from Africa in Transition

The Morning After in South Africa

April 7, 2017

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For now, Jacob Zuma has succeeded in defeating his rivals for the leadership of the African National Congress (ANC) and an upcoming parliamentary vote of no-confidence will likely fail. The intra-party show-down has followed on the heels of his dramatic cabinet reshuffle. Zuma carried out this reshuffle without consultation within the ANC or with its partners in government, the South African Communist Party (SACP) and the Congress of South African Trade Unions (COSATU).

The two leading opposition parties, the Democratic Alliance (DA) and the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) have called for a vote of no confidence in the National Assembly. It has been scheduled for April 18. To be successful, the vote would require the defection of fifty to sixty of the ANC’s 249 members. (The National Assembly has four hundred seats; almost all of the opposition members will vote for the motion.) However, the ANC collective party leadership has now rallied behind Zuma, making such defections highly unlikely. South Africa operates according to a “closed list” system of proportional representation. The electorate votes for the party, not an individual. Before each election, a party leadership prepares a list of candidates: it determines the place on the list of each candidate. Those at the top of the list are usually assured a seat; those at the bottom are not. Hence, any party has a whip-hand over its members in the National Assembly. For an ANC member to vote against the party is political suicide – unless the party leadership splits. Even though three of the “top six” leaders of the ANC were publicly critical of the reshuffle, and the SACP and COSATU called for Zuma’s removal from office, it has not. Rather, the party has publicly rallied behind Zuma.

The removal of Gordhan, a steady hand on the economy and dyke against public corruption, has given investors pause.  S & P Global has downgraded South Africa’s credit rating to junk status and the currency has fallen about 11 percent in value. Economic growth, already anemic, will likely stall as domestic and foreign investment dries-up. So long as Zuma stays in office, this trend is likely to continue.

Between now and the December ANC vote for a new party leader, Zuma is likely to seek to consolidate support for his hand-picked successor. Though he is flying high now, it is by no means certain that he will be successful in December, especially as the economy deteriorates. The faction fighting should not be seen in left vs. right or radical vs. conservative terms. Zuma’s critics included Cyril Ramaphosa, a black oligarch as well as deputy president and aspirant for the presidency, and the ostensibly left-wing SACP and COSATU. Nor should it be put in a pro-west vs. anti-west context. Zuma is no friend of the west and appears attracted to a closer relationship with Russia. But, Gwede Mantashe, at one stage a Zuma critic, has leveled the ridiculous charge that the American embassy in Pretoria is plotting “regime change” in South Africa. However, there is an urban vs. rural and reform vs. tradition dimension to the faction-fighting. Broadly speaking Zuma’s critics within the ANC are urban and seek better to position South Africa in the modern world; Zuma’s core support is rural, and he has cultivated relationships with traditional rulers. Increasingly, that is where the ANC’s electoral support is to be found. The party now governs only one of South Africa’s large cities, Durban. Over time, the party’s rural base is a wasting asset as the country is urbanizing rapidly. But, for now, the party’s leadership structure favors rural areas where its votes are, and Zuma has cultivated effective patronage/clientage networks among them that this week was crucial to his defeating the challenges to his authority.

This episode leaves the ANC a shambles. Its factional divisions are there for all to see. The upcoming no-confidence vote is lose/lose for the party. It will likely win the vote, demonstrating that the party has no way of responding to Zuma’s bad governance and dubious friends. On the other hand, should the vote succeed through circumstances difficult now to foresee, then the party will be exposed as a paper tiger. However, as I argue in Morning in South Africa, this entire episode is an illustration of the strength and maturity of South African democracy, nothing that has occurred has been illegal or extra-constitutional.