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It was a nightmarish 12 months for a movement that continues to rationalise a culture of loyalty to its leaders, writes Susan Booysen.
The year 2013 in South African politics was the year of fathoming the Zuma puzzle. South Africans spent much of the year living the contradiction of a president who was firmly ensconced in power, yet was overseeing the lapse of his hold over the ANC as we have known it.
President Jacob Zuma’s own actions triggered damage to the body of the ANC. Yet he remained entrenched as the head of the ANC – an ANC that was set, come next year, to repeat an electoral victory of note.
Much depends on Zuma keeping his grip over an ever-smaller circle within the ANC’s national executive committee (NEC). This small group, thus far, is the powerful core circle of state actors in charge of careers, deployment and the apparatuses that oversee the spin on a century-plus of the ANC and two decades of democracy.
They decide how much clampdown there will be on criticism of the great leader; they rule on when internal policy contests betray the movement’s “revolutionary” cause.
At the end of this year we face the question: who draws the line and where, when it comes to the continuous tenure of number one? Is it going to be another five years of Zumaism, or are there voices, especially in the NEC, that are willing to decide on another trajectory?
Reports from inside the ANC suggest that there may be some in high places who are ready to stand up and speak out.
Should there be, it will amount to a massive redirection of the trends that demarcated this year. There is already evidence of pockets of resistance from outside the NEC.
In a nutshell, this was a year when South Africa veered from one presidential crisis-scandal to the next.
The events highlighted the adverse leadership similes. Holding together the ANC and the tripartite alliance was a feat of note, but not enough to let the president be seen as a sufficiently presidential leader.
The government continued delivering on transformative projects, but this contrasted with paralysis on emerging policy needs. Energies were focused on keeping the ANC together, rather than on more noticeably advancing clean government, job creation and equitable access to opportunities.
The ANC continued to bask in the afterglow of its centenary and started taking the bow for two decades of democracy. The ANC’s stature – both naturally derived and carefully cultivated – as a liberation movement contrasted with the deficits in its leadership’s demeanour and its performance in government.
This year had been envisaged as a year of consolidation and virtually auto-pilot preparations for the elections. The best-laid plans and strategies, however, failed to forestall deviations from the master plan. The plan had included that the Mangaung conference would consolidate Zuma’s predominance. The tripartite alliance would mobilise for a definitive run-up to next year. The Youth League Task Team would fill the void left by the emasculated ANC Youth League. But it turned out to be a nightmarish 12 months for a movement that has to continue rationalising its leader loyalty culture.
Celebrations and commemorations worked in that they elevated the ANC in citizens’ minds. Yet gaps opened between the popular perceptions of the ANC and its leadership, and between the ANC and ANC-in-government. South Africans showed that they want to hang on to their ANC; they often condemn “the leaders” or “the government” but go to great lengths to pardon “the ANC”.
The politics of this year revealed the popular view that the Zuma presidency has failed to bring more visible caring and closeness to the people, the ticket of Zuma’s anti-Mbeki rebellion. Rather, it brought the image of a president who is leading the creation of society’s “new inequality” – the gap that black-African South Africans now see between themselves and their own leaders. They resent it.
Gupta wedding tales and surreal explanations of Nkandla’s chicken pen security upgrades built on the base of the virtual collapse of the arms deal’s Seriti Commission. Troops sacrificed their lives for the protection of reported high-level personal investments in the Central African Republic.
The president, “leading by example”, is seen to have given South Africans the take-home message that pocket politics is the name of the ANC leader game.
The annual cabinet reshuffle triggered thoughts of the games the president plays: keep the loyalists tight and in the strategic portfolios, deny the existence of public question marks about continuous incumbents, redeploy and distract the competent ones.
Meanwhile, Zuma loyalists spent much of this year hatching factional succession plans, to take effect after Zuma’s completion of another five years of what we have had for the past five years. It does not deter them that they work with a contracting political gene pool, given that the group of loyalists is shrinking.
Fire-fighting intra-alliance fallout was a frequent priority. It was a tough year for Zuma loyalists working to restrain criticism of the ANC president.
They equated denunciations of the president with betrayal of the struggle. They helped cull a once-vibrant tripartite alliance. It was the year that humiliated and dulled leading light Zwelinzima Vavi. The National Union of Metalworkers of SA – in its grand 2013 parting shot – sanctioned Cosatu and the ANC, yet remained inside in the hope of claiming the union federation as its own platform.
This paralleled the story of ANC supporters and their movement. The year’s trends showed they are not abandoning the ANC, despite their disappointment in the leader.
They retain the hope that the ANC will again produce leaders who are committed to serve with integrity. They see their ANC as bigger than the ANC of the current leadership.
ANC leaders were also weighed on the scale of accountability in government. They failed more often than not. Government responses to reports by Public Protector Thuli Madonsela often seemed to be the sum total of “public accountability”.
This year there were many assurances that South Africa’s democracy and its institutions are strong – the trademarks of democratic government.
There was little recognition that the representative, security and bureaucratic institutions had gradually lapsed into a state in which they are poorly trusted.
Protest was confirmed as routine public participation. Representation came not through electing representatives but by means of protest to ensure attention to grievances.
Crude as it seems, the death of Nelson Mandela had long been anticipated as an event that would reignite the reminders of the struggle and would strengthen the ANC.
When it happened in early December, it came as a wake-up call to the ANC.
Reverence for leadership is earned and not transferred courtesy of simply being an ANC leader. The comparison with Madiba showed a distressing deficit in current leadership. As far as the ANC brand goes, however, the ANC itself was probably strengthened, courtesy of reminders of the struggle and the heroism of this particular leader.
Such are the contradictions that define the heart of South African politics this year.
The question hovering as we steer towards 2014 is whether Zuma will retain the support of the ANC’s NEC or whether there may be some who stand up to say, “up to this point and no further”.
* Booysen is professor at Wits University. Parts of this analysis draw on her research report for Freedom House, Twenty Years of South African democracy: citizen views of human rights, governance and the political system.
** The views expressed here do not necessarily reflect those of Independent Newspapers.