Who really rules South Africa?

Gwede Mantashe, Thandi Modise, Baleka Mbete, President Jacob Zuma, Kgalema Motlanthe and Mathews Phosa at the press conference addressing the Malema issue and other organisational matters at Luthuli House. Photo: Bongiwe Mchunu

Gwede Mantashe, Thandi Modise, Baleka Mbete, President Jacob Zuma, Kgalema Motlanthe and Mathews Phosa at the press conference addressing the Malema issue and other organisational matters at Luthuli House. Photo: Bongiwe Mchunu

Published Jun 18, 2012


Who rules South Africa? This is the question that authors Paul Holden and Martin Plaut try to answer in their newly released book of the same title.

It’s not a question answered in simple terms – which is why the book is such a long one to read, the authors say.

In essence, of course, it’s the ANC and its alliance partners who rule SA – but the big question for the authors is: who rules the ANC?

Asked for a snappy one-line response as to who really rules, Holden replies: “It’s the fat cats and the securocrats,” with organised crime elements now playing a major role in the country.

Holden is the author of The Arms Deal in Your Pocket and The Devil in the Detail, which focus on SA’s multibillion-rand arms deal. Plaut is the BBC World Service News’ Africa editor.

They co-wrote the book to coincide with the ANC’s centenary and its crucial national conference in Mangaung in December.

The book analyses the political elites that are battling for power and argues that power does not lie in traditional institutions such as Parliament or the cabinet, but rather within the ANC-led alliance.

This alliance, the authors claim, has no founding document and no written constitution, making it an “unstructured and mutable political hydra with business and criminal elements in close attendance”.

Holden and Plaut argue that it is the interaction between these forces, along with the “shadowy forces that operate within or alongside the alliance”, that tell the real story of post-apartheid SA.

“On the face of it, the answer to the question of who rules SA is self-evident. It is the ANC,” the authors conclude, after taking the reader through various chapters on key developments and themes which have shaped the country since the elections held in 1994.

“The ANC does not rule alone, however, and does not rule untrammelled. Nor is there a single monolithic ANC … The ANC wields this power within a broader alliance … a remarkably durable structure that has melded the various political strains – from communist to ultra-capitalist – into some sort of workable whole.”

Taking the sometimes “schizophrenic” components of the alliance into account, it is not surprising that politics in recent years has been dominated by a struggle for power between the different factions in politics.

“With so much at stake these internal battles have undermined the democratic checks on government. As the over-used but ever so apt phrase has it, ‘when the elephants fight, it is the grass that gets trampled’.”

In order to understand the current dynamics, it is important to take another look at the ANC’s history since its establishment.

As the authors say in their final chapter: “The ANC is no longer the movement it was during the fight against apartheid.

“The party has taken a long journey over the last 100 years. It changed from being an African nationalist and largely Christian organisation when it was founded in 1912 to become, in the 1950s, a multi-racial leftist party intertwined with the communist party and the unions.

“Today it is returning to its roots. It is not the organisation it was a century ago … It is once more essentially an African nationalist organisation … It … has become an increasingly conservative force, representing an aspiring black middle class. The ANC has, over 100 years, moved through a radical arc and returned to its roots.”

The authors argue that the movement that was born out of a black elite led by tribal chiefs and religious leaders is increasingly under the sway of a “similar stratum”, but that, today, these are the “new moguls of black economic empowerment”.

In 1943, Nelson Mandela described the party’s leadership as “a tired, unmilitant privileged elite more concerned with protecting their own rights, than those of the masses”.

“Is this a label that can be applied to the party once more?” the authors ask.

As demonstrated so strongly in the past few years, the ANC’s move to the right has seen the policies of its leftist partners often ignored and without much influence.

With the left having minimal say in the country, the most powerful political players are the black economic empowerment moguls.

Besides the fat cats, say the authors, there is the “trump card” of a “supportive and pliant intelligence and security sector”, which has coalesced around President Jacob Zuma.

“Many have relationships with the president that go back a long way, while others have been elevated through Zuma’s control of the ANC deployment committee after 1998, which allowed him to place friends and allies in key positions of influence.

“He has skilfully used current security officers and his old friends from his days in exile as head of the ANC’s intelligence department.

“It was the security services that helped Zuma escape charges of corruption and racketeering in connection with the arms deal. It has made him a formidable opponent and given him unrivalled access to one of the key currencies of political power: intelligence and information on his rivals.”

Holden told the Cape Town Press Club last Thursday it was becoming increasingly clear that a factionalised intelligence service had been using and abusing its powers for factional ends. Examples of this were the Browse Mole report, the hoax email scandal, the Richard Mdluli dossier and the spy-tape saga that eventually got Zuma off his corruption charges.

“There are obviously major problems for our democracy when a factionalised intelligence service abuses its power.

“One of the things that people do not seem to acknowledge is that we have an intelligence service which makes us, as South Africans, less intelligent.

“We have an intelligence service, which, via a campaign of disinformation eventually has decreased the number of certainties we can point to in the political sphere.

“We have an intelligence department which is essentially saying: ‘Why on Earth are you being responsive to the people? Why are you listening to civil society?’”

But according to the authors, the power of the black economic empowerment elite has its limitations, particularly in light of the fact that many in the group are suffering from debts and some financial difficulties.

A further hurdle is the increasing distaste with which the black economic empowerment elite is viewed by the left players in the alliance and in broader society, mainly because so many have been linked to corruption and “corporate abuses”.

With crime and corruption having become endemic in local and national government and billions of rands going astray, along with the ANC’s cadre deployment policy in key government and economic sectors, there is validity in saying that the country faces the prospect of being ruled by a “predatory state that feeds on its people rather than serving them”.

In spite of all its shortcomings, the ANC continues to enjoy the support of the country’s poor. But, say the authors, this could change.

“Certainly there is a rising tide of anger in the townships … Currently, the protests have been localised and have, as a result, only really scared local and provincial government officials.

“It is not beyond the bounds of possibility that a movement could develop national organisational momentum. If that does happen, SA will have a new entrant into the politics of power: an organised underclass ...”

There’s also the question of when, not if, the increasingly marginalised Left in the alliance decides to cut ties with the ANC.

“The question who rules South Africa can only be answered if one takes account of all these forces.”

The authors give reasons for South Africans to be optimistic about their future, and this is thanks to a well-developed civil society in the country.

“It has newspapers that were founded more than 150 years ago … a union movement whose roots can be traced back further than the ANC itself and a legal system that has largely proved itself to be a dignified corrective to non-delivery and the less salubrious authoritarian streaks of those that are holding power.

“It has the finest universities in Africa, producing graduates who are equal to any in the world.

“And, after centuries of colonialism and decades of apartheid, South African citizens have developed a seemingly inexhaustible but vital resource: the will to fight for their rights, to question authority and to shape their own destinies.”

Political Bureau

Related Topics: