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 picture on the home page was taken during the 2016 local government election campaign. ANC leaders have fortunately since stopped wearing horizontal stripes.

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

Kim Jong-Malema

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.

Lekota is wrong about Ramaphosa

It is hard to know exactly what Congress of the People leader Mosiuoa Lekota was thinking when he launched his premeditated attack on President Cyril Ramaphosa as a “sellout” in parliament this week.

The paths of Ramaphosa and Lekota crossed in the 1970s as a result of their shared participation in black consciousness politics. Lekota, however, was four years older, and already a part of the national leadership of the movement. Ramaphosa was a young student whose contribution to the struggle was at that stage mostly confined to the backwaters of the University of the North.

When security police rounded up more than 200 black consciousness activists in a countrywide sweep in September 1974, Ramaphosa was too junior to be targeted. Ultimately just 9 senior leaders, including Lekota, Gilbert Sedibe, and Saths Cooper, would be prosecuted in the “black consciousness” or “Saso” trial that dragged on from January 1975 to December 1976. Displaying bravery and resilience in the face of isolation and torture, the trialists became heroes in the eyes of their followers.

Ramaphosa, meanwhile, was arrested at the police station in Turfloop under section 6 of the Terrorism Act, while he was leading a march to protest against just such detentions. He spent the next 11 months behind bars in solitary confinement. Detention was used to collect intelligence, to remove the leadership tier of anti-apartheid organisations, and to spread divisive rumours about collaboration.

They were not in this case successful instruments for getting activists to testify against their jailed leaders: in the Saso trial, almost nobody testified against the 12. For those who were detained without trial, meanwhile, the experience was dominated by fear, confusion and uncertainty. For the first months of solitary confinement Ramaphosa was allowed absolutely no reading material, not even a bible. He could hear the opening and closing of doors when others were released, and every day ended with shattered hopes of freedom. He retained his sanity by naming the insects that crawled across the floor of his cell.

Those who were detained but not charged, such as Ramaphosa, became the victims of security police strategies to sow confusion and mistrust. One tactic was to list detainees as potential state witnesses against the accused. Once listed, a prisoner could not be released on bail, and his detention was likely to drag on for further months.

Listing drove a wedge between a detainee’s family, allies and friends, and those of other detainees. The paranoia that was to mark the internal struggle of the 1980s — where everyone was a potential spy — was reaching its zenith. Locked away and disoriented, a detainee could also quickly come to believe that his friends doubted him.

Cooper was held in a neighbouring block to Ramaphosa at C-Max prison in Pretoria. The prisoners would pass messages from cell to cell, using code names and words to keep information safe from informers. In this way, Cooper became aware when Ramaphosa had arrived.

The black consciousness leadership was sceptical of claims spread by the security police about turncoats. “Most of us in the leadership were fully aware of who was and who wasn’t going to testify,” Cooper later recalled. “For us it was clear all along that Cyril was not going to testify … The purpose of listing someone as a potential state witness was to prevent any communication between that person and others.”

Political activists in the 1970s learnt very fast that the psychological mind-games of the secret police must not be allowed to destroy the humanity of their victims. They also learned that no detainee could hold out indefinitely against interrogation, especially when solitary confinement, or torture, were used. Prisoners would often sign affidavits that were not strictly true.

As activist-teacher Tom Manthata later recalled, “I never allowed myself unfounded suspicion that people were ‘sell-outs’ or whatnot. You are a sell-out only if you testify.” These were all hard-earned lessons, which Lekota in his advancing years seems to have completely forgotten.


• Butler teaches public policy at the University of Cape Town. This piece draws on a new edition of his biography of Cyril Ramaphosa, which will be published by Jacana in April.

Zille’s tax revolt

The DA’s website currently hosts a campaign: Stop the Tax Attack on South Africans! The party states that “South Africans are being made to pay for the ANC’s corruption and mismanagement of the economy over the last decade … We refuse to continue paying … Enough is enough!”

The campaign focuses on indirect taxes, notably the fuel levy, though it also rails against increases in income tax, value-added tax (VAT), and sugar tax.

“When you fill up your tank, you will pay R265 (a third!) directly into the pockets of the ANC-govt, in tax! … Stop these exorbitant petrol price increases by taking action against corruption instead.” The ANC must “balance the budget by CUTTING corruption — not taking from the pockets of the people”, it says.

The DA deliberately conflates the state with the ANC — the “ANC-govt” — into whose “pockets” a third of the cost of fuel is transferred. All this comes on top of the party’s apparent support for the nonpayment of e-tolls.

Western Cape premier Helen Zille extended the DA’s antitax campaign over the past week. In a series of tweets and interviews she insists that she will organise a tax revolt if the ANC is not punished at the polls later this year and miscreants implicated at the Zondo commission are not prosecuted

Zille points to “a whole lot of tax revolts in progress right now”: nonpayment of Eskom by municipalities, nonrenewal of TV licences, refusal to pay e-tolls and government ministers’ alleged failure to pay income tax.

The DA’s official campaign forefronts indirect taxes. VAT accounts for a quarter of revenue, while customs duties, excise duties and the fuel levy together account for about 15%. Zille, in contrast, focuses on 4.9-million“ordinary diligent middle-class taxpayers”.

This is a little more than the number of people who voted for the DA in the last national elections, a little less than the population of the Western Cape, and exactly the number of whites in SA.

Zille’s rhetoric seems designed to fuel the perverse sense of victimhood that sometimes grips these three groups, some of whom, it is fair to say, are abnormal and not especially diligent. The number 4.9-million is also the proportion of SA’s 14-million registered taxpayers who are responsible for 97% of income tax receipts, but 60% of tax revenues do not come from personal income taxes at all.

Zille is right that there is no unequivocal moral obligation to obey the law. It has proved surprisingly difficult over the past 2,000 years to come up with a compelling answer to the question: “Why should I obey the state?”

If I participate in a democratic election I am perhaps consenting to obey the winners. More plausibly, we may be under a moral obligation to obey a state that protects human rights or provides a wide range of liberties to its citizens.

But Zille makes a fundamentally important point: we should not obey the law just because it is the law. We have a duty to act in accordance with our own moral judgments. However, those like Zille who promote defiance should undertake their campaigns in a morally serious spirit, and with a clear awareness of their potentially negative consequences.

It does not seem prudent, on the face of it, to play political games with a tax revolt in a country engaged in a difficult experiment to entrench the legitimacy of constitutional government. Personal tax compliance is already falling, and many of Zille’s cherished 4.9-millionwill cloak self-interest under the moral bluster of an anticorruption campaign.

A successful revolt would force government to increase indirect and company taxes, and this would have severe consequences for employment and for the wellbeing of the poor. Tax compliance, once significantly weakened, will prove hard or impossible to re-establish.

There is no need to resort to the ridiculous claim that Zille’s actions are tantamount to treason. But we should ask the DA, and Zille, to try instead to win the election — and perhaps also to grow up.


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

For better or for worse, Ramaphosa is secure

SA citizens who are feeling sorry for their allegedly besieged president should cheer up. Cyril Ramaphosa’s situation is not as perilous as some observers have claimed.

It is difficult to see how former president Jacob Zuma’s cronies can launch a “fightback”. The ANC likes to imagine it has the power to “recall” a state president. But this alleged power is not found in the movement’s constitution. To be effective, a recall has to be backed by a credible threat to whip ANC MPs to vote against their own president in a no-confidence vote.

Even if a scandal erupted, Ramaphosa would first have to be kicked out of the ANC presidency, and that isn’t going to happen anytime soon. The next elective conference is in 2022, when Zuma and his cronies will be long gone. Today’s likely suspects — Zweli Mkhize, Paul Mashatile, and David Mabuza — each suffer from fatal limitations. Health issues aside, we will almost certainly not see a new ANC president until 2027.

There are various reasons the threat to Ramaphosa has been exaggerated. First, it suits Ramaphosa himself — for now. Even long-term opposition voters are rallying to  his side, determined to “save him for the nation” in the upcoming elections. Only baby-faced street fighter Pravin Gordhan has tear-inducing thespian genius that can compare to Ramaphosa’s.

Second, the ANC’s conception of “seniority” always makes it hard to put old presidents  such as Zuma out to grass. Nelson Mandela had to be shouted down in the national executive committee  to stop him attending. By 2002, Thabo Mbeki refused to pick up the phone when the old man called.

Little wonder Ramaphosa wants to create an elders’ council to house the old-timers. ANC chief whip Jackson Mthembu naughtily thinks a distant foreign posting is an even better idea: “The thought of deploying Nxamalala is welcomed. It will help the country.”

Third, South Africans often assume that an election win boosts the authority of a president. In presidential systems, that is true: the power of the leader is indeed greatest at the start of his term.

But SA has a parliamentary government and citizens vote for a party. The power of a president or prime minister in such a system is not a post-election injection; it is accumulated over time.

It took Mbeki some time to centralise personal power in an enlarged presidency. He simply ignored the pleas of many special interests and imposed his own foreign policy — and public health — preferences.

Zuma’s presidency began feebly in 2009. The new ANC leadership said “collective decision-making” would be the new norm. Pretty soon, however, Zuma was on a roll, using party power to control the state and state power to control the party. By the time he was evicted in 2018 he had become a danger to democracy.

Ramaphosa’s apparent vulnerability is therefore the norm rather than the exception. His power will grow as he weeds out old-order apparatchiks and accumulates control of the levers of state power and patronage.

Zuma has taught us that key centres of power — in the criminal justice system, intelligence services, parastatals, revenue authorities and the Treasury — can be seized by a determined politician who is willing to use presidential prerogatives to the full. The ANC can do little or nothing about it.

Mandela offered a prescient warning when he handed over the reins to Mbeki: “One of the temptations of a leader who has been elected unopposed,” he observed, “is that he may use his powerful position to settle scores with his detractors, to marginalise them and in some cases get rid of them, and to surround himself with yes-men and women.”

Once entrenched in the Union Buildings, Mbeki and Zuma did indeed accumulate powers relentlessly and sideline their rivals ruthlessly. Patronage and political manipulation, once injected with the emotions of fear and sycophancy that a president can inspire, were sufficient to propel these two rather implausible and unlikeable leaders surprisingly close to perpetual power.

How much harder will it be to contain the loveable Cyril Ramaphosa?

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

NDZ as stalking horse

Front runners: Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma and Cyril Ramaphosa. Picture: MASI LOSI

Ignore people who tell you that leadership succession does not matter. They are wrong.

The ANC presidency matters most of all, because it leads almost inexorably to the state presidency. The ANC will probably remain the party of national government — on its own or in coalition with others — after 2019.

SA has an executive presidency, housed in a parliamentary system. The incumbent combines the authority of a head of state with control of a party machine. It is true that the power of a leader to do good is limited, but their capacity to create havoc is vast. This is why the notion of prudence is — or should be — so central for those who think seriously about politics.

President Jacob Zuma is a remarkable politician. His reign of destruction is proof enough that leadership really matters in human affairs. My suspicion is that Zuma is going to get precisely the successor he has planned for. And it is not Dr Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma.

We have often been told that the succession struggle is a “two-horse race”. In one sense, this is correct. It is in the nature of a relatively fluid factional politics, dominated by the pursuit of resources, that two broad factions will fight for supremacy. There is no point joining a minority grouping.

One of the horses is definitely Cyril Ramaphosa. But it is starting to look like Dlamini-Zuma was never really in the race at all. She is a “stalking horse”: a horse-shaped screen behind which a hunter can stay concealed until it is time for him to strike.

When Zuma groomed her to compete for the highest ANC office, by sending her to the African Union Commission to acquire seniority, his acute political antennae would already have told him that she could not win in December. He promoted a no-hoper in full knowledge that her candidacy would not fly.

Why? Not because he believes she would not allow the prosecution of the father of her children. This is sentimental nonsense. Especially given that she cannot win.

A more likely explanation is that Zuma wanted to play the “third-term” card in the approach to the elective conference. “Tired though I am,” he probably planned to say, “I am obliged to step in and rescue the ANC from the unelectable candidate to whom I was once married, by staying on myself as ANC president.”

As events have unfolded, a third term for Zuma has become almost impossible to conceive, but Dlamini-Zuma remains eminently ditchable: this, after all, is why she is there at all.

Just as her un-electability in 2019 has begun to sink in across the movement, a third way, “unity” candidate has magically appeared: Dr Zweli Mkhize.

Mkhize is a very capable politician indeed. If, as appears likely, he is nominated for the presidency by a majority of branches in Mpumalanga, he will be on the ballot in December, and so will not have to rely on nomination from the conference floor.

Mpumalanga chairperson, David Mabuza, is young enough to wait out two Mkhize terms. He will probably trade his support — and the large number of provincial delegates he will control — for a place as Mkhize’s deputy, in the expectation that he will ascend to the presidency 10 years hence.

For his part, Ace Magashule will do anything to secure a national position before he is kicked out by his own Free State troops.

Once Dlamini-Zuma withdraws her candidacy — a decision that is effectively Zuma’s to take — Mkhize will cannibalise her support base in KwaZulu-Natal and the ANC’s leagues. He could then campaign on an “Anyone But Cyril” ticket. He would be a credible face for the ANC in the 2019 elections. And he could claim that he is not Zuma’s man.


• Butler is the author of Cyril Ramaphosa (Jacana, 2013). He is preparing an unauthorised biography of Dr Zweli Mkhize

NDZ campaign options narrow

The ANC constitution leaves no doubt about the authority of the movement’s national conference: it must be convened “at least once every five years”, and it is “the supreme ruling and controlling body of the ANC”.

Its formidable powers include determining the ANC’s policy, programme, and constitution, electing the “top six” officials and choosing the 80 additional members of the national executive committee (NEC).

As President Jacob Zuma’s power has ebbed, his attempt to impose Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma as his successor has lost the little credibility it once enjoyed.

Given that the conference is now unlikely to assent easily to his plans for the future of the organisation, his strategists may contemplate four areas where there is space for escalation: rigging; smearing; vexatious litigation; and violence.

Rigging is harder than it seems, despite the money reportedly being pumped into vote buying, and the membership system manipulation that is now prevalent across the whole movement.

The composition of the NEC-appointed electoral commission that will oversee the elections will reflect the major factions contesting the conference. A deeply divided NEC will also be involved in overseeing auditing and delegate selection processes.

While the Mangaung conference saw Zuma walk away with an easy victory, he will not have the secretary-general on his side in December.

All bets are off once the conference convenes. Delegates will be asked to endorse the names of the electoral commissioners nominated by the NEC. Representatives from each province and league will then be added to the commission to oversee the nitty-gritty of the election.

Many of these representatives will work hard to protect the integrity of the secret ballot: processes will be designed to exclude electronic interventions by spies and crooks. The electoral commission will not allow cellphones to be taken into the polling booth to prevent delegates from forwarding pictures of their ballot papers to paymasters.

The ANC constitution states that the conference “shall determine its own procedures in accordance with democratic principles”. As was the case when Thabo Mbeki was defeated at the 2007 Polokwane conference, delegates are likely to insist on a painstaking manual count of all votes.

In these ways, Zuma’s security state and money-politics advantages could be neutralised. Indeed, the faction associated with secretary-general Gwede Mantashe and deputy president Cyril Ramaphosa — former trade unionists both — is far more experienced than Zuma’s at the manipulation of contested mass elections.

The smearing of candidates on the Ramaphosa slate was always inevitable. The “nuclear relationship” between President Zuma and Russian President Vladimir Putin, however, poses a real risk of escalation.

A joint report in January by the three key US intelligence agencies observed that the Russian intelligence apparatus used sophisticated instruments to discredit presidential candidate Hillary Clinton. Moscow blended “covert intelligence operations” such as cyber activity with “overt efforts” by “government agencies, state-funded media, third-party intermediaries, and paid social media trolls”.

The US intelligence reports plausibly argued that, “Moscow will apply lessons learnt from its Putin-ordered campaign aimed at the US presidential election to future influence efforts worldwide”.

Smear-scepticism, however, is now well established in SA. And any attempt to remove Ramaphosa from the ticket could simply result in the elevation of another candidate with a similar support profile — for example Lindiwe Sisulu — to the top of the anti-Zuma slate.

What then of legal interventions? A Constitutional Court ruling in 2012, inspired by nefarious factional activities in the Free State ANC, established the courts’ authority to intervene where parties have not followed their own internal procedures. A potentially significant judgment concerning the election of the current KwaZulu-Natal leadership in November 2015 is currently awaited.

In the run-up to the December event — or, worse still, while delegates are jostling on the conference floor — judges could find themselves wrestling with numerous vexatious legal actions. The Ramaphosa camp could be enjoined to respect challenges designed for evidently dubious ends.

The judges, however, have shown excellent political judgment in recent years, and they can hopefully draw on their reserves of popular legitimacy.

For all these reasons, it is in the field of political violence that the Zuma camp possesses its clearest comparative advantage. The leadership of the security cluster is entirely partisan, and the current ministers responsible for policing inspire little or no confidence. The intensity of intimidation in political meetings and the incidence of political assassination are already sharply up.

Zuma’s political organisers, should they so wish, could probably generate an exceptionally volatile external environment in December. It is conceivable that large-scale student protests, threats to social grant delivery and ethnic mobilisation around an alleged anti-KwaZulu-Natal conspiracy could occur simultaneously.

Within the conference itself, some concerning recent trends — the corralling or exclusion of the media and the presence of large cohorts of intimidating state security personnel — might increase the vulnerability of conference delegates to coercion.

But the ANC, for all its faults, is now a very mature political organisation. Chicanery, lies and violence are part of cadres’ routine political repertoires.

The president’s camp may decide to escalate across a range of fronts, but it is difficult to see which real surprises it can unleash. Zuma’s chances of success in his efforts to control conference outcomes are increasingly slim.

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

Gupta-leaks raise the stakes

The full implications of the #GuptaLeaks e-mails have yet to sink in. In part, this is because the vast majority of the information these e-mails contain has yet to be released publicly. What has been released is so overwhelming in its scope and in the almost inconceivable audacity of the actions it records that a punch-drunk public has premature leak fatigue.

For the implicated politicians and officials — and presumably for members of the Gupta family, their employees and agents — a vision of two quite different futures has begun to crystallise.


In one scenario, the beneficiaries of public resource diversion will retire gracefully to a gold-plated condominium in the deserts of Dubai. It will now be equally easy to summon up a second vision, in which many of those who committed misdemeanours face public humiliation and prosecution.

In the past, creative entrepreneurs and politicians could ensure
they did not leave a trail of evidence. They could employ eraser software to overwrite the hard drives on their computers. Just to be on the safe side, they could head down to the hardware store and purchase a pair of safety glasses, a drill and a heavy hammer. So equipped, they could drill through their hard drive platters before pulverising them into small fragments.

The trouble with e-mails, however, is that they are not stored on a hard drive. A copy of every message is sent to the recipient’s e-mail server. Once there, it has moved beyond the control of its author. Although software contains “undo” or “recall” features and recipients can be asked to delete the e-mails, these are superficial fixes. The original e-mails and attempts to retract them will remain accessible to determined and skilled investigators and prosecutors.

The recent house-buying spree in Dubai indicates that the most senior likely suspects anticipate their time might eventually run out. But recourse to emigration is limited to a very few people at the top.

Most alleged miscreants enjoy protection that is primarily political. We live in a world of selective investigations and prosecutions. Given the depletion of capacity in the Hawks, and to a lesser degree in the National Prosecuting Authority, the prospect of punishment will continue to be selective in any plausible future.

In a world before #GuptaLeaks, an inconclusive commission of inquiry into state capture might conceivably have been commissioned, board members and officials could have moved sideways and wealthy politicians could have quietly retired.

But the Gupta e-mails place a select group of individuals, who allegedly benefited from state capture, in a position of permanent vulnerability. It suddenly matters much more to them than before that the levers of state power are not lost to political adversaries.

The elective conference the ANC is due to hold in December is probably going to be a close call. The Dlamini-Gupta-Zuma slate is severely disadvantaged by the disastrous choice of Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma as its figurehead and by the jostling of the small fry of the Premier League for positions they are not qualified to hold.

If it seems they are going to lose, a variety of compromised politicians and entrepreneurs may feel themselves cornered. They may believe they have no option but to create conditions on the ground that will lead to the conference being postponed.

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

Gupta-leaks threaten Zuma faction

The nonprofit organisation amaBhungane and the Daily Maverick’s newly launched investigative unit, Scorpio, say they have between 100,000 and 200,000 e-mails and other documents relating to the relationship between the Gupta family and the ANC government.

They indicate the documents are being placed on an “offshore” internet platform, where they will be accessible to “many bona fide journalists” — and, presumably, also to regulators and law-enforcement officials.

We can now expect a relentless stream of damaging stories that will undermine the credibility of members of President Jacob Zuma’s incumbent faction, including Finance Minister Malusi Gigaba.


Will such disclosures bring forward Zuma’s political demise, perhaps in the parliamentary vote of no confidence?

An immediate reaction in Parliament is unlikely. A no-confidence vote is a high hurdle to jump. Since 201 votes are needed in the National Assembly, at least 50 ANC MPs will have to vote for the motion, rather than abstain. Even MPs who are keen for Zuma to go will not wish to see their parliamentary caucus divided. They will probably wait for the national executive committee (NEC) to offer direction.

The no-confidence vote will almost certainly take place without a secret ballot. The Constitutional Court is contemplating whether such a ballot is illegitimate, obligatory or discretionary (with the speaker making the call). It is difficult to see why the court would not leave this decision to the speaker. The NEC has made it very clear that MPs are obliged to toe the party line “regardless of whether a secret ballot is granted by the court or not”. If they do not, they will be guilty of misconduct for collaborating with “counter-revolutionary forces”.

Most strikingly, two of Deputy President Cyril Ramaphosa’s chief cheerleaders — secretary-general Gwede Mantashe and chief whip Jackson Mthembu — have weighed in heavily to discourage rebellious MPs. Their unexpected efforts to shield Zuma are a reminder that nothing is straightforward in this succession contest and that timing will be central to its eventual outcome.

Zuma, and his candidate for the ANC presidency, Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma, are by no means in the clear. The NEC remains the movement’s central decision-making body. It was noteworthy that Zuma fumed at the end of his ordeal last weekend that the body must never question his presidency again. More noteworthy was Mantashe’s rebuttal. He made it clear that a further NEC debate about Zuma’s future could not be precluded.

For strategists in Ramaphosa’s campaign, the precipitate removal of the president is risky. After all, Ramaphosa does not command anything like the majority of support he would need to seize control. And, once Zuma goes, the succession battle will be transformed. His demise would bring Dlamini-Zuma’s lamentable campaign to a complete halt.

Ramaphosa would be obliged to confront a far more formidable opponent — perhaps treasurer-general Zweli Mkhize, who can draw support from the reformist camp and from the most powerful province, KwaZulu-Natal. Such a challenger would be free from the encumbrance of the Zuma name and legacy.

Ramaphosa’s supporters may have recognised that the longer Zuma is kept in play — tortured by the relentless leaking of e-mails — the better are their candidate’s chances of winning in December 2017.

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