The ruling party will be burdened with having to protect President Jacob Zuma for the next five years, says Allister Sparks.
Cape Town - Two years ago, as I looked ahead to the ANC’s national conference, I raised the question of whether the organisation could survive another seven years of Jacob Zuma’s leadership. Today there are serious elements in the ANC asking that same question – except that now it is whether they can survive five more years of him.
One opinion poll indicates 51 percent of ANC members would like Zuma to be dropped before the April election.
The problem is, it is already too late. To dump a sitting president three-and-a-half months before a general election is unthinkable. The anxious group’s great opportunity was at Mangaung, where they should have replaced Zuma with the much more suitable Kgalema Motlanthe.
But they fluffed it. They allowed Zuma to capture personal control of too many branches during his first term so that he was assured of a majority of delegates at Mangaung. Then they allowed the heady atmosphere of the centenary conference to overwhelm them. So now they are stuck with Zuma – and so is South Africa.
The problem for the ANC is not only that Zuma’s plummeting reputation is going to cost the ANC plenty of votes at the upcoming election: some opinion polls are already predicting it will sink below 60 percent into the marginal fifties. Just having this tainted man’s face on the ballot paper will be a serious liability for the ANC.
But what is worse is that the ruling party will be burdened with having to protect Zuma for the next five years. Its National Executive Committee members will have to keep on lying, denying, dissembling, obfuscating and scapegoating for all that time – and by then there will be nothing left of this once proud liberation movement.
It will have rotted into an immoral, corroded, unedifying mess.
The ANC’s problem is that the ordinary people of South Africa are no longer deceived. Such a general public awakening takes time; people are inherently decent and reluctant to believe that liberators they once admired are now cheating and stealing from them. Innocent until proved guilty becomes the default response as the allegations of greed and corruption multiply. Then suddenly there comes a tipping point. Just one unconvincing denial too many, one improbable excuse, one more commission of inquiry designed to filibuster the issue to death rather than expose the truth, and the penny drops.
Nkandla was the tipping point. Together with the Gupta airport affair. A left-right combination that sent all credibility reeling. The ordinary people woke up, all of them, all at once, and saw that the Zuma administration was indeed all that had been alleged. Had been from the very beginning; from the Arms Deal, through the interference with Scopa, the spy tapes, the dropped charges, the Schabir Shaik release, Nkandla, the misleading of Parliament, the Guptas, Marikana, everything. Suddenly the cover-ups peeled away like cellophane wrapping from all the scandals and ordinary people could see Jacob Zuma and his circle of protectors for who and what they are.
It was a general awakening that found its first public expression in that booing at Nelson Mandela’s memorial service. There was nothing organised about that, as the regime tried to contend. It was a spontaneous eruption of outrage and the important thing is that although only a few people were involved, thousands more have identified with it.
Ever since then I have found more and more people, just ordinary folk one encounters in everyday life, black as well as white, but black people especially, are prepared to voice their dismay at the greed, corruption and dishonesty they now see within the ANC. Like the bursting of a boil, the pus is pouring out.
What is so ironic about it is that the Mandela funeral was part of the tipping point. Most political observers, myself included, expected the death of our Founding Father to evoke an emotional resurgence of the glory days of the ANC which would play to Zuma’s political advantage. Instead it did the opposite. Somehow many people saw it as presenting the peak of our national pride and hopefulness in juxtaposition with the tacky present.
I have no doubt that was when Zuma’s opinion poll ratings really began to plunge.
So where will we go from here? There is no doubt the ANC will win the election, but probably with a significantly reduced majority. It may even fail to secure an outright majority in Gauteng, the country’s economic powerhouse and by far its most important province. That could put the ANC in an awkward position, having to choose between the DA and Julius Malema’s Economic Freedom Fighters to find a coalition partner to form a government. It would find either option galling.
But more important would be the repercussions within the ANC of a significant election setback. It is then I could picture Zuma heading for the chopping block, for I imagine a ripple of consternation would run through ANC ranks as members looked ahead to the 2016 local government elections.
Most observers understandably pay more attention to national than local government elections, yet for the politicians themselves the latter are more critical. This is because far more of them are involved, and they are far more vulnerable at the local level.
There are 264 ANC members in the present National Assembly, and 292 in the legislatures of the nine provinces. But there are 5 632 ANC councillors in the country’s 278 metro, district and local councils. The loss of jobs should there be an ANC setback would hit the latter hardest.
For example, a 7 percent setback – which is the figure one opinion poll indicates would be the difference between the ANC running with or without Zuma as leader – would mean the loss of 28 MPs. Whereas an equivalent setback in the local government elections would mean 590 ANC councillors losing their jobs.
Indeed the local government losses would probably be even greater after another two years of decline, and because the ANC would lose control of several councils and therefore the key executive jobs, perks and tenderpreneur opportunities that go with them. Moreover these town and district councillors are economically much more vulnerable than the MPs. A cabinet minister, premier or even a competent MP would stand a good chance of finding a job in the private sector. Not so a town councillor, not even the mayor of a town like Brits or Bothaville. For many it could mean dropping out of the middle class into the squatter camp. The impact on dependants would be severe.
That is the prospect that could foment a revolt within the ANC. For the truth, as any politician knows, is that when a big-tent party goes into decline, the disintegration can be rapid – as both the old United Party and the National Party showed. Politicians, like rats, are not disposed to join a sinking ship.
So the moral of the story is, when you first realise you have a corrupt leader, get rid of him and clean up – fast. If you delay and try to cover up, it will soon be too late.
* Allister Sparks is a veteran journalist and political commentator.
** The views expressed here are not necessarily those of Independent Newspapers.