Not all of the blame for the ANC’s election failures can be laid at President Zuma’s door, but in some areas his malign influence can be clearly discerned, writes Craig Dodds.
As the ANC picks over the withered remains of its elections campaign, some will be attempting to quantify – and some to deny – how much President Jacob Zuma cost the party in votes.
It will not be an exact science, but whatever consensus emerges, if any, will have a significant bearing on Zuma’s fortunes in the party.
In Nelson Mandela Bay, for example, it is clear local failure was at least as much a factor in the 10 percentage point drop in the ANC’s support as the broader narrative around these elections in which Zuma, despite the ANC’s attempts to keep him on the periphery, was a constant bone of contention.
But in Tshwane and Johannesburg and in the roughly 8 percentage point decline in ANC support overall since 2011, Zuma’s malign influence can be clearly discerned.
If, however, the ANC has finally felt the pain where it matters, the country as a whole has been hurting for far longer. The material costs associated with the president can be quantified: Nkandla; the biggest cabinet in the country’s history; his astronomical legal fees; upkeep of his household and his security; travel and salary costs, among others.
But the price of his presidency has been far greater. There’s the corruption that has flourished in the shade of his less-than-zealous efforts to attack it and his zealous efforts to shield it where it has involved his allies.
And flowing from this tainted well has been the most toxic effect on society: the inexorable grinding down of every institution to have stood in its way.
Starting with the defeated appointment of Menzi Simelane as national director of public prosecutions, the National Prosecuting Authority has been a site of constant instability throughout Zuma’s term, as those with the urge to do their jobs without fear or favour have been shifted aside in favour of those of a more compliant disposition.
Similarly, the intelligence services have been bent to the will of the president, with an attempted investigation into the undue influence of the Gupta family – long before they turned a strategic military air base into their personal landing strip – promptly leading to the removal of intelligence bosses Gibson Njenje, Jeff Maqetuka and Moe Shaik.
Now the intelligence services are suspected of keeping tabs on Zuma’s political enemies – with even cabinet minister Blade Nzimande complaining he was being monitored – instead of focusing on threats to national security.
Extraordinary effort has gone into shielding former crime intelligence boss Richard Mdluli, spilling over into the NPA, the Independent Police Investigative Directorate (Ipid), Sars and the Hawks, as those getting too close to him and other players in the twilight world where crime, the state and the private sector intersect, have been shifted aside.
Falling broadly into this category are former Hawks boss Anwa Dramat, Ipid head Robert McBride and Sars commissioner Ivan Pillay, who have cited overlapping investigations into Mdluli and others as the probable trigger for their removal.
More recently, Operation Combat heads Jeremy Vearey and Peter Jacobs were removed from the gang-busting outfit after breaking up a syndicate selling guns to gangs in the Western Cape, though it is unclear whether this, or another investigation, was the cause of their demotion.
In each institution where this has happened, it has been followed by massive upheaval and an exodus of senior personnel.
The pattern has been replicated in parastatals with a strategic role in the president’s patronage complex, ranging from SAA to arms manufacturer Denel and the SABC, which has also been converted into his personal image tailor.
Not only has the dizzying implosion of their financial sustainability damaged the country’s sovereign credit metrics, but critical policy interventions required to get the economy moving again have been held to ransom by vested interests in these parastatals.
One example is the paralysis afflicting the digital migration process, which would free up high-speed broadband spectrum seen as a relatively low-hanging fruit in driving innovation and growth in the economy. Another is the arm wrestle under way over the future direction of energy policy and the place of nuclear in it, which has already bogged down the process of releasing the next iteration of the Integrated Resource Plan, intended to serve as a guide to new investment in energy generation.
That the acceleration of access to high-speed broadband, resolving the energy dilemma and reforming state-owned enterprises featured in the nine-point plan for the economy he announced in his State of the Nation Address last year has done nothing to persuade the president to kick the relevant ministerial butt to make it happen. Thus, the ailing economy has been deprived of the oxygen it needs to revive, with terrible consequences for growth and employment.
In the meantime, good people in all of these institutions who happen to get in the way are unceremoniously removed, whether through trumped-up disciplinary charges, unbearable pressure or, as at the SABC until it was overturned by a court, outright defiance of the law.
Those left behind, even with the best intentions, stand little chance of swimming against the tide of reckless financial manoeuvres and outright looting that inevitably follows.
Meanwhile, the state has become an object of fear and distrust whose forces are deployed in protection of the president and his coterie, severing its links with the interests of the populace, with the result that resort to protest had become the only remaining channel of communication – until these elections.
Perhaps most tragically, given the mammoth task it was expected to complete of transforming the economy, the ANC has been hollowed out from within, its structures perverted by patronage so they no longer reflect even the will of the membership, let alone that of the people.
Of course, not all of this can be laid at Zuma’s door.
Some of the patterns that have intensified on his watch were evident before he became president and were in fact a galvanising factor in his rise to power.
His removal would not instantly resolve the enormous complexity of challenges within which this situation has emerged. But it can safely be said that he has been a principle enabler and, as things stand, remains a major obstacle to their resolution.