The ANC in an unrehearsed role

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In the aftermath of the very successful, free and fair local elections held in the country on 3 August, the ANC has told the electorate that it had taken a decision to consolidate as a party (at least on the surface) and would go through a period of introspection to determine the best way forward after its humiliating election defeat. There have been some big changes in local governments in South Africa, with the major metros now being run by the Democratic Alliance (DA) and the ANC being relegated to smaller municipalities. In the City of Johannesburg the DA as governing party has gone into coalitions with a host of smaller parties – the United Democratic Movement (UDM), the Freedom Front Plus (FF+), the Congress of the People (Cope), the African Christian Democratic Party (ACDP) and the Inkatha Freedom Party (IFP). The DA’s Herman Mashaba is the new mayor of the City of Johannesburg and the ANC and the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) are the opposition. In the City of Tshwane (Pretoria) the DA is ruling in coalition with the UDM, the FF+, Cope, the ACDP and the IFP. Solly Msimanga is the new DA mayor and the ANC and the EFF are the opposition. The Nelson Mandela Bay metro (Port Elizabeth) has a new DA mayor (Athol Trollip) where his party has formed a coalition government with the UDM, Cope and the ACDP. The opposition benches are now filled by the ANC, the EFF and the Patriotic Alliance.

As the DA takes to the seats of power once occupied by the ANC in these three metros, the newly elected mayors have reiterated the party’s key promises: to quash corruption, create jobs and improve service delivery. In his inaugural speech in Nelson Mandela Bay, new mayor Athol Trollip said that the party will draw on its successes in its other municipalities. These include the City of Cape Town, which it has run for a decade now, and the Midvaal municipality in Gauteng, where it has had the majority since 2001. In their inauguration speeches late in August, the new mayors of Tshwane and Nelson Mandela Bay reiterated the promises made as far back as 2009 when Helen Zille delivered her first speech as Western Cape premier in 2009.

Ebrahim Fakir, a political analyst at the Electoral Institute for the Sustainability of Democracy in Africa, says that although the DA may have grand plans to apply the existing blueprints to their newly won municipalities, it may not be easy to do so, reports the weekly Mail & Guardian newspaper. The DA does not have a standing coalition in every municipality and so will have to get a majority vote on every issue, Fakir said. He also warned that the DA’s performance in some municipalities would not give a general indication of its ability to govern. What blueprints the DA can take from its other municipalities are subject to a number of unknowns, Fakir said: “Can they rely on the existing bureaucracy to buy into the DA programme, or will they be obstructionist?” In councils, the ANC has experience in governing portfolios and could use their knowledge of the rules of council to their advantage to frustrate and delay processes, he said. Although the EFF voted with the DA to elect a mayoral candidate in Tshwane and Johannesburg, there is no standing coalition. “The EFF have said they will deliberate on an issue-by-issue basis,” said Fakir. “It could mean stronger oversight, or it could cause excessive delays.” “If the DA is clever it will try to moderate some of its own manifesto issues and negotiate those with the EFF to speed up key decisions,” Fakir said. “It also depends on the game the EFF is playing. And we don’t know what that is.”

Susan Booysen, professor at the University of the Witwatersrand’s School of governance and author of Dominance and Decline: The ANC in the time of Zuma, says that nothing in the liberation struggle readied the ANC for the role of opposition party. Even the ANC’s worst days in government for 20 years did not prepare it for relegation to local opposition benches in the aftermath of the recent elections. The ANC has suffered several identity crises in the past, but it never occurred to the party that it would be consigned to the opposition benches of several core metro councils – in particular in its political heartland – and in many other municipal councils. It was only conceivable in a sense when the ANC was in opposition while it was claiming power gradually from the National Party and the IFP in the Western Cape and Kwazulu-Natal. But it never imagined itself as a party being edged out of power. It was dominant: it believed in its own invincibility. The belief of the ANC being in power “until Jesus returns” was just part of the broader ANC narrative, portraying its dominance as ordained and enduring.

Prof Booysen goes on to add that the ANC had misread all the pre-election signals. It saw changes all around but failed to read the voters might turn on it through voting and abstention. It saw opposition parties expanding, but it was unthinkable that these diverse parties would unite across seemingly unbridgeable ideological divides to fight for cleaner government and better service delivery. The result is evident all around us: the ANC is ill-prepared for its new role as in-part opposition party. Prof Booysen suggests that perhaps, the ANC never intends to be an opposition party. With massive resources at its disposal in national government, including the security and state information apparatuses, who needs to be a conventional opposition party?

Evidence of the party’s lack of preparation for its role as opposition emerges from the helter-skelter responses witnessed in the first few days of the post-ANC dominance era. Its opposition repertoire has ranged from filibustering in councils to the killing of opponents – from a DA member in the Northern Cape to a South African Communist Party independent in Kwazulu-Natal. Between the two extremes have been strategies of opening the taps of propaganda and delegitimising all dissent (from other political parties in particular), and threatening or instigating revolts against new co-operative councils constituted by the DA, the EFF and the smaller parties as coalition fillers. Prof Booysen suggests however that the more the ANC tries to convince the electorate of its new-found remorse, humility and willingness to serve, the weaker it appears: the more President Jacob Zuma seizes control of state organs, the greater the confirmation of the ANC’s self-destruction en route to the parliamentary opposition benches.

A case in point is President Zuma’s recent daring power play – taking charge of South Africa’s state-owned enterprises. The decision to place Zuma in charge of a new co-ordinating committee of state-owned entities was taken at a post-election Cabinet meeting. The presidency insists there is “nothing sinister” in the establishment of the Presidential State-Owned Enterprises (SOE) Co-ordinating Council. Its role, said a presidential spokesman, is to ensure that state entities work together and do not usurp the responsibilities of line-function ministers. But the extreme tensions involving key state-owned entities – and, in some cases, the president’s friends – potentially puts the president in direct confrontation with the National Treasury. More specifically, with Finance Minister Pravin Gordhan who has blocked granting state money to bail out troubled South African Airways (SAA). The state-owned airline is on the verge of being liquidated and could lose access to the lucrative Hong Kong route if it does not submit its financial statements to that country’s registrar of companies by September 6. SAA has asked the government for a R5 billion guarantee. If this is not secured by the end of September, the airline could be grounded locally as well.

Throw into the mix the directive from Minister of Transport Dipuo Peters to “close off” the Passenger Rail Agency of South Africa (Prasa) investigation into allegations that close friends of Zuma and the ANC benefitted from tenders. There is also a growing suspicion that the investigation may lead to Zuma himself. Coal contracts and links to the Gupta family are under investigation at Eskom by National Treasury. The latter has also clamped down on spending on the heavily disputed nuclear deal. And Gordhan has also said that a joint venture entered into by Denel was not approved by his department. The Hawks continue to hound Finance Minister Gordhan about a “rogue unit” that was set up in 2007 at the South African Revenue Service under his watch. But the uncertainty around this issue and the swirling rumours of the arrest of Mr Gordhan are decidedly unhelpful and a frosty standoff has developed.

Investment markets do not like uncertainty and any evidence of political interference is viewed in a very suspicious light.

The rand has taken a big hit since the possible arrest of Mr Gordhan by the Hawks was mentioned. In addition, the yields on South African bonds have also risen sharply, inflicting painful losses yet again on income seeking investors. The internal divisions that still hobble the ANC are again exposed under these conditions and are highlighted by the fact that deputy president Cyril Ramaphosa has come out strongly in support of the Finance Minister, pledging “my total confidence”. A possible upcoming Cabinet re-shuffle aimed at ousting ministers who do not support Mr Zuma, and rumours of Brian Molefe (CEO of Eskom) being groomed as the new Finance Minister add fuel to the current air of uncertainty and distrust.

Prof Booysen ends her recent article with the following: “Given the ANC’s evolving opposition repertoire, it is probably premature to equate the 2016 turnover of political parties in South Africa’s multi-party democracy with the maturation of democracy. Rather, it will be the ANC’s unfolding behaviour on the opposition benches and whether it exercises opposition from the benches or on the battlefields beyond that will determine whether our democracy is maturing or not.”
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Source – APS Monthly Economic Comment