Protest Watch

Managing change in a fast-changing South Africa

No longer in full control.

It’s been coming for some time, but South Africa’s democracy finally grew up during the first week of April 2017 as the Zuma-era comes to an end, and political life in the country will never be the same again.

Whether his presidency it will formally ends on 18 April with a vote of no confidence, before December’s ANC elective conference at a meeting of one of the ANC structures, or lasts until the general election of 2019, Jacob Zuma has already lost control of South Africa.

With both members of his cabinet and partners of the ANC’s governing alliance rebelling lately, and at least 60 000 ordinary South Africans taking to the streets in protests, the message is clear – the days of allowing Jacob Zuma to act like a spoilt brat has come to an end. He is no-longer in control.

The ANC as an organisation, however seems to be switching gears to regain control, despite the kid behind the wheel for the moment.

Not all negative

As dangerous and confusing as the crossover from child- to adulthood can be for individuals, the country and the ANC is going through an extremely tremulous time and it is still unsure if the end results will be, an upstanding member of the community of states and a mature political party or malfunctioning delinquents.

Amongst the presently dominating negative signs – from indisputable signs of state capture, signs of economic mismanagement, the misuse of state security apparatus and a fracturing governing party, there are also some hopeful signs.

Amid all the thunder and lightning of the present political storm it is not easy to see, hear or recognise the positives, but they are there.

Besides the most obvious, like thousands of citizens peacefully taking to the streets, saying we want our country back to function properly for all, there are also the less noticed, but maybe fundamentally more important, positive signs.

Some of these signs sometimes comes from surprising quarters, like it did last week when the ANC accidentally (?) sent out “notes” from its National Working Committee (NEC) meeting.

At first glance the “notes” themselves does not reveal anything startling, damaging to the ANC or any surprises. They do, however, tell us something about the process that was followed in the NEC.

It has all the hallmarks of the type of document created in meetings that follow the disciplines of the sophisticated management tool, developed by Albert S. Humphrey in the 1960s, popularly known as SWOT analysis – an acronym from strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats.

A short definition of SWOT analysis reads: “…  a simple, useful framework for analysing an organization's strengths and weaknesses, the opportunities and threats faced, helping to focus on strengths, minimize threats, and take the greatest possible advantage of opportunities available.”

If the “notes” were not accidentally “leaked,” but rather deliberately fed into the public domain, it speaks to a particularly sophisticate level of strategizing.

There were probably some strong, top consultants operating at, or involved – maybe in the background – in the NEC meeting.

The positive from this is that there is apparently a culture of sophistication and professionalism developing in South Africa’s politics, which should over time improve the management of change.

Strategic consultants

The way government, and the ANC, reacted to Friday’s mass protests, also suggest a level of sophistication and forethought which just might also be ascribed to the involvement of consultants.

Compared to the past, government agencies, and particularly the police service reacted to the protests with great restraint and, where it had to act, it was mostly against formations of the ANC itself. If the latter was by design or because the ANC does not have full control over all its formations, one can only speculate.

However, what was clear, is that the ANC succeeded to project an image of tolerance and even some understanding towards the protesters and an image of protectors of democratic processes – a front on which it was under some considerable attack lately.

Another clear sign that the ANC probably got some professional strategic advice in how to react to the protests, came in its official reaction at the end of the day of the marches.

The, by now normal, threatening and radical ANC commentators in situations like this, were mostly silent.

However, besides Deputy President Cyril Ramaphosa declaring that every South African has the right to protest, Defence Minister Nosiviwe Mapisa-Nqakula (one of the less controversial members of cabinet) as chosen spokesperson, went as far as praising the protesters and the police for the mostly peaceful gatherings and even commended marchers for picking up litter afterwards.

Lessons for opposition

One can be sure that against the background of the controversies and cost associated with consultants like the public relations company Bell Pottinger, some questions will be raised about who were involved.

It can be expected that especially the opposition parties in parliament will – as they should and is their right and duty – will be raising questions and probe this element of what has been happening last week.

However, those opposing the ANC and especially the presidency of Mr Zuma should take note that raw emotions only take you so far.

They are clearly up against and well-resourced machine that is increasingly becoming more sophisticated in it resolve to cling to power.

To match it, some stronger, coordinated organisational structure/s is going to be needed to complete the job before the crowds start to fizzle out. Instruments like SWOT only work in well-structured organisations.

by Piet Coetzer

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