Waiting on a ministerial dollop of fudge

2009-09-12 00:00

FOR the first time since the ousting of Thabo Mbeki, reality has reasserted itself in the African National Congress. That delirious sense of relief, of “Ding! Dong! The wicked witch is dead!” which followed upon Mbeki’s Polokwane humiliation, his subsequent sacking and a solid electoral performance, is suddenly gone.

As dangerous headwinds buffet President Jacob Zuma’s young administration, the joviality and backslapping are evaporating.

It has dawned that the populist mob set loose on Mbeki is a fickle creature, straining at its chain and reluctant to return meekly to its kennel.

The first wake-up was the explosion of grass roots’ fury at local government ineptitude and corruption.

Images of random violence, looting, torching, rubber bullets and no-go zones were eerily reminiscent of the ANC’s own liberation struggle campaign to “make townships ungovernable”.

Zuma’s ministers tried to pass off the protests as regrettable and ill-directed, but transient airing of grievances from the Mbeki years. But they know that with municipal revenue falling in the recession, turbulent protests are likely to escalate.

The second wake-up is a mutinous South African National Defence Force (SANDF).

Not only did a ragtag equivalent of two battalions try to storm the Union Buildings, but they plotted to kidnap Defence Minister Lindiwe Sisulu and hold her hostage until the government delivered the pay and workplace improvements that the strikers demanded.

(Their dismal failure at both objectives might be taken as a third wake-up, reflecting as it does their poor military skills.)

The whole gemors resulted in the astonishing spectacle of an ANC minister at last conceding the obvious: that unionisation of the SANDF was a “mistake” and that the lack of military discipline is a serious problem.

Sisulu pledged not to be swayed from her intention to dismiss the soldiers involved.

To outflank the faint-hearted in the governing alliance, she pointedly said that she had consulted with Zuma, who supported her actions.

Whatever the private promises, Zuma has been predictably silent in public, which goes to the heart of whether a populist president can take the hard decisions that are necessary. It remains to be seen whether Sisulu will remain resolute, or whether she will be forced to fudge the matter.

It is politically tricky, and in security terms, risky to turf onto the mean streets some 1 300 angry men who were once your comrades-in-arms.

Zuma now faces the same problem encountered in Zimbabwe: whether to placate and keep onside at any costs the struggle soldiers.

If the state can call on an unquestioningly loyal professional army, it is relatively simple to deal with malcontents and incipient mutiny. If not, then the next best thing is to have a trusted cadre of liberation veterans, the equivalent of an ANC private army, ready to be mustered to “defend the revolution”.

Unfortunately, political reliability as the main criterion for military promotion militates against professionalism. Which is why the SANDF is now such a disaster.

The average soldier is an overweight, poorly trained Sad Sack. Sisulu won’t, on grounds of state security, discuss armed force readiness, but there is no doubt that the SANDF suffers from what Wits academic Anthony Butler diplomatically describes as “a profound military incapacity”.

Given also the effects of the devastating guerrilla warfare waged within the ranks by HIV/Aids, and there is some truth in the cruel but witty assertion that the only way the SANDF could see off an enemy is to bite them and hope for infection to do the rest.

Trapped as she is between a pickle and a fudge, it will be interesting to see which Sisulu ultimately plumps for.

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