The maze of political power

2013-08-11 14:00

Last seven years have seen massive shifts in who pulls the strings in SA and the outlook is altogether less cheerful

The Zuma Years attempts not only to describe the changes in the face of power since my Anatomy of South Africa in 2006, but to cast them against a longer-term perspective of change since 1994 as the 20-year mark for South Africa’s new democracy approaches.

In doing so, the book seeks to emulate Anthony Sampson’s series on the changing face of power in Britain in the 1960s.

Sampson found his second book “a more interesting, and certainly more agreeable, task than writing the first book”.

I wish I could say the same. Though I too have “found it easier to pick up information and moods, against the background of the earlier Anatomy, and I have been able to look at the shifts and movements within institutions”, the outlook is altogether less cheerful than in 2006.

I have found it harder to reach positive conclusions – though partly this is because of external factors beyond the control of South Africa’s government, such as the global economic crisis of 2008.

Since 2006, there have been big changes to the face of power. There is a new president – of the country and the ANC.

There are new faces in the presidency itself, largely because the Polokwane victors of 2007 came with demands in terms of both institutional change and the individuals who would hold positions in government.

The Cabinet is a “coalition”, but without an agreed programme, although the elevation of the National Development Plan to ANC policy now provides the government with a longer-term vision to work towards and to gear the new performance and monitoring system the presidency is rolling out to potentially very useful effect.

Despite attempts to weaken its influence at the heart of government, the power of National Treasury has declined only slightly.

While the SA Communist Party has greater presence and influence in Cabinet than before, the nationalist, Zulu hold on the security cluster has become tighter.

In the earlier book, I suggested the ANC represented the heart of South Africa’s contemporary body politic. In that respect, nothing has changed.

It is still the predominant political actor. But while some of the arteries have opened up, allowing a free flow of both good and bad guys into its midst, able to access and accumulate more power for themselves and their organisations, others have clogged up.

There are new faces in the leadership of the ANC compared with 2006, and its national executive committee now contains more populists and ethnic chauvinists than before, but also some returning Mbekiites.

The game is not over by any means, though the sensible left’s ability to find its voice and hold its own remains very much in doubt.

There are new faces in opposition parties too. Three powerful women, and a few new men, lead the DA, bringing new challenges of complexity and diversity, as well as opportunities.

The DA’s prospects are far greater now than before – partly because they have changed, partly because the face of the electoral marketplace is changing, with 2?million to 3?million new “born free” voters voting for the first time in 2014, and partly because the ANC makes so many mistakes.

The DA’s excursion into the black vote may gather momentum in the 2014 national election, where they could get close to 30% of the vote, notwithstanding the fact that Mamphela Ramphele’s Agang SA may steal some of their votes from the middle class.

Traditional leaders’ power has grown in recent times and their influence over millions of South Africans should not be ignored.

Traditional leadership will continue to be a site of contestation and, therefore, like others around the country – such as university campuses – more and more fraught as and when electoral competition increases.

Traditional industries, such as the mining sector, are declining in power, partly owing to fraught industrial relations that mirror the socioeconomic crisis of the country as a whole.

Here too, the establishment is being challenged. Caught perpetually in the horns of a dilemma it cannot escape, the last few years have seen labour federation Cosatu’s power and influence rise and then fall.

As membership declines and breakaway unions such as the Association of Mineworkers and Construction Union challenge the authority of “blue chip” unions such as the National Union of Mineworkers, and as division among its leadership continues to be encouraged by nefarious factions within the ANC for their own short-term interests, Cosatu’s ability to be a powerful, progressive and stabilising influence in the economy is uncertain.

Beyond government, the ANC and alliance partners, the rule of law remains strong, though its independence is being undermined by government’s decision to squeeze the office of the chief justice, limiting the power of the new chief justice, Mogoeng Mogoeng, and bringing to a halt the grand reform process his predecessor, Sandile Ngcobo, began before the ANC abandoned him and by virtue of the mediocre and/or conservative appointments the troubled, yet very influential, Judicial Service Commission is making to the Bench. The face of the Constitutional Court has also changed markedly in recent years.

It is now possible to discern different ideological wings of the court and a substantial tipping of the balance of power away from a progressive world-view.

With noble exceptions, Parliament matters less and less. The independent civil society sector has also been weakened by grave funding shortages, but vibrant new organisations such as Section27, Equal Education and the Right2Know campaign have emerged to speak truth to power.

The face of universities is much changed, in terms of leadership and student population.

While there are different faces in boardrooms, their real influence is apparently questionable. The ability of big business to engage with government has become more chaotic, as the tenderpreneur business class has jostled for influence and attention, and lucrative government contracts.

There are new faces in the professions too, but far fewer than one would expect after 20 years. The old establishment is not relinquishing private power in the way it had to give up public power.

» This is an edited extract from Calland’s new book, The Zuma Years: The Changing Face of Power, goes on sale on Thursday and is published by Zebra Press. Get it for R157 on

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