Embattled President Jacob Zuma waited until just before midnight to make his most unpopular decision ever in the history of democratic South African presidencies. This morning, the nation awoke to the news that the president had fired Finance Minister Pravin Gordhan and his deputy Mcebisi Jonas, the Minister of Tourism Derek Hanekom. These are the most important actions, as these individuals were central to the opposition to President Jacob Zuma’s presidency and will no longer be part of government.
The cabinet reshuffle also saw the ministers of Energy, Police and Public Works, Sports and Recreation, Communications, Home Affairs, and Public Service and Administration changed (some moved, some replaced), along with their deputies. Yet these do not constitute cause for concern. In all likelihood these changes have been made in order to convince the public that the cabinet reshuffle is just business as usual, since Zuma allies and supporters have also been reshuffled along with his key dissenters.
Perhaps most surprising of all, the Minister of Social Development (leader of the ANC Women’s League and staunch supporter of the President) was not fired, despite a constitutional court ruling against her regarding the failure to roll-out South Africa’s extensive social grant scheme, upon which more than fifty per cent of the poor rely for stable – even if small – incomes. In addition, Minister of Communications Faith Muthambi has been retained, despite the long running debacle that has unfolded during her watch at the national broadcaster, the South African Broadcasting Service (SABC).
South Africa’s currency – the Rand – is reeling from the impact, and the nation, which has narrowly avoided an international ratings downgrade to junk status for the past two years, is now likely to be downgraded. The national budget, as well as business, industry and finance, is bound to suffer the ill effects of these developments, as it is not immediately foreseeable that an end to the crisis is at hand. Were this just a temporary crisis, foreign investment might have actually increased, but there is plainly too much uncertainty to bet against in this case.
What is certain, is that the Russian nuclear deal – announced after a meeting between President Zuma and Vladimir Putin – is likely to be pushed through. Estimated at 1 Trillion Rands, it has faced concerted opposition both from the public and within government itself. The vast majority of energy researchers and experts see no need for the deal, and it is widely viewed as a patronage deal that will enrich Zuma’s supporters. While a lot has been made of the President’s close relationship with an Indian born business family – the Gupta’s – with whom the President’s son has very close business ties, little mention has been made of Russia and its role in the deal (the President’s close relationship with the Gupta family is derogatively referred to as “Zupta” by opposition politicians and the press).
The clear signal that the nuclear deal is priority number one in this reshuffle is the firing of Pravin Gordhan and his replacement by Zuma loyalist Malusi Gigaba, as well as the replacement of Energy Minister Tina Joematt-Petterson with one of Zuma’s most loyal followers Mmamoloko ‘Nkhensani’ Kubayi into the portfolio.
As the nation awakes to the news, many calls for public action have been made on social media, namely by the Save South Africa campaign, who are calling for people in Pretoria to converge upon Church Square outside the office of the Treasury, which is widely viewed as being under attack from the presidency for resisting the deal. There are bound to be other calls for action as well, emanating from political parties as well as civil society.
If the show of state security power at last year’s State of the Nation Address in Cape Town is anything to go by, it is likely that the government would have put the police and other arms of state security on stand-by to deal with any potential mass protests. They will be keen to quell them quickly and decisively before they can grow into anything significant.
Notwithstanding the mobilisation of security forces, the likelihood that South Africans will take concerted action is likely still minimal. South Africa is a divided society. It is divided along race and class lines, and the gaps between different groups are largely irreconcilable. Even if they do come together it is difficult to imagine that they can hold any kind of centre together for a long enough period to force the ANC to recall President Zuma. One scenario that may see this play out is if Parliament is suspended and the nation’s government grinds to a halt.
Given the long history of inaction of the South African public to President Jacob Zuma’s myriad scandals, debacles and self-induced crises, it is difficult to imagine that concerted and clear action will be taken now, when he is effectively an outgoing president who will exit the presidency in 2019. The reason for last night’s actions is simply because he wants to push through the nuclear deal before his party holds its party presidential elections at the end of this year. This year is hence the year to tie down all loose ends.
It is still possible that he may be re-elected president of the ANC, which is split into pro and anti-Zuma factions, possibly splitting the ANC for good from its tripartite partners (the Council for South African Trade Unions and the South African Communist Party), and it may be his intention to do so purely to avoid prosecution down the line for his misdeeds as president. President Jacob Zuma has over 700 charges of corruption pending against him, which the National Prosecuting Authority has been slow to act on. Should the ANC lose power down the line to an opposition-led coalition, it is possible that the long arm of the law may eventually reign him in and call him to account. But the opposition is polarised and ideologically at odds with each other; the only factor that binds them together is their opposition to Jacob Zuma. After 2019, without him in power, it may well be the case that their cause for unity is no more and their divisions take precedence over unity.
Both within the ANC, as well as in the ranks of the opposition, how they make their next moves, and what signals they sound out, will hence prove crucial to rescuing both the South African fiscus, as well as the government and the state, which has descended into a state of entrenched corruption under the leadership of President Jacob Zuma. Divisive and fragmented leadership will prevent any chance of unified action emerging from all sectors of society, and it will be left to those within the internal structures of the ANC to take action. So far, they have failed to budge the President and his followers and all attempts to remove him has resulted in them digging their heels in deeper.
Some commentators will say that South Africa is at a pivotal moment. The truth is that many ‘pivotal’ moments have come and gone, and no tangible gains have been made in the quest to rid the country of its compromised leadership. It should come as no surprise, as despite the many liberation tales that are told about the struggle against Apartheid, South Africans were notoriously slow to take action against the Apartheid government. We are in fact a nation that is easily cowered and slow to act.
With the unions in relative disarray, and civil society fragmented and piecemeal, it is difficult to envisage the levels of mass action that emerged during the 1980s taking root again. With the greater majority of society successfully individuated, having retreated into the private realm working day to day just to keep their household budgets afloat, the vagaries of power may not seem immediate enough to get South Africans out into the streets. Despite all the rhetoric of struggle, South Africans are not in reality predisposed to civil action, except at local levels, and over local issues. This is bound to grow as the working poor and working class are increasingly squeezed, and may eventually result in widespread mass action, but currently, it seems more likely that that will happen after President Zuma has vacated the presidency i.e. when the real impacts of recession, maladministration, corruption and the debt-inducing nuclear deal filters down to society. That is, it will be somebody else’s problem by then.
Moreover, the main opposition party – the Democratic Alliance – seems to be at ease with a strategy of allowing the ANC to unravel, so that it can capitalise on its failures at the 2019 national election polls. It has made symbolic gestures of protest, but has not as yet taken serious, concerted action within government to bring the crisis to a head. Simply put, it makes symbolic protests but sits on its hands when it comes to taking meaningful action. Its gamble is for power, hence its efforts are not focused on bringing about change in the short term, or stemming the wildly irresponsible actions of the ANC leadership. Its strategy appears to be focused on exposing the ANC, dogging it at every turn with criticism and rhetoric i.e. it is a strategy aimed at voters and not the government itself. In terms of political action none has emerged from the DA, it is merely chronicling the ANC’s failures to the nation.
The Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF), a political party that splintered from the ANC after the expulsion of the ANC Youth League leader Julius Malema, has been far more active in terms of taking real protest action, challenging the ANC in the courts, making some spectacular wins along the way (e.g. such as the Constitutional Court ruling that found that the president effectively violated his oath of office). Yet, with around 8 per cent of the vote they are merely kingmakers in the opposition ranks; their only hope of attaining power is by re-joining the ANC and putting it through a ‘reformation’ of sorts. Without the removal of President Zuma it is difficult to envisage this happening in the short term. They have gambled strongly on his removal as the victory that will pave the way for them to re-join the ANC ranks.
In the meantime, markets will tumble and fall, and the middle classes will be making plans to emigrate. Economic growth, already slowed to all but a halt, will likely retreat into recession in the short term. Ordinary South Africans will scramble to survive a worsening economy that offers little chance of growth and new employment. If the economic crisis spirals deeply enough, however, layoffs on a large scale may result, and foreign investors may pull out. If government grinds to a halt, and unemployment shocks resonate throughout society, it may provide the fuel to the anti-Zuma public fire to grow into a significant enough mass to remove him. But hope has proven to be misplaced amidst the fractured polis of South Africa.
Yet action is desperately needed in order to ensure safety and stability, so South Africans need to find ways to keep hope alive, despite the many and varied obstacles that lie across the path to unity. They need to act, as no amount of opposition politics or court actions can provide the impetus for political change (indeed, separation of powers ensures that the courts cannot take political actions). One cause for hope is that the fired ministers will now be able to mobilise from within the ANC National Executive Committee (on which they still sit as elected members), and will also be free to join with civil society groups such as Save South Africa to build and organise within society. The challenge is that it takes time, effort and finances to mobilise effectively, and simply joining hands in opposition to a single president is not enough to hold it together.
What is needed is to take the long view and build up a coherent force for social change that can bring pressure on government, not just for a moment of victory (i.e. getting rid of the president), but one that can sustain its momentum into the long term, holding each and every successive government to account at every turn. It is only that kind of mobilisation that will ensure that government, the state and the broader polis is effectively held to account and regulated by the electorate. The nation has been all but begging for concerted leadership for an unbearably long time, but for now, South Africans will likely have to just grin and bear it!