Last Friday, South Africa’s President Jacob Zuma kicked off a political firestorm after sacking his finance minister, Pravin Gordhan, along with nine other cabinet ministers. Gordhan was appointed following a similarly controversial reshuffle in December 2015 when Zuma was accused of appointing a relatively unknown backbencher Minister of Finance to clear the way for what many observers saw as his reckless and corrupt policy agenda. After markets sent the value of the South African rand plummeting, Zuma brought in the more experienced and well-respected Gordhan to restore confidence.
Gordhan went on to challenge the President, working to root out cronyism in state-owned companies, resisting Zuma’s calls for expensive new nuclear power plants and generally working to ensure fiscal discipline. He also intervened to curb the influence in government of the by now notorious Gupta business family, who are close friends and political allies of Zuma and are accused of meddling in political appointments, using their political ties to further their business interests.
Gordhan’s sudden removal shattered whatever confidence had been built, sending the rand into another tailspin and prompting the ratings agency Standard and Poor’s to downgrade South Africa’s credit to junk status. A political backlash also followed with criticism coming both from opposition parties and from within the ANC. Deputy President Cyril Ramaphosa and ANC Secretary General Gwede Mantashe, among other party heavyweights, were quick to condemn the President’s move while the ANC’s two coalition partners in the tripartite alliance, South Africa’s largest union Cosatu and the SA Communist Party, called for the President to step down.
The degree of dissent within the ANC is unprecedented, but it comes on the back of numerous corruption scandals, which dogged Zuma even before he became President. More generally, Zuma and the ANC now stand accused of facilitating a form of “state capture”, a term used notably in the wake of the 2015 cabinet reshuffle to denote the growing influence of the Gupta family and President Zuma’s reliance on cronyism and patronage to shore up his support. The Gupta’s engaged the London-based PR company, Bell Pottinger, to help drive a counter narrative that Zuma is in fact fighting “white monopoly capital”. But this diversion tactic mostly seems to have stirred up discontent amongst South Africa’s business elite—not to mention within Bell Pottinger—while fuelling a more radical, left-wing critique of business influence in South Africa. As one of the indefatigable MPs from the opposition Economic Freedom Fighters recently argued, refering to the latest reshuffle: “This is not an anti-white monopoly capital move, rather it is a kleptocratic and corrupt agenda that is trying to co-exist with the equally corrupt white monopoly capitalism.”
In general, South Africans are not interested in having the wool pulled over their eyes. While Zuma’s support remains strong in many rural areas, particularly his home province of KwaZulu-Natal, the ANC is struggling to maintain its hold over many of South Africa’s cities, as demonstrated during the last local elections. What’s more, the country has seen a rise in the number of protests as people decry deteriorating services and poor economic prospects in context of ever more endemic corruption.
After the initial furore, the ANC itself appears to have opted for a strategy of damage control. Earlier this week, the party’s National Working Committee (NWC)—a body dominated by Zuma supporters—simply resolved to “discuss” with Cosatu and SACP calls for Zuma to leave while ignoring pressure to call an extraordinary meeting of the ANC National Executive Committee (NEC), which could take action to remove Zuma. While there are still rumours of internal manoeuvring to convene the NEC, other observers argue that the likes of Deputy President Ramaphosa may be biding their time ahead of leadership elections at the next party conference in December. Ramaphosa is a top contender to go up against Zuma’s former wife and favoured candidate, Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma. The only other formal challenge to Zuma on the horizon is a no-confidence vote in Parliament scheduled for later this month. While a number of ANC MPs have resigned, presumably to avoid having to vote against Zuma and risk party disciplinary measures, the numerical strength of the ruling party in the legislature means the vote will almost surely fail.
Still, the dust is far from settled. It remains to be seen whether the SACP and Cosatu continue to support the ANC within the tripartite alliance, and what an eventual break would mean for the ANC electorally. Meanwhile, protests calling for Zuma to leave are scheduled to take place across South Africa today. These come amidst concerns that the ANC youth league plans to confront protesters while at least one Mayor has reportedly threatened to deploy “all security agencies including police” to arrest “anyone who marches against Zuma.”
As Zuma tries to ride out the storm, clouds are gathering around the ANC. This crisis may die down, but the economic damage has been done and the factional battle lines within the ruling party have been forged even deeper. As the cost of living rises drastically and the country’s poor are worst affected, it’s unclear if the ANC will be able to retain the majority’s electoral support in the rapidly approaching 2019 elections. Zuma has promised ‘radical economic transformation’ and a turn to ‘appropriation without compensation’ in land reform – populist moves which might just be enough to retain control of the state, but will push the economy even further into dangerous territory. As noted in much political commentary of late, a famous line from Yeats suddenly seems very timely: “Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold.”