The nation drifts unguided

2015-02-23 06:00

It is a well-known fact that President Jacob Zuma is at his best when he is against the ropes. He is like that classic boxer who loses every round and gets written off by official and amateur scorers, but comes back in the dying minutes of the bout to deliver a sucker punch.

This week the president of the republic was that vintage Zuma. After two weeks of being pummelled, he appeared to be at one of the weakest moments in his presidency.

But when he delivered his reply to the state of the nation address (Sona), he seemed to see through his swollen eyes, collect his breath, lift his arms and throw some telling punches.

By the end of the day, only the meanest of judges would have declined to give him this round. By most accounts, he boxed cleverly on Thursday and appeared to be in control. Like so many times over the past decade, he seemed to bounce back.

But was this round enough to hand him the fight? Or had he and his corner let themselves down so badly over the past fortnight that the late rally might have been exactly that – too late?

When, at some honest time in the future, Team Zuma and Team ANC sit down to review the events of February 2015, they will see just how significant this month was in the life of the party and the history of the country.

It was the month the ANC lost power.

This may sound melodramatic and over the top – and will be dismissed by loyal and disciplined cadres as the wishful fantasies of an “enemy of the glorious revolutionary movement”.

After all, the ANC will win handsomely in most municipalities in next year’s local government elections and will retain power in most provinces in the 2019 general elections. It will continue to lord it over parastatals and other public institutions.

Friends and mistresses with false qualifications, dodgy records and low ethics will continue to hold powerful positions in blatant violation of codes of good governance. It will be business as usual. But that will be a very basic way of looking at this commodity called power.

Power is much more than holding office. Just ask PW Botha and FW de Klerk, the last rulers during apartheid. With one of the world’s most ruthless military machines and an army of mindless killers at his beck and call, Botha believed he was firmly in charge – while real power was slipping through the Nats’ fingers. By the time he came to power, a wiser De Klerk had recognised this.

Being leader of the governing party and in charge of the state apparatus made De Klerk believe he could manage the change. The events of April 1993 disabused him of that notion.

The inability to control the fallout from the Chris Hani assassination showed De Klerk just how powerless he was. He had no choice but to, in effect, hand over power to Nelson Mandela a year before Mandela could take up the reins of government.

Zuma and the ANC are not at that De Klerk moment, but they are probably facing a more dangerous set of circumstances. They are losing power, but not to any definable power centre. The power is shifting to an amorphous centre.

The images of last week tell a gripping but worrying story. There was Speaker Baleka Mbete and National Council of Provinces chair Thandi Modise unable to control a joint sitting of Parliament. There was the use of brute force to assert control. There was the resort to desperate measures to prevent the flow of information.

There was the president surrounded by heavies. The images of his ceaseless giggling – the previous week and last week – defined Zuma’s February and illustrated his powerlessness. (Can MaNgema or someone else please tell him only pubescent girls are allowed to giggle that much).

But it was the futile and ineffective bid at damage control and to own the narrative of the collapse of the Sona that most demonstrated how power was slipping away. Ministers, officials and leaders lied and contradicted each other throughout the week, clearly indicating all was not well and harmonious in the House of Zuma.

Coupled with a capitulation to protesting communities, litigious civil society formations and public opinion in the recent past, the events of last week spoke volumes about the ANC’s loss of its grip on power.

This month it became apparent the ANC lost the authority to govern. The supposedly most powerful people in the land bark orders and act tough, but the populace simply ignores them.

They spin a story and nobody believes them.

They constantly find themselves on the wrong side of public debate. It is a sorry and scary state to be in less than a year since the last election.

In the back rooms of Luthuli House, party committees are busy drafting discussion papers ahead of the midterm national general council.

Some of them will speak darkly about forces of counter-revolution and largely misdiagnose the ills of the land.

They will miss the fact that the party’s loss of power did not need an insurrection or a landslide defeat at the polls. All it took was the former liberation movement relinquishing moral authority, societal influence and state legitimacy.

It puts the country in a potentially perilous situation where, in the absence of an alternative power centre, the nation drifts unguided.

Who or what will fill this vacuum?

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