What Could Cyril Do?

2014-01-27 21:20

The Democratic Alliance (DA) managed to score a media coup this weekend. Having announced its list of candidates for the National Assembly and the Provincial Legislatures, it has brought the ANC’s delayed nomination process into sharper focus.

While the ANC has attempted to defend the delay, the party has failed to put the speculation to an end. Various commentators are engaging in a series of crystal-ball exercises to try and fathom what the ANC is up to.

In light of the Nkandla scandal, which has come to represent the gross exercise of the Zuma administration specifically and our political elite generally, it is clear that the party faces a crisis of confidence. Voters have had enough and if the public shaming of Jacob Zuma at the Mandela Memorial is anything to go by, unless the party does something to distance itself from the graft, corruption and fraud it has become almost synonymous with, it will suffer electorally.

And the ANC is not blind to this. At the weekend, Cyril Ramaphosa was openly saying that the ANC may lose power. Malusi Gigaba was talking down the ANC’s coveted two-thirds majority. And recently, the party was reported as engaging in a purge of those problematic MPs who have sticky fingers.

But all of this, including the temptation to get rid of naughty MPs, does not get rid of the ANC’s biggest headache: Jacob Zuma. The party cannot escape the fact that no matter how much (re)shuffling and spinning it does, Jacob Zuma’s wild popularity no longer has the same pull it had in 2009. The invincible Jacob of Nkandla is not so formidable anymore.

So what does this mean for the ANC? One of the popular theories doing the rounds at the moment is that Jacob Zuma is going to step aside in favour of Cyril Ramaphosa. This is apparently favoured by voters and ANC members. Is this possible and if so, do the ANC’s troubles end there?

Even though the DA hasn’t got a snowball’s chance in hell of winning outright, the party is fighting a clever campaign as though it is. When you couple them with the EFF’s attack from the left, the ANC is being out flanked from both sides. The temptation for a seemingly drastic shake up then is strong.

But will it work? To my mind, the ANC faces three options:

First, keep the status quo. Second, put Ramaphosa up for President and keep Zuma around as ANC President. Third, get rid of Zuma entirely.

In every situation though, the ANC faces a vexed outcome.

If it maintains the status quo, the party will find it difficult to staunch the votes it continues to bleed as a result of the wounds inflicted on it by itself and the opposition. Indeed, the ANC’s factions are doing a better job at undermining itself than even the DA is.

The last one is equally untenable. That would be an active concession to all those in opposition to Zuma that his term of office has been an unmitigated disaster.

But the second is quite tempting. It creates some credibility for the ANC and falsely allows people to believe that things will change. I say falsely, because even if this happened, it would not bring about much change. As any political analyst will say, despite the constitutional separation between party and state, the ANC’s mode of operation does not see that distinction. And even if it did, it would put the party in a position of predominance. As we saw with the recall of Thabo Mbeki (and in subsequent episodes like policy coherence around the NDP), the ANC’s agenda in government is a satellite battlefield for internal party conflict. Zuma’s faction under this scenario retains power within the ANC and so controls what any President could do. Ramaphosa then would be nothing more than a figurehead.

Zuma and those around him are implicated in many legally challenging situations. There is a perverse incentive for them to let go of power: they cannot cede power to someone who is likely to hold them to account. And in an environment where that is what the people demand, Ramaphosa’s temptation to turn on Zuma and restore the credibility of the ANC (and thus a possible second term for him) will not be far from the Zuma camps’ minds. Ramaphosa could in effect do very little.

This is important to bear in mind for two reasons. In the first sense, many who will vote for the ANC in the hope that things will change must have a sobering hard look at the ANC and how power truly operates. While the ANC is in power, real change comes from Luthuli House and not the Union Buildings. Secondly, many (white/liberal) voters will be inclined to vote for Ramaphosa (with his big business and multi-party negotiation credentials working in his favour). Ramaphosa is but one man. Even if he were to become ANC President, the vested interests which exist within the party at every level in which it operates means that no matter how good-intentioned he may be, it will amount to little. Vested interests are the hardest ones to get rid of.

The truth is, the only way real change will happen is to not vote for the ANC and to vote for a credible opposition party. This has to be done so that the ANC will either lose power or come close to doing so. In either situation, the party would receive the strongest wake-up call of its long existence. It will also hopefully have the effect that our elections will be more competitive and that power will change hands more freely. In a democracy where power is not the preserve of some, the voters benefit most.

I started this by asking ‘What Could Cyril Do’? The answer is nothing. But if you contemplated what we as voters could do, then you’d be on to something.

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