The following sequence of events may not make sense to most people, but it makes a lot of sense to those who run the ANC.
In August last year, following the disastrous outcome of the local government elections, the ANC cancelled its traditional victory party outside its Luthuli House headquarters.
Failure to win in three big metros and a reduced overall majority countrywide meant there was nothing to celebrate. Gone was the pre-election bravado of Asinavalo (we have no fear). Cancelling the bash was the most sensible thing to do.
Instead of being in a party mood, a sombre national executive committee decided after its post-mortem that it would engage in “serious, objective and robust introspection within the movement itself, starting with the leadership at all levels”.
Why it needed to introspect is a mystery because the answer was obvious to anyone who had gone beyond primary school. The answer was President Jacob Zuma and the harm that his innumerable scandals had caused the ANC.
Nevertheless, if a revolutionary movement wants to introspect, who are we to get in the way? Problem is that, instead of actually introspecting, the ANC gave its incurable delinquent more space to cause havoc in the party and the country. He did so with gay abandon. And to the dismay and disgust of the rest of society, the ANC seemed unable to do anything about him. Just like your regular delinquent, he has been breaking appliances and windows, stealing from the home and the neighbourhood, and being an embarrassment to the family.
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This past Tuesday, almost 12 months to the day the ANC took the sensible decision not to gumba, it partied up a storm in Cape Town. Looking at the scenes at the rally outside Parliament, you could have sworn that the ANC had just won an election, won back the metros and pushed their support well beyond 70%.
Why did the comrades feel this urge to party like it was the turn of a new millennium? Well, they had saved the skin of Zuma, the man who cost them dearly last year and continue to harm them. They were celebrating the fact that they had prolonged their own suffering and the pain of the nation. If that doesn’t make sense to you, it doesn’t matter. It makes sense to the ANC.
The great irony of this week is that those partying hard were the biggest losers of the day.
In the run-up to the vote, the ANC pulled out all the stops to ensure its MPs toed the line. Its head honchos stoically fought against the holding of the ballot in secret, fearing that they would lose control of their parliamentary caucus.
Bellicose warnings were sent to members about dire consequences should they dare break ranks. The ANC’s hotheads issued threats. The closer the day came, the more desperate the party leaders sounded.
On the day itself, the parliamentary caucus meeting was attended by the top six, with Zuma himself turning up to hear what was to be said about him. It was strong-arming at its best.
The other side also gave it its best effort, but the only weapon it had was moral suasion. All that opposition parties, civil society, the ANC’s own stalwarts and the clergy could do was appeal to the consciences of ANC parliamentarians.
Publicly and privately, this was clear: the ANC genuinely feared losing the vote, and the opposition and civil society fancied their chances of winning.
In the end, the winner was Zuma and the Gupta syndicate. The big losers were South Africa and the ANC.
Encouraging his blinkered supporters to celebrate with him, Zuma characterised his survival as a victory for the ANC.
“You demonstrated that the ANC is there‚ is powerful‚ is big‚ it’s difficult to defeat the ANC. You can try ... They always try. They don’t learn that you can’t touch the ANC even if you don’t love it. They can talk. They can analyse on TV 24 hours a day‚ they can never change the ANC,” said the man who in the past decade has changed the ANC from a party focused on development and progress to a party focused on defending his and his cronies’ corruption.
It may not be prepared to see and acknowledge it now, but the ANC will realise over the next few months why it should have grabbed the opportunity to reclaim power from the Guptas.
By prolonging Zuma’s stay in power, even if it is just until its December leadership conference, the ANC has ensured that the Gupta family consolidates its grip on power. Over the next few months, Zuma and the rest of the Gupta syndicate will engage in a final bout of looting and covering up of their misdeeds. We should expect several bombshell decisions from the highest office and Gupta-owned ministers which, just like the Cabinet reshuffles, will not have originated in legitimate centres of power.
It is a well-known fact that the energies of the president will be sucked up by the many court battles that he will be embroiled in. There are too many to detail here, but one thing that is certain is that there are going to be some exhausting months ahead, in which the narrative of a dirty president will play out in the houses of law.
One of the strongest arguments against recalling Zuma was that this would fuel the disunity that is ripping the ANC apart ahead of the December conference.
Secretary-general Gwede Mantashe made an impassioned appeal to MPs not to back the motion because the ANC would not be able to agree on a candidate to replace Zuma, a scenario that would force an early election. There is a concern in the ANC that, if an election were to be held now, the party would not be able to win an outright majority, thus enabling opposition parties to cobble together a national coalition government as they did in the local municipal sphere. A further argument is that, without the ANC as a governing pillar, South Africa would be plunged into instability.
This too does not hold water. The factions are already deeply entrenched and the hatred so deep that governance is being paralysed at various layers of state. Within the party, the centre is not holding, with Luthuli House simply serving as postal address and a convenient meeting venue for the top brass.
The longer Zuma is in power, the more intense street protests against him will become. We may not quite get to the point of Venezuela, but they will be quite disruptive and – given some of the elements that infiltrate legitimate protests – could degenerate into ugliness. Just look at the service delivery uprisings, labour strikes and university protests.
And the longer the culture of street protests lasts, the more normalised it becomes and the harder it will be to deal with issues through formal channels.
Through its defence of Zuma over the years – and most spectacularly this week – the ANC has made its brand a Zuma brand.
The party needed, and still needs, a visible disassociation from Zuma’s soiled image.
This week was the opportunity and the ANC failed. This will be remembered by the electorate in by-elections and the big one in 2019.
What Zuma has successfully done is to erode the legitimacy of the state and present it as a centre of rot. Again, there was an opportunity this week to send a message that the rotten image of the Zuma-Gupta axis is one that the governing party is uncomfortable with.
Those who argued for a stay of execution believe the nation should be patient as Zuma will be forced to exit state office after December, 18 months ahead of time.
Will Zuma agree to step down as the country’s president when his ANC presidency ends in December?