Living dangerously in SA

MUCH HAS been written and largely pieced together about the political events precipitated by President Zuma’s dismissal and appointment of three Finance Ministers in one week, now commonly known as FinMinGate.

The symbolic meaning of these events cannot be under-estimated and their repercussions are set to continue well into the New Year and beyond.

South Africa stands at a clichéd crossroads – yet again. At the end of 2015, the choice is stark. The preferred alternative is a functioning government largely cognisant of global conditions and constraints as well as accepting of the domestic constitution and the importance of its own checks and balances.

The second option is one that was narrowly averted only two weeks ago. An unashamed attempt at cementing ‘big man’ politics – a move by a powerful president to further his favoured patronage networks in order to capture key organs of the state. This has been an incremental feature of the post-Mandela era, but has proceeded apace under Jacob Zuma.

These two options present clearly defined choices, although there is also a middle ground – one in which the democratic state is largely adhered to but simultaneously affords connected elites and political buddies the chance to take centre stage. To be true, a variation on this model occurs across most countries – even in the most ‘transparent’ democracies.

What seems to have set South Africa aside in the last few weeks are a number of worrying trends. Firstly, as we move towards the post-Zuma era, the need to cement largesse and patronage takes on new forms. Those who feel vulnerable to political change will assert their influence in the hope that their slice of the pie will be preserved.

Or, they simply demand more and more as the political stakes of pending leadership change adds a dynamic of avaricious desire to those who believe they can influence the choice of president. It is in this context that President Zuma moved to take full control over the Treasury by dismissing Nhlanhla Nene and installing David van Rooyen.

The perilous financial condition of most state owned enterprises, associated graft-related scandals and questionable state/business linkages has been a feature of the country’s recent past.

This represents a near endemic shift towards a political culture, which is perpetuated when the distribution of the spoils of office takes precedence over the formal functions of the state.

Like a proverbial pyramid scheme, more and more join in the largesse trough and are dependent on each other for its benefits.

Particularly disturbing is that the hitherto incremental development of ‘bigmanism’ since the Mbeki era was fast-tracked by Zuma’s intended actions to replace Nene.

The expediting of this was done with absolutely no regard, nor understanding for the effect on the domestic economy and its global market-related linkages.

And, whilst no one can blame a particular patronage network – notably the so-called Premier League and their dependents – the years of creeping ‘bigmanism’ have taken their toll on a critical executive.

The hapless explanation from ANC deputy secretary general Jesse Duarte that government was caught unaware over the effects of the Nene axing points to a fundamental failure of leadership to understand (or care about) the broader operating environment.

Even worse was Small Business Minister Lindiwe Zulu who implied that Zuma’s inept actions had somehow been manipulated by the business sector to undermine the country on global markets.

While paranoia and conspiracy theories are not new to the ANC – especially in times of distress – the complete disdain for the role of the markets is a theme that clearly permeates a substantial group within Cabinet – and in the corridors of power.

The problem therefore with the attempt at ‘bigmanism’ is that it is supported by those antithetical to the market and those who simply do not understand how it works. It’s no wonder that the vilified ‘market’ was swift to punish such actions.

With this in mind, 2016 and 2017 both have events that can destabilise the positon further.

Local elections are more risky for the ANC than ever before. And, keeping the patronage networks in place are increasingly important to secure electoral support.

The ANC still relies on donors – but these are fewer than before. Keeping the vested business interests happy are increasingly essential to support at the polls.

And, if the ANC support does drop nationally to below 60% and perhaps includes a symbolically important Metro upheaval in Nelson Mandela Bay or even Tshwane, buying back loyalty and support becomes even more costly as other political players (like the EFF or DA) become more attractive recipients.

The same can largely be said for the ANC’s elective conference in 2017. The patronage camp has taken a knock following Pravin Gordhan’s re-appointment as Finance minister. But don’t expect them to go out without a fight to secure the number one job for their anointed successor. How much ability all the presidential contenders have to dispense patronage will be critical here too.

All this occurs in the context of a declining gross domestic product, high debt and possible junk bond status – not to mention large spending commitments to the nuclear programme, national health insurance and propping up the state-owned entity disasters.

So, the fight is on. And, those bad habits over the last decade and more are going to be tough to reverse. This makes for a highly messy and volatile South Africa in the short-term.

As political power erodes, so other institutions, like the Independent Electoral Commission can become vulnerable. And, when keeping power becomes a shared need of the pragmatists and those seeking patronage, new alliances emerge. As retaining political power trumps the stability of the country, the dangers mount.

It’s going to take exceptional leadership and extreme political risk from elements within the ANC itself to overcome these challenges. Or, South Africa’s historically lethargic electorate might well be the catalyst for change and awake from its slumber.

It may well be a political ruction that precipitates change – with a depleted fiscus as a direct stimulus to that change.

At least – on the eve of 2016, the choices are clearer than ever before. You can’t say you weren’t warned.


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