, government and the state), then a process of erosion that ultimately degrades and renders defunct all our critical institutions will likely result. And when the damage is done over a long period of time it may prove difficult to undo.
Societal Discontent and the Protest Vote
Either scenario hosts significant potential risks and hazards; this is critical to remember in the current political climate in South Africa. To add to the confusion from within the ANC and the political domain, societal discontent is at an all-time high in South Africa. The memory of the Marikana massacre refuses to slip away quietly into history and subordinate itself to the liberation-party narrative that the ANC’s rhetoric so desperately depends on. Economic growth has stalled, unemployment (especially amongst the youth) has skyrocketed, and inequality is amongst the highest in the world. The rising costs of goods and services is bound to hit already stretched South African households very hard.
Dissatisfaction, and discontent with crippling state corruption that runs all the way from the very top to the bottom of the ANC, and failure to ensure basic service provision, has resulted in an extremely high number, rate and intensity of community-based public protests. These are commonly termed “service delivery protests” but they encapsulate a much broader set of dissatisfactions with the ANC led government.
In the lives of ordinary, everyday South Africans, corruption, maladministration and exploitation and nepotism has become an unavoidable and stark reality. Just recently, protests against the ANC’s appointment of its own choice of councillor, above that of the community’s (in Katlehong) led to full scale riots, with youth engaged in full stone-throwing battle with the police (which was met of course with buckshot and rubber bullets).
The protests are an indication of the levels of dissatisfaction that exists within the voter base of the ANC. It is worth remembering that dissatisfaction naturally seeks expression; it is a disturbance within an individual, community or organisation of people that becomes amplified when it is bottled, as it resonates more when it is trapped and bursts out dramatically when it finds an outlet. The number of ‘service delivery’ protests have steadily and unflaggingly risen to scary heights under the Zuma administration. It is only a matter of time before the protests on the streets find their way into the voting booths.
The lack of believable accountability, sends the message that the aim of attaining power in South Africa is to rise above the law itself, instead of subordinating to it in service of the people and in the interests of safeguarding and strengthening the key institutions of society. The problem with the trajectory that the ANC-led government is on (i.e. for its own sustainability) is that it progressively renders ordinary people powerless in the face of their government. As they increasingly feel forced to exercise their voice through channels of protest, rather than the formal channels that are available to them (because they are seen to be futile avenues for political expression and action), the more likely ordinary voters will be to choose to make a protest vote at the ballot box.
A vote away from the ANC used to be viewed as an exercise in futility. However, the political landscape is changing rapidly. One indication of this, is the high percentage of votes that the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) garnered in its very first election (i.e. around 6 per cent). They, being an illegitimate child of the ANC themselves, are symbolic of the extent of frustration – especially of the youth – with the futility of engaging power and taking political action through ANC structures. Until the former ANC Youth League leadership constituted the EFF, and entered the political sphere, it was common to assert that political life “outside the ANC” was doomed to disappointment.
The EFF has since managed to capture the public imagination at large – for better or for worse – and have undoubtedly energised the political sphere in a manner that all other opposition parties, until now, have failed to do so. They took the president to the constitutional court and won, and they did so dramatically, with the eyes of the public resting squarely upon them as they agitated for change through open confrontation in parliament and broke the yoke of inter-generational hierarchy in society and the political spectrum. As they increasingly demonstrate that life outside the ANC has become viable and significant two consequences become more likely; (1) more may be tempted to leave the ANC fold, and seek their political fortunes elsewhere, and (2) voters may become more emboldened to exercise their protest vote.
The notion of a significant protest vote emerging at the ballot in the next local election thus seems plausible. This is more the case precisely because it is not a national election. By casting a vote away from the ANC in the upcoming local elections in August, those wishing to make their dissatisfaction clear to the ANC can do so without incurring national consequences. There is a strong likelihood that some of the major metropoles, such as Johannesburg and the Nelson Mandela Metropolitan Municipality may exercise this protest vote in significant and telling numbers.
And if they do at the upcoming local elections, perhaps then the president will find himself bereft of support, especially as his tenure as an outgoing president is effectively a lame duck one, and those seeking to secure their positions within the next administration would have to make their moves now in order to guarantee their political currency does not expire with his presidency.
After all, there is a new leadership on its way, and that is what many political actors within the ANC will be setting their sights on. If association with Zuma discounts them from the possibility of holding public office in future, they will ditch him as quickly as he ditches those that become expendable to him. Of that there should be little doubt by now; many in the ANC operate in an atmosphere of fear and denial, mouthing platitudes and routine statements of loyalty to stay within the fold of the ruling elite, and are ultra-cautious about being ‘stabbed in the back’ or having their skeletons exposed.
It is a game of high stakes and the survivalist instincts of many that were kicked into gear a long time ago. That is why it is so difficult to find anybody from within the ranks of the current ruling elite who are willing to speak out against clearly gross violations and abuses of power. They will be watching, waiting and calculating in an effort to guess which way the dice will fall, so that they can survive the end of the Zuma administration with their political careers intact. When the president makes decisions that provoke a backlash, they get the opportunity to exhibit their fierce loyalty to the ANC through him, making them perfect candidates for continued service should he eventually be replaced by a similar leader after the next national election.
Survival Tactics: Bluff and Bluster
This begs the question; what is required for survival within the troubled ranks of the ANC leadership these days? Their loyalty and defensive tactics are not complex. It involves toeing the party line, and raising the internal processes of the ANC up above all other processes; making the pretence that it is normal that these processes should take precedence over that of government and the state. A similar ruse was conducted when parliament attempted to supplant the findings of the public protector by conducting its own internal inquiry into the Nkandla matter, effectively leaving it in the hands of the ANC to pronounce judgement on its leader(s) and thereby itself.
Even though the constitutional court found that the president and the national assembly had violated the constitution and failed to protect the “dignity” of the public protector, the speaker of Parliament Baleka Mbete feigned confusion when asked whether the national assembly would apologise to the public protector. ‘Apologise for what?’ was the essence of her response. Her compatriot presiding officer, Thandi Modise (NCOP chairperson), denied that the constitution had been violated, stating instead that previous court judgements had given them the impression that the findings and recommendations of the public protector could be revised by parliament, and thanked the constitutional court for clearing the matter up.
The ANC and its leaders in government have treated the searing judgement of the constitutional court as a mere procedural, bureaucratic exercise. In truth the judgement was anything but a lenient or perfunctory one; it effectively found that the national assembly and the president had failed in their constitutional mandate, and had thereby engaged in the worst form of illegality that parliament can be accused of. This constant “rewriting” of judgements and findings, however, appears to have no end when they are hijacked by processes that the ANC have majority control and power over.
More troubling is that should the president and the ANC-dominated national assembly face no serious consequences for violating the constitution, future leaders will be emboldened and will treat the constitution lightly, making it more likely that the Nkandla affair will not be the last successful assault on the constitution but the first. Viewed in this light, it is not “state capture” that is most troubling for the future of South Africa, but rather the capture of the ANC itself.
President Jacob Zuma’s hold over the key leadership structures of the ANC is undoubtedly strong, and they are in large part loyal to his leadership (and indeed were selected to be so). He himself is not an authoritarian, but as a self-regulating system, the network of patronage around him wields authoritarian power over government and the state. It is because only with guaranteed loyalty, whether through fear or favour, can such power be so thoroughly omnipotent as to sabotage every attempt to hold him accountable.
The president therefore cannot be held to account through direct confrontation from within the ANC or inside parliament. The only direct confrontation that can stir the president into action is if mass public protest literally converges upon the doorsteps of power, as the #FeesMustFall student protesters demonstrated last year.
Effectively, the only option for Zuma’s removal that presents itself in the absence of a mass uprising or defeat at the polls, is to wait for the president to implode the power of his own standing and his office by himself, precisely by allowing him to make his own decisions, and to script his own responses. In the final analysis, it is more likely that it will be the very politics of survival that Zuma has so skilfully exhibited and entrenched within the fabric of the ruling elite in the ANC that will ultimately prove to be his undoing. For it is no doubt true, that morally bankrupt leaders are often undone by the moral bankruptcy of their partners in crime. The old adage that there is no honour amongst thieves, is an eternal truth that bears remembering in the times we live in.
The precedent that the ANC has set under the Zuma leadership, and what the impact of that will be in the long term, is perhaps of more concern than anything else; more of the same will destroy our democracy. After what people sacrificed for it, there shouldn’t even be a question about what is right and what is wrong. And the ANC, above all, should not need to be dragged kicking and screaming all the way to the constitutional court to know the difference. It is the one party in South Africa with unprecedented historical moral authority in the political sphere, and should be setting and upholding the standards of our body politic and our democracy.