On Wednesday this week, Brazil’s political landscape was overhauled, with the impeachment of President Rousseff. This brings to an end fourteen years of rule by her Workers Party, their punishment for mismanaging the economy and tolerating corruption. After months of stalemate, Brazil now has the opportunity to start moving forward again.
South Africa can learn from Brazil’s transition.
The ANC’s internal battle, which moved up a gear this week, strengthens the impetus for the realignment of politics that South Africa needs in order to move forward again. Because what appears to be a stalemate could in fact put Zuma into checkmate. The tipping point for a radical political realignment is closer than ever and Gordhan’s firing may just be the catalyst.
On the face of it the ANC, and therefore South Africa, has reached an impasse. There are good people in the ANC who want to put South Africa first – let’s call them Gordhan’s reformist faction. But they are in the minority and are thus being outvoted and outmaneuvered by those whose agenda is to plunder state coffers for personal gain and retain the ability to do so through patronage and populism – let’s call them Zuma’s patronage faction. (Or Zupta’s patronage faction, since the Guptas and Zuma are intricately connected at the centre of the patronage web.)
In the month since the ANC’s poor showing in the election on 3 August, Zuma’s patronage faction has moved quickly to boost its (and weaken the reformist faction’s) control of state-owned companies, the primary vehicles for state plunder, by making Zuma head of a new committee to oversee state-owned companies. Simultaneously, they have made moves to achieve unrestricted access to state coffers by attacking Gordhan in order to replace him, imminently, with one of their own.
We all need to be very clear about what is going on here. Zuma’s patronage faction has stepped up the tempo of its assault, for the dual purposes of stealing as much as possible now, in case the ANC ship goes down, and pushing evermore populist policies to shore up the ANC’s fast-eroding popular support, in order to continue stealing in the future.
Gordhan and his deputy, Jonas Mcebisi, have valiantly opposed Zuma’s attempts to loot state coffers via our state-owned companies: they have refused to grant SAA a guarantee so that it can borrow more money and they are blocking and red-flagging the Zupta attempts at plunderous contracts with Eskom and Denel.
These two factions are diametrically opposed ideologically, politically and morally. The obvious outcome would be for them to split into two separate entities. And yet they are both heavily reliant on one indivisible asset: the hitherto all-powerful ANC brand, without which either faction on its own would be in the political wilderness.
Hence the perceived stalemate. South Africa appears to be caught in a political deadlock giving rise to a stagnant economy and a bleak outlook.
Many South Africans see salvation in internal reform of the ANC. They hang their hope on a new ANC president, as if the Zuma patronage faction will use their majority to elect a reformist leader from the minority faction rather than a leader from their own faction who will keep them in riches and out of jail. Others hold faith that a significant section of the patronage faction, having spent years plundering state coffers, will suddenly get self-reflective and opt to eschew personal gain and put South Africa first.
No, salvation does not lie in internal reform of the ANC. Because the reformist faction is very definitely in the minority within the ANC. Salvation lies in a political realignment, because reformist forces are in the majority if you look at SA’s politics as a whole.
Gordhan’s reformist faction has infinitely more in common with the broad coalition formed this month by the DA, UDM, COPE, IFP, FF+ and ACDP. What binds them is ultimately their respect for the Constitution and its central tenets: the rule of law, a market-led economy, independent democratic institutions to provide checks on executive power, and private property rights.
Until now, the pull of the powerful ANC brand has outweighed the pull of principles shared with many outside the ANC, and so the Reformist faction has opted to stay in the ANC fold. But now three trends are gaining traction and strengthening the impetus for this faction to find a political home outside the ANC fold:
- The ANC brand itself is getting progressively weaker with every Zupta scandal.
- Zuma’s patronage faction within the ANC is getting progressively more hostile towards the reformist faction. This in turn is leading the reformist faction to be bolder and more vocal in its defense, with the result that the internal battle is increasingly playing out in the public spotlight, weakening any chance that Humpty Dumpty can be put back together again.
- The reformist forces external to the ANC (which have now officially formed a broad coalition) are getting progressively stronger, as evidenced in the electoral outcome this month.
The ANC’s internal impasse, coupled with the opposition coalition’s new political heft certainly positions SA for a political realignment. Gordhan’s reformers have never had more reason to jump, nor a softer landing.
As these trends develop further, what appears to be a stalemate, in fact becomes compelling motivation for the reformers to make the necessary move that would put Zuma’s patronage faction into checkmate: break ties with the ANC and join the side that has already begun to coalesce around a shared vision of a South Africa led by honest government that puts the people first.
The act of firing Gordhan may be the catalyst that finally produces this game-changing reaction for South Africa. We don’t yet know exactly when this will happen.
But one thing is clear: if South Africans are to get the good government we deserve, then the forces for good need to unite behind the Constitution and put South Africa first. And the sooner we do it, the sooner we can arrest our decline and start realising this country’s immense potential, for the benefit of all. Checkmate, Mr Zuma.