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.
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