Beyond Zuma: Let’s do a Merkel and take the long view

At the weekend, German Chancellor Angela Merkel was in campaigning mode. As she swilled beer with locals in Munich, Merkel said pointedly, “The days when Europe could rely on others… to a large extent were over. This is what I have experienced in the last few days. Europe must really take our fate into our own hands.” Merkel was clearly referring to US President Donald Trump’s recent visit, his indecision on whether to stay in or out of the Paris climate accord and his ambivalence regarding Nato. Merkel was taking what strategists call “the long view”.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel is, in all likelihood, right. The United States, in Donald Trump, has an unreliable and unconventional transAtlantic partner and instead of pandering to his irascibility, Europe may be better served trying to be more self-reliant. This strategy would not be without implication as the US remains a superpower that cannot simply be ignored.

But, Merkel’s strategy might be wise and has some lessons at every level. Her argument is to start looking beyond Trump.

In South Africa, at this time we also need to move beyond the immediate and take the “long view”. We need to look beyond Zuma. The past two weeks have been consumed with Eskom CEO Brian Molefe’s reinstatement and the semantics of whether he resigned, took early retirement or indeed, more bizarrely, unpaid leave. As Minister of Public Enterprises Lynne Brown contorted her way through the parliamentary hearing, her former Cabinet colleague Pravin Gordhan took her on directly. At the centre of it all was “state capture” and whether the Guptas had in fact given any instructions to reinstate Molefe.

It’s becoming an easy part of our political parlance now – who is “captured” and have the Guptas been involved in political decision-making processes? At the weekend, further fuel was added to the fire by the release of a string of e-mails allegedly indicating that the Guptas have been pulling the strings behind the scenes all along on behalf of our compromised president. Gordhan and his former deputy, Mcebisi Jonas, have repeatedly called on us all to “connect the dots”. Well, after the public protector’s report on state capture released in late October 2016 and subsequent events implicating the Guptas, we are all pretty much done with connecting the dots.

We see it all in technicolour now. Mostly the ministers taking the inexplicable political and policy decisions seem to be firmly in Zuma/Gupta camp. Think Bathabile Dlamini and Lynne Brown. And after seeing the trail of leaked e-mails we see clearly why it is that Zuma did the unthinkable and appointed Malusi Gigaba as Finance minister.

A media frenzy took hold this weekend as the ANC NEC met and the former ANC policy tsar Joel Netshitenzhe brought a motion of no confidence in Zuma. All weekend we were told the “ANC was locked in negotiations”, that “Zuma was fighting for his political life” and that this was a “moment of reckoning”.

Predictably it turned out to be none of the above. Although Netshitenzhe and others were completely correct in taking a principled stand, it was always going to be an uphill battle and one the Zuma faction would win.

Our country is weighed down by the incomprehensible. How is it possible that Zuma survives yet another scandal? How can he simply be above the law and the Constitution? He certainly pays lip service to our founding document. In addition, for every victory we have “celebrated” in an attempt to bring Zuma down, he has survived.

The Nkandla matter was a case in point as was the public protector’s report on state capture. Zuma is taking Madonsela’s recommendation that the Chief Justice appoint a judge himself, on review. Quite obviously Zuma himself wants to appoint a rather less independent-minded judge. Again, we have connected those dots. Lynne Brown has also called for an investigation into the Molefe issue; presumably, one where she appoints the judge and the outcome is assured? This is, after all, how it all works.

Anyone who truly thought Zuma would be booted out this past weekend was doing a bit of daylight dreaming. This is still no country for a recall. The balance of forces within the ANC is simply not tipped against Zuma right now. It is not merely about removing Zuma, after all. He represents a corrupt project at the heart of the state that will be hard to dislodge. His supporters and those who rely on the patronage of Zuma’s associates have a lot to lose. It’s no coincidence that the leaked e-mails suggest that Zuma has been trying to plot an eventual escape to Dubai.

That’s how high the stakes are. South Africa’s Constitution does not provide for Presidential immunity. Zuma understands very well that with several charges of fraud and corruption hanging over his head, he may be a target for prosecution when he leaves office. This is why he is so keen to secure Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma or someone equally pliable as his successor.

So, Zuma will not fall before his term is out, no matter how much we learn of his misdeeds and how many dots we connect. The ANC, a former shell of itself, has neither the numbers nor the will to rid itself of the liability Zuma has become. An angry Zuma is said to have told the NEC meeting “don’t push me or else”. Or else what, we wonder? Does Zuma have so much dirt on his NEC colleagues that they dare not speak up?

It’s probably time to throw down that gauntlet and let him dish out the dirt. What more is there that can truly shock us, really? Zuma has held the country to ransom for far too long.

So, while the media, of necessity, has to focus on the immediate, we need to take a step back from the hype and take the long view of South African politics and look beyond Zuma. The ANC policy conference at the end of June will doubtless be a damp squib. The ANC has long since abandoned proper, thoughtful policy debates. Instead, we are treated to documents that are poorly edited and filled with empty rhetoric that will not deal with our country’s challenges. That policy conference will be more of a proxy leadership battle as the party “fights for its soul”, to use another cliché.

Those who seek to oppose Zuma at the ANC elective conference in December will need to think about their long game and beyond the immediate. The jury is out as to whether Ramaphosa and others who have thrown their hats into the ring can muster the numbers to defeat Zuma’s anointed successor. It is unclear whether they have the strategic insight to deal the Zuma faction a decisive blow.

But the larger question that looms is whether, in fact, the ANC is capable of being saved. Or will it split yet again? And if it does, what does that mean for South African electoral politics? Coalition government may well be in our near future. Are we prepared for that? Is the opposition prepared for that? It’s a messy proposition, to be sure.

These are the questions those who seek to employ the long view need to ask themselves because Zuma will not go quietly or quickly. When he does he will leave a country wrecked and institutions severely weakened.

The tragedy of Zuma’s strong man politics is that our government has lost all perspective and direction. The sole aim of the state now is to prop up a corrupt, compromised president and his cronies. The beholden ministers around Zuma will continue to do his bidding at the cost of the country’s political and economic stability.

South Africa needs to deal with the challenges of low growth, high unemployment and deep inequality, yet we are unable to have conversations of depth and complexity. The political project playing itself out is disinterested in the poor and finding solutions to our intractable socio-political challenges.

As citizens, we, too, need to look beyond the ANC and its internecine battles and look instead to galvanising ahead of the 2019 elections and strengthening our own forms of local and national activism. Taking the long view means we need to start thinking seriously about how we fix the mess when Zuma has departed the stage. Will we be able to summon the will? Or will we all succumb to the Zuma-ANC’s destructive course of a corrupt, failed state?

Ultimately only “we, the people” can connect the dots further and choose to dismantle the puzzle as it is currently constructed. That will take time and work beyond the immediate headline.

For if indeed we want to Save South Africa, like Merkel looking beyond Trump, we need to look beyond Zuma – and brace ourselves for a rough ride and doing the hard yards of building democratic solidarity across communities, sectors, race and class.

*This article was published in Daily Maverick. To view the article on their website click here.


Judith February is a consultant on governance matters and affiliated to the University of Cape Town’s Graduate School of Development Policy and Practice.  Prior to that she was Executive Director of the HSRC’s Democracy and Governance Unit and also Head of the Idasa’s South African Governance programme.  Judith has worked extensively on issues of good governance, transparency and accountability within the South African context.  She is a regular commentator in the media on politics in SA and in 2009 served on an ad hoc panel to evaluate the effectiveness of South Africa’s Parliament. She is a regular columnist for Media24 and also an occasional columnist for the Daily Maverick and other publications.  She is the co-editor of “Testing democracy: which way is South Africa going?” March 2010, Idasa. She was awarded a summer fellowship in 2009 at the Freeman Spogli Institute for Democracy Development and the rule of law at Stanford University, California and in 2012 was awarded a Spring Reagan-Fascell Fellowship at the National Endowment for Democracy in Washington DC.

To see Judith February's extensive list of publications on our website please click here.

Comments are closed.