SA’s choice: Self-interest or national interest

President Jacob Zuma congratulates his new Minister of Finance Pravin Gordhan as new Deputy President Kgalema Motlanthe looks on in this May 11, 2009 file photo. (Alexander Joe, AFP)
President Jacob Zuma congratulates his new Minister of Finance Pravin Gordhan as new Deputy President Kgalema Motlanthe looks on in this May 11, 2009 file photo. (Alexander Joe, AFP)

WITHOUT it sounding too dramatic, South Africa now faces its most challenging few weeks. Finally, 20 years of poor economic policy choices, ideological experiments and more recent policy paralysis are set to intersect with waning political accountability and an independent institutional framework once revered but now in jeopardy.

The current malaise – born out of leadership failure, creeping graft, rent-seeking and the implosion of cadre deployment – now has the country on the ropes. This complex interplay between politics and economic management means that both aspects of governance are now in deep distress. And both will need substantial change in order to rescue the country from decline.

Clearly, the context in which a respected minister of finance finds his position being threatened by apparent political pressure from a faction within his own party has reached boiling point.

Gordhan was always the reformer – understanding the need to protect our investment grade and in so doing, show the world that we can spend wisely and prevent state capture from becoming endemic. He was always brutally honest in alluding to those seeking to unseat him – and the fear was always there that he would be vulnerable as a result.

And so it came to pass that with putative fraud charges now hanging over him, he has fired back with a serious indictment against possible nefarious financial dealings by the Guptas – seen as the foundation of his political fragility. It’s a high-risk game of political tit-for-tat that has profound economic implications as well.

READ: The noose is tightening on the Guptas - Alec Hogg

At the same time, Gordhan himself has lambasted the National Prosecuting Authority (NPA) for its attempts to charge him. In so doing, the Finance Minister has – in effect – questioned the efficacy, ethics and independence of a critical cog of the criminal justice system in the country.

It’s a remarkable critique of a decline in constitutionality when someone of that stature and gravitas within the governing party has little or no trust in the state’s ability to fairly adjudicate.

It is this decline in the moral authority of an institution like the NPA – which Gordhan attests to – that represents the tightrope the country is walking. Hitherto often praised as a bulwark against being seen as a Banana Republic, the NPA now stands accused of a lack of independence and therefore open to political abuse.

And, with the Office of the Public Protector – a key Chapter 9 institution – interdicted by none other than the country’s president over the potentially explosive state capture report, the danger signs are all too apparent that South Africa might have lived through its most transparent years in terms of self-policing and that the era may indeed be drawing to a close.

While this fear now is the most real it has ever been since 1994, there is an important caveat that may well prevent a constitutional Armageddon.

Clearly, the political shenanigans take place against the backdrop of a flat-lining economy, dangerous levels of unemployment that show no signs of abating, rising student unrest and an imminent report card from the ratings agencies reflecting on our investment grade levels.

READ: All eyes on the treasury

South Africa today is simply too weak economically to allow the nefarious political power clique within the state the chance to really exert the political control they crave. President Jacob Zuma is no Recep Erdogan of Turkey. With a relatively strong economy (albeit weaker than it was), Erdogan can extend his political grip on all aspects of society. No such ability here for Zuma.

The deep nexus between poor political and economic performance is now symbiotic. Tamper with the Treasury’s independence and you potentially get a downgrade. Allow graft to persist, and you deny the poor the chance at economic opportunity. Replace a finance minister with a ‘yes man’ and you damage investor confidence and policy credibility. Spend too much on possible rent-seeking prestige projects like a R1trn nuclear power deal and you may plunge the country into a fiscal quagmire with untold and unintended consequences.

As a result, the reality has dawned on a host of senior ANC office bearers and even members of the executive that a choice has to be made. A choice between being in the pound seats for friends and family or taking some political risk for the future of all South Africans and the integrity – and constitution – of the state.

Within this context, there is a new discourse that has emerged only in the last week. The support expressed for Pravin Gordhan from Cryil Ramaphosa, Aaron Motsoaldi, Derek Hanekom and Joe Phaala is the first real executive break with the presidency they serve. Add to this the very telling remarks from ANC Chief Whip Jackson Mthembu and the external view from Trevor Manuel and you have a revolt more public than ever before.

The battle lines are therefore now much broader than just Gordhan versus those who wish to protect their benefits. It’s now spread to a historic rift within not only Cabinet but potentially within the larger ANC. For the first time, the link between the erosion of constitutional principles is linked to economic decline.

South Africa now faces a battle of self-interest versus national interest. Only once the factions within the ANC make a public stand – as they are currently doing – can this battle play itself out.

It is indeed better that this issue, which has long destabilised governance, is finally fleshed out. The question remains just how long this heightened degree of tension will persist. It is now unlikely that the lid can be kept on this political pressure cooker for another year until the ANC's elective conference.

The continued implosion of ANC factors will simply erode our ratings and place barriers to investment from both domestic and foreign sources in our economy. The policy and performance paralysis in government that this causes - if sustained over the next year - can set us back years in our quest to deliver.

Given the levels of public dissatisfaction now articulated from serving ANC ministers – and not just stalwarts no longer in office – there is clearly an attempt to precipitate a showdown sooner than December 2017.

But just like a tough game of chess, the political stalemate looks set to persist until one side gains a critical edge. President Zuma – facing a greater internal revolt than ever before – and with not only the Guptas compromised but with a dangling state capture report and corruption charges still very much on the table - is on the back foot. This story may not last out until next Christmas; it now looks as though the showdown is nearer than ever before.

It’s South Africa’s highest stake game yet – and one that could determine both economic and political progress for many years to come.

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* Daniel Silke is director of the Political Futures Consultancy and is a noted keynote speaker and commentator. Views expressed are his own. Follow him on Twitter at @DanielSilke or visit his website.

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