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South Africa in deep trouble as existing order comes apart

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South Africa’s democracy and its economy are in danger of sinking into deep trouble as the African National Congress and its top leadership appear hell-bent on maintaining their dominance, and as flaws in the existing state power construct come to the surface.

The leadership of the country’s ANC-led governing alliance, in its response to the setbacks of last month’s local government elections, has closed ranks around President Jacob Zuma by declaring shared responsibility for the results.

At the same time, it, via secretary general Gwede Mantashe, acknowledged that the negative narratives surrounding president Jacob Zuma and his many scandals have impacted on the party’s support.

This is symptomatic of the intensifying paralysis that has taken hold of the alliance, which has been fracturing now for some time. This fracturing has greatly contributed to Mr Zuma being able to manoeuvre himself into an ‘untouchable’ position. The party simply cannot afford a leadership battle at this stage.

Politics of violence

This situation is exacerbated by the alliance’s continuing internal violence, perpetuated even after the election, and the struggles for control over resources, that go with it.

The state of paralysis created a gap for Mr Zuma and his network of patronage to consolidate their hold on positions of political power and influence.

The first sign of things to come, came after a cabinet lekgotla to plot the way forward against the background of the ANC having lost control over most of the metropoles in the country in the municipal elections.

Minister in the Presidency, Jeff Radebe, at a report back briefing on the lekgotla last Monday, announced that a Presidential Co-ordinating Council (PCC) would be established to give Zuma “line of sight on strategic decisions and interventions” in state-owned companies.

Gordhan’s position

It is important to note that, among other things, Minister of Finance Pravin Gordhan has been unwilling to agree to a request of the South African Airways (SAA) for government support until a new board has been appointed.

His immediate predecessor, Nhlanhla Nene, was removed as Minister of Finance in December last year after refusing to agree to the acquisition of new aircraft under a questionable contract, suggesting it was part of a process of state capture by associates of President Zuma.

The reaction to Nene’s removal sent the economy into a tailspin. Things only took on a semblance of returning to normal after the reappointment of Mr Gordhan. This came after intervention by among others Deputy President Cyril Ramaphosa.

Gordhan not only target

In their immediate reaction to the announcement of the new PCC, the official opposition in parliament noted that it was: “… obviously by design so that President Zuma can further frustrate the process of rescuing the most mismanaged SOEs (state-owned enterprises) such as SAA and Denel and in so doing continue his reign of patronage in favour of Dudu Myeni and others.

“It is obvious that this move to centralise power to the president is a bid to exclude the powers of Treasury and the Minister of Finance. This will be the last nail in the coffin for entities such as Eskom, Denel and SAA that have seen their balance sheets heavily impaired by ANC cadre related deals and gross mismanagement by Zuma appointed executives.

“That Cabinet has placed President Zuma at the apex of this strategic imperative defies all logic owing to the fact that he has been fingered in many dodgy deals at our SOEs including Denel, SAA and Eskom using various functionaries: Namely, Dudu Myeni, the Guptas etc.”

However, the latest move might not only be aimed at Minister Gordhan, considering that a similar commission to the PCC already exists under the authority of Deputy President Ramaphosa, i.e. the Presidential Infrastructure Coordinating Commission (PICC). Ramaphosa is widely tipped as one of the main contenders to take over from Mr Zuma.

Onslaught on Gordhan

What followed on the reappointment of Mr Gordhan in December was an onslaught on his integrity by the police’s Directorate for Priority Crime Investigation, commonly known as the Hawks. It became known as the “SARS wars”.

Gordhan’s battle with the Hawks, widely regarded as firmly under the control of Mr Zuma, culminated in him receiving a letter from the unit on the eve of his crucial budget speech in February. The letter contained 27 questions to him about the alleged rogue unit at SARS under him as commissioner.

Rumours that he was about to be arrested also ran thick and fast.

The Hawks denied that Gordhan was being investigated. This followed a sharp drop in the value of the rand, compounding losses after the removal of Nene as Finance Minister in December.

President Jacob Zuma has also, before the recent elections, denied suggestions that Gordhan’s job was under threat and, most recently, the Presidency denied reports of a rift between the president and Treasury over SAA.

Penny dropped 

But then, following the announcement of the new PCC, the penny dropped Tuesday last week as the last metropolitan councils were being finalised.

News broke that Mr Gordhan and four other former SARS officials have been instructed to present themselves to the Hawks head office within 48 hours – a step usually taken just before formal charges are laid.

It was immediately clear that the SARS Wars were back on. It is not known whether Mr Zuma informed the rest of the cabinet of this pending move by the Hawks. They, however, were informed of the plans with the PCC for state-owned enterprises.

They should have foreseen what was coming, including the fact that the value of the rand would come under pressure – as it immediately did.

It is also likely to have serious implication for the country’s international creditworthiness, with the next grading by international agencies due before the end of the year.

Problem runs deeper

It is, however, not just the Zuma style – with some speculation that the move against Mr Gordhan was at least partly inspired by a petty political revenge urge – but there are also structural problems with the country’s governance construct. These problems have allowed or facilitated the concentration of power in Mr Zuma’s hands.

Even before the news of the latest Zuma/Hawks move broke, an insightful article by Mafaro Kasipo on the website The Conversation about the practice of political cadre deployment in the civil service highlighted how it prevents the development of an independent and professional bureaucracy.

Another article on the same site put the spotlight on the lack of oversight of institutions like the Hawks. First there was the 1997 Independent Police Investigative Directorate, previously known as the Independent Complaints Directorate, to investigate serious complaints of abuse by the South African Police Service.

Then followed the 2010 Hawks’ Judge Complaints Unit, also known as the ‘Office of the Judge’.

Apart from being a political appointment, the “main criticism of the Office of the Judge is that it lacks the power to initiate investigations. Investigations only commence on “receipt of a complaint”. This is unlike another watchdog, the Office of the Public Protector, which has the authority to take up cases based on complaints, as well as to initiate investigations itself,” the author of the article writes.

Under these circumstance, institutions of state, like the Hawks, can easily become captured by partisan political interests – as indeed clearly happened with the Hawks.

Also read: ANC’s structure destroying itself and the country

by Piet Coetzer

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