Political Watch

The turbulent trends of 2014 will live on in 2015

How long will President Zuma remain in office?

The year 2014 was a turbulent one for South Africa on many fronts and there is no reason to believe that 2015 will get going in calmer waters.

None of the troubling issues of late 2014, from the Eskom electricity crisis to the disruptions in parliament linked to the Nkandla scandal or tensions on the labour front have disappeared.

The ruling ANC will have little time to reflect and plan before it heads into the stormy waters of 2015. Many would think that, badly damaged by the Nkandla affair and other controversies, the party’s top priority would involve a decision on what to do about President Jacob Zuma, who increasingly appears to be a “lame duck” leader.

But the seriously wounded ANC is probably far too divided to mount decisive action on that front. Although it will put on a show of unity at its very expensive 8 January birthday bash in Cape Town and with Mr Zuma projected as a leader firmly in control, the reality under the surface is far shakier.

From an ANC perspective there are several good reasons to hang on to President Zuma for now.

Zuma’s fate

The party is in disarray – having had to postpone several regional and league congresses – and a major shakeup at the top could worsen things right now.

There is no clear successor waiting in the wings. While the ANC’s national executive committee (NEC) can recall Mr Zuma as state president, it seems only a national or special conference or general council can remove him as president of the party.

Removing him as state president but not ANC president would create two centres of power, most likely leading to even more division.

Zuma’s main remaining support comes from the South African Communist Party (SACP) who will hate to see him go. Under Zuma’s presidency the SACP managed to secure the most influential positions for their members in government ever, coming with huge influence on policy decisions.

One of its most senior leaders, Jeff Radebe, is Zuma’s de facto prime minister in the Presidency. Remove Zuma, and this all could collapse.

So the SACP, for one, is likely to fight tooth and nail to keep Mr Zuma in office. The remaining pro-Zuma faction in the Congress of SA Trade Unions (COSATU), which is also heavily infiltrated by communists, is likely to do the same.

For now Zuma still enjoys substantial support in the ANC Women’s League (ANCWL). After some delay the league held its national policy conference in December. Its elective conference will be held in April.

There is strong sentiment in the league that the next president should be a woman, and its protection of Zuma will depend largely on how it perceives things to play out around that particular issue.

Given the high levels of division and factional interests at play, removing Zuma is likely to unleash a destructive power struggle that could further weaken the ANC’s tripartite alliance.

Removing Zuma will also not resolve the Nkandla issue and render him more vulnerable to prosecution. But having invested so much in protecting Mr Zuma by shifting all blame to officials, it is probably too late for the ANC or government to extricate itself from the affair.

The Nkandla affair is also not a simple isolated matter but rather the proverbial cherry on a rather messy cake. During 2015 Mr Zuma, the government and the ANC will still have to contend with the disciplinary hearings of several Department of Public Works officials, the civil case against Zuma’s Nkandla architect and at least one, but possibly more, likely court cases around Nkandla.

On Mr Zuma’s position the ANC is likely to continue treading water for now, at the very least until its national general council scheduled for June. In the meantime Zuma is likely to be kept on a managed low profile plan away from where he can cause more harm. If there is any intention to retire him early, it will most likely be a gradual and managed process, the first indication of what could come in the NEC’s traditional 8 January Statement to be delivered by him.

The next big potential crisis for President Zuma and the ANC around the Nkandla affair will present itself next month when he has to open parliament and deliver his state of the nation address (SONA). The Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF), which has already shown its ability to disrupt parliament, has vowed not to allow Zuma to deliver the SONA and to disrupt the opening of parliament unless he addresses the Nkandla issue.

Different political environment

In January last year, as South Africa was heading for general elections in May, we wrote: “Election 2014 is likely to be a watershed moment in the political history of South Africa, not so much in respect of what the outcome of the election may be for the competing political parties, but more so in respect of the new political environment it will usher in. This new political environment may be very different from the one that existed up till now in the first twenty years of democracy and ANC rule in South Africa.”

And, indeed, the political and related labour environments underwent significant change during 2014. This process will continue into 2015.

Of the three arms of government – the executive, legislative and judicial – it appears only the latter is still fully functional at this stage.

The courts have to a large degree become the country’s main political battleground. But even the judiciary remains under threat from the ruling party, as Chief Justice Mogoeng Mogoeng reminded us recently in a speech.

Labour and labour politics

Not only did 2014 usher in the EFF and its fiery brand of “ungovernable” politics, but it also gave South Africa two of its worst strikes ever, with devastating economic impact. The key roles were played in these strikes by the Association of Mineworkers and Construction Union (AMCU) and the National Union of Metalworkers of South Africa (NUMSA).

In 2015 both are set to play a pivotal role not only in labour relations, but also in the emerging revitalisation of the far left labour-political movement in opposition to the ANC.

Meanwhile, the ongoing public sector wage negotiations got extended to this year. COSATU is completely dominated by public sector unions after NUMSA’s expulsion and the voluntary “self-suspension” of eight more unions and the negotiations will in essence boil down to a battle between COSATU and government.

But COSATU is also a government alliance partner – an untenable situation of a conflict of interest ever there was one.

With Finance Minister Nhlanhla Nene already having given notice that there is no money for the kind of wage increases being demanded, another crippling strike early this year becomes a distinct possibility.

Also on the labour-political front, the Farlam Commission of Inquiry into the Marikana strike and the violence of 2012 is due for public release this year. Its contents could impact not only on labour relations in the mining sector, but also more broadly on socio-economic issues.

The New Left

Meanwhile the “New Left” may have gained some momentum in December with the launch of the NUMSA-engineered United Front (UF). The UF is not a political party and seeks only to offer a united voice for civil society organisations on critical social issues.

At this point it lacks a high profile front man after COSATU’s on-off general secretary, Zwelinzima Vavi, failed to show and deliver his expected speech. Vavi remains opportunistically undecided as to which mast he should nail his political colours and is keeping all his options open in and outside COSATU.

For now NUMSA remains the biggest driver of the UF, and that, of course, will also impact on industry and government. But the UF has its work cut out if it is to generate sufficient popular support to be a counter to the EFF, unless the two organisations join forces, which is not being ruled out.

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by Stef Terblanche

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