Press "Enter" to skip to content

While the ANC factions manoeuvre, SA drifts in limbo

A national crisis is always best resolved quickly. Investors and voters both react negatively to political paralysis and institutional dysfunction.

And since protracted uncertainty begets instability, it’s mostly better to find a quick patch and keep the momentum going than it is to embark on an agonising and usually elusive search for the “best” solution.

At the moment South Africa is in suspended animation, in thrall to internal ANC processes around whether it is going to dump the president of both party and the nation. That this is the second time this has happened in less than a decade – and that both dramas involve one Jacob Gedleyihlekisa Zuma – should be evidence enough that its going to be a messy, damaging business, however the ANC chooses to handle it.

In 2008 the heartbeat of the nation slowed while the ANC and its partners connived and manoeuvred to slough off the presidency of Thabo Mbeki, at the instigation of his disgraced and fired deputy, Zuma. The actual business of governing the country for which the ANC was elected virtually ground to halt during this process of “recalling” Mbeki and then cleansing government of his appointees, and replacing them with Zuma acolytes.

And here we are, barely eight years later, with Zuma clothed in presidential robes – albeit that they are somewhat threadbare following a damning Constitutional Court judgment and a litany of claims that his benefactors usurped the right to appoint cabinet ministers – perhaps facing exactly the same fate as Mbeki. But SA simply cannot afford for this again to drag on for months, as investors take cover while the various factions of the ANC engage in debilitating trench warfare with one another.

Which is why those in the African National Congress who want the possible exit of Jacob Zuma from the presidency to be managed so that it causes minimum embarrassment before the August local government elections, might be making a serious mistake. Contrary to their hopes of giving the ANC space to spin a “good story” around a president besieged, it will just further aggravate voters who are already disillusioned with a fractious, incompetent and corrupt administration, as well as intolerably slowing the pulse of government.

A sign of this is the lacklustre turnout last weekend at the ANC’s manifesto launch in Port Elizabeth. Despite the ANC’s normally formidable organisational team bussing in supporters from all around the country – carefully vetted, it is alleged, to exclude those critical of Zuma – the president played to a half-empty stadium.

Only the ANC will know whether this is because of organisational snafus, as the party has claimed, or because of waning grassroots support for Zuma. If the latter, it makes strategic sense for the ANC’s long-term prospects to dump Zuma before the elections, giving Deputy President Cyril Ramaphosa some space to reinvigorate a tired and flagging brand until a post-election congress can decide on Zuma’s successor.

What makes strategic sense for the ANC does not of course necessarily make tactical sense for the vying factions. Zuma knows that if he can ride out the current outrage, both from within the party and from the broader public, the better his chances of limping through the second term or doing a quiet deal that will see him retire free of fears that corruption and fraud charges against him will be reinstated.

And for those within the ANC who seek to depose Zuma but possibly lack the ability to deliver the coup de grace, substantial opposition party gains in the local elections would perversely benefit their cause. The finger of blame will point squarely at Zuma, strengthening the hand of those who want him out.

It is an unfortunate reality that it is party not nation that drives these various political machinations. Since it is the apparent interests of the ANC alliance, not the actual interests of the SA, that will determine the survival or departure of Zuma, the rest of us can only stand anxiously on the sidelines and watch.

The dangers extend beyond investor reluctance and voter disillusionment. Government functionality is eroding by the day as ANC factions focus on the capture of power, giving dangerous demagogues like Julius Malema fertile ground to sow the seeds of racial hatred and divisiveness.

In the meanwhile SA drifts. A country once again in limbo, once again hoping for leadership and vision.

Follow WSM on Twitter @TheJaundicedEye


  • This Jaundiced Eye column appears in Weekend Argus, The Citizen, and Independent on Saturday. WSM is also a book reviewer for the Sunday Times and Business Day. Follow @TheJaundicedEye.


  1. michael michael 23 April 2016

    Africa has been drifting for thousands of years why will it change now, apathy is the hallmark of africa.

  2. Rory Short Rory Short 23 April 2016

    Too true William. In reality the factional fights within the ANC alliance are, in the bigger scheme of things, a side show. Our central issue as a nation is to pursue the realisation of a much bigger vision, South Africa, a home to all who live in it. The pursuit of this vision must continue no matter what the politicians are doing.

  3. pieter steenekamp pieter steenekamp 25 April 2016

    I guess there are always different paradigms to look at the world.

    What I agree with is that with what’s happening in the ANC the leading of the country is in limbo.

    Bot in the spirit of Leon Louw’s “when there is a real or perceived economic problem, one should not ask what government can do to solve the problem, one should ask what government must stop doing that caused the problem in the first place” I would argue that it’s good for South Africa with the government in limbo.

  4. Jaap Folmer Jaap Folmer 26 April 2016

    Drifting indeed. The question is how much that will alter the electoral map and in whose favor. The DA may think it will profit, but the gain may well go to Malema’s EFF instead.

  5. Jaap Folmer Jaap Folmer 26 April 2016

    Is this why Somalia is the most thriving nation on earth?

  6. pieter steenekamp pieter steenekamp 28 April 2016

    Good comment Jaap. I agree that if you take the “less government is better” to the extreme where you don’t have any government you get Somalia.
    But between the extremes of no government and a totalitarian state there exists an optimum “Goldilocks” points of neither too little nor too much government.
    I would argue that South Africa is far away from this point with way too much government. With the crisis in the ANC causing the government to be in limbo we are, temporarily at least, moving closer to the optimum Goldilocks point.

Leave a Reply