On Air Feature

SA at a Crossroads

Date: Apr 17, 2017

One road leads to a downwards spiral of Zimbabwe-style populism and nationalist chauvinism, preceded by a Brazil-style economic tailspin arising from rating agency downgrades writes Richard Calland

There is a ‘retro’ feel to South Africa at the moment. On the one hand, the county seems to be gripped by growing tensions as it approaches a political precipice – much like the mood in the years leading up to the 1994 election. On the other, there is an impressive mood of defiance and resistance to the excesses of the Zuma presidency. Opposition are united and a multi-sector campaign led by Save SA, has formed, which evokes the spirit of the United Democratic Front of the 1980s.

There is anxiety and hope in equal measure, as South Africa enters a seminal period in its history. In my most recent book – Make or Break – I argue that six big questions would be posed and answered in the three years between 2016 and 2019 and that the answers, would set the course for the next thirty years.

One of the six questions – will Pravin Gordhan survive and succeed? – has now been answered when President Zuma conducted his ‘night of the long knives’ – the announcement made close to midnight on 30 March with no press briefing or other public explanation for his cabinet reshuffle in which almost twenty ministers and deputy ministers were removed or shuffled sideways. None of the five axed cabinet ministers were spoken to by Zuma ahead of their firing – in a conduct that seemed to not be in line with democratic president, but reeked of Zuma’s increasingly authoritarian character and dictatorial demeanour.

The current period is dominated by the over-lapping battles to succeed Zuma as President of the ANC and to wrestle or maintain control over policy direction in government. Both the ANC and the cabinet are painfully divided. The ‘nationalist’ and ‘constitutionalist’ factions within the ruling party are at war, as two candidates – Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma and Cyril Ramaphosa – slug it out ahead of the ANC’s national elective conference in December.

Much will depend on how the ANC’s internal electoral process plays out. Until this power struggle, which will dominate the rest of 2017 is settled, there can be no real political or policy certainty. In turn, much depends on who controls the ANC policy-making process and machinery leading into the ANC policy conference in mid-year 2017.

Temperatures are running high. The language of politics is especially confusing as well as belligerent at the moment - hidden meanings must be deciphered to understand what is really going on, as the populist nationalists –attack “white monopoly capital” under the slogan “radical economic transformation” a strategy allegedly designed by PR company Bell Pottinger.

South Africa is at a crossroads. One road leads to a downward spiral of Zimbabwe-style populism and nationalist chauvinism, preceded by a Brazil-style economic tailspin arising from rating agencies downgrades that followed immediately after Gordhan’s removal from office amid understandable fears that the national treasury will be the latest victim of ‘state capture’.

In the short-term, the Constitutional Court faces a ‘hard case’ in every sense of the phrase – tricky legally, and with potentially profound political implications – when it rules on the United Democratic Movement’s application for an order requiring the national assembly to employ a secret ballot when the motion of no confidence in Zuma is voted on.

It is clear that such a ruling will be decisive either way: if the vote is secret, Zuma will fall; if not, he will survive to fight another day.

South Africans are resilient, and the country has pulled itself back from the abyss before.

So, I remain optimistic.

In the longer-term, South Africa’s democracy will become more resilient as well as competitive. The ANC may well not retain its majority at the next election in 2019; a realignment of South African politics is possible.

But given the rise of populist nationalism and its attendant dangers in South Africa, new thinking and bolder leadership is needed across all sectors, including business. Never has the need for strategic collaboration between business and labour been greater, otherwise the grave danger is that no substantial alternative narrative will be built to counter the exploitative sloganeering of the populists.

Richard Calland is a political commentator and Law professor at the University of Cape Town. Opinions, beliefs and viewpoints expressed in this article are that of the author and NOT of the SABC

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