Practical Reason blog

This blog contains some of my opinion pieces and short essays about politics. I will also place topical personal and political writing here.

Some of my books and edited collections are listed in the sidebar to the right. I have tried to indicate their intended audiences.

The home page shows deputy president Cyril Ramaphosa and NUM general secretary Frans Baleni at a NUM meeting in Boksburg in 2015.

In the 2014 photo above, taken at the Presidential Guesthouse, President Zuma had just returned from Moscow, amidst rumours of illness or even poisoning. He seemed fragile and vulnerable. This did not last.

Anthony Butler

Ramaphosa’s precommitment strategy

Conventional wisdom suggests that a sensible politician will not tie his own hands. How often have we watched a political leader twisting and turning to avoid making a commitment to which he can later be held? If politics is the art of the possible, why shrink the boundaries of possibility in advance?

In the recent past, however, President Cyril Ramaphosa has deliberately circumscribed his own future freedom of choice. This apparently curious strategy has now begun to pay political dividends.

First, in the campaign for the ANC presidency, Ramaphosa ran a respectful race against his adversary, Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma. He refused to campaign on the basis of her weaknesses, or the problematic relationship she was widely assumed to have retained with then state president Jacob Zuma. In retrospect, we can see how easily bridges might have been burned if Ramaphosa had exploited the obvious weaknesses in Dlamini-Zuma’s record.

Ramaphosa’s past restraint has enabled him to enjoy a positive relationship with Dlamini-Zuma today. This has undercut claims that the ANC would inevitably split over the December Nasrec outcome. Ramaphosa also enjoys a high degree of flexibility when it comes to the appointment of a deputy state president in the absence of the expected nominee, David Mabuza.

In a second precommitment, Ramaphosa embraced the controversial ANC resolution at Nasrec in support of expropriation without compensation. There were plenty of good reasons to drag his heels or to equivocate, among them proliferating land invasions and nervous international investors.

By unfailingly supporting an explicit right on the part of the state to effect expropriation of land without compensation, Ramaphosa went into national elections undercutting the EFF’s more radical plans to nationalise all SA land. Now the president can manage changes to government policy in a less politically charged environment.

Third, Ramaphosa committed himself last February to reduce the size of the cabinet and undertake a streamlining of the machinery of government. At the time this appeared to be an eccentric decision. After all, as Jacob Zuma demonstrated so amply, adding additional cabinet members and deputy ministers provides a convenient way of dispensing patronage to potential adversaries and buying off discontent.

Now that the election is won, however, Ramaphosa’s precommitment has suddenly become a powerful weapon to wield against his adversaries. Rather than being faced with a tortuous set of negotiations about who is to sit on which chairs around a very large cabinet table, Ramaphosa has the perfect pretext to remove politically inconvenient comrades altogether. Given the strength of his promise to downsize, indeed, he is more or less obliged to undertake a drastic cull.

The binding character of this obligation has now encouraged a number of problematic senior comrades – Malusi Gigaba, Nomvula Mokonyane and Baleka Mbete among them – to jump ship in advance of what had become their almost inevitable exclusion.

Finally, Ramaphosa placed corruption in his own party at the centre of the election campaign. Talking tough about the issue, Ramaphosa repeatedly pledged that action would be taken, and that misdemeanours would not be swept under the carpet.

Continuing a narrative that helped him narrowly secure the ANC presidency in December 2017, Ramaphosa presented himself as the leader of the “good ANC”, intent on uprooting the “bad ANC” that had taken charge in the Zuma years.

Given the absence of any early progress in corruption investigations, and the presence in government of many of those implicated, Ramaphosa was asking voters to take a big gamble on him – and on the ANC. It is in the nature of his precommitment to reform that he simply cannot shift towards politically expedient cabinet appointments over the course of this weekend.

The strategy of binding oneself in the future is counterintuitive for most politicians, and they have often viewed Ramaphosa’s precommitments as strategic blunders. However, as every good constitutional negotiator knows, appropriate precommitments can sometimes be the very essence of political power.

• Butler teaches public policy at the University of Cape Town.

Who was behind Ramaphosa’s rise?

Cyril Ramaphosa’s rise to the deputy presidency of the ANC in 2012 was a surprise, even to many people who knew him well. The immediate circumstances in which he was elected made it even more surprising.

On August 16 2012, in the mining area of Marikana, police units gunned down 34 miners, many, perhaps most, in cold blood. As a major shareholder in Lonmin and a director, Ramaphosa was inextricably tied to these terrible events.

Many South Africans understandably assumed Ramaphosa’s political career was over. However, just four months later he was elected deputy president of the ANC at the movement’s 53rd national congress, held in Mangaung in December 2012.

Jacob Zuma’s campaign managers in 2012 faced real problems finding a suitable “top six” slate for the conference. Zuma’s best option was to retain his current deputy, Kgalema Motlanthe, but Motlanthe refused to play ball. He expressed his disdain for the direction Zuma was taking the ANC and the country.

Motlanthe refrained from launching an open campaign for the presidency, and he also did not decisively rebut Zuma’s advances. His strategy left the Zuma camp bemused. In March 2012, nine months before the elective conference, the Sunday Times ran a story suggesting that Zuma wanted Motlanthe as his deputy — but only if Motlanthe agreed not to challenge him for the presidency.

Zuma’s lieutenants were also keen to establish greater market credibility. It was safe to assume Ramaphosa’s arrival would reverse some of the deterioration in investor sentiment. Ramaphosa could also potentially address some of the ANC’s wider electoral troubles. Luthuli House strategists felt the ANC would be damaged in the 2014 elections if it had Zuma as its sole figurehead.

One other factor, however, towers above all these: Ramaphosa’s prospects of eventually succeeding Zuma seemed to be exceptionally slight. It would be wrong to say he had absolutely no constituency, but he did not possess an organised network in the provinces to challenge for the succession.

Recall that Thabo Mbeki probably chose Zuma to be his deputy because he thought he could never become his successor. Mbeki’s first preference was apparently Mangosuthu Buthelezi. Subsequent events proved Mbeki wrong: Zuma was not so easy to sweep aside after all.

What, then, about Marikana? Here there is an apparent twist of history. In Zuma’s eyes, the shadow of Marikana made the case for Ramaphosa stronger. A presidential commission of inquiry appointed by Zuma, the Farlam commission, was already interrogating Ramaphosa’s role in those tragic events. It is easy to see how Zuma could use such an investigation to undermine his deputy at a time of his choosing. Such were the perverse implications of the Marikana massacre: by rendering Ramaphosa more deeply vulnerable, it helped bring about his rise.

Let us return again to Motlanthe. He was not blind to the overwhelming evidence that he could not win the presidency at Mangaung. By resisting calls to accept Zuma’s offer to stay on, but keeping channels of communication open, Motlanthe steered Zuma into the trap of replacing him with Ramaphosa.

Readers may recall a photo of Motlanthe taken by Greg Marinovich at the Mangaung conference, after Zuma had defeated Motlanthe and Ramaphosa had been elected as his deputy.

Motlanthe gave a victory sign. An anonymous informant — a longstanding member of the party’s national executive committee — told me he asked Motlanthe in 2007 why he was not challenging for the ANC presidency. Motlanthe said another leader — Ramaphosa — was “coming up”.

In his farewell address to parliament in 2014, Motlanthe said that “at some point, serving leadership must give way so that new blood, fired up with life-changing ideas, can take society to a higher level of development”. He quoted HG Wells’s advice that leaders’ ashes “should not choke the fire they have lit”. Motlanthe continued: “I would not let my ashes choke the verdant future that is beginning to assume some discernible outlines on the horizon.”

There is little doubt that Ramaphosa played a “long game” with regard to the ANC presidency. My suspicion is that his ambition was so deep and relentless that he was always trying to discern a route to the summit. But in politics you need others to work alongside you. Motlanthe and Mantashe were both vital parts of the collective that brought about Ramaphosa’s rise.

• Butler teaches public policy at the University of Cape Town. This column draws on his latest book: Cyril Ramaphosa: The Road to Presidential Power.

Magashule has to go

President Cyril Ramaphosa had a good election campaign. Whatever the final outcome of the national and provincial polls, he ran well ahead of his party in every credible opinion survey. Nobody can doubt the contribution that he has made to the ANC’s victory margin.

While he waits along with the rest of us for the final results to be announced, he is almost certainly wrestling with major decisions on two fronts. The first broad front concerns government. In February, soon after he assumed office as president of the country, he made a promise to reduce the size of the cabinet and to restructure central government departments. This was a substantial and high-profile commitment and he cannot now easily backtrack on it.

Last week, the ANC reiterated as a matter of fact that section 84 of the constitution gives the president a “prerogative to appoint and dismiss ministers … the issue of the cabinet is solely a presidency matter”.

Ramaphosa also told the party’s Siyanqoba rally at Ellis Park last weekend that cadres found guilty of corruption would not form part of his government. While he may yet insist on waiting for the Zondo commission to conclude its meandering deliberations, the promised downsizing provides him with a political pretext for pre-emptive removals.

An intriguing suggestion recently circulating has been that Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma might be appointed deputy president. This would mend Nasrec divisions, restore gender balance and bring KwaZulu-Natal back into the top tier of leadership. It would also reiterate the futility of the “fightback” allegedly being undertaken by an increasingly isolated Ace Magashule. Dlamini-Zuma herself has confirmed in a memorable soundbite that, “if I’m asked to sweep the floor, I’ll sweep it very clean – whatever I’m asked to do I will do”.

Another Nasrec hopeful, Zweli Mkhize, would be an interesting prospect for the finance department if Tito Mboweni cannot be prevailed upon to remain. He could be supported by former Gauteng finance MEC Barbara Creecy, who would make an admirable deputy.

We might have to wait a little longer for Ramaphosa’s promised central government restructuring. The president has no doubt discovered that state reform has a paradoxical aspect: guidance about how to make the public service more effective and efficient tends to come from ineffective and inefficient sources, such as the department of public service and administration.

When reform comes, it will probably leave the Treasury untouched and rationalise the economy cluster, which has become a mish-mash of competing ministers, policies, and ideologies. Meanwhile, Ramaphosa is sure to beef up the presidency itself, bolstering the planning machinery, developing new policy research capacity and introducing a unit to unblock obstacles to delivery.

The president also has to act on a second broad front, where matters are equally urgent: he has to stabilise the ANC itself. On his way to vote on Wednesday, former president Kgalema Motlanthe told reporters the ANC leadership “is well aware that this is the last chance. Therefore I have no doubt in my mind that soon after the elections they will attend to all the weaknesses in the party.”

The ANC’s national executive committee (NEC) has one immediate decision to make, and that is how to tackle the problem posed by its own secretary-general, Ace Magashule. His long history of procedural manipulation in his former province, Free State, suggests he is more than fully complicit in the kind of abuses that the secretary-general needs to correct.

Readers of Pieter-Louis Myburgh’s book Gangster State have waited with bated breath for Magashule to supplement book-burning with legal action. The fact that Magashule’s attack-lawyers have remained in their kennels suggests the secretary-general will sooner or later come to the attention of the criminal justice system.

The ANC will pay a great price in terms of lost credibility if Magashule has to be painfully and embarrassingly removed at a later and less politically convenient time. The NEC therefore has a difficult but inescapable decision to take: it must find a way to remove Magashule now.

• Butler teaches public policy at the University of Cape Town.

Climate resilience

The death and devastation in KwaZulu-Natal and the Eastern Cape this week have focused minds on SA’s limited preparedness for future climate-related emergencies.

President Cyril Ramaphosa and senior ministers rushed to comfort distraught communities and expressed their sympathy for those affected. The Treasury released emergency relief funds. Co-operative governance minister Zweli Mkhize announced the deployment of a task team to assess the damage caused to roads, bridges and other public infrastructure.

Critics’ voices have been muted, mostly bewailing the underfunding of disaster management agencies and the limited capacity of municipalities to deal with the unexpected challenges they confronted. It is surely time, however, for the government to move away from its traditional dependency on post-impact rescue, recovery and reconstruction interventions.

The president commented that “loss of life is never easy, especially when so unexpected”. This week’s specific events were not predicted, it is true, but growing vulnerability to such climate events is hardly unexpected. Post-impact disaster response is no longer enough. A more comprehensive and proactive approach could reduce the risks posed by climate disasters using prior readiness and mitigation measures.

A good start was made with the national climate change response white paper in 2011. The department of environmental affairs sponsored research into longer-term “adaption scenarios”. Such work tries to capture how the climate is likely to change and explores the impacts such changes might have on human settlements, economic activity and food security. Researchers have also explored the potential incidence of climate emergencies caused by floods, storms and droughts.

This research has been in some respects inconclusive. As climatic conditions have become increasingly variable, it has proved very difficult to predict weather patterns and abnormalities. It has been harder still to use historical data or model-based projections to predict specific impacts in such a way that local disaster relief agencies might plan for them.

There is growing interest among practitioners in “climate resilience” approaches, which emphasise the importance of broader preventative actions to mitigate the impacts of climate change events before they have taken place.

Although one cannot protect every bridge against storm damage, a road system can be designed so that unanticipated weather events are less likely to cut off whole communities from access. Water pipelines can be designed with resilience built in, so damage to one element of the system does not shut down household supplies altogether.

Municipal zoning ordinances can in principle be used to prevent people from building houses on the banks of rivers. Where this does not work, early warning systems need to be in place, so that weather service predictions are translated into urgent warnings for vulnerable households to leave.

For such preventative actions to work, communities and public institutions need to be involved in them. Parents and schools alike, for example, need to know what actions to take to keep children out of harm’s way in the event of a severe weather event.

SA is blessed with a number of energetic environmental activists, in universities, civil society organisations and the government. But one recent colloquium concluded that “knowledge generation and learning exchanges are currently taking place in … nodes of knowledge and sharing that often involve the same people”.

The department of environmental affairs, meanwhile, has notoriously limited political power. It has always been viewed as a junior partner by larger departments, whose clients have spewed out pollution largely unchecked. Its current climate adaption strategy depends entirely on the compliance — and the budgets — of other national government departments, and those of municipalities. All of these actors have other priorities. This means climate change resilience has been integrated only nominally into national development planning.

Two decades ago, during the HIV/Aids policy debacle, South Africans learned by painful experience that the government does not always cope well with science. Sometimes a single line department, such as the department of environmental affairs or the department of health, simply cannot solve a wider national challenge alone. Climate change is just as important and just as complex as HIV/Aids policy. It too needs to be driven from the presidency.

• Butler teaches public policy at the University of Cape Town.

Alex Shutdown

The ANC used to have a state-of-the-art campaign machine. It was professional, made sensible use of research and advertising,  and carefully targeted its appeals to voters.

This week, however, the pressure began to tell. In two key provinces, Western Cape and Gauteng, the ANC has been wracked by tantalising hopes and terrible fears. These provinces represent the future of the country, with their young and growing populations and their vibrant economic activity.

As usual, the ANC’s campaign head, Fikile Mbalula, has rallied prominent celebrities. Actress and model Minnie Dlamini; rapper AKA; seductive lyricist Chomee; hunky actor Ntokozo Dlamini; and celebrity writer and philosopher Peter Bruce: all have rallied to the ANC’s cause.

The ANC’s internal polls, however, suggest the movement is still in danger. It has responded with an uncharacteristic throw of the dice: by instigating protests against the DA-led city governments in Johannesburg, Tshwane and Cape Town.

The “Alex shutdown”, launched more than a week ago, has involved an uneven and mostly unimpressive distribution of barricades, symbolic violence, and political verbiage.

At the centre of the “shutdown” has been a call for DA mayor Herman Mashaba to come to Alex and atone for his alleged sins. Given that there is obviously a plan to hound him out of the township — to “chase him away with his tail between his legs” — he has so far wisely declined the invitation.

On Tuesday, provincial premier David Makhura attended a meeting in Alex with “community leaders” (ANC cronies). He emerged to lambaste the mayor. Busloads of activists were meanwhile laid on in the township to celebrate Thursday’s programme of inauthentic community engagements with President Cyril Ramaphosa.

The Tshwane shutdown that began earlier this week, and the Khayelitsha shutdown that is currently underway, are likewise based on demands that DA mayors must “account to the community” for their misdemeanours.

Sentimental political activists will find it almost sweet that ANC leaders still think their party is a popular movement of the masses. Unfortunately for the ANC’s top leaders — who must have signed off on the shutdown — the whole fiasco has been marked by extraordinary incompetence. The ANC’s fingerprint on events has been so obvious that no citizen more sentient than a potato could view these protests as spontaneous or organic.

A large number of fake Twitter accounts were created to spread prepared messages about the Alex shutdown. Does the ANC not even have technologically competent people to cover its tracks? Why choose such implausible protest messages? Are “high water bills” really the key political issue in Khayelitsha?

The ANC and DA alike have been toying with “xenophobia” in recent weeks. This is the criminal targeting of poor black people from other countries — and often from the northern provinces of SA — for intimidation, extortion and violence. So concerned was the ANC that its popular rebellion would fail in Alex, that it mobilised xenophobia as the central issue in the shutdown. This is beyond pitiful.

The ANC also failed to anticipate voters’ backlash against being treated like imbeciles. Social media attention understandably turned to the disappearance of the R1.3bn dedicated to the Alex Renewal Project more than a decade ago.

The ANC hoped to exploit a general confusion with regard to the powers and responsibilities of cities, provinces, and national government departments. But most citizens know mayors do not exercise exclusive control over housing, education, and health programmes.

The shutdown nonsense has drawn attention to the failure of the ANC at national and provincial levels to support city projects in DA-run councils.

Worst of all, the liberation movement has been campaigning on the potential change promised by reputable leaders such as Ramaphosa and Makhura. They represent the “good ANC” that is supposedly going to rescue us from the “bad ANC” we have recently experienced.

But these squeaky clean politicians have now played leading roles in a poorly scripted campaign drama that has been based on lies, the terrorisation of foreigners, and the exploitation of the misconceptions of the poor.

This is not a good campaign strategy.

• Butler teaches public policy at the University of Cape Town.

Business minister needs to back business

Earlier this week, in advance of Friday’s announcement on Moody’s credit assessment of SA, trade & industry minister Rob Davies addressed the Cape Town Press Club. His subject? “How government intends to place the economy on the road to recovery.”

Davies has been at the helm of the department of trade & industry for a decade. His long term in office presumably represents a post-Polokwane payback to the SA Communist Party (SACP), whose central committee Davies has long graced.

He has reached the age of 70 and will not be returning to parliament after the May elections. His departure feels like the end of an era. Which era remains open to question: some say the Jacob Zuma period; others the 1960s; still others, more unfairly, the Soviet Union of the 1930s.

Thabo Mbeki was removed from the presidency by a leftist coalition just as pro-market economic theology was called into question by the global financial crisis. This conjuncture resulted in an all-too-hasty resurgence of the developmental state and “strategic” state-owned enterprises.

A brand new department for economic development meanwhile formulated a “new growth path” totally at odds with the Treasury orthodoxy.

For his part, Davies took the much bigger department down a resolutely interventionist road, championing re-industrialisation, tightening black economic empowerment (BEE) policy, and latterly promoting the incubation of black entrepreneurs.

It is not easy to evaluate these programmes’ successes and limitations. It is telling, however, that Davies’ own list of departmental achievements includes “slowing down the rate of de-industrialisation”. A fifth of economic activity was in the manufacturing sector when the ANC came to power; today it accounts for little more than a tenth.

Davies claims he was not “picking winners” but “taking actions that allow winners to emerge”. But the motor industry programme has become a corporate subsidy, retained because of recurrent panic about the consequences of phasing it out. Davies cites the collapse of the Australian car industry.

BEE, as ever, remains both absolutely essential and totally unrealisable. Equity in existing businesses has been partially redistributed, but the policy has not helped smaller businesses and light manufacturing — white or black — emerge or grow.

Davies’ ANC faction, the SACP, has been critical of the emphasis BEE policy has placed on distributing equity to politically connected rentiers. As minister, however, Davies has been unwilling to countenance any rethink.

His record with regard to trade has also been mixed. He has admirably looked to the longer term when it comes to regional institutions and to China. But China and our Southern African neighbours are not serious investors in SA. Davies has repeatedly rebuffed the people who actually do invest here, including the UK, the Netherlands and Germany.

Like other ANC leaders, he has made policy for the partners he wishes SA had, rather than for the ones we actually have. Worse still, Davies has failed to represent the urgent needs of business inside the policy process. A major priority should have been reversing — or at least effectively mitigating — SA’s disastrous skilled migration policies.

Davies refuses to estimate the damage that has been done to business by electricity price hikes and rolling blackouts. He talks of a “dampening effect” on the economy, and concedes that those worst hit are small enterprises, emerging black industrialists and township businesses.

“Nobody had the intention of wrecking Eskom,” he suggests, failing to acknowledge the responsibility of ANC fundraisers (starting with Chancellor House), politicians and their families who have milked the Eskom coal supply chain, and party-sanctioned deployees to the boards of SOEs.

Davies also seems to have forgotten that as a loyal member of the SACP he backed the disastrous frustration of the 1998 energy white paper’s goals. He is still reticent about investment by independent power producers and the creation of a wholesale electricity market.

It is not yet clear how economic policy-making will change under President Cyril Ramaphosa. We can only hope that the department of trade and industry, or whatever replaces it, will be led by someone as clever and hardworking as Davies. But the new minister also needs to be in business’s corner.

• Butler teaches public policy at the University of Cape Town.

ANC dominance (from 2016)

THE idea of one-party dominance has shaped a good deal of political analysis since 1994. The overwhelming political power of the ANC has been viewed both positively and negatively.

Governing party sympathisers have portrayed ANC control as the only sure way to stabilise a divided society, to widen economic opportunities and to entrench democratic politics. Inequality and racial division, from this view, have been major threats to social stability. The ANC has managed such potential conflicts internally, balancing state and party appointments, cajoling different races to work together, and clamping down on potentially anti-democratic leaders. Robust multi-party competition, in contrast, would have destabilised a political system that lacked sound, legitimate and trusted institutions.

The negative view of ANC dominance has been argued equally vehemently. Elections without the countervailing power of a credible opposition, this argument runs, cannot check authoritarian tendencies. Party dominance encourages an arrogant governing party to view itself as the state; it allows patronage politics to grow unchecked; and it facilitates the abuse of the incumbency advantages, money and media control in order to secure re-election.

Both these sets of insights are illuminating (although many commentators have embraced only one or the other). One positive interpretation of the local government elections is that the country is escaping the dilemmas that dominance potentially creates. Over the past 20 years, the ANC has indeed entrenched the legitimacy of democratic institutions – for example, the courts and the electoral commission – by making them more racially representative and by aligning them to a constitutional order. South Africans have meanwhile become accustomed to free and fair elections and will not lightly consent to their manipulation.

Meanwhile, the opposition parties that once evidently lacked the ability to govern a complex society have gradually acquired such capabilities. The DA, in particular, has learnt how to govern in big cities and provinces, how to build coalitions, and how to recognise, and partially manage, the legacies of racial oppression.

This rosy view suggests that democracy may not merely survive, but also thrive, in the years ahead. Elections will become sites of political uncertainty, in which parties will need to respond to electors’ values and demands in order to win. The ANC may still govern, but it will need to remake itself in order to do so. Opposition parties, for their part, will have to remain open to coalition and compromise, and to reach out beyond their core constituencies.

Perhaps this is too rosy a view. The EFF may rejoin the ANC in 2019, taking opposition politics back to square one. The ANC leadership might take an authoritarian turn, trying to rig elections and curtail political competition. The legacies of apartheid, meanwhile, mean that inequality and injustice will continue to provide opportunities for racial mobilisation for decades to come.

The ANC, however, is a vast, sprawling and ideologically diverse movement that is very unlikely to fall under the effective control of an authoritarian leadership. The securocrats with whom President Jacob Zuma has surrounded himself, and even the celebrated ‘premier league’, lack the capabilities required to cement anti-democratic one-party rule.

A more real danger is that the game of democratic politics will distract political leaders’ attention from the constraints that the economy places on any government’s actions. The ‘dominant’ ANC’s most important achievement since 1994 has been its steadfast maintenance of prudent fiscal and monetary policy, despite all of the pressures and temptations to abandon it. For this accomplishment, it has been ridiculed and lambasted for two decades by self-indulgent commentators, trade unionists, civil society activists and scholars. The key hazard of a more competitive era of democratic politics is that symbolic and populist economic policies will become inescapable for any party that wishes to win power.

• Butler teaches public policy at the University of Cape Town

Malema’s dominance

Julius Malema’s organ, the EFF, has enjoyed some real successes. It exceeded 6% on its first electoral outing, placed land reform and youth unemployment on the political agenda, and rejuvenated the National Assembly. Putting ideology aside, it entered into qualified partnerships with the DA after the local government elections.

The EFF also has well-known weaknesses. The party’s ethnic and regional concentration continues to be a major limitation, especially given President Cyril Ramaphosa’s large political footprint in Gauteng and Limpopo.

In KwaZulu-Natal, where the EFF’s juvenile militarism seems laughable, it secured less than 2% in 2014. The party has evidently overcome its shortage of resources, but it has had to compromise with alleged gangsters and bank looters to do so.

The central problem for the EFF, however, lies in its leadership. It is totally dependent on Malema to secure its current base. But the “commander-in-chief” sets a cap on what the party can achieve in future.

Whatever the strengths of Floyd Shivambu — and they are not obvious — he could never replace or challenge his leader. At the Farlam commission of inquiry, Ramaphosa effortlessly made the party’s number three, Dali Mpofu, look like a rambling imbecile.

The only politician of real talent in the party’s central command is spokesman Mbuyiseni Ndlozi. While Shivambu’s instinct is to pin journalists physically to the wall, Ndlozi has some credulous reporters eating out of his hand. Little wonder he was apparently massaged down the party’s candidate list to seventh position.

Malema’s uncontested dominance contrasts with the contested leaderships of the ANC and the DA. As has been noted of North Korean leader Kim Jong-un, who is of a similar age and policy orientation to Malema, a Great Leader poses real challenges to any party.

It makes some political sense for the EFF to attack members of racial minorities who are not going to vote for the EFF in any event. Malema’s only partly reassuring 2016 comment that “we are not calling for the slaughtering of white people, at least for now” may verge on the promotion of genocide, but it nonetheless motivates some of the EFF’s base.

Racist attacks on Indians in government can also be electorally rational. If one has bigoted supporters, pandering to their bigotry can increase the intensity of their devotion to the Great Leader and his party organ. After all, DA and ANC leaders are for the same reason pandering before the elections to anti-foreigner sentiment that they know could cause loss of lives.

What is curious about Malema is his decision to escalate attacks on the majority of SA citizens: women. Bigoted men constitute a large minority of electors, and a majority of current EFF voters. But a decision to alienate more than half of the electorate seems an unlikely strategy for growing a small party’s vote.

When television and radio presenter Karima Brown inadvertently sent a message to an EFF Whatsapp group last week urging her colleagues to investigate whether Malema had any women in his new group of “party elders”, Malema had no hesitation in reposting the message, together with some political innuendo and Brown’s cellphone number. He must have known that this posed a real danger to Brown’s well-being, or even her life.

It will be interesting to see if the EFF is successful in finding some elderly women with sufficiently little self-respect to accept a last-minute drafting on to the party’s elders’ council.

Party strategists are not concerned merely with the number of votes they can muster in the election, of course, but also with the politics of post-election coalition.

Malema and his sidekick Shivambu have already indicated that the EFF is not a real political party: it is an ANC faction, waiting solely for an opportunity to return to the mother body on favourable terms. By pre-committing the party to deal with the ANC only, Malema has thrown away the party’s potential leverage.

Any party willing to negotiate with Malema, meanwhile, will be tacitly accepting the legitimacy of his abhorrent attitudes towards women.

• Butler teaches public policy at the University of Cape Town.

ANC splits

The ANC has quite often been a lousy party of government. As a campaigner in national elections, in contrast, it has been consistently formidable.

Victories are often attributed to factors outside the ANC’s control, such as voters’ knuckle-headed loyalty, entrenched race-based voting, or the self-destructive tendencies of opposition parties.

These arguments are not terribly persuasive. Black citizens’ votes are now spread across a range of competing parties. White voters have become increasingly tribal, it is true, but their block vote for the DA scarcely bolsters ANC power. The two big opposition parties, moreover, know their way around an election campaign.

This means the ANC deserves some credit for its electoral successes. It has cleverly reaped rewards for citizens’ gains, including improved access to housing, household services, and social grants.

The ANC’s political research and advertising is quite professional, and its campaign team is selected on merit, regardless of factional allegiance. It targets specific constituencies — including religious actors, traditional leaders, and black businesses — cynically but precisely.

The least recognised electoral skill of the ANC leadership has been knowing when to split, how to split — and when not to split. One misleading argument widely advanced today is that the ANC is unusually divided in advance of the May 8 ballot. Such alleged division is contrasted with a prior tendency to “pull together” before elections.

In late 2008, however, the national executive committee (NEC) of the ANC forced state president Thabo Mbeki to resign barely months before elections were due. The NEC acted in full awareness that Mbeki’s minions, such as Mosiuoa Lekota, Mbhazima Shilowa and Mluleki George, would quickly be dispatched by the Supreme Being to form a breakaway party that became known as the Congress of the People (Cope).

Cope received about 7% of the vote in 2009 – without doubt mostly lost ballots for the ANC. But Cope’s creation allowed the internal politics of the ANC to stabilise, bringing consensus to the candidate list process, a halt to purges of Mbeki loyalists, and a coherent campaign.

In the run-up to the 2014 elections the ANC leadership precipitated the creation of another breakaway party, the EFF. The immediate driver of Julius Malema’s initial five-year suspension in late 2011 was his switch of allegiance to the anti-Zuma camp. His full expulsion in 2012 flowed from a wider recognition in the leadership that he was a divisive force. The EFF secured more than 6% in 2014, again primarily drawn from likely ANC supporters. As in 2009, however, the split enhanced the cohesion and effectiveness of the ANC.

Another split might have followed Jacob Zuma’s recall from the presidency in February 2018. A breakaway would have supported the new leadership’s otherwise somewhat implausible central campaign narrative: that the “good ANC” under Cyril Ramaphosa is rehabilitiating the movement, while the “bad ANC” responsible for “state capture” is being expunged. Three factors militated against a split. First, key Zuma apparatchiks inside the party machine declared immediately that they would stay put. The close initial balance of power between winners and losers meant quickly forced expulsions were hard.

Second, the reliable part of the support base of the ANC is significantly smaller than in previous elections. Even if a breakaway of Zuma loyalists secured just 6%-7% of the vote, as Cope and the EFF managed in their first elections, this would risk an end to ANC majority government. Finally, Cope was in part an ethnic breakaway, funded by Eastern Cape political families. For its part, the EFF has enjoyed strong representation only in the north and Gauteng. But neither party has come close to winning a “home province”.

A post-Zuma breakaway, in contrast, could easily have secured the balance of power in KwaZulu-Natal and so reversed the ANC’s historic gains in that province. The winners and losers alike have decided to remain together, at least for now, in the ANC’s big tent. They have been quite rational in doing so.

 

 

• Butler teaches public policy at the University of Cape Town.